Ok gang, this is a long one... Grab a coffee and be prepared to take a few extra minutes to get through this long-winded race recap. I have broken my TCC experience into 2 parts: 'The Racing' and 'The Damage'. I'll upload 'The Damage' as a separate post to this one.
I flew down to Costa Rica four days ahead of the race start. My plan was to stay near where Stage 1 started, relax a little bit, and to acclimatize to the heat and humidity. I rented a room in Manuel Antonio (also a National Park), and had access to an amazing beach. I managed to get in the workouts that I had planned, and I knew I was in great shape. I have to admit that I was struggling with boredom though. Tapering is tough enough, let alone when you're away from family and friends.
I felt quite acclimated by the time I headed back to San Jose to sign in for the race and meet up with the rest of the athletes, and I planned to go full-gas on stage 1 the next morning.
When I arrived at the race hotel (in San Jose) that afternoon, I quickly spotted Karl Meltzer (Speedgoat) and Ian Corless. I had never met either of them before, but from listening to Ian's TalkUltra podcast, I kinda felt like I knew them. It was nice to feel like part of the gang, and I wasn't feeling as lonely as I had the previous days.
On the morning of Stage 1, we all hopped on a bus at 4am and headed to the start. I had a great visit with Joe Grant for the 3 hr trip. The two of us may approach things bit differently, but both of us have a real passion for running, and the bus ride just flew by. I'm sure everyone thought I was a bit nuts, but I did a warm up before the stage start. I always do one, regardless of the race length: I like both the physiological effects, and the psychological familiarity.
Right off the gun I headed to the front. Everyone seemed very cautious, and I certainly wasn't pushing it, but I slowly opened up a gap on the rest of the field. By about the 1 hr mark, I had 2-3 minutes on second place (Iain Don-Wauchope). After that point, the route got more technical and was getting excited...too excited.
I had my head down as we passed through some farmland, and I missed a critical right hand turn. I knew the route was supposed to hit a climb around then, and the wrong turn I took put me onto a climb. In hind sight, I so obviously should have turned around after a couple minutes....but I didn't. I kept going until near the top of the climb, and until the local Zip-line Guide was motioning to me that I was off course.
CRAP...I turned around and absolutely pinned it. As I got close to what would turn out to be the correct route, I had lost about 10:00 minutes. But then I made mistake #2. Another racer had missed the same turn and was coming towards me. Between his broken English and my panicked, broken Spanish, we decided that the correct route was in fact the way I had just come down....so I hammered back up the hill...right to the top this time.
When the reality hit me, my heart felt crushed. I knew I had to turn back again and fully retrace my steps to the last flagging. When I found the correct route, I could see that I just threw away approx. 25 minutes... and the lead. I had been pushing hard for that lost 25:00, and I kept pushing hard (mostly out of anger) all the way to the finish. I managed to claw my way back through most of field, and limited my damage to about 14 minutes behind Iain (the stage winner).
The biggest mistake that I made on the day came next though. I didn't have a real plan for recovering. I was hot and tired and thirsty, but I kinda just wandered around the camp area for a couple hours before I managed to get in some fluids and have something to eat. What I expected at the finish that day, as far as camping and amenities, was totally different than reality. I didn't adapt very well to the camp situation...which is a pattern I repeated many times again.
On the bright side though, camp 1 was where I got to meet a lot of the other athletes (and race staff). We were all going to be suffering together, and it was nice to meet Anna, Samantha, Nikki, Ashur, Cheryl, Chris, Fidel...
After a sleepless, sweaty, uncomfortable night in my tent, I was surprisingly ready to pin it on stage 2. From the course profile I knew that there were a pair of good climbs at the start, and a 5-6km long beach section at the end. I was excited to see how the beach stretch would play out.
I took the lead from the get-go, with Joe and Iain on my heels. I felt strong and decided to push the pace a bit after about 10 minutes. To my surprise, Joe and I put a small gap on Iain. We crested the first climb and stuck together for most of the descent, but by the bottom I had pulled away just a bit. (At the time I didn't know it, but Joe unfortunately rolled his ankle).
When I realized that I had some time on the those two guys, I decided that I needed to take advantage of the situation; I pushed hard, hoping to open up as much time as possible. By the time I hit the long beach I was feeling really good, and the last 5km (beach) didn't bother me at all. I knew that I was feeling good, but that most others would be hating this last section.
I managed to win the stage (set a new CR) and put 30 minutes in to Joe and Iain. I had taken the over-all lead by about 16 minutes, but I was really worried about how I would recover again at night. I didn't kill myself on the day, but I absolutely needed to take better care of myself than yesterday...which was a lot easier said than done! (It turned out that Joe rolled his ankle bad enough that it took him out of contention for an over-all placing. He just dealt with it, without any complaining, and kept trucking through the remaining stages).
That night I managed just under 2 hours of sleep, but I felt like I did a better job on my food and fluids...plus, much less sun exposure during the afternoon.
This one began with a river section, one that everyone had been warning us about. After 3km on the gravel road, we hit about 7km worth of river. It was rocky, wet, VERY slippery, and it had many side to side crossings in order to follow the most efficient route. My plan was to just stick with Iain and to protect my lead. But Iain's experience on this terrain really showed that morning. I swear that I was putting out 20-30% more energy than him as we made our way through the river. My mistakes were almost always choosing to cross at the wrong spots. If I had just stayed behind and followed, I would have been much better off by the end of the river.
To compound my River problems, I fell (multiple times actually) and smashed my waist pack bottles on a rock. I didn't fully realize the consequences until about the 1:30 mark, but I had lost 1100 of my race Calories in the river.....almost everything I had for the stage!
