No matter how experienced, no matter how long you have been running, you can always learn something…. My recent trip to Costa Rica and The Coastal Challenge which took place in a rainforest made me realize that I knew very little about running in heat with high humidity, running in a rain forest and also running on consecutive days in this environment.
I am quite meticulous in my planning. I like to tick boxes, cross ‘to do’s’ off a list and feel content that when I am at an airport travelling to a race that I feel that I have done everything I possibly can to get the best out of myself and the race when I arrive at my destination.
Costa Rica was nothing like this….
I only found out I was going about four weeks before, so, that 12-20 week training plan that I would have created to then taper into an event didn’t exist. I was realistically just a week or two weeks away from the taper. When you add to this that since January 2012 I hadn’t been training due to knee issues. Of course I had been ‘working out’ but I hadn’t been training. Nothing specific. Training had consisted of runs every other day with the longest being at 2hrs 15m, other days had been cross training, plenty of time on the stairmaster and stretching and core.
My brief was not to race at The Coastal Challenge. This was a good thing, however, I was working as a journalist and my need to document, photograph and experience the course would mean getting involved.
My plan was simple. Start the day on the course at a great advantage point, photograph the front runners and then run to the end capturing more images, experience the terrain and then write up and download photos at the end of the day. Simple!
In addition to running we would be staying in a different campsite each day. Luggage and tents would be transferred ahead and food was provided.
So what did I learn?
Pacing & Hydration: Costa Rica is hot and humid. Oh yes, hot and humid. Coming from a UK winter the shock is pretty drastic. But I found it manageable. You certainly need to adjust many things and you need to make those adjustments on day one. In simple terms you need to ‘slow down’ and ‘hydrate’ more. Within 10-15 minutes of exercise your body is soaked and your clothing is completely wet.
It stays that way all day so get used to it. Sweat rates vary but in the excessive humidity and adding exercise to this it is fair to assume that 750ml + will be required per hour. Replacing electrolytes will also be important so look into what works for you. Runners used a combination of ‘adding’ electrolyte to water or taking salt tabs. Day one of our race started with a 10k road section, in retrospect this was designed to ease the runners into the terrain and heat/humidity, however, I think it actually allowed to many fresh runners to run too quick right from the gun.
By the time they reached CP1 and the start of the jungle many were already in trouble… they didn’t know it at that point but they certainly knew it in the final 25% of the day. By pushing too hard at the beginning of the day they couldn’t then pull back the deficits in the latter stages and suffered. By the end of day one, the race had several drops and a far too large group suffering from dehydration.
Feet: Oh boy. Multi stage races are renowned for damaging feet but really this shouldn’t happen. If you look after your feet, have the correct socks and the correct shoes it should all be straightforward. Of course unexpected things can happen such as a little rubbing and the odd blister BUT at TCC I saw people with literally no skin left on bruised and damaged feet. I am actually amazed that some of these runners managed to finish the race. The rainforest will guarantee several things:
- Your feet will be hot
- Your feet will be wet regularly
- Your feet will be twisted and turned
- Over the six days you will run/walk over 200k
With the above in mind you need to plan accordingly. This race is not self sufficient so this is a big advantage. Why? Well for a start you can bring several run shoes. I took the two ‘styles’ of shoe, Salomon Speedcross 3 and TNF Hayasa,
I had two pairs of each. One my correct size and the other pair a ½ size larger (just in case). A larger shoe will allow some room should my feet expand. The two styles of shoe also allowed me options in regard to ‘grip’. The Speedcross is far more aggressive than the Hayasa. Certainly something with an aggressive tread suited the environment.
Socks, like shoes are personal but I am a firm believer in Injinji socks. Each toe is in its own ‘little pocket’. This for me reduces the possibility of problems or issues and over the 6 days of the race I never got one blister! The race had a foot doctor. Without him some runners would have been out of the race. If you have this option, take advantage.
In training understand what you will be doing at your race. Practice walking, running, climbing, descending and run with wet feet. Find out what does and doesn’t work. Get the mistakes out of the way before you start the race.
