Sunday, February 10, 2008

TCC 2008: the race report

After the pictures and the videos, here is my race report. I hear some people saying: "at last..."
First, another premiere in my blog, a poll: should I count the 7 stages as 7 races, or just one for the whole week? What do you think? You can answer on the right side of the page. Personally, I'll put 7 different lines in my log. And I think that each stage was worth a race, even the short and fast 11K time trial. Actually, especially this one.
Back to my report, I already told you that I didn't bring my laptop with me to write daily updates. Actually, it took me three days before I was accustomed with the Pura Vida rhythm and I took a piece of paper to write down some of my recollections of the first stages. But it's mostly on my long flight back home that I wrote down my notes, 13 pages, of small handwriting as some have seen down there. Once home, Agnès first proposed to transcript/type them for me to help me focusing on my work. Later though, during one of our family dinners, we hold a "family council" on this matter and the consensus was that this was too much work, and too much details anyway.
So I'll keep the detailed journal for the scrapbook that Agnès has started during my trip, which includes all the beautiful messages which many of you have left on the TCC website, on the Race Message Board.

1. The competition

I'm sure that, looking at the leaderboard during the week, you all wonder what happened and how I lost the pole position on the 5th day. Before flying to Costa Rica, I had looked at the participants list and figured out the favorite this year was Kurt. Kurt lives in Costa Rica but is from Germany where he still works for 4 to 5 months a year, posing marble, a tough physical job. His family (wife and 2 daughters) actually traveled and camped with us all week as the kids were on vacation that week in Costa Rica. As such a favorite, I was therefore not surprised to see Kurt taking off really fast at the start. However he was first caught up and passed by Steve, from Colorado, then Javier, his teammate from Team Costa Rica.
Steve, I, Luc (Team UK), Chris (Team California), Greg (light blue bandanna, Team California), Dominic (Singapore), Gideon (Team UK), Gerhard and Kurt (Team Costa Rica) - Photo by J. Andrés Vargas -
Javier finished 3rd last year, on the same course/route. I passed Kurt and Steve, trying to keep up with Javier in the first steep hill, over the volcano and on a very strenuous and slippery trail. But Javier was really strong and I lost him. When I got to the finish of this first stage, I asked how far I was from him but, to everyone's surprise, the staff had not seen him yet. As a matter of fact, Javier missed a turned a few kilometers from the finish, got lost and arrived at the finish line 47 minutes after me, cold, soaked with the rain, confused and, I bet, very upset. I helped him setting up his tent as he was trembling and shaking in the rain. Another important event of the day in terms of competition is that Kurt badly twisted his ankle on the tortuous downhill, right in front of Steve who heard a bad crack. I was amazed to see him completing the Challenge, Kurt is such a tough (and nice!) man and runner. But it was enough to handicap him and prevent him from competing with us as he was suffering especially in the many downhills. With that, you see that I was somehow lucky to take the lead on the first day. And with this misfortune for the locals, Team Spain took the lead of the team competition. In the evening, Frederic, a French employee at the Ranch, introduced me to Philippe and his wife who live in Costa Rica and were visiting for business. Philippe is the President of the UFE (Union des Français de l'Etranger, or Association of French Abroad), for Costa Rica. He was amazed and amused of finding a French in such a remote location and interviewed me for an article he will publish in the UFE bulletin.
At km 15 of stage 1, after passing over the volcano - Photo by J. Andrés Vargas -
Day 2 was the toughest stage with several river crossings (several runners drowning in the fast current...), a long climb in a muddy canyon then a lot of fire road in a very windy and sunny section. The heat was getting on us at mid day and I suffered from it and from the lack of sodium, being out of salt (S-caps) by the second checkpoint at km 32. I got really upset with the fact that the aid stations didn't have any salted food and became worried and obsessed with the idea I may hit the wall and experience hyponatremia (I had taken only 4 caps with me and we ran for almost 8 hours).
3 pictures from stage 2 (60 km) - Photo by J. Andrés Vargas -
