Friday, February 21, 2014

The Coastal Challenge

My family and mother-in-law joined me for the weeklong trip out Costa Rica for the 10th running of the Coastal Challenge stage race, a six-day, 145-mile run through the jungles, beaches and coastal mountains of this gorgeous Central American country. To celebrate the decade-long anniversary of the event, the organizers had invited a number of runners from around the world to make a race of it at the front of the field. In the men's race, there were six of us who seemed likely to be in the running. I was the only one coming in as a stage-racing rookie, with a couple of the European guys bona fide specialists.

The start. 
After settling into a day of hotel living at the Best Western in San Jose, the capital city, for pre-race briefings and the like, we were whisked off in the wee hours of Sunday morning on a long bus ride to a beach from where we would begin the six days of racing.

San Jose sits at relative altitude and as such enjoys relatively cool temperatures. The situation on the coast would be markedly different, and by the time we got running on day one it was already a scorcher.

On the docket for the morning was a stage right out of the Mike Wardian playbook: 10 miles of flat jeep track, followed by a couple of 1,000 - 2,000 foot bumps and then more flat running into the finish. Mike's superior leg speed was evident from the get go, and by the time we finally made the turn onto a stretch of rough singletrack through the jungle, he was a couple of minutes off the front. Frenchman Martin Gaffuri and I worked together up the hill and by the time we popped back onto the jungle road Mike was no more than 50 meters ahead, a gap that was soon closed on the climb to the high point of the day's stage.

All fun and games at this stage.
Photo: J.A. Vargas Lead Adventure Media
Thinking smart thoughts (or so I thought), I let him go on the ensuing descent with the goal of preserving my quads for the five days of racing to come. With a few miles left to the finish, Spaniard and stage racing legend Vincente Juan Garcia Beneito, caught up to me and we pushed together into the finish, crossing as one at a stunning eco-lodge tucked away in the depths of a luscious jungle valley. Martin rolled in 10 minutes later, followed by Philip Reiter from Germany a few minutes after that. Badwater champion Carlos Sa ended up taking a mysterious wrong turn 100 meters from the finish line that cost him something in order of three hours, essentially putting him out of the running for the rest of the race. Much to his credit, however, he persevered.

Quite frankly, I was stunned at how much I was hurting after a fairly simple 22 mile run and shuddered at the thought of the early mornings and heavy mileage ahead. I licked my wounds and attempted to play with the kids through the afternoon. Eventually, after some quality time in the cold pool accompanied by cold beers, I was able to walk with a little more fluidity. As would be the case all week, my appetite was insatiable and I was able to put food away in vast quantities.

Not a bad spot to end day 1.
In order to beat the heat, each day started early. Fortunately I didn't have to pack everything in the morning as Dana and the kids would leave a little later with the staff bus, but trying to find things at 4:30 in the morning amid a mess of soggy gear intermixed with a mound of kids' stuff all the while grimacing at inexplicably sore legs was an interesting way to prepare for the morning's racing. With five minutes until the start, I finally found my race bib, slotted into a damp pair of running shoes and got ready to go.

Right from the off on day two, we were into the jungle, gaining elevation quickly and sweating profusely. Five of us in the lead group ascended the climb as one, with Philip off the front and out of sight. We spaced a bit as skill sets dictated across a mix of technical descents, jeep road and cow pasture. It was on the super rutted cow pasture descent, in particular, that we built a gap on the Yellow Jersey of Wardian.

By the river crossing at the halfway point of the day's stage he was out of shoulder-check sight, while Philip was maintaining his lead off the front. Nonetheless, there would be a long stretch of groomed dirt road that would allow Wardian to catch back up and grow a lead over myself and Vincente Juan, the two of us again firmly in lockstep in third and fourth. The stage ended with approximately four miles on the beach to the finish in the small surf town of Domincal. Vincente and I closed  the gap on Mike to less than a minute by the finish, working well together under mercifully overcast skies, with Philip a couple minutes ahead of Mike. Martin and Carlos ended the day another 10 to 20 minutes back, so it was looking like it would be a four-horse race, with less than four minutes separating the first three, Vincente and I finishing the 24-mile leg together for the second straight day.

Beach fun in Dominical.
The camp location right on the beach was absolutely stunning, and I spent the remainder of the day playing in the surf with the kids, building sand castles and consuming calories. There was a large population of beach dogs down here in Dominical, no doubt thriving off tourist generosity, and one mutt in particular attached himself to Alistair and the camp in general.

At close to 50k, day three was the first of two long days, and perhaps the one to start stringing the field out a bit. It began with a short tour through town and then launched into 5kms of swimming, wading and rock hopping along the course of a gorgeous river, which after a short stretch of connecting double track would lead us to a stunning double waterfall.