I did not tape my feet prior to running and I added no Vaseline. After each day the first thing I did was to remove socks and shoes, clean them and the wear flip flops to allow them to breath.
*note – many of the runners who had problems had worn shoes too big. They had expected feet to expand but on day one and day two, the ‘larger’ shoes had allowed the foot to move within the shoe and consequently the foot had blistered. I am a firm believer that the shoe should ‘fit’. Excessive movement is a recipe for disaster.
Clothing: Six days racing means six sets of kit. As far as I was concerned. It’s a simple strategy. You run in one set, get showered and cleaned up, put another set on to relax post run and then you use that kit the next day. I was fortunate that The North Face did provide me with some clothing but not six days worth.
I added my existing TNF stock to the pile. Clothing is personal but the key elements for the jungle are comfort and the ability to wick sweat. I wore T-shirts instead of vests to cover my shoulders (always vulnerable) and I wore loose baggy shorts. It’s not rocket science but shirts with a mesh back certainly help with breathability, especially if using a pack. Race winner, Dave James wore no top! I don’t recommend this… it works for him but his skin looked well adjusted to the sun and I am sure he applied protection too.
Dave also wasn’t using a pack, he used hand bottles only. Ladies have a multitude of kit options available to them, ‘looks’ can be far more important to some than functionality. However, simple functionality works best (in my opinion). Some ladies wore ‘strappy’ tops that offered minimal coverage on the shoulders and after 5+ hours on the trails the inevitable would happen… very unusual tan lines and some sunburn.
Equipment: This race was supported with feed stations. We had no ‘essential’ kit needs other than carrying adequate liquid supplies. Dave James was the only person in the race who used just hand bottles. Everyone else used a pack of some description. In my opinion, some used packs that were way too big and heavy. I am not sure what some people were carrying but the heat, humidity and long days on the trail should mean ‘minimal’ is a priority. Bladders or bottles? I have to say I am a bottle fan. Bladders are just too awkward.
I used the TNF Enduro 13 pack with two bottles that sit on the waist. In the pack I was carrying two cameras inside and one camera which I added to the waist belt. However, this pack can also take a bladder too. So, if required I could have carried 3 liters. Had I been ‘racing’ I most certainly would have done this on the two long stages as feed stations were wider apart. Always best to stick to just water in a bladder to avoid problems with taste and bacteria. In regard to ‘essential’ kit I had a whistle, first aid kit, some food, purification tablets, phone, cash, small pocketknife and additional sun cream. With regular feed stations and such a hot climate it really wasn’t necessary to carry anything else.
Tips on the trail: Run in the shade whenever you can. I found that as the day got hotter it was effective to run all shaded sections and then reduce pace or power walk in the open sun sections to regulate temperature.
On hills I power walked as fast as I could. On some sections of the course, depending on your run style and ability, ‘poles’ may well have been useful.
Descents on the whole were easy, however, one stage in particular was brutal. It’s always a good idea to practice going down hill. Poles again may have been useful BUT vegetation can be very thick and poles would have got caught and may very well have been an additional hazard. Remember that you want to reduce fatigue and impact as much as possible. This is not a one-day race but a six-day race. Short steps reduce the impact.
Utilize all water on the course! Any chance you get, submerge yourself in water crossings, wet your head, wet your neck and take a minute to let your core temperature drop before moving on. The route has plenty of opportunities for this, it’s crazy not to take advantage of it. I
f you find ‘flowing’ water that is not near farmland then use it to drink. Many runners did this and as far as I know, nobody had issues. I carry ‘purification tablets’ just in case. Better safe than sorry.
Feed stations are important. Always refill your bottles and take on energy. If you are struggling take some time out. Five minutes in the shade can make a world of difference.
Depending on your ability, ‘buddying up’ is a great idea. If your plan is to maximize the experience and not race then buddy running can make the experience far more rewarding and potentially less stressful. The course was exceptionally well marked but you could go off course and many did. A buddy is a nice security blanket. In actual fact, 2nd and 3rd placed ladies in the 2013 edition buddied for the last two stages.
