La Ruta Race Report
After Christmas 2017 our family gathered to celebrate a birthday and spend the evening together. No kids. No festivities. With around 30 of us gathered, my uncle posed a roundtable question. A proud accomplishment of 2017 and a goal for 2018, but there was a twist. These goals could not pertain to your kids or business, they must be personal! Learning intimate details about relatives, relatives that I’ve known for 35 years closed the room in and the closeness warmed the already palpable love in the room. Sharing my 2017 goal was easy, sub-9:00 Leadville 100 finish, the big buckle, La Plata Grande. 2018, so many choices. With LTB100 being dubbed the hardest MTB race in the country, aiming for the hardest stage race in the world seemed the logical next step, La Ruta de los Conquistadores.
How do you train for such an event? Ride. Every day when possible. Attempt to remove the cycling from cycling and make the spin such a familiar pattern that it no longer becomes a focus. Spin! Spin I did. Competing in 11 races over the season kept me on a training schedule, not a regiment for I don’t have a coach, that included long, short, hard, steady, and multi-day riding. After my season closed in September I kept at the training with solo-century rides weekly. I spent a lot of time alone as most racers had wrapped their seasons. My friends weren’t into race simulation rides and many were already attacking ski hills. So I rode. I raced numbers on Strava. I put in the miles.
One catalyst for my riding came from Alchemy Bicycles. Having committed to racing the 2019 LTB100 on a single speed, I needed to get a single speed. Insert Alchemy Bicycles and Base Camp Cyclery. They agreed to make a custom, titanium, hardtail 29er per the specs Base Camp and I agreed on. A Frankenstein built from my favorite bikes. The snag came when the bike delivered for it was so damn beautiful that I didn’t want to get it dirty! King components, polished titanium, and the new Fox Step-Cast fork in all its orange glory, no this bike was too nice to get dirty, but with only 2 weeks to race start I had to learn this new toy. A quick trip to Moab and some local rides gave me the familiarity I needed. This hardtail, my first ever ridden, acted like a BMX bike, bolted uphills, had direct power transfer to the pedals, and though bumpy, could rip the downhill. Let’s go to Costa Rica.
A quick note on the planning of the race. While the Official Racebook provides details on elevation gain, distance, cutoffs, and support, the real information needed for a successful event seemed elusive. I scoured forums, Facebook groups, and searched any mention of the race online for more information. What tires should I use? Hydration pack or no? Is the water on course safe? I found more questions the more I searched and answers were murky. A quick tip from my uncle shored up the curiosity, “Race what you bring,” he said. Seems simple enough.
Shocker: I’ve been convinced of being OCD and controlling. A few times and from a variety of sources. I’ve accepted this. But these traits make for a successful, adventure, MTB racer. Most endurance weirdos have demons that we exhaust with our legs. Don’t judge.
Going into the most involved event of my racing career, one filled with more questions than answers, I grabbed onto the controllable variable, hanging on for sanity. That cloud-dwelling, marionette master wrote a different story. I wouldn’t be able to breathe easy into the event. No, my adventure would start long before the starting line. Maybe it was my penance for sneaking my CO2 cartridges into my gear bag. Perhaps it was a consequence of selfishly abandoning responsibilities and traipsing across the continent for a personal pursuit. I’m not sure the motivation, but when the pilot came over the speaker informing us we were turning around, now already halfway from Dallas to San Jose, Costa Rica, to remove a problematic passenger my cortisol levels spiked. A drunk passenger, traveling with his ex-wife and child, wouldn’t stop harassing his ex-wife and the flight staff had failed to control the situation. We were turning back and would stay in Houston for the night with the promise of a morning flight to Costa Rica. What?! This drunk baboon? I trained in judo for 5 years as a youth and am sure I could remember the chokehold necessary to put Captain Morgan asleep in the lavatory. Let me at him! There would be no heroics. In reality I would stay the night in a Houston Red Roof Inn after regaining my luggage, bike included, and stuffing into a hotel shuttle. I fell fully clothed into bed at midnight with a 5AM alarm. Not the pre-race prep I had envisioned.
Looking back, the debacle wasn’t a complete bust. I met 7 fellow racers, all on the same flight and thus in the same predicament, and the bonds I would create during the event started early. We bitched and moaned. We made grand proposals of new FAA regulations. We frantically messaged our Race Concierge sharing our delay. Silently we lit the fire that makes La Ruta what it is to those who finish. We began to meld our passion for cycling, racing, and community. Annie Porter, from “Speed”, may not agree but relationships built under stress DO endure. Our anti-drunk-idiot-on-American-flight campaign fast tracked a friendship that we’d rely on in the coming days.
