Adventure Racing World Championships - Costa Rica 2013

So, here we go... the big one! Last week I returned from the 2013 Adventure Racing World Championships (ARWC). The race was a multi day expedition race for teams of four. Our team comprised Tom and Sabrina, Dave who I had raced with previously, and me. I joined the team quite late when the original fourth member dropped out, which left us a relatively short time to actually train together. However, we were all fit and ready, and arriving in San Jose I felt very excited. The best teams in the world were all there, including last year's champions Seagate, and former winners like Thule and the UK's Adidas Terrex.

Team "Great Langdale Bunkhouse" ready for action
The three days prior to the start were occupied with preparation of kit and food for the race, planning as much as possible (we were given the leg lengths and disciplines a few days before the start, but the maps would be waiting for us at the start line). A few days before the start we were summoned to a race briefing, this was the first time we had all been assembled together, and this is when I really felt I was at the start of something big. We were told some more information about the route and given an overview map. As promised, the race would take us the full length of the country, from Panama to Nicaragua. We were also given a detailed talk by a snake expert in order to help keep us safe, particularly in the jungle areas.

Snake = Bad
That evening all the teams were assembled for a parade through San Jose. It was a great event to be part of, we walked down the closed main road through the town carrying our national flags, surrounded by race officials in trucks and cars blasting their horns. We eventually reached a square in the middle of the city, where the event was declared open after some speeches by various important people. A band of children played the drums and danced, then came the fireworks! They were very impressive and exciting since they were set off from ground level right next to us. Little bits of burning ash and firework rained down on us; Health and Safety has not quite reached San Jose. Next we were treated to a three course dinner, we hadn't expected this so it was a brilliant surprise, especially as it came with wine!

Some of the UK teams at the parade 
I returned to the hotel excited, slightly daunted, but raring to go. On the final day before the start we travelled to a nearby charity-run park area to help with a community project. We spent the afternoon pulling out weeds, then were given the chance to meet a member of an indigenous tribe, whose land we would be crossing later in the race. Gringos are not normally permitted to cross these areas so we were very lucky, and it was great to see the tribesman, particularly as this one happened to be the best Ultra distance runner in Costa Rica! We all participated in a dance and he sang a song of the travelling bird to bless our journey. I think some of the more experienced racers found this a bit of a joke, but I loved it.

Already with so many great memories, I woke up at 3am and put on my gear for the first section of the race. At 4 o'clock we were loaded on to coaches and set off south to the start. San Jose had not been exceptionally hot, but as we headed south the coach thermometer rose to 34C and we began to understand what we had been told about Costa Rican microclimates! Thankfully the race start was at an altitude of about 1000m, but it was still hot. After some food provided by the local community and more very welcoming dance and musical performances, we completed all the required checks with the organisers then sat in the shade while everyone else did so.

Pongo marshals the start line
At 2 o'clock it was go time... We gathered under the starting arch, race director Pongo shouted go, and we were off! The first section was a "Le Mans" start, around 1km running to our bikes, which were still packed in their boxes waiting for us. The run was as chaotic as I had expected, the air was full of excitement and trepidation and the noise of people shouting and cheering was nearly drowned out by the helicopters filming overhead. We arrived at the transition in the middle of the pack and set to building our bikes. At each bike transition we had to remove the wheels and pedals, pack the bikes into their boxes and load them onto trucks to be transported to the next section. Soon we were underway and riding in a large pack of teams, making good progress through small villages and hamlets. For the first stage of a race over a week long the pace felt fast, but we were keen to keep moving with other teams. We had a quick stop to redistribute some of our loads within the team and continued into the evening. The support from the public was incredible, as we rode through the tiny towns and past houses in the middle of nowhere there were always people outside cheering and offering food and water, throughout the race and regardless of the time of day or night there were always people out supporting us!
Just a few of the lovely Costa Rican people we met
As we went into the night, the dirt roads and tracks gave way to muddy paths, which steadily got worse and worse, until we found ourselves off our bikes, carrying them on our shoulders as we climbed steep muddy paths through our first taste of jungle. It was hard work, our bikes were constantly caught on trees and overhanging branches and the mud was at least ankle deep most of the way. This section took us through the first night, and after hours the mud eventually gave way and we finished the 100 km section in just over 12 hours. We planned not to sleep until the second night at least, since expedition racing is continuous, so stopping for sleep means you might get overtaken! Finding the balance of getting just enough sleep to keep going is sometimes hard, but we were all used to going through the first night and were feeling good so far.