Although I collapsed at the finish, on the village soccer field where we set the camp, I was later positively surprised to be only 16 minutes behind David who won this stage, and 14 minutes behind Javier. The following night was our worst one with gusting winds which managed to turn a couple of tents upside down while we were sleeping (or trying to sleep).
Day 3 was a shorter (22K) stage, yet with some technical sections, one of which very muddy, through a National Park. Luc, from Team UK, was ahead of me in that one, a couple of very British cross-country-like kilometers, perfect for him. Javier took the lead early on again in this stage and missed the first turn, again. Fortunately, Kurt was not too far and yelled at us as I was also missing the trail, following Javier and Jose (Team Spain).
Cross-country in the fist half of stage 3 - Photo J. Andrés Vargas -
The second part of the stage was mostly downhill and very run able. I caught up with Luc and we got passed by Manuel, also from Team Spain. Despite their aggressiveness in this stage, Team Spain lost the pole position to Team Costa Rica that day. I took 3rd, losing less than 4 minutes to Javier. That afternoon and evening we camped next to a farm, for a much quieter night before the early start of day 4 (5:45 am).
The 4th stage was the second most difficult of the week. Less technical than the first two days, but much more heat, early in the morning. We started with a straight 600 meters elevation gain-5K uphill in which Javier put me about 8 minutes by the summit. Going uphill is really is specialty, never walking. By the second control point, corresponding to the end of the Adventure race, at km 19, he had about 10 or 11 minutes on us (David, Luc, Steve and I). The following 6 kilometers were very exposed and I ran some of them with David. A shady section led us to the third control point and I made sure to stop at every creek to water my head and upper body, in anticipation to the last section. David was just on my heels as I left PC3, before a long uphill fire road. Rodrigo, the course designer and director, passed me with his car after the summit and told be the rest was mostly downhill. Yet I had to walk in the rolling sections, suffering from the heat.
Around km 30 of stage 4 - Photo J. Andrés Vargas -
About one kilometer before the last control point (PC4), I was surprised to catch up with Javier, who was walking slower than me. As I passed him, I encouraged him to follow me as he seemed pretty washed out. What was I thinking? Not only he followed me but actually took off again, not even stopping at PC4. After this last checkpoint, we were promised a surprise in the pre-race briefing, with a river crossing. I was visualizing something like the river crossing at Western States, or even a larger river. I was completely disoriented when I actually ended up in a torrent in a narrow canyon. There was a rope to do some rappel and get in the water which I did, stumbling to stay afloat in the tough current. I then tried to get some directions from the volunteers about where to cross the river and where to go on the other side but they kept being allusive and making gestures urging me to get upstream in the canyon. David, who had "run" this section last year, perfectly knew what was ahead of us and actually pulled me out of the water as I tripped down and almost drowned in a whirlpool, upside down, my head not hitting a rock, fortunately. After almost a mile of such reverse or upstream canyoning, we ended up at a wonderful water fall where I had some time to recoup, while waiting for the other competitors. 15 minutes lost on Javier in 0.8 miles, ouch! Yet, I was happy and thankful to David for having helped me through this section. Without him, it would have been worst.
Perfect trail shoes, except for canyoning... - Photo J. Andrés Vargas -
My trail shoes were really not appropriate on the slippery rocks but, most importantly, I was way too focused on my idea of crossing the river, I could not reassess the situation and visualize in real time what we had to do in that river. That turned to be an adventure race, something I was obviously not prepared for.
A local tradition: saying goodbye to the Sun (camp of day 4)
The 5th day, Thursday, had two stages. One 11K time trial (course contre la montre in French) in the morning (just for the Expedition runners), and a 22K run to the Ocean at mid day. With several hours of wait and a bus ride in between. The time trial was an unusual format: we started individually, one minute from each other, starting with the last one of the overall ranking in the leaderboard, and finishing with me (still wearing the yellow jersey, so to speak). By km 2 I passed David who started 2 minutes ahead, and we almost missed a left turn that several others had eventually missed, unfortunately, as I will learn afterwards. I kept passing runners and, by km 9, passed Steve and almost caught up with Javier, who saw me coming and accelerated in the subsequent uphill (yes, his specialty...). I took first overall again in this short and fast stage, gaining merely 13 seconds on Javier. For a good sweat as the heat was quickly rising in the morning.