We landed in the afternoon, got our rental car, and made our way to Croc’s Hotel in Jaco with a few hours left in the registration window to spare. We made it! Now reminded of another to-do for 2019, learn Spanish fluently, I bumbled through registration, built my bike, and Abbe and I shared a Halloween dinner at a tiny, locals restaurant near the now pitch-black ocean view. The air electrified with over-fueled racers sporting their sponsors logos. I’m going to race a custom bike in Costa Rica. Pinch me.
My 3AM alarm couldn’t come soon enough. The bike was buffed to perfection. I decided to forego my standard Gu-taped-to-top-tube technique as I knew I’d be tossing the ArkTi over my shoulder several times throughout the day. I used a Revelate Designs gas tank bag to hold GUs, Clif Shot Bloks, Pickle Juice, and chain lube. Two bottles in the cages and 1 tucked in my jersey would be enough fluid to get me to each Aid Station. I have corresponding kits, gloves, socks, and headbands for each day and my stencil figure is already laid out on the bedside table. Every detail has been addressed and yet I know that the meticulously planned start will immediately disappear once I submit to this race. The greatest teacher, experience, has yet to show up.
Over breakfast I trade notes with a couple other Americans who are also first-timers to La Ruta. It seems we’ve each learned snippets here and there and there’s a palpable nervousness in each of us as we try to memorize the patchwork of tips. We have much in common as the guy next to me is from Des Moines and the girl has won Leadville 100 the last 2 years and came in just behind me at the Tatanka 100 this year, giving here another win in her season. Yes, the field is stacked and each of us have a resume. After nibbling though the breakfast buffet with my fellow racers, I gear up and spin to the beach start. Its 4:25AM.
After taking a long look at the Pacific Ocean I point my wheel into the corral. Its a first-come staging format and I’m alongside Mark and Mike from the foiled flight the night before. We snap some selfies and exchange a bro-hug over being one of only a couple titanium hardtail riders in the field. As dawn begins to break and the first light causes many riders to toss aside their headlamps, a distinct “whoomp-whoomp” fills the air. In the distance we see the official helicopter approach us. This event just got serious. They have their own heli! AC/DC pulses out of the announcers speakers and we are sent off! The mad dash off the beach had us riding around palms and over small bushes but each rider made their way to pavement to burn those initial nerves. I’m comfortable in the front part of the race and look to my left as a rider pulls up. Another American (Side Note: there are far more Central/South American racers than Americans, probably 5:1, or more). Another American who looks familiar…You’re kidding me. The rider on my flank is Lance Armstrong. I’m racing next to Lance Armstrong. Not on a charity ride. Not as a publicity stunt where he rides with washed up yuppies content to be on a bike with him. No, I am next to him. Competing against him. Surely he hasn’t been telling his friends that one of his goals is to beat Justin Holle. I bet he doesn’t even follow me on Strava. No, I’m a ghost to him. But he’s not a ghost to me, and he’s just pulled up beside me. This race just got real.
A few minutes removed from the pavement and the official pace car has stopped again. Here comes the helicopter as well. Its right overhead and we are staring into the jungle. As the field condenses again I am at the front. To my left, 6 riders away is Tinker Juarez. He’s a legend! My uncle has exclaimed how much Tinker was a part of his racing career nearly 20 years ago. We’ve got several pros, a Tour de France legend, a MTB Hall of Fame Rider, dozens of local superstars and hundreds of riders all sitting before the jungle. I can’t handle it and jump off my bike to take a pee on the side of the road. Hydrated or excited? Both!
