The Coastal Challenge, Costa Rica, February 2018

About the Race

The Coastal Challenge (TCC) is a 6 stage, trail running race in Costa Rica, starting near Quepos and finishing in Drake’s Bay.

The course is set along Costa Rica’s tropical Pacific coastline but weaves at times into the Talamancas, a coastal mountain range in the Southwest corner of the country.

According to The Coastal Challenge website… “the terrain encompasses jungle and rainforest trails, mountain trail and single track across ridge lines, highlands and coastal ranges; beaches, rocky outcroppings and reefs, river and estuary crossings, and ends in Corcovado National Park, one of the premier rainforest experiences in the world as well as a Unesco World Heritage site. Much, much more. It really defies description!”

The race follows the usual multi-stage format: start Day 1 and run to the end where you’ll find a campsite. Find your bag, find your tent, get some food and recover, go to sleep, wake-up and get some breakfast, pack-up your tent and things and give them to the organisers then set off on Day 2. And repeat until the race is over. There are plenty of checkpoints (called Aid Stations) along the way so all the runners need to carry is water and a bit of food to eat between checkpoints. The trail is marked so no map or navigational device is required.

There are 2 classes of event: Adventure and Expedition. Expedition is the longer version; Adventure covers the same route on the shorter days and does the final part of the Expedition route on the longer days.

I did the Expedition category, which looked like this:

Stage 1 34.6km 1,018m of vert and 886m of descent:


Stage 2 39.1km 1,898m of vert and 1,984m of descent:


Stage 3 47.4km 1,781m of vert and 1,736m of descent:


Stage 4 37.1km 2,466m of vert and 2,424m of descent:


Stage 5 49.8km 1,767m of vert and 1,770m of descent:


Stage 6 22.5km 613m of vert and 613m of descent:


Total 230.5km, Vertical 9,543m, Descent 9,413m

The Particular Challenges of TCC

230km over 6 days in not particularly long by ultra running standards but 6 days of continual running is not to be underestimated. The 9,500m of vertical stands out as challenging and the terrain is quite lumpy and technical in places. The hills can be steep and the jungle paths strewn with fallen trees, rocks, boulders and jungle foliage.

Costa Rica is a tropical country with the area of the race situated about 9 degrees North. February is in the “Dry Season” and apart from a brief shower at one of the campsites we managed to avoid rain all week. Temperatures for the week along the coast are typically low to mid thirties with around 75% humidity.

Sweating and Cooling

Sweating is something you do a lot of in Costa Rica. Under normal circumstances, the human body is typically maintained within a relatively tight temperature range 36.5 – 37.5C. In hot weather, when the skin hits 37C it starts sweating. The more you sweat the greater the cooling effect. The body adjusts the sweat rate to maintain the temperature of the core within the desirable range, upto a maximum rate. If the body is sweating at its maximum rate and the cooling effect is insufficient to dissipate the body’s heat then the core temperature will start to rise and the risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke increases. A core temperature of 40C to 41C is considered life threatening.

So how does sweating help the human body cool down? Producing sweat (mainly water) on the skin in itself doesn’t do anything to cool the body but when the sweat evaporates there is a state change from liquid water to water vapour. To undergo the state change energy is required to pull apart the water molecules overcoming the hydrogen bonds holding the molecules together as a liquid. The energy required to do this is called the Enthalpy of Vaporisation, ΔHvap. ΔHvap for water is quite a large number 2,430kj/kg (at 30C). So what this means is that the energy required to evaporate 1kg of water is 2,430 kilo-joules. There are roughly 4 joules per calorie, so the energy required to evaporate 1kg of water is about 600 Kcal. This energy is taken from the skin resulting in the skin being cooled. Blood passing near the skin is also cooled and recirculated through the body, cooling the core. I’m sure it would be more complex if you are wearing clothes; sweat will evaporate from your skin and condense on the inside of the clothing (as well as moving from your skin to the clothing when the two touch), wick to the outside of the material and evaporate again from there. But basically if you assume you and your clothing are in thermal equilibium the cooling effect will be passed to your body even if the final evaporation is from your clothing.

