Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Coastal Challenge 2016


Carlos Sa approaching river crossing on Day 5 Photo: Jose Andres Vargas


It was an indescribable experience which I will attempt to put into words so that I may share this adventure with you and to possibly help anyone who wishes to participate in the future. This is going to be a looong post as I will be going over the 6 stages which encompass the Coastal Challenge as I experienced it in 2016.
This year was the 12th year of this event which is a stage race in the beautiful rain forest of Southwest Costa Rica.  I had always been curious about the concept of stage races and this was my first.  The race has two available distances, an Adventure distance which was approximately 90 miles with significantly less elevation gain and an Expedition distance with 140 miles and 33,800 feet elevation gain. You can sign up for either one or change to the shorter distance during the race.   Having done a few ultra distance races, I sought out a new challenge and signed up in October 2015 for the Expedition distance. Here is a video of the race put together by the race organizers to give you an idea.


For full results of the 2016 race you can see here:  https://www.webscorer.com/seriesresult?seriesid=61682

TRAINING
I approached training for this event a I would any other ultra-marathon. I still was doing relatively low mileage to avoid injury and by this I mean a maximum of 80 miles a week for a couple of weeks.  I incorporated a 30 mile run (mostly flat) on Saturday followed by a 20 mile run on Sunday to get used to running on tired legs and running long on multiple consecutive days.  I did a few climbs of the Franklin Mountains to practice hiking up steep trails which I knew I would encounter.  For 2 weeks before the race, I went to a steam bath for 30 min a day in which the temperature was up to 100 F with 100% humidity to try to get heat acclimated. (not sure this made a difference).   I felt like I had a good base going into it, having done Javalina Jundred in October 31 and Across the years on Dec 30. The biggest limitation for this race is the fact that it is held in early February during which the Northern Hemisphere is in Winter.

Gear
The Coastal Challenge website provided a list of mandatory gear which are divided into things to take during the run and for camp, and for here is what I took.

For the run:

  • A hydration vest system and  two bottles of water. I used one to drink and the other to collect from streams strictly for putting over my head and body.
  • Energy food in the form of Cliff Bars and Kind bars as well as Gu gels.
  • Salt tablets from Endurolyte
  • Small zip-lock bags for food and salt tablets to keep dry (very important)
  • Water purification tablets
  • Emergency whistle
  • Black diamond climbing poles. 
  • Compressport top and shorts. (I purchased new ones at the check in)
  • Arm covers (white).
  • Calf compression sleeves (Also purchased at the race check in)
  • 2 pairs of Hoka trail shoes and Salomon trail shoes
  • 6 pairs of socks, DryMax
  • Hat with attached extra cover for neck (made by Salomon, kind you see Japanesse soldiers wear in old WWII movies)
  • Sunglasses
For the Camp (transported by race management)

  • Sleeping mat (foam mattress)
  • Sleeping bag
  • Pillow with blanket
  • Towel 
  • Small medical kit
  • Mosquito netting tent that I ordered through REI. (size of a sleeping bag)
  • Hammock 
  • Rope for hanging clothes to dry 
  • 2 Head lamps with extra batteries
  • Camping light (battery operated)
  • Ear plugs
  • Zip lock bags. large gallon size and sandwich size)
  • Sunblock spray
  • Insect repellent
  • Ear plugs
  • 2 pairs of flip flops to walk around camp.
  • Shorts and t shirts to wear in the evenings.
  • 3' x 2' nation flag patches heat pressed to running shorts.
  • An action packer 20 gallon by Rubbermaid or equivalent. I purchased mine at Wal-Mart for $19 with wheels that came off on first day. 
  • Combination lock for action packer. 
Things I did not bring but wished I had
  • small battery operated fan
  • liquid bath soap

Getting There
The race begins on Sunday AM (Feb 14 this year) and check in takes place on Saturday Afternoon in San Jose, Costa Rica.   I left on Friday afternoon on Southwest Airlines as their flight from Houston leaves in the evening.  I arrived at 11:30 pm and took a Taxi for $20 to the Best Western Irazu Hotel where everyone was gathering.   The next day, I went for a 4 mile run in  hotel neighborhood around Noon, but was disappointed in how cool it was for I was hoping to start getting used to the heat.  San Jose is about 3500 feet elevation and doesn't get as hot as the coast.

Check In
At 3 pm I went down to check in and pick up my bib and other information.  A laminated book was provided with all the stages profiles and there were long legal waivers to sign and a medical certificate as well. It was there that I tried on and purchased some custom made Compressport Gear for the race. The top was white and the shorts blue. They gave all the runners a free cloth collar which can be used to put ice if there had been any. They were offering a package of 5 massages for $100 here as well. Alternatively, we could pay for the massage as we wished during the race.  I was able to change about $100 into the local currency, Colones.

Opening Ceremony and Orientation
Tent in Tennis court for orientation
The initial pre-race meeting took place in the tennis courts of the hotel at 6:30 (delayed by an hour because a large group from Spain arrived late due to plane delays).  It was actually cool as the sun had set and we all sat nervously inside a tent on folding chairs set up for us.  During this meeting the race director Rodrigo Carazo spoke to us about how the event was to unfold.   He transitioned effortlessly between English and Spanish as he discussed the specifics of the race stages. He also mentioned that there may be snakes but that we would be OK as long as we left them alone. The race Dr. (Mario) also spoke about the importance of hydration and taking care of your feet.  At the conclusion we had a presentation of two guys with accompanied drum beats who performed acrobatics with fire light torches.  As we left the area we were each given a Buff headband with the Coastal Challenge logo on it.

