Adventure Racing World Championship
This year the World Championship of adventure racing was held in Costa Rica, a country with a strong pedigree for adventure. At 880 kms, it was a long race. The objective was to hit all four borders of the country by bike, foot, and kayak. Like any big race, just getting the entire team and gear to the starting line in good condition is a challenge. For Team Bones, Delta Airlines got us and our gear there in good shape (thanks for nothing, United Air!)
JQ: We started at the Costa Rica/Panama border with a short 2 km run to our bike boxes where in a frantic mess we built our bikes and got our first real look at the maps for the 90 km ride. We had an uneventful beginning that saw teams taking several different routes right from the start. The info we’d been given on the ride told of a mostly downhill course to the TA near the Pacific coast, and we were initially suspicious of what seemed a relatively slow projected time of 10 hours. However, when we got to the only real climb of the section, we quickly understood the time estimate. Initially a steep hike-a-bike on a wet rocky road, it quickly turned into one of the most miserable hike-a-bike sections ever. Rainforest erosion had turned a little-used road into a narrow single track muddy channel at times 8 feet deep, too narrow to hike/walk next to your bike or even sling your bike across your back. As the race directors had mentioned in the pre-race briefing we were soon cursing them as we slowly slipped, scrambled our way to the ridge. After about 3 hours of slogging with the bikes, at times in a single file line of too many teams to count, we reached the much more manageable ridge. A few unrideable meadows and barbed wire fences and we reached some roads that would only improve as we got closer to the transition area. By now, the rain had started, and the dirt roads we were riding on became a bit treacherous. Coming down one section of incredibly slick, thin, clay-like mud, both Roy and Andy, who were just ahead, crashed. Mari and I quickly got off our bikes to walk, while several teams behind us also crashed. Andy popped up quickly, but Roy was clearly injured as he was slow to get moving again. Worried about his shoulder, I gave him a quick eval and found that he had clearly broken a rib(s). (As x-rays after the race showed, Roy had broken 3 ribs on the first day of what would be an 8-day race for us.) Back on the bikes and moving cautiously, we eventually finished the bike in 14 place or so, having been passed several times by some of the top teams (they pass us going mock 10, make a wrong turn, we somehow get ahead of them, and then they correct their mistake and rocket past us again).
The first transition was a little time consuming as we had to set up our inflatable kayaks for the first time, positioning the seats, inflating the boats, and prepping our gear for what we anticipated would be 36 hours away from our gear boxes and resupply. We headed off down the river into the dark and thick fog with our boats loaded and Roy beginning to appreciate how much one uses their chest/core when paddling. Several hours into the paddle, we had to change up our strategy and put Roy in a less strenuous position in the boats. We swapped him into the boat with Andy (by far the strongest paddler on the team). This worked fairly well, and while not as fast as we would normally be, we didn’t feel like we lost too much during that first 13 hour paddle.
As we got out of the water after the first paddle, we headed into a 30 km trek carrying all of our kayak gear except the boats. The boats were transported ahead to a point where we would have to add them to our load for an additional 10 km trek. All teams brought portage wheels to use for this section and most fashioned makeshift rickshaws to carry their gear for the first 30 km. Our little rickshaw was working great and kept us feeling light and springy for about half of our 30 km when one of the wheels exploded. The tread had somehow been completely shredded and the wheel was beyond repair.
Now we had to carry all our gear AND our broken portage wheels. After being passed by a few teams with still functioning rickshaws, we got to the boat pick up and took a quick nap before what would be the most difficult section so far for us. Carrying all the gear (and two 55lb boats) with Roy’s broken ribs on a muddy treacherous road in the dark would be challenging, duh. Somehow, despite being passed by several teams with functioning portage wheels, we arrived near the next checkpoint and paddling put in with several teams that were previously ahead of us. Confusing maps and the night had significantly slowed them down.
The next section, a 65 km paddle through a maze-like mangrove estuary, proved to be good for us. Despite having to make some changes to our normal paddling setup to accommodate for broken ribs, we nailed the navigation and consistently had faster paddling teams catch and pass us, only to catch and pass us repeatedly as we methodically picked our way through less than obvious channels and dead-end swamp. Navigation and timing were especially tricky as the tide determined whether you would be paddling with or against the current. Several teams experienced a double jeopardy when the tide went out by getting stuck in the mud. With waist-deep sludge making foot travel impossible, these teams were marooned in their boats for eight hours to wait for the tide to come back in. As we finally paddled without mishap into the transition area to begin a long bike, we were feeling good.
