I suppose my journey to La Ruta began 7 years ago, hearing through the grapevine that 2 local pros were heading down to Costa Rica to race this infamous stage race in the co-ed duo category. I had only been racing for a year at the time, and these pros were my local heroes. So naturally I researched La Ruta and became enthralled as I read more and more about what was aptly dubbed “the hardest mountain bike race in the world.” That was the day I remember thinking to myself, “I hope one day I can do it.”
The race itself was started 25 years ago, the founders having a desire to recreate a mountain bike stage race whose course mirrored the same route the Spanish Conquistadors used to cross Costa Rica from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. 161 miles doesn’t sound too terribly daunting, so one must describe what those miles consist of; climbing over 5 mountain ranges with over 29,000 feet of vertical gain, summiting 2 active volcanoes that sit comfortably at 10,600 feet above sea level, trekking through the Carara Jungle where knee deep mud and piranha-infested river crossings are a normality, and carefully crossing bridges sans rails and a few rungs a hundred feet over flowing rivers where crocodiles are said to reside. The terrain is so harsh, that 500 years ago it took the Conquistadors 20 years to blaze the trails and get across to the Caribbean.
We had 3 days.
Day 0, Wednesday Nov. 1st: Racers began pouring in to Crocs Resort in Jaco, Costa Rica, all getting bikes reassembled after travel, checking into registration, and getting a mound of logistical questions answered. I suppose I expected the vibe to be stressed, frazzled and chaotic, with so many people trying to get everything arranged and taken care of. I expected the staff to perhaps be even more stressed, trying to assist us all with that “deer in headlights” looks on our faces. How wrong I was. The first thing I noticed was that everyone was cheerfully smiling; not fake, teeth-gritted smiles that of course would be expected with all of the logistics trying to be handled simultaneously. These were real, genuine, happy-to-help-in-any-way-I-can smiles. It was contagious. I was beginning to understand more of the country’s “Pura Vida” motto. The phrase translates to “Pure Life” and refers to the simple, carefree, quality lifestyle that Costa Ricans (Ticos) exude. It was becoming clear that there was something special and inviting about these people, and I felt truly honored to be in their presence.
I went into the Racer Meeting that night fairly calm, having the bike assembled and all my gear ready, having enjoyed walking around the town of Jaco, soaking in the local vibes. However, once the Medical Director began his 18-part Power Point presentation regarding our safety, I felt the nerves creep in. I went into this race mentally as prepped as I could be, knowing without a doubt that it would be the hardest race I’ve ever done, but there’s just something unnerving about emergency medical staff saying aloud phrases like, “my next point has to do with the impossibility of helicopter rescue….”
Day 1, November 2nd, Stage 1: 58 miles, 13.6K feet Elevation Gain, 12 hour Cutoff Time
The alarm got me up at 3:30am, and I felt as ready as I could be for the day of painful unknowns ahead. Stage 1 was touted as the toughest. It was the longest stage, at 59 miles, with the most climbing gained in a day, clocking over 13,000 ft. It would be one thing if it were nice trails, fire roads, perhaps a bit of singletrack sprinkled in to keep us on our toes. But this was La Ruta, afterall. Those 59 miles and 13K feet were done over steep mountain grades, where hiking is necessary, even for Elite Pros, rutted out mud trails where traction was a rare commodity, and of course it was the day we went through the Carara Jungle, where anything was possible, and carrying your bike through miles of mud up to your knees was normal. All this in 85 degree weather with 90% humidity. I tried not to think of what was ahead as I lined up at the starting line, taking in the celebration that was the beginning of La Ruta; news choppers, drones, ground camera crews, local spectators videoing with their phones, and 500 of us racers smiling, laughing, and taking selfies with the strangers next to you.
5. 4. 3. 2. 1. Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” blasted over through the speakers as we all passed under the official Start Line. Perhaps it was the race staff’s sense of humor, or perhaps they really did want to welcome us to the jungle. Nonetheless I pedaled away from the comforts of the Crocs Resort on the Pacific Ocean and pointed my tires east towards what looked like a mountainous Fangorn Forest, hoping that Guns N’ Roses wouldn’t be playing through my head for the next 12 hours. Within what felt like a matter of minutes, we were climbing an old dirt road. It was steep, long and relentless, and the weather was hot with high humidity. My arms began to tingle from what I could only assume was the heat beating down on the massive amounts of bug spray I had applied. But my legs and lungs felt good and I settled into pace up the first of the mountain ranges, enjoying the sounds of fellow racers chatting excitedly to each other in their own various languages.
Two hours later, we began an all-too-short descent into a small town where Checkpoint 1 was. A local Tico riding next to me shouted, “La Primera!”, announcing that we were done with the first climb of the day. I kept the obvious question of, “Yeah, out of how many?” to myself. I refueled at Checkpoint 1, filled my bottles and Camelback to the brim, waved hello to the town’s elementary school where all the school kids were pressed up against the fences cheering us on, and began the descent down the other side of La Primera Montana. We took a sharp left turn and instantly the terrain transformed. We were officially descending into the jungle. I smiled and soaked it in. I had dreamt of this moment for almost 7 years, since the day I put this race on my Bucket List. Though I knew that I had the hardest part of the race ahead of me, my brain felt ready to take it on. I let myself surrender to whatever was about to be put in my path.