Performers at Opening Ceremony in San Jose (photo by Costal Challenge
Stage 1 Race AM
We had been instructed to have all our gear in the Action packer and any other bag in the hotel lobby by 4:00 AM to be loaded into trucks and transported to the first overnight camp.  I  got up at 3:00 AM having slept surprisingly well and got dressed and ready to go.  My kit consisted of dry max socks, HOKA Stinson ATR, Compressport calf sleeves, Compressport trail shorts with Coastal Challenge logo with matching top.  White arm covers, hat, sunglasses, and wrist band.  The hydration vest had 2 20oz bottles in front and 1.5 Liter bladder. I also carried my collapsible black diamond poles secured in hydration vest.  I carried Gu, Cliff bars, and Endurolyte salt tablets, plus a bottle of water purifying tablets.  We had to be transported by bus with all our gear ready to start stage 1.  Nothing could be left in the bus as they were going back to San Jose after dropping us off.  The hotel provided a free breakfast coupon so I picked up some fruit to go at the Denny's next door.  On the way into the bus, I met up with Ian Corless from the Talk Ultra Podcast. (here you can listen to episode he did on Coastal Challenge 2016) I introduced myself and told him I was a faithful listener and that his podcast was the reason I was there.  This is the 4th time he has gone in a row and is a photographer at this event.  His partner Niandi Carmont was running the race as well. Some who got there early had a full sit down breakfast.  The bus was supposed to leave at 4:30 but actually left around 5 AM for the 3 hr. bus ride.   It was comfortable but I could not sleep.  We stopped in a restaurant area for about 20 min half way and we all had a chance to stretch our legs and go to the bathroom.
Around 8:30 AM, the bus exited the coastal HWY and headed towards the ocean on a dirt road. Someone mentioned that they saw a crocodile next to the road, but I didn't get a chance to see it.  We drove a few miles as far as the bus could go and we were allowed to get off and told to continue walking for 1.5Km to the beach where the race would start. As soon as we got off the bus it was around 9 AM and the heat was a shock to the system.  As I mentioned earlier, San Jose was cool the day before and the AM of departure, but here next to the ocean the change was striking. We walked along a narrow dirt road and arrived at the beach where the banners were located indicating the start.

Walking to the start (Photo by Becky Gibbs)


 They had a lot of water to fill bottles and bladders for everyone there.  It was here I met Ernesto who is a pathologist living in San Jose who was doing this race for the 7th time. We talked about the race and about this stage for a bit.   People were taking pictures and there was a drone overhead.  I nervously got myself mentally ready and lined up towards the back of the pack.  I was about to embark on quite an adventure.




The start (photo by Becky Gibbs)



Stage 1  20 miles (32Km) 3000 feet elevation gain (917m) 7:30:37  Place 59 of 85 approx





The race begins on a beach just south (5 miles) of  Manuel Antonio Bay National Park, near Quepos. We ran on the same road we had just walked from the bus along plantations that made the course fairly exposed.  I started in the back of the pack monitoring my effort by keeping track of my Heart rate.  I have recently started trying to be a more efficient fat burner and following the Maffetone formula of 180 minus age. (128bpm for me at this time). My pace was slow at first and the road was flat for about the first 8 miles.  We crossed a few streams and ran next to an irrigation canal where after 5 miles (1hr) I dipped in and with one of my bottles poured water on my head and arm sleeves. It was hot at the beginning and of course it only got hotter. My Suunto watch registered 95 degrees for a high that day.   During this section, I met Stephanie from Arkansas and Alexander from Denmark (moving to Singapore) .  We chatted briefly and kept passing each other during this section.
I came across a couple on the road who were cutting small brushes on the side of the road and I asked them what they were doing and they said they were collection dry brush to make Brooms to sell. I asked them what the name of the plant was and they said it was a broom plant.  I laughed and told them by last name is Escobar (which means broom).  I think I was delirious.

  The first aid station (they call it PC#1 punto de control) was staffed by Desiree, Alejandro, and Jorge who I would come across during the entire week.  Alejandro suggested I dip in the canal across the road from them and it was nice to get refreshed as the water was very cool.

Climbing on road (photo by Becky Gibbs)


After that we started a slight uphill section of road and then the trail went off into the rain forest.  It was here a few people missed the turn off and kept going on the road. I was lucky as a member of the staff was there to make sure I did not get lost. After that the climbing started in earnest and where the wheels came off.  The trail was not particularly steep but the heat and dehydration got to me. I felt dizzy, had cramps in my legs, and then started hyperventilating.  I lied down on the trail and for a while felt like my stage or even my race was over, or alternatively, that I would have to cut back to the Adventure distance.   At this point, I ran into Shaun who is a Brit who lives and works in Malaysia.  He was struggling like me and we passed each other as we took turns siting on logs or on the trail.  After a while, Shaun had some GI issues and I offered to get help from the Red Cross guys.  He later told everyone the story about how I went to get help for him but that I was moving in slow motion which did not give him confidence help would be coming any time soon.  Down the road I came across a young boy throwing rocks up a a tree and I asked him what he was doing. He showed me a ripe mango and showed me on the tree other mangoes he was trying to knock down.
The Red cross guys were down the road and I told them about Shaun (#54, I remembered because of Studio 54 in NY).  He got a ride to PC# 3 got hydrated and completed stage.  For me, I carried on to the 2nd aid station in a small town of  Londres at their square. It was here that I met Chelsea from Austin, Julia from Maine, and Robyn from Austin.  We talked about Texas and Chelsea mentioned she had lived for a time in El Paso.
From PC#2 there was a steady climb up to 1,679 feet (512m) and then a descent to PC#3 which was a mile 17.7 (28.5 Km).  There I ran into Shaun again and passed Mike from Canada who was also having GI issues. The descent from there was steep and technical which caused me to fall a couple of times. At the end we reached the Savegre River which was pretty large and on the other side was the camp and the finish line at the Rafiki River Camp.

Savegre River and Camp end of stage 1 (photo by Becky GIbbs)


As I tried to make my way across, Iain Don-Wauchope, a pro from South Africa was swimming and cooling off.  He had won  stage 1 in 2:35 a whole 4 hrs and 55 min ahead of me.  Iain said it would be easier to swim across and was nice enough to take my poles to free my hands to swim across the river.  He would eventually go on to win the whole race.  I crossed the finish line and immediately had to start planning how I was going to get myself ready for another day.  The 5th place for the stage was Chema Martinez who was an Olympic marathoner from Spain (2:08 Marathon PR) wrote about his experience, calling it the "worst racing day of his life" in the Spanish sports paper La Marca.

