The Coastal Challenge – Getting There

The Coastal Challenge, taking place in Costa Rica, is a stage race that takes its participants marching through dusty back roads, climbing up waterfalls, clambering over jungle roots, and navigating deserted beaches, under the scorching sun for 230.5 agonizing kilometers. The race, in itself an immense challenge due to the OMG-technical terrain and long distances, is only exacerbated by the scorching heat that boils you from the inside-out from the minute you start to the minute you cross the finish line in Drake’s Bay.

Drawing some of the best ultra-runners in the sport today, the Coastal Challenge is a draw to anyone that is looking to push themselves to their limit and see what they are truly made of. Breaking even the most experienced ultra-runners, signing up as a novice would be considered ill-advised, possibly even deadly. (Un)luckily for me, I was not aware of this when I signed up, barely a month out of my first ultra-marathon.

I first heard of the Coastal Challenge three years ago while participating in a week long trail running and yoga retreat with Run Like a Girl high in the Costa Rican mountain range. I can’t recall my exact reaction when I heard the distance the runners would have to travel to reach the finish line, but I expect that it would have included some expletives and a promise that I would never put myself through a misery like that. And yet, I still wondered. As the years progressed and I found myself getting stronger as a runner, accomplishing distances that I once thought were impossible, the seed that was planted all those years ago began to grow – I just needed a push. That push came while sipping a cerveza the day before I began the Inca Trail. Egged-on by former finishers, Hailey Van Dyk and Eduardo Baldioceda Baltodano, I spent the last minutes with cell phone service signing up for the race, all while reminding myself that I still had thirty days to back out. With a blink, the thirty days came and went and I was now committed.

Training under the tutelage of Gary Robbins and Eric Carter I knew if I put my head down and did as I was told I would have as good a chance as any of completing the race, hopefully in one piece. And, I told myself, there is always the option of dropping to the shorter distance if it gets too tough. It was October and it felt as though I had all the time in the world to train, but as the weeks flew by and my mileage began to creep up, February loomed ever-closer. Dealing with rain, snow, negative temperatures, and the dark was a challenge. Doing it primarily on my own made it at times feel impossible.

Although training for my first 50k was time consuming, the long summer nights made it easy to find time to fit my runs in all while maintaining some semblance of a social life. And although my friends and family may not have fully understood why I wanted to run 50k, the weather was beautiful and they couldn’t deny that there was never a bad day for a run. If the 50k was difficult to wrap their heads around, the Coastal Challenge was impossible to understand. Why, they would ask, why do you have to do this to yourself? There’s fresh powder, can’t you cut your run short today and ski with us? It’s -10, do you really need to be out there? I never had a good answer; I just told them that I had to. For me, there was no other option if I wanted to succeed.

With every training run there were new highs and lows, and I strived to take it all in. I remember finishing my first trail marathon in October feeling like a million bucks, and then struggling to the finish of a 50K barely three weeks later. There were rare days when the sun would shine and I would head out the door filled with purpose, and then there were days where I would be drenched within minutes of leaving my house, and as I ran through the torrents of rain rushing down the trails I would seriously question whether I had what it would take to make it to the start line.

Although I understood that the Coastal Challenge would be incredibly difficult, I don’t think I truly understood what I signed up for until a rainy Friday night in January when I had an hour-long phone conversation with Mike Murphy, a former participant of the race. Less than a month earlier I had been into Capra, a running store in Squamish, BC to pick up some new shoes and gear for an impromptu hike up the sea-to-sky gondola with my sister. After mentioning that this impromptu adventure was in fact a training run for my upcoming race, Mike, an incredibly accomplished ultra-runner, began to regale me with stories of his experiences and upon leaving the store, handed me his card and told me to email him any time if I had any more questions. Fast-forward to January. Although I was incredibly busy in the last weeks leading up to the race, I think that perhaps the real reason I waited to talk to Mike was because I knew it would shatter any of my naive beliefs that this race would be anything less than soul-destroying. Although our intentions in entering the race couldn’t be more different, Mike went to win, I only hoped to survive, and I knew some of his challenges, such as being so fast that he beat the organizers to camp, wouldn’t affect me, I heeded every warning and wrote ten pages of notes during our short conversation.

I went to my treadmill workout that night with his words swirling in my brain. Be prepared to suffer, he said, the heat is intense and unrelenting – there will not be a minute of the day where you won’t be cloaked in sweat. Nor will there be a time once the race starts that you will run with dry feet. Have you run with a blister before, he asked? Good, now multiply that to the point where nearly every inch of your feet are covered in welts, blisters, and bruises. How are you with taking in fuel during a race, have you thrown up on a run before? No? Well, it will probably be inevitable that it will happen to you during this race, if not just once, than once a day. We covered all of the good, the bad, and the ugly during that call, with Mike promising me that it would all be worth it when it was over. I entered the next week of training with new fervor and more doubt than ever. There was less than a month to go.

The rest of January flew by and as I entered my taper coming off a cold and wet 50k in Olympia, Washington, I found myself counting down the days in the single digits. I had endured the snow, rain, blisters, loneliness, puking, muscle pain, and a near concussion to get me to this point and I wasn’t sure I was ready. One week out from the race I had my last coaching call with Gary and I asked him, have I done enough? Christina, he said, you have done everything possible, in the time we had, for you to be successful – I believe in you. One week later I was on the plane and it was time to race.


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