Once again the pace car takes off and this time he pulls off immediately thereby cutting us free. We are racing! Oh I am so excited to be riding my bike. The taper, the days off, the travel, the expectation it all fades in an instant as I hammer with the pack over the pot-hole riddled, dirt road. Just as soon as we begin racing, the course begins testing us. Cruising down the road we begin to inch upward. The inching becomes more aggressive and before I know it I’m in my 50 tooth and grinding up a road steep even by Colorado standards. Fortunately I’ve found a rhythm and though my heart rates is dancing between 155-165 bpm (that’s high for me, 85-89% of Max HR) I feel good. Aware that I’m burning fuel at a good clip, I take down my first GU packet and half a bottle of water. Slowly I pass by racers who may have jumped a bit too hard off the start. According to the rider next to me, Amir on an S-Works Epic, we’ve got 5km of this ahead. Settled in, I spin, watching the mileage go by and the elevation on my GPS climb. There are non-racers on bikes along the road cheering us on and families in cars and ATVs shaking cowbells. This is a countrywide event and the locals prove themselves amazing spectators. As the hill seems to be topping out I glance over to a rider I’ve just passed and recognize him again as Lance. I just freaking passed Lance Armstrong in a bike race. I holler, “sure isn’t our dry, Colorado climate.” “No shit,” he replies. “I’m soaked.” I agree and bid him a good race. His riding partner, Mike Kloser, was more talkative and we rode along together for a couple of minutes. I may have a few years on these guys, but with both being former pros their legs have seen more miles than I could ever catch up to. It felt nice to spin on by them. I also heard the cheers from my e3 Community back home. “We just might do this guys,” I whispered to them.
Just before the cresting the first climb I pass another American who asks if I’ve done this race before. I admitted I hadn’t and he told me that I was doing great. He shared that its important to enter the jungle in the front of the field because you’ll tend to exit the jungle in the same place you enter. Apparently its not fair or kind to anyone. I thanked him for his beta and pedaled on. Once over the hill I took no time at all to drop into a tuck, making myself as small as possible, disappearing beneath the handlebars. I broke away from any other riders. Yet, just a few minutes into the next flat I looked back and saw Lance with a few riders in his draft. I was NOT going to lose this lead! My mantra became: “If not now, when?” And I hammered down on my pedals, race strategy be damned. I never saw Lance again Day 1 and he lost the battle to the heat, finishing deep into the field. I was told the following morning he texted a friend, and fellow Conquistadore racer, that he has had some hard days on the bike in his lifetime but that Day 1 was 10X. How’s that for a testimonial on the challenge La Ruta places on racers?!
Jungle riding in a nutshell: reckless downhills, steep hike-a-bikes, unforgiving heat, and powerful rivers. Fortunately for me the skills necessary to navigate this landscape aren’t much different from high alpine riding in Colorado. Sure the climate is a polar opposite but that idea of being just on the edge of control, with one foot off the pedals as you slide through turns and manipulate your weight on the bike in hopes of keeping it upright is something I am familiar with. So I pushed on without a thought about self-preservation through rutted out, muddy, steep descents. That come crashing down into rock strewn river crossings forcing me to shoulder-carry my bike across the water and up the steep bank on the opposite side. Then, spin briefly and repeat whole situation. SEVERAL TIMES. A cyclocross event deep in the jungle with a brand new mountain bike. This is ADVENTURE!
Unbelievably, with the chances I took I came out with only one crash. I took the high side of a rut section of hike-a-bike and came to a gap that had been bridged with a narrow piece of wood. Not trusting the wood, I attempted to stride/jump across gap and landed on the soft edge opposite. The dirt crumbled under my weight and sent me falling down 6’ into the mud rut while my bike tumbled another few feet. NO DAMAGE! Just some broken zip ties from my number plate and a wry smile from a local racer who had taken the safer, albeit slower, route.
Something spectacular happens when we lose the ability to focus on ALL of the variables in a challenge and can only focus on one: keep going. The jungle should have swallowed me whole and yet I loved each minute of it. My shoes disappeared in mud every few steps, I’m completely soaked inside and out, and my chain morphed into a mud river, and yet I continue. The conquistadores must have felt a similar commitment to continue on for there was no way I, nor them I suppose, would want to turn back from whence we came. The only option is onward.
Clearing the jungle portion of the route, I came out having passed 6 racers. Not bad! But this effort came at a cost and I could feel my calves and quads tightening with each hiking step. I needed to get back on the bike.
Pedaling toward Aid Station 2 my memory had been jogged just enough and I recognized where I was! I had been here before, 6 years ago, on an ATV tour. I didn’t realize how far that tour had lasted back then, or how much ground we covered, but I had been here! Any sense of familiarity when racing provides such a lift. Its why racers have their support teams on the course. Its nice to know you’re not alone after spending so many hours with your head down and feeling just that, alone. At Aid Station 2 I smashed a couple potato tacos while a volunteer reloaded my chain with lube. My drivetrain had been through a muddy hell and I had been scraping mud off my tires with my hands for miles. After the lube, the ArkTi shifted beautifully and ended up giving me 3 days of mechanical-free racing! I didn’t get endure a sticky brake caliper, a cranky derailleur, or a leaking tire throughout the entire event. There’s quite a bit of luck that goes into a successful event, and I’d take every bit of it.
