La Ruta Madness|
Friday, November 19, 2004
|Photo by Ticomania.com
|Brian in the streets of San Jose
For the last five years Iíve been threatening to race in the worldís most difficult mountain bike race; La Ruta De Los Conquistadores. Itís a three-day, three-stage, three hundred mile race that traces a route across the continent beginning on the Pacific Ocean and ending on the Caribbean Sea in Costa Rica. I finally committed to racing it last year. When I stated, I had no idea whether and how Iíd finish.
Day 1: Jaco to San Jose
At the racers' meeting, race promoter Roman Urban gave us admonitions about alligators, poisonous snakes, vertiginous bridges and monkeys that hurl coconuts. And I was already feeling apprehensive.
The next day the promoters woke us up promptly at 3am for the 5am sunrise start. They staged us in the dark just outside the hotelís gate. I waited nervously until we were loosed on the course just as the sun was rearing itself above the mountain range to east.
We hit a gradual, muddy climb that led to a series of walls we would have to climb with bikes on shoulders. Through the second checkpoint, the course continued like this. Along the way I saw panoramic vistas of the Pacific, monkeys (none armed with coconuts), and brilliant Blue Morpho butterflies whose wingspans were as big as a robinís.
After the second checkpoint, a series of continually unrelenting climbs commenced. It was high noon and 90 degrees. I was dripping salty sweat so profusely that it began to drip into my eyes and making them sting as though they had been doused with Tabasco sauce.
Suddenly, the road shifted from a rideable 10% grade to a much steeper 20% pitch. I began hike-a-biking. The heat and frenetic pace were taking a toll. It was all I could do to walk this climb.
I hopped back on my bike but I was overheating like the steaming Datsun pickup truck broken down next to me. I saw an increasing number of widowed bikes placed in the beds of race support pickups. Their riders had already quit less half way through the first of three days.
John, my pit crew whose plane ticket here I paid, is a cartographer by trade. He was supposed to meet me at this checkpoint to replenish my food supply. John, however, was apparently unable to home in on this checkpoint.
I assumed that this might be the case and I ate accordingly. I would be more reliant on the promotersí food and its potentially mysterious side-affects than I cared to.
Earlier, I had consumed questionable mangoes and began feeling like one of the seeds I ate had germinated in my belly. I wasn't worried about sickness (having been to Central America a half dozens times managing to skirt the Montezumaís Revenge). Though would this have been the case, I was armed with Imodium AD and the prescription antibiotic, Cipro to knock out a dual case of anthrax and the "revenge".
When I stopped at checkpoint 3, the bloating intensified. It relented when I got back on my bike. I began the last 63K, mostly uphill, segment of the race. Eating was actually harder than climbing so I resorted to self-administering force-feedings. I wanted to eat about as much as I wanted it to get hotter.
I wasnít eating enough to sustain efforts. My body signaled this with a slight twinge in my left leg that I recognized as the onset of a leg cramp. A full-blown cramp is excruciatingly painful and debilitating. During a race years ago, my left leg actually seized; locking it out for five torturous minutes causing me to fall off my bike and lay on the ground stunned and lame.
Fortunately, Iíve learned cramps may be thwarted through quickly ratcheting down my pace and consuming additional food and water.
Immediately, I practiced on-bike triage; I decided to sacrifice my stomach for the sake of my legs and I sucked down an entire liter of Powerade (hereafter referred to as Poisonade). The road leveled and I thought I was at the summit. It was a false flat.
I allowed my legs to recover by soft-pedaling rest of way to the top; there the twinges subsided and I averted the crippling cramps.
On the downhill, a sign read "40KPH" on a road that in the US would be corralled by guardrails and marked with little yellow signs saying "15MPH". I passed cars on turns, and played chicken with chicken buses, water trucks and farm animals.
I finished in the streets of Cuidad Colon. I hit the Alpina Agua tent that was staffed with two Tica (Costa Rican women) honeys that made the babes on the Telemundo network look like chopped liver.
I officially finished Day 1 in 9 hours and 29 minutes in 100st place. A hundred and thirty racers, or 1/3 of the field, dropped out of the race due to dehydration and heat exhaustion.
I didn't know that the biggest ordeal of the day had yet to start.