Post Stage 1 
When I arrived, I immediately had to start looking for my action packer and bag with clothes plus the tent that I had rented from the race organizers.  It was the start of a daily routine which I would perfect over the coming days, but which on the first day was more difficult.  I identified my tent which happened to be between Iain and Chema. Next, I headed for the outdoor showers and got some dry clothes on and went around camp on my sandals.

Me at the Eating facility at end of Stage 1 (photo by Timo Litters)


 At 6 pm dinner was served and I sat with Shaun and his 4 group of friends who welcomed me into their group.  They were the Too Stupid to Stop Team and consisted of Shaun, Aaron from Thailand, Crispin from Thailand, Alexander, and Jason.  My main concern at this point was that I had not peed all day so I started drinking as many fluids as I could thinking that if I didn't pee, I would not be able to start the 2nd stage.  After dinner, we had a 7 pm briefing about the 2nd stage delivered by Jorge Carazo in both English and Spanish.  The talk was all the people who had already decided to switch to the shorter Adventure distance.  They would leave at 0500 AM to go by bus to PC #2 (mile 14) to wait for the first place runner from the Expedition distance which they estimated would be around 8:30 am.  For the Expedition distance, we would depart at 0530 AM, just at first daylight.
After the briefing, I went to see the podiatrist as I had a hot spot on my left foot. The race organizers provide 3 podiatrists, two of whom were from Northern Ireland.  He could not find any blisters but did say I had a callus and went ahead and cut off a long nail with large cutters which I had not been able to cut.  Others, had already the beginning of severe blisters which is one of the biggest problem in this race because your feet are always wet.  I went to my tent and it had no ventilation making it super hot (85-90 F according to my Suunto).   The noise in this camp was very loud from the cicadas and other insects.  I put in my ear plugs but I could still hear everything.  I slept very poorly because I was hot, I was coughing from a cold I was recovering from, and I had to get up every hour to pee. At least I knew my kidneys were functioning.

Stage 2 Race AM
I woke up at 0400 am with no alarm needed as people in the campground made enough noise to wake me up.  I put on the same clothes from the day before except for some dry socks. I had left them hanging on a dry line I had hung between 2 trees.  I said good morning to Iain who was getting ready and told him I was sorry if my coughing had disturbed his sleep. I then packed all my stuff back in the action packer and went to eat breakfast around 0430. Breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs and a rice and black beans Costa Rican delicacy called Gallo Pinto.  They also had pancakes available.  I also had some fruit and orange juice.  At 5 am the Adventure people started getting in the small buses for transport and I went to the bathroom.  Last step was to take all the gear to the center of the camp so it could be transported to the next camp.  I then went to line up for the start of Stage 2.

Stage 2   23.6 miles (38 Km) 3,874 (1811m) elevation gain  9:47:39  51 out of 60 approx. 






I started out slow on this stage because I knew we would be starting to climb early. The early section was dirt roads with some rain forest sections with few water crossings. I made a point to stop every time to submerge and get my core temp down as much as possible. The climbs were long but not very steep and since we started earlier, it was not as hot.  I made sure to drink more fluids and stopped to pee a few times which assured me I was not getting dehydrated like the day before.  The first climb went up 2,250 feet and provided some spectacular views of the coast as it was clear of vegetation. The second climb followed and peaked at 2,252 feet but was in dense rain forest.   It was during this stage that I first ran with Freya who is a United Airlines pilot who lives in Houston. We talked and walked/ran for a while seeming to keep a similar pace.  Later on, we came up to Alison, an OB/Gyn from Tampa and the three of us stayed largely together until the end of the stage.   After PC #3 we crossed a road and went 1 Km towards the beach.  Before getting to the beach we had to cross a muddy swamp where the shoes tended to want to get stuck in the mud. What followed were about 5 miles of running along the beach.  By the time we arrived the sun was setting so the heat was not as bad plus we followed a trail through the palm trees. At the end of that we briefly got lost as we could not see the marker to go into the beach to finish the stage at the Dominical Beach. It was still daylight as we reached the finish line.

Post Stage 2
As in the previous day, I headed to find my action packer and tent.  I went to the showers and washed my clothes and shoes in the sink.

Action packer and bags for pickup at Camp 2 Dominical Beach

Showers and toilette End of Stage 2 Dominical Beach. (photo by Becky Gibbs)

At 6 pm, I went to the dining tent again and had dinner with the Too Stupid to Stop guys.  The dining tent had a charging station with many people using to charge their watches and phones.  I had extended the battery of my Suunto by decreasing the sensitivity of the GPS.  At 7 pm we had another briefing for the next stage.  Some people went to their tents early intending to skip the briefing but had to come out to get a green bracelet to be allowed to go into the area of the Nauyaca waterfall we would pass the next day.
Dinner after Stage 2 Me, Jason, Crispin, Aaron, Stephanie, and Shaun (photo by Alexander Afreedi)

 We were also told this was the first stage where a cutoff was going to be put in place at 12:30 pm at PC#2.  As Rodrigo explained it, if you got there after that, you would not likely finish in the daylight and the stage was too dangerous after dark at the end. It was thus put in place for the safety of the competitors which was his main priority.    I went into my tent to sweat some more but slept better than the night before and in the early am it actually was comfortable.

Tent City on Dominical beach (photo by Becky Gibbs)


Stage 3 Race AM
Once again, I was up at 0400 for the next stage and did not want to get going.  For the first and only time, I considered dropping or taking a day off.  I was not sore or aching, I just didn't feel like doing it anymore.  After a few minutes, I decided to stop filling sorry for myself and get going.  I put on my gear which I had left hanging on a clothes line, sprayed mosquito repellent and sunblock.  I went to breakfast which was a repeat of the day before.  Consisting of scrambled eggs, rice and beans (gallo pinto), and fruit with juice.  I noticed for the first time they had a table with bread and so I made a sandwich with turkey and cheese to carry in a sandwich bag inside a ziplock bag (very important). We lined up on the street as this was going to be a running start behind a pace car which would guide us out of town.

