La Ruta Race Report...Alas

(DISCLAIMER:  Well, I'm finally getting around to writing about La Ruta.  This write-up is long, but so was the race.  People keep asking me about it in prep for them doing it next year, so I've included a lot here, but not all.  Grab some popcorn and good luck.)


La Ruta de los Conquistadores -- a 4-day MTB stage race in Costa Rica, crossing the entire tiny but super rugged and gorgeous country from the Pacific to the Caribbean.  About 250+ miles and 35,000+ ft of climbing.  Rumored to be brutal, one of the hardest mtb races in the world.


Good question.  In mid-October, after surviving the AES Coconino 250, AND only 3 days before XTERRA World Championships, AND freshly single, AND with nothing else important to do,  I signed up.  I figured it was as good of a time if ever to try it.  It would be a little over a week after Worlds.  Why not?   I had some friends who were doing it, one of whom lived there with his family, and they openly welcomed me into their 'herd'.  Through some other friendships and sponsorships, they had a lot of the logistical challenges already taken care of, which frankly was one of the main reasons I'd been a bit intimidated by the race in the past.  Well, that, the cold, the rain and the dreaded railroad trestles....but more on those later.  

I think there were about 300-400 riders who started the race.   Mainly guys, maybe 20 females (including pros).  About 200 total finished.  Most racers were Costa Ricans aka Ticos...the nicest people ever.  I swear those Ticos know how to do two things really really well: (1) build roads that go straight up/down mountains, and (2) be happy.  There were also quite a few racers from the USA, Canada, Europe and from countries scattered throughout Latin/South America.  

As far as OUR own little group, some of who only met once there in CR, they were all great guys, great athletes and solid motivators for me.   Some of us were in the military together a looooong time ago, although never really knew each other (plus they were much bigger badasses than little redrock girl was).  But turns out to be a small world.  Their wives were instrumental in getting us all from point A to point B, meeting us at checkpoints (CPs), keeping us inspired throughout and putting up w/our muddiness, appetites and eventually fatigue.  As I was sorta the 3rd (9th?) wheel and a late "add-on", I tried to be small and to not be too much of a hassle for them.  From when I arrived in San Jose, the guys were there to get me and were really excited about the race.  Some of them had been looking forward to it for months, had done some recon and provided us with excellent info about the course, course profile, the terrain, feed stations, weather factors, safety, where to clean our bikes (which rivers of the umpteen we had to cross), where to conserve energy, where to have fun, where to be careful, etc..  I mean, seriously, they had it dialed in and were so helpful.

(My bike's 1st ride on TOP of a vehicle...scary.)
As the guys had been planning to do this event for months, I definitely tried to feed off some of their pre-race vibes to get me motivated (remember, I had had no time to plan, review the course profile, let alone make my travel arrangements in the one week prior), so their motivation was key for me!  One of the guys, 2PE, was actually on his honeymoon, and his wife was probably as awesome as wives get....very supportive and his greatest cheerleader out there on the course!  A cool couple and an a strong rider!  Another one of the guys, JC, lived in CR and had done the race numerous times, and he became my carrot to chase everyday.  He is an outstanding rider and he and his wife (who did not race this year) were instrumental in getting me through those finish chutes every day!   Another one of the guys, R2, about whom I'd heard amazing athletic stories for years, lived there and played host to us.  His athletic prowess and toughness did not disappoint.  His toughness might only be matched by my good buddy, Endo, who had initially extended the invitation to me and who survived a horrible crash on one of the descents on Stage 2 yet continued to ride through all the stages.  I also met a young American couple who'd made La Ruta an epic vacation sufferfest; he rode hard and she remained his biggest support crew and #1 fan.  The wives were instrumental in making sure we got to where we needed to be each morning on time and when the roads permitted (gnarly roads that even the big ol Excursionator wouldn't make).  I can't express enough my appreciation for our whole crew who kept the morale up, logistics covered and everything else....priceless for sure!

And although I wasn't part of their "initial" team, the group took me under their wing.  Mayflower Research & Consulting had provided sponsorship and support to the guys, which was key to all the logistics involved such as Mechanic support, gas, food, racekits and probably even more.  Thanks Mayflower!!

For the 4-day event, rather than staying in the official hotels and taking the shuttle busses back and forth to the stage starts/ends, our friends who were not racing (mainly the spouses) would drive us, and we would also stay at their San Jose area home for several of the nights and then lodges for the other nights when the stages were far from San Jose. We also had our own mechanic, Emilio, who by the end of my stay in CR was like a little brother to me.  Prior to the race, he'd recommended we take down some spare parts (der hangers, brake pads, etc.)

