Photos lost with computer crash :(
Team Bones (USA) racer Jason Quinn gives SleepMonsters an exclusive first-hand report of their race. Jason and team-mates Roy Malone, Chris Barry and Louisa Jenkins took first place in the competition, traveling 450 km from Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast and making it to the northern Caribbean coast in about 91 hours. The team donated $500 of their prize money to a one-room school that served as a PC for the race.
It could have been the start of a classic Western. High noon in the hot sun, a duel just beginning. But rather than a gunfight, it was a wild race through the jungles and rivers and mountains of Costa Rica that
began on the deserted beach. It had to be noon, because the spit of land that we started on is underwater when the tide is in, so for that day either noon or midnight... and like any good race director, Mike has a slightly masochistic bent and there is far more potential for physiologic carnage when you exert yourself during the hottest part of the day in the tropics.
When one of our teammates arrived without her bike and box of gear, we were worried that our race might not even begin. But the race organization only puts on races in their free time and runs a wildly successful adventure tourism business with fleets of bikes and kayaks. So after a little wheeling and dealing, we had ourselves the gear we’d need to actually do the race. Granted it wasn’t the carbon fiber goodies we were used to, but the saying holds true in Costa Rica as well... beggars can’t be choosers.
After a night in San Jose, we were all spirited away to the coast for the start of the race and our real first night in the jungle. As we sat on the porch of our cabana and went over our gear for the 1043rd time, the jungle just came alive with sounds coming from everywhere. Like some bizarre new age symphony, untold creatures began their nightly ritual of looking for mates, or food. When something that looked like a grasshopper the size of a banana landed on Roy’s bike box, we all looked at each other and decided that no matter what, we were not going to lie down and sleep in the jungle... promises were made to be broken, right?
The next day we began the race like all expedition races, as if the race is only 3 hours, and were practically sprinting down the beach for the first 6 km run to our bikes. From there we had a relatively short (35-40 km) ride with some pretty wickedly steep hike a bike, and a few pretty hairy descents. Louisa’s borrowed bike did fairly well considering it was designed and built to withstand a serious beating from unskilled tourists. And after only one major rain-inspired crash, and one broken chain, we arrived at the first TA just as dark was setting in.
Having received all the maps before the race began, we knew a little about where we were going, but since we didn’t get any of the coordinates until we reached the TAs, we weren’t sure how big and bad the trek would be. Mike had mentioned in the captains meeting that the trek would be about 100 km, but even plotting all the points in that first TA only gave us a hint at what we were in for. After about 1 hour in the TA spent breaking down our bikes, eating and getting the maps ready, we headed out into the night in 1st place for what we hoped would be a 30-35 hour trek... I said hoped.
The first 3 hours of the trek were pretty uneventful with a long slow climb away from civilization to a manned checkpoint at a remote farm. Once there we had to follow some critical instructions to find
the “trail” to get through the next 8-9 miles of jungle. The “trail” in question proved to be a slightly less dense swath of jungle that went straight down, then across, then straight up a mountain. It didn’t exactly feel like a trail, or like anyone had likely ever hiked on it. Rather, it felt like someone with an industrial jungle-strength weed whacker drank too much coffee and went running off through the jungle.
So after slipping, sliding, scrambling, and crawling all without trying to actually touch the ground lest we accidentally touch one of the giant spiders scurrying around our feet, we finally stumbled out into the village of Angeles (population 18). The owner of the local pulperia (aka mini-mart) opened up shop for us at 4 am and cooked up some chicken-flavored hockey pucks which we scarfed down before heading up higher into the mountains.
After Angeles, we were tasked to find the trail to Mount Lira. According to our instructions, it was near a pink house with an electric fence... right. It’s 4 in the morning, you’re in the middle of Costa Rica, you’re stuffed full of chicken pucks looking for a pink house. A little embarrassed, I decided to ask our cook if he knew of a pink house. “Of course,” he said, and pointed up the road. So up we went... and up and up. Hours later when my teammates finally saw the pink house (I’m color blind and couldn’t pick out a pink house to save my soul... and yes, my girlfriend does have to dress me on occasion to keep me from embarrassing myself publicly). Here the trail turned back into the jungle for hours of up and down on what could only be called an actual trail using a definition so broad even Webster would cringe.
As we neared the top of Mount Lira I heard a loud crash in the bush to my right. We had seen some big spiders the night before, but if this was a spider, I was quitting the race. When I looked to the right I saw either the biggest all-black house cat who just happened to be lost in the wilds of Costa Rica, or an actual Jaguar sitting in a tree.
I called for Chris to confirm the sighting, and protect me should the cat get any wild ideas, but at my shouting and flailing wildly, the Jaguar jumped out of the tree and ran away. Hours later after crossing some sketchy log bridges, we entered the second night of our trek as we climbed up to the continental divide and the highest point of the race.
