If you want to experience unique wildlife, spend a week with wonderful people and run (or walk) a varied but challenging trail in a beautiful location then you have to read on.
About the race
The Coastal Challenge, now in its 12th year, is a 6-day supported stage race along Costa Rica’s south west coast, starting at Playa del Rey and finishing in Drake Bay. It weaves it’s way in and out of the coast line to take participants along a very varied route including magical beaches, dense jungle, rocky river beds, swamps, and mountain trails with stunning views over the valleys. There are plenty of very runnable dirt roads between the more technical features of the course and a couple of stretches of tarmac.
Two options are available, the Expedition category which has approximately 227km and 10,400 metres of elevation gain and the shorter Adventure category which has approximately 137km and which excludes some sections of the Expedition category. This is pretty unique as it makes the race accessible to people who might want to try a stage race but find the longer distance a bit daunting.
Every night a camp is set up at the finishing location and you can either bring your own tent or rent one from the organisation. A team of chefs cook lunch, dinner and breakfast in camp and the food is of very high quality. At every camp site there are also (simple I should add) toilets and showers available. During the run there are checkpoints in the region of every 10km and these are stocked with water, Gatorade, fresh fruit, peanuts, biscuits and sometimes potatoes with salt. Your luggage is transported every day from site to site and for running each stage all you need is a race vest or belt with plenty of water carrying capacity (due to the heat and humidity), some snacks and some first aid materials.
Now, this may make it all sound like a holiday and to some extent it is but the difficulty of this race should not be underestimated, especially not in the Expedition category. Temperatures rise to 35 to 40 degrees, humidity is high and some sections of the course are technical and or steep in nature. Rodrigo Carazo, the race director, explained that you can look at humidity in a way similar to wind chill. The higher the humidity the higher the temperature seems. A small mistake can therefore be costly and you have to monitor your body carefully so you don’t over heat or dehydrate.
The Coastal Challenge 2016
Before the race all the participants gathered in the Best Western Irazu in San Jose where the race registration was held on the Saturday, the day before the start of the race. This was a fairly relaxed affair and took only a few minutes although I don’t know how many times I signed all my rights and life away on quite a bit of paperwork. Once done and dusted we had a briefing in the evening. There were many anxious faces as we went through the rich variety of exotic wildlife we might encounter. We were also warned about the heat and humidity. At the time it was difficult to imagine because San Jose is pretty cold in comparison to the coast (if you are considering arriving early to acclimatise it will be a waste of time!).
Soon enough it became apparent why the heat might be a problem. On Sunday morning, after a 3-hour bus journey, which started at around 5:30 am, we stepped into a wall of heat and humidity before the start of Day 1. The bus had taken us as far as it could (which was probably even a bit too far on the uneven, narrow dirt road!) and the rest of the way to the start, about 2km, we had to walk. The sun was ruthless and it was almost hard to breathe. The road winded its way along a river and the noise from all the birds was almost deafening. At the side of the road there was constant movement in the trees and on the ground, leaves rattling and grass moving as we disturbed the wildlife, making our way to the beach for the start. I felt at peace here, and found this brief walk a perfect way to get into the right frame of mind. I actually looked forward to starting running in this gruelling heat and I felt reasonably well prepared having done a few heat chamber sessions before arriving in Costa Rica.
We arrived on a beautiful, white beach lined with palm trees. Just before we had to wade through a couple of puddles so the feet got wet even before the start and now our shoes got covered in sand which stuck like Here we had a bit of time to fill our water bottles and take some pre-race photos.