When I first arrived in CR, the guys said, "As soon as you come across the finish line each day, all ya have to do is pass your bike to Emilio.  He'll have it ready to roll the next morning."  Well, I, being somewhat type-a, was not entirely comfortable with this concept and wanted to know each night PRIOR that the bike had no kinks, rather than having to worry about it in the morning.  Let me tell ya, after getting to know young Emilio before the race started, hearing his stories about his own experiences racing La Ruta and seeing his bike magic, I would all but throw my bike toward him at the end of each stage.  I truly think my bike came back from CR in better shape than when I left Hawaii (I'd never unpacked it from Worlds)!

We stayed at a great hotel on the beach in Jaco, on the Pacific Coast, 2 blocks from the race start.  The pre-race day was mellow...I simply registered, pre-rode the first few miles of the course just to keep my legs loose, talked to some other racers and tried to stay off my feet and outta the sun.  I also harassed the queen of pain Rebecca Rusch about what to expect and I must say everything she'd told me was spot on!  And for all my efforts to stay low-key that day, I did end up bodysurfing twice...oddly I was the only person out there...curious if there had been shark sightings or something????

As far as fuel throughout the race, I planned to eat as normally as usual (meaning regular "grazing" of real food and no gels), but obviously a bit more calories, sea salt/electrolytes and carbs -- eating something every 45-60 mins or so, depending on the location/effort level at the time.  Then at night to recover with Fluid Recovery, then eat a substantial dinner and to make sure I was taking my vitamins, a Mag/Cal supplement and my "greens" superfood mix packets.

The only real drama of the day pertained to tire selection.  Being from the red rocks (and being a wuss), I ride big ol fatty tires, to include a 2.3 up front.  Emilio and every Costa Rican alive said I was crazy to use those tires for Stage 1 because of all the mud in the jungle.  As I wasn't really there to "compete", I didn't think it was worth dropping $150-200 on tires that I'd never use again.  Emilio insisted that if I wasn't going to buy any that he would "force" me to use his own.  So he mounted his tires on my bike.  Basically 1.9s and slicks.  WTH??   Oh yeah and like 40 PSI or something crazy.  I'm a 18-20 PSI girl.
(Jaco Beach)

STAGE 1 (DAY 1) --
About 110k & 12,000 feet gain (a long 10 hours of riding/pushing)
This is the longest/hardest of the days...supposedly the "make it or break it day", with heat, humidity and a lot of muddy trenches.

I wasn't nervous at all, esp after all the crap I'd been thru over the past few weeks. I was just ready to get it started.  I was definitely NOT there to race although am always looking for a good "workout".  I carried my phone w/me the whole time by the way...wasn't going to miss good photo ops and maybe some texting friends back at home :-)

I was a bit apprehensive about the jungle though, hearing all the rumors about having to cross rivers and push/heave bikes through slick knee-deep-mud erosion ditches.
I think I'm a pretty climber and a lightweight though, so still (naively) thought I would be able to ride it all.  And so it began.   Re the tires, I was pretty nervous on the initial fireroads as I felt like I was on a roadbike...which homey-girl don't do!  But I got used to the feel of it, and cruised up through the crowds quite nicely.  I'd say I was probably in the top 15-20% of the crowd.  

And then came the jungle.  When they'd said mud, oh wow, unlike any mud I'd ever known.  I'd have to stop every few minutes and scrape the thick gooey clay from all crevices of my bike.  Fortunately, Emilio had advised us to carry lube and a brush for this day and to clean/relube at about every other crossing.  Personally, my biggest challenge was that I'm not the biggest person in the world, not particularly strong, and have no real experience (need) to ever carry my bike.  So carrying my bike (w/an extra 5-10 lbs of crap in it) was exhausting for me.  And the knee did not likey-likey.  It was hot and humid in there.  I've been to Phoenix, Baghdad, Sana, Yuma, Death Valley, all those places the AIR is hot.  But in this jungle, your BODY gets hot.  Like seriously "overheating".  I definitely drank a lot of water and stayed on top of my salt intake in there.   In the jungle I met Chris Carmichael, several from his CTS group and some other super nice American riders who, like me, seemed to be loving the suffering.  Over the next four days, they were good morale boosters and sufferin' buddies to ride with.