Stage 3  27.7 miles (44.6 Km), 5,866 (1788m) elevation gain  12:19:19  DFL out of 52


Stage 3 started on the town next to Dominical Beach which I got to see as we ran out of it. It is supposed to be a nice surfing beach and the town is known for its eccentric quality.  It was here that I first met Bryan.  He is around 21 and was working as the "sweeper" picking up and staying with the last runner on the course and collecting all the course markers along the way.  We talked for a while until we reached the end of the road.   We went about 3 miles out of town and then arrived to the edge of the Baru river.  Then we proceeded to run along the river bed for 6 miles.  I did not use my poles and found that I actually caught and passed people in this section which was slow and took about 2 hrs. The smaller rocks were covered by algae and were slippery.  We were advised in the briefing  to step between the rocks not on top of them.  There were also large boulders to navigate over.

 Baru River section.


About half way we reached a section of the river that was very deep and I had to swim to continue. I had no difficulty here, however, there was one competitor in the front of the pack that nearly drowned and had to be helped along and even slapped to make him "settle down" because he was so anxious in the water. In the back of the pack, it turned out that Bryan who was supposed to stop at the edge of the river continued his sweeper role but unfortunately, he was not a good swimmer and panicked, so another runner had to help him as well.   At the end of the river section was the Lulo Bridge where the first aid station or PC#1 was located at mile 6.5.  I stopped there and took the time to take my shoes and socks off to get all the sand from the river bed out.  For a video from Tommy Castellet who came from Andorra, click here.  http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x3u1e4s_costa-rica_sport

Next we went on the bridge across the Baru river towards the waterfall 4 km away. This section was a dirt road which had some shade and climbed up to a point then had a steep descent the Nauyaca Waterfall.  There were actually 2 water falls here and we crossed the lower 2nd one.  I found a rock pool of water and got on my back and let the water get up to my face with only my nose and mouth over the water.

Nauyaca Water Falls



I was always conscious of the 12:30 cutoff and didn't want to spent too much time there.  As I left the waterfall, I started up a steep section and met up with Angela.  Her and her husband Alvaro had come from Bogota, Colombia to participate in the race and we started going up together chatting along the way. We then had a short descent followed by another climb where I was having a hard time keeping up with her pace.  She is a better climber than me but was willing to wait for me a couple of times.
It was getting hot and on a flatter road section we came upon a farmer who was working next to the road bringing down coconuts. He offered both of us a PIPA, which is Spanish for pipe and was a raw coconut cut with a machete on the side which allowed for a small hole to appear to access the coconut water.  You put your mouth up to the hole and drink.  She excitedly told me that coconut water like this was the perfect way to hydrate and receive electrolytes.  Angela was carrying Colones and offered to pay the farmer but he refused to accept it.  It was needless to say a great moment.


Pipa from Costa Rica

From there we carried on with the last 3 km climb up to La Florida and PC#2.  Again, Angela was the better climber and I struggled to keep up with her.  We had another river bed section which ended at another beautiful waterfall but did not spend much time there because of the cutoff.  It was after that in the rain forest that Angela screamed and cursed loudly stopping dead in her tracks.  As I caught her,  I could see a long, thin, green snake right over the trail. We stopped and let it continue on. After the race we described it to the staff and they told us it was a Lora or Green Parrot Snake.



 As we got back onto the road, I kept looking at my watch and saw 12:30 rapidly approaching, I kept looking at the altimeter on my watch as I knew the peak at  PC#2 was 2,700 feet and mile 14.6.  Angela went ahead so I would not make her miss the cutoff.  Exactly at 12:30 I reached the aid station of La Florida yelling as I arrived "Its 12:30, its 12:30".  They said I could go but could not spend much time at the aid station, just fill up with water, eat and go.
So Angela and I continued forth in the next section which was mostly downhill, initially on road but then off to single tract rain forest sections which were steep and slippery.  All of a sudden, we were caught by a train of 3-4 competitors who apparently had arrived after 12:30 and were allowed to continue with the condition that they had to arrive to PC#3 (mile 20) by 2:30 pm.   I had not been told this so I kept my own pace and Angela left with the others.
As I ran alone that day, it got pretty hot.  There was no sweeper to keep me company because he was too tired to continue and got picked up at PC#2.  I grabbed a mango off a tree next to the road and ate it. I arrived to PC#3 (mile 20) at 3 pm exhausted with 8 miles to go.  I sat in the shade and ate my turkey sandwich that I had made that morning with Gatorade and after 15 min, I felt like a new man.  I would have to say that was one of the most delicious sandwiches I have eaten in a long time.  Desire and Alejandro were at this aid station, so we talked about the days events with the sweeper, the cutoff, and all the other happenings.
After PC#3, I crossed the coastal Hwy and headed for the beach.  The next section was along the Bahia Ballena (whale)  because it is shaped like the tail of a whale.

Bahia Ballena

 I have to confess at this point I was delirious and did not appreciate it as I ran passed it. It was about 5 miles of beach, again with the sun setting.


Ballena beach  (photo by Becky Gibbs)

At the end of the beach section, there was a member of the staff showing the way and there was a large pool of water to soak in.  The climb after that was a Gnarly 30% climb through thick rain forest.  Thankfully, it was short and still daylight although the sun was not penetrating well. After that there was steep descent to the coastal highway where PC #4 was located.  From there, you continue on the road passed a bridge then turned back toward the ocean to the campsite at Marino Ballena National Park where the finish line was.  I arrived at 6:30 pm and it was getting dark and dinner had started to be served already.  I was the last finisher and Miguel was there to record my finishing time.  I had never finished last (dead f---ing last DFL) in any race, so it was a special day for me.

