Trail Running Canada Magazine – The Coastal Challenge, Costa Rica Review
Despite now being one year on, the reasons for entering The Coastal Challenge, a 6 day, 6 stage, 225km with 10,400m ascent, paradisiacal tour of Costa Rica, remain unanimous. Pura Vida, views, beaches, waterfalls, jungle, adventure and the plain old love of type 2 fun. As this year’s Coastal Challenge fast approaches, here’s a little throwback to the 2016 edition, following in the footsteps of a great group of Canadian runners, as they stepped out of their comfort zone and made memories for life. Whilst some were there to race, others wished simply to survive – and it soon became clear, that regardless of focus, both were to be an arduous and somewhat hot task. This in fact is a huge understatement.
The Coastal Challenge is split into two categories, The Expedition at 225km and The Adventure, 155km. With both seeming fairly epic on paper, it makes most racers – in this year’s race, all but two – go for The Expedition. If you’re travelling all the way to the Costa Rican jungle, with an attached hefty price tag, what’s the difference of a mere 70km? In short, a lot. A lot of vert, and even longer days in the jungle.
But when you’re sitting at your laptop on a sub-par Canadian day, dreaming of such long days, beaches, sunshine and mountain top views, your type 2, (or perhaps 3 in this case), mind takes the lead and before you know it, you’ve clicked past the point of no return, (which in the case of a few Canadian racers, the point of no return became a little too close for comfort). It’s not until you’re literally dragging your limbs off Day 1, in 36-degree heat and relentless humidity that you make a mental note to better think through your questionable online race entering habits.
If you’ve ever been on a public bus in Costa Rica, it is somewhat similar to The Coastal Challenge in its entirety. Slightly crazy, organized chaos, with a high chance of vomiting, all a little loose, very hot, adventure. But with wide eyes and white knuckles, you get there in the end. Throughout the course of the week, Ian Corless did a sterling job of capturing the leaders, but it was those rocking the back of the bus where the adventure was to be found, and where the characters were as plentiful as the drama. And, perhaps due to the fact they hadn’t felt the sun in four months, a few Canadians were at the back of the bus, fighting cut-offs, losing their minds and their way, and putting the sick bags to very good use.
Introducing Team Canada! We bring you, “Team Fernie”, which consisted of Mike “Bucket List” Moore, Ana “Bad Ass” Mihalj and Cam “Glamour Muscles” Heaton, aptly named after being told his muscles were more of the glamour variety. So decided to choose TCC to be his first ever race. Jenny and Michael from Vancouver, on their honeymoon, (planned by Jenny), and after Michael went way off course on Day 1, Jenny was heard uttering nervously at the finish line, “I hope he doesn’t divorce me”.
Kandace, whose feet were some of the worst in camp, but who kept on trucking with a smile on her face, to successfully finish the Expedition category. Leah and Mark from Edmonton, who admitted to generally doing things backwards, rather than taking the more gradual progression to running 225km in the jungle. Lastly, Jackie from Port Alberni, who at aged 51 ensured us she wasn’t fast, but as a TCC veteran, a great hiker, and clearly a strong runner, 6 days later came out top Canadian. But we’ve a whole lot of sweat, tears, blisters and bodily functions to get through first…
Pre-Race briefing was in San Jose, 4hrs from the race start, and a whole world away when it came to climate. In fact, anyone who had chosen to stay in San Jose for the purpose of pre-race acclimatization, was to be in for a nasty surprise. After returning from 5 days in Montezuma, my crispy bits knew first-hand how hot the Costa Rican coastline was to be. But for now, we donned puffy jackets and sat through their enlightening and entertaining race briefing. With a lighthearted overview of the race, from the Race Director, regaling the joys of beautiful views, the odd water crossing and eclectic mix of wildlife (from man eating crocs, to flagging tape devouring cattle), followed by a sterner reminder on what was to come from head of medical, the main piece of information I retained was: “One IV is ok. Two and you’re out.” You could have heard a pin drop. If it wasn’t for anyone with Spanish as a first language. It was the first reminder of many, that if you speak Spanish, you are 10 decibels louder and 10 times more excited than anyone else in the room, tent, or jungle, regardless of how far you’d just run and how tired you surely must be. After a fun and entertaining music, fire throwing and acrobatic show to get us in the mood for madness, it was early off to bed, as Day 1 was just around the corner.