Suddenly, the mango seeds were germinating in my stomach again. I felt nauseous, hot and I had a bad case of the cold sweats. In denial, I told myself I felt well enough to board the RAV4 departing for the hotel. The twitchy drive on the twisted, pothole-ridden roads to the Best Western Irazu only aggravated my nausea. Suddenly a volcano of vomit was about to erupt, though, still in denial, I stubbornly refused to tell John to pull over. It was too late now.
I slung my head out the window unleashing a slipstream of mango-laced vomit for the windscreens of the cars behind us.
I felt somewhat better. But by the time I got back to the hotel I couldn't eat or drink - not to mention get up out of bed. I feared the worst, a bad case of Montezumaís Revenge.
I took a shower and learned from John that my luggage, with my fresh clothing, was lost. Unfazed, I wrapped the hotelís skimpy white towel around my waist and attempted to go to sleep, writhing in pain for nearly an hour.
I fell asleep knowing that but for a miraculous recovery, thereíd be no way Iíd be on the start line in the morning.
Hours later, I had roused-to from what I feared was a race-ending illness. Miraculously, I mustered enough energy to eat dinner, write day 1ís race journal and be confident I would be on the start line in the morning.
I knew I was feeling better because I was starting to feel angry that my luggage had been left in Jaco, a fact that took John an entire five hours to discern. Despite having more than enough time to drive there and back, John managed to somehow otherwise engage himself. Now it was looking like I wouldnít have inclement weather gear for the coldest and rainiest day of the race.
My attempt to discuss this with John turned into a tiff culminating in a come-to-Jesus meeting in which I put on a rare display of my inner asshole for my unsuspecting friend and pit crew.
Day 2: San Jose to Turrialba
The next morning I woke up at 4am, on four hours sleep and I was still sin (without) luggage. John and I tacitly kissed and made up. I hopped on the bus for Hotel Don Fadrique, the race start and more importantly, the place where my luggage was supposed to be.
To my relief the luggage was waiting at the hotel. I dressed in the lobby in clean, dry bike gear and packed my rain gear to shield me from the elements at 12,000 feet above sea level. The threat to todayís racers: hypothermia.
|Photo by Ticomania.com
|Brian outside of Turrialba.
We left a busy San Jose street. People lined the streets as though it were the Tour De France. We were massed in a peloton (pack of cyclists). Mountain bikers are not necessarily accustomed to the nuisances of riding in dense pelotons. The most treacherous and crash-prone times during a race is not on a wet, rock-strewn descent, but in such a pack at the race start when everyone is vying for position.
I heard rubber tires skidding on pavement - the harbinger of an imminent wreck. A racer body-slammed the pavement in front of me. I managed to barely skirt the ensuing pile-up and I kept on riding for the 45-mile assault on the summit of Volcan Irazu.
The climb was mostly paved we then hit some steep, rocky double track. We climbed above the clouds and the weather was now sunny as we looked below as if we were glancing out the window of an airplane. Nearing the top, we transitioned to some single track through lush green fincas (farms). The fertile soil looked as though it was made of coffee grinds from the beans growing here. I made it to the summit from which it would literally be all down hill.
The downhill was rocky, technical and wet - I was eating it up like dessert. Coming around a switch back, I heard my front tire leaking air and I couldnít hold my line as my tire bled air. Unable to turn, I was hurtling straight toward a barbed-wire fence that might prevent me from going over the edge of the mountain but might also cut me in half in the process. I stopped in the knick of time. I quickly changed the flat and got back to the business of killing it on the downhill.
Todayís stage ended in Turrialba; I finished in just under 7 hours, again hovering around 100th place. 240 racers remained from the 370 who started.
I had survived the worst of the climbing, the psychological trauma of the lost luggage, a hapless pit crew and a painful and mysterious illness.
What more could go wrong?
Day 3: Get On The Bus
Doutschan and I were housed 3/4 the way back up Volcan Irazu at a lovely bed and breakfast sporting one of the best views in Costa Rica; Guayabo Lodge. Itís new, quaint and romantic (if I were here with that special girl instead of Johnny and Doutschan, that is).
We awoke at the leisurely hour of 5am. There is no Day 4 to worry about. There is no reason to hold anything in reserve.
