[Editor’s Note: Guest writer Mike Place is a great friend to iRunFar, and he’s done loads of work to help make our website function. Last weekend, Mike ran the La Ruta Run in Costa Rica and has ‘penned’ a race report for us. This is his debut appearance on the front side of iRunFar.]
My feet are eager to run.
Today they’ve put a little square on my foot to measure my time.
I don’t know what this is.
I just run with my heart.
I am standing on the start line of La Ruta Run, a 100k and 52k race, on a dark road in the coastal town of Jaco, Costa Rica. Milling around the start in the darkness are 14 Tarahumara from the Copper Canyons of Mexico who seem entirely nonplussed about the idea of spending the next 12 hours running through the jungle in 90% humidity.
I, on the other hand, am considerably less composed. All I can think about is what race director Roman Urbina said to me when I met him at the airport, “We marked the course and saw a few snakes yesterday but you don’t need to be afraid of Boa constrictors on the course. They won’t hurt you.” I’m sorry, what? Boa constrictors? Many childhood cartoons have warned me against the ominous threat of Boa constrictors and, on three hours of sleep as we head into the jungle, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to reconcile contrary points of view.
Further up the start line is Dave James, two-time U.S. 100-mile champion. Dave has a pair of wins at the 230k Coastal Challenge that also takes place in Costa Rica, so he knows what it’s like to run in the jungle. He’s also been to medical school, which I figure might come in handy in the event that I encounter any number of things in the jungle that might eat me. “Is there a course in medical school on emergency jungle snake extraction?” I wonder out loud to myself. Probably not.
Behind me I hear somebody explaining something called a poison dart frog. I make a note of this. A basic knowledge of poison dart frogs seems suddenly and extraordinarily relevant. There must be a line where the search for adventure bumps up against the abandonment of common sense and here, on a dirt road, sharing tips about poison dart frogs seems to foster a brotherhood that’s both terrifying and delightful.
In the final moments before the race begins, the Tarahumara perform a ceremony with burnt copal, a guitar, and a hand-made fiddle to bless the race and the runners. They walk around in a circle as they do this and the smoke fills the lungs of racers and spectators and we all share in the ritual as the darkness begins to reveal the shapes of the verdant mountains ahead.
With a cheer from the crowd, the race sets off. I take a last look at the beach and turn to try and keep up with Dave in the hopes that he can rescue me from anything that might swallow me whole but, of course, he has turned into a faint image ahead on the trail–already gone.
La Ruta Run is the stepchild of the larger and longer three-day La Ruta de los Conquistadores mountain-bike race, which covers 310 kilometers through the jungles of Costa Rica. Though the mountain bike race is celebrating its 20th anniversary, this is the second year for La Ruta Run, which covers the first 100k of the mountain-bike course from Jaco Beach to El Rodeo and boasts an exceedingly non-trivial 13,000 feet of ascent. There’s also a popular 52k option which traverses the same course but stops at just over halfway.
The most important value for the race is kórima which comes from the Tarahumaran word for sharing, says race director Roman Urbana. “My dream and my vision for La Ruta Run has always been a sort of cultural exchange,” Urbana explains one night over dinner. “We have six different sets of indigenous people from Central America this year who have come to run together and to teach other about their cultures.” He continues, “One group arrived from the jungles of Costa Rica. To get to the race, they first walked six hours to the nearest road and then took a three-hour bus ride, then a two-hour bus ride, and then finally a four-hour bus ride before arriving here at the start.” More well known to North American runners are the Tarahumara who traveled to the race from their home in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. Quiet and reserved, they spoke very little but were always quick to a smile and a friendly greeting.
As the race begins, the leaders set a fast pace. Dave James takes the lead group out quickly and the Tarahumara settle in behind with short, quick strides. They run quietly with what looks like almost no effort at all.
When the valley gives way to the first set of mountains, all runners settle into various forms of powerhiking as the grades climb toward 15% and the jungle closes in. The Tarahumara men are wearing their famous huaraches and the women wear small, rubberized dress shoes.
A fast descent along a dirt road on the ridge leads to a small village. Farmers and ranchers stand by the side of the road and eye the runners and wave as we turn inland toward the sun. Having risen above the treeline, that same sun now beats down onto our faces.
Here the course turns from the main road and drops sharply to a rutted trail, if you can even call it that. When a Central American race director tells you that a trail is technical, this word may be somewhat lost in translation. ‘Technical’ here means you should probably be wearing armor. Slowly, runners pick their way down the gully and, as I make my first, tentative steps, the mud gives way under my feet and I take my first fall. The mud forms a slick clay which is all but impossible to get a grip on. Underneath the clay, a layer of sharp rock ensures that falls are painful.