Fast and flying in stage 5a - Photo J. Andrés Vargas -
For our wait before the second stage of the day, we were entertained by an amazing monkey ruling the central plaza of Canas Dulces, a small and quiet village. The bus finally came around 11am and dropped us in the country side, in the middle of nowhere, for the start of the stage 5b, by... noon. The heat was barely bearable as we were waiting in the shade and it was too much for me to keep up with Javier and David as they were taking the lead early on. With sleeves, gloves and a Buff on my head to fight the UVs, with the sun at its peak of the day, I was way over dressed and suffocated, trying to keep the charge to limit the distance with Javier.
Overdressed in the hot Costa Rican savanna (stage 5b) - Photo J. Andrés Vargas -
Despite resisting to Gerhard for third place, Javier put me an impressive 19 minutes, enough for him to take the pole position by almost 5 minutes. I was happy for him, congratulated him again yet barely received a smile in return. He was really determined to win, when I was myself here for the experience, having won a free entry thanks to a promotion contest Tim had run with TrailRunner magazine in 2007. It would really have not been decent for me to win the prize money on top of that! Anyway, Javier was stronger and deserved this win after him getting lost in the first stage. At least I had maintained a lot of suspense throughout the week, especially among my family and friends, my "fans!"
There was a lot of incertitude for the seventh stage on day 6, because of the tide. The main options were to (1) start very early and cut some of the reef sections along the sea, or (2) wait in the afternoon to run the whole course designed by Rodrigo. Late on Thursday evening, Rodrigo opted for the first one, my favorite so we won't suffer the heat again and we will have more time to enjoy the resort. We were off by 5:45 am again and it was still dark on the beach. After several kilometers of dirt road I arrived at the aid station to see Javier leaving, so I was about 1 minute behind. We then arrived on a beach were we started about 2 kilometers on the reef, for a delicate run on rough rocks. At the following beach we were supposed to leave the coast per Rodrigo's instructions. I saw a car from the race and two series of ribbons in two directions so got confused, yelled to find the owner of the car but couldn't see anyone. I came back on the beach and waited for Luc who was several minutes behind, followed by David. I explained the situation to Luc who said we should follow the coast and the reef, so there we went. Soon followed by David which comforted us that was the way to go. The next kilometers on the reef turned to a nightmare as the tide was getting higher. At one point, the big waves were getting into a cave and stopped our way. That is where David then Kurt and Gerhard caught up with Luc and I. Fortunately, a volunteer had been sent there by Rodrigo at the last minute when he heard we didn't turn at the beach. All the other guys were prompt to jump in the Ocean but, with my bottles in the hands and my apprehension to swim across this dangerous waves, I lost several minutes again. In a perilous move the volunteer took my sun glasses and David caught a bottle I had lost in the swim, while pulling me out of the water with his other hand. Again, David was here to save me from this second tricky water adventure... With that, the timing didn't mean much and Kurt was even more upset than me. Apparently the volunteer at the car on the beach woke up to indicate the way to Javier but went asleep in some narrow bushes by the few minutes I arrived at the car. Embarrassing story for the organizers who decided to record the time based on the time stamps of the photos taken on the first reef section.
Thanking David at the finish, for another water rescue... (Photo credit: Team Spain)
Again, I was not shooting for first place anymore, yet I wanted to minimize the time between me and Javier. Could have been less than 10 minutes after 23 hours of race that week, but it was my turn to get lost on the final day...
Despite the associated danger, Rodrigo was happy we had run his original course. Overall all of us were thrilled with such a finish of our own personal challenge on such a pristine beach. A wonderful feeling and some tears of joy for many.