Out of the jungle the heat really took hold. The temps were in the high 80’s but with humidity the index felt over 100. The real power of the heat became clear when we lost the canopy. My body simple drained out under the rays and despite the 12-15 bottles of fluids I took in, I only peed my kit once during the entire race.
Passing through each cluster of homes and small towns I began to realize the true power of the race: the people. Cheering fans! “Fuerte!” “Go Go!” “Bien!”. I couldn’t help but have a Cheshire-smile all day! The short, 25%+ grated-concrete climbs tried to wipe it from my face but they were futile in their efforts to erase the love I felt from the Costa Ricans. Though I’m not sure the local racers returned that love. These steep climbs suited my Colorado-trained power and though moving only 3 mph, or less at times, I passed several locals on these pitches.
Having climbed an absurd amount of elevation in an incredibly short amount of time, I was forced to play a game I call: “Dance the Cramps”. This happens when a single part of your body starts to cramp, maybe the left calf, and you focus breathing to that area in an effort to calm the muscle spasm, then take down a GU or some fluids. Successfully calmed, but not expunged, the cramp jumps to another area, and all areas are fair game! Quads, hamstrings, and calves, they all take turns on the cramp-dance-floor. Only halfway through the day’s mileage, though clear of the jungle, I knew it would be a long dance on this day. GU pack, water, breathe, pedal, GU Waffle, water, breathe, pedal. My middle jersey pocket held my go-go-juice, Advocate Spark, but I couldn’t push the booster too soon for risk of blowing up, but at Aid Station 3 I was ready. Chugging the spark, getting the chain lubed, reloading my bottles (1 water, 1 Gatorade), and grabbing a handful of boiled potatoes for the road I stopped no less than 40 seconds and was amped to tackle the final bit.
Most endurance races leave room for random thoughts. Today was no ordinary race. I knew I was working too hard for the 1st of 3 race days, but I felt that this was my chance. Also, I am no good at holding back. I probably need to get a cycling coach. My strategy is simple: ride as hard as I can the whole time. Looking at my heart rate on my computer proved I stuck to my plan. I stayed above 80% Max HR nearly all day, only dropping when descending. For the final stretch I committed to staying on the hammer. I WAS BEATING LANCE ARMSTRONG! Cheating myself, and breaking my own rules, I started fantasizing about being able to share this with those back home. I made the audacious goal of beating him all the while realizing how absurd it was. Looked at another way, could I beat Jordan in 1:1? Sure he’s older now and a shadow of his youthful self, but come on…even if he fell by 60%, his peak was 100X mine. How about Tyson in the ring?! Absurd. But I was doing it. Dammit I was doing it right now! And just like that, the cramps ghosted.
Exiting the final Aid Station with a refreshed 2 bottles I kept on my GUs, waffles, and hydration and regained pavement. At this point I had nearly 20 kilometers to go but knew the end was near as I saw radio towers around me. “How much more up could there be?”, asked the stupid racer who knew the answer: “More.” Passing vehicles not associated with the race, and some with, I kept my cadence smooth and my effort high. Looking forward I saw a truck pulled to the side and handing bottles to a lone rider. This happened frequently over the course of the event and each time lit a fire in my belly. Jealous? No. Simply reinvigorated with a determination to crush the rider getting the extra, unsanctioned help. They were going down. Literally. We hit a 3 mile downhill through a town and before I knew it my computer read 50 mph and I smelled my brakes working to the fringe of their abilities. Not one to fear the speed, I tucked and passed the assisted rider who held my wheel partway through the next climb before falling over in front of some spectators. I later learned the rider had heat stroke. I had hollered back, asking if they needed help, but didn’t get a response. They were in good hands with the spectators as they had just handed me a bag full of coke. Clarification: Coca Cola. Locals fill plastic bags with water and cola and hand them out. I’d snag them at full speed, bite a hole in the corner, and drink that sweet nectar!
