Race Report: Costa Rica Coastal Challenge

26 Feb 2015 15:15
Niandi Carmont
Race report
Credit : Ian Corless

Pure Vida ……is probably the phrase synonymous with Costa Rican culture and way of life. It is also the local way of greeting people in the street. Translated as “pure life” or “good life” no other phrase better describes the lasting impression this Central American country bordered by Nicuaraga in the North and Panama in the South, the Caribbean to the East and the Pacific to the West, has on the first-time visitor. One cannot visit the shores of this paradisiacal, magical and surprising country without falling victim to its charms.

Certainly we equate Costa Rica to coffee production, banana exports, salsa and black beans and rice but nothing like a 250km multi-stage along the Pacific coast-line to redefine our existing stereotypes and paint a much larger picture of this popular, yet relatively unknown tourist destination.

The most concise and visual way of describing the Coastal Challenge is probably the logo itself. Ask the Race Director Rodrigo Carazo what it represents, he will proudly tell you that this clever little squiggle depicts the mountains, the coast-line and the circular course. I love it ……everything about this multi-stage is well-thought out; nothing is left to chance …..yet it is pure adventure and surprise from the beginning to the end.

Credit : Ian Corless

So who is Rodrigo? Experienced adventure racer based in San José with extensive knowledge about the local terrain, the National Parks, eco systems and the network of rainforest trails, no other person is better qualified as Race Director. Add to that a oodles of charisma and loads of energy, passion and the ability to put together and delegate to a dedicated and loyal team and you have a recipe for success!

So when Rodrigo suggested experiencing the Coastal Challenge and use this as training for Marathon des Sables, I immediately accepted.

“Good heat training, some good food and a bit of jungle experience” – I was sold on the idea.

Basically there are two events:

- The Expedition Race which is about 230km over 6 days
- The Adventure Race which is a shorter version. Days 1 & 2 are the same for all participants.

What is great about the course as well is that the cut-off times allow for running and speed-hiking so it is course which caters for the experienced trail/mountain runner and for less experienced runners new to multi-stage seeking a challenge in an exotic destination. Make no mistake though – this is a tough and grueling course and contending with issues like high humidity (90%) combined with heat (+40°C), tough off the beaten track jungle terrain and sleep deprivation is not to be taken lightly.

Credit : Ian Corless

Included in the registration are:

- All local transportation & transfers
- Full medical assistance
- Meals – breakfast, lunch & dinner prepared by a food nutritionist and a very friendly and professional catering staff
- Aid stations
- Evening campsite locations
- An amazing finisher medal, t-shirt
- Lots of new friends and unforgettable memories
- Mosquito bites ;-)

You need to:

- Book your own return flight to San José
- Bring your own tent and camping kit – these will be transported to the end of the daily stage so basically you only need to carry the mandatory race kit – 2L of water and some race food. I found however I needed to carry very little – the aid stations provided plenty of great local goodies!

I flew out to San José from London on the Thursday and arrived Friday evening before the race start on Sunday. Admittedly the flight was a little long – with a stop-over in Miami. An ESTA for non-residents is a must! The flight from Miami to San José was “shortish”. A night to recover from the flight and jet lag and Saturday morning I was up for a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, massive American pancakes drizzled in maple syrup and the best-ever tasting local fresh water-melon, banana, melon, pineapple and papaya.

A stroll down to the pool area where I met some other runners, an astonishing concentration of the best ultra-trail runners from all over the globe – Joe Grant (US), Karl Melzer (US aka SpeedGoat), Ian Don-Wauchope (South African and a compatriot), Nikki Kimball (US), Anna Frost (NZ), Samantha Gash (Australia)… all a little intimidating to say the least but as I soon discovered most of these talented athletes are very accessible and good company! I watched one of the race photographers Ian Corless doing pre-race pool-side shoots and then picked up my race number and t-shirt. The day went by quite quickly with some “dolce farniente” and everybody decided on an early night as depart on Sunday was 4am.

Credit : Ian Corless

Day 1. 36.4 KM Playa del Rey – Savegre Valley

3am we were up to embark on a 3-hour coach journey to the start. Race start was on the beach at Playa del Rey at 8am. The first section of the first day involved a lot of fire trail with little ascent and initially seemed quite easy. I remembered what I had been told “Take it easy the first day; you need to acclimatize to the heat”. Strange – I thought it wasn’t too bad until I hit the ascent and thick undergrowth – then I started struggling. It was like wading through thick soup and I felt dizzy. I stopped to get my breath and carried on climbing through the suffocating heat and forest. The climb seemed endless and at this point I was alone – the course was extremely well-marked with fluorescent pink ribbon and this reassured me. I made a point of drinking regularly and when I got to the top of the climb I felt a little better. My body was getting used to the heat. And before I knew it I had crossed the finishing line of this first 36.4km. The camp-site was next to a river inlet and on the shores ….. A quick dip in the river to cool down, some lunch prepared by the mobile catering team and I felt loads better.