Day 1: 32km and 917m ascent, from Manual Antonio – Rafiki Lodge River Camp, Savegre River. “From Plantations to the Hidden Valley”.
Although I wasn’t out on course experiencing first-hand what was to be found in the jungle, I feel like I could tell a tale based purely on the look on people’s faces at the Finish Line of Day 1. The later the racers came through, the wider the eyes and the more distraught the looks. Yet wherever people finished in the highly dispersed pack, responses were unanimous, “that was hot!”
Whilst those finishing early had plenty of time to float around in the finish line river crossing, those coming in later, as was to be the case for the following 5 days, felt like they’d hardly stopped before they had to go again. And judging by the already awkward shuffling around camp, the dreaded blisters had already kicked in. In fact, from the very first day, the two foot specialists were the busiest people in camp – although rumour had it, they had Scotch to accompany their skills, and it was to be where the best stories in camp were to be heard and the true characters discovered.
Take the guy who spent 18 months in a Bangkok jail for a crime he didn’t commit, who’d also unfortunately had his foot blown off by a landmine, then re-attached, so had no mobility in one ankle. IT Alex from Denmark, who had never run a trail in his life, and still had the price tags on his shoes. The pole dancing Swede, who stopped on course to display her skill on poles of bamboo in the jungle, whilst her partner ate strange fruits from trees without knowing what it was, or if it was edible. The crew of restaurant workers from Barcelona, who got free entry to the race as a Christmas present from their employer to promote team bonding. As my regular foot clinic attending story hoarder confirmed, the list could go on and on.
Night 1 was wild. Literally. From the deafening noise of the jungle, to sounds of retching, dry heaving, and everything in between. Not only that, it was unbelievably humid, lying in a tent with no fly, and as little clothing as was somewhat respectable, in a pool of your own sweat. It felt like we’d just been to war, and I hadn’t even left the trenches. A few IV’s later and it was time for a very sweaty, and short sleep. Unless you spoke Spanish, then of course you had a few more stories to yell.
Day 2: 38km and 1,811m ascent, from Rafiki Lodge – Dominical Beach. “Taste of the Rainforest”.
Mentally and physically, the prospect of a longer day from the rude awakening of Day 1 was too much for many. Here lay the option to drop from Expedition to Adventure, generally taking out the biggest climb of the day, the Adventure category would start mid-way through the Expedition route which still left a sizeable challenge ahead, but made finishing each day a marginally easier task. Although only two racers officially started the Adventure category on paper, (the pole dancing, berry eating Swedes), each day the Adventure bus was growing, as racers succumbed to unachievable cut off times, horrendous feet and of course the unfailing heat and growing exhaustion.
Day 2 brought 2 Canadian DNS, after one sadly headed a long way off course on Day 1, and another being given a rude awakening by the heat, subsequent IV’s and very rough nights. Utter disappointment ensued, but a day off was the only option to making it successfully from Day 3 on, and so they did. Although Day 2’s course was longer, it was more manageable compared to Day 1, despite the increased elevation, plus the early start, just as dawn broke, made it more favourable. Whilst bringing all to the table – climbs, jungle, water, beaches, and those flagging tape devouring cows – witnessed first hand by Jackie, who wasn’t sure if delirium had indeed set in.
Day 2 ended with a gorgeous finish line in Domincal, a good lesson learned, that running on sand was a beautiful, yet exhausting way to finish a race, as racers dug deep and sunk their way across the finish line. Racers had also come to realise that Costa Rican single track was created by a masochistic individual, running through the jungle with a machete. As opposed to the flowy, berm filled, undulating single track that had perhaps featured in many a training plan. And as if the back of the pack wasn’t challenging enough already, you had to be aware of the “cocodrilios”, as you’d be navigating both dusk and high tide, at which time these pesky fellas liked to cruise downstream towards the ocean, in search of salty snacks (aka runners). If you made it through the gator-gauntlet, Dominical also promised beer, which from a vacationer’s perspective was a fantastic addition to the slight Costa Rican jungle horror show of Day 1.
