Adventure Racing World Championships
It was back at the beginning of the year when Christine’s old school friend Wendy suggested that we’d be ideal partners for her and her husband in an adventure race somewhere. It was something they had dabbled in before and, admittedly, it did sound like fun.
I had heard about adventure racing before, knowing that events were multi-sport, multi-day races encompassing all sorts of heroic-sounding activities but I had largely thought of them as being aimed at the testosterone-deluged readers of FHM and Men’s Health with frequent phrases like awesome and the toughest races on the planet prompting me to turn the page.
However, it was with Wendy’s gentle persistence that the work / kids / money excuses gradually sounded unfounded and we found ourselves featuring on the start list of the biggest adventure race in the calendar. And she decided, in the absence of any sponsor, that our team name should be Peaklife Sport.
As complete novices to this, and most likely way out of our depth, some tentative research was done as the months went by and I found the idea of something so out of the ordinary gaining appeal with every new thing I read, not least that it was in Costa Rica.
I knew very little about the place, only that it was somewhere in Central America and the home of Derby County’s erstwhile striker Paulo Wanchope, but information about this little country abounds with superlatives and praise for its nature and straightforward attitude to life. And how right it all turned out to be.
We gradually learned that the race over 9 days would include disciplines in running, trekking, mountain biking, kayaking, orienteering, climbing and ropework and that clock would start at 2pm on the 2nd of December and stop as teams completed the entire course. So sleep was optional.
Now, a few things about Costa Rica. It lies between 8 and 10 degrees north of the equator, has a generally damp and hot climate with a distinct rainy season, has a highest peak of over 12,000 feet, is in touch with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Atlantic Ocean or Caribbean Sea on the other and is one of the better developed countries in that part of the world. It borders Panama to its south and Nicaragua to its north, dissolved its army in 1953 after a brief civil war five years earlier, is a major producer of fruit and coffee, and the population – the Ticos –are mostly of Spanish descent. The biodiversity is enough to have David Attenborough going weak at the knees and tourism nowadays provides a large part of the country’s revenue. Swimming with dolphins is illegal and the traditional food is a dish of rice and pinto beans.
Anyway, back to the preparation for the trip. We hoped that our normal training would stand us in good stead for the physical trauma we were likely to encounter although we expected the kayaking might be an eye-opener seeing as the course was to include over 200 km if paddling. We also knew the climbing was not going to be technical and, as it turned out, was virtually non-existent. The mandatory kit list was fairly straightforward with the procurement of some of the items we didn’t already have being easy, and come 28th November we were ready to go.
It was a fair old job getting there on a budget via Amsterdam and Panama City but we arrived at San Jose airport that evening and were taken to the race HQ hotel where we met our team. As already mentioned, Chris and Wendy go back to their childhood but don’t see much of each other since Wendy moved out to Norway in her early 20s where she met and married Jo Inge Fjellstad. Jo Inge is a versatile sort of athlete and a very good orienteer with a good problem-solving maths and science teacher’s brain. Speaking good English, there was never going to be any problem language-wise although it did leave the option open to him and Wendy to curse us in Norwegian with neither Chris nor I having a clue what they were on about.
Waking up with the 5.30 dawn had me gazing through the window at a sample to avian life which included flocks of parakeets and, throughout the trip, this diverse collection of birdlife had me captivated. The morning gave us the opportunity to go shopping for race supplies: granola bars; cheese; tinned milk; granola bars; nuts; granola bars, then the rest of the day was dedicated to slow thinking. What might we need when? What should go in which supply box which would be delivered to transition areas? Faffing formed a large part of that day. Parkinson’s Law at its very worst.
The next day was not dissimilar, except the official race briefing took place which included the disclosure of the route, doling out of first aid kits complete with super strength ibuprofen, advice on the search and rescue back-up and the fascinating snake talk. A guy in a lab coat had brought some pets along, backed by a presentation on what to look out for on a venomous viper or coral snake and the bottom line advice that, should you get bitten by a snake, your race was effectively over if you were keen to continue with your life as you know it. No mention of crocodiles though.
The evening included the parade of competitors through the streets of San Jose – a scruffy little city if ever there was one – culminating in a gathering outside the city hall and dull speeches by dignitaries. You know what a dignitary with a microphone is like and it seemed that they were big on pushing the fact that tourism is their biggest asset which was odd seeing as we were already within their clutches. We endured it for the sake of what was a very nice meal to round the proceedings off before another early night.
Sunday morning was the final prepping session and, with everything loaded onto the fleet of wagons which were to cart all the clobber to where it needed to be, the afternoon was set aside for a working party. I suppose around 250 athletes can be put to quite effective use given a simple task, and it was a few hours spent at a nearby community park project which had us weeding, raking, painting and scrubbing. Whether the place looked any tidier for our efforts I don’t know, but it helped with a bit of international bonding and took everybody’s mind off what was to come.
By now, everyone was itching to get on with the race. The best route allegedly ran over 815 km split roughly between half of it on the bike, the two other quarters on foot or in kayaks and with a few kms of other bits and bobs. So the 4am start to catch the buses to the start had a lively feel and by midday we were at the Panamanian border under a blazing sun ready for anything.
