Thursday, November 10, 2016

La Ruta

Ignorance is bliss when first attempting La Ruta. The stories of hell about this race abound. A man swept downstream by the river found 3 days later, barely alive, naked, no clothes, no bike. A picture of racers crossing a river completely unaware of a huge anaconda in the foreground. Hiking thigh deep through mud. Falling between the railroad ties of a bridge and dangling in the air holding on for dear life to your bike handlebars. I was mentally prepared for the worst, hardest race of my life, and still I was not prepared enough.

Pictures friends sent me in preparation for the race

Day 0: 

Woke up in Jaco, Costa Rica at the Best Western, about 500 meters from the start line. There is a beautiful blue pool, palm trees, a green lawn that gives way to the sand and Pacific Ocean. Open courtyards let the ocean breeze blow through. Idyllic, some would say. Like trying to enjoy a last meal before your execution if you are staying there the day before La Ruta. For me, the trials and tribulations of the race had already started. Despite all our other checked bags making it to San Jose the night before, my bike box was left in Houston. After hours on the phone with United Airlines and being told they were unable determine the exact location of my bike, it miraculously turned up at the hotel at 4pm. Just enough time to put it back together and get prepped for the next 3 days. 

Day 1: 

The race starts at 6am Tico time right on the beach. Which means more like 6:30 am. We had to wait for the helicopter to show up. Blades whirring, it circled low around us filming as the entire race snaked its way across the sand and almost immediately onto a muddy gravel road leading out of town. Day 1 went like this: holy steep climb, slogging through the mud across the Carara Jungle, holy steep climb after steep climb until the finish 100k later. I can’t really describe how steep the hills are here. Just when you think that was the steepest hill you have ever climbed up, you round a corner and bam, there is another one that seems even steeper. The only thing that keeps you going are the people cheering for you at the top, handing out baggies of water and Gatorade, sponging down your neck with cold water as you pedal on. When you pass through remote towns, there are entire schools of children cheering for you and wanting to give you a high five as you pass. It is a very supportive and jovial atmosphere which is needed because the kilometers tick by incredibly slowly. It took me just under 7 hours to complete stage 1, 4th overall in the women’s field, 10 minutes back from Olga Echenique of Cuba in 3rd and 50 minutes back on Angela Parra, the leader. Finishing times for the leaders of both the women’s and men’s races were super impressive.

At the start line on the beach in Jaco

Pace car and helicopter ready to lead out the race

Riding along the Costa Rican roads

Day 2: 

Breakfast was at 3am. The race start was at 5:30 am which today meant a 6:30 am start. I was ready for another day of climbing, but I was not prepared for what this day had in store. Today gave me a whole new definition of hike a bike. 2 hours up a muddy, rutted, bloody steep “road” that was definitely not passable except by maybe the most daring of dirt bikers. The downhill was just as steep, muddy and rutted out and was almost harder to hike down then on the way up. The hiking went on from there. It was first time I have finished a race in tears. There was not a single fun part about the day except crossing the finish line and lying down in the massage tent. Surprisingly though, I finished in 3rd with enough of a time gap to move up into 3rd place overall in the elite women’s category.

Starting the day under a rainbow

Crossing the finish line after the worst day I have spent on (but mostly off) the bike

 Day 3: 

The day started off with a white water kayaking trip down the Pacuare River. The rafting is technically optional for racers, but if you do it, you get 5 minutes off your total time for the race. (If you opt not to do it, you get to sleep in for 4 more hours which was definitely tempting after day 2). I only had a 2 minute lead on Olga in 4th, so rafting was not really optional for me. It was a beautiful trip though. We were floating along a swiftly flowing milky green river winding through the jungle and then narrowing through canyons with closely spaced fun rapids. We were completely soaked by the end. The rafting ends at the start of stage 3 which began at 1pm. This time, 1pm actually meant 1pm. Stage 3 was flat, flat, flat; a straight out hammer fest for 35 miles with 4 railroad bridge crossings and a small amount of riding in between the railroad tracks on chunky gravel and jarring railroad ties. I was ready. I was determined to fight to keep my 3rd place spot so I could be in a podium picture with Lea Davidson. I was also fairly confident in my ability to hammer since a lot of my training in Chapel Hill is done on fairly flat roads. It was a fast start, and I was in a bad position off the start line. Olga had a teammate riding with her letting her draft. I knew I had to work hard to catch up, but I was able to do that relatively quickly. Lea, Olga and I were in the same group coming into the railroad bridge crossings. I don’t think Lea liked the railroad crossings very much and the group of racers we were with moved past her on the high bridges. Just before aid 3, I think Olga flatted or something went wrong with her tire. The next time I looked behind me, there was no one there. Suddenly I found myself about 10 miles from the finish line leading the women’s field. I couldn’t quite believe it. I ended up taking the stage win and holding on to a 3rd place overall finish in the elite women’s field. It was such was incredible experience and so awesome to be on the podium with Olympian and silver medalist this year at the UCI MTB World Championships, Lea Davidson. 

Rafting on the Pacuare River

Ready to start stage 3. Dylan and I rocking our Ridge Supply Socks!

Crossing the railroad bridges. They are high and you have to be careful but I did not find them too scary

Finishing La Ruta! Ended up taking the stage win.

Me, Dylan and Drew at the finish line

Hard fought 3rd place finish! Angela Parra in 1st, Lea Davidson in 2nd. Very very happy with the result.
Got to meet and race with Olympian Lea Davidson which was super cool 

Everyone else in the group traveling with us finished the race and was super competitive in their divisions. Jen took 3rd in the women’s 30+ age group, Dylan took 17th overall, Drew got 6th and Anthony got 42nd in the men’s 30-39 age group. I think Jen said it best after the race. After completing La Ruta, you feel like you can do anything!

Jen on the podium too!

It was my first time doing a stage race. I will say it was pretty fun being totally engrossed in biking for 3 days without having to think about much else, and I think I got stronger each day. Having the Specialized bike service to clean and fix your bike and getting a massage each day were key. By 6pm, my body completely shut down. I would stay awake long enough to order dinner and then would feel too sick to eat it and would pass out in bed. By 2am, I would wake up starving, eat a cold dinner, then go back to sleep for a few hours before it was time to wake up for breakfast. It was a rather weird schedule but seemed to work for me.

We had a wonderful additional 3 days in Costa Rica after the race exploring the national park and beaches at Manuel Antonio and the hot springs at the Arenal Volcano. We saw monkeys, went parasailing over the ocean, swam under a waterfall, and ate ceviche while watching the sunset. I managed not to tip the car over backwards on the steepest dirt road hills I have ever driven. Me in 1st gear: “OMG, what’s that sound?” Jeff sitting next to me: “THAT’S PEELING. MOMENTUM, MOMENTUM!” And no matter how hard you try to leave La Ruta behind at the finish line, a bit of the race stays with you leading to several mad dashes off the beach and out of the hot springs to find the nearest toilet :-).

I really can't say thanks enough to Joe's Bike Shop for all the support this season, Ridge Supply Socks for the coolest socks around, and Chris Beck for coaching me and helping me achieve more than I ever thought was possible this year.

Monkeys and beaches at Manuel Antonio 

Waterfalls and hot springs at Arenal Volcano 

1 comment: