234 km (147 miles)
10,400 m (34,000 ft) elevation gain
Over the next few posts, I'm going to attempt to put into words my experience at a race that was by far the hardest but most wonderful thing I have ever attempted. It was a physical and emotional roller coaster to say the least.
Note: all photos courtesy of Tim Holstrom, Andre Vargas, Henry Kass, Shelli Sexton, Kristen Trujillo, Beiyi Zheng and myself.
PRE-RACE: Best Western Irazu, San Jose
We arrived a couple of days before the start of the race so had time to relax, get used to the climate and cuisine and to watch other runners arriving at the hotel. Some were obviously old friends meeting up again, some were veterans of this race, most were obviously experienced ultra marathoners and then there were the rest of us… with the “deer-in-headlights” expression. And to top it all, I had been assigned the coveted race #1, usually reserved for “elites”. Was I expected to run really fast and at least keep pace with Scott Jurek and GENr8-sponsored David James or was it because I signed up on the day registration opened? What had I gotten into?
DAY 1: Welcome to the Jungle!
Quepos Beach to Rafiki Lodge, Savegre Valley
33.5 km, 850 m total ascent
We were up at the crack of dawn to make sure our action packers actually got on to the truck and to get something to eat at Denny's. "Typical" Costa Rican breakfast is egg (usually fried, sometimes scrambled) with rice, beans and coffee. I got brave, decided I may not eat again for a week and choked it down. Then we climbed on to the bus for the 3-hour ride to the beach town of Quepos.
A couple of stops later and we were at the start line, pacing nervously, sizing up the competition and trying to smile for the cameras. As the sun came out so did the humidity. Then we were off, at first on paved roads that gave way to dirt/gravel roads under construction (Note: pedestrians do not have right of way in Costa Rica!), over a bridge that was barely more than steel bars with large gaps between and then into the plantations. The heat (100 deg) coupled with humidity (~100%) was unbearable until we got into the rain forest.
Our first encounter with indigenous wildlife came 1:31 into the stage when Shelli narrowly avoided being bitten by a long, skinny and mean green snake. Forest trail, more dirt road and then a pull cart “surprise” to cross a raging river. Oh, and it rained and rained and rained during the latter part of the stage, while we in camp trying to unpack our stuff and get ready for the next day and then on-and-off through the night. Welcome to Costa Rica. Pura Vida!
DAY 2: Slip Slidin’ Away
Savegre Valley to Dominical Beach
39 km, 2250 m total ascent
We were up at 3:30 eager to eat breakfast, pack up the tent/action packers and head out into the rain forest. Now this is Costa Rica and everything runs on “tico time” so the 5:30 start was more like 6:00. Off we went down a scenic dirt trail and then straight up a muddy jungle trail, made muddier by yesterday’s rain. What a climb! The mud was so deep that it sucked our shoes straight off our feet, we had to use our hands to haul ourselves up and over obstacles and I got attacked by huge black wasps. Some of the trails were not really trails, more like muddy ditches that we would attempt to walk down the middle of. Up, up, up, fighting the mud all the way, then down before more up… would it never end? What goes up must come down and we certainly did. On the way, we narrowly avoided sinkholes, slid down muddy slopes, got stung, prickled and shredded by every sort of insect and plant imaginable before finding comfort in the fresh coconut juice served at PC #2. We made the time cutoff and finished the stage with a run on the beach that almost made up for the heat, humidity, mud and swamps of the second day.
DAY 3: River
Dominical Beach – Ventanas Beach
52.5 km, 2450 m total ascent
We were told to be ready on the beach at 5:15 for a 5:30 start. Up again at 3:30 (by now it’s becoming routine) but tico time meant a late start. Another long day ahead with a time cutoff to meet made me a little nervous. The first 10 km was in a riverbed. By now I should have realized that there was no way Rodrigo (race designer) was going to have us run in a dry riverbed. No, there were numerous crossings in the rapids, a section so deep we had to swim with our packs and a waterfall to navigate. We were told that to get out of the riverbed meant disqualification so on we battled. It was breathtakingly beautiful but having wet socks on my feet for a good portion of the day resulted in the start of bad blisters.
By the time we made PC #4 (time cutoff) and got out of the jungle trails, onto a beach and finally onto a paved road, the blister on my right foot popped. It was so excruciatingly painful and I screamed so loud that a motorist stopped to ask if I needed help! Shelli kept me moving and we limped along the road until we reached the “surprise” – an additional 2-3 km “no trail” through the jungle in rapidly failing light.
This was the day I decided that my revenge on Rodrigo for inflicting this amount of pain on me would be to bury him neck deep in sand, let the hot sun bake him so his skin turned black, let the sand fleas and crabs do their thing and crawl in/eat away at his eyes, ears and mouth, and finally let the incoming tide slowly drown him. Us Brits excel at torture – do not mess with us!
DAY 4: The Long and Winding Road
Coronado – Palmar Sur
37.5 km, 2950 m total ascent
By now, the atmosphere around camp is somewhat subdued as the effect of little sleep, scant food, arduous days, blistering heat/humidity and injuries begins to take its toll. I say scant food because by now I am starving; I am gluten intolerant and despite promises by the race staff that my dietary needs would be met, they are not. I am surviving on rice/beans, scrambled egg, chicken or fish, whatever energy products I can force down during the day and the occasional cold Coca-cola purchased from a village store.
We started the day with a bus ride over a condemned bridge to the start area and then we were off, climbing up, up, up – 3300 ft over 4 miles on rainforest trails before we hit miles of rolling dirt roads. The views were breathtaking – the Talamanca mountains on one side, the ocean far below us on the other. But, as before, what goes up must come down and we had to scramble down a grassy mountainside, moving from marker to marker lest we fell into a sinkhole. This wasn’t just knee-high soft green grass; this was machete grass so tall at times we could barely see the path and so sharp it was cutting us to ribbons. The race was becoming a test of survival – a need to meet the time cutoffs, the will to keep moving so as not to be out in the wilderness after dark but at the same time try to conserve enough energy to get through whatever the next day will bring. I was exhausted. Shelli had badly twisted her ankle and my blisters were so bad that I could no longer bear weight on the balls of my feet. Back to camp in time for Doc Duggie to bandage my feet, choke down some food and try to sleep.
DAY 5: Man Eater
Sierpe River – Drake Bay
47.5 km, 1450 m total ascent
Today’s surprise was a boat ride to the start on the banks of the Sierpe River. Tico time again meant a late start but it allowed us to see parrots in the trees lining the river bank and white-faced monkeys hanging by their tails eating fruit. Then the boat driver got excited and pointed out that what we thought were logs floating beside the boat were in fact crocodiles. And the logs on the bank where we got off the boat were also in fact crocodiles!
We headed into the Oso Peninsula, one of the most desolate and dangerous places in the world. In fact, while I was training for TCC, I watched an episode of “Survivorman” where survival expert Les Stroud gets totally freaked out by the sounds and sights of the rainforest and is stalked by a panther as he heads to safety in a nearby village. Where exactly was that village again?
We started with a climb then a descent to pass by farms that must be entirely self-sufficient. Poverty here is heartbreaking. Schools are boarded up, books left on the shelves. We passed families riding on horseback with the father leading the way and more often than not, the mother holding a sleeping child and a sack of rice or grain. We ran along the banks of the mangroves, always wary of logs that might be crocodile and snakes that fall from the branches above. We crossed streams, so many in fact that I ran out of dry socks and threw my water bottle in frustration at not being able to keep my feet reasonably dry. I cannot describe how painful every step had become. Shelli was wonderful and stuck with me, encouraging me to go on when I thought I couldn’t move another step and quickly spraying me with Deet when I stepped on an anthill and was swarmed by fire ants. I finished the day, too tired to walk another step, too tired to eat and sleep. As one of my fellow competitors, Tim Meyer, described it “If it is hot enough and if you are tired enough, you can be in the most beautiful place on Earth and all you can possibly see is the mud 3 feet in front of your wet, soggy, stinky, shoes and all you can even comprehend is just finding the finishing line, some food and your tent”.
DAY 6: The Final Countdown
23.7 km, 450 m total ascent
This was the shortest and probably the most scenic day but I simply could not run. Every step was so unbearably painful that even copious amounts of painkillers could not mask the pain. My feet were shot, my mind too. I simply no longer cared what was around me, I just wanted to finish and was willing to crawl if I had to.
Of course, the day started with a climb and then descent to a riverbed. We scrambled across and up a massive waterfall so slippery and dangerous that I was sure I would break an ankle. We climbed a fixed metal ladder with medic looking on and made our way to the roads and trails along the border of the Corcovado National Park. Beautiful. Lots of wildlife: hermit crabs, spiders, butterflies, monkeys, lizards. Navigating jungle trails and running along the beach. Over one last bridge where I stopped and insisted I could go no farther. But I did it. Shelli made me go on and I finished, albeit exhausted physically and mentally, limping in pain and crying.
What an amazing experience. What a test of physical and mental toughness. It was a true emotional and physical rollercoaster. There were good times, there were great times and there were times where I was so deep in despair that I no longer cared what happened to me. There were times I stopped to take photos and marvel at the beauty surrounding me and there were times I screamed at Shelli to get the camera out of my face. There were times I fell down, got up only to fall again. I ran, I hiked, I shuffled, I crawled. There were times I missed my boys so badly my heart almost broke and other times I was thankful they weren’t there to see the agony and exhaustion I was battling.
Would I do this race again? You betcha! We’re going to win next year; 3rd place Expedition Team simply won’t cut it. Pura Vida!
Individual result: 28th place Expedition category
Team result: 3rd place Expedition category
1st place Most Creative Method of Torturing Rodrigo