The start was a 1500m Le Mans style run to T1 which was where our bikes had been left. Nothing so simple here as setting things up in transition ready to be grabbed. Each involved having to assemble the bikes from their boxes, a task we were to repeat a number of times over the next few days. It was odd really how the rush to fix the bikes together should matter over such a long course but the pressure was on, the crowds were out and getting in the saddle was the priority.
“Has everyone finished with the butt butter?” an American voice rang out from nearby.
So, off we chased along various dirt roads and narrow tracks along the border all afternoon with dusk falling around 5.30. Mist formed in the lush mountain valleys and we were then at the mercy of our torches and lamps for the next twelve hours, bumping along typical Costa Rican dirt roads and following maps which were not looking particularly helpful at times. What was shown as a road may have been anything from a wide obvious track easily capable of accommodating passing vehicles to a narrow gully through which we could barely squeeze the bikes. The clay ground and the drizzle just added to the toil, taking us up and up the mountains on routes which had never seen a mountain bike before. In fact, there were times when the sense of humour was severely tested at this early stage as we plunged on into the night.
On we went through mud, crossing any obstacle we met, at times having to almost guess whether the maps were reflecting what was on the ground and trying to get used to interpreting the Costa Rican country code. As a shift worker for 19 years I was happy that we’d have no problem functioning throughout that first night without sleep, but I was expecting to discover some interesting things about cumulative fatigue as the week went on. We perked up as we experienced a couple of final miles of tarmac as the end of this 95km stage arrived just as the sky was lightening and, at the most southerly part of the course, we entered T1 and packed away the bikes. The only stipulation was that the wheels and pedals had to be removed and they had to fit in the boxes. As we had borrowed some fairly compact ones that meant us removing the handlebars and rear mech too – something else I’d do differently would be to have a more spacious box.
One of the big concerns for everyone was foot care. Going for a run may bring about the occasional blister but having continuously wet feet for days on end would leave the way clear for a host of additional problems. Wrinkly wet skin is very weak and easily damaged and is a breeding ground for bacteria so we were keen to apply liberal coatings of barrier cream when the chance arose. And whenever the feet were not required for standing on, allowing the air to circulate was vitally important so most of the kayaking was done barefoot.
So, on with our first kayaking stage. These were brand new inflatable tandems. Pumping them up was a 10 minute task but we got on with it efficiently, sorted out the kit we’d need from our first box and were soon off down the Rio Coto Colorado heading for the Golfo Dulce, a large bay off the Pacific coast. This stage was going to be 65k of paddling and all was well to begin with. The world seen from river level is great for wildlife spotting and Central America’s jewels were gradually being revealed to us.
As the river began opening out into the bay we were to look for a saltwater channel in which the next checkpoint was located. We found that alright but here was our first reference to the tide charts we had been given. The low tide had left the channel like a narrow stream, knee-deep mud on either side, and with no chance of paddling through to our checkpoint until more water flowed in. So we made the best of it and paddled on until we became grounded where a couple of other teams were sitting it out. The prospect of a long wait was a frustration we could all do without and so we opted for the bold move of hauling the kayaks along the muddy bank past the other teams and on to the checkpoint. It was arduous stuff and took us a good half hour or more but we saw some of the cutest little crabs ever. Thousands of them in cream and orange, scuttling up and down the banks and tree trunks keeping a smile on my face as we toiled away. However, our hard work paid off: there was the checkpoint at a point the water was beginning to flow back out into the gulf and it wasn’t long before we began paddling again in a few inches of water and on towards Pelican Island where our next checkpoint was to be found.
Wendy and Jo Inge had invested in a couple of Kayak sails. These were very simple nylon circles with one of those pop-up style frames designed to help capitalise on a tail wind. Crossing to the island gave time to have a quick play with them but conditions were not suitable just then so paddling continued to be our favoured method of propulsion. As we reached the island, as if on cue for the sake of us tourists, along flew the eponymous pelican as if to check out the approaching invaders. A magnificent bird if a little ugly.
After a brief moment ashore to punch our control card at the checkpoint were set off for an afternoon of paddling across the bay. Costa Rica’s coast really is beautiful and for hours we had the ocean expanse to our left and the land stacking up to our right. Our freshwater supply was getting a little low by then so we pulled up below a house upon the cliffs and marched off up a long flight of steps to see what we could find. It was all Costa Rican hospitality here – a little family home full of smiling faces more than happy to fill the bottles of some complete strangers. This was the first of many similar welcomes we received throughout the race.
As evening began to fall we decided that we should treat ourselves to a bit of sleep. We’d been on the go for about 28 hours when we reached the top end of the bay and set ashore for the next checkpoint. This was at a part-built place where a few young lads invited us in to partake in a plate of rice and beans and a glass of juice before offering us a couple of mattresses. We were quick to take them up on it and set our alarm for 10pm, thus giving ourselves about 3 and a half hours.
The alarm came too soon and we sprung to life again and returned to our kayaks for the remainder of the stage. This was to take us the rest of the night and as we paddled on – me in the back of boat 2 – a whole new nocturnal world surrounded us. Most remarkable were the flying fish leaping around us. Apparently, what causes them to jump is the presence of a threat so they clearly viewed us somewhat suspiciously. With the back of Wendy and Jo Inge’s boat being the essential thing to concentrate on it was quite difficult at times to remain fully conscious despite the luxury of the sleep we’d had earlier, but as with the night before, we reached the transition area just as the day dawned.