Post Stage 3
After 12 hrs and 20 min of being out in the sun, I had little energy to find my stuff in the dark. It was a large campsite and I got some help moving my stuff to my tent. I got my headlamp and headed for the outdoor showers. Everyone was at dinner and it was dark so I stripped and showered without a care in the world. I made my way to dinner and stayed for the race briefing for Stage 4.  While in line to eat, I struck a conversation with Luis who was one of the servers/cooks and he told me they were working all week sleeping about 2 hrs.  They had to start making breakfast at 1 AM and then after we left they had to move the kitchen to the next camp in time for lunch for the early arrivals and then prepare dinner for us at 6 pm.  Then they had to clean up until around 11 pm.
After dinner, I went to see the podiatrist again and he gave me a bandage to put on my left foot after it dried in the morning.  My feet looked pretty good compared to everyone else there seeing the podiatrist.  I was remembering a quote from Karl Meltzer describing Scott Jurek's feet during his 46 days running the Apalachian Trail to set the supported record. "Your feet are money".  From there I went to the tent with the Massage therapists (there were 3).  Lucky as I am, I got the best one Sabino, to do a 25 min massage on my legs, my back and it was great.   Best $30 dollars I ever spent. Sabino lives in San Jose and takes the week to work the Coastal Challenge.  He has keeps busy at home with clients he visits at their homes in San Jose. After that I went to my hot tent again but slept pretty well.  The tent became my home, everything I had in Costa Rica was in that tent.   The heat that night did not bother me as much, I guess I was getting acclimated.   I went to sleep thinking about how I had completed 3 of the 6 stages, half way done, I should be able to do this.

Stage 4 Race AM
For this stage we were going to have to ride a small bus to the start and it was a long stage so we had to be ready to go at 0500 AM.  This meant breakfast was going to be ready at 3:30 AM.   I had gone to bed pretty late due to my late arrival and getting my massage and foot care AFTER dinner/briefing instead of before like those lucky ones to have finished earlier.  So, instead of 0400, I got up at 0330 am with everyone else. I got dressed and got my stuff packed away.  Went for breakfast and loaded my bladder with water and extra bottle with fruit juice and water for cooling me in the day.  At 0500, we boarded 2 buses for a short ride to the start line on a dirt road off the coastal highway.  There was a slight delay in starting and this gave me a chance to meet some of the other runners.

Stage 4    21.8miles (35Km)       6,738 feet (2,054m) Elevation gain     11:37:52  49 out of 51



I once again started slowly on this stage with the intention of saving my energy.  Angela was having a lot of foot pain from blisters and this was slowing her down. It was at this stage that I first met Ivan the sweeper for the entire stage.   We walked/jogged along picking up the course markings for 3.5 miles along a street called Amapola. This got us talking about the song Amapola, which I proceeded to serenade to Angela and Ivan.  "Amapola, lindisima amapola. No seas tan ingrata y amame."  It was a cool morning and I looked forward to what was to be a cooler stage.  At the first aid station (PC#1) 4 miles in we got off the road to start climbing.  Here I caught up to Alison C. and Freya and was relieved to see that we had not lost that much time. I filled by bladder and bottles for the climb through the jungle.
Ivan the Sweeper

Me Resting on Stage 4, Freya seen on right
What followed was a 2.2 mile (3.6 km) climb of 2,800 feet along the Cuesta Roja to the highest point of the stage at 3,274 feet (998 meters) of the Talamanca Range.  It did not start well for me because a water pipe had been broken and was spilling water on the trail which made that section muddy.  I could not get any traction and fell several times.  I could not get any traction, and wondered how I would go up further.  Fortunately, my savior Ivan came up to me and gave me a hand which got me passed this muddy section.  After this, Freya and I with Ivan in the back trudged up the incline as fast as we could. Freya was suffering a back pain and I was out of breath and just plain tired.  As we reached the top, we could see clouds and we were approaching them. As we got to the top, it was much cooler, and the views were spectacular.

Views of the Talamanca Range (photo by Chelsea McCullough)

After the climb we stayed on a fairly level initial section until the second aid station (PC#2) at mile 8 (12.9Km) next to a cemetery.  At this point Angela was having a lot of pain in her feet due to a blister that she had wanted to have "popped" but the foot care people refused to pop due to risk of infection due to all the water crossings.  I tried to convince her to have it done at this aid station but the Doctor and Red Cross folks talked her out of it.  I have always felt that the best thing to do is to make a very small puncture to drain the fluid and the hole will seal itself and not allow infection to set in. A fellow competitor had stopped here and was having nausea and felt pretty weak. He was in an ambulance and was going to be transported back to camp from there.

Gorgous views of Talamanca Range (Photo by Freya Shiller)

We continued with Freya, Angela, me and the sweeper Ivan at a good pace.  The next aid station was at 12.3 miles (19.8 km) at a place called Donkey Hill  and had a cutoff of 12:30.  We arrived at 11:30 and spent a good while knowing that we had made it.  This is the location from which the adventure racers started earlier that morning.

Road climb  (Photo by Freya Shiller)
We filled our bottles and bladders to the max because this was the last aid station we were going to have until the end.  A water station at mile 15 (24.2Km) was going to be available but it was from a mountain spring.  What followed from PC#3 was a short uphill section, we were joined from this point by Desire from the staff who took the role as sweeper with Ivan.  Next was a long downhill section on road and then we got off the road on a grassy section which was rutted and a bit technical.
Talamanca mountain range
After another climb we reached a mountain stream we were told had water that was drinkable. I filled my bladder and bottles at this point and placed 2 water purification tablets I had been carrying and had never used.  I had to wait 30 min to allow them to dissolve before drinking it. We again went along a river bed for 1-2 Km more then started to climb again. The sections were steep and it was getting hot although not as hot as other stages due to the elevation.  We reached 3,330 feet and began our long descent.

Angela (Left) and Freya (right) my company on Stage 4.
The descent initially was on a road but after passing next to a farm we got off the road to rutted grassy fields that were also steep.  At this point we had been joined by Mauricio who was on the trail guiding people at an intersection. As we descended, we could see the town of Palmar Sur below, Ivan pointed out a bridge across the Terraba River where we would finish next to the airport.  It seemed like a long way down as we descended from 3,000 feet elevation.  During the descent, I had an unfortunate encounter with an "Evil tree" which I grabbed the trunk with my right hand and had excruciating pain from multiple spines on a climbing plant which was growing on the bark of the tree. The result were several punctures all bleeding from my fingers and the palm of my hand. (Julia, I would later hear from her had the same thing happen to her hand in same tree).