I have to admit that I was battling with bonking for the rest of the stage. Iain was strong, and I couldn't follow him. It was no longer about 'protecting' my lead, but rather 'damage control' now. Without the fuel I was used to, I struggled with my stomach, but I managed to run a very respectable stage....just that Iain crushed it!
We both came in under the previous CR, but Iain had put 18 minutes in to me. That meant he had the over-all lead by just under 2 minutes: essentially even-steven at the mid way point of TCC.
That afternoon and evening were not good. I had 'gone to the well' for the last couple hours that morning, and my body wasn't happy. I was really sore from several falls in the river, my stomach was a mess so I wasn't really eating, and once again...I slept like crap.
STAGE 4 (the derailment)
Iain and I began the stage together, and for about 15 minutes I was bluffing quite well. I wanted to see how he was feeling, and more importantly give the appearance that I was strong. Well....that didn't work at all! As soon as the climb got steeper, Iain effortlessly moved away from me as I slowed and struggled. My stomach was so bad that I had to stick to water for the first few hours...anything else and the nausea was really bad. Jeffrey (from CR) caught me and dropped me up the climb too. He was looking strong... and I felt like I was going through a grinder.
We spent a lot of the stage up high in the mountains, and I actually managed to take in some of the beautiful scenery. Trying to focus more externally was my way of coping with the hell that my body was going through.
When we finally got done with all the climbing, I had moved back ahead of Jeffrey (he maybe put a bit too much effort in on the climb), but Iain was long gone. I was able to get a few gels into my stomach, and that really helped my ability to safely tackle the 10km (or so) worth of technical descending back down to sea-level. I was broken and battered when I finished the stage, and felt like I had the beginnings of heat stroke. Iain had been strong all day and put almost 40 minutes in to me (3:58:41 vs 4:37:07 for me). The over-all race was essentially out of my reach.
For the first time in the race, I actually got some real sleep that night. Four hours felt good, but I needed way more to balance out my account. Unfortunately, the rain began overnight, and everyone had to scramble in the dark to put the waterproofing on their tents. The general outlook for an early/dark start was grim.
STAGE 5 (in the ditch and on fire)
Wow! I did not want to start this stage. I was tired, bloated, nauseous , and really sore...especially my arm. We had to take a short boat ride across the river to get to the start, followed by some standing around, but I was glad to have the cool rain falling.
I had joked the night before with Joe (and Karl I think), that the only way I could make up 40+ minutes on Iain would be if the skies opened up and turned the course into a slip-and-slide. Well, I got what I wanted. I usually love the mud...and maybe I would fare better than Iain?? If only I wasn't feeling like a bag of death.
Iain was strong and confident at the start, and dropped Joe and myself in no time. I just couldn't get the engine going. Curling up at the side of the road was much more appealing....but i pushed on. By AS1, Iain had 15 minutes on me, but thats when the route turned really muddy. I had a little talk with myself at that point:
"This is it Mike...there will be no other opportunity to claw back time...give everything you have right now, even if it means going down in flames"
I ran hard for the next hour. It really hurt, but somehow I had pulled back 5 minutes on Iain....he was only 10 ahead. But then things got really bad for me. The rain had stopped, the sun was out, and it was hot...but I wasn't sweating. I was cooking hot, with a crazy headache...and unable to physically keep my eyes open at times. My CNS system was fucked right up, so I made sure to stop at every single water crossing, and lay down in the water to cool off.
My problems only got worse, as it was obvious I was retaining a LOT of water. My hands were swollen up like sausages, and my fingers were all numb. It had to be Hyponatremia, and I needed electrolytes really badly. I got lucky...an athlete doing the adventure course (I feel like a jerk for not knowing his name) gave me a tube of electrolytes. I did my best to choke some down, but it was obviously too little too late.
The last couple hours of the stage were a total blur to me. All I really remember is falling down A LOT, and that the finish line was NEVER coming. The minute I crossed the line, Luke (from X Sport Medic, the race medical team) saw how bad I was. He took amazing care of me, focussing on getting my temperature/Heat stroke under control, and slowly pulling me out of the horrible fog I was in.
I'd like to say that things turned around for me that afternoon in Drake Bay....but it didn't. I was still retaining a ton of water, and I just couldn't shake the Heat Stroke. Plus, I was becoming more and more aware at how much my right arm hurt. I was pretty sure it was broken, but there was more going on....an infection had taken hold too.
I din't want to give up on Stage 6 at that point, and I still had around an hour and a half lead on third over-all, so I toughed it through one of the worst nights of my life. I had delusions of being able to walk the last stage and still manage second place over-all.
Once morning rolled around though, It was painfully obvious that I would be putting myself in major trouble if I attempted to tackle Stage 6. With Luke (doctor) as my voice of reason, the decision was made to pull the plug. AND, I needed to get on the first flight back to San Jose, so that I could get medical attention at the hospital. It was actually a relief when I packed my backpack and headed to the airport with Luke. Getting to the hospital ASAP was the right move.
Iain dominated the second half of The Coastal Challenge, and ended up with a wide margin of victory (even if I had been abler to finish, he had me beat). With my DNS on stage 6 though, it opened up a battle for 2nd and 3rd. Those spots ended up going to a pair of Costa Rican athletes who raced hard and deserved the podium: Ashuf and Roiny.
As for me, just as I thought it was over, I began a new 6 day stretch of hell.
To be Continued in the next post, 'The Damage'...
Thanks to Ian Corless for all the amazing photos. You can see his complete TCC galleries here