Stage Three – Rolling on the River, otherwise known as My Worst Day Ever
Dominical Beach ➡️ Ballena Bay
3:30AM is not an enjoyable time to wake up, and three days in, it did NOT get any easier. Today, I knew, would be the real test. Based on what I had heard from Mike about the race, I knew that this was the stage that could make or break a runner. I wanted to make it.
Starting with a flat road leading out of town, the race began by luring us into a false sense of security. It wouldn’t be long until we found ourselves nearly knee deep in a river, climbing up, up, up. Incredibly slick, the river proved to be a challenge, and less than 100m in, I fell on my elbow. I was scared to look. The pain wasn’t bad, but it was exacerbated by my knowledge of what had happened to Mike. It was here that Mike’s race began the decline into what would end up being a DNF. Although our races couldn’t be more different, Mike was racing to win, I was racing to survive, if this river could bring down a strong runner like him, it could certainly eat me up and spit me out. I looked down. A scratch. A quick antiseptic wipe later and I was back on my way, for better or worse.
I was surprised to find I made good time in the river, and reached the aid station ahead of plan. It was here I found another defeated runner. This time the river claimed a finisher of the Marathon Des Sables. Struggling with his electrolyte intake and dehydration, this runner couldn’t, or wouldn’t, fare on despite the encouragement from the volunteers.
The River – photo by Hilary Ann
Emboldened by a surge in energy, I carried on forward. Unfortunately, forward in the wrong direction. Nearly 45 minutes later, at the top of a climb, I realized I was all alone with not a ribbon in sight. Running down the road, I spotted some tourists and shouted at them asking if they had seen any other runners. They had zero idea what I was shouting to them about, and now I had gotten the attention of a nearby police officer. After explaining that I was ribbonless, he matter-of-factly pointed me back down the hill. I had a lot of time to make up.
The tears were beginning to pool behind my eyes as I ran downhill. “How could I be so stupid? Why didn’t I trust my instincts half way up when I couldn’t find a flag? Would I still be able to make cut-off?” These thoughts continued to circle my mind as I raced forward. “Get yourself together girl,” I thought, “you still have time.”
I was in a frenzy. Passing surprised runners I had left behind over an hour ago, I kept moving forward – I was not prepared to be cut, especially because of a small tactical error. Although the adrenaline helped me move forward, it did little to clear my head, and after reaching the top of a climb out of the Nuayaca Waterfall in the heat of the day, I took a sip, and realized I was out of water. As the sun beat down my back on the open road I analyzed my options. There was only one. Keep moving forward.
The Nuayaca Waterfall
Salvation came to me two-fold. First by a father and son duo from the United States, who upon hearing my plight offered me a water bottle, and second from a small convenience store tucked off the side of the road. Although the chatty patron of the store distracted me for far too long, the first sip of cold water coming through my lips was the best thing I have ever tasted, which considering water is tasteless, is saying something. I carried along the road and soon entered another densely forested section of trail. Although difficult to maneuver, the leaves offered a small reprieve from the sun. I soon caught up with Julie, a runner I met months before on the Inca Trail. Looking back, it seems fitting that during one of my toughest moments I would find myself next to someone that was sitting at my table the day I decided to join the race. We moved together, in silence, and soon the trail became river once more. The only sounds that could be heard above the rushing river were our incredulous exclamations as we climbed up a waterfall and found ourselves bushwacking up the mountainside. I looked at my watch – we were cutting it close.
I have been in pain before. I have cried before. And I have at times in my life felt like my life was falling apart. But I have never felt the despair I felt when I looked at my watch and saw I had less than fifteen minutes to climb over 1.5km, straight up a mountain, in the heat of the day, after battling through hell all day long. The tears came swift and shook my body. My breath, cut short, began to force itself through my lips in violent huffs. I thought I would puke. I thought I would die. I thought I was a failure. It’s hard to explain the series of emotions I felt as I forced myself up that hill. I told myself to be strong, and to suck it up, and that tears wouldn’t make me any faster, and that there was still a chance.
I came hysterically through the aid station, regaling my struggle to anyone that would listen, trying to build a case for them to let me carry on. I was so hyped that I barely registered that I could go on. To them, there was no question that I could carry on. To say I was euphoric would be an understatement. I left soon after, before they could change their minds, and made it 2kms before the tears overtook me again. This time, as my body heaved and collapsed I let myself stop and let it sink in. I don’t think I have ever felt emotion as authentically as I did in that moment. I was happy and sad. Angry and relieved. Sapped and energized. I was just myself and it felt good to let the emotions I have been penting up for most of my life relieve themselves from my weakened body. “This,” I realized, “this is what I came here for.”
The downhill was long and hot, but no longer feeling the weight of my emotions I kept moving forward. I was behind schedule, and I knew my mom, who was to be waiting on the beach, would be getting worried.
At Aid Station Three I found Jackie, and after sharing a salt pill and a “look” we took off. After hours alone, I finally had someone to distract me from my fragile mental state and growing pain. The last section was mostly beach, and as we trudged along, I anticipated how my mom would react to seeing me complete another day in the jungle. The miles were long and hot, the sand chafing already sore and waterlogged feet. The sweepers caught up with us, and stayed less than 50m behind with Daniella, a Spanish runner, right in front. After what seemed like hours we reached the end of the beach and – no mom. I consoled and reasoned with myself the best I could, “what could I expect,” I told myself, I was over two hours late.