Day 3: 45km and 1,788m ascent, from Dominical Beach – Marino Ballena National Park. “Feel the Coastal Acid”.
Perhaps it was the thought of this “coastal acid”, but the Adventurer’s Short Bus was increasing in popularity every morning, and a “get me outta here” queue was starting to form. Meanwhile, after two days of putting up and taking down a lot of tents in camp, I got to head out on course with a friend, whose backyard was a stone’s throw from the race. He was even more wide-eyed than the racers coming in from Day 1, as after chatting with the organizers out on course, he learned of where his old tree planting, smoking, 30lbs heavier version of his old friend and my husband, was running.
In fact, trying to drive to La Florida, the aid station 23.5km in, was quite the adventure. But just as you were thinking you were as remote as you could get, lycra clad runners started to burn, saunter or drag themselves through, at the top of yet another punishing climb. The day’s climbing proved a lot more than was recorded on paper, with the most brutal steeps up and down imaginable. Although with another 3 days to go, there may well be worse to come…
Day 3 ended with 10km of sand, then 4km of Costa Rican highway to finish. However, the best part was that they were half way. Again high water, with a high chance of gators featured in the day’s challenges, this time of the fast flowing variety. Which, if a proficient swimmer was not a problem, however with no mention of needing to be a strong swimmer in the race guidelines, there were a few racers who narrowly came unstuck. Not quite as unfortunate however as the sweeper (job description used in the loosest sense of the word), who couldn’t swim at all. Luckily kind hearted and strong swimmer Michael was bringing up the rear, and although nearly being drowned by the arm flailing Costa Rican, managed to drag him to shore and continue on. All they needed was a bike and Day 3 was verging on a triathlon for some.
Meanwhile, as if the day couldn’t get any worse for Oh Canada, two other Canadians, Leah and Mark, who found themselves to be almost nearing cut-off, had to make a game changing decision close to dusk. With utter exhaustion taking over, Mark ran on ahead to get help, whilst Leah collapsed in an exhausted heap, taking a subsequent lengthy nap. Presuming the sweeper, would be along behind, and Mark heading to the upcoming aid station to get assistance, in theory things should be A-OK. But no sweeper came that day, (possibly still recovering from his near drowning incident), and instead, two strangers living off the grid, stumbled across Leah. Mark meanwhile was with the medical crew trying to find the trail, but with the crew having no idea of where the trail was, it wasn’t proving to be the most successful rescue adventure. Hours later the two were reunited, and I’m sure immediately promised no more naps in the jungle, here on in.
After focusing mainly on the general unraveling and drama towards the back of the pack, the leaders were continuing to make it look like a walk in the park, as opposed to an episode of Gladiators in the jungle. Ian Don-Wauchope from South Africa, the 2015 winner, was floating through the jungle, despite being apparently under-trained. No one could imagine what the trained version of Ian would look like. However, despite his domination, he proved to be the humblest of characters. From experience, the best racers usually are, and he did not disappoint. Close behind were Chema Martinez (Spain’s 2:08 marathon runner) and Gonzao Calisto, trying their best to close the gap.
The women meanwhile were scattered throughout the race, but with two clear leaders battling it out at the front. Elisabet Barnes from the UK, and Portugal’s Ester Alves. A great pair who gave each other a run for their money throughout.
When all was said and done, Day 3 camp was a hammock dwellers paradise, with a tree lined shore line to doze off by. After another long day, it was early to night once again. Good job, as unbeknownst to us, Day 4 promised a whole host of other adventures for Team Canada…
Day 4: 35km and 2,054m ascent, from Marino Ballena National Park – Sierpe. “Revenge of Borucas”.
You can say that again. As at approximately Day 3.25 my husband Mike, who was quietly leading the North American charge, came drastically unraveled. Although of course it had started long before, unknowingly carting with him what we now lovingly refer to in our house as “Dengue of Doom”. Mosquito born and the biggest revenge Costa Rica can throw at a gringo, especially one who’s already sweated and exerted himself to a somewhat delirious state.