We break for the bus thatís to drive us to the start and everyone is in jovial spirits exchanging La Ruta stories about; IVīs, ambulances, bike crashes, mechanicals and the secrets of survival.
Maybe weíre all so happy because weíre all still in the race and we are buoyed with the confidence of the accomplishment just for having gotten this far and for only having one more day of torture to endure.
A Canadian woman, Tania, and I, regale each other with tales of the miraculous healing powers of Gas-X. In a sporting show of camaraderie, she breaks me off three to take with me in the race today. I obligingly accept, though I am certain they will be unnecessarily as fate has already dealt me my illness for the race.
Simone, a German woman who lives in Idaho, and I discuss the powerful properties of Body Glide, a natural lubricant not found at your local sex shop, but rather in running stores near you. When youíre riding or running in wet weather the motion causes moisture and sweat to grate under your armpits, or, in my case, in places not suited for polite conversation.
The bus hauls us to the start line just outside of Turrialba, the western terminus of the now defunct banana railway. I retrieve my bike from the Bici Ciclo shop that John has paid $50 to tune my ride each day.
Sol y Humedad
They loose us on the last series of the climbs weíll have to endure. Today is the easiest day in terms of climbing. Weíll be doing about half what weíve done both of the prior days, a mere 6,000 feet.
I hit the climb and immediately I start passing most of the other riders. I donít care what happens to me today or what they put in my way. Nothing is getting between me and the finish line. I donít care how I feel at the end of the race; I am pulling out all the stops - mental and physical. The race is the only thing that matters in my existence.
|Photo by Brian Kemmler
|Cabin by the Caribbean sea.
The effect of this race, as difficult and challenging as itís been, has been to build in me a heretofore, unknown confidence. As the race has progressed, so have my resolve, my strength and my determination.
I am on.
The descent turns ugly with a muddy section. Still on my bike, I am skating over the mud. I must have weighted my front wheel too heavily, as I eject from my bike, and I plant my helmet in the mud. I get up, hoist my bike up on my shoulder and start sprinting past dozens of racers mired in knee-high sludge.
The mud is so thick itís suctioning racers' shoes right off their feet. The dude in front of me plants his leg to jump on to the ledge above us and his leg is caught in the mud like an animal's in a leg-hold trap. I hurl my bike onto the ledge rather than wait for him to retrieve his leg.
The terrain is rideable again and I am skating down another mudslide that leads to a river crossing. I am one of the few riders to take the line right up on to the swinging bridge and ride the slick, wet, muddy wood slats and make the 90 degree turn on the opposite side to a smooth transition onto the dirt road climb.
As I pass my fellow competitors flailing at the other side, I am feeling as close as Iíve ever felt to being an international rock star.
I am taking the inside line on blind corners with the concomitant risk that when I get around the corner I will playing chicken with (choose from below):
a) a car
b) a horse (sin or con rider)
c) a cow
I have never felt better or more alive in my life. I am living beyond the realm of fear - though I know without it I would not have been prepared for this race.
At checkpoint 1, Iíve passed a staggering number of riders. A cameraman tells me I am in 40th place, a race high watermark. I donít know how long I can maintain this pace, but I am going to enjoy it as long as I can.
We crest the last hill and the Caribbean coastal plain is visible. The flatness is like an oasis for eyes that have only seen mountains. I humble myself knowing that I still have a staggering number of miles to cover in the thermonuclear heat as even at this vantage point, the sea is not yet visible.
As the road flattens out, I become part of an ad hoc and tacitly assembled international pace line with three other competitors now operating flawlessly as a team. La Ruta is now road race.
In road racing, riders take turns at the front of the peloton pulling, this is called a pace line. Itís called pulling because the rider in the first position in the pack is doing 20 to 40% more work than those drafting behind him or her. By taking turns at the front, the pack is able to go significantly faster than individual riders would be able to go on their own.
We suck in more riders as the tenor of the nation changes like the tone arm of a record player scratching over the surface of a hastily changed and poorly segued record.
Our pace line hits the dreaded banana railway. They route the course into the middle of the tracks and weíre riding atop jarring cement ties. Itís so hot it feels as though weíre now drafting behind the steam engine of one of the trains that used to travel here.