The Beach – photo by Hilary Ann
As we exited the small pool that marked the end of the beach, and began to climb through the bushes and bramble, I became acutely aware of my blistered and burnt skin. Every vine scraped, every branch tore, and I found myself crying the tears that were held off by good conversation and the thought of having a friendly familiar face greet me at the end of a grueling day. Jackie was barely behind me, and yet I felt alone as I made my way to the road. Tears were soon dried as we were reunited at the aid station at the side of the road. It was now less than 5km away on the highway – we were almost there.
We moved slow, and although I felt as though I could run, the emotional weight of the day and the comfort of having a friend next to me, kept me from going ahead. It wasn’t long before a car with race decals soon pulled over in front of us. To my surprise, who should jump out but my mom! I was quickly overwhelmed (again). She chatted our ears off the whole way back to camp and we crossed the finish line right as the sun shone its final rays of the day. I felt relieved, happy, and exhausted – and was in for a long night.
Although I entered camp strong and managed to eat, hydrate, get massaged, and prepare for day four, the day’s turmoils were soon to catch up to me. As I lay down my head to sleep, a wave of nausea soon swept over my body and I began to shake. Although I tried to ignore it and sleep through the discomfort, it wasn’t long until the need to purge was overwhelming. I was found not ten feet from my tent, tears streaming down my face, hugging a garbage bin not five minutes later. I will never have enough good things to say about race volunteers. I was broken, and through some of the kindest words I have ever heard, a stranger (at the time), brought my pieces back together. “Did I dream that,” I thought when I awoke less than five hours later. Fact or fiction, I still heard his words in my mind telling me that I was strong, and that from here on out I would only get stronger. It was hard to believe, but it was all I had.
Day Four – The Boruca’s Challenge
Coronado ➡️ Palmar Sur
Day Four started with an earlier start than usual, as today we would have to be transported to the start line. I remember acknowledging as I was getting on the bus that if I wanted to quit, now was the time. Luckily, due to my sleep deprivation from the horrid night before, I was too exhausted to fight – I was along for the ride whether I liked it or not. The last thing I heard before the start was the sound of another runner crying. Man did I feel their pain.
I started slow, amazed that my body was still feeling strong after the hardship I had already put it through. “I hope this lasts,” I thought to myself. With one cut-off at aid station three I knew I had to push forward, and so I forged ahead up, up, up. The morning was tough, with nearly 1000m of elevation to cover in less than 12km. I focused on putting one pole in front of the other and relished in the cooler temperatures brought to us by the elevation. Although the first half of the morning began slowly, I began to find my groove at around 5km and was further energized with every step I took.
I was very burnt, and I knew it was bad, but there is something extra chilling about having a Red Cross member press into your calf, frown, press it again, and then consult with the other doctors in Spanish. I was informed that my legs were not only blistered, but they were now a lovely shade of purple. I quickly lied and said I was in no pain so I could continue forward. With a Valentine’s Day flower placed in my hat, I promised I would go to the med tent at the end of the day and raced forward. The day continued, and with each hour, I continued to feel strong. Even with the rising temperature, there was enough shade to continue to run, and as I passed the cut off well ahead of schedule I believed I was home free.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
The Coastal Challenge has a fun way of catching you off-guard, and as I came down a stunning stretch of trail through a pasture, the last thing I expected was to find myself back in a river. Even more so, I definitely did not expect that river to carry on for the next few kilometers. Perhaps it was my fatigued legs, but the river seemed much slicker than the previous day. Slogging through, I naively tried to keep my feet “dry” for as long as possible. This was a major waste of energy, and in fact, was incredibly futile. I fell about every 20m.
The river stretched on, and on, and just as I was beginning to think that I would get jungle fever, I passed Daniella, and then Sander. “I’m not alone”, I thought, and carried on. It wasn’t long after that, that I was greeted by a waterfall to the right of the river. After taking a thorough video of the rushing water, I harried onwards. Not 300m later I was faced with another waterfall – this one straight down. “They can’t expect us to climb down a waterfall, can they?!”
The missed waterfall – yes, there is a flag up there
Although this should have been a good indication that I passed a flag, after what I went through the day before, and the fact that this race is loco, I had to really think hard about what to do next. I spotted Sander and Daniella just above me and shouted at them asking when the last time was that they had seen a flag. Neither could remember. So here we were, three runners, three nationalities, and three different languages, all staring down a waterfall. Sander was the first to start the descent, and began coaxing Daniella, who was clearly afraid of heights, down behind him. We were about 1/3 down when it finally sank in what we were about to do. After analyzing my comrades, I realized that if anyone was going to be going back up the river to check for flags, it would have to be me. So I did. And what should I find way atop the previous waterfall? A ribbon.
Again on the right track, we carried on.
This Way to Victory
The race, from there, took us up, up, up, and I remembered that we had a killer descent ahead of us. Killer it was. Nearly straight down, with no roots or rocks for footing, I, now alone, went slipping and sliding down 3km of nearly vertical descent. I descended over 1000m in that time. “This is madness”, I thought, “this trail is almost unrunnable”. Less than a minute later a volunteer came loping down the hill full-speed. “Unless you’re a Costa Rican, I guess.”
At the bottom of the descent, it was a short distance through a little village and onwards on to camp. I was surprised that I still had spring in my legs and “ran” the last leg in, stopping only when I saw a familiar face. “I have pizza for you!” Never have words so sweet been spoken to me, until I got closer. “Actually, I just have the crust – they didn’t have a vegetarian slice so I ate it.” Thanks Mom. The last 100m to the finish line saw me devouring my crust and sipping lemonade, made special for us by a local shop owner. It was a sweet victory of a day, and as I had my finish line “shower”, I actually looked forward to the next day. “Bring it on”.
“Did you say pizza?”
This is the second of a three part series on The Coastal Challenge – stay tuned for The End