10K Remaining! Oh what a sweet sign that was. Though the final 10K included soul-crushing false-flats and required a constant effort, I could feel the finish. At this point we were meeting up with the “Adventure Racers”. This is a category that provides racers the opportunity to do half the race each day. Though they weren’t competing with us, it was motivating to pass riders in this last stretch. 5K Remaining! Pedal down. Beat Lance. Eat a Shot Blok. Pedal. Water. Breathe. 1K Remaining! I feel nothing. Physically that is. The cramp dance is long gone and the emotions are starting to break through the iron, effort curtain I had hidden behind all day. The Finish Line! Though I couldn’t understand a single word from the announcer, I understood one thing, I met Goal #1 and I did so with a resounding “BOOM!”
Day 1 Results: 25th Place Overall.
The post-race celebration included an ice cold shower, cleaning my bike (as I was one of only a few idiots who didn’t pay the extra charge to have my bike cleaned, maintained, and lubricated each day), and eating great, local food. I linked up with a group of racers from Leadville, CO and exchanged the day’s victories, and struggles, with fellow cyclists until Abbe made it to the finish area. We loaded up my bike and gear and headed to our hotel in San Jose for all the food and some rest. The 3AM wakeup call for Day 2 would come sooner than I thought.
3AM. If you’re curious about one’s ability to eat savory eggs, beans, and rice at the early hour let me satisfy you: its not easy. Not at all. I relied on my oatmeal and Ascent protein powder each morning and took a banana to go. Two cups of coffee to get down to my race weight…and we were off to the starting line. I’m surprised how well a clean bike, new kit, and fresh shoes made me feel. Though tired, and battling a strange feeling in my right calf, I felt like the day would be manageable.
We corralled up and waited for the official start. And we waited. And more delay. I couldn’t hold it and leaving my bike I hopped the fence to water a local tree. Back in the corral. We waited. We weren’t left without information but I couldn’t catch enough keywords in the announcers speech to catch the reason for our delay until Race Founder, Roman Urbina, addressed us in English. Unfortunately a spectator of the race died yesterday due to a heart attack. We held a moment of silence.
GO! Day 2 begins. I heard that Day 2 was much easier. Former racers and locals had all expressed this over the previous afternoon and evening. We left San Jose in a tight pack on the road and it wasn’t long before we began climbing. I settled into the front of the race and locked out my fork for what would be a long day of road riding. Who is this next to me? Yes. I can’t make this up. Lance slides in beside me once again. As the pack starts to stretch out I refuel that fire from Day 2, but my heart isn’t responding. I couldn’t get my heart rate up?! Don’t I care enough?! This would pester me all day as I couldn’t get above the 70’s% range at any point. Other riders were expressing this as well. They blamed elevation, but I’m FROM ELEVATION! Regardless, the top riders were pretty well clumped together and we started the day’s battle.
5 miles in and I can’t escape what is happening around me. Lance and Mike (Kloser) are on my rear wheel and the locals, excited to see the celebrity, are pacing back and forth on motorcycles and ATVs. One couple must have nearly 3,000 photos of him at this point. It got to be such a constant that I turned back to Lance and told him that I was pretending today that MY NAME was Lance and they were cheering for me. I got a soft chuckle and then heard him say, “Can’t they just let me ride my damn bike.” 8 miles. More of the same. By now I’m irritated with the exhaust from the spectators and can’t shake their presence. I turn back and offer, for a nominal fee, to hide in the bushes and him and I could swap outfits. I’d play Lance for the day and he’d be able to ride alone. That got a laugh.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that being the lead dog of our group and having such a high-caliber rider on my wheel was exhilarating, but I knew I couldn’t keep up with this circus all day. At a brutally steep gravel bit I opted to hike-a-bike and pulled over to pee. This put enough of a gap for me to ride without the Lance-capade. This also proved to be the nail in my coffin for a top finish of the day. Now, without riders, I was left to navigate the course on my own. Because of the distance and nature of the event, there are not branded streamers up at each turn. Racers rely on Red Arrows placed at key points throughout the course to stay on track. These arrows stay up year round and thus live on telephone poles, trees, and backs of signs. Easy to see for the most part but one moment of head down pedaling can prove disastrous. I met such disaster shortly after stepping out of the celebrity pack. I took a downhill right and sped up to 40+ mph in a hurry. Now alone I started to doubt myself and hollered at a passerby who simply waved. “I must be on track then…”. Meeting another T-intersection I took an instinctive left and now on dirt road understood how wrong I was. Dammit! Before I could settle into my disappointment I simply flipped around and reversed my path. My now steep, UPHILL path. I rejoined the race course where an official was now placed directing racers uphill. I shared some choice expletives with whoever could hear and pedaled up. Having lost around 10 minutes on my detour I committed to simply passing everyone who was fortunate enough to stay the course. For the rest of the day I wasn’t passed but the damage had been done.
