Sweat dripped in a continuous stream from the front of my helmet as we trudged, feet weighed down by thick mud, up another slippery track in the stifling humidity of the Costa Rican rain forest. With already an hour of hike-a-bike behind us, I looked down at the ground beneath my feet and the imprints of the 300 pairs of SPD clad feet that had trudged up this hill before me and a sense of dejevu washed over me. This time last year: the same mud that sticks like peanut butter; the same rainforest, jungle, monkeys, altitudes up to 9000 feet, volcanoes; the same poison dart frogs, and rivers full of crocodiles – am I crazy? No, because fortunately I knew there was also the same saving grace – a finish line on a Caribbean beach with ‘muchas celebratory cervazes’. But that Caribbean beach finish was still two and a half days away, right now I was four muddy hours and 6 litres of energy drink in, and I was less than one-third of the way through day one of the 14th annual La Ruta de Los Conquistadores stage-race across Costa Rica.
The La Ruta de Los Conquistadores, the Route of the Conquistadores, is a 3-day stage race from Pacific to Atlantic Coasts of Costa Rica, covering 320kms with more than 10,000 metres of vertical ascent along the way. The race, in its 14th year in 2006, is the brainchild of Roman Urbana: “I was interested in the hardships faced by the Spanish Conquistadores when they traversed this land more than 400 years ago. I researched the route taken by the Conquistador General Juan de Caballon in his 20 year trek from Pacific Coast to Atlantic Coast. I thought it would make for an incredible challenge for mountain bikers”. He’s not wrong – the La Ruta is considered by many to be the most physically demanding of the growing number of multi-day mountain bike stage races, like the Transalp, the Transrockies, and the Cape Epic. The race attracts world class athletes from around the world, like Tinker Juarez, Thomas Frishknecht and Jermiah Bishop, as well as hopefuls from all over the world. And of course the local ‘Ticos and Ticas’, as the Costa Ricans call themselves. But Roman is clear that “the La Ruta is more than a race, because having the fitness and strength isn’t enough in these conditions. You need to have the willingness and mental toughness to carry on when you’ve got nothing left…La Ruta is a personal growth journey”. That personal growth journey part sounded a little new-age hippie to me, but maybe the Americans understood it.
2006 was my second year at La Ruta. I was returning this time with a two partners – Tony and Hunter to offer a coached and supported ‘deluxe’ La Ruta package for riders looking for the inside line on how to finish this race. Tony and I are both mountain bike guides and Hunter is a professional cycling coach. Our team of riders included U.S based professional racers, Jeremiah Bishop, who took fifth in last year’s La Ruta, and Hillary Harrison, former women’s winner of the event, and a great bunch of hardy ‘weekend warriors’ taking on the challenge of La Ruta: Walter, Joe, Henry, and Gus, and Joe’s 60 year old father, Joe Snr traveling in our support van.
Those in the know will tell you if you make it through day one of La Ruta, you have the race beat. That’s because day one is an absolute killer: about 100km, 5,500 metres of climbing, with a 2 hour hike-a-bike section through unbelievably thick mud. And for 2006 the organizers altered day one – swapping what was formerly a paved road ascent to the finish for a super steep off-road 3 hour muddy climb at the end. On paper, it looked slightly crazy…in practice, it was absolutamente loco.
It was still dark when the gun went at 5 a.m. and 400 mountain bikers charged out of the Pacific coastal town of Jaco. But all too soon we were reduced to carrying our mud weighted bikes up seemingly endless slippery tracks rollercoastering their way through the jungle. I could hear the monkeys squeaking and squawking, no doubt laughing at our utterly foolish attempt to bicycle through a jungle. With the temperature in the mid 40s and the humidity at 99%, it was absolutely stifling – by the day’s end I’d drained my 3 litre camelback five times.
After tackling the 2 hour mud- hike-a-bike section, and stopping to patch up a downed and concussed rider, we joined Tony and Joe Snr in our support van at the next feed point – a village police station and jail. Note: never, under any circumstances, use the ‘bathroom’ in a Costa Rican jail cell – take it from me that its a cultural experience you can do without! After the aid station, the newly added granny ring rollercoaster climb to the top began. For most it was another 2-3 hour push and carry section. All around us, riders were dropping out – but they were too far in and too far gone to turn around. They could only sit down and wait to be picked up by race officials on horses – the mud and super steep hills meant that not even a motorcycle, let alone a 4wd could be used to get people out. At the top, we gathered our strength and with the approaching darkness renewing our resolve, we made for the finish. After 13 hours, riding the last hour in the dark, we made it. The guys had pushed themselves to their limits and we were the last riders to cross the line – but we found out later that while we’d completed the course, something more than half the field had not, we’d missed the official cut-off and would not get official race times. We were gutted. Maybe this is what Roman meant about the race being a personal growth journey – because we had to suck it up and get ready for day two.