Day 2 17km/39km Savegre Valley – Dominical Beach

This was a shorter day for me with a start at checkpoint 2 – Dos Bocas. The expedition runners started on the beach in Savegre Valley and the adventure runners were taken by 4×4 to Dos Bocas. This meant that all participants finished at the end of the stage and thus avoids logistical issues of transporting runners to the end. This short stage was a welcome relief as the previous day had meant getting used to the high humidity and I needed to bear in mind that my key race was Marathon des Sables in 2 months.

Credit : Ian Corless

Day 3 48km/12km Dominical Beach – Ventanas Beach

Day 3 I decided to go with the expedition runners and do the full distance. Almost 50km! What I was apprehensive about was the initial 10km boulder section. This meant crossing the river from one bank to the other, following the markers, swimming across in run kit, clambering up muddy, slippery banks and negotiating with even slipperier mossy boulders. It took me forever it seemed – all the stones on the river bed were covered in slimy moss and once out the river I was making my way across massive wet boulders. The last thing I needed was a sprained ankle before MDS. No expert in boulder-hopping I gingerly picked my way across the boulders and up and down muddy banks. But I made it! And I reached the aid station relieved and pleased with myself. I was so stressed I gulped down chunks of delicious water-melon and sweet pineapple – better not get too used to this. None of this at Marathon des Sables…

After CP1 endless climbs in the Costa Rican heat with a couple of stops at tiny little shops in the middle of nowhere to buy some ice-cold drinks. Hey this was training for me and not racing after all! Some tar road to finish this long day out and I arrived in Ventanas where I pitched my tent on the edge of the beach to the sound of the ocean and probably saw one of the most amazing sunsets on the Pacific Ocean.

Day 4 Coronado – Palmar Sur 37.5km/27.5km

Day 4 the Adventure runners were taken to PC 2 by 4×4 after an early morning ferry crossing. My legs felt the strain and effort of the previous day and whereas I usually like downhill descents, I struggled with this stage as I felt sluggish and tired. The last section involved a lot of downhill from 1000m to sea level. A lovely stage though with lovely rolling hills and relatively easy runnable terrain – unlike the Expedition runners who had to climb from sea level to the highest point in the race at just over 1000m in the first 10km.

Credit : Ian Corless

Day 5 -Sierpe – Drake Bay 47.5km/32km

Day 5 I felt better –my legs were getting used to the accumulated fatigue – one of the reasons I was doing this event. I needed to train on running on tired legs – back to back runs in the heat with little sleep. Every morning so far meant being up at 3.30:4am, dismounting tents, dropping off camping kit & dry bags in the drop off zone, getting ready for the stage, having breakfast at 4.30am and an early start for Expedition runners at 5.30am and a later start for Adventure runners. Getting used to sleep deprivation was also good preparation for MDS.

This was the day I loved the most! My first true experience of incredibly muddy rain forest and it rained! I have never welcomed rain that much! It was like a 2-hour tropical shower and cooled the atmosphere considerably. Plenty of shade in the rainforest too and all the local fauna – beautifully-colored macaws and massive blue Morpho butterflies – it was like running in some animated Walt Disney Jungle Book movie. Added to that the company of Karl Melzer’s wife Cheryl – what more could you ask for? A finish in the legendary Drake Bay and I was elated…

Day 6 – Drake Bay – Drake Bay 23.7km

The final day was the same for all participants. Probably the most picturesque and scenic with a waterfall section, some exposed fire trail and dirt road and a lovely section weaving in and out beaches, tiny coves and shady forest along the Pacific coastline where I was surprised and delighted to be helped at one of the aid stations by Anna Frost who had dropped out of the race due to injury. And I crossed the final finishing line to claim my hard-earned medal. A dip in the sea with my medal and a few local Imperial beers to celebrate and I was a happy bunny…

Credit : Ian Corless

Conclusion

I highly recommend this race for:

- The organization. From the marking to the catering team, the medical staff and infrastructure, the organization is irreproachable.
- The off-the-beaten track travel experience. This is no tourist circuit. The course is so varied and thanks to the knowledge and expertise of the Race Director you get to experience the real Costa Rica.
- The ambiance – 19 nationalities and 60 entrants. The friendships and contacts you make in the camp and during the stages with like-minded people, where top-level athletes and ordinary runners get to meet and exchange.
- The great food! I loved the fresh tropical fruit at the feed stations, the friendliness of the marshals and volunteers, the scrambled eggs and pancakes for breakfast and the local black beans and rice …..
- And last but not least…the fabulous medal!

Credit : Ian Corless