Did I mention Day 2 was 50% up and 50% down? Its a Colorado ride. Start climbing straight away and spend your effort on the front half while being rewarded with a sweet descent home. Well, nearly. The difference began to show itself from mile 10 to 24. Up is an understatement. By mile 21 I had climbed over 7,000’ in elevation. I was atop a volcano! Not just any volcano, but as I learned later that afternoon, the volcano erupted just as we began the race! We ascended through villages and cloud forest on an active, erupting volcano. Reinsert Cheshire-smile. My less-than-reactive heart rate warmed to the cheers from hundreds of school children clamoring over one another in the schoolyard playground to cheer us on! I quieted my breathing, awestruck, at the vistas. Swirling clouds and fog cloaked the source of a defining roar of howler monkeys in the trees below me. Costa Rica, I love you!
Back on the race course the energy from the spectators kept me engaged. Day 2 did not suit my strengths. I am not a roadie. My commitment to stay ahead of the rest of the field, and to make up my lost places, kept me going to the day’s summit. There I donned the arm warmers and jacket for 20+ miles of downhill. Here we go!
I mentioned I’m not a roadie. I must add that I have a slight fear of pavement-motivated carnage dating back to a motorcycle accident in my teens. So when the course tilted downwards at an incredible steep pitch, I hoped my tires (now with 5 days of riding on them) held up. I needed to stay focused on the road, use my bodyweight, and stay loose. Sure, no problem. No problem on a clear day on familiar roads, however now I am on foreign roads, on an active volcano, in slight rain, and a complete cloud-out! That’s right. I am IN THE CLOUDS and have 10’ visibility when I slide my glasses the the bridge of my nose and peer through the small field of vision between them and my helmet visor. I let a local rider pass me so I could follow his flow only to lose him, in his experience, like a gorilla in the mist. Well…nobody won a race riding the brakes. I hoped that my elementary years spent in Catholic school gave me enough credit and I headed into the clouds using the entire road, oncoming traffic be damned.
Success! I’ve exited the clouds, regained my position on the local rider, and now have only about 8 miles to go. Directed into a hard righthand turn we exit pavement and take a rogue jeep road through what seems to be backyards and water runoff routes. A little bouncy on the hardtail I’m forced to ride faster than I’d prefer for my hands are smoked. I have so much forearm pump that I can barely squeeze my brake levers. Leaving the jeep road for more pavement I transported back to Mom’s living room and my expertise at Nintendo’s “Paperboy”. The streets have been blocked by local police and I am smashing through Turrialba at over 25 mph! In and out of traffic, over bridges, and through lights I keep the hammer down while a race official drives next to me calling out remaining kilometers. I’m shown a lefthand turn and look for the finish line flags. I see nothing! Where is it?! The wrong-turn-PTSD starts to creep in until I see a finished rider coming back towards me. “Finish this way?!” I squeal. I get a big “YES!” from Wade (6’4” cyclist from New York leading his division) who I met at the start line. Thank God. There it is! Another day done and I ride straight through the finish corral and pedal out the day’s experience.
Day 2 Results: 33rd Place Overall.
Post-race activity looked about the same; wash bike, shower, find food, and then find a cellphone I can borrow to see how far away Abbe is from the finish. Getting ahold of her, I heard her tell me 10 minutes. Later I learned she never said that, I’m sure I dreamt it, and Costa Rica traffic held her up for another 2 hours. I came to this race without any real expectation other than riding my very best. On day’s leading into the event I even fretted over cutoff times. After performing so well on Day 1 I started to shift my expectations and the day’s mistake brought along a little dark cloud on the Day 2 finish. But…this is an ADVENTURE MTB Race and my adventure today can’t be undone. So I sat at the finish line, started to accept that I needed to put it ALL in to Day 3 and do my very best to pedal proud.
After a brief detour hiding under a tent with Abbe while a rainstorm pounded us, we hopped into our rental with bike and gear in tow and made for our night’s accommodations. Adrianna, our Race Concierge, and Abbe have become fast friends and exchange over WhatsApp on the regular. That, along with Waze, and we are zipping around this country, her in car, me on bike. What an adventure this is! Our lodge for the night: Turrialtica is nestled in the jungle forest with a vista view that begs for a chair, footstool, book, and coffee. Its beautiful. Greeted by hummingbirds and a friendly staff we meet the owner, Adrianna’s uncle Alonzo, and head to our room. Room #1. He must’ve known I needed the morale boost.