We hit the first of a series of trestles spanning a wide river. The trestle bridges get progressively higher and sketchier as we go on. Our pace line has expanded and we hit the highway that has supplanted the railroad and I am now having trouble keeping up with the peloton.
I am overheating again and I drop off the back after making two failed attempts to latch back on. I am passed by another pace line and then another. I've dropped back a significant number of places and it's all I can do to suck the wheel of another individual rider.
Without the pace line, I am like a helpless baby animal without its mother in the wild.
Sol y Mar
I hit the highway sin peloton with 60k left to go. The 18-wheelers that replaced the trains are blowing past me at 100kph though it seems like 100 mph as I am being alternately sucked into their draft or blown back as though in a wind tunnel depending upon their direction traveled.
I desperately need to get an agua refill and I spy a soda (small store). I stop and demand "dos aguas muy grande por favor". The locals look in astonishment as I pour one over my head and take the other with me on the bike alternately drinking from it and cradling it as though its coldness is the wellspring of life itself.
I am overheating and hope checkpoint 4 will soon appear. I have no appetite and am beginning to feel that special bloated-feeling that was the harbinger of vomit. A mile down the road, the blue Alpina Agua flags adorning the checkpoints are waving in the wind.
I must be hallucinating because the thought of being tethered to an air conditioned ambulance by an IV is starting to sound more appealing than being flanked by the Alpina chicas beach-side as they alternate spoon feeding me strawberry daquiris and pina coladas.
I stop at checkpoint 4, slung over my bike. I make a failed attempt to force feed myself what I usually consider to be a race course delicacy; a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
A gringo spectator comes over to me and tries to offer me encouraging advice thatís going down about as well as the aforementioned sandwich. Itís all I can do to rally to get back my bike. I know I am going to throw up again Ė though this time I donít even have the energy to fight it. I come to a stop underneath the shade and relative privacy of a tree and begin to fertilize it with several streams of clear bile.
I remember that I have the three Gas-X pills Tania gave me that I thought I wouldnít need. I suck down all three with a blend of agua and poisonade.
I feel fine. Ah, the amazingly cathartic effect of human regurgitation. I wish I could resolve all my problems like this, particularly the relationship ones. Back on my bike, I no longer fear not finishing.
The trestle bridges are starting to get sketchier and more harrowing. Earlier I was so confident on them that I would walk past other riders on the outside of the rails with the river 100 feet below. Now the rail ties are so worn each one requires an individual visual inspection before planting a foot.
All of a sudden, another racerís right leg disappears through the gap - as though a trap door. He clings to his bike and hauls himself up and keeps going like a champ.
To span some of the ties, a full four-foot goose step is required. Thereís plenty of room for both bike and rider to fall through to "alligator infested" waters.
We hang a left off the tracks and either the wind is really gusty or - I am hearing and now seeing for the first time the crashing waves of the Caribbean Sea!
I leave the dirt road that parallels the ocean and hit the pavement for the final stretch. I cross underneath the mammoth blue inflated finish line arch with no hands. I am as psyched as I was the day I learned to ride a bike.
I continue to ride straight into the beach and let my bike come to a halt and drop it beneath me in the sand. I strip myself of everything but my bike shorts and sprint past bikini-clad Latin honeys and dive head first into the Caribbean Sea.
I made it.
I finished under 7 hours in 73rd place. The next day my name is listed in the national daily "Al Dia" as having finished 92nd overall. I meet up with John after my swim and wait around for some of my newly minted friends like Doutschan to finish.
I wait around for Simone to finish. When we meet again sheís not particularly in the mood to talk. Though we exchange contact information.
Itís not until later when I look at her card, a humorous Photoshop mock-up of an Idaho driverís license that I notice the quote on it that best sums up the spirit of the 222 La Ruta finishers:
"We all have the extraordinary coded within us waiting to be released" --Jean
Editorís Note: The 2004 La Ruta recently ended. The top results are below:
1) Paolo Cesar Montoya
2) Jonathan Carballo Ramirez
3) Marvin Antonio Campos
1) Louise Kobin
2) Hannele Steyn Kotze
3) Adrianna Rojas