Costa Rica Adventure Race World Series

Posted by Trish Riley, September 15, 2010

Palms swayed in the ocean breeze as we relaxed poolside in Costa Rica. We watched in amazement as dozens of guests hobbled past color-drenched tropical flowers, barely able to walk on swollen, blistered feet. Hotel Villas Playa Sámara, a charming five-star beach resort on the Nicoya Peninsula’s Pacific Coast, was the final destination point for Costa Rica’s Adventure Race, a five-day, 500-kilometer dash across mountains, through the jungle, around a volcano, zip-lining above the rain forest, whitewater rafting and kayaking. Hobblers were hurting but happy as they basked in endorphin-soaked glory.

Having chased the racers through the countryside and observed them in action, caked with mud, uniforms soaked with days-old sweat, white-parched feet split with fissures, it was hard to fathom why they’d put themselves through such physical pain and challenge.

“You have a lot of different situations and experiences that you don’t have in normal life,” explained Loreto Fuentes Garcia , a member of the Bimbache team from Spain, who joined the ranks of walking wounded haunting the hotel. “You have a lot of strong emotions; one minute you’re thinking, ‘this is terrible, I can’t walk, I can’t do anything.’ Then the next minute you’re thinking, ‘Why am I thinking that?! I came here to climb this mountain, and I’m going to do it!

“You look for the strength in your mind. When your body is saying no, your mind is saying yes. Luckily, the mind is stronger than the body. But I don’t like the way the body ends up.”

Alejandro Martén, a professional photographer who staffed the race, agreed. “It’s a personal test of the mind and body… it makes you realize you can do anything you really want.” Having participated in a few races as an adventurer, he really has special insight into the mentality of the racers. “Once you’ve done it, you know that no matter how tough things get in life, you can deal with it. That’s why adventure racers are so special.”

Jari Kirkland, a member of the winning Team Explore from Sweden, was absolutely glowing the morning following the race. “A lot of this race is in the head,” she said. “You know it’s just going to be very painful. Sometimes you completely lose your sense of feeling in your feet for a few days; they always hurt. You learn to channel the energy of the pain to help you stay awake.”

A 34-year-old racer from Crested Butte, Colorado, Kirkland connected with Team Explore because she wanted to participate in the Costa Rica Adventure Race, and this group of well-established winners needed a fourth member. Since each team is required to include one female, Kirkland fit the bill, and she brought her own strength as a professional mountain bike racer to the game.

This race was like a phoenix of the sport for many participants. Born from the Eco-Challenge adventure race founded by Mark Burnett in 1995, the races took a turn toward fame when Burnett used the experience to create the top reality show, Survivor. He capitalized on the stress of teams struggling against nature and catapulted the game to the silver screen. Alas, the races couldn’t survive the popularity, and soon became too big and expensive to maintain. While Burnett went on to reality show production success, the races went by the wayside. Now, Alexander Baker and Antonio de la Rosa Suàrez are helping to revive the international races for the competitors who thrive on the game.

“The plan is to try to get the world championship here in 2013,” said Baker, who organized the Costa Rica Adventure Race. “This race is one of four different routes to help racers get to know all of Costa Rica and our many micro-climates, so they’ll be prepared for 2013.” Costa Rica presents some difficult challenges for racers. The changing weather and temperature– hot, sunny mornings followed by afternoon downpours and cool nights – coupled with a wide variety of terrain, from cool cloudforest mountains to steamy coasts, are packed into this relatively small country. This year’s race is one of nine championship races whose winners will compete in the grand finale playoff, Raid Bimbache, in Castilla, Spain, Sept. 30 – Oct. 9, 2010.

Baker and de la Rosa Suàrez are working hard to bring life back to the sport, much to the glee of the niche extreme sports enthusiasts who thrive on the challenge of multi-sports combined with orienteering. This is a dangerous adventure – several lives have been lost in pursuing the thrill. (Read a history and overview of adventure racing here.)

“This is an endurance sport, said Jim Mandelli, of the Canadian Team Subaru, who, at 49, is an adventure racing veteran. “We’re only around for so long, so we choose to do things to make ourselves happy. Racing allows me to travel and to compete. It’s like a reunion with my racing friends.” Mandelli’s team was one of the six teams that completed all of the race events without help. They came in sixth in 105 hours.

Melissa Griffiths from Berkeley, California epitomized the overriding question, “Why put yourself through this?” as racers limped from pool chair to villa at Samara: “I rode into the jungle with three Costa Rican men with machetes who don’t speak English – and I don’t speak Spanish,” she said. She joined the Costa Rican Genie team pretty much sight unseen. “I just wanted to race. I met them two days before – though we’d chatted via email. My husband is very understanding, though my mother doesn’t know. I won’t do it again, but it was great; quite an experience. We spoke pidgin English.”