What was to become the familiar drill of deflating and packing the kayak was carried out and we prepared to embark on our first trekking section. This was to be for 27k but, just to make life difficult, we had to carry all our kayaking gear except the boats nosubhealth.com themselves. That meant paddles, buoyancy aids, sails, etc, so off we set under what was already a very hot sun at 7am along some dirt roads in the direction of DrakeBay. This is named after that state-sponsored Elizabethan pirate Sir Francis who is reputed to have moored his Golden Hind here whilst seeing what he could do for international development.
The feet had not had too much hammer up until this point but I could soon see what was coming as we started fording small rivers across the roads. This constant moisture was going to have to be closely monitored and respected as it was a constant spectre waiting to cripple us. We romped on at a fair pace knowing that the trek sections would be our strongest points and soon began some serious head scratching as we tried making the maps fit the very obvious road we were travelling. Now, whether it’s because the country’s been without a military for 60-odd years I don’t know, but their maps seemed hopelessly out of date. We passed through a well established village with a shop, school and football field with not so much as a speck on the map to betray its existence. This was a hint of greater problems to come.
We did, however, see some glorious birds as we marched on: scarlet macaws; parakeets; tanagers (had to look that one up); hawks galore, and a fair number of Costa Rica’s iconic morph butterfly – an iridescent blue beauty the size of your hand.
Something else which became evident on this stage was that Costa Rican roads tend to be steep. If there is a hill to be climbed there’s none of this winding back and forth to take the sting out of the gradient. It’s no-nonsense straight up and down stuff, usually with an absence of tarmac, leading to the locals’ vehicles of choice being the motorbike or 4x4.
So we reached the end of the trek at DrakeBay and prepared for the next bit. This was where things took a strange twist for many teams, including us. We had 10k to do with the kayaks in the absence of water – portaging, they call it – which presumably attempts to replicate true adventuring. We needed to put into the water in some small river off the beaten track and, had we been true pioneers searching out uncharted territory or maybe searching for the source of some mythical river, then portaging would be a necessary part. As it turned out, this was just another way of inflicting pain on us.
Carrying a rucksack, kayak and associated equipment is, by definition, awkward especially over 10k and a hilly and rough one at that during a scorching afternoon. We knew it was on the cards prior to the event and had taken a collection of straps with the idea of fashioning the kayaks into backpack-shaped bundles in their deflated state but things were looking tricky. At 30kg a piece the “mules” would need a short stop every few hundred yards to complete the task so we tried a 2-man carry technique using the straps to begin with. Within a couple of hundred yards it was clear that that was not the answer either. Then, inspired, I thought about using the paddles as a chassis on which to sit the rest of the kit. Fortunately, the paddles appeared up to the task and we were soon bearing our loads stretcher-style feeling very smug about how easy it was after all. A pair of capuchin monkeys nipping across the path behind us like a pair of mischievous schoolkids lifted the spirits a bit more (these are another of Costa Rica’s cutest natives).
We had decided there would be no heroics on this stage, just a measured march for no more than two minutes at a time with regular and frequent rests to allow the arms and hands to recover and to take water on board. Things were going well. We had seen other teams with little trolleys on board and I positively rejoiced that the track was stoney, narrow and steep at times and completely unsuitable for 8-inch solid wheels. Our first toucan was spotted along here which was a glorious sight as it danced around in the branches above us and the views out to sea would have graced any travel brochure. There were loads of leafcutter ants too along this track, those empty-handed ones going one way in a line and the others bearing their pieces of leaf the other. It seemed we weren't the only ones doing a lot of carrying.
(Jo Inge is actually just standing up after a quick sit down rest, nothing else!)
Then things began to hurt. The hands were getting sore, the forearms weak, the wet feet were developing hotspots and the sun kept beating down. But we seemed to be keeping up a good, if slow, pace and that was encouraging until our map began to tell us lies again. We were following the only obvious track to be seen which had had no junctions whatsoever but the topography we could see wasn’t matching the contours. There seemed to be no alternative to continuing and eventually we came upon a small farming community which we vaguely made fit the map. We weren’t happy though. We seemed to have been sent a long way round with no sign of the more direct track anywhere. An amazing tasting coconut from a lady at a farm momentarily numbed the pain developing in my damp shoes but, by then, some of the opposition rolled by with their kayak on a trolley as the track surface improved. And a final confusion with the map ensured we were up the wrong track as darkness fell to the sound of a contented woodpecker enjoying its supper from the tree above us as we sat down for a think.
We back-tracked. Following what might have once been a road across a swampy field we were now following footprints until we happened upon a little river swarming with mosquitoes feeling miserable as sin, or at least I was. Jo Inge seemed to be confident the checkpoint should be nearby and set off to scour the landscape, demonstrating his strong competitive instinct as we, and a couple of other teams who appeared similarly confused by the maps, set about pumping the kayaks up again. A sleep would have been lovely but there was no way anyone wanted to be eaten alive in that environment of blood-suckers and we loaded up and paddled off in search of the elusive orange and white checkpoint kite. Remarkably, once on the water we spotted it almost immediately, kept quiet, punched the control card and paddled off seaward hoping for an advantage over those still up there.
Down to the sea we went by the light of our headtorches. This next stage of 65k was to involve a labyrinth of channels within a mangrove forest where the checkpoints could be taken in any order where tactics would be dependent on the tides again.