I know from previous tests in a heat chamber than my maximum sweat rate is around 2 litres/hour (2kg/hour). So this implies my maximum sweating cooling rate would be about 1,200 kcal/hour.

The next important point is that sweating rate and evaporation rate are two different things. We’ve all been in the gym on the treadmill when sweat is, literally, dripping off us. Remember, this contributes nothing towards cooling. So, how much sweat actually evaporates?

A proper answer would require some experiments as there are so many factors involved but for fun less take a very simplied view. Water evaporates from an open container according to this equation:

Mvap = \theta.A.(Xs - X)

where:  Mvap = rate of water evaporating in kg/s
\theta = (25 + 19v) where v is the windspeed in m/s
A = surface area
Xs = humidity ratio of saturated air
X = humidity ratio of air

So notice something about \theta. The evaporation rate is very dependent on wind speed. Just a 3mile/hour wind will double the evaporation rate compared to a competely still day. So stand in the breeze for a significant cooling benefit, even on relatively calm days!

So lets assume I behave like an open container without clothes and hair, etc getting in the way of evaporation. And lets assume a calm day with no wind (worst case from a cooling perspective). So, \theta = 25; A = 2 (my surface area is approx 2m^2); at 30C Xs = 0.025 (you can look these numbers up on a Mollier diagram for air if you’re interested). And now, this is where humidity comes in…

Notice the equation for evaporation above includes the term (Xs – X). So, for zero humidity X is zero and the evaporation rate is maximised:

Mvap = 25.2.(0.025 - 0) = 1.25 kg/hr

This would correspond to running in a very dry area, e.g. a dessert. In these conditions sweat may be evaporating as fast as your body is producing it so you may not even be aware you’re sweating.

Now, look at the other extreme; 100% humidity. In this state, by definition X = Xs so (Xs – X) is zero which means:

Mvap = 25.2.(0.025 - 0.025) = 0

No evaporation and therefore no cooling! A scenario close to this would be a sauna. There’s plenty of sweating, but its all sat on the skin or dripping on the floor. Your body is trying to cool you down by sweating but the external environment isn’t being helpful.

So lets put in a typical TCC humidity of 75%. At this level X = 0.02, so:

Mvap = 25.2.(0.025 - 0.02) = 0.25 kg/hr

This is interesting and highlights the challenge of the TCC. In still conditions, although my body may be able to produce 2 kg/hour of sweat, in typical TCC humidity only 0.25 kg/hr will actually evaporate which only contributed 150 kcal/hr of cooling.

Now, of course, there are other ways to cool down, for example, submerging in a cool river, standing in a cool breeze, etc. And, of course, the environment will likely be below body temperature (37C) so you’ll be radiating energy away from the body anyway. But the point is, high humidity significantly nullifies the body’s ability to cool down by sweating.

Day Zero

Checkin for the race was on Saturday at the Best Western Hotel in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. I’d arrived in San Jose a few days before this and gone down to the Pacific coast for a bit of acclimatisation. San Jose is at 1,000m of elevation and is significantly cooler than the coast (where the TCC is run).

Heat Adaptation

I stayed in Jaco and did a couple of hikes in the hills, trying to acclimatise without tiring myself out too much. In retrospect, this was OK but probably not sufficient, and here’s why.

There’s plenty of research into heat adaptation some of which is readily available. Below is a time based graph showing how various types of adaptations change over a two week period. These are, of course, generic timeframes. Individuals will vary. The stimulus for adaptation seems to be an elevated core temperature induced by training at a higher temperature. It seems reasonable that the body’s response would vary based on the level of stress, so for example, sitting in the sauna provides a smaller stimulus than light training in the heat which in turn provides a smaller stimulus than more intense training in the heat.

