April 18, 2013 13 Comments
In the last two months I’ve been putting in some time on the trails to prepare for the two ultramarathons I intend to finish this summer. Once a week I leave the hard pavement of Chicago’s lake front path for the more secluded dirt paths of the Palos Forest Reserve in hopes of strengthening my legs in ways that repetitive road running can’t. But though it’s genuinely trail running that I’ve been doing, I haven’t exactly made it a difficult experience. Sure, there is more elevation and some rocks and roots to dodge, but the trails I’ve chosen haven’t been very technical. It’s partly my fault because I haven’t really sought out other options. Despite this, my limited experience with trails has helped me become a stronger runner, not just in how much punishment my legs can take, but in how much confidence I have that I can finish these daunting races.
So when I found myself in Costa Rica for a close friend’s wedding, I decided to try and hit up the local trail running circuit and bolster my trail résumé with an international event. I found one called Cerros de Escazú which had 21km (half marathon) and 10k race options. I signed up for the half and convinced Chori, another friend of mine from high school, to sign up for the 10k.
It soon became clear that we had signed up for a famously difficult race. That was apparent in the race title, which means “Mountains of Escazú.” San José, the capital of Costa Rica, was built in the middle of a valley and while some of the surrounding mountains appear to rise gradually from the ground, those that overlook Escazú rise dramatically and tower over the city. I knew all of this when I signed up but assumed that the race would take place around the base of the mountain. I was expecting a few climbs, soft mountain dirt and at least a little technical hopscotch.
I was very, very mistaken.
Everyone else, family and friends alike, seemed to be aware of just how awful it was going to be. My sister cautioned me that it had pretty much everything I couldn’t simulate in the last 6 months: elevation, mountains and the tropical climate. There had also been an unusual heat wave going through San José and it wasn’t going to stop for a small race of just a few hundred people. Family members who lived in Escazú gave me concerned looks just when I told them where it started. But as I ate a delicious pasta meal with everyone the night before, I talked about the next day’s challenge with enough sangfroid to calm a 90-pound linebacker. Because if we’re being honest, I get a definite rush of excitement and pride when people tell me what I’m about to do is nuts. I knew the race would be tough – that’s why I picked it over a flat 10k happening a few miles away. But I also knew I would finish it, come what may.
Of course, it wouldn’t be easy.
I was at the starting area in San Antonio de Escazú with my parents about an hour before the start of the race. While Escazú has for a long time been the more posh area of San José, with designer stores and plenty of US restaurant franchises, the town plaza in San Antonio was nothing like that. Packet pickup was in front of the local church on a soccer pitch, which was surrounded by a wall that had been carved with images of carretas, campesinos and bueyes, hallmarks of the small country’s rich cultural heritage. Locals gathered around small pulperías, música charanga echoed out of restaurants, the clamor of the city (bulla) far below.
With my bib pinned to my shorts and a Camelbak slung over my shoulders, it was almost time to go. My uncle Randy had showed up at the starting line with his two adorable daughters and quickly mapped out what the course was like. The event’s Facebook page had a rudimentary diagram of the route but I didn’t delve too much into it. But Randy found out, probably from a seasoned veteran, and quickly pointed to a nearby peak.
“That’s where you’re going now, and then you go to that one,” he said, pointing from one peak to the next with a sinister grin. I, on the other hand, had more of a nervous smile as I stared at the rising earth before me.
“I’m putting this on airplane mode so you don’t waste the battery,” Randy said as he stuffed a phone in the Camelbak. “Take a picture at the point where you lose all energy (fundirse) so the geo-tracking can mark it.”
I knew he was only half joking. You couldn’t stare up at the cerros without a lot of concern. The night before I had predicted a three-hour finish, taking into account the trail, the altitude and potential heat. But I hadn’t counted on the race course going, to put it scientifically, balls to the wall. The organizers weren’t kidding around – we were going straight up and for a long time. Chori had read somewhere that it was the toughest race in the country after Chirripó, which would be the North American equivalent of Mt. McKinley.
Me embarqué, I thought. Definitely more than I could confidently chew.
The race started surprisingly on time. A bright orange arch had been inflated over the street and a crowd had gathered underneath. The announcer fired off a few last-minute warnings and directives before sounding the horn. The first few strides were on asphalt as we left the main city center. Randy was at the start and took a video of the field. Less than two minutes into the race, we were going uphill. Not just gradually uphill, but straight up, feel your shoes on your toes uphill. I told Chori I’d run with him until the 10k turnaround so up we went together, the sun beating down on our backs, sweat already dripping onto the black road below.