Due to the hurricane that hit Costa Rica a few weeks prior, the mud was more relentless than La Ruta had seen in years past. Parts of the “trails” had washed away, and immediately following negotiating our way down the slides using ropes, we had to trudge our way through knee-deep mud pits keen on attempting to swallow our shoes off. However, the teamwork was amazing. Everyone helped and encouraged each other, no matter where you were from and what language you spoke. It made the slow progress more tolerable, dare I say pleasant at times even. We snaked (no pun intended) our way through the Carara jungle and all of its river crossings, where I was forced to take more time than I wanted having to attend to some technical issues with the mud. The last hour was starting to wear me down and anger me at the slow rate of progress. Yet I was still on a mission, and four hours later, I emerged from the jungle. True to La Ruta fashion, there was no relief to be had, as we were immediately climbing and hiking again, on roads, gravel trails, and yes, more dilapidated jungle singletrack. When the terrain involved pedaling, I was feeling good, and knew it was my only chance to make up lost time in the jungle, so I tried to pick up the pace, doing my best to drown out other racers’ conversations involving the next checkpoint’s cutoff time. But La Ruta is nothing if not relentless, and just when I would settle comfortably in to my GT137 and get into a good groove, the trail would bend and show its winning hand; another soul-crushingly steep hiking section ahead. As I dismounted the bike to begin yet more steep hiking, from somewhere in the depths of the trail below my feet, I swear I could hear the mountain laughing.
Nearly 13 hours later, I finished what is safe to say the hardest day of my life, in the dark. I had not made the 12 hour stage cutoff, both due to the nature of the terrain and the technical issues. My heart would have been more crushed but I suppose it was too exhausted. It uplifted me to learn an hour later that I was far from the only one who hadn’t made the cutoff either. I had neither time nor energy to dwell on it, as we had a 2:30am call time the next morning to be bussed to the start of Stage 2, the Volcano Stage. I slept a restless 3.5 hours, dreaming dreams through mud-colored lenses, and “In the jungle the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight” playing on repeat through my subconscious.
Stage 2, November 3rd, 48 miles, 9.9K elevation gain, 12 hour Cutoff:
Day 2 my alarm went off at 1:30am, and I could barely move. How was I supposed to ride a bike again, let alone climb up more mountains? This was the day we were to summit 2 of Costa Rica’s active volcanos. I knew the climbing would be tough, however it was mostly rideable, and that was encouraging. I scarfed down more breakfast than my stomach wanted, knowing my body needed as many calories as I could get in, and then got on the most silent bus ride I have ever been on to date. I looked around and saw perfect zombie-eyed reflections of the way I felt personified in the faces of the men surrounding me on the bus. “Phew, at least I’m not the only one that feels it.”
The race began in the dark, and I immediately noticed that the overall energy level at the start was more subdued. Stage 1 had left its mark on us all.
Far too quickly we began pointing up, and I mentally forced my legs to do precisely what they were protesting most; climb. My ears searched their surroundings for a distraction and thankfully found one in the form of some local Ticos playing a Led Zeplin song on a portable speaker and singing along as they climbed. My spirit was uplifted by their seeming celebration in the little things, despite yesterday’s pain, and despite the 17% incline we were currently ascending. We made our way out of town and said farewell to the comforts of pavement, as we began what can only be described as a cobblestone trail. I willed my legs to power up the steep grade and looked down at my heart rate reading. 143 bpm. With the way my leg muscles were feeling, I expected to at least be pushing 160. The ways the human body protects itself is fascinating, as I began to realize that the mere 3.5 hours sleep and far-too-quick turnaround time in between these hard efforts was not sufficient recovery for my body to perform at its best. I knew that would be the case, but I certainly expected slightly higher performance than the pathetic aerobic pace it was putting out. I banked the analysis in the back of my head into the rapidly growing “things to train better for” file and pressed on.
I did my best to take in the surrounding views as we made our way from practically sea level, up to 10,600 ft above. There wasn’t much in the way of conversation between me and any fellow racers. For the most part the nature of the day for many of us mere mortals seemed to be “heads down and gut it out” for much of that 28 mile climb. At one point I caught up to the group of animated Ticos again, and tried to get closer to see what their current playlist consisted of. It was the same Led Zeplin song, and once again, they were singing along to it. La Pura Vida was a beautiful thing to witness. It made me smile.
Also as diverse as the terrain in Costa Rica is the weather. Temps dropped significantly the further up the hill we got. The light drizzle turned to hail, and the wind was relentless. Having opted to not carry a jacket, I emptied out 2 ziplock bags, one containing leftover french fries, the other containing toilet paper. My stomach was knotted up from something I ate at breakfast so the French fries were an easy one to toss out. However the latter I opted to save in the bottom of my shoe just in case this gut bomb took a turn for the worse. I shoved the empty baggies over my feet inside my shoes to help cut the wind chill and officially passed through Checkpoint 2.
After summiting, we had an 18 mile descent, and following the first few miles of steep, puncture-enducing rocks, the trail opened up into a gravel road, followed by miles of paved road. It was a welcome relief as I tucked into a ball and had a blast speeding down the remainder of the mountain, pushing speeds near 40 mph. As we made our way through town, every turn through the streets was lined with local cheering and smiling. I finished the stage in 7:57, but not without La Ruta having the last laugh. One of the Shimano flags blew over right in front of me before crossing the Finish Line and I was forced to slam on my brakes, dismount the bike, and pick it up before race staff helped lift it out of the way. “Never a dull moment” I thought to myself as I giggled my way across the finish.
I ate some food and boarded the bus to the next hotel, which turned out to be the highlight of the trip. It was a beautiful B&B sitting up above the rainforest, Rancho Naturalista. This open-air, nature-inspired haven was exactly what the doctor ordered. I sat on the porch, elevated my legs, sipped delicious Costa Rican coffee, and proceeded to bird watch, deeply grateful for some extra time to recover in such a relaxing place, as the call time the next morning was later in the day.