Heat Acclimation

Generally what is quoted is that the majority of benefits of heat acclimatisation occur within 5-7 days with the vast majority occuring with 2 weeks. Decay of the benefits seems equally fast when training in the heat is stopped.

Before arriving in Costa Rica, I went to either hot yoga (1 hour) or the sauna (15 to 20mins) most days for the period 3 weeks out, to 1 week out, from TCC. In the last week I travelled to Costa Rica and spent 3 nights in Jaco (air conditioning turned off) and did a couple of hikes in the hills. So, on the above graph my guess is that I hit the start line around day 2 or 3 on the heat acclimatization graph. Each day of the TCC obviously provided considerable stimulus for heat adaptation (probably 1 TCC day > 1 day on the graph) so I would guess I ended the race around days 10 to 12 (i.e. considerably heat adapted).

Electrolytes

Sodium is critical for the functionaling of cells in the human body. In fact, a very precise concentration is required to faciliate electrical conductivity across cell membranes. The human body has a complex mechanism to maintain this concentration based on the amount of water and sodium it has available. Western diets are rich in salt and the body excretes excess sodium through urine and sweat once reserves are topped up.

One of the adaptations to heat coupled to an increase in sweat rate is a decrease in salt concentration of sweat. The sweat glands re-absorb salt based on how much the body has plus the amount of the hormone aldosterone which is produced in the heat adaptation process.

So, left to its own devices, the body adapts sweat rate and saltiness of urine and sweat to the environment and amount of salt being consumed. So, once adapted, it would seem unnecessary to consume extra salt, provided the body is used to the amount of exercise being performed. However, when one is not fully adapted the body has not adjusted the sodium concentration of urine and particularly sweat to the environment and it likely to be excreting higher amounts of salt which, if not replenished, can result in the body running low with the consequent impact to cell function.

So my strategy was to reduce salt intake for a couple of months ahead of the race and to take 2 S-Caps per hour which is about 3/4g of salt per hour. This seemed to work for me during the race.

Water Intake

This is quite a tricky subject with all the publicity surrounding hyponatremia. Also, at TCC there is a significant risk of dehydration due to the constant large amount of sweating. So, its important to get this right.

Generally I follow drinking to thirst. This works well in conditions I’m acclimatised for. Logically, this makes sense. However, when one races in an environment that one is not acclimatised for the thirst mechanism needs to recalibrate. One of the improvements of heat acclimation is a better matching of thirst to body water needs. So again, once acclimatised, drinking to thirst probably works fine.

My strategy at TCC was to drink 3 mouthfuls every 5 to 10 mins. Its tricky in races to know exactly how much you are drinking as bottles and bladders get topped up at aid stations, sometimes completely, sometimes not. Bladders sometimes get kinked and aren’t full, despite appearing so, etc, etc.

I aimed to start each day fully hydrated and on completion to drink until I started peeing.

Day 1, I started at the 3 mouthfuls every 10mins end of the spectrum and finished the day quite dehydrated (no peeing during the race or for several hours afterwards) so for the rest of the race I went to 3 mouthfuls every 5mins. I varied the size of the mouthfuls slightly based on perceived temperature, i.e. when in the sun, or climbing, I went for larger mouthfuls, when descending in the jungle, for smaller mouthfuls. I think this would have averaged 1 to 2 litres / hour which I was hoping to match my sweat rate. Again, its tricky to know sweat rate, but not peeing at all during a stage is a good indication of not drinking enough.

Registration

Registration was at the Best Western Hotel in San Jose. I signed the disclaimer and got a T-shirt, buff, race number and road book. All good.

I stayed in the hotel overnight as the race organisers had arranged buses for us from the hotel to the start the following morning.

Day 1

Stage 1 34.6km 1,018m of vert and 886m of descent.


Day 1 started at 3am! I got up and checked out of the hotel at 3:30am. I had left my suitcase of things not to take on the race at the hotel the night before as I knew reception would be deluged with people trying to check-out and leave bags in the morning.