As we set off the top men quickly disappeared in a cloud of dust in the distance. I found myself in a group of five with Ester Alves, who was going to me my main competition here. The pace was ambitious but manageable. However, it turned out to be too ambitious on this first day for those who had not acclimatised to the heat and after a few kilometres I found that I was the only one who could keep it up and I opened a gap. We were on a flat dirt road for 15 or so km and it suited me well. Eventually we arrived to a single track through dense jungle. Here it got more challenging but it was a lot of fun. I imagined it was a taste of things to come. The stage finished with a fairly steep and somewhat technical descent on a single track down to a river. After running on the uneven stony side of the river for a few minutes (thank goodness it wasn’t longer!) we had to cross over to get to the finish. This river crossing was the start of a theme that we would see throughout the race but the cold water, reaching to waist height, was welcome in the soaring heat. I finished 1st lady with a near 8-minute lead.
The fabulous catering team, working incredibly hard throughout the week to keep us all fed at all times of the day, had already miraculously pulled together lunch and I tucked in to maximise recovery before worrying about my tent. Damian Hall had finished not so long before and we joined together in a post race review, mostly talking about the heat. The body demanded strange things and I found myself eating a sandwich with peanut butter, ham and salt, something that would never occur to me at home but here it was heavenly!
I pitched my tent in the campsite, which by now was starting to fill up and opted for a swim in the river rather than a shower. Then before long it was already dinnertime and this marked the routine for the week to come. We had dinner at around 18:30 with some of the last finishers still arriving at this time. After dinner Rodrigo held the briefing for the next day, switching effortlessly between Spanish and English. This is perhaps the first time I have heard a briefing being comprehensive and with the same detail irrespective of language. It was also very accurate, it was clear that Rodrigo knows his race into the smallest detail and the briefing always made me feel prepared for the next day. This day, just like all the following days, Rodrigo delivered the talk with a little smirk on his face, looking a bit mischievous, as if he had a surprise in store for us…
There were plenty of surprises for sure, mostly nice. Every day offered something different.
Day 2 we had two not insignificant climbs and we finished with a long section on the beach. I just managed to hang on to my lead as Ester, stronger on the descents and technical sections, managed to gain 6 minutes.
Day 3 started with a few kilometres on a dirt road, followed by about 7 kilometres inside a riverbed. Early on we had to cross the river swimming as the water was too deep to wade through. Mostly we made our way jumping from stone to stone, sometime on the dry sides of the river, sometimes wading through water. It was slippery, tough and pretty technical but a lot of fun too. The reward came in the form of the stunning Nauyaca Waterfalls.
Just before CP 2 I caught Ester up but as had happened the other days I always seemed to catch her just as we entered another technical section and I would lose her again. Here we entered a very dense jungle trail. There wasn’t even a path in places and I was balancing on fallen trees, hanging on to branches and almost wishing I had a machete. This was followed by a second riverbed and a gradual incline up to a second waterfall. It was beautiful and I took a brief moment to soak it up before entering a very steep jungle trail.
Possibly the most varied day, towards the end, after some descents on road, we passed through a swamp full of tarantula holes to enter on a beach in the shape of a wales’ tail. Halfway through the beach the direction changed and on turning the corner it was like hitting a wall of heat and humidity. It was gruelling and trying to catch Ester I pushed a bit too hard. At the end of the beach there was a small pool formed in the rocks and I stayed there a couple of minutes before continuing up a hill and to the last CP.
Here I got some water poured over my head by Javi, one of the volunteers. We now had 4km or road to go and it was very, very hot. I bent to tie my undone shoelace and as I rose I nearly fainted. Luckily I could lean on a car. One of the volunteers gave me some more water and I pulled myself together, after all I like road running, or so I tried to tell myself. I remember thinking on this road section: “I am ready for Badwater”. Finishing was bliss. In camp I caught up with Chema Martinez who, like me, is a better runner on non-technical terrain. We discussed the differences between Marathon des Sables and TCC and concluded that the TCC is more difficult, at least for us.