Slow going carrying bikes through the jungle
Leg 2 was the first kayaking leg. I am not a particularly experienced kayaker, and I knew that I would find this part of the race tough. Two of the three kayaking legs were in the first few days of the race so I hoped to get them over with as quickly as possible. However, expedition racing modifies your perception of normal time, and "getting them over with quickly" would see me paddling for much of the next three days. The first section was 65km. From the start at the south east corner of the country we had now crossed to the Pacific coast on the west, and the paddle would take us up the Golfo Dulce. Looking back at the photographs of this section there were some spectacular islands and coastline, but unfortunately I can only remember how hard it was. I don't mind running, trekking, or biking for a long time as things change - gradients alter your cadence, there are corners, and it gets harder or easier, but paddling is continuous. Psychologically I find this really tough, as I know that once I'm paddling that's all I'm going to do for a very long time. I tried to work on my technique, arms straight - punch the monkey, stab the fish, punch the monkey, stab the fish...

The first paddle
The boats we were using in the race were inflatable double kayaks, which have their advantages, but are pretty slow and numb boats to paddle. We were required to carry a pump with us, and after 17 hours of paddling, at the next transition, we deflated the boats and packed them up to be transported across the Osa peninsula ready for the next stage. We would be carrying all the rest of our kit with us on the 27km trek across the peninsula, but as we were now into the second night we found a place for a 4 hour sleep before getting started. We also found somewhere selling Empinadas (sort of Costa Rican pasties), which were really good.

Loaded with gear and with paddles, bouyancy aids and other assorted kit strapped to the outside of our packs we set off into the early morning darkness. Being near the equator, the daylight hours in Costa Rica are essentially 5:30 to 5:30. Not long after setting off up the track daylight began to creep over the horizon. We were in good spirits and seeing a tree sloth making its very slow way across a telegraph wire over our heads was a brilliant sight! We plodded on up the peninsula in the rain, our feet were starting to suffer from the wet atmosphere and we could all feel a few blisters developing. We knew before the race that keeping our feet in good order would be critical to reaching the finish line, as was proved when last year's world champions, Team Seagate, were forced to withdraw and hospitalised with foot rot later in the race. We crossed the peninsula in just over 13 hours, looking at average speed this is clearly very slow, but considering our loads, navigation, terrain and battered feet we were going reasonably well.

Loaded up with paddle gear for the peninsula crossing
Next, transition 3 and back into the boats. Well, sort of. Before we could actually paddle we had a 10km kayak "portage". We re-inflated the boats, loaded them onto the trolleys we had carried from the last transition and started to drag them slowly towards the water. It was tough going, we had hoped to load the boats with our paddling gear but eventually had to carry our packs and leave the boats empty. We worked in pairs, two of us moving a boat on a trolley each. All teams struggled across this section, using various methods to move the boats. When we hit big bumps our boats would slip off the trolleys and we would have to stop and strap them back on, which was frustrating but nowhere near as hard as the time a Brazilian team we passed were having - their trolleys had broken so they had deflated the boats and were trying to carry them by hand. With one team member hobbling with a swollen ankle this left three people to carry two boats, one particularly gnarly looking man lifted the kayak up and carried it on his head for as long as he could at a time, before dropping it and collapsing for a rest, then repeating. When I spoke to him he said "We can't do this, it will kill us".

"What's that between my toes?"... last section of the portage
But they, and we, did, and we eventually reached the kayak put-in. With the boats in the water we still had some work to do before paddling, and dragging the boats through small channels of swampy water felt like a dangerous thing to do. We had been warned about sea snakes and as I wriggled barefoot through the mud and overhanging branches I was certainly looking forward to getting back in the boat and paddling. This desire faded soon after it happened. It was a beautiful evening as we started to paddle though, we were now in the tidal channels of the Bahia Coronado and knew that some of the checkpoints in this area were only accessible at high tide, since they were located in narrow mangrove channels. At this point our race began to unravel. We set off up one channel, believing that at the end of it we could get through to a control, but when we got there we found the way barred by a large fallen tree across the mangroves. We climbed over the tree and pushed the boats under, but soon after discovered it was impossible to go any further. We turned around and planned to take a route we had seen other teams heading for, but met another team on the way who told us that many top teams had tried and failed to get through. Mistakenly we believed them and planned a different route, a long paddle against the tide up a river. This meant going away from the first controls to access later ones, then turning around to come all the way back down the river and collect the first ones. This all meant that the planned 55km paddle became more like 90km of paddling against the flow, and necessitated hours spend in the mangrove channels waiting for the tide to rise. We used the time to sleep, but being unable to get out of the boats it was uncomfortable and pretty miserable. During the 37 hour section I got out of the kayak once, to crawl up a stinking mud bank towards a tiny wooden shack we had seen. We had run out of drinking water and hoped to find some water which was at least fresh (meaning we could purify it). We had seen crocodiles in the water so weren't too keen to get out, but it was worth it and we were rewarded with lots of cleanish water.