Biking out of the TA was a bit surreal in dense fog. Now into the third night of the race, we’d only slept 90 minutes and knew we’d need a sleep before the night was over. After a few minutes of confusion when we found a highway that was not on our 40-year-old maps, we came to the “Cuesta del Burro” (or donkey hill). I heard later that there were some racers who actually rode the entire thing, which I can’t imagine. Ridiculously steep and at times very loose, we pretty much hiked our bikes the 3000 or so vertical feet over the next several miles passing several puddles of puke left by prior teams who must have hit the hill in the heat of the day.
At the top of the hill was the “Superman de Osa,” the worlds longest zipline (or so we were told). It is essentially a 2 km zipline through the rainforest reaching speeds of 90km/hr that we did in the dark. After a surreal monochromatic blur highlighted by a few moments of abject fear, the cone of light created by my headlamp expanded into the well-lit bottom of the zipline and the braking mechanism that kept me from launching over the ridge and into the Pacific Ocean. Once we’d all finished the zip, we had a short hike back to our bikes at the top of the ridge and some decisions to make regarding sleep.
The generator for the lights at the top of the zip was loud, so we elected to ride for an hour or so before finding a place to sleep. We ended up choosing poorly and sleeping close to a house with roosters and barking dogs for about an hour. Although not ideal, it gave us enough rest to push on to the next TA and mandatory 4 hour stop.
The rest of the ride wasn’t particularly eventful. We jockeyed with Merrill and Adidas Terrex for a while before getting separated several hours before the TA. After a treacherous river crossing with our bikes, we had a long slog up to the mandatory rest but refueled on ice cream bars and coke from a little roadside market.
At the mandatory stop, we had a good hot meal, freezing cold shower, and 2-hour nap before embarking on a 100 km trek over the continental divide and down through nearly uninhabited jungle. Starting with an 8000-foot climb to the top of Cerro Chirripo (the highest point in Costa Rica at 12,400 ft), we expected the trek to take us about 48 hours but hoped for less. We’d come into the mandatory stop in a good position (7th I think) and started up the climb feeling pretty good, but the sleep monsters were hitting me hard by the time we reached the lodge near the top and we elected for another sleep. In hindsight, I think this was our one tactical mistake of the race. Sure there were minor navigational mistakes, as there always are. But taking another sleep relatively close to the one we’d just had, and making it a 3-hour sleep at that, put us quite a ways behind the group we’d been racing with (Merrill and Adidas Terrex). Sometimes once you lose contact with a group of teams it becomes impossible to catch back up. I don’t think the 3 hours really helped us that much and think we could have had as much benefit from a much shorter sleep, or simply taken a bit longer sleep at the mandatory stop and been able to skip the sleep in the mountain shelter. Regardless, hindsight is always tough to evaluate objectively.
The rest of our trek was challenging, beautiful, frustrating, and at times treacherous. Descending 4000 feet on the overgrown muddy, steep trail, was tricky without broken ribs. Every 5 minutes one of us would slip, fall, curse, and repeat. Looking back on it, I’m even more impressed that Roy was able to remain so stoic. After a few confusing sections that required a little backtracking to confirm our position, we eventually made it to the more inhabited end of the valley where indigenous people have been living for thousands of years. As we prepared for the final push over a ridge to the end of the trek, we were caught by 2 teams while we were fueling up and getting water from a creek. The jungle trek gave way to a miserable march down a road for several miles to a checkpoint and mandatory 1 hour medical stop. They looked us over, worked a bit on Mari’s and Roy’s feet, and let us sleep on the deck for an hour. After our sleep, we made quick work of the rest of the trek and had a quick transition to start the next bike section.
Our bike went well once I got over the predawn sleep monsters. A punishing hike/carry-a-bike in the middle was tricky, but we arrived at the TA to begin the rafting and long kayak in good spirits. We knew the next couple of sections were going to be tough with Roy’s ribs and were beginning to formulate a plan to make the kayak paddling more efficient. But first, we had the class IV Rio Pacuare to navigate. Luckily, our river guide, Enzo, was incredible and we blazed through the whitewater without a hitch. Mentally trashed, we didn’t really appreciate how incredible the river was at the time. Looking back at pictures makes me want to go paddle it again.
Our next challenge was a 90+km paddle with broken ribs through another mangrove swamp and coastal canal system through the night. We figured it would take us about 20 hours to complete the section. To make the paddling more efficient, we decided to connect our boats and create essentially one long 4 person boat. We found some 8-foot chunks of bamboo in the jungle and borrowed a machete from a local to fashion supports to create a monohull. With Roy essentially unable to paddle after 6 days of punishing jungle adventure with 3 broken ribs, we were able to put him in the middle and not lose too much speed with him not paddling. Our plan worked well, and while we were not any faster than two 2 person boats with healthy paddlers, we were much faster than a 2 paddler boat and a 1 paddler boat would have been. Plus, this way everyone got to hear me singing “crazy train” by Ozzy Osbourne at the top of my lungs in an effort to stay awake during the mind-numbingly long canal section of the paddle.