We reached the estuary easily enough and headed off into another which we hoped would lead us to a system of narrower channels. It looked a doddle on the map and we made contented progress into the early part of the night. There was no moon to help us though and a complete absence of ambient light left us straining to pick out anything to navigate by. That was when we ran into sand. And more sand. It was low tide and each way we tried to go ran us into a sandbank. Time for that sleep then which we were all craving. We dragged the kayaks onto a sandbank, checking we weren’t sharing it with any crocodiles, and, like Noah, waited for the waters to rise.
It’s surprising how comfortable a blow-up boat can be when you’re tired enough and as I marvelled at the blackness of the sky and the intensity of the millions of stars I drifted off to sleep in no time remembering how Orion seemed almost lost amongst so many other stars.
We were soon floating again. It’s a good job Wendy was switched on to the boats moving. Had it been left to me I’d have probably slept for a few more hours as we drifted out to sea. Off we set again up into the forest.
It was no mean feat trying to keep track of our progress on the map when we could see nothing more than our torches could pick out and we thought we were doing quite well as we enjoyed the help from the rising tide into the depths of this strange and eerie landscape. The channel we were in appeared to be the right one and then we came upon one of the most surreal scenes I have ever encountered. As our torches scanned around we were met by what looked like a scene from a disaster movie. The one in Titanic where the victims are floating dead in the water sprung to my mind as we reached a blockage caused by a number of teams which had run into the mud and were waiting for the tide again. Most were asleep, pallid and, quite frankly, looking like the proceeds of grave robberies so it seemed we had only one choice – to join them.
We moored up again and dozed only to be woken by the sounds of a mass dispersal. I don’t think anyone knew any better than us where they were going and, now filling with water, the forest was taking on a menacing form. We mooched off wondering how to interpret this tangle of branches and roots and getting no further than a few yards at a time before coming up against something impossible to penetrate. The occasional opening might present itself which we’d then explore, only to be disappointed within a few seconds as the dense mangroves held us to ransom.
A botanist may tell you what a remarkable plant a mangrove tree is. It can thrive in brine and filter out salt and spread like a weed given half a chance, dropping its newly formed roots from above into the water to dominate the earth. Find me a botanist who has been in our situation that night and see if they still have the same opinion. We were stuck. Lost. The forest had us and was winning. No matter where we turned, which gap we went through or imaginary channel we tried to follow, we were getting nowhere. And we weren’t the only ones. The fact that we could see headtorches within spitting distance but unable to get round to them made us think we were going to perish in there. The water was still amongst the branches, roots and trunks of these evil trees with no sign of these channels that would lead us back to the safety we craved. It felt desperate and the time came after 2 or 3 hours when we decided that our only option was to moor up and wait for daylight. We had gone beyond being able to make reasoned navigational decisions and tied ourselves to a tree and slept for the third time that night.
It couldn’t have been for long. The day began to break – Thursday, I believe it was – and we set about it with slightly clearer minds. A team of Americans we had seen in the dark had their kayaks out of the water mangled up amongst the woodwork of the mangroves and appeared to be taking the hardest route they could through a blockage. It didn’t feel right to pay them much attention though as we carefully began our escape strategy.
If we were to head south at every opportunity then we ought to reach a navigable channel, hopefully the one by which we had found ourselves in such a fix. Then, amazingly enough, we found flowing water. The tide was on its way out and the landscape was draining away and revealing those channels which had become swamped at high tide.
It was time to take stock. Having worked out where we were to within a couple of kilometres we looked at what we had to get us through this section. We hadn’t appreciated in our planning that these map features, which looked like rivers, were actually tidal seawater channels, and we were down to our last couple of bottles of water. There was no way we would be able to get through this maze to the end of the section with only that. Our clever filter bottles we had wisely invested in only filtered out general muck and bacteria, not salt, so we needed to make an important decision. If we paddled back down to the estuary with the falling tide we could then take the long way round a large headland and approach the elusive checkpoint 14 from the opposite side. We’d have the chance to get some water somewhere and improve our chances of actually finding it by this more obvious approach which didn’t look dependant on tides either.
So away we went, passing over the submerged sandbanks we’d become trapped amongst only a few hours earlier and went ashore by a little farmhouse to see about filling our bottles and we were no disappointed. The Costa Rican welcome was everything we were coming to expect from this nation of beautiful people. We were gestured through to this family’s simple kitchen and were once again ready to continue.
We headed out to the ocean and our lumbering kayaks were suddenly subjected to some rather different conditions. Whilst the inflatable variety is not fast – 4 or 5 kph flat out – it is very stable and we were soon being churned up and down as we admired the postcard-pretty tropical coastline from amongst the swell. Pretty, because there are no roads leading to that part of the coast and humans haven’t populated it with commercial detritus.
As the hours passed we passed small rocky islands which were home to thousands of birds, and making our way back towards the shore to our intended estuary we had the challenge of some surf. It was good fun looking back, but the wave which flipped Jo Inge and Wendy into the drink was perhaps something we could have done without. Jo Inge’s maps and watch parted company with him, never to be seen again. Well, perhaps they may be found by some seafarer in years to come who will doubtless think it is from some faraway land, bearing little resemblance to south-west Costa Rica!