Mangrove-y hell
Some time on Friday morning we finished the paddle, quickly cooked some hot food and had a sleep before getting ready for our next stage, a 101km bike which would take us up to the middle of the country. There was actually some really great riding in this section. To be honest we knew that after our long paddle we were unlikely to make the time cut-off in a few sections time. This was disappointing and we certainly hadn't given up hope of doing so, but somehow this section now felt like more of a long ride out with friends than a section of a race. I'm not sure we moved any slower than we otherwise would have, but we had a great time on this section. The only disappointment was the "superman" zip line which was part of the race route, but had been closed when we arrived at it due to another racer injuring themselves on the way down. This was a particularly bitter disappointment as it was at the top of a massive hill! The ride was very hilly; Costa Rican road and track builders don't mess around with hairpins zigzagging up and down hills - they go straight up. The constant undulation meant switching from full granny gear to top gear at the top of each hill, then back again in the valleys. The section took us nearly 23 hours, and finished with a particularly cruel hill up to around 1400m, where we reached the mandatory four hour stop at the midpoint of the race.

Mid camp
We rested, ate and packed for the next section. We had been told that the "big trek" would be the hardest section of the race, which after what we'd done already sounded pretty daunting, but I was excited to get out into the mountains. By now it was apparent that we would miss the cut off in two sections' time, but we were determined to continue. Sabrina particularly was a good motivator and reminded us all to keep pushing on when the race organisers tried to persuade us to miss the trek and take a shorter course. We resisted, and at about 4am set off towards the highest mountain in Costa Rica, Cerro Chiripo. We climbed quickly, believing that it would be a good idea to finish the climb in daylight, but soon started to feel the effects of altitude. We again helped each other and used bungee cords to tow when we could. We climbed to a mountain hut at about 3000m, the day was hot and the scenery was amazing. We arrived at the hut, took 30 minutes rest and carried on up to our first summit, then descended and finally climbed to the summit of Chiripo at 3820m. We arrived not long before dark, having reached the high point of the race but still only 16km into the 92km trek.
Chiripo summit ridge
From the summit, the tourist trail turns around and returns to civilisation. We would continue on and descend, via another small mountain hut, into the Cabecar Chirripo indigenous reserve. As darkness fell and we tried to pick our way down the ridge from the top, we got very cold and a couple of us were starting to get hypothermic. We quickly stopped and put our tiny tent up. I boiled some water and made some hot food, but by the time it was ready the guys were already all in the tent and asleep! It became apparent at this point that our Terra Nova Laser was really not big enough for four people, and as I crawled in on top of my team mates they made all sorts of grumbly noises. It was not a comfortable few hours, the tent was pitched on rocks and we couldn't close the door with us all inside, but I think I slept a bit. I was grateful for daylight when we packed up and got going again. The next section would take us into the indigenous reserve proper, this was a section I had looked forward to for the whole race. We had been told that this area was truly inaccessible, with no road access and "areas where aeroplanes have crashed and never been found". It certainly lived up to this, the terrain was very difficult, with steep muddy slopes and tiny tracks through the jungle. We spent as much time on our backsides as on our feet and within minutes we were totally covered in mud. Instinctively we grabbed branches as we slipped down the slopes, but had to be careful, this was a snake area. We also saw some pretty big tarantulas.