Laugh at how much taller I am than everyone else:
“Falta muuuucho!” a revelrous runner yelled from behind us. At the time, I couldn’t tell if what he said was a question (“Is there a lot left?”) or a statement (“There’s a lot left!”). It was the worst time to hear such a comment because the race was already difficult, with absolutely nothing behind us and all of it still to come. To add to the challenge, we had started at 4,000 feet, the air already feeling slightly thinner than Chicago’s sea-level oxygen. We were plodding upwards on our toes to the tune of a 14-minute mile, many runners already walking. Some were even walking as fast as I was running. For those first two miles I contemplated taking a walk break but soon learned that doing so, for an ineffable reason that I’m sure has a simple physiological explanation, was more fatiguing than running.
I eventually had to take a break, so I walked to the side of the road and took a few pictures. My shirt was almost completely soaked in sweat by then. We had passed an aid station where volunteers had tins full of bolis, plastic water pouches whose corners you bite to open. Every race I’ve done in Costa Rica has them and last year’s Miami Half Marathon implemented them to much acclaim from its Latin American contingent. They’re useful because they’re much easier to carry without spillage than cups and much easier for the volunteers to transport.
The road soon turned to dry dirt and rocks, but the slope stayed the same. Every new turn meant another climb, another dashed hope that we had somehow miraculously made it to the top. My visor was soaked, dripping with every footfall, sweat sliding off my elbows with every thrust of my arms. Although the heat was tolerable, there were many stretches where we couldn’t hide from the sun. I was using my calves like they had never been used before and my forefoot was getting far too comfortable with being the only part touching the ground.
“Por dicha he estado practicando en esa cuesta por mi choza,” Chori said as he strode onward. Despite being a lifelong athlete, he too was struggling to avoid the dreaded uphill walk.
Around mile 3, at long last, it seemed like we had found a brief respite. The course flattened out and even dipped downward a bit. We had reached the top of a ridge connecting the different peaks and on both sides were majestic views of Costa Rica. To my right were endless mountains draped in jungle, to my left the entirety of San José. This is what it was like to look left and right:
After taking a few pictures, I noticed that the 10k “escape” route was ahead, so I waited for Chori and said goodbye. He turned downhill and I continued onward into a single-track trail that was barely wide enough for one person. I was alternating between looking up and down because while I was trying to avoid roots and rocks, I had to also be mindful of branches. I was the tallest person at the race so I’d be facing more obstacles than anyone else.
I was keeping a constant 14-minute pace, wondering whether I’d be able to maintain it as we continued climbing. It wasn’t long before I’d get my answer. Around mile 4, the path reached the edge of a dropoff, with nothing but barbed wire stopping a potential fall. Though everyone slowed down at this vertiginous section, all runners became walkers upon reaching a canyon-like hiking trail carved straight into the mountain as if by a giant axe. The ground was a damp, orange dirt, with ground leaves adding to the instability. My hands were given the unusual task of doing something during a race as I had to hoist myself up numerous times with tree trunks and exposed roots. I could go no faster than the person directly ahead of me, whose shoes were at my eye level.
Up and up we continued, the jungle getting thicker, the air thinner and my heartbeat pounding in my head. We weren’t moving fast at all, but even if we wanted to speed up, there was no room to pass.
“Di qué, yo pensé que esto era una carrera?!” the runner in front of me said, prompting a few laughs from those ahead of him. Not long after, he would yell “Falta muuuucho!” and I realized it was the same person from the first mile. He didn’t sound or look tired, but like everyone else, kept a slow pace as he marched with the rest of us like ants up the trail. It was around this point that I started getting worried about missing my flight. I had to be at the airport in three hours. Would I have enough time to finish, go home and shower? Miles were now taking upwards of twenty minutes to complete and I still had more than halfway to go. If I could just make it to the top …
The top of the climb did eventually arrive, but I do not remember it. I suppose I was expecting a simple, rounded peak, over which I’d run with my arms thrown above me and eventually descend. But instead, the trail simply stopped climbing and soon I was leaning back, pounding the dirt with my quads, using my hands to swing around trees and stop myself from going too fast. It was here that I saw how much experience these runners had with downhill running. For though we were hiking in single file uphill at the same pace, I very quickly lost those ahead of me as the ground dropped.