We gave our “camp bag” to the organisers who loaded them all onto a lorry which was destined for the campsite at the end of the stage, and got ourselves on the coach heading for the start.

I’d been wondering what had become of the packed breakfast the hotel had promised us. But then someone started shouting out a series of number that sounded like hotel room numbers. When a number was called someone would stick up their hand and make their way to the front of the bus and get a brown package. When I got mine inside was breakfast.

Its a long coach ride to the start of the race. We travelled the same road I’m been on previously to and from Jaco, and carried on to near Quepos. It took about 3 1/2 hours with a couple of stops. The last stop was just a few miles from the start where we waited for what seemed like ages. We were all aware of how hot it was, even just standing in the sun was uncomfortable. Eventually, we got going again and after a few minutes, turned off the highway onto a dirt track heading for the sea. We eventually got as far as the bus could carry us; the bus stopped and we all got off. We has a couple of miles to walk to the start.

The start line was on a deserted beach on the pacific. Beautiful, but very, very hot.

So it was a good time to put some sun screen on, get topped up with water and wait for the start. All the warnings had been issued about the Day 1 start. The first 10 to 12km are pretty flat, on dirt track and runnable. Everyone goes too quickly and there is a significant worry about blowing up.


I decided to run the day conservatively. Firstly, I knew that I was not well adapted to the conditions and secondly I had strained the ligaments in my left ankle 3 weeks earlier and was concerned with protecting the ankle to maximise my chances of a finish.

Having said that, it was HOT, HOT, HOT! It seemed to take forever to get to the first checkpoint (AS1). After that we got introduced to some hills and some Costa Rican jungle. Following the pink ribbons that marked the course was pretty simple. The markings were clear providing you paid attention. The climbs were steep and we were all reduced to a slow shuffle.

I was conscious of protecting my ankle on the descents as much as possible. After the high point of the day we descended to AS2. From there is wasn’t far to the finish. There was another climb in the way though and on summiting we could look down across a river to the Day 1 campsite. It didn’t look far but the descent was quite steep. We came out of the jungle onto a river with the campsite on the other side and slightly down stream.

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On river crossings I get a bit nervous when the water is above mid-thigh level. The deeper the water the larger the surface area you’re offering to the river and the smaller your effective weight is on the river bed due to your legs being buoyant. It all contributes to being swept away. Anyway, this river was deep (chest deep in places) and flowing reasonably quickly. I managed to pick my way through a shallower route and crossed over to the finish line.

And that was Stage 1!

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In camp, we found our camp bag and our tent and set about sorting some things out. I changed to camp clothes, had a recovery shake and some snacks from the food tent and chatted to some of the other competitors. Then I went back to the river and had a wash (I’d missed the showers in camp) and sat with my ankle in the cool water for 10mins. Then I sorted out my kit and reloaded food for the next day.

At 6pm dinner started. Food was always good, plenty of it and easy for runners to eat. The team of cooks did a great job during the week. They were up before the runners, still there when the runners were going to sleep and always had plenty of food and drink available for us.

At 7pm, Rodrigo the race director gave us a briefing on the next day in both English and Spanish. He was always pretty relaxed about things as was in keeping with the whole race. Over the week everything ran well. All the folks on the team had their jobs, seemed to know what they were doing and got on with things. Rodrigo was about as relaxed a race director as I’ve seen! But to put a race like TCC on in latin america takes some organising, so hats off to him and his team.

Day 2

Stage 2 39.1km 1,898m of vert and 1,984m of descent.


From here on in we moved with the sun. We were up between 4am and 4:30am, no need to set an alarm; when the first movers in a tightly packed campsite get up, everyone is awake!

I did not sleep particularly well. It was very hot overnight, certainly no need for a sleeping bag or much clothing. It was also very noisy. The camp was in the jungle and the background noise from cicadas was just astounding!