RM: The paddle was in a Mangrove canal that paralleled the Carribean Ocean and the East Coast of the country. Once, during the middle of the night, we stopped paddling to yield to an approaching light on the water. It ended up being a patrol boat out looking for troublemakers. By the time Jason finished talking with them, out boats had turned in the current and we started paddling back the way we had come. Luckily, the patrol boat noticed this and corrected our course- paddling gets tricky at night when you’re sleep deprived.
At the end of the paddle, we had to deflate and fold our boats before trekking to the next bike leg. The takeout was in a miserable swamp. Knee-deep mud and clouds of mosquitos motivated us to make quick work of the activity. Any stoppage in movement would result in a blanket of bloodsucking blackness on any exposed skin. The trudge through the muck was demoralizing as trashed, waterlogged feet were exposed to rancid slime and open sores were further irritated. Once we hit a road the rest of the trek was long but not hard and we got to the bike transition around midnight. Opting for some sleep before we took on the next 155km bike section, we crashed on the tile floor of an old abandoned restaurant and slept for an hour- what would be the last sleep we would take before the finish line.
Looking at the maps for the final bike leg, it appeared that we would be faced with 60 kms of travel in a swamp. Mentally, we steeled ourselves for a tough time making progress through the swamp. After some navigational wizardry by Jason, we found a tough first checkpoint under a bridge and entered the “swamp” area just as daylight began. Fortunately, the “swamp” had been farmed over the years and was now a maze of roads and paths that served as boundaries for individual crops. The challenge was not in making progress but making sure it was in the right direction. After several hours with only minor retracing incidents, we hit the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border, before heading back inland. The humidity became debilitating as we headed back south.
Towards the end of the day, we approached the last checkpoint of the ride- one that Jason was able to find without too much trouble, but what was a significant challenge for many teams- especially at night. It required a log crossing of a river with a 20‘ fall if there were any missteps. Despite the slippery logs, we managed to make it across with our bikes and a quick trip down the hill took us to the paved road (ahhh......) and the zip lines.
The zip lines provided a fun distraction from sore legs, feet, butt, (everything, actually), but wasn’t a cure for sleep-deprived hallucinations and Mari and I swore that the lines were dropping metal filings on us, making us itch like crazy.
The final leg of the race was a class II whitewater section, guided by a super friendly local, whose name I should remember, but don’t because I kept falling asleep. We hit the water after the dam-controlled flow had been shut down for the night, and so it was a slow and bumpy ride off rocks as we “raced” to the finish, alternatively paddling and nodding off as the moonlight provided the only means of avoiding the river’s obstacles.
At the end of the water section, there was a sprint-hobble to the finish line, which was about 1/2 km away. The bike shoes on concrete provided the final punishment of the race as Jason motivated us to finish strong. The cadre of race management (Pongo, Antonio, and Johana), along with many members of the volunteer staff, and our friends from Tecnu and Dark Horse were all there to see us cross the line and it was good to see them.
After almost 200 hours of racing, and only 10 hours of sleep, we finished in 9th place in the 2013 AR World Championships in Costa Rica. The course was designed similar to those old-school races of Eco-Challenge and Southern Traverse days, which featured as many mental challenges as physical, tough navigational decisions, and many tactical and strategic options. It was everything Pongo promised- hardcore tough.
Each race has its own personality. For me, this one was raw and unforgiving. There were times when it would have been easy to sit down and have a good cry. But having a team that is unselfishly suffering as much or more at times, is a strong motivator to suck it up and keep plugging along. Certain race events create indelible memories. One that I will always remember is the team’s effort and time it took to create a “barge” out of the two boats to accommodate my disability during the final paddle.
Jason was incredibly accurate in his navigation with less-than-accurate maps and his emergency room Spanish came in very handy when conversing with the locals. Mari was probably the strongest athlete both physically and mentally, carrying packs, pushing bikes and constantly amazing us all with her cheery spirit even in our darkest moments. Andy was, as usual, a beast- carrying the heavy loads and mitigating my kayaking weakness with his paddling brawn. He pushed his feet so hard during the race that he ended up spending the days after the race in a wheelchair. After my fall on day one, I tried my best to hang on and contribute when possible doing my best to keep my whining to a minimum.
Our goal was a top-ten finish, and we succeeded against a very tough field of sixty teams from around the world. It continues to amaze me what tenacity and teamwork can accomplish.