It took me about 3 hours to do what I think it took Todd Wells (all 6'4" of him) to in about an hour in that darn jungle.  Walking/pushing in skinny little racing shoes/cleats sucked.  When we went thru the final major river crossing, one of the bike shops had a guy posted there who would pressure rinse your bike off.  Yay.

Man, I was just ready to get back in the saddle.   From what I remember, the rest of the stage entailed a lot of fireroads through the higher elevations, through coffee farms and finally into rush hour traffic of San Jose, the capital city, to the stage finish line.  We all waited together at the finish for the rest of the group to come in then we dashed home for some good eatin' and our massages.  Definitely a tough but good day, ready to roll for the next day.

(Just one of many "friendly" cows who had somewhere to go too.)
(This is a just a 'tame' part of my 3-hr mudfest.)

STAGE 2 --
About 90km & 10,000 ft gain
Lots of steep climbing.

This stage supposedly would start going straight up immediately.  And wow it did.  It was quite an ego-booster to be still upright on the bike pedaling when many of the riders had already dismounted and were pushing their bikes...and yet it was still PAVED!  Then, in a matter of moments, I too dismounted.  Then, it was quite humiliating to be one of the crowd, pushing my own bike like a tired ol' donkey, head hung low, step by step, all while trying to keep solid footing in my slippery mtb race shoes/cleats.  There were tons of locals spectating and cheering wildly at many of these steep spots.  I must admit, I'd hang on for as long as I could if mainly to avoid being "that girl walking", but even walking uphill was hard.  Yet, the Ticos remained so motivating that ya couldn't help but grin and make jokes with them.

And up and down and up and down went the day.  Gorgeous and rugged terrain.  The CRs don't seem to believe in switchback roads.  Nope, straight up the sides of these mountains.  They say some of the roads were over 30% grades.  I dont even know how they DRIVE on these roads.  Seriously.  I hardly ever use my granny gear, ever.  But sometimes during La Ruta I could barely do that!  There was a lot of walking.  (I have a training plan concocted for this now!)  Some gnarly technical downhill sections, more climbing thru stunning coffee farms as far as the eye could see, some fun downhill (the only part of the 4-day event where I think I was grinning and yelling yee-haw), and then finally through a horrible 20-minutes of knee-deep mud and into the next town to end Stage 2.  
(Photo PuroMTB - showing typical CR style 30%+ grades. Urgh.)

STAGE 3 --
About 79m and up & over a huge volcano (nuf said).

Up til now, I'd felt pretty good each day.  Of course, I wasn't fast, but I felt good and was happy to be there.  I'd been staying on top of my nutrition and never having any redline efforts.  My body felt great.  No pain at all.  Pretty peppy in fact.  But for some reason the night between stages 2/3, I couldn't get to sleep.  I maybe slept for 2 hours.  I woke up exhausted, slept most of the way to the start line and rather than trying to get in even a 10-15 minute run before go-time seemed daunting to me.  So, I stayed in the truck and slept til 10 mins before the race.  

Knowing this was a "hard" day of a long sustained climb up the ~10,000 ft Irazu Volcano (took me about 2:30-3:00 hrs??), I figured I'd just sit and spin and get there when I get there.  I had been pretty pleased that I hadn't had any gels so far in the entire race, but on day 3 I gave in and had two of them up that dumb volcano as I knew I NEEDED to get their easy calories and caffeine.  Yes sir, caffeine and loud Gangster Rap (Ice Cube, Too $hort, DJ Quik & even some ol school Too Live Crew) got me up that darn thing.  Whatever it took.  I was definitely feeling pretty good on the upper half of the climb, when finally I was "waking up" and passing folks and never getting passed once.  

And then things changed.

We'd ridden up so high in elevation that we were now in the clouds.  One of our support vehicles told me that the support truck that had all my stuff (fuel, cold-weather gear, etc.) had broken an axle or something and that it wouldn't be able to make it to the checkpoint.  I was screwed.  Yeah yeah yeah, I know....I should've taken responsibility for myself from the start and carried everything I could possibly need.  And I had done that on Stage 1 bc I expected the worse, but everything had been going so smoothly that I gave in and went with the "system".  When I'm sure that my faced showed my frustration (and fear?!) , one of our gals grabbed me by my arm and forcefully said "Stay focused!"  Those words are what eventually got me safely of that volcano.  

