I get to San José, late Friday evening, a day before the race. Travel was easy from Denver, with exit rows to stretch the legs, podcasts to occupy the mind, and only a brief layover in Miami. A light breeze and cool air welcome me to Costa Rica. The clement temperatures lead me to falsely believe that I might get lucky with the weather and it not be as hot on the coast as I anticipated. Having been pretty casual in my trip preparation all I know upon arrival is that I need to find the Best Western. I bump into Ian Corless at baggage claim, just as it dawns on me that there might be more than one these hotels in town. Having come to The Coastal Challenge several times before he knows exactly what to do.
Saturday is a day of rest at the hotel, spent meeting other racers and attending a briefing to get a better sense of our itinerary for the week. Stage 1 will be challenging as we will need to be ready to leave the hotel at 3:30am for a 3 hour bus ride to the start and a 22 mile introduction to the heat.
Stage 1: Playa del Rey – Savegre Valley 36.4kms
I wake up to my watch alarm at 2:45am having slept about 4 hours. I barely feel human at this hour. Thankfully I packed everything the night before and only need to eat breakfast before leaving with Denny’s being the hotel’s option. I’m surprised at how busy it is, with not just inebriated post-party folks, but families with kids as well. The 3 hour bus ride goes by fast. I sit next to Mike Murphy from Canada and we mainly chat about shoes. The bus stops a mile from the beach, as the road is too rocky for such a large vehicle, so the whole group walks the last bit together to the start line. The jungle and swampy creek that surrounds us, emits the most incredible noise, dominated by the constant, intense song of the cicada. This persistent buzzing is so present that the sound becomes part of the fabric of our surroundings. Silence would nearly seem out of place.
It’s only 8am, but it already feels hot and muggy. The humidity in the air is palpable, making me sticky, uncomfortable, and lethargic. The race goes out quite quickly or at least it feels that way with the combination of heat and fatigue. A flat dirt road stretches out ahead, lined by palm trees. My stride is heavy, my breathing labored as I struggle to find rhythm. The legs haven’t had much of a chance for a spin on flat ground this year and I’m feeling my abject lack of specific preparation for the race. Shortly after the first aid station, the course diverts from the road for a half-mile up a steep, jungle section. I hike with Karl, steadily up the hill. The dense foliage envelops us and I feel as if plunged into a fish bowl, the heat and humidity reaching oppressive heights. As we emerge from the green tunnel, I let Karl trot away ahead of me. I feel woozy and stumble along as best I can. I struggle to keep positive thoughts and focus instead on just getting to the finish.
A half-mile from the end of the stage, Mike Murphy catches up to me. He took a wrong turn earlier in the race losing time and appears to be understandably frustrated. Mike has a raw intensity to him that I’ve rarely experienced in people. He has a kind of visceral approach to racing where inconsistency in his plan is met with blunt force. I can tell he is touched by the heat just like all of us, but his stride has a lofty aggression to it, ready to fight any obstacle that comes his way.
Cool water cleanses all ills, so the river-side camp is a welcome sight. After soaking and replenishing on some chicken, rice and beans, I have washed away the discomfort of the past hours and turned my attention to rest and recovery.
The evening is spent lounging, reading and exchanging with other runners, before we turn in early to our tents. Wake up is at 3:30am for breakfast and the stage will begin at sunrise, roughly 5:30am.
Stage 2: Savegre Valley – Dominical Beach 39kms
The night was short, but restful. The cool breeze coming from the river even had me reaching for my sleeping bag liner at 2am. Breakfast is left over rice and beans, with scrambled eggs and coffee. This suits me well and isn’t terribly different from what I’m used to at home.
The first part of this stage consists of 20kms of jungle with some good climbs. The first couple hours are cooler, mainly shaded, and steep. I fair much better in these conditions and find myself running comfortably behind Mike. Jungle track is a unique type of technical terrain, more akin to bushwhacking. Essentially, a couple of guys have macheted a track straight up through the dense foliage. My feet catch on vines, stumps, and other chopped branches. My shoe gets sucked off several times in the deep muddy sections. The running is fun and engaging and I swallow up the miles without noticing.
Just before the second checkpoint, back on the dirt road, I catch a toe on a rock. In an effort to stop myself from falling, I misstep and crunch my ankle in a strange way. I flip over, landing on my back. A sharp pain stings the medial side of my left ankle. I lay there whimpering and cursing for a few minutes, before getting back up and trying to shake it off by resuming running. I come into the aid station trying to ignore the twinge and continue on as if nothing had happened.