We had breakfast and packed up our camp bags. I was in a race-organised-tent which the race took down and reassembled for me. For folks with their own tents there was an extra task of disassembly and reassembly to be performed each day. Having your own tent though does give you the advantage of pitching where you want, e.g. away from rocks, in the shade, away from noisy people, etc.

The aim was to start with the dawn, around 5:30. My race started from the campsite; the Adventure category got driven in a bus after we had started to checkpoint AS2 where there waited for the leader of the Expedition category to arrive, at which time they were released and we all ran to the finish of Day 2.

The reason for the early start is that its quite a bit cooler before the sun really starts to heat things up. There is 3 to 4 hours of cooler running to be had at the beginning of the day so the race organisers like to make good use of it.

Day 2 started with a climb out of camp followed by a descent to the first checkpoint. This was more or less repeated for the second climb and descent to the second checkpoint. From there we crossed a main road and headed for the ocean.

We came out in a large bay where a river was running into the ocean. We had to wade across the mouth of the river to get across to the beach. It was only a few miles to the finish from here. The first part was along a sandy path just inland from the beach covered by palm trees. When this path ran out we moved onto the beach. The beach had quite a slope towards the sea here which did not agree with my left ankle very much. Also, it was pretty hot in the sun despite a bit of sea breeze. This last section along the beach was pretty tough and I walking a bit, jogging a bit, etc.

There were a couple more rivers to cross before we arrived at the finish in a campsite just off the beach.

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The campsite was in a small town on the beach. There were a couple of bars and restaurants there.


Camp admin and preparation for the next day was as per the previous day. We were told we’d follow the 4×4 at the start of Day 3 to get us through the small town and across the main road. From then on we would be on our own.

Day 3

Stage 3 47.4km 1781m of vert and 1736m of descent.

Is was still pretty dark when we lined up behind the race director’s 4×4 to start Day 3. The first couple of miles on road got us through town and across a main road and into a river valley. It was fairly flat until the first checkpoint and given that it was relatively cool, we made good progress. The next checkpoint was probably as far as any of the checkpoint gaps for the whole race. There was also a significant climb involved and we were advised to fully fill up with water before leaving AS1. I took 2.5 litres out of the checkpoint.

We were soon into a mixture of dirt tracks and jungle and climbing up and up in the hills. There were some iconic waterfalls to cross today and the scenery was spectacular. Before I completely ran out of water I filled up one half litre flask in a river. I needed that as I arrived into AS2 on empty.
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There was really only one climb today, albeit a large one. After summiting, there were some steep downhills as we returned to the coast. This time there was a longer piece of beach running past something called the Whale’s Tail. It was hard to appreciate this at the time; it looks more impressive from above (see photo). Anyway, as the pink ribbons lead us onto the beach, what looked like the end of the beach was in the distance. Then the pink ribbons stopped which was confusing as this had not happened before (and did not happen again in the race). However, there was no other obvious way to go as inland was just jungle.

As I got nearer to what looked like the end of the beach, it became apparent that this was not the end of the beach. There was another loop of beach extending about as far again as we had just travelled. And still no pink ribbons. I had just reached the point of the beach marking the Whale’s Tail.


A bit further along the beach I could see some flags that looked like the ones the race was using for checkpoints and the finish. This was promising.

At the end of the beach there was a steep climb through the jungle to a main road. From here there were just a few miles of road running remaining, before we turned off onto a dirt track and the campsite finish.
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I managed to keep a shuffle going most of the time today and was clearly getting used to moving in the environment.

The campsite today was just off, yet another, stunning beach. Unfortunately, it was pretty stony. There were monkeys in the trees to keep us amused though.

I discovered a small blister on one of my little toes. Normally I sort these things out myself but decided to go see what the race doctor, Duggie, thought of it. In the queue to see the doctor there were murmurings of discontent. Generally, the advice on blisters is to pop them, extract the fluid, inject some antiseptic and leave them to dry. Duggie had different ideas though. His approach was not to cut the skin but to tape things up. This was what was causing the discontent.