Sitting on the second floor of this lodge, in dry clothes, and munching on a Clif Builder Bar I looked over my shoulder at Abbe making us some coffee. Its 2PM and I’ve decided I’m staying here for the rest of my life.
Alonzo informed me, that wasn’t possible. So instead I opted for a nice dinner with our new friends Amir and Debbie from San Francisco. (Amir is 52 and 2nd in the 50-59 category. He’s an animal! I stalked him on Strava to learn he’s ridden double the miles I have this year, is sponsored, and wins nearly all the races he enters.) Also over dinner, I decide to pass on the rafting option for Day 3. In the past, the whitewater rafting down the Pacquare River was mandatory for racers, but now is optional. With wanting to have my best effort at my strongest finish, I decide to pass and I’ll spend a lazy morning here in paradise with bottomless coffee and my adventure partner Abbe.
Siquirres, Costa Rica. That’s where we start at 1PM. Only a 40 minute drive from our lodge we head out with ample time. Too ample we learned. To this point, the accommodations, towns, and availability of food, entertainment, and comfort have been top notch. Siquirres gave us a different experience. Not more than a minute from parking street side near the supermarket, we learn quickly the type of town we find ourselves. In a word: Troubled. Outside the grocery store we meet the first beggar of our trip. Evidence of drugs, unemployment, and poverty are all around us. We grab a few bottles of water and look for a restaurant. With 2+ hours to kill and no planned respite from the sweltering heat and sun, we drive in circles before finding a dark restaurant with fans. Amazing service as the result of being the only patrons, we stirred around a chicken and rice dish waiting for time to pass. I passed on the heavy, pre-race meal and opted for a few waffles instead. Nearer to 12:15, racers on the transit buses began to show and the buzz in the air regained the race vibe.
Curious about the selection of this town, I spoke with Florence Urbina after the race and learned of a strong spirit behind La Ruta. Navigating a race across an entire country comes with no small amount of logistical nightmares. The most obvious solution; traveling with all necessary tent lodging, staff, food, cooks, tools, etc would ease the burden placed on the race organizers. It would also eliminate the opportunity to create an influx to local communities. So, La Ruta and its champions, have opted to challenge communities, both thriving and struggling, to support the race with local police, lodging, catering, recycling, and community involvement. According to Florence, empowering these communities has inspired permanent change in many of the towns they have passed through in the race’s 26-year history. We experienced this change just the night before. Hundreds of racers, and their companions, spent an evening at various lodges in Turrialba after Day 2. When La Ruta first began there wasn’t a single hotel in Turrialba. That’s mountain bikers making real change, more than pining for directional trails! Looking back at the Day 3 start, armed with this knowledge, I’m happy we got to share in the economic development, even if the start was pure madness.
Take hundreds of racers, exhaust them over 2 days of racing, and then stuff them all into a start corral under sweltering heat (index again reaching near 100) and you’ve got a pot simmering. Ask us to follow a pace car through town and you’re stirring the pot. Finally, add the energy of a final day sprint, racing 38 miles to a beach finish, in pelotons and its carnage. The elbow bumping, front wheel-jockeying, and media trucks getting final footage of the field made riding a distant thought and staying upright as we zig-zagged through the struggling town the key focus. Relieved to exit town, the racing got real, real fast. Having ridden in pelotons just a handful of times on the road, I was a bit nerved to be packed into a group on mountain bikes. Nobody told these guys though and if I had any chance to gain some ground on the field, I had to hang on. If I got left, it’d be a lonely couple of hours, so I hung on to the second group. The first pack broke early and held the top 10 racers. The pack I rode with included a few fellow Americans who were leading the way for expats, Lance and Mike, Amir, Wade, and a dozen locals. We kept it together through a river crossing, a dirt road, and to the first bridge crossing.
If you’ve ever seen “Stand By Me” you’ll understand the bridge crossing well. Railroad ties elevated 20’ off the water with substantial gaps between each tie. John Henry didn’t work in Costa Rica. OSHA didn’t qualify these bridges. If you fall, you fall, all the way to the water. I suppose if you were taking a leisurely stroll over this bridge with your bike you’d rollout it along the rail and walk comfortably, however, if you’re racing you toss the bike over your shoulder and toe-tap run across the ties. Look only at the wood, not at the gap or the void beneath it. Look at your foot placement and don’t slow down for the conga line forming behind you wouldn’t have any disturbances to the ants-marching flow.