Indigenous settlement in the Chiripo reserve
We passed a number of indigenous settlements where the people were again amazingly welcoming, particularly as they hardly see any people from outside their own community. The communities were clearly poor, living in small wooden huts with banana leaf roofs, but everyone we saw looked healthy and happy, and skipped quickly through the jungle in their short rubber boots... What they thought of us in our running shoes, gaiters and tights I can only imagine! We saw one tiny girl with a large sack on her back skilfully sliding down the mud, I'm not sure whether the cat sitting on the top of her bag was real or imagined. The jungle was breaking us and our kit, we reached a river crossing at one point to find an Italian team stopped as one of their members refused to go on. She was in tears, and the next section probably didn't help - we climbed a nearly vertical slope by hanging off trees and vines. Looking back down I was very grateful that the vines hadn't broken, it was a long fall down to the river. Eventually though, the mud subsided. Early the next morning (Sunday?) we reached the village of the Ultra-running hero we had met before the race. He was very welcoming, gave us fresh oranges from a tree, and pointed out the route. The final section of the epic trek started to take us through larger villages, with schools and more substantial houses. There were a couple of tough climbs but the ground was harder and the going much easier. At this point we expected to be timed out of the race at the end of the trek, so this felt like the end. We finally descended to the medical checkpoint, only to be met by one of the other UK teams, EnduranceLife. After so many hours (over 60 on the trek alone) it was amazing to see them and gave us all a boost. Together we headed up the hill to the medical checkpoint where we were obliged to stop for an hour. We had our feet checked and ate a great meal. Competitiveness had overcome us and we had run the last descent to break away from EnduranceLife before the checkpoint, but after a captains discussion we decided not to race each other.
Towards the end of the big trek
However, it became apparent that Costa Rica wasn't finished with us yet! As we headed into the final transition, we looked down at the field and saw three sets of bike boxes - us, EnduranceLife, and the Italians. We had at least one more section to do... After the monster trek, the prospect of a 60km bike ride wasn't too daunting and we all imagined it would be over fairly quickly. We completed our quickest and best transition of the race and were ready to go just before it got dark. EnduranceLife were also about to set off, but decided to have a short sleep before starting, so we set off on our own. The climb out of the transition was brutal, straight up for at least half an hour, then a slightly more undulating course for the next few kilometers but we were going well. However as it got fully dark we all began to realise how tired we were, and we started to struggle. This leg had only one checkpoint in the centre, but it was a difficult one to find. We spent a long time looking for a river crossing point which resulted only in getting soaking wet and carrying our bikes up and down the bank. A race 4x4 pointed us in the vaguely right direction for the control and off we went along more dirt tracks. One member of our team was now really struggling to stay awake, talking gibberish and needing a lot of help. Over the next few hours we all started to struggle, talking afterwards we all felt very strange and each felt a huge sense of deja vu about the area we were in. I remember being utterly convinced we had already done this section, and couldn’t work out why it was taking so long. Eventually we decided we would have one last look for the control before giving in and stopping for a sleep. Thankfully our navigators found it close by, so we all got into our bivvy bags for half an hour's sleep, then continued. Another massive climb eventually led us into daylight, then a quick descent to transition. The leg had taken nearly 13 hours and we were knackered.

The final bike leg
After arriving in the transition we were taken by bus to the last section of the race - the canopy zip line and rafting section in to the finish. The zip line section was good fun, we were all given a harness and a pulley device, then clipped on to cables which allowed you to fly through the canopy. Finally we would complete a rafting section with a guide. One of the sections we had missed was a grade 4 rapids rafting section, which was a shame as the final section was a relatively tame grade 2. This also meant we had to paddle a lot more than the grade 4 section! The 19km section of river took us a couple of hours to descend and finally we pulled into a little bay near the town of Puerto Viejo. A final few kilometers on foot and we'd be at the finish, after so long it was hard to believe and was always going to be a bit of an anticlimax! We walked for a while then managed to run the last section up the road into the town, around the corner and we could see the finish field. We joined hands as we ran onto the field and ran together across the line - done! It had taken us 192 hours 51 minutes, or just over eight days.

Crossing the finish line! 
The race was an incredible experience. We were promised the hardest world championships ever, I hadn't done a world champs before but it seemed pretty tough to me! We were also promised a true wilderness race in the mould of the old Eco Challenge events. The sections through the jungle and over the mountains will stay with me for a long time, we were truly on our own and looking after ourselves. As a team we worked well together and helped each other through tough sections, of which there were a few. Some that will stick with me are the pain as my bike dug into my neck trying to carry it through the jungle on the first section, the howling wind and cold over the mountain section, and the "sleepmonsters" during the final bike, when I saw some very weird and frightening things in my mind.

...aaaand relax!

Finally, the few days after the race were spent relaxing and mainly eating. After over a week of eating mostly cereal bars and sweets it was fantastic to taste bread, milk and meat again... and the beer was pretty good too. Overall ARWC was an incredible experience, I'm slightly disappointed to miss the cut off and a few of the race highlights, but the race and the areas we were able to reach were amazing. It was also humbling to see the speed of the top teams, who had already completed the full course before we finished. An international team Thule won this year, with the UK’s top team (Adidas Terrex Prunesco) finishing joint third.

I've put together a little video of photos from the race, which is on Youtube here
UPDATE: The video above has some copyrighted music, so may not work. If it doesn't, here's a version with some home-made tin whistle music.


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