Thinking about it, we were in the tropics and causing wounds that probably would not dry due to the conditions has a number of possible issues associated with it. Duggie had obviously decided that prevention of infection was the primary objective. So he taped up my unpopped blister and sent me on my way.

This was probably my worst night’s sleep. It had been threatening to rain all evening and shortly after going to bed it did start raining. So we put the waterproof cover over the tent. It stopped raining pretty soon but with a double cover on the tent it was blisteringly hot all night and the condensation kept dripping on us.

Day 4

Stage 4 37.1km 2,466m of vert and 2,424m of descent.


Day 4 started with a bus ride in the dark to the start. It was a slightly shorter stage today but the profile was a big climb into the hills, followed by some undulating terrain and a big descent at the end.

What we could not tell from the road book was any details about the terrain. After a couple of miles of dirt track we went into a river valley until AS1. This was great fun, running up against the current and clambering over boulders. Progress was slow but certainly a change from the previous terrain.

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After AS1 there was more climbing to the highpoint of the day through a mixture of jungle paths and more open dirt tracks and paths.

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It was another spectacular day of river running, jungle and rain forest that culminated in a long, steep descent along a narrow jungle path. I started catching up with a few of the folks on the Adventure race which made a nice change from being alone. It was impossible to tell how much of the decent we had left until we broke out of the jungle onto a road and AS4. It was good to have negotiated this descent without significant ankle issues.

From here we had only a few miles to go. Dirt tracks lead to a small town and main road. We crossed a large river on the side of a main road bridge before turning off for a short road run to the finish.
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I felt I finished this stage feeling strong and was coping better with the heat and humidity than on any of the previous days. My ankle was not getting any worse and was not really holding me back except, maybe slightly, on the descents.

I was starting to appreciate how the race team put together the race. Shorter days followed longer, harder days. Early starts mean you get a few hours running in the bag, before the hottest part of the day. The route needs to go from A to B, but also needs to be near roads so the checkpoints can be stocked. Open sections in the sun, are interspersed with jungle sections which are mainly in the shade and therefore cooler. Prolonged open sections are on the beach where there should usually be some sea breeze and always the sea to cool down in.

The finish was not at the campsite so we had a short minibus ride when enough runners had finished to fill the bus. The campsite was next to a river and was probably the most spacious campsite we stayed at. There was a bar/restaurant and a couple of other buildings. On one side was a large river; the minibus driver told us not to swim in it because it had crocodiles. I personally did not spot any here but other runners did.

Day 5

Stage 5 49.8km 1,767m of vert and 1,770m of descent.


Day 5 started with a bus ride before sunrise. We went inland to the village of Sierpe. The bus stopped by a river and we had a ferry across the river to the start on the other side. It took a while as race 4x4s went across first in a couple of trips, before the runners.

We started Stage 5 as the sun was rising. This was a relatively long stage but slightly less overall climbing than yesterday.

As usual, there was a mixture of terrain; dirt roads and paths; single track paths and jungle / rainforest paths. We were told we would be in primary rainforest today with original trees as opposed to secondary rainforest which has been cut down and regrown.

Again the scenery was breathtaking as we traversed the first half of the day through jungle before meeting the coast for the second half. We were told that there would be an estuary crossing by boat and depending on the tide we may need help to cross one other river. The boat crossing on the estuary was mandatory; no swimming allowed here due to crocodiles.

We were told that the boat would take 2 or 3 people and if there were more we would just have to be patient. As I arrived on the beach I could see someone up ahead who was walk/running. I decided to try and catch him up so we could get the boat together so I steadily closed the gap, then he ran a bit more and could have gone on his own in the boat but very graciously waited for me.

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The boat ride was a good rest and the final checkpoint of the day was on the other bank. It was a few miles from here to the final campsite, just off the beach, at Drake’s Bay.

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I really liked this stage and the campsite at Drake’s Bay is billed as a highlight. It’s on the Coronado peninsula and quite close to Panama. Until recently there were no roads into the National Park and it could be reached only by boat or plane. There is a small town there with a few bars and restaurants. The campsite itself is on the school playing field and the race director said the race had good ties with the local community here.

I was running a bit more today and the conditions continued to feel more better as I acclimatised.

Day 6

Stage 6 22.5km 613m of vert and 613m of descent.

Stage 6 was billed as the “Victory Lap”. A much shorter stage than any of the others but covering all the terrain types encountered over the previous five days. “It’s a mini TCC in one stage” said Rodrigo in his briefing.

We set off early, but not as early as the other days. We started on the beach and the local school children lined up to see up off. We went up through the town and were soon running in a river bed. From there to dirt tracks and roads and jungle trails. About halfway through the stage we came out onto the coast and there was the single checkpoint of the day, offering us fresh coconut as well as the usual pineapple, papaya and watermelon.

From there it was back to the start along the beach, running alternately on the beach and just inland as we went from cove to cove.

Towards the end we crossed a river on a bouncy rope bridge. Trying to run across it involved timing steps to the bouncing frequency of the bridge. Eventually I dropped onto the sand for the last time and could see the finish line and the campsite in the distance.

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Although it was a shorter day it was still a fantastic run, finished off with a swim in the sea and clapping in other finishers.

We had plenty of time on the last day to relax as the stage was relatively short. I sorted a few things out and had a look around town. There was a presentation for the winners in the evening after the evening meal and some music into the evening. My tent mate had had enough of me so stayed the final night in a hotel in town, so I had the tent to myself!

The Trip Back to San Jose

After our last night under (metaphorical) canvass we packed up our camp bags for the last time and began our trip to San Jose. It started with a speed boat ride up the coast to the nearest large town.

From there after a delay due to traffic issues we caught a coach back to San Jose, where we were reunited with our bags at the Best Western hotel. The hotel has washing machines and dryers which came in very useful for a sack full of smelly running kit.

Race Analysis

Stage Distance (m) Time Position Pace % time above stage winner
1 20.6 04:58:50 37 14:30 88%
2 24.8 06:41:30 31 16:11 81%
3 29.6 08:29:47 26 17:13 73%
4 22.3 06:40:31 21 17:58 69%
5 28.9 07:01:46 16 14:36 55%
6 14 02:54:42 18 12:29 46%
Overall 140.2 36:47:08 21 15:45 69%

I was pretty happy with my overall performance in the race and the fact that my ankle held up for the six days!

I feel that the six days break up into three groups based on both how I felt and backed-up by stage position and how far off the winner I was each day (last column in the above table);

  • Days 1 and 2 when I was, relatively, struggling with the heat and humidity.
  • Days 3 and 4 when I was getting more used to the conditions
  • Days 5 and 6 when I was feeling much better in the heat and humidity and feel I had more or less adapted

You could say that most of the field would also be acclimatising during the race so maybe the improvement as the race went on is due to other things. I feel this is partly true in that I did start conservatively (due to ankle issues) and inevitably some folks pulled out due to various issues which helped my position and may have made the overall race less competitive. However, I still believe heat acclimatisation played a big part.

Things I Learned

  1. Heat acclimatisation is important for this race.
  2. You need sufficient water. I had an ability to hold 2.5 litres. I drank river water on one occasion needing 3 litres between checkpoints. My salt strategy of 0.75g / hour worked well.
  3. Kit is continually wet from un-evaporated sweat and frequent river crossings. Pick kit that holds minimal water.
  4. This is a well organised race; food is good and plentiful. Logistics all worked out. The race team are very friendly and helpful.
  5. Terrain is quite tough with steep up and downhills.
  6. I was wondering, before the race, whether to download a previous year’s GPX files to my watch but in the end did not do this. If I did the race again I probably would. The pink ribbons are easy to follow but mistakes do get made when you are tired, distracted and not paying attention. There is no primary need for a map or GPS and most people were fine following the ribbons but as a backup having a GPX track to follow would alert very quickly if you missed a turn (assuming the race director does not change the route, of course).