Running through town, Alistair's mutt friend from the night before was right there barking and nipping at our heels. At first an annoyance, the dog stuck with us through the first 5km, then proceeded to make his way up the river with us, whining and crying at particularly tricky spots but always finding a way to navigate. By the first aid station, five of us plus Ultra Dog emerged from the river and crossed the bridge on the way to the waterfall. Looking back down the river, Wardian was nowhere to be seen, which meant he was floundering in the river at least 10 minutes back, more than enough to erase his lead from the first two days. This was getting fun and the race was on.

After some howling and hollering at the sight of the waterfall, it was time to get our heads down for some grunting up steep jungle trail to the rolling roads that led us out to some of the thickest jungle terrain we would see all week. By the time we hit the trail and started moving through the thicket, it was myself, Vincente and Philip - accompanied by Ultra Dog - leading the way. There were stretches in here that had clearly just been machete'ed days before, the fern-like foliage collecting and piling up around our ankles as we waded through. The heat of the day was once again piling on, and at each and every creek crossing I silently implored the dog to stop and get some fluids, but he seemed unflappable and singularly focused on hanging with the group.

Climbing out from the waterfall. Photo: J.A. Vargas Lead Adventure Media
After a long climb to the second aid station, we were off to the races with a long stretch of downhill dirt roads, punctuated by short sections of technical jungle trail. Wardian had been running the smooth descents a lot quicker than all of us on the first two stages, so I was expecting him to pick us up at some point before we got down to the beach, but I don't think any of us expected him to close on us quite as quickly as he did, not far from the high point of the course. Once he got on the train, we ran pretty much as a group - dog included - for the long descent to the Pacific Ocean.

After four hours of hard running through the jungle, the exposure to the sun and soul sapping views of endless beach kms did a major number on me. I'd been told 12 kms of beach, so prepped myself for an hour of torture and dropped off the back of the pack, alone with just the dog for company. As it turns out, it was only 30 minutes of beach running, but by the time I made it to the canopy and the short climb out from the beach I was wobbling like a drunk man, more than a little disoriented. The final three or four kms on the road to our unbelievably scenic finish location at Ventanas Beach National Park were some of the more pathetic miles I've put in during my time as a runner.

I gave up more than 10 minutes on those last few miles on the beach and road, but cared about nothing more than getting rehydrated and cooled once finally at the finish, the toll of the last three days, 75 miles and scorching sun really starting to take large chunks out of me. I was quickly realizing that I was coming into this race woefully underprepared.

The kids on Ventanas Beach.
Once I was back in the land of the living, it was time to figure out the camping situation and then spend some quality time with the kids in the ocean at one of the most scenic and secluded beaches I've ever had the pleasure of enjoying. The heavens opened up rainforest style that night, and the first two hours of 'sleep' were spent trying to keep water out of the tent. It was not a good night's sleep to say the very least, and the race was quickly becoming as much about managing exhaustion through sleep deprivation as it was managing a physically dinged up body.

The clock stops for nobody, and by 4:30 it was time to start sorting through the damp and wet to get ready for the next day's racing, which on paper looked like something of a respite at just 22 miles. But we'd been warned of some pretty gnarly terrain, so nothing was being taken for granted. And then, once again, we were off to the races.

Day four opened up with a few kilometers of gradually ascending jungle road, before a big 3,000 foot climb on steep, tight and barely-there jungle trail. Once again I found myself working with Vincente up the hill, Philip off the front and Mike a minute or two up the trail. We hiked 90 percent of the climb, and despite feeling like I needed to be pushing harder, I was content just to follow Vincente's heels to the top. It came relatively quickly, and once at elevation we would follow rolling, wide and well-groomed dirt roads with huge views for miles. I made the occasional attempt at dropping Vincente, something I'd yet been able to do over the first three days, but soon gave up figuring that the steep, technical descent at the end of the stage would be where I'd chop some time on the competition.

Au contraire, Blackadder. With a measly five kilometers to the finish, my race essentially came to a grinding halt.

I was pleased that I needed to pee, as it would allow me to stop running for a few seconds to take care of business, but I wasn't prepared for the thick ruby red flow that ensued. Immediately my brain shut things down and I was no longer able to run. The day had turned into yet another scorcher, so I found a spot in the shade, laid on my back and considered my fate.

"Kidney failure, hyponatremia ('wait, what are the symptoms again?'), dehydration, bladder chaffing?"

"Which one is it damn-it?"

After 10 minutes of sitting, I finally decided I needed to get to the finish and be done with running. I was pulling the plug, DNF'ing, spending tomorrow playing with the kids in the ocean.

I finally rolled into the finish after a long, hot 5km shuffle, some 30 minutes behind the lead, and set about rehydrating. Exhaustion aside, I actually felt fine. I told the camp doc the same, and he prescribed a couple of hours of fluid intake before deciding what needed to be done. A couple of hours and many liters of water later, and hey presto my pee looked like pee again. There went the excuse to dodge day five and a further 48kms of fun.

Heaven. Photo: RestArts Studio
And Hell! Photo: Ian Corless
I ate well for the remainder of the day, looked for crocodiles with the kids and slowly got my mind back into the game. I would finish out the mileage, complete the Coastal Challenge, but the racing was over with. I felt good about the compromise and got a sound night's sleep.

