Day 1 of The Coastal Challenge distance appears to be an easy day with just 20miles, however we left the hotel in San Jose at 4am in the morning and arrived at the start around 8:30am as we got off the air conditioned bus the heat of the coast hit me it was around 32C already, this year the heat didn’t feel as oppressive as last year. I don’t know if I was better mentally prepared for the heat and humidity this year, I had also had 6 sessions in a heat chamber at Sheffield Hallam University. The heat acclimation sessions consisted of spending 75 minutes in the chamber which involved running for 40-60 minutes, the temperature in the chamber was set to 42C and 55-65% humidity the first couple of sessions were hard work in such high heat, the last few sessions felt easy and I found running the heat comfortable and dare I say pleasant. Mentally I found running in such conditions very manageable.
As I stepped off the coach, I found the heat bearable and the walk to the beach was enjoyable as I chatted to two other competitors, I spotted a couple of Caimen in the small river that ran by the side of the track.
At the beach I warmed the legs up along the sand, as Ian Corless took some photos, the legs felt fresh and ready to go.
The training for this years Coastal Challenge had gone a lot better than last year and I had been able to put a solid block in right up February, the training hadn’t been blighted by snow and ice like last year and I had been doing weekly hill sessions as I was amazed last year how much ascent there was in The Coastal Challenge!
This years race didn’t have such a big stacked elite field like last year, the mens elite field was made up of Pere Aurall who I knew would be a dominate force on climbs and descents and Jorge who I had been DQ’s with after we missed the turn and checkpoint on Day 5. The womens field was incredible stacked as well with Ida Neillsen from Sweden, Holly Page from the UK and returing champion and course record holder Ragna Debats.
Day 1 started at 9am, with my fresh legs I took off and took the lead of the race to see who would come with me, my legs felt fresh and I found the heat easy to run in this year. My pace was quicker than last year, the first 10km of the day is flat and along dirt tracks, after the first couple of Km I knew I had two other runners along with me I looked behind me and Pere was with me and also Ida! I couldn’t believe it! She looked so strong and comfortable as we clipped along at 6:30min/mile pace.
At the first aid station, I had a quick bottle refill and got out quickly and soon opened up a gap before we turned off the track and climbed through a technical section of the jungle, as the jungle enclosed around me the humidity creeped up, I had forgotten how much fun it was running/walking through the dense jungle where the path had been cut out by a machete, I felt like an explorer as I ran through the undergrowth.
Knowing the course this year helped massively, I knew that the route continued to climb after the 2nd Aid Station, I felt so much stronger this year near the top of the climb I looked over my should and couldn’t see Pere behind me, I felt like I had a comfortable lead.
Until the top of the final climb before the descent to the river crossing before the finish, I had eased off on the climbing and then suddenly Ida appeared behind me, I was shocked, we flew down the final descent, she was so fast on the descent and got to the river before me, the river was lower this year and I started to close the gap the rocks in the river are incredbilby slippery I was working hard to keep myself upright and then my calves suddenly start to cramp up. As I got near to the side of the river I slipped over and took a full dunking right infront of Ian Corless. As I got out of the river my calves were still rippling with cramp as I tried to run along the dried river bed and chase Ida down. Ida finished 30 seconds ahead of me.
Started early at 5:40am as soon as there was enough light to see where you were running. Day 2 started with a steep long climb up through the jungle. Pere and myself set the early pace and as soon as we hit the climb Pere flew off, I knew from his previous results todays course would suit him with two big climbs early on. I tried to control my effort as I remembered from last year that I worked to hard on the first climb and suffered later on when we got to beach section.
Jorge and Maikol from Costa Rica quickly caught me up on the long climb and we ran together to the top at the start of the long descent back down, I caught my foot in a fallen small tree hitting my big toe and stumbling, intitally I was just a bit jarred little did I know that the damage to the big toe was going to be far more significant.
Having taken to two big climbs easier this year meant I was able to run quicker on the rolling track down to the beach and I found the 5km along the beach a lot easier. I finished in 2nd place and 7 minutes quicker than last year.
That afternoon my left big toe started to ache and feel very sore, I just thought it was ok and would soon settle down.