Two of the checkpoints in this section was going to be somewhat difficult. Mike, the race director had said that the coordinates might not be exact, but we should be able to follow the directions given to us and find them without too much difficulty. After spending 3 hours looking for the first one, we were caught by the second place team (Aditec). We told them they were happy to take their time and scour the 2 square km of 3000-meter peak that we’d been searching for the past 3 hours, but go figure, they decided to trust us as we bailed on the CP and began looking for a way out of the mountains and follow us. Well, no sooner had we moved on than we found the CP and began racing again for the 2nd CP on the mountain that would also be difficult... This CP was on the trail... if only we could keep from losing the trail. Four hours later we laid down to sleep until daylight when we figured the trail would be easier to find. Team Aditec joined us in a 4-hour frozen sleep at 10,000 feet in the jungle (note, we had vowed not to sleep in the jungle, but we really had no choice and despite my fear of spiders I crawled under my space blanket for some pseudo-sleep).
The next morning the trail was much clearer, though not so clear that Aditec wasn’t able to choose a way that got them to the next CP a full hour ahead of us. Once there we had an AMAZING home cooked meal and discussed some of the finer points of living off the land in Costa Rica. Having hit our
high point, the rest of the trek was “all downhill” right? uhhh, no. We crossed the continental divide and entered Tapanti National Park, also the wettest area of Costa Rica.
After hiking for about 6 hours in some amazingly wet, muddy jungle we caught and passed Team Aditec and got to a point where the trail kind of ended. Re-reading our race instructions, we saw that we were supposed to “find a trail that led down to the river” then travel along the river to a road that would finally lead us to the next CP. Well, the river couldn’t be too far away because we could hear it... or was that the sound of the rain?
After some failed attempts at bushwhacking and following trails that ended in impenetrable forest or hillside so steep it made my vertigo return, we backtracked to the last point where we were sure the trail existed to find Aditec there contemplating their maps. Here we had a decision to make. It was pouring down rain, and we still hadn’t lost so much elevation to be where it was much warmer, so with darkness only 2 hours away, we knew that if we were forced to spend the night out there, we were going to need to build some shelter or risk a dangerous night. We decided to try one more direction looking for a way to the river, but also looking for a possible place to hole up for the night. Luckily, we found a passable way to the river and put on a serious hustle to the road. Feeling pretty good, we left Aditec behind and hit the road running.
At the next TA, we devoured some food, built our bikes and began the last real stage that would punish our legs. Only about 40 km, the section had 2 pretty big climbs, but lots of flat in between that we figured we could make some good time. And we did until something snagged my tire and tore the sidewall away from the beading. Sitting there with a tire completely destroyed, we thought our race might be over. Maybe it was the sleep deprivation or the high doses of caffeine, but we got wicked creative MacGyver-style and used nylon webbing/ duct tape/ GU wrappers/ patch kit/ and more duct tape to create a working solution in about an hour.
An hour later after some pretty hard riding, we got to the town of La Suiza and the next CP. The tire had been holding up really well, but we still had at least 3 more hours of riding and none of us were too excited about trying it on our arts and crafts project. So we began asking locals who were on their way to work at 5 am if we could buy one of their bike tires. Most of them just started pedaling faster and taking a wide path around the smelling, strange-looking gringos. But one guy actually listened to our plight and agreed to sell us his tire. Before we knew it we were on our way.
Cruising into the end of the bike ride, we had a quick transition for a short hike, ropes course in the trees, and 3-hour raft down the class III-IV Pacuare River. From there, we had a long... long... long kayak. A quick transition and setting up of our kayaks and we were off on a 100 km paddle. The first 30 km was down the Pacuare River with a few sandbars, but otherwise pretty uneventful. Then the way turned NW and followed a series of canals through the mangrove swamps along the coast. Without the river’s current to help us, the pace slowed considerably, and with night setting in, the sleep monsters came out in force. We sang we yelled, we pinched ourselves, we smacked each other with our paddles, we ate and drank every last caffeinated item we had. But the things that had the most profound effect on keeping us awake were the frogs. Yes, giant albino man-eating frogs... well, they were probably man-eating. Paddling along, minding our own business at 1 am and suddenly these giant white flailing shapes are leaping out of the water 5-6 feet in the air all around us. About the size of a 10 lb Thanksgiving turkey, one would start a chain reaction and then 2, or 4 would just explode out of the water. While their flight paths may have looked random, too many were directed right at my head for me to believe it. For the next few hours, we were so wide awake it hurt... no really, it hurt bad.
Finally, after 17 hours in a sit-on-top kayak, we reached Vista al Mar, just outside of Tortuguera and crossed the finish line. First place, first expedition race for half of the team, first-rate race. Overall a truly epic experience. Writing this I’ve realized how jam-packed these last few days has been with amazing experiences and people. Far too many to list them all here.
Sitting here on the beach in this little villa drinking a beer and elevating my swollen feet I’m already starting to wonder what marvels I’ll see next year. For anyone looking for a well run, affordable, serious expedition race, in an amazing locale, you’ve gotta check out this race.