It was clear as I pulled the sleeping mat from under him, near on dressed him and passed him the Advil that this morning was rougher than others. But, as a man who doesn’t love early starts or early morning conversing, after 3 days of sweating in the jungle, it was hard to decipher between being slightly tired and having a deathly mosquito born virus. Clearly I’m no medic, but if I was, I think I’d have suggested to half of the racers to take the day off and get back in the hammock.
Meanwhile the Adventurer’s Short Bus had now turned into two short buses. At this rate they were going to need a coach. Whilst anyone white or now a patchy shade of red carried as much water as possible, anyone with Spanish as a first language, trotted on with a couple of handhelds and never ending enthusiasm.
Sad to say, 4hrs later I arrived at the finish line to hear of the sad news of Mike being pulled off course at the checkpoint aptly named “The Cemetery”. Violently vomiting, shaking and not improving after IV number one, he was transported to the finish line and into camp. So here lies the Moore’s Coastal Challenge end. Our local friend came to save us from Sierpe, as Mike’s IV quota was up, and a slight shrug was offered in lieu of any further race medical care. I’m unsure whether it was his green pallor, the fact he hadn’t eaten in over 36hrs, or the fact he couldn’t get off the loo, but I wasn’t so sure he was doing so good. Turns out he wasn’t, after it was confirmed Dengue Fever was the nail in Mike’s Coastal Challenge coffin – too close to being literal a few times. After an emergency trip to a very eye-opening hospital in the ghetto of San Jose, (where the only available translator was a Costa Rican patient dripping blood), drugs and a few more IV’s, one missed flight and a subsequent 24hrs of nervous airplane journeys, we were back to a glorious -10 in Canada. Winter never felt so good.
The damage of Dengue carried on for weeks to come and Mike still shudders at his personal CR experience, but the race continued on, with racers coming in closer to cut off times. Drake Bay however was in sight. Whilst Mike was so ill he couldn’t even comprehend or reminisce about the race, I was sad and so disappointed for him, following the race vicariously through Team Canada and Ian Corless’ blog. Of course drama ensued, with updates of Jenny contracting a rather serious eye infection, so running the last two days with one eye closed, whilst Mark developed a blood clot in his leg. You could write a book…
Day 5: 53km and 1,822m ascent, from Sierpe – Drake Bay. “Mist and Mangroves”.
Despite the glorious and tropical sounding name, it was in fact the longest day, whether an Expedition or Adventure racer. Team Canada continued on, and whilst their bodies became more damaged, they were at least acclimatising each day. Highs and lows by this point were fluctuating wildly. At point of defeat on Day 5, Ana’s worst and best experience happened within minutes of each other, being helped by the three ladies from the Southern States, with a bunch of pain killers and utter kindness. Referring to them lovingly to this day as “Trail Angels”, they continued on along the course for 10+ km of some of the most beautiful scenery ever seen in the mangrove forests and remote beaches of the Osa Peninsula, all whilst wildly belting out show tunes at the top of their voices, accompanied by dramatic arm gestures and hilarity. They really should put more of this type footage in their race promotional videos – more realistic than the beautifully lit, ankle deep water crossings, and a bigger seller than scenes from Jaws.
At the end of this long, toll-taking day, racers were in Drake Bay, the scene of the finish line. With just one more day standing in their way, victory was close, morale was high and after a 12hr day for some, exhaustion was at its peak.
Day 6: 23km and 584m ascent, “Corcovado Victory Loop”.
From Drake Bay and back. A chance for everyone to race, including spectators, volunteers and staff. Racers meanwhile, with places often set by this stage, ran together, enjoying the final day of this eye-opening, jaw-dropping and memory filled adventure. Iain Don-Wauchope, who had a firm overall lead, got out his GoPro and let runners go ahead of him, for a day abundant with camaraderie and sense of accomplishment. Not to mention tears, if there was an ounce of bodily fluid to spare.
Overall 6 days, 6 stages, 225km and (well over) 10,400m ascent. But a race that truly is so much more. A fantastic country, unforgettable memories, friendships (and scars), and brilliant camaraderie. If you’re looking for adventure, look no further but please ensure you can swim, excel in the heat, have tough feet, more than an ounce of race experience and a very good sense of humour. You’ll need it all.