An earlier start of 5:20am it was still dark as ran through the town of Playa Dominical and you could just about see your feet, we headed up a track to the start of the river as we ran along the track I could just make out the outline of a Monkey running infront of me. Pere put the hammer down along the track and soon had a lead. I was focused and ready for the 5km of river running, the water level was lower as Costa Rica had had a dry winter, I had been strengthening my ankles for how technical it was in the river. Shortly on entering the river my foot and my left big toe was screaming at me, everytime it dorsi felxed a shooting pain shot up my foot and shin, it felt like it was broken. Very quickly Jorge, Miakol, Ida and Ragna went past me like I was standing still, then Holly came past me, I was really struggling on the technical river and I couldn’t wait for it to finish. Thankfully it and I could start running again.
My foot contuined to cause me a lot of pain, I couldn’t move as efficiently as I would have expected as Holly and myself kept yo-yoing. The long descent back down to the beach was nearly unbareable as my toe hit the front of my shoe, I couldn’t wait to hit the beach.
As I got to the penultimate aid station, Miakol was there and suffering with cramp in his quads, I quickly caught Holly back up on the beach and clicked into 100km mode trying to click the miles out. I didn’t know how far infront, Pere, Jorge, Ida and Ragna.
We ran past the spectacular Whales Tail Peninsula along the beach, a sandy peninsula that is shaped like a whales tail and where whales congrate to mate.
I was now running past runners who were on the Challenge course, they made great targets to pick off as I tried to keep my pace as high as I could, as we went past the Whale Tail one of the competitors told me Jorge wasn’t that far ahead, the race was still on, I tried to increase my pace as best I could along the soft sand of the beach. I could slowly see him as I reeled him in, as we came off the beach I caught him and in the finally section of the jungle over took him, my toe screamed at me again as ran through the technical jungle. I was greatful for the final hot 3km of road running to the finish where I could run smoothly again, I was slowly closing Ragna down as well. I finished just a few 2nds behind Ragna. Pere had won the stage but had struggled in the last few Km having pushed it hard early on.
My big toe was really sore after I finished and I struggled to walk around the stunning camp which was right next to the beach. The big toe was incredibly sore and pus was leaking out of the top, I felt unwell and couldn’t face much food. I had it checked out by the race podiatrist, who drained it and taped it up. That night I slept for less than two hours as the toe just throbbed with a deep pulse in it. In the morning I couldn’t face any food again, I was tired and not feeling great.
I felt competitive to begin with and once I got running my big toe felt ok, until a few Km in when my legs started to feel heavy. I was starting to struggle early on, descending really hurt, I had to descend on my heals making the quads over work.
We could hear howler monkeys on the first big climb up through the jungle, unfortunately we couldn’t see them.
The day continued to go from worse to bad as I was running on fumes and my legs slowly faded, I struggled on the final ascent and the long descent back down to the town Palmar Norte felt like it took for ever, I hit the track at the bottom and was all over the place, Ragna ran past me like I was standing still. It felt like the road was made out of treacle and I was wearing big boots!
I finished nearly 40 minutes slower than last year, I felt washed out and deflated, it felt like I had thrown away any chance of being competitive.
I saw the podiatrist back at camp I got the toe drained and a different dressing reducing the pressure, and took some pain killers.
I made an effort to eat more and slowly my appitite came back, the infection was now causing diarrhea, my body was slowly falling apart.
Day 5 starts early with a bus ride to Serpa and then a short ferry ride across the river to the start of the stage, we had to wait for the race vehicles to get across first.
We didn’t start till 6:15am, and it was starting to feel warm. My legs felt flat and by toe hurt as we started off, however I felt better than yesterday and knew today was long day of 48km which would suit me and I was keen not to miss the right turn!
Pere and Jorge set the pace on the long gradual climb, I didn’t have the stamina to keep up with them, just 6 minutes separated Jorge and myself in the overall standings, I felt I could loose a couple more minutes to him.
My stomach soon started to give me some issues and after Aid Station I had to stop for a toilet stop, I then did a wee and it was coke colour! I panicked last time I had wee this colour was out in Iznik Ultra in Turkey when I ended up with Rhabdolmyosis (kidney failure).