Murphy's Law, add cold rain, a super-exhausted girl who can NEVER handle cold/wet weather, super wet technical gnarly section at the top and voila...a big ol ugly bonk.  I was too cold and stupid at that point to stay on top of my water/calorie intake.  I was shivering uncontrollably.  My lower back started locking up (still dont know what thats about other than um yeah maybe see all the above).  I remember one of the last sections of climbing, up a narrow double-track road when I got totally pinned in by about 15-20 cows.  Totally surrounded.  (Growing up on a farm, if that had happened, I would've been trampled.)  These cows seemed more freaked out than I was, and the shepherd was trying to get them back thru the hole in the fence, but in the interim, my meltdown kept brewing.

Then I remember standing on the edge of the trail, in the cold rain, bending over trying to stretch out my back, when I heard a fellow rider (American) ask if I was ok as he rode by.  Embarrassed and a little out of it, I just did a thumbs up and said "yeah I'm great" or some other big ol' fat lie.  Then I don't remember much other than standing there, yep standing there, shivering and wondering what they'd do with my bike if I died in their country.  My big grand happy world had so quickly shrunk to a micro-scope and it was really about survival.  Near hypothermia for sure.  Finally, one of the CR racers who I'd ridden "with" for the past three days grabbed me by my cold arms and said something to the effect (en espanol) as "go go go...or you will die up here".  So I rode/walked thru the rest of the rock garden, in the rain and fog.  A Californian couple who I'd met the day prior in the sloppy 'trenches' rode by, and the husband offered me his arm warmers to wear.  (Note: if you are a little gal and ever try to wear men's XL arm-warmers, wear them upside down, otherwise you just have fancy (wet) wrist warmers.)  Very very thoughtful. (Thank you, guys!)

Finally, I got thru the rocks and outta the rain.  Then it was a long (30-80 mins???) of downhill on fireroads and finally pavement back into warmer jungle climates.  Of course, I never could tell it was warmer there, bc my core temps were still so cold and the fast downhills only made my wet skin colder.  Even at the finish line, where there were folks in tank tops and shorts sweating, I was begging for blankets and trying to soak up sun.  I was an absolute disaster.  All my nutrition and blood-sugar levels were way outta whack and it was like I was a different person.  Would break down crying over stupid things.  Must get warm.  Must get food.  Must get good sleep tonight.  And I finally did. 

(Photo BiciAventura.  The CRs carried their bikes like I carry, um, nothing. I just stopped and let their steady train tramp on by.)
(Photo Mario Lacayo. The long long sustained grind.)
(Photo Mario Lacayo.  Climbing, smiling, probably mid-DJ Quik!)
(Photo by my now-dead cell phone camera.  My bovine roadblock. About 10 mins before the big bonk.  Fitting.)
(Photo BiciAventura: With a borrowed "windbreaker" freezing my arse up the last steep part of the volcano.  Absolutely hating life right here.)

(Photo Mario Lacayo. End of stage. Frozen, dont even remember this. Just seeking warmth.)

STAGE 4 --
About 120km
The railroad crossings.
The beach.

(Gals at CP. I'm clearly not taking this seriously enough.)
Woke up the next day pleased that I'd made it this far and ready to get to the Caribbean.  But first, oh yeah, those dreaded railroad crossings.  Uh oh.  This stage was a controlled start for about 5 miles on pavement gently climbing back out of the village.  Then it was rolling up/down and somehow I was alone on much of this, unlike all the other days when I was usually w/the same group of guys.  This stage definitely did not match my strengths as I'm a slow descender even on roads...due to my light weight, probably lower psi and fatty tires that we'd put back on, and oh yeah self-preservation.

And alas the railroad crossings.  Pictures do not do them justice.  Turns out that I'm more than a bit scared of heights.  I'd heard the stories about them, how some of the rr ties were broken, how they were not evenly spaced, how it would be a very far fall if you fell, how crocodiles were under some of the crossings, how locals might take advantage of your fear (offer to carry your bike to the other side then steal it), etc.  In reality, it was even worse.  All 7-9? of them.   You can't get in a rhythm on most of them, bc the ties are not lined up the same.  One of the crossings was about 500 meters...seemed like it went on forever.  Wearing tiny slippery bike cleats, and my legs aren't long to begin with, and I'm carrying (again) my dumb bike -- suckfest.