Down, down into the jungle we go, with at least one runner going down hard every few minutes. It’s easy to tell where various groups are by their cursing. The heat is nearly unbearable. It’s like being forced to run inside the butterfly exhibits they have in zoos. Here, everything becomes wet. Formerly dry granola bars disintegrate in my hands and the sound of running water permeates the jungle. Around us, blue and purple butterflies fly past and lizards make themselves known from time to time, sometimes darting across the trail and other times lounging lazily on rocks seemingly watching the parade of silly humans go past. All around, the jungle is a cacophony of sound, from insects to water. The trail gives a very intense feeling of life coming from every nook and cranny and it’s hard to feel separate from it. We’re in this together it seems, like it or not.
After misjudging yet another rock, I go down again, hard. I windmill a few times before finally coming to rest face down in the mud with my feet pointing uphill. Bleeding from several places and having landed directly on my face, I have mud in my eye and in my mouth. Naturally, it is at this exact moment that the theme to Disney’s The Jungle Book begins to play on my iPod. I see a butterfly swoop past my remaining good eye and land on a leaf a few inches away. The bare necessities of life have come to me.
After several brutally steep climbs, we finally reach the first aid in a small village. Here, we get a few salted potatoes and some energy drink and are sent back into the jungle. Though the first section was hard, things are about to get much, much worse. As we descend to the valley floor, we wade across river after river. There are mud pits that are to be avoided at all costs since a misstep can easily suck a shoe right off. Several times I step into pits and sink midway up my calf. After several hours, we emerge onto a jeep road and follow it into a small village deep in the jungle.
Running through the village, children come up shouting, “Señor, señor!” and run alongside. The only way to access the village is to drive on a dirt road and directly through a wide, deep river. The chances of any non-local ever coming across some of these homes outside of this race is remote at best. Roosters walk along the side of the road and families wave and smile as we run past.
Just prior to the halfway point, Dave James who took a fast start has broken down in the oppressive heat by the side of the road. He later said, “I collapsed, got up, and knocked on a door to ask for a drink from the hose and then I laid down on a bench to take a nap to try and recover.” (He eventually felt better, but dropped out at 52k.)
Though he had gone out hard, one of the youngest Tarahumara, Onorio Juarez, wearing only sandals with tire rubber for tread, had left him behind on the slick and muddy technical descents to win the 52k race. “I was wearing brand-new shoes and I simply couldn’t keep up with him in his sandals going downhill. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” James later reported.
On the women’s side, Americans took home the tops spots with Casey Richter winning her second 50k in six weeks with a decisive 39-minute advantage and Katelyn Tocci showed an extremely solid 100k debut with a 13:32 and a win.
In the men’s 100k race, the Tarahumara demolished the old course record in a bit over 11 hours. As the sun went down, the Tarahumara hunted the leader, Javier Montero of Costa Rica, as Roman Urbina would later describe, “like a pack of wolves. One after another they would attack, pushing the leader’s pace and wearing him down.” In the end, Silvino Cubesaré threw down a blazing 11:15 to seal the deal.
At the race finish, the winning Tarahumara are milling about. They hardly seem tired but instead they’re mostly interested in doing what every runner does after every race. They’re eating some dinner and sharing stories about their day. Each runner here, no matter the tribe or culture they come from, is connected by a day on the trail together, joined together by difficulty and triumph. The Costa Ricans have a phrase for this feeling themselves that’s used all the time. ‘Pura vida!’ they shout when they’re excited–full of life.
Kórima, life, and a run through the jungle, what could be better than that? It’s all here at La Ruta Run. Pura vida!
[Editor’s Note: Mike Place was forced to drop from the 100k race due to health issues.]
Things to Know about the La Ruta Run and Costa Rica:
- The aid stations are much farther apart than foreign racers might be used to. La Ruta is best described as a semi-self-supported run. Be prepared to be alone in extreme conditions for up to four hours or even longer between aid stations which can be as many as 14 miles apart.
- There are sections of the course in which rescue would be extremely difficult if not impossible. Entrants would be well served to have experience or good training in outdoor-decision-making skills. La Ruta is not a beginners’ race. Expect the difficulty of the 52k to be equivalent to a tough mountain 50 miler.
- Travel in Costa Rica is very easy. The country is extraordinarily beautiful and the people are so full of kindness that it might just change your life. Many people speak English and the race organizers can put together packages that provide for transportation to the start line and lodging, if needed.
1. Silvino Cubesaré (Mexico) – 11:15
2. Silverio Ramírez (Mexico) – 11:21
3. Martín Ramírez (Mexico) – 11:33
4. Javier Montero (Costa Rica) – 11:37
5. Aurelio Gonzales (Mexic0) – 12:17
1. Katelyn Tocci (USA) – 13:32
2. Melissa Gosse (Canada) – 15:39
There were two female finishers in the 100k.
1. Onorio Tomas Juarez (Mexico) – 5:37
2. Warner Aguilar Salas (Costa Rica) – 6:29
3. Luis Salazar Obando (Costa Rica) – 6:41
1. Casey Richter (USA) – 7:47
2. Alejandra Oviedo (Costa Rica) – 8:26
3. Andrea Alfaro (Costa Rica) – 8:35