I enjoyed the bridges. Much like I enjoyed Day 1 to most racers dismay. I like the goofy, adventure aspect of the race. Not to mention the break from the high cadence, thrilling challenge of keeping with my pack of superstar racers. Cross the bridge, cyclocross mount the bike and tear like Hell to regain the group. We repeated this process twice and the field really set into chunks. I rode with Wade and a local. We kept pace at 20-22 mph on flats and were spinning our legs off. No time for water or GU. Just SPIN! So I put my head down and took my fair share of pulls as we rotated to catch the riders ahead of us.
Lessons learned the hard way must take more than a day to sink in, because I followed the local racer into another wrong turn! 3 minutes of high speed riding on the wrong road and I met a dead end. AHH!! We didn’t think this time as Wade and I flipped around and sped back to the soft left we missed. Today being a high speed day I knew we lost valuable spots and there was no getting them back. I resigned to staying in the pedals to the finish and accepting my fate. I pulled hard as my group of 3 became 5 and we took 10 second pulls against a headwind with speeds over 20 mph. The road soon travelled alongside train tracks and the trail inevitably morphed INTO the train tracks. Take “Stand By Me” and give those little dead-body-seekers some bikes and you get the idea. It took all of my energy to keep above 11 mph as we battled the rock-stern path between the rails. In the moment I recalled how the elevation profile seemed so innocent during my race prep and now I’m fully aware of how challenging these Conquistadores can make flat terrain. “Let’s have them ride ON the tracks. Yes, brilliant idea. That would be the icing on the taint.”
Exiting the tracks immediately became a highlight of the entire race. Not for the relief from the undercarriage-onslaught but for the view. The second I turned left off the tracks I saw it: The Caribbean Sea! I had just crossed the entire country, ON MY BIKE! Looking down at my GPS I knew I’d have this wonderful view, smell, and sound for another 9 miles. Glorious! With this backdrop I didn’t once gripe about the deep sand, or unbelievably warm water splashing up from the puddles. I did once complain to myself saying, “Its so damn hard to ride on top of these smashed coconuts lying in the sand.” Only to immediately correct myself and say, “Holy Hell! I’m riding my bike on smashed coconuts in the sand! Haha!”
I was able to gain one more position before reuniting with the paved road. “2km left!”, a race official yelled to me from a car. I looked back and saw a couple of other racers. There was no chance for them to catch me. Not now, not with the my nostrils flared from the scent of the barn. Up a small hill and power pedaling my issue-free, Colorado-built steed to the finish! I made the final left hand turn, slapped the front fender of a truck trying to derail my glorious finish, and I launched the 2-tiered, triple-staircase to the beach. Can’t ignore style points. Landing in the soft Caribbean sand I lost my momentum and wiped the now-weightless bike over my shoulders and sprinted to the finish line! Completo! Conquistadore!
Accumulated Results: 33rd Place Overall.
Top-10 Age Group 30-39 (8th).
Post-race celebration had quite a different tone than the first two days. I clapped the backs of fellow racers, American and foreign. We shared laughs, pictures, and marched in our full race attire: helmet, shoes, and spandex right into the sea. The salt water washed away the pain in our muscles and filled us with a renewed sense of fulfillment. Known as the hardest stage race in the world, we navigated physical and emotional setbacks for this moment. Clear skies and turquoise water. Abbe snapped photos, I managed a free bike wash, and we settled down to a table filled with new friends. 12 of us waited while the awards were announced (nearly all of my new race-friends were on the podium) and I circled back to the friends I met on the plane. Congratulations were shared and promises of next year started to percolate. Ruta de los Conquistadores became much more than a race. This community shared in the commitment not just to complete the 3 days of racing but in training after the domestic MTB season ended, spending the resources necessary to be here in Central America, and pursuing a race that by all measures is less about racing and more about adventuring into the unknown. With the race now ended, its my hope that sharing this event with the communities we travelled that we’ve reciprocated the impression left on me. The greatest part of this race remains the people. Thank you to every Costa Rican who made me feel special each second of my stay in your country.
Thank you to those who made this possible:
More pictures of our adventure: