It’s hard to believe that fewer than five months have passed since I signed up for this crazy race, and only six months after successfully completing my first ultra-marathon, the Squamish 50K. The road here was long, 230.5km long, to be exact, but as the finish line became visible to me on the last stretch of beach it all came rushing forward.
I arrived in Costa Rica two days before the official start hoping to acclimatize to the heat I had been missing after a winter of rain and snow. Sneaking into a shared room at two in the morning on the Friday, I look at my bunkmate, a fellow Run Like a Girl Ambassador and wondered if we would get along – we have never met in person before. I quickly, and as quietly as possible, got into my bed and shut my eyes, tomorrow the adventure would begin.
I wake up the next morning late and nervous about meeting the other runners. I am fairly new into ultra-running and know that my body is still a far cry away from the firm and toned bodies I expect to find by the pool. I message Lucy, my roommate, and go out to the pool to see what I’m in for. Upon reaching the pool I am quickly called over by a group of five women and go through a flurry of introductions. About 2/5 names I remember right away, the rest, I figure I will learn as the week goes on.
The two days go by quickly, and after lunching and dining with my new group I start to feel the pre-race anxiety creeping in. As we sit going over training plans and expectations for the race I am immediately surprised to hear that one of the girls is expecting time to surf and drink each day after the run. “Are we doing the same race?” I think to myself. It’s clear that many of the participants have a more optimistic outlook on the week, contrasting with my doom-and-gloom vision of what is about to unfold. “I hope their vision is the right one,” I think as I drift off to sleep. It’s 9:30PM and in five hours it’s go time.
Stage One- The Beginning
Del Rey Beach ➡ Rafiki Lodge
It’s 3AM and I am wide awake. This is it. We head out to the lobby, check-in our luggage, and board the buses waiting out front (me with my complimentary Denny’s breakfast sitting nicely in my stomach). We have two pit-stops along the way and nearly four hours after leaving San Jose we pull onto a dirt road and stop in what seems to be the middle of nowhere. This is the end of the line. From here we have a 2km walk to the deserted beach serving as our start line. As we all weave our way down the road, trying in vain to keep our shoes dry, I make conversation with the other runners, “bit cruel of them,” I say, “to make us walk all this way just to turn back around.” We reach the beach, and just a short photo shoot with the Run Like a Girl Team later we’re off.
aHappy at the start line, photo by: Hilary Ann
I was surprised by my lack of emotion as we begin to move. I expected to feel fear, excitement, and the all-to-familiar race anxiety creeping up on me, but outside of a whoosh in my stomach as I ran through the start line, I was in it. The quick turnaround at the beach plunged us into the race with very little thought – it was now or never and I was ready.
I start running down the road with the other runners and then quickly hold myself back. This is not the day to be a hero. I was warned about this by Mike Murphy, by my coach Gary Robbins, and by one of the returning elites on the bus, and the message was clear – do not start out too fast. It’s just past 10AM and entering the hottest part of the day, and I am already cloaked in sweat. I fall back with some other RLAG runners and we decide that today is a freebie. The difference between the “completers” and the “competers” of this race is that only one group has to worry about cut-offs, and there are plenty to come in the days to follow. We break into a rhythm, and myself and two sisters from Alberta break away into our own mini-group. Running in the shade, and walking in the sun, we make use of the river crossings and attempt to get used to the scorching heat.
We make good time on the road, and not long after passing the first aid station, enter our first single-track of the day. The humidity is all-encompassing and I feel like I can’t breathe, the heat seemingly trapped in the grasses brushing against my body. I wave the sisters onwards halfway into the first climb and start wondering what I’ve gotten myself into. I’m barely halfway into day one and I already have doubts about completing – not a good sign. Reaching the dirt road descent I rally and force my legs to move forward into a trot. Soon I’ve reached the second aid station and am greeted by an angel sent from heaven. Sponging me down with ice water, my guardian angel makes sure I am rejuvenated enough to carry on. The sisters and I, now reunited, carry-on for the rest of the day and quickly catch-up with a four-some from the UK. We take turns leading the rest of the days ascents, and soon after the third aid station, enter the second stretch of single-track. At the top of the hill we look down and see camp, nestled between two rivers, beckoning us to the finish. Now in my element, I bid adieu and savour the last 5km of the day, finally feeling like I might be able to do this. I soon cross the final river of the day and am greeted at camp with a warm plate of rice and beans and head into camp.
Last crossing of the day, photo by: Hilary Ann
After a slight mix-up of the tenting situation, I am finally able to settle in for the night and finish my preparations for the next day. I book a massage, and head over to join my teammates for dinner. Somehow in the excitement of reaching camp I missed the cicadas chirping their love songs, but it was now inescapable, with many of them dive-bombing unsuspecting runners trying to enjoy their supper. They put on a good, if not revolting, show. My dinner done and my massage finished I headed to my tent to finish my wind down. As I drift to sleep I look up and see a giant spider’s shadow flicker over my roof and close my eyes.
Stage Two – Welcome to the Jungle
Rafiki Lodge ➡ Dominical Beach
Morning comes fast and brisk – here it is, Day Two. “OK Chris,” I think, “if we finish today we are already 1/3 done the race – let’s do this!” If there is one thing ultra-running has taught me, it is the art of self-delusion.
As the sun starts to slowly wake, around 5:30AM, the runners gather by the feeding tent in anticipation for the start. 5-4-3-2-1-GO. I am not surprised, but I am happy to find that my legs are in good shape, and as I head out again with the sisters I find myself yearning to push forward. It’s still early though, and not knowing what the day, let alone the week, will hold I follow them along the river bank and soon begin the first climb of the day. It is near the top of the first climb, many miles away from the first aid station, that I first run out of water. I don’t know it yet, but this will be a recurring theme for the week. Travelling in a group has it perks, and soon my water bladder is generously filled enough to make it to the aid station – it’s all downhill from here.
Cooling down, Day Two
Leaving the first aid station with three litres of water, it’s time for the second, and biggest climb of the day. Not 300m up the hill I find a runner lying on the grass. The heat has claimed another victim. After being assured that he is ok, I carry on. Surprisingly, it is during this climb I find my legs and push forward. The leaves of the jungle cloaking me from the scorching sun that seeks to destroy my skin and resolve, I feel free in the forest and push to the top. What follows is a steep decline to the next aid station, followed by a scorching road that will lead us to Dominical Beach. It is during this long, exposed stretch that I find Kim, and together we forge forward to the finish line.
A picture of the “single-track” once out of the jungle
After a stretch on the scorching beach, we have one small water crossing to go before the finish line. Crocodiles and currents be damned, I planned on making it there.
The finish line is familiar to me, and brings a smile to my face, not only because I have been to this very place, but because of one person tanning on the beach filming me come in – my mom. Surprising me by flying in from Puerto Vallarta, my mom would now be the person quietly encouraging me to dig deep to make it to the finish line. I won’t lie, her hotel showers and AC were also a huge benefit, and although I wasn’t able to stay in the comfort of the hotel with her, the quick breaks from the sun were a saving grace at the end of each hard day.
Dominical is a special place, and being reunited my mom there, so many years after I first visited, made it even more special for me. I savoured the moment.
Finish Line Day Two
This is the first of a three part series on The Coastal Challenge – stay tuned for The Middle and The End