2. The course
For those who want to see the Route of Fire in details, here are stages 3 to 6:
  1. Google Earth (need to install Google Earth)
  2. Google Map (no software needed, just a web browser)
Unfortunately, my Garmin lost the records from stage 1 and 2, likely because the memory was overflowing with so many details over 6 days. Another reason to travel with your laptop in the jungle if you dare to...

3. Mother Nature
Trail running is all about getting more connected with nature and its wonders. Running in Costa Rica gets this to its utmost level thanks to the richness of the biodiversity of this country, blessed with abundant rains. Gerhard, one of the members of Team Costa Rica, is a naturalist and botanist expert and works as a guide, when not running. He told me he knows more than 500 species of birds and many more of plants! Focused on the trail, to avoid tripping and twisting my ankle, I didn't see 1% of this patrimony. Yet, I was amazed by the variety of terrains, landscapes, views, trees, plants and flowers we went through during our 6-day journey across two provinces of Costa Rica. This is an incredible opportunity to visit a country and I'm grateful to have had this chance, despite not having the family with me to share this experience. With regard to animals we saw all sort of cows and buffalos. Colorful birds and parrots. This amazing monkey at Canas Dulces. Many dogs along the route, and I can confirm that the trick of grabbing a rock on the ground to keep these dogs at bay really works (one wild dog had bitten Bev last year who endured 11 stitches on day 2, so that was my biggest fear, along with the fear of being injured). Among the dogs, one was really special: the amazing Tica who followed us all the way from La Fortuna and got finally adopted by Team Tufunga, Rachel and Simi, back in Berkeley, CA.
I believe I saw a snake in the grass just after PC4 on day 2. Dozens of crabs running on the reef on day 6. Then, the highlight of the week, this large sea turtle laying eggs on the beach:
I love trail running for these opportunities to get outdoor and closer to our natural environment, and I wish you have the opportunity to yourself hike through Costa Rica.

4. Key lessons
  1. First and foremost, I experienced the power of stretching during the week. 7 races in 6 days were a first for me and I was wondering how I will handle the fatigue and potential soreness, day after day. I'm thankful to Bev's advice in this area. She said you can actually run hard every day and that, if you experience any soreness the following morning, you just run through it and it passes quickly. I had brought my stick (The Stick) and it seemed to really work perfectly as I didn't experience any soreness throughout the week. While I was administering my own massages with The Stick, others and the Costa Ricans in particular, were getting 1-hour daily massages by professional therapists, for $25.
  2. Adventure racing doesn't include only running and I'm quite bad with anything else, especially if it involves water. So I either need to prepare for it, or just keep focusing on running.
  3. Flexibility. I've much improved on this during my first two years in ultra running, yet can get better prepared mentally to face unplanned situations (weather, terrain, competition, food, drinks). There is a fine balance between improving on the visualization side, the planning side, and being flexible and ready to change your plan if needed, not getting obsessed if something doesn't correspond to your initial plan. Pre-visualization versus improvisation. One thing which should help here is to remember that I do that for the fun of it. After all, it's only my "second job" so, no pressure...
  4. I suffered from the heat, having no preparation at all for such a race in the middle of the winter. Yet, that's not a good excuse as David, for instance, didn't seem to care much about such high temperatures despite coming from New York (David, you are surely ready to take on your first 100-miler at Western States in 2009!). I'll make sure to use the month of May to get plenty of heat training before Western States, like in 2007.
  5. Overall, this stage race gave me some sense of adventure racing although I realize The Coastal Challenge offers a lot of comfort compared to other multi-day events. The food was great and we didn't have to carry our own food. Showers were sometimes basic but we could take one every day. We were allowed 24 gallons of running and camping gear which is plenty for a week. Massages were available daily. And we had aid stations, up to four for the longest stages, with fluids and fruits. Some participants were telling stories about races were you carry your own food for the entire week and can barely sleep 1 our 2 hours in remote locations without any support for days. You see, there is always something more challenging, to push your body "farther and faster..."