Ida caught me up, she was flying again, I was making an effort to drink lots of water. My stomach kept churning as they day went on.
My big toe hated the jungle sections, I tried to descend as quick as I could so not too lose time or get caught by Holly, on the technical jungle trails.
I didn’t miss the turn this year, the media crew and Rodrigo the race organizer were waiting for me at the turn, making sure I didn’t miss it! It was a relief to know that I was on the right course this year.
After the final jungle section, we headed down to the beach and ran along a soft sand covered track, after 5 days of racing the soft sand felt really hard going the track was littered with plastic drink bottles which had been washed up by the sea even in such a remote beautiful location it was a stark reminder of the impact we have such a natural stunning environment.
Back on the beach I could see Ida and Jorge ahead, the tide was in making trying to find any firm sand in possible, at times I felt like I was running on the spot in the soft sand. At the end of the beach we had a canoe ride across a small bay, it was nice to have short rest and enjoy the spectacular scenery. I watched Ida and Jorge leave the Aid Station from the comfort of my canoe, timing how small a gap they had on me. Out of the canoe I quickly refilled my water bottles and set off chasing down Jorge.
On the final beach section to Drakes Bay, I soon spotted Jorge, I also spotted another runner walking along the beach, it was Pere who was struggling after the quick pace early on.
I very quickly passed Pere and asked if he was ok as he lay in the sea looking like he was on holiday! With the tide still in it made running hard and we kept getting our feet wet as the waves kept rolling in.
I finished 2nd again just behind Ida, my foot had felt ok running on the flat though it soon started to feel sore after I stopped.
The victory loop – though this year a chasing start was added into the mix, everyone else started at 7am then –
6. Ragna Debats 07:01:00
5. Holly Page 07:03:00
4. Jorge Paniagua 07:06:00
3. Marcus Scotney 07:10:00
2. Ida Nillson 07:15:00
1. Pere Aurell 07:21:00
The final day is the full Coastal Challenge course condense into one stage, it goes up a river, crossed below a waterfall, through jungle then along a stunning section of beach.
It certainly added an extra element of racing on the final day, it felt very lonely to start off with until the river section when I started over taking the main field, the encouragement from the fellow runners were great.
My main target was Jorge, who was 6 minutes behind me in the overall standings. It was like running a time trail, running against the clock and trying to keep my effort as high I could.
At 12km we started to head back to Drakes Bay down the coast line, along beaches and mixed technical coastal trail. After the first beach section I caught Jorge up, my job was done and I knew my podium place as safe. I was hoping to move quickly along the coast line trail but my quads had other ideas 5km from the finish my pace slowly started to fade as my quads grumbled at me! I was loosing nearly 2min/km along easy trail.
Thankfully I final came out on the final beach section and could see the finish line. I mustered the best slowest sprint finish I think I ever done along the beach. Pere won the stage and missed out on the course record by 6 seconds.
I was a wonderful relief getting my finishers medal after the disappointment of last year.
The atmosphere in camp that afternoon was one of relief and joy as we all celebrated each others success in complete what is one of the hardest multi day races.
The final evening of the Coastal Challenge was rounded off with a special awards ceremony, started with traditional dance performance from local school children.
It was nice to wake up the next morning and know that I wasn’t having to run again, the start of the journey back to San Jose is very special, as you get a speed boat from Drakes Bay up to Serpa, it is great way to leave the coast and travel up a river banked by mangrove swamps.
The Coastal Challenge is truly an amazing race following one of the most varied spectacular routes I’ve ever ran, the heat and humidity make it a lot harder than it should be as the humidity cooks you from the inside and makes you feel like you running in a force field. Thankfully the beach sections are a bit cooler with a light breeze. The camps at the end of each stage are superb and well organized and the catering is fantastic, having to provide so much food for a hundred hungry runners and cooking in such hot tempratures!
Thank you to Rodrigo the race organizer and Ian Corless for the invite to return and right the wrong turn I made last year. Thank you to all the volunteers at the Aid Stations and at Camp your enthusiasm and smiles kept me going when I felt pretty rubbish.
Finally well done to all the other competitors, who experienced Costa Rica in a truly special way, it was great to be in the same race as you and to get to know some of you, Pura Vida.