Exposed, hot, rolling road unfolds in front of me and I struggle to keep pace. The injured ankle has taken the wind out of me and the best I can do is cautiously hobble to the last aid station, 5 miles from the finish. Ian Don-Wauchope catches me there. He isn’t feeling great either and suggests we run the last few beach miles together. Ian, I’ll come to find out, is one of those next level human beings, inspiring as a runner, but also as a person. He has a relax, kind composure, that rubs off on those around him. I enjoy sharing these last miles with him in communal discomfort.
Camp is by Dominical Beach, a nice, chill place with a few bars, local art and gift stands and quaint guest houses. I set up my tent on a soft patch of grass, that seems welcoming, but soon realize the place is infested with tiny ants. The ants bite, leaving an itchy sting similar to a small mosquito bite. My ankle is swollen. My legs covered in itchy, red marks. It’s hard to relax because the heat and itching doesn’t subside until well into the night. I get very little sleep and wake feeling miserable for the start of stage 3.
Stage 3: Dominical Beach – Ventanas Beach 48kms
The Coastal Challenge has excellent staff and great medical support. Every day, the cooking staff prepares breakfast, lunch, and dinner for runners and moves seamlessly to and from camps. This is a tremendous amount of work that does not go unnoticed. Despite feeling very rough, I can’t help, but be thankful for all the support which definitely influences my decision to keep going on this 3rd stage. Luciano, one of the race doctors, tapes my ankle with attention. He also helps build my confidence by telling me my ankle is strong, even though my brain doesn’t think so. Luciano has a great way with people and natural caring quality to his personality that strongly benefits his work.
After a short warm up on the road, stage 3 brings us to a 5 mile creek section. The creek bed is littered with slimy, rounded, polished rocks, and water ranging from calf to chest deep. It’s pretty much the worst case scenario for someone with a bum ankle. It takes me nearly an hour and half, to cautiously make my way through the creek. Luckily, I somehow manage to not re-injure myself so I push up the following climb determined to make it to the finish line even if I must walk the rest of the way.
As I fumble through the jungle, I’m caught by Nikki Kimball. I know Nikki, but not that well, as we’ve never really spent much time together. One of the best aspects of distance running is that it tends to gradually shed our inhibitions and allows us to share a more vulnerable part of ourselves more quickly than would probably otherwise occur in daily life. As such, Nikki and I dive into a deep conversation on our thoughts on suffering, depression, living, and dying. Our exchange doesn’t seem heavy though, just natural free flowing thought. Nikki is an incredible person, complex, raw and honest and I value our friendship. She pulls ahead on a steep downhill as I hobble my way down wishing her a strong finish.
By the time, I reach the beach, I’m caught by Niall, from Ireland. He’s struggling in the heat, but is about to run the marathon distance for the first time. Part way along the beach, he looks at his GPS watch and declares it’s the furthest he’s ever ran. A friend of his from Ireland is visiting and we’re on the look out for her on the beach. I’m secretly hoping we’ll see her as an excuse to stop running for a bit. The heat reverberating from the sand is stifling and it’s taking everything I’ve got to keep standing up right. Leaving the beach, we climb briefly through a bit of jungle infested with tarantula holes before reaching the last few miles of asphalt to the finish.
The day is punctuated by an amazing sunset over the ocean. Swimming is soothing on the body and a cool breeze helps me fall asleep.
Stage 4: Ventanas Beach – Palmar Sur Central Park 37.5kms
My ankle has stabilized. It feels no better, but no worse. The terrain on stage 4 looks like it will keep me engaged. Indeed, we start with a steep road climb, that leads to a steeper jungle section. Powerhiking is the least painful on the ankle so it’s nice to get a long uphill warm up. The jungle connects into some old, infrequently used fire roads. They are softer red clay and stay high rolling along a ridge. We run above a spectacular inversion, the valley below blanketed in clouds. Rays of sunshine light up the hundreds of spider webs on the road side. I see a great variety of birds, with bright, nearly surreal colorings. If color were invented somewhere it would have to be in Costa Rica.
I drop off the ridge through the jungle, then through pastures, with steep uneven footing. The ground is riddled with hoof marks and clumps of grass making for a tedious descent to a creek. This is a freshwater spot and our last before the finish. I drink plentifully in preparation for the 10 miles ahead. I lay in the creek for about 5 minutes letting my core temperature drop for the next climb is steep, hot and exposed. I’m amazed at what a difference it makes running when not overheating.
I’d heard a lot about the final descent of the day, how technical and steep it is and to really use caution with my ankle. About halfway down, I run into Hans, a 74 year old German expat living in San Francisco. Hans badly dislocated his finger a few days ago and is now relegated to the doing the shorter race despite his protesting. He’s moving along well with his splinted finger held in air above his heart to facilitate circulation. He seems to be enjoying himself and not in the least bit bothered about his ailments. Seeing Hans on the trail certainly puts my efforts into perspective and I can only hope to be moving as nimbly as him at his age.
At the bottom of the descent, I take a slight wrong turn that lands me in a creek. I cool off for a few minutes and reverse my steps to get back on track. At that moment, Frosty catches up to me. She’s looking pretty worked and feeling about as good as me. We join forces for the last couple of miles to the finish. Frosty’s an incredibly positive person and has an insatiable zeal for life. Her company offers a nice reprieve from just grinding it out and focusing on the heat.
Camp is several miles away from the finish, so we get shuttled there after cooling off under a hose in the park. It always surprises me how fast the mind forgets discomfort. The last bit of running to the park had felt nearly unbearable, yet sitting under the hose, everything seems to be at peace again.
The camp has a wee bit of internet and I’m able to email my wife as it’s our 6th wedding anniversary and 12 years together. It would be nice to have her here with me, but given my state- an itchy, sweaty, cranky mess, it’s probably best she stayed home.
There are lots of ants out to get me again, and combined with a developing nasty heat rash over my legs and arms, I have another restless night. Heat rash usually occurs because of the combination of heat and humidity. Nothing is really dry in my tent, I’m constantly soaked in sweat, so my skin festers and sends me into itching frenzies. The ability to rest and recover is the key to successful stage racing. The lack of sleep and the longer than usual days because of the ankle trouble are beginning to take their toll. It’s hard to motivate for another long stage in the morning, but certainly good practice for both physical and mental endurance.
Stage 5: Sierpe River – Drake Bay Beach 47.4kms
We start the day with a short river crossing on a large barge platform to the start. It’s raining lightly, which is a blessing for the coming exposed sections. This is a tough stage, consisting of mainly flat or rolling dirt road and very muddy in parts. I’ve been overcompensating a lot for my ankle and am now starting to feel a strain on my inner thigh, exacerbated by the flatter, non-technical running. The early miles go by easily though as I’m distracted looking at the beautiful, wood homes we pass.
The middle section of the course becomes intensely muddy which puts further strain on my ankle. Eventually though, I reach the beach and Drake Bay, the terminus of the race. The finish line comes as a relief, but also as a reminder that with patience and persistence, you do eventually get there.
Camp is a quiet, beachside spot at Drake Bay, bordering Corcovado National Park. Large toads and multi-colored crabs roam around looking to share some tent space. Everyone is more relaxed now, because only one short stage remains.
One of best aspects of stage racing is getting to know other runners. The intensity of the experience really fastracks relationships and I get a sense of that by the end of week, I share a special kind of bond with the group.
Stage 6: Drake Bay – Corcovado – Drake Bay 23.7kms
A more leisurely start (7am) is welcomed by all. The final stage is a loop from Drake Bay that emcompasses a bit of everything from the previous stages. We run a mix of road and jungle, swim through a spectacular waterfall, run rooty beachside single track intermixed with a few miles on the sand. Family members, friends and staff join in for the run and get a great condensed version of our past week’s experience.
On a personal level, I’m happy to see the race through to its end. The early ankle injury stopped me from competing, but it was still valuable to complete the entire course. Regardless of the injury, the heat, humidity, and constant need to manage one’s recovery makes for a trying event.
The last night is spent by the beach and punctuated by a colorful awards ceremony where top finishers received traditional masks made by local artists.
A small group of us migrated up to a guest house in Drake Bay, before flying out the next day on a 14 seater back to San José.
I cannot thank race director, Rodrigo Carazo, enough for his generosity and for inviting me to the race. Thank you also to all the team at The Coastal Challenge, as well as Ian Corless for making this trip a reality. Finally, thank you to all the runners for a great week together, Karl, Cheryl, Ian, Sam, Frosty, Nikki, Chris, Niall, Mike and so many other great friends. Until next time.
Running Gear List:
Buff: visor cap, headband and Original Buff
Shades: Julbo Stunt (Zebra lenses)
Shorts: Arc’teryx Adan
Shirt: Arc’teryx Motus Crew
Socks: Drymax Triathlete (not a single blister all week)
Shoes: Inov-8 x-talon 200 (now my favorite x-talon model)
Nutrition: Tailwind (used as my sole fuel source during the race along with fruit at the aid stations; I mixed 2 scoops/20oz bottle and never had any issues with bonking or stomach distress) – carried in Inov-8 Race Ultra 1.