Day 4 started with a 7.5 km climb, which went from dirt road to jungle trail. When we finally reached the top we found ourselves continuing to climb and descend relentlessly on undulating dirt roads and jungle tracks before the final descent which was around 7km, steep and in places technical. This was one part of the race I did not particularly enjoy and I lost a lot of time here. On the descent, which probably took longer than most people anticipated, I passed a runner from the Adventure category who had ran out of water. He was sitting by the roadside, sheltered under some trees. We had been advised that today we needed to take a lot of water at the last CP, 15km from the finish, to get to the end. He asked if I had any spare water. I wasn’t sure I had enough myself but I couldn’t leave someone without water. I looked at my watch and predicted we had about 3km to go. I gave him half my water and moved on. I then turned a corner and came out from the shelter of the trees. Boom! The heat was like a slap in the face. I hadn’t anticipated this. There was a race patrol car and I asked them how far to the finish. They said 4km. This was not good. Less water than I needed, longer to the finish than I thought it would be and much hotter than it had been all day. I was seriously worried now and didn’t think I would make it but all I could do was move forward and ration my water. Then, after another 500 metres or so (I had to rub my eyes to make sure it was real), there was an impromptu checkpoint. A surprise. Mario, the medic, was happy to see I still had the flower in my hair that he had put in at CP 2 earlier in the day. I was happy to see water and instantly felt in better spirits. I drank some Gatorade, ate some fruit and set off on the last journey. However, I was now told it was about 4km to go from here.
The descents were still punishing but soon I entered a town and could stretch my legs out on the flat tarmac. I had to keep pouring water on my head due to the heat and I ran out again. I was probably a bit confused because I had misread my Garmin and it was one km longer than I thought to the finish. It may not seem so bad to run for a kilometre without water but trust me, in these conditions it is not good as your core temperature quickly rises to dangerous levels. When I finally finished I collapsed on a camp bed and was very happy see water. Others had suffered badly today as I found out later. From the finish we were driven to camp, which was located about 15 minutes away. I pitched my tent at safe distance from the river, which apparently was full of crocodiles. Ants seemed to be everywhere so keeping the kit off the ground was a priority here. Like all other nights I struggled to sleep. The heat and humidity made it hard. My tent was single layer and didn’t have enough ventilation so condensation built up instantly. Most nights I slept with the door open and prayed insect repellent around the opening. This worked but it would have been much better to just have an inner tent.
Day 5 we had an early start. We got on a bus and then crossed a river on a platform to our start location. I had an upset tummy and had to take it easy. I felt weak and it wasn’t until 25 to 30 km I actually started to feel good and could run well. This was the longest stage both in time and distance. I predicted early on that it would take me about 7:30 hours and I wasn’t far wrong finishing in 7:42. This stage was varied again with a lot of dirt road but also a lot of jungle. Ester got lost and I caught her up twice. The second time we were only 6km from the finish (although we thought I was 4km) and we decided to run it in together as she had too much of a lead overall for me to be able to do anything. It was nice to chat about things and have some company on this last but which was very hot and tough to run. We both ran out of water and arriving in the beautiful Drake Bay was really something. We were now on the Osa Peninsula which holds 3 per cent of the biodiversity of the entire planet!
Now we only had a short 23km stage left for Day 6. About 10 of us ran this together as a group, waiting for each other and taking time to bathe in the rivers we crossed. We finished holding hands and it really reflects the fantastic atmosphere and camaraderie of The Coastal Challenge. The rest of the day and night we spent swimming, chatting, eating, drinking and doing the prize giving ceremony.
The following morning we returned to San Jose. The first part of the journey was spectacular as we went on speedboats passing mangrove and trying to spot crocodiles. We then transitioned to bus for a few hours. It felt cold coming back to San Jose! What was hot in the beginning had now become normal. Nevertheless it was nice to have a proper bath and shower. Most people stayed a night before heading home on the Sunday. I felt sad to go from this magical place. What a week! Hard running for sure, but great camp life and overall a fantastic experience. I liked it so much I am going back next year. Are you coming?
A kit list for this event will follow in due course, keep your eyes peeled.
To sign up from the UK, Ireland or South Africa, go to http://www.thecoastalchallenge.co.uk