Apparently barely noticing the conditions, at the other end of the pack, Jeremiah came in second to Paez at 6:15, and Hillary cam in 4th woman at just over nine hours. At dinner our own disappointment was replaced by excitement for Jeremiah as we listened to his game plan for day two: being a better descender, Jeremiah planned to do everything he could to stick to Paez until the top, then take him on the huge descent down Volcano Irazu.
In contrast to the deep jungle and rain forest of day one, day two began on the outskirts of San Jose – the bustling urban capital of Costa Rica, complete with gagging diesel fumes, crazy local drivers, and our own Police escort. The destination was the highest point of the race, not far below the rim of the 3,432 metre Volcano Irazu. Not that I told the guys, but I truly hated this four hour granny ring climb (seriously) last year and I was pleased that today was my day to drive the support van with Walter and Joe Snr. After greeting our guys not far from the top with hot salted chips and hot chocolate from a local cantina, they descended more than 30km through super rough and rocky volcanic trail that lead them through little villages and finally spat them out at the finish line in the coffee plantations of the small village that is the centre of the areas coffee production. It’s a very tough descent, taking more than 2 hours for most, and leaving people totally drained at the end.
Up front Jeremiah’s plan had worked out, sticking with Paez until the top, then putting several minutes on him on the descent. Unfortunately, just five minutes from the finish, Jeremiah crashed hard. There was not one scratch on his helmet – because his face took the full impact of his 70 km/h crash. He had numerous lacerations, a broken his right cheekbone, and most disconcerting – a fractured maxilla, meaning essentially that the entire upper structure of his upper teeth, gums and palate broke free from the rest of his skull. After he had come to, and spat out his teeth, Jeremiah ignored the protests of the small crowd that had come to his aid and remounted his bike and rode the last few minutes to the finish line covered in blood – shocking the crowd and taking second place for the day in the process. Then he was sent straight to San Jose for major facial surgery. As much as we’d been on a high for Jeremiah the night before, now his race was over, and we were all feeling low. That night at dinner, one of the race leaders commented about Jeremiah’s crash “that’s racing”. Maybe so, but getting on and finishing after that crash was more than racing – that was courage.
There is no doubt that La Ruta is a race, but as most of us don’t have a shot of winning, there’s got to be more to it to make us compete. Of course, like any race its about the challenge of doing your best, but for many of us foreigners la Ruta is also about experiencing something we haven’t experienced before. Even in rural Costa Rica, some things stay the same: the teenage boys still hang around the corner shop after school, doing whatever they can to impress the girls. But then, they’ll ride home on a horse and work in banana plantations – not so familiar to us. Even less familiar is that cycling is big in Costa Rica, second only to football (the round ball that is) in popularity. The race made the national newspaper every day, and when we mentioned to the locals that we were competing in La Ruta, they would stop and talk to us about it and try to figure out if these crazy gringos were really up to finishing this toughest of races. For gringos, as well as an incredible challenge, La Ruta is also a cultural experience.
For the third and final day, we left the rain and cloud forest of the first two days behind us. Being out of the dark green and grey of the rain forest made the colours seem 10 times brighter as we rocketed down winding dirt streets, zipping past bright pastel coloured houses framed by the lush green of the tropical plants. But soon enough we faced leg burning steep gravel road climbs. The jungle seemed to close in around us on the steepest climbs, removing any hint of breeze and sucking the air from our lungs – it was like riding in a large black plastic bin-bag. Thankfully, the locals were out in force with hose pipes cooling us off on the steepest and hottest climbs. A Tico stopped beside me as I hosed myself from head to toe, suitably soaked I passed him the hose, at which point he said something in Spanish I couldn’t understand and stuffed the hose down his bike shorts. He saw my look of confusion – “My……arse……hurts” he clarified in English.
After almost 120km, and finally nearing the Caribbean Coast, we rode through pineapple, banana, and bamboo plantations, before hitting the infamous 5km long arm-pump inducing railway track section. I could tell Henry and Gus were now hanging on by the skin of their teeth – and they said as much. Right on cue, the Caribbean Sea came into view and for the first time we knew for certain that we would finish “the Costa Rican Race” as Henry now insisted we call it, not daring to utter it’s name aloud. As we crossed the line, local riders, all exhausted, some weeping, were greeted by their husbands, wives, children and parents, all in tears. The we swam in the Caribbean, basked in the satisfaction of finishing the race (well, I’d only done two of the three days this time – but still), and downed a couple of well earned cold beers. After telling and listening to various stories of the race from other riders, we drove further down the Caribbean to spend a couple of days surfing and recovering and generally soaking up the relaxed rasta vibe of the Caribbean end of Costa Rica. I’m still not exactly sure what a personal growth journey is, but I do know if you come to compete in La Ruta looking for a mountain bike race, you will find it’s a hell of a lot more than that.
Boxed: If you’re nuts enough to even think about La Ruta, and want to do it in style and with professional coaching and support, see www.peaklifeadventures.com.
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Five things you can do at La Ruta that you wont do in most other mtb races
-feed bananas to monkeys
-climb up the side of a volcano
-cross suspension bridges over rivers full of crocodiles
-swim in the Caribbean when you’re finished