The 18 teams began the race at Sarapiquí in Sardinal on August 20 with a tree-planting party and festivities. Costa Rica is well known as one of the most environmentally friendly nations in the world; it was rated the third cleanest country in the 2010 Environmental Performance Index prepared by Yale and Columbia universities. In keeping with the country’s renegade environmental spirit, race organizers were determined to offset the energy expended by their spectacular five-day journey.

“Costa Rica wants to be carbon neutral by 2021,” pointed out Juan Sostheim, owner of Rancho Margot, a sustainable ranch hotel that hosted the race. “Is that realistic? At least it’s the first country in the world stating that intention. The other type of tourism is not selling anymore. The competition for beaches can’t beat Cancun, so sustainability sets us apart.”

Costa Rica is home to more than 500,000 species (more than 300,000 are insects!) and ranks among the top 20 nations for its rich biodiversity. Thanks to its wealth of rain forests and attendant creatures, with fire-breathing volcanoes and surfers’ dream beaches thrown in for good measure, ecotourism is a principal economic driver in the country. To protect and promote this natural wealth, the Costa Rican Tourism Institute and partners have developed a Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) program. It guides businesses toward environmental policies to help safeguard the incredible natural paradise that has become a magnet for visitors eager to explore its tropical beauty. The CST provides a benchmark to help tourists select these properties that are striving to preserve the wildlife and fauna that make Costa Rica so special. The amazing flora, fauna, rain forests and volcanoes provide a spectacular vista for adventurers and explorers of all kinds.

We caught up with the racers at La Fortuna, where they were required to stop for minimum two-hour rests, stretched out across a cold concrete gymnasium floor. Next, the racers hiked to Arenal Lake, then kayaked across the largest man-made lake in the country to find three passport check points tucked around its shores. The Arenal volcano was a compelling backdrop, its peak shrouded in clouds, roaring periodically and sending smoking hot lava rocks tumbling down its scorched black cone to the lush green forest below.

By the third day, two teams had already bailed. Fraught with medical problems, the Finnish team Omjakon and Brazilian team Quasar had to quit, though two members of each team continued on the race track in spite of other team members’ injuries. Soon, the teams from Columbia and the U.S. also dropped out of the race.

“Their feet were totally destroyed,” said Alejandro Martén. “Those who take time to stop and put on dry socks will be the ones to go the distance. As a teammate you have to really watch your body systems; pay attention to a little pain or a little blister on your foot. The idea is to take time for a little prevention, that’s one of the keys for this type of race, so that’s what took these teams out.”

Rain, mud, landslides and canyons coupled with little or no sleep can psychologically bring a team down, Martén said. “Or they could miscalculate their time and food source. Then you get in the middle of the jungle with nothing to eat. Planning is the key.”

We met up with the Tierra Viva team at Sky Trek at the top of the cloudforest in Monteverde, where they were taking time to enjoy lunch – and a beer for Argentinean Daniel Pincu. All were happily laughing as they shared the meal, in spite of tortured-looking feet and toes. “No pain!” Mirtha Realpe of Argentina declared with a broad smile as she limped to the lunch table. Realpe said she had health issues and was tired along the way, but her male teammates didn’t complain: “They were so nice about it.”

This was the first international race for the team, and they were clearly loving it, although they were far from the finish line and knew they would not be the first to cross. “The people here in Costa Rica are the most wonderful people,” said Pincu. “Everywhere we go, they’re cheering us on and helping us every way that they can.”

The most difficult event for the team thus far was the canyon, where they had to scale a steep rock cliff to a river, then raft along for 41 kilometers. “We knew we had to do it, but it was the most dangerous,” said Roberto Montges of Paraguay. Were they tempted to forego the canyon or quit the race? “No, we’re used to it. That’s how this sport is – You’re in the race and the race is in nature and that’s what nature is all about. We’re having fun.”

Anamaria Castillo, who volunteered to check teams at race points, agreed and said she was impressed by Tierra Viva. “This team is one of the most resilient teams – they’re always happy and having fun.”

We chatted with Loreto Fuentes Garcia at the transition point at Sky Trek. Stunningly beautiful in spite of the physical trial she was undergoing, we joked about her looking young and healthy because of the sport. “It’s the sport that makes me look older,” she laughed. Asked why she put herself through such trials, she suggested we discuss that after the race was over. With that she mounted her bike and was off with her team, into the steamy, rainy jungle, bound for the seashore.