And somehow, I wasn’t going fast. I could hear the rapid fire of my feet hitting the dirt, the split second of panic while airborne, quickly searching for the next rock to avoid without going off trail. The world was passing by me one obstacle at a time, but my pace was still registering in the twenties. It took me a few minutes to realize the steepness of the slope was responsible for my slow pace. I couldn’t run consistently downhill, opting instead for a series of short bursts as I’d face each individual obstacle. I was using my arms more than I had ever used them during a race, pushing branches out of the way, bracing my fall against trunks and slapping mosquitoes off my skin. The dirt path quickly became another dirt half pipe, which had me running from wall to wall as if on a swing. It was fun at times, but I was a little concerned. I was already feeling a pinch in my quads with every step and I didn’t dare imagine what shade of purple my toenails were adopting.
The thick jungle soon changed into what looked like pines, the dry dirt below almost from another climate. There was no longer a discrete path to take, but a general wooded area with large rocks and lumps of earth making a smooth descent almost impossible. The trees in this section looked like their lowest branches had been sawed off, leaving four inch spikes right where my hands would have gone to stop a fall or during a break. It definitely felt like I was in a video game and I was facing continuously more difficult levels.
Soon after, the course became considerably less precipitous. But this convenience was countered by the large rocks that made up its surface. I couldn’t run or even walk without considering every single step I was taking. I would miss the flat side of a rock and accidentally dig a sharp point into the ball of my foot, a quick stab of pain preceding a loud curse. More than one false step caused my ankles to roll inward slightly. I was very relieved when the path once again became soft dirt, only to see it start climbing again. I clipped a root and fell three large, booming steps forward before catching myself. On the downhill, my left foot slipped from beneath me on a patch of loose dirt and I threw my hands behind me to stay upright. Besides those quick incidents, I stayed upright for the remainder of the race.
Down and down I continued, each step increasing the acid building up in my quads and the ache in my foot. We had spilled out of the jungle and into what looked like empty lots covered in overgrown grass. After sliding down a few slopes, we made it back to black asphalt. The road felt tough on my feet after 10 or so miles of dirt, grass and mud. Though downhill, I couldn’t go much faster than a 9-minute pace. Locals were out, walking on the street, most likely on their way to Sunday mass. I passed several dogs who barely noticed I was there. I kept rotating my visor to protect me from wherever the sun was, the only movement I made for the next three miles besides move my feet and bite into water pouches.
I took my phone out and called my parents, telling them I was probably about thirty minutes away from the finish line and that I would love some sort of electrolyte drink at the finish. Ten minutes later I ran into a volunteer who told me to turn left, up a tiny hill, “y de ahí, seiscientos metros.”
But as I came to the top of that tiny bump, I saw the orange finish arch in the distance. I called my parents again and told them I was wrong, that I was about to finish. Suddenly I was capable of actually running again, as if the last three hours had done nothing to my system. Block by block, intersection by intersection, I approached the finish line, the announcer’s voice becoming louder than my breathing. Just a block away, I heard her call my name, telling the crowd I was from Chicago and that I was about to finish as an ambassador to the event.
Three hours and seven minutes had passed since I had started the toughest race of my life. My dad was just beyond the finish line with a bag full of different flavors of Gatorade. I took one and finished it in about five ambrosial gulps. It was a mistake to go into this race without a salty beverage, but in no time I was back to feeling normal. Two hours later, I would be at the airport, waiting for my flight back to the United States, my third Costa Rican race and a kitchen sink weekend under my belt.
Though the race was a bit shy of a half marathon, it made up for the shortage with its 7,700 feet of altitude change. And yes, I had fun. I wouldn’t do this kind of event regularly, I might not even do it again if I were to find myself in Costa Rica on this same weekend next year. But I’m very glad I did it. If the one-of-a-kind scenic views of the Central Valley weren’t alone worth the climb, then surely the primal romp through the jungle sealed the deal. This race pushed me outside of my comfort zone, slapped me in the face, pushed me in the dirt and asked me who was in charge. Despite that rude awakening, I managed to reach the finish line in one piece.
As I write this, my legs are extremely sore. This wouldn’t be an issue were it not for the Garmin Marathon this Saturday and the recent Boston Marathon incident still very fresh in my mind. It will be interesting running one of the first possible marathons after such a tragedy with tired legs and a still troubled mind. But as runners, we must keep running forward. Here goes nothing …