Day five was a long one for sure, but mercifully it was relatively flat, which allowed the miles to float by in a metronomic rhythm. For the first time all race, I had some space from other runners, so I sat back and enjoyed the scene. The mangroves in particular were stunning, but just as bucolic were the horses out to pasture in a beautiful valley as open as the mangroves were dense.
End Day 5 at Drakes Bay

With every passing step I was getting closer to Drake Bay, our final and perhaps most stunning location of the entire trip. I passed an ailing Carlos Sa at mile 20 or so. Carlos, like many in the race, was dealing with pretty major feet issues. Mercifully my feet had held up through the humidity, dousing and countless creek and river crossings. It could have been so much worse.

There was one final river to cross before we made our way to the finish on the beach. I sat for a while to cool my jets, then engaged the final kms of road to the beach. Popping out onto the beach at Drakes Bay, the finish line was a mere 800 meters away - no endless beach running to finish the day - thank the sweet baby Jesus.

Despite having a final day of running left to complete, there was a definite sense of accomplishment around camp that afternoon. The final day at 13 miles would be nothing more than a victory lap, a quite stunning victory lap as it turned out, with rivers, waterfalls, dogs, dirt roads, beaches, coastal singletrack and a final few hundred meters of beach running all packed in there as a punctuation point on a fantastic week.

I felt a true sense of accomplishment at the finish. The Coastal Challenge had lived up to its name and challenged me in ways I hadn't predicted it would. Each and every day was a grind, the heat and humidity were intense, and the level of competition meant that there was simply no letting off the gas. Every day was a race - until, of course, it wasn't.

I have to thank the race organizers for putting together such a stunning course and figuring out the crazy logistics that go into an event like this. Camp was ripped down every night and miraculously re-established at the next day's location, kitchen, med tents and all. The staging locations were gob-smackingly beautiful and the camaraderie around camp was flat-out fun. I was a little nervous about bringing the whole family out for this one, but the kids had an absolute blast and were truly sad to leave camp life and the warm ocean.

This one comes highly recommended, solo or en famille.

Stella was quite taken with Dr Luciano!

Photos: Ian Corless 

Photo: RestArts Studio


  1. Did UltraDog finish that stage? (It looks like he did, based on the pictures.) This sounds simply amazing - thanks for writing this up!

  2. Ultradog stopped at the last aid station on Day 3 for food and water, but picked up runners after 20 minutes or so to cover the last few miles for a total of 30 on the day. He got a big feed that night. He came on the bus to the final location and ran the last leg, before being adopted by a runner from San Jose. Happy ending for the dog, and just reward for his tenacity.

  3. Ahh, I must have checked this blog 20 times waiting to hear about your jungle running. This is just awesome. Well done.

    1. Thanks, Jer. Jungle, mountains, beach. How can you go wrong?

  4. Awesome post Nick! So incredibly inspiring. This might be besides the point, but what shoes did you wear? I worried about how my legs will feel after the AR50 this April, I couldn't imagine a stage race. Do you go for cushion over speed? Just curious.

  5. Sam, I typically choose cushion and comfort over anything else for ultras. I wore the PI N1s on the first day, then the beefier N2s for the remainder. The one time I ran AR50, I actually ran in road flats because of all the bike path, and was fine, but would probably beef up the cushion if I did it again - knees are getting old!

    1. One more question about AR50. When you ran 6 flat, do you remember what your half way split was? Trying to get a sense of how much harder the second half of the AR50 course is than the first half.

    2. I think I was 2:49/50 through the marathon (was probably in 2:35 marathon shape at the time), so 3:10 or so over the last 24 miles. That's a pretty significant slowdown: from mid sixes to high sevens, but it gets quite hilly (relatively speaking) over the second half, and I remember being surprised that the trails were more technical than I expected in places.

      Don't kill yourself on the bike path, but don't be jogging either. The second half would be quick if it was a 24-mile race, but it's tricky to hold pace in some of the choppier sections after working hard on the bike path.

  6. Always good to get in a Sir Nick post. Well done, well run.

    Curious ... you concluded the blood piss was just dehydration I guess? And you had no other after effects?

    1. George - none that I'm aware of. Second pee after major rehydration was clear, which surprised me. No pain nothing in that area. I think it was due to a really jarring decent and empty dry bladder walls rubbing.

      I was getting pretty tired toward the end there, but still moving. As soon as I saw the blood though, my brain shut things down immediately, and running was all of a sudden not an option.

  7. Great post. Fascinated to see new shoe sponsor. I am sure you get plenty of offers. Why no go old schools and don a pair of hitech silver shadows?

    1. Ha! The Silver Shadows. I wore holes in more than a few pairs of those back in the day. They don't make 'em like they used to!

  8. Hey Nick what a nice surprise to find myself in one of your pictures! I guess my wife sent it to you. Hope you and your family are doing great! embrace the space.

  9. Awesome post. What would you recommend to someone going to the 2017 Coastal Challenge? Thanks

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