We left the cloudforest at dusk, after all the teams had zip-lined through the treetops in the rain and passed the checkpoint. We’d been bouncing along on chunky rock and dirt mountain roads for hours when the ride finally smoothed out and widened through the verdant plains as we cleared the mountains of Monteverde and neared the beach at Sámara.

Finally cars and trucks were moving along at a good zoom when we passed a cluster of bikes pulled off to the side. We stopped to check on them… it was the French Wenger team, fixing a flat tire in the dark. Helene Compignie, their female cyclist, said, “The hardest part is staying awake. My mind wants to keep my eyes open, but my body just wants to sleep.”

We said goodbye and good luck, then watched anxiously as the team rode away along the busy highway, trucks barreling past… in the wrong direction.Since they were headed away from the destination, we worried that they might have lost their way after so many hours of grueling physical exertion, but race rules prevented us from offering advice.

Castillo, the volunteer who’d been checking off teams at Sky Trek, got on the radio to race headquarters to make sure the team was not too far off track. Turned out they knew exactly what they were doing – since the rules prevent them traveling the main highways, they were searching for an alternative route to their next destination – crossing a raging river by boat.

We were having breakfast the next morning at the elegant Villas de Sámara with the Explore Team of Sweden, who’d bagged the race the night before at 8:50 p.m. following 84 grueling hours, as the Wenger team arrived. They took a celebratory turn around the pool in a golf cart to scattered cheers and applause, then proceeded to the comforts of a clean dry villa, bath, and bed.

Waving to Wenger, Jari Kirkland continued telling us about Team Explore’s adventure. “My spirit is very adventurous. Why not go to Costa Rica and see a country in this amazing way? There are highs and lows over the days – we sang songs together to keep awake. You never get that experience – to explore unknown territory with just maps and a compass. Who knows if you get lost?”

Kirkland shared stories of falling asleep at the wheel of her bike, and convincing her team to lie down on the ground next to their bikes for a ten-minute nap just to try to stay awake. Like the other racers, she marveled at the kindness and attention of the locals along the way, who cheered in the streets and offered food and rest as needed. “I decided in the U.S., if anyone ever knocks on my door, I’ll let them in. It makes you think that’s a nice way of life.”

Costa Rican dogs often amble in the roadways, chasing passing cars… and bikes. Kirkland said that realizing they weren’t dangerous, and not after a bite of flesh, was a refreshing change. “I was afraid of the dogs at first because when dogs chase you in the U.S., they’re going to bite you, but these dogs just wanted to check us out.”

Teammate Per Vestling suffered a knee injury along the way, but pummeled through the race to the cheers of all standing by. “We’ve done many races, so we know how to soldier on. You get to see the best parts of the most amazing places,” he said.

The team encountered landslides and mud bogs as well as raging rivers. “I looked at Per and only his handlebars were above water… then we had to carry our bikes through the water, but it gave us the chance to rinse everything off and get rid of the mud.”

The team had four pairs of fresh shoes stashed in their equipment to help keep their feet dry along the way. Kirkland summed up the story of Team Explore: “We worked well. The fact is that we were faster than any of the other teams.”

“People think this is an elitist sport but anyone can do this,” said Mandelli. “It’s a great thing to get out there and change that lifestyle. You’ll see local places in a way you’ve never seen them.

Fuentes Garcia was not so enthusiastic as she stepped tenderly around the luxurious destination. “It’s not always this hard at the end,” she said, as she struggled with wondering whether the pain was worth the effort, and that maybe it’s time to call a halt to this torturous racing. “It’s not always so many regrets. As I looked at my teammates I remembered that it’s not always this bad. They didn’t say, ‘please don’t’ drop off’, but I could see it in their faces. I wondered, ‘why are my problems bigger than theirs? If they’re not dropping off, why should I?’ It’s all team work.”

Fuentes Garcia stuck it out with the support of her team, which includes her husband, David Garcia. She says she’s happy she knows she can fully trust her husband, and that he won’t abandon her on the race trail. The pair decided to marry just before the Patagonia Expedition in 2008. The race was their honeymoon, with a few days tacked on afterward at an island resort. “We were so sore, it wasn’t much of a honeymoon.”

Even as she was wondering whether racing was worth continuing, Fuentes Garcia’s eyes lit up when asked about the next race. It turns out that despite her concerns, she’s ready to compete again at the international championship, held in Spain and sponsored by her team’s own sponsor, Bimbache.

“This is what we love to do.”

— Trish Riley and Ken McMurry