As we walked towards the start line, someone said "Look!"
Two giant billed brightly coloured toucans nestled in the tree above. I'd never seen one outside of a zoo. However, this was not an unusual sight, we were in Costa Rica. With 4% of the world's species residing in this one small Central American country the wildlife was to become a vivid and beautiful distraction in this 6 day multistage race.
The Costa Rica Coastal Challenge comprises of 2 race classes - Expedition or Adventure. Day 1 and day 6 are the same for competitors with the Adventure racers taking a shorter route on the days in between. I had been advised to expect humidity, heat and varied, tough terrain... and it really was!
Day 1 had been a bit of everything. A long flat sun-scorched first few miles were right up my street, then the route started to climb, and climb. Soon we were in the jungle and I realised just how tough the week was going to be. Having run through the jungle before I realised halfway through the day that the long version of this race would wipe me out for a few weeks. Before I had even finished the stage I had decided to do the shorter version. Deciding to enjoy my time and the experience and hopefully come out with legs intact for Tokyo Marathon (the following weekend) and Marathon des Sables (7 weeks later).
Once I had made my mind up, I decided to do the race justice. The plan was to run the 155k route with all my might. Days 2 and 3 where much shorter and had long beach sections which played to my flat-loving legs. I hammered out beach sections in the boiling hot sun as fast as I could. The temperature where we were, south of San Jose, was pushing 40 degrees, and the humidity in the jungle pushing 80. It was sweaty clammy stuff.
Soon by day 3 we were into a routine. Up early to avoid the main heat of the day, run, back to camp and then relax and socialise with your fellow runners for the rest of the day.
The race is superbly organised and has many perks that I have not experienced in a multistage race before. Each day is point-to-point and the camp moves further south with each stage. Race organisers pitch your tent for you and a mobile kitchen provides all the food. Considering there are over 100 runners and 40 helpers the tiny kitchen and friendly hard working staff came up trumps every time. The first night’s camp was in the jungle, the second on a beach. The kitchen venues are not typical and yet the meals are all consistently good. A typical breakfast would be eggs, sweetly spiced porridge and you can even have a peanut butter sandwich if you want. Lunch and dinner will have BBQ fish, meat, potatoes, salad and cake. Rice and beans feature with every meal as does a huge selection of fresh fruit. Pineapples, melon, papaya and bananas are just the ticket after a day’s running in the heat. Check points are similarly furnished. Delicious fresh fruit, salted boiled potatoes and electrolyes welcome you and send you on your way.
The other thing which feels like a luxury in this multistage race is the fact you can bring a bag which they shuttle to each camp. Behold! Fresh clothes! Toiletries! A SMALL PILLOW! I even bought a book to read on those afternoons for post run lounging on the beach. At times I totally forgot I was running a multistage and it felt like a very adventurous tropical holiday.
I did forget an awful lot of things though.Things that are actually very useful when you are putting your legs through an awful lot more jungle elevation that they are used to. Fortunately my tent mate is the most organised runner I have ever met in my life. Marathon des Sables winner Elisabet Barnes. What she had not bought was not worth a passing thought. She had bought things I didn’t even realise I would like or need until I saw it. Miniature foam rollers, special glute massagers, delicious ginger snacks, a small tent light for the evenings. Sharing a tent with such a pro was a huge advantage. She dispensed advice, helped me when all my toenails went black and got very bruised from not securing my laces, and we had a right laugh in that tent. What she lacked in tidiness (imagine every single thing you own related to running, been thrown into a tent, and then shake the tent.. you get the picture) she made up for in laughs and expertise. It was also very refreshing to see a runner of her calibre drinking a glass of wine, followed by beers in between stages and still banging out an extraordinary time the next day.
The week ended on a long day that started at the top of the mountains and had so many sharp downhills it nearly finished my sore toes off. The very last day was a celebration of the week. Both the Expedition and Adventure runners completed one last loop around the gorgeous Drakes Bay. Lush river crossings, mini jungle climbs and beach sections so photogenic they stopped you in your tracks.
This race is special. Camp life lends itself to you meeting new friends. Top flight elite runners are there, and I found myself having dinner every night with legend Anna Frost, Hardrock winner Jason Schlarb, Spanish run hero Chema Martinez, and the astonishingly fast winner Tom Owens. Having done the shorter course I got the chance to see these elite runners in action. Skipping down hill trough jungle sections that made me fall over every three steps. After the day was over we would all sit around in the camp and share stories, eat and have a laugh and a beer. Something you wouldn't typically get in other races.
On the last night in camp the music was cranked up and we enjoyed performances from local Costa Rican musicians and dancers before the award ceremony. I was delighted to be awarded overall winner in the Adventure Category. Beers flowed and spirits were high. There was so much to say about this race that is good. The course is a toughie, but rewarding. The camp life and people you meet are wonderful, encouraging and friendly. The experiences you get are real once in a lifetime stuff. It’s the only race I’ve been to where you take a speedboat to the start line!
The star of the show is Costa Rica itself. Rugged coastlines, scorched fire roads nestled in the mountains, thick jungles and beach sunsets to fill your heart. Tempted?
Thank you to Steve Diederich at Run Ultra, Elisabet Barnes for the laughs, and Rodriguez & his team for the excellent race.