When Bruce was interviewed for ESPN Latin America, he was asked about our team strategy for the race.
Well, he responded, we’re pretty small – average 5’5″ tall and 125-130 pounds – so we may not be the strongest team physically, but we’re quick on our feet, strong on maps, and steady on bike.
If the race directors had been listening in, they probably would have laughed behind our backs.
That strategy works well in many races in the States, where adventure racing is often lighter on paddling, heavier on navigation, and full of steady inclines or rolling hills.
Not in Costa Rica, though.
When we saw the maps on Sunday afternoon, we knew we needed to reorient. No longer would this be a race of strategy and skill – the relatively straightforward orienteering, the 200 kilometers of paper flat road riding, and the estimated 25-30 hours of kayaking and rafting made this a race of strength and speed.
Our goal became to move steadily, to minimize pitstops, to manage time , and, if all went well over the course of 106 hours, to pass the teams that went out too fast and finish in the middle of the stacked field.
On Monday morning, teams lined up at the starting line at Hotel Sueno Azul, and after a brief delay as we waited for the camera-equipped helicopter to circle overhead, we counted down from diez and all seventeen teams sprinted for the banks of the Sarapiqui River.
The opening separator? Jump in, swim across (packs in hand), and grab a boat for 20 kilometers of rafting.
Playing bad ass
Small and quick on our feet? Not such a plus on a rambling river…
This guy was spotted by the race photographer. We missed him, but saw a couple dozen of his cousins that night.
We exited the water third from the back and set out to pull our bikes out of their boxes and put them back together for 8 hours of riding.
After the rafting, the race was made up of five long legs that zig-zagged to and from the Caribbean Coast, followed by a series of shorter stretches that brought teams to the beachside finish.
In my mind, that meant we had to get through 7 hours of biking, 10 hours of paddling, 10 hours of biking, 20 hours of trekking, and 8 hours of paddling, and then we were essentially home free – just a couple short paddles, treks, and rides along the shore to cap off the race.
After a couple of short fumbles getting out of transition, we headed out for our first ride through the banana plantations and toward the coast. For seven hours we traveled the flat dirt and paved roads – less than 300 meters of elevation gain on the entire leg – and from the first bite of clif bar, we could all tell that we’d have to be careful.
We’d been expecting five days of overcast skies and rain, but instead we found ourselves baking under the oppressive Costa Rican sun. We stopped at regular intervals to apply sunscreen and refill on water, and early on we began to supplement the fuel we were carrying with juices and ice cream bars from local tiendas – liquid calories to make up for the chips, nuts, gummies, and bars we were struggling to choke down.
From checkpoint to checkpoint we formed steady pace lines, swapping the lead and trying to conserve energy. We all experienced hints of dehydration and heat fatigue, but we seemed to manage it well enough. And when we pulled into transition and readied ourselves for a night of kayaking, we found five sets of boats waiting – we were gaining ground and feeling good.
We were on the water by 4 pm and enjoying the gentle quiet of the jungle tributaries from our sleek, speedy kayaks. Our stomachs settled and we were all able to replenish on calories and hydration.
For the first few hours, our only companions were the monkeys in the trees and the water snakes nosing around the boat. And then, just as dark was setting in, we made a play for one of the few navigational decisions of the race.
Paddling into the sunset
The first checkpoint was roughly a kilometer up a channel separated from the main river by a narrow spit of land that housed a dozen houses and a handful of eco-lodges. If we hit it at the right spot, rather than paddling to the end of the peninsula and backtracking, we’d be able to portage the boats overland and come into the channel from above the checkpoint. It was a bit of a gamble in the otherwise dense jungle terrain, but when we saw a narrow opening through the trees, we decided to chance it.
We paddled to shore and pulled the boats out of the water. Two minutes, one short dog chase, and a neighborly chat with a Costa Rican homeowner later, we were in the channel heading upstream, less than 250 meters from the point. As we pulled in, we came upon two other teams, and in the distance we spotted three more.
The gamble had paid off. We were beginning to close the gap.
We continued on back into the main river and made our way toward the ocean. There was thunder in the distance but the waters were calm. We avoided using headlamps for the most part, relying on the stars and the Milky Way to light our path, but anytime we turned on our beams we caught the glint of orange crocodile eyes lining the banks. Going to shore wasn’t an option. We crossed our fingers that the storms would hold off.
It was around midnight when the drops began to fall, the only time we’d experience the “rainy season” during our 48 hours of racing. The showers continued into the early hours of the morning, through the rest of the paddle, through our transition back onto our bikes, and right up until the sun began to rise and the temperatures began to climb.
Then the rain stopped, and we were left to contend with another day of sun.
The second bike leg was about 40 kilometers longer than the first, but that didn’t seem to account for the extra four hours that the race directors had estimated for the third long leg.
That is, until we set off on our first stretch of road, and encountered the rib-chattering cobblestones that would be with us for much of the day.
Except when we were climbing through barbed wire fences…
…or riding the rails…
…or crossing bridges (Ali: “We have to do what?”)…
…or fording creeks…
Shortly after the “raft crossing,” Brent began to feel woozy. We’d all had our heat-related ups and downs throughout the morning, but this was something different. His heart began to pound and his breathing became labored. He was overheating quickly and it was clear he needed to pause.
We were between villages at that point, but within a couple minutes we came upon a small, isolated house. As the resident spanish speaker on our team, I passed through the gate and walked up to the front porch, calling out to see if anyone was home. After a few minutes of knocking, a woman came to the door. She was tentative at first – why are there four dirty Americans at my house? – but once I explained to her that Brent was sick, she invited us to rest on the porch.
She brought us iced tea to drink and water to pour over Brent, and her son followed suit with a damp cloth. There was no shortage of Costa Rican hospitality during this race, but this was surely the country’s finest.
We stayed on the porch for an hour, ultimately deciding to settle in for a short nap so that Brent could recover. The family offered us lunch (we, perhaps foolishly, declined) and took their pet bird inside when they saw us getting ready to sleep.
We awoke refreshed 30 minutes later, packed up our gear, and after thanking our hosts and offering them clif bars (they wouldn’t accept cash for our imposition), we continued on our way. Brent was feeling good. We’d finally hit a short stretch of gentle rollers. We were ready to move.
We didn’t know then that this would be the beginning of the end of our Costa Rican adventure…