We reached the shore and took a well-deserved break for half an hour before embarking on the task of locating CP 14. We paddled upstream on a rising tide expecting at least a couple more kms when, suddenly, there it was. Hanging from a tree, way too high to reach at a low tide. Jo Inge’s super-hero leap from the kayak saw him submerged for a second time in as many hours with the kite, untouched, laughing at him from above. Anyway, with a bit of careful manoeuvring, stretching and luck the control card was triumphantly punched.
Later conversations with other teams revealed that CP 14 was indeed the jinxed control. Many teams hadn’t found it and had given up on it altogether, some had found it unexpectedly via channels they didn’t realise they were in and a couple of others had taken the long way round like us adding hours to their time but at least finding it.
The remaining checkpoints in this area were rather simpler to find, leading to a long afternoon’s paddling under the sun and we made good progress until dark.
We were then back in that inky blackness with a few miles still to go and a less-than-straightforward network of channels to negotiate, and as the night progressed things became much less obvious. So much so that we reached an unexpected dead-end and our problems started again. Frustration began creeping in as Jo Inge and I tried to fathom the flow of the water with the direction of the channels and the times of the tides but it seemed hopeless again. The ladies, to their credit, patiently let us get on with trying to solve our conundrum but we were getting nowhere. After what seemed like hours again, we decided some daylight might help so we moored up against a mangrove on a sandbank for some much needed kip. I had seen a large snake up the bank as we were pulling in but really couldn’t drum up sufficient concern for it and just made sure my legs were propped up on the opposite side of the kayak as I dropped to sleep.
I don’t know what time it was by then or how long we slept for as my watch strap had broken and was somewhere in my bag, but I remember suddenly being brought round by a commotion and seeing lights a short distance away through a mist which had enveloped us. It was another team and the water was flowing fast. The tide must have turned and we hurriedly untied and paddled off frantically trying to keep the lights in sight. We really didn’t care if they knew the way or not but it seemed better than the situation we were in. It was a fair shock to the system too, perhaps like a soldier waking up as a skirmish breaks out around him, but we sprinted on until they seemed to ease off the pace and we managed to speak to them. French they were, and reckoned to know where they were and, as we looked at the map, it was as if it should have been obvious all along. We were somewhere near where the next control should have been but, again, it was playing hard to get.
After a good half hour of scouring the edges of the channel Wendy’s eagle eye eventually spotted it under the water. Another quirk of the tides.
As daylight broke and Friday came to life we pulled up to reassess what was left to be done. A fairly straightforward couple of hours paddling should see us at the next transition at a town call Sierpe which would be the first settlement of note since Drake’s Bay two days earlier.
We paddled into Sierpe with barely open eyes and treated ourselves to the luxury of some soap under a hosepipe and then set about packing the kayaks away again. The bikes then needed unpacking and washing in the river to clear some of the thick mud which had caked itself around various moving parts since the last time we saw them. We even availed ourselves of a plate of fruit, rice, beans, eggs and bread at a little café beside the transition area which went down a treat, me looking like Oliver Twist as I sat down before the rest and devoured the plateful in seconds.
Quite honestly, we thought then that we had seen the last of the kayaks. There was another stage later on but we knew there was a cut-off a week into the race (Monday, 2pm) at the end of the long mountain trek which was due to follow the next mountain bike section. Our time spent lost, grounded or taking diversions had cost us a lot and we didn’t expect to make the cut-off in three days time. But we felt relaxed about that and heartened to hear that many teams had not persevered like we had and, even if they were ahead of us on the ground at that time, would not be ahead of us on the final score sheet due to a missed control.
So with the kayaks in the bags, a fully belly and another sunny day developing we headed northwards on our bikes. The next few sections would take us inland and up over the country’s central mountain range before descending to the Caribbean and it was not long before we were climbing. That was after we’d had a ferry crossing over a river followed by a ride through a small town where a young local lad wasn’t observing his green cross code and rode his bike out of his yard straight into me. I saw him coming, but too late to avoid him, and I confess the thought instantly flashed through my mind that I had put a lot into this expedition so far and was not going to come off worst. And I didn’t. He bounced off me quite nicely actually but it did leave me feeling a bit guilty that I could have hurt him. A quick pat on his head and a thumbs up from him and I realised he was OK. Hopefully it’ll have taught him a lesson and that heartens me sufficiently to ease my conscience.
Something I found out later from a Canadian team was that they had an incident in that same town too, this time with a motorcyclist. One of theirs was involved in a collision for which their team member accepted responsibility and coughed up 200 dollars on the spot. Not only that, but his carbon frame was damaged too with a split running down the down tube and another along the chain stay. They ended up finding a hardware shop, buying some thin metal sheeting, jubilee clips and some gaffer tape and doing the best they could to fix it. It worked for a while and I’ll return to that story later.
When the climbing began it was one of those proper hills I mentioned earlier which took hours to push the bikes up. The developing views were stunning though, and even the mangrove forests looked nice from a distance. It was up here somewhere that we were due to ride the Superman zip line as a novelty thrown in by the organisers. This is billed as Central America’s longest and fastest at 2k and 120 kph but you’d never know it was there. There were no signs to betray its location and we reached it to find that it was an anonymous shack clinging to the side of a valley with some wire disappearing off into the mist. Unfortunately, this which we had been looking forward to so much had been abandoned since the day before for a number of reasons including half asleep staff, half asleep competitors and an injury caused by a mid-flight run-in with a tree. In its place was two hours on our race clock – not half the fun!
By that afternoon we were well into the mountains with all our slogging uphill being rewarded with some very technical downhill riding. These were steep, loose and pretty exhilarating, unless your name’s Christine and you’re terrified of them. So progress wasn’t as fast as it might have been but we pressed ahead and dropped into a system of valleys as the sun left us to our nocturnal fate. We found the maps to be, yet again, inaccurate as we attempted to find our way through little villages and found that asking the local kids the way to the next place was as reliable as trying to interpret this comedy cartography. Anyway, we decided a proper sleep for four hours should be taken that night and we arrived at a little village called Zapote where a family were enjoying an evening in their front garden. The usual Tico wave, smile and cheer of encouragement came our way and the thought occurred that their covered yard at the side of their little house might be a suitable place to lay our heads. A bit of sign language and the gentleman was laying a tarpaulin out on the ground for us. Wonderful! We acquainted ourselves with his yapping terriers and bedded down on the hard ground hoping that our fatigue would be enough to allow us some refreshing slumber but his dogs had other ideas. So did his neighbour’s dog. And another down the street. In fact, every time one of us stirred the canine chorus started up. During those four hours it felt like I had about an hour’s worth.
So it was a relief really to be setting off again to pedal for the rest of the night. It started well for the time the map made sense but, yet again, it all went to pot as we continued into the small hours. The night was still as black as coal and anything beyond the beams of our torches was a mystery. Yes, we were struggling again, spending more time pondering the map than pedalling and we decided a lie down at the roadside until dawn was the only answer. Dawn was only an hour away so we crashed out and woke to the most splendid scenery we had been totally unaware of only an hour before. The view was across to Cerra Chirippo – Costa Rica’s highest peak – and for the next couple of hours we fiddled about trying to make the map fit the ground and eventually, with the help of the sign on an early morning bus, worked out where we were.
We descended another roller coaster road, stopping to admire a toucan as we grovelled up a short steep slope, and eventually reached a checkpoint at a river crossing. This one had no bridge so it was a case of getting wet again, but the thigh deep water did at least rinse some of the clay from the bikes.
The remainder of the stage went through more civilisation than we had encountered in the previous four days put together and we eventually reached the next transition area in the foothills of Cerra Chirippo at midday. A group of supporters with a tray full of water melon slices and a pot of coffee had been a very welcome sight and it was during a conversation with one of them that we learned the race maps were at least 35 years old. That explained a lot.
Here, every team was to have a mandatory four hour stop. It was a little village called San Gerardo and we were given the news that there had been a change of plan. As the next stage was a long trek over the peak and close on 100km in length there was no way we were going to make it in the 46 hours left before the cut-off. The leading teams had taken close on 70 hours and 6 teams eventually required either rescue or guidance due to navigational difficulties. Those maps again. So we were to languish around until the following day when we would be taken to the end of that stage where we would all be set off again to, hopefully, complete the rest of the course. We would be in a different classification to those who had set off on the long trek but the issue was out of our hands and we had to make the most of the situation we were in.
Whilst one part of me felt a sense of relief that we could spend a day recovering and getting some sleep, another felt guilt and disappointment. We were not going to take on the country’s highest ground and, with our notable strength being our speed on foot as we had seen on the first trek, we were going to be losing our joker, so to speak. Nevertheless, the job in hand was now to maximise our recovery opportunity and the first thing was to fill our stomachs and visit the medics. A huge plate of chow mien at the canteen of the leisure centre which was our temporary base did the trick after a clean up and foot inspection. The weakened marinaded skin on the soles of my feet had begun to blister and a benevolent nurse suggested iodine should do the trick in preventing anything nasty taking root in there. Of course, said I, go ahead, and some brown liquid was prepared for introduction into the blisters via a syringe. Now, I’ve seen those war films where a wounded soldier pours iodine onto his bullet holes and screams in agony and presumed it was all for cinematic effect. Well, if a little blister’s worth can cause such an intense burning sensation then I can now sympathise with those poor war heroes, even if those on the screen are just using cold tea.
Evening soon came and the suggestion of a beer was too much to resist, so putting any sense of guilt aside, we enjoyed a bottle from what seems to be Costa Rica’s only brewery – Imperial – and went to sleep on the floor of the leisure centre. Not very luxurious but sleep came easily. I reckoned that in the five full days the race had been running we had totalled about 8 hours in the land of nod so Sunday morning came and I felt like a new man.
Taking us round the mountain was a long bus journey taking most of the day and we eventually decamped shortly before nightfall with instructions to be ready to set off at 6.30am. We pitched our tents which had been intended for the trek on a football pitch, treated ourselves to another beer seeing as it was Jo Inge’s birthday, prepared our kit for an early start and slept again.
Once up the next morning, which was Monday, we trekked off down to the Pacuare River feeling good again. Next we were to go on a river raft which would take 3 to 4 hours depending on how fast we paddled. As there were about 20 teams in a similar position to us we had to share our boat with half another team – a Brazilian couple – and, with a handsome and charming young man as our guide who Wendy and Chris seemed quite taken by, we enjoyed a white water experience down a beautiful churning river which seemed like Paradise. However, as the river subdued we reached the next transition and it was out with the pump again to prepare those kayaks we thought we had seen the last of three days earlier.
89 km this section was going to be, down to the Caribbean coast and along a canal running parallel to the shore linking a series of lagoons. It made for a pleasant afternoon as we seemed to pass along a river the world appeared to have forgotten. It was incredibly peaceful and as dusk approached the birds in their thousands could be seen making their journeys home. Variations on our herons, bitterns, ducks, kingfishers and many with no apparent British cousins filled the sky and the trees and some more Capuchin monkeys were seen in the trees. There were kids too playing on the river banks and some threw us a couple of large papayas, wishing us well as we went. One of these made for an instant treat and the other was put aside for later.
As it went dark we reached the canal. We had some moonlight that night and we paddled along quite comfortably without the need for much torchlight. But a scan of the canal edges with a headtorch soon showed us why this of water had a 3-croc rating on our tide chart. Pairs of red eyes reflected back from under the vegetation and the odd glimpse of a long mandible confirmed that we were better weeing over the side of our kayaks than venturing ashore. Not that they generally eat people for the sake of it, you understand. After all, none of us are as daft as Steve Irwin and were never in danger of meeting an end as sticky as his.
We did pull up once for a brief lie down on a jetty after a few hours of paddling, but other than that we continued through the night making better progress than most of the teams we had set off with at the beginning of the day. As we reached our weariest we arrived at the checkpoint within the grounds of a fancy resort with the control being on the Caribbean beach. We allowed ourselves a stop and our second papaya along with a tin of condensed milk I had had the foresight to buy, and it was heavenly. We were looking rough again and a kind Tico lady brought us some coffee and biscuits as we listened to the dawn chorus of the howler monkeys. Whilst these are the largest of the New World primates, they are still only little chaps really but have the voices of King Kong. Their basso profundo calls resonate through the forests for miles and would have had us quaking had our coffee lady not told us what they were.
Refreshed, we were back on the water again for a final stint inland and up river for a couple more hours to the next transition.
We reached this swampy river cul-de-sac where we hauled the kayaks out, deflated and put them away, then set out on our next trek which was to be for 18 km. The mozzies hurried us up and we squelched our way through the forest for a couple of miles until we hit the track. Again, it did not match the map but there seemed no other way so we broke into a gentle yomp and soon picked off a couple of other teams. But it was rather hot and we could well have had more than the 18k our joke shop maps were telling us we had to go so we eased off to a double march. Another four teams yielded to our foot pace and, still struggling to understand how a simple area could be mapped so badly, we reached transition in good form and assembled our bikes for the last time.
Once under way, I realised that this final haul of 156 km was not going to be comfortable for me. We were in a flat part of the country at its northern end close to the Nicaraguan border and the tracks were all stony and slow. My hands were sore form paddling, my feet were still wet and hot and my saddle area was generally tender too. What I would have given for 29-inch wheels, big soft tyres and full suspension was not worth imagining, and we were soon in that old familiar territory again of being somewhere we thought we weren’t. We met an Argentine team too who had been thrown by the map and it was only by their consultation with a local in their native tongue that we seemed to have any chance of re-orientating ourselves. We did find the next checkpoint shortly before dark but our thoughts of a dawn finish had quickly evaporated.
We pressed on into the night and needed to find the course of the Rio Chirippo to take us up to within a stone’s throw of Nicaragua. That was easier said than done and Jo Inge took the lead in consulting everyone we passed to confirm where this elusive waterway was. It was a long evening but everyone did their best to help us and offer their advice and we even had the most delicious supper of monkey fruit provided by a nice guy who claimed to have spent most of the last day or so advising people that the road past his house wasn’t the one it appeared to be on the map and that it would not lead us to the river.
As we pedalled on fatigue set in again. This was a real concern, like driving down a motorway with heavy eyelids, and I insisted on a short break. We lay down at the roadside only to attract the attention of a nearby dog which then decided all his mates needed to know aliens were approaching and the howls and barks spread across the countryside. I did manage a few minutes sleep though.
We got moving again, heading north, and were in constant conflict with the local nightjar population. I’ve never seen one of these before but they are like fluffy little toy birds with reflecting yellow eyes which sit on the ground just where you want to ride. At the last moment they leap up to head height and flutter aside with a gentle cooing and land out of harm’s way. They were everywhere along that stretch of road and were absolutely lovely. I say road, but in fact it was what we would call a rough dirt track. That’s why we didn’t seem to have to share it with anything containing an engine and maybe why there was more force working downwards on our eyelids than our bodies were capable of resisting. Wendy demonstrated this predicament’s eventual result by plunging into the verge at one point for no other reason than that. Fortunately she picked herself up unscathed and we resolved to reach the border before stopping.
It was with immense relief that we came upon the little river crossing where our next checkpoint was. A lively young man ferried us across in his boat at 2 in the morning and we allowed ourselves that much-needed rest. The first building we came across was some kind of border control point but the bloke there didn’t appear to want us bedding down too close and indicated a building to us a little farther along the river bank. We went to look and it was perfect – a stable complete with a pair of horses and a loft above them. Up the ladder, supine on the boards with rucksack under head and I was in a blissful sleep in seconds. I barely stirred until light broke through about 5.30 with the howler monkeys providing the early morning call.