5. Acknowledgements
A very special thank you to:
  1. Tim for giving us this opportunity to travel through Costa Rica by foot with such an exemplary logistics and great ambiance;
  2. Rodrigo for your design of such an interesting and diverse course, taking into account last year competitors' feedback;
  3. Andres for your wonderful pictures of our journey;
  4. The staff and especially Chef Jesus, for the excellent food, Monica for your dietetic expertise, the variety of the meals, your hard work in the kitchen and directing the volunteers, and Sergio for the perfect logistics;
  5. The medical team for your expertise, availability and support;
  6. The volunteers for giving one or two weeks of your personal time, for your encouragements, for the short nights, setting up and manning remote aid stations, for your good and friendly mood, for your smiles, the fire show, the music and the hard work moving all our gear from place to place;
  7. The other participants of this year's Coastal Challenge for the friendly atmosphere and sane competition;
  8. Chuck who ran the first three editions and told me about this event and Bev and Christine for your pre-race tips and briefing;
  9. My family, friends and colleagues for your excitement following the race on the web and your many words of encouragements which meant a lot to me;
  10. Last but not least, I'm most grateful to Agnès for letting me live my passion this way and relaying the news to all. I love you!
And here I am, with this 6th post on the Coastal Challenge, turning a page on this important chapter in my personal and running lives. Keeping so many unique and good memories, in writing, in pictures, in videos and in my mind. Thank you for following this part of my running on the trails. Again, I hope you too have the opportunity to visit this country some day.
In the meantime, Pura Vida!


Greg said...

Awesome recap! You're my hero, dude!

Leslie said...

Great race report and congrats!

I have done a handfull of adventure races and stage races, but I am still constantly amazed at the body's ability to recover. Thankfully is does, so you can get up go and do it again and again and again!

Anonymous said...

Bravo, Jean pour la superbe course que tu nous a permis de vivre en meme temps que toi a des milliers de km.
Merci pour ce superbe compte rendu ( tu me forces a essayer de comprendre un peu mieux l'anglais chaque jour!!)
Grace à toi et Agnès nous avons pu participer presque en direct a ce super raid.Beaucoup d'émotion chaque jour, et tellement plus quand j'ai découvert toutes les superbes photos.
Chapeau bas a tous les coureurs que j'ai l'impression de connaitre un peu(!), et un merci tout particulier a ce trio canadien féminin qui courait me semble-t-il pour une si importante cause.
J'ai eu l'impression d'y participer moi aussi, à distance ( donc beaucoup moins fatigant !), j'en ai meme révé un jour alors que je dormais apres une nuit de travail, et je me suis reveillée a cause d'une douleur a la cheville(!!) cela a fait rire PY.
BRAVO ET MERCI à tous , vous etes des coureurs hors norme.

BRIGITTE said...

Bravo, Jean pour la superbe course que tu nous a permis de vivre en meme temps que toi a des milliers de km.
Merci pour ce superbe compte rendu ( tu me forces a essayer de comprendre un peu mieux l'anglais chaque jour!!)
Grace à toi et Agnès nous avons pu participer presque en direct a ce super raid.Beaucoup d'émotion chaque jour, et tellement plus quand j'ai découvert toutes les superbes photos.
Chapeau bas a tous les coureurs que j'ai l'impression de connaitre un peu(!), et un merci tout particulier a ce trio canadien féminin qui courait me semble-t-il pour une si importante cause.
J'ai eu l'impression d'y participer moi aussi, à distance ( donc beaucoup moins fatigant !), j'en ai meme révé un jour alors que je dormais apres une nuit de travail, et je me suis reveillée a cause d'une douleur a la cheville(!!) cela a fait rire PY.
BRAVO ET MERCI à tous , vous etes des coureurs hors norme.

February 28, 2008 6:52 AM