I was told "no matter what, do not give up your bike if someone offers".  Screw that, on the long one, when a Tico gestured for me to give him my bike (as he was also carrying his own), I all but threw it to him.  Good friggin riddance.  I was still in near-panic mode (somewhat akin to mid-IDF attack levels), and I guess some local kid came up to grab my hand to help me walk across the rest of the way.  Well, in my 1000% tunnel-vision focus on where I was gingerly planting each foot, I didn't see him approach me and my fear thought I was being shoved off or something.  I went down on all fours then realized I was being a bit of a drama queen and mustered enough ego together to get the heck outta there.  Fortunately, my bike was waiting for me at the end. (Gracias Tico.)  I did, however, carry it across all the other (6-7?) bridges.

(Photo UNK.  One of the 'easier' ones.)
(Photo UNK.  Sheer focus. Get me off this damn thing.)
(Photo UNK. Person here UNK. The rr crossing...intimately known and best forgotten.)

The rest of the stage included long stretches on actual old railroad beds, meaning miles of rocks/railroad ties (on the ground, no crossings), and all you could really do was put it in a big gear, low rpms, put your head down and keep pedaling.  Stopping or going slowly was not an option.  I couldn't imagine doing that on a rigid or even a too old for that crap.  And the final 10k or something was on the beach, a sandy dirt road paralleling the coast. Gorgeous.  I knew I wasn't there as a true competitor and I really did seriously consider running out into the water to play for a few minutes.  The sand was thick and ya had to keep up some momentum, but I loved it.  About 10k of desolate beach....specatular.

When I finally got to the finish chute at the beach, everyone was cheering like crazy.  And when I dropped off the final steps to get my award, our crew came rushing to me seemingly a little more excited than what seemed "normal".  Of course I'd finish, I thought.  Well, turns out that apparently one racer got held up at gunpoint at one of the RR crossings and had his bike stolen.  Other racers to include the #1 female racer and about 20 others were victims of major bee attacks on another crossing (emplaced by locals? improvised bee-devices? IBDs?), causing major allergic reactions, racers jumping off the bridges in panic, broken bones, etc....not a pretty event.)  My friends thought that maybe something happened to me, especially as I was only 1 of maybe 20 female racers.  So, while I'm sure they were happy I finished, they were happy I didn't get bike-jacked or jumped into the mouth of a hungry croc.

(Photo Mario Lacaya.  Yay, the final finish line is in sight!)

All in all, our whole crew made it and for the most part all in one piece.  Some of the guys had a few "run-ins" with innocent/guilty spectators who may or may not have been stupid enough to walk out in front of 200-220 lbs of steel (and carbon fiber) going 30+ mph downhill like a freighttrain.  But blood, bruises, stitches, IVs, tears (definitely me on that one) and lots of grinning, we all made it.  I'm super proud to be part of the group!

(Photo Mario Lacayo. The group minus Emilio and Mario. Morning of Stage 4.)

As for me, I was pretty stoked.  Not necessarily proud of my time, but proud for basically just showing up and gettin'er done.   I needed it.  One of the best break-up activities ever!  I gave Emilio my bike and walked straight into the ocean.  Even did my standard underwater summersault.  I finished La Ruta.  Definitely wasn't "trained" for it, but I did it.  Had some incredible highs, the lowest low, made some lifelong friends, got to explore a new country by my own legs and lungs, pee'd on world-famous coffee plants (sorry CR but it's tough being a girl, plus I eat clean :-), and much more.  Other than my "space-out" during the bonk, I was super-stoked about my nutrition, always felt pretty darn good relatively speaking. (Let me know if you want specifics on my fuelplan.)

Friends keep asking if I'll do it again in the future.  Initially I was torn.  I mean, now knowing the course profile and where I can push it harder, I know I could immediately drop 3-5 hours off my time, without even training.  And if I trained (and dont bonk next time), probably another 2-4 hours.  Hrrmmm...just think if I had a 29er.  So, there's the ego in me wanting to "improve" my time.  But then that would mean I'd actually have to DO it all over again.  There are so many other things in life that I can/should "improve" upon and new things to try.  But after the 2nd morning, after feeling good enough to get in a short run before flying back to the US, I said Heck Yeah.  La Ruta isn't a straight up MTB race...there's a lot more involved...some adventuring, some 'go-with-flow', some personal challenges (hello volcano) and lots of ticos grinning in the mass sufferfest.  Definitely worth doing again.
(Photo Mario Lacaya. Where's the beach?)


If you're interested in racing/surviving La Ruta.  Been there done that!  
Let me know and I'll hook you up w/what it takes to actually do WELL there!
Training, Nutrition, Logistics, Contacts in CR, etc..  
Definitely worthwhile!
RedRock88 Coaching