As we arrived to the edge of town, I started to run and went alone through town across the bridge and made the turn to the finish line.  I arrived alone and was met again by Miguel who was keeping tract of the racer's times.  From there,  I got a 13 Km ride to the campsite in Sierpe where we would be spending the night.  Incidentally, Freya and Angela finished last together and stopped on the way to the finish to drink a coca cola from one of the towns stores.


Post Stage 4
The campsite in Sierpe was by far the hottest of the previous 3, and the one that had the most mosquitos as the sun was setting.   I found my tent and action packer and went to the bathroom to shower.  It was still daylight which was a welcomed change.  The bathroom was super hot but there were 3 real beds where some competitors were sleeping.  I went to dinner and was happy to find out there was free WiFi at this location plus a little restaurant that sold Coca Cola for 1,000 colones. After dinner, we had the pre-race briefing for Stage 5 and I hung out with my phone sending messages home.  I sat down where the WiFi reception was the best and found myself sitting with Ester Alves (female winner from Portugal), Carlos Sa (3rd place from Portugal), and Gonzalo Calisto (2nd Place from  Ecuador) and talking about future stage races. Carlos invited us to a stage race in Portugal which he was organizing that was 8 days, at that point I could not imagine doing anything like that.
After dinner, I went to a house where they had the foot doctors and massage therapists.  It got my feet bandaged as they were getting painful to walk on after 4 days of running.   I again got a massage from Savino which was awesome and worth the wait.  Only downside is that by then it was 9 pm and we had to be up at 330 am again the next AM.  This was the first night I decided to sleep outside with a mosquito netting on top of a sleeping bag and foam mattress because I did not want to go in that tent anymore.  I slept pretty well that night.

Stage 5 Race AM
I was awake by 3:30 with all the sounds from the fellow competitors in the campground, no need for any alarm. Got dressed again inside the tent and packed my gear as I had done for the previous 4 nights.  Went to eat breakfast and sat with Angela in the dining tent, she told me she was not going to run the 5th stage because her feet were too sore and she was worried that because she was altering her stride, she could get injured.  I tried to convince to make a go of it but she had her mind pretty well made up.  I went to the restroom after breakfast and met Kandace who was there feeling pretty awful. She told me she had been up all night vomiting and having other GI issues. She was not hungry and had not had any breakfast but was going to make a go for the stage 5, which was 52K.  I encouraged her to eat something and told her I'd see her on the trail.  We were going to board buses to a ferry that would take us across the Sierpe River since there was no bridge. The departure was a bit chaotic because the adventure people got on the buses at 0530 along with the Expedition and both got full for the ride to the ferry.  I had to wait with several others for the buses to come back for the rest of us.  While we waited, I got to talk to Niandi who was very nice and easy to talk to. She is Ian Corless' partner and we talked about races she had done and was going to do in the future.  She is originally from South Africa and has French heritage speaking Africans, French and English.  She told me she was having stomach issues and had not been able to eat very much.  Iain  Don-Wauchope the winner of the race) was also there and joined in the conversation.  He offered me a South African power bar because he said he didn't want it.  I joked that I would eat it on the run and I hoped it would make me as fast as he was.
After a short while we boarded the buses and drove a few miles to the edge of the river where the ferry took us across the Sierpe River for the start of Stage 5.

Ferry across Sierpe River to start Stage 5 (photo Becky Gibbs) 

Stage 5  32.3 miles (52Km)  5,978 feet (1822 meters) elevation gain  13:32:28   50 out of 51

I had decided that I was going to hang out with the sweepers on this day.  The day before Mauricio and Ivan informed me that they would likely be sweepers again for this stage.  After crossing the Sierpe River on the ferry we started going at a good pace.  Kandace who I had met that morning was with us and really having a hard time.  Mauricio was encouraging her to eat and drink but she said she was not hungry.  He used the analogy of a car's gas tank and the need to have fuel because once the gas ran out the engine would stop and there was no way to continue. We kept mostly walking together and checking out the fauna and flora.  Ivan had a camera and was looking for animals to photograph.  Mauricio joked that Ivan had great eyes for animals in the rain forest and while running at a fast pace would stop dead in his tracks and point out a monkey up on a tree.  He was very knowledgeable and was more like a tour guide during this stage.  We saw an ant eater and a Tucan up on a tree. We also heard many Hawling monkeys.   Ivan is a Physical education instructor as his permanent profession but takes the week off to work the race for the last several years. Mauricio worked with scientific papers in San Jose and his wife who I would meet later was in charge of the kitchen logistics.   All the people who "work" this race are athletes and have full time jobs as I found out.  
As the stage began, we had a 5 mile (8Km) climb and Kandace was having a tough time and said she needed to go to the bathroom. As luck would have it, we came upon a Restaurant along the road with a sign that said "Best view in Costa Rica."  Mauricio ran up a small climb to see if they were open and they were so we stopped there. Kandace went to the restroom and Mauricio bought all of us Coca Colas.  My coke was simply delicious and the view of the Sierpe river was truly spectacular. 

Image from Internet of Sierpe river (I did not have phone to capture view)
I suggested to Kandace that she drink the coke but that it needed to be flat and so we shook it and allowed the gas to escape.  I told her during Ironman and Ultras, flat coke is a perfect drink as it has sugar and caffeine.  She began to sip the coke very slowly and started to feel much better and her pace picked up.  What followed was a downhill section all on dirt roads which reached the First Aid Station (PC#1) at mile 10 (16.1 Km).   It was a very hot day and many fellow runners had trouble with dehydration, as for me, the pace was slow enough that I was able to keep my core temperature down.  At PC#1 we stopped to eat fruit and there, I ate Iain's South African power bar and it tasted pretty good.  I filled my water bottles and ate fruit. After PC#1 there was a stream crossing and I took full advantage to submerge and cool off as much as possible.  We continued on the road which was a roller coaster as the profile image shows with a few stream crossings.  At the 2nd Aid Station (PC#2) which was at mile 15 (14.9 Km) a place called La Florida we stopped.  I ate my sandwich I had made that AM and more fruit.  Kandace did not want to eat and the aid station staff told her she could not leave the aid station if she did not eat something.  We went through her pack and I told her to pick the "yummiest thing she could find", to this she answered that "nothing was any good".  After much prodding I  encouraged her to eat some beef jerky she had with her and tried a little bit. It was pretty good and like the coke, helped Kandace feel better.  We kept going all of us picking up the pink course markers with Ivan and Mauricio.  Around 2 pm we arrived at the 3rd Aid station (PC#3 at mile 20 (32Km) and had a nice break from the sun. It was about this time that Freya told me she was going along the road and came upon Allison C. who was lying on the road apparently taking a nap. She went up to her and got her up and going. Allison later told me she was exhausted and dehydrated deciding to rest and felt much better after her nap.
Sierpe River view from trail (Photo by Tracy Ellis)

It was after this that Maurico and Ivan were talking and texting the race director Rodrigo about the fact that they were concerned with the pace we had, we were not going to get through the course in daylight.   The decision was made at 3 pm that any competitors who had not crossed the river were routed on the road to the 4th aid station thereby bypassing a 3-4 Km section which included a river crossing by boat and a steep climb in single track through the rain forest.  We thus arrived at PC#4 on the beach after a shortened course.  Sergio was there to explain to Kandace what had transpired and that we would not be disqualified and we would be Expedition finishers.  The year before, it was a different course and had a cutoff imposed which they did not have this year.  Some people were cut off on the 5th Stage and this lead to some very upset competitors.
After the 4th aid there was a steep climb through single track in the rain forest back to the same road we had been previously.  This was the section and one previous section which we could not pass at night due to crocodiles in the river.
River section of Stage 5 (photo by Ernesto Ramirez Navarrate)
What followed was more road section followed by a long beach section. It started to get dark and I decided to run the rest of the way alone, leaving behind Ivan, Maurcio, and Kandace.  After the beach we took a road into the outskirts of Drake Bay and I caught up to 3 Spanish runners who were Expedition competitors who had started that AM at mile 10.  I passed them but then got lost because I reached a river and it was dark so I did not know we were supposed to cross it.  So I turned around briefly until a truck showed me the way.  They handed out reflective bracelets for us to continue on the road in the dark.  I had no headlamp so it was a little tough.  We reached the beach for a short section and arrived to the camp which was visible off the beach.  As I climbed the slight ledge from the beach to  climb to the camp it was around 7 pm and I was greeted by all the other competitors who were having dinner who clapped and cheered as I arrived.  It was a very emotional moment for me to be greeted this way and I appreciated their support.  I had finished Stage 5 and only had one to go now.
Drake Bay at Sunset (Photo by Becky Gibbs)
Post Stage 5
After I arrived at the Drake Bay camp, I went to look for my action packer and my headlamp. The tent was not far away and I place my stuff next to the tent.   Since I arrived so late, I headed to eat dinner and listen to the briefing without taking a shower.  This camp also had free WiFi and a charging station like all the camps.  I had dinner with a coca cola for 1,000 colones and then after the briefing drank a Costa Rican beer called Imperial. It also cost 1,000 colones.   I was in such a celebratory mood that I had a second Imperial. There was a bit of drama that night due to the 4-5 people that were re-routed like me and Kandace were at the end.  I was not upset and understood it was for safety reasons but other competitors became upset at Rodrigo after the finish and strong words were exchanged. Rodrigo became upset because a documentary crew filming the race filmed the whole interaction. I have not mentioned the film documentary before but a crew was filming 4 runners that had been selected before the race.  The producers were Stephanie Oram from Xtrainfit.com based in Arkansas.  When documentary is released, I will edit this post and update for future reference. Before going to shower, I briefly spoke to Ian Corless who was a his laptop and he mentioned his book was coming out in November. More Info about Ian can be found on his blog at. http://iancorless.org/.  After that, I went to take a shower at the best facilities of the whole race.
Drake Bay Shower and toilette facilities (photo by Becky GIbbs) 
At this camp, we spent 2 nights and Rodrigo mentioned to me that the race organization had funded the building of these bathroom facilities and in exchange the school next door used them the rest of the year. That night, I once again slept under the mosquito netting outside.

Stage 6 race AM
For this stage, the start time was going to be 6 am and breakfast was going to be served starting at 5 am.  I got dressed and went to eat breakfast with rest of the competitors.  I did not have to spend time packing gear because we would be spending the night at this camp again.

Breakfast of  Gallo pinto and eggs
My approach to this stage was in retrospect too lackadaisical. I wore different gear including shoes and only a small camel-back.   As we waited for the start I spoke to Allison C. who looked really pale and had not eaten breakfast.  I peeled a mandarin orange and cajoled her to eating some slices which she later told me made her feel better. Angela and Freya were there as well and we took a few pictures. The atmosphere was largely celebratory for this last stage which is advertised as a "victory lap".

Before Stage 6 start L to R Freya, Angela, me, and Allison C not feeling so good
Stage 6  14.3 mile Loop (23Km) 1,916 feet (584meter) Elevation gain   48 out of 51
The stage starts on the beach and heads over toward the town of Agujitas de Drake.  This is a special stage because all the staff and volunteers are allowed to run it.  It is a loop along the Corcovado National Park which holds 3% of the world's biodiversity.  There is only one staffed aid station and this allows the others to run.  I had a good pace at the start and started climbing out of town. I passed Mauricio who was directing runners off the road towards single tract. After the last competitor passed this section, we was free to run the rest of the stage and eventually passed me later on.  Ivan was also running and was second for this stage having run for a while with Chema Martinez the Spanish Olympian.
Ivan on Left and Chema Martinez on Right with dog following
As for me, I was going at a good pace. We went through a river section that was reminiscent of the beginning of Stage 3.  It was here that I met Natxco from Spain who was running the stage having volunteered the whole week.  He later told me he had come at his expense and worked in "logistics" which meant putting up tents and helping move from camp to camp after we started running. He had most afternoons off and ate meals with all of us. 
After the river, we started a short but steep climb through the rain forest followed by a steep descent to a beautiful water fall. It was loud and crowded with people crossing and people helping people cross.  I started to make my away across, I recall, I was in front of Crispin, I was going on a large rock and I lost my footing falling about 4-5 on a rock.  Crispin later said he thought at that point "I was f---ed".  I landed on my thigh and immediately checked to make sure I did not brake my leg.  I gave the Red Cross guys the thumbs up as I got up and limped over to get checked.  I was dizzy and in a lot of pain after that with a hematoma rapidly forming on the side of my thigh muscle. (over IT band).
Waterfall (photo by Tracy Ellis)
In retrospect, I was too complacent and just not focused on the stage like I had been the previous days. 
BIG boulders in waterfall (place I fell) (photo by Tracy Ellis)
After the fall, I was left to continue with a very slow and painful walk.  I was caught by many competitors and tried to keep up but my pace was very slow.  I was caught by Chelsea, Julia, and Robyn.  Chelsea stayed with me for a section as we talked for a while about her work in Austin and mine here in El Paso.  I was grateful for the company and the conversation to distract me from the pain.  There were other stream crossings and I made sure to submerge and cool off.  I also walked for a while with Aaron Le Boutillier who lives in Thailand and survived the 2004 Tsunami and actually wrote a book about it (It is called And then One Morning).  A steep downhill lead to the beach again where the Aid Station was located.  From there we went along the beach of the Oso peninsula for about 6 miles. We passed a few suspended bridges and as we got closer to Drake Bay passed restaurants.
Suspension bridge (photo by Becky Gibbs)

Once again on the beach, we could see the finish line about a quarter of a mile away. It was an emotional finish for me and was greeted by Rodrigo and handed my finisher medal.  I was relieved and happy to have completed such a difficult challenge which did not seem possible.


Finishing Stage 6 and Race (photo by Javier Abad Herrero)

Finish line welcome from Rodrigo RD (photo by Javier Abad Herrero)

Finish of Coastal Challeng

Post Stage 6
After the stage, it was mid afternoon and for the first time, I was able to have lunch which was light meal.  I sat for a while with Angela and her husband Alvaro from Colombia and talked for a while in the shadiest spot we could find. I also met Monica, Mauricio's wife who organized all the meal plans for the race.  She had not been able to show up until Friday, but she had planned all the meals and logistics of purchasing the food. Kandace's fiance also flew in that afternoon. I also had a beer with Chelsea and thanked her for walking with me after my fall.  Later Rodrigo came over and we spoke about the race.  He said he felt the maximum number of people in the future may be 150-200 due to camping space and logistics. The race has really grown in popularity and in its 12th year is going strong.  The only bit of drama occurred with some competitors who signed up for the Expedition race and finished the shorter Adventure race complained they were not given a finisher medal.  After the protest, the decision was made to give the medal to those who wanted them, but I know some did not ask or get one. 
While I was relaxing, 3 racers from Andorra took school supplies they brought for the local school. The are from an organization called A Simple Aid 
Tommy Castellet, Joan Repiso Martinez, and Joan


A Simple Aid with school children

After dinner, we had the awards ceremony on the beach with a makeshift stage placed and on the side all the flags from all the countries represented in the race.
Awards to Top 3 Men and Women (photo by Freya Shiller)

Winners on Stage
 After the awards, it was time to try to get some sleep which was hard as my leg was throbbing and swollen.

Day after, Return to San Jose
The next day, we had breakfast at 5 am and we had to get all the gear packed to be transported by truck back to San Jose.  While I was packing, everyone became startled by a 5.0 tremor that occurred that AM.  I looked at the ocean along with everyone else to make sure there was no Tsunami coming after.   Later, we all boarded speedboats on the beach for the return trip to Sierpe along the Sierpe river.  It was about a 1 hour trip and I spent it chatting to Allison C. We docked on the town of Sierpe and had a chance to buy a coke and some pastries before boarding the buses to San Jose. On the bus trip, I sat next to Natxo, the volunteer from Barcelona and we talked a lot of the trip.  The trip was about 5 hrs and we stopped in the same restaurant and gift shop we had stopped on Sunday before.  When we got off the bus, all our ankles were super swollen from sitting so long.

Feet up to decrease swelling (photo by Shaun Boulter)
After we arrived to San Jose around 1:30 pm, I checked in to the Best Western but the luggage would not arrive until around 5:30 pm. (it was an 8 hr. drive as we saved time with the boat ride).  I was able to take a shower but did not have another change of clothes to put on.  So it is a good idea to bring a small bag with stuff you may want after you return.  I went to dinner at the bar next to the Hotel and drank some more beers with all the competitors who gathered around there, saying our goodbyes. 

Postscript
I had a great time and it was a truly memorable experience at the Coastal Challenge.  The beauty of Costa Rica and the friendliness of its people can not be overstated.   The event is well organized and the course is well marked but it is truly difficult to complete. The Adventure distance provides a more manageable way to participate and enjoy the scenery but you do miss some nice sections compared to the Expedition distance.  The heat this year, we were told, was worse than previous years.  Some who have done Marathon des Sables (MDS) felt that this race was harder even though it was not self supported like MDS.  I hope this report helps anyone who is planning to do the race in the future  get an idea of what to expect. 

Thanks and Acknowledgements
I would like to extend my heart felt appreciation to all the organizers, staff, and volunteers of the Coastal Challenge 2016.  Rodrigo and Sergio put a lot of effort to make this happen for us. To the foot doctors who took care of our feet and the massage therapists, specially Sabino. To the Kitchen staff and Monica who made the meal plans. Bryan, Mauricio, and Ivan, the sweepers that I got to know and walk/run so many miles.  To all the fellow competitors who made the race so special for me, from the winners, Iain and Ester, and all the other people I ran with and shared my meals with. We all became a family for those 7 days. 








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