For a while this next bit of riding was on a slightly sandy track and was blissfully smooth and we went through a little village where we saw a shop. Once more, Costa Rican hospitality was second to none as the shopkeeper honoured our request for four cups of coffee and he went on to tell us how he had been staying open all hours while the race was passing through. It was a business opportunity, of course, but I genuinely think he though he was doing it to help us out. He barely charged us the cost of the coffee and a large packet of biscuits and waved us on our way with his best wishes.
It was here that we encountered the Canadian team with the broken bike again. Things had not been going too well for them and their repair job was beginning to show signs of failure. There was no chance of dropping across a B&Q out here and one of their men was swapping the brakes from the broken bike to one of the others which was showing signs of brake failure – “Might as well have them on the bike that still works”, he said in a pragmatic tone. And what did they do with the broken bike? Well, it was against the race rules to be without four bikes on the team so, while two of them took it in turns to run and ride with one bike, the others two were taking turns to shoulder the stricken machine whilst riding along. This was teamwork at its best.
As the sun rose higher we were, again, thrown off course by following what was shown on the map as a track. It was the usual dirt lane to begin with but we failed to spot a slight bend where the dotted line on the map referred to a gateway into a field through which no-one would ever know anyone had passed for years. Our error was spotted by a friendly ranger-looking guy who chased us down the lane for a couple of miles to send us back and explained that we needed to look for an abandoned house next to a bridge to cross the river. He appeared sincere but as we returned to the field which was supposedly a road we weren’t so sure, as a team of Americans were heading back towards us saying how loads of teams were lost down there after three hours of fruitless searching. They were going to take a detour around a network of roads and try approaching from the other side – only an extra 30k or so, they said.
Each team had a GPS tracker so race HQ could see where we were and had been so we knew that we wouldn’t get away with saying we’d spent time searching the area like the Yanks so we headed off across to where we eventually found this old deserted house. Jo Inge set about a foot search for the bridge and we suddenly heard him hollering from amongst some trees. He’d found it.
We followed his voice where we happened upon the bridge – three large tree trunks spanning the river with a control kite at the other side. I really had had enough of getting wet feet for the week and performed a careful balancing act across the chasm, bike on one tree, feet on another with movements of no more than 6 inches at a time. I made it comfortably in the end as the others opted for the bike wash route below and it was with a feeling of triumph that we rode away to the final transition.
The end was now tangible. All we had to do was follow an obvious track, not accurately mapped of course, and an hour or so later we reached T12. For once we didn’t have to box the bikes up and our next section was another novelty zip wire ride – 5 shortish ones this time, around the jungly canopy. At least the weight was off our feet as we whizzed along and, as we reached the end, we were led off down to the river by the man who was to be our guide for the final section of the entire race which was another raft ride.
Our chap turned out to be a most interesting companion for the next couple of hours. He sensed we were knackered and, in the absence of any opposition behind us, felt we should enjoy the river and proceeded to give us a very informative commentary on the wildlife, his home country, the progress of the other teams he had seen and his time as an Olympic kayaker in Barcelona 1992. We learned about different types of kingfishers, herons, toucans and crocodiles as we paddled along and ended the afternoon beautifully as we pulled ashore at the town of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui for a 500m walk / run to the finish. Whilst we were, by then, one of the also-ran teams we were treated to a welcome befitting the champions and promptly handed a couple of large bottles of beer which were empty within a few seconds.
What an event it had been. We were ushered to the medical tent for a once-over and all declared to be well and soon realised that we hadn’t done badly, all things considered. We had correctly visited every checkpoint we had been allowed to, even if some had taken hours to find and involved massive detours, and we had reached the end of an adventure race which the more experienced ones were reporting as the most arduous they had ever done. Apart from a team of four Swedish girls, ours was the only one with two ladies (the minimum requirement being one) and we had finished with ourselves and kit pretty much intact. Also, and most importantly, we had all remained great friends throughout and will be able to look back on it as a trip of a lifetime.
We were 36th in the end. 60 teams started, with only 25 having completed the entire course and, of those, only 18 recorded finding every checkpoint. 9 teams had failed to finish.
So our Anglo-Norwegian alliance was considered by us to be a success. After the race we were able to compare our experiences to those of other teams as we all mingled afterwards and the next day. Tales of fortune, misfortune and near-disaster abounded. The rescue teams had been kept well employed at times, as had the medical team.
We can reflect on our own interpretations of the race. Within our team we had lots of athletic experience but plenty of adventure racing inexperience, navigational ability hampered by poor maps, a sensible attitude to reaching that ultimate goal we never lost sight of – the finish line – and staying-power by the bucketful. This ensured we cared for each other, showed continual respect towards each other and worked just as a team should.
Something I developed was a very healthy respect for those teams who were at the sharp end. They really are endurance athletes of the finest calibre.
Finally, we have many thanks to pass on for those who supported us. Wendy lost her dad just a month before the race, the man who she credited with giving her a sense of adventure, and she coped admirably. I’m sure Trevor would have been very proud of his daughter’s achievements that week. Both sets of our parents kept things going at home by looking after the children and our dog and allowed us to be completely selfish for a fortnight. It was great to see them all when we got back.
We weren’t aware whilst we were racing that there was an online messaging facility and it was only when we got back that we saw the string of texts wishing us well from all sorts of people. That was heartening too.
And the people of Costa Rica and their beautiful country. I can only say that I hope there are more places in the world where such lovely people exist and that I’m looking forward to visiting them in future.