How did the Kit Perform?

  1. Shoe choice of Hoka Speed Instinct was good. Light shoes with good drainage suitable for all terrain are a good choice. Scott Kinabalus were probably overkill. If it rained and got muddy they would have worked better.
  2. Injinji mid-level toe socks were fine. I’ve used these many times. An optimisation would have been a lighter, ankle-length version which would have held less water.
  3. T-shirts were OK – but hold a lot of water. Vests would be better.
  4. Hat. I had a standard baseball style hat with peak. This was fine but an optimisation would have been one without a hole for hair at the back that would have been more effective at scooping up water to pour over my head.
  5. Sunglasses. I took them every day but only wore them on longer, exposed sections like beaches. Could have done without them.
  6. UD race pack. 2 x 500ml bottles at the front and 1,500ml bladder in the back and snacks in the side pockets. All worked fine.
  7. Camp kit. T-shirt, shorts, flip-flops. All fine, bear in mind some campsites are on stony ground.
  8. Sleeping mat. I have an inflatable racing mat. It was fine and I put a very light sleeping bag on top of it for extra cushioning. Since runners do not carry camp kit more luxurious sleeping mats could be taken. I certainly had mat envy on a few occasions!
  9. Tent. I used one from the race team that they assembled / disassembled each day. It was fine. There is an advantage to taking your own tent in terms of where its pitched (shade, away from others, etc.) but you have to do it yourself or find some faster friends to do it for you. If you bring your own then a mesh inner would be best if its not going to rain so there is airflow in and condensation has a way out. If it rains put on the waterproof outer layer.
  10. Trail food. I took a few energy bars and packs of Shot Bloxx with me each day. The checkpoints have fruit (pineapple and watermelon), nuts, biscuits (incl. Jammy Dodgers which turned out to be a particular favourite!). They also have water and an energy drink. You can work out from previous results how long each day will be and match the volume of trail food to that.

What Training would I recommend?

There are plenty of plans available for multi-stage races of 5 or 6 days covering roughly TCC distance so I will not go into anything specific for this here, but just a few points:

  1. The route has a lot of climbing so practice climbs. They are steep. The “flat” sections on the map tend to be undulating in real life.
  2. Descents are steep so practice these. A number of the descents are in jungle with foliage obscuring the ground which is rock and tree root covered. Worth practising for two reasons: firstly you can get quicker by practising however fit you are; secondly, its hard on the feet and legs in ways running on the flat isn’t, so getting them used to this is a good idea.
  3. River crossings. Worth doing a few to get the hang of it and practice spending hours with wet feet. If you have a river with boulders you can scramble along great, but not easy to find.
  4. You need to do some acclimatisation for the heat and humidity if you want to perform optimally. Training for me was in the UK winter so not ideal by any means. I did sauna and hot yoga sessions and arrived in Costa Rica a few days before the race. Ideally, I think getting to Costa Rica three weeks before the race and training hard for the first week and then tapering would be a good setup for me. If you do this the coast is significantly hotter than the Central Valley (San Jose) so base yourself there.

Why do TCC?

The race is well organised. Once you’ve checked-in pretty much everything is done for you. There are no heavy packs to carry as all you need on the trail is water and a few snacks. The climate and terrain is challenging.

All the race communications are in Spanish and English and most Costa Ricans I met spoke at least some English so there aren’t any big language issues.

The vibe around the camp is relaxed and everyone was pretty happy to chat about things from the pro level front runners to folks at the back walking.

It makes for a good holiday; after the race my wife came out to Costa Rica and we travelled around for about a week. There is plenty to see and do, and the country is quite well setup for tourists (obviously in the more remote places things can be basic). We found the people very warm and friendly, and at least at the moment Costa Rica does not have the issues that afflict some other latin american countries that make travel difficult and more dangerous.

Pura Vida!

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