You are in a jungle so wildlife is all around you. You hear it all the time but the reality is that you see very little. All wildlife is far more scared of us than we are of them. Main issues may come from snakes or spiders. In thick vegetation its wise to look at foot and hand placement just to make sure!
Calf guards (or compression) on one or two stages would have been good. I personally prefer not to have additional skin coverage so that I can keep cool, however, one stage in particular had undergrowth that was well above knee height and it did cut, graze and irritate my legs.
Camp life: Camp was a great place. You had very little to worry about as food and drinks are provided. It becomes a social mecca in the sun. Sites were strategically placed next to the sea or a river so you could swim or cool down that way. All sites had toilet and shower facilities (some better than others). Important factors were:
- Tent/ Hammock
Tents that pitch ‘inner only’ are essential. It is so hot you need nothing else. Of course, it is a rainforest so make sure you bring the flysheet just in case. Other than a few short showers we had no rain (unusual apparently). I use a small one man tent, the TNF Mica 1 and it was perfect. I had an sleeping matt and inflatable pillow. I didn’t use a sleeping bag but I did take a ‘sleeping bag liner’ for any potentially cold or chilly nights. I slept in my next day run kit.
Your clothes and kit are outside all night, so, the organization recommend ‘spacepackers’ they are waterproof containers that hold all your kit. They are a good idea but hopeless for travel. One or two people had large ‘Stanley’ toolboxes that had wheels and a pull handle; much better idea.
I used a TNF ‘Basecamp’ bag which was waterproof and easy to transport. I also had a TNF waterproof rucksack. It was essential. In this I stored my computer, cameras, cables, phone, microphone, etc, etc. I can’t recommend this pack enough.
I had a full medical kit that included everything that I would need. It had all sorts of medication, scissors, tapes, creams, antiseptics etc to cover pretty much all eventualities. The race does have a medical team and foot doc but you should be responsible for all the essentials.
I carried very little additional clothing. I had lightweight long travel pants, travel shorts, hat with neck cover and some lightweight shirts all supplied by Arc’teryx. Perfect!
I had one lightweight showerproof/ windproof jacket should it be required. I didn’t need it at any point during or after the racing but San Jose before and after the race was much cooler. It came in handy then.
Flip flops or similar are essential!
I had one towel, a travel towel that you can get from any ‘outdoor’ store. Small pack size and dries quickly.
RECOVERY: Important. After each stage, recover. Drink, eat, look after your feet and then get some time with your legs in cool water and elevate. Find some shade and relax. Get a massage if it’s a possibility. At the TCC they had a team of masseurs.
Extras: Don’t get too involved in the racing. The course (and others) has so much to see and experience that you don’t want to get to the end and it be a blur. I feel very fortunate that I ran with cameras and had a job to do. I had to stop, look around, decide on photo opportunities and often wait. I really feel as though I experienced the rainforest. I will never forget sitting in the middle of a river at 0600 one morning waiting for the runners to run towards me. I saw birds, snakes, monkeys and I heard so much more… special moments that all added to the experience.
Stage racing is all about bonding and making friends. I am pretty sure that every runner left with so many more new friends. Go into these experiences with open arms and you will leave with them full.
Understand that before you start you will need to dig deep. This may be a holiday but it is no picnic. The Coastal Challenge is a tough course. The dnf’s and drop downs to the shorter Adventure category confirm this. But it is achievable for everyone. If you get day one and day two right, three, four, five and six fall into place. It’s not meant to be easy. If you understand that, the outcome will be a positive one.
- Run shoes 2 pairs
- Run kit for six days – tops, shorst and socks (I recommend 6 sets)
- Rucksack that can hold 2-3 litres – bottles/ bladder or both
- Medical supplies
- Food for on the trail
- Sun Cream
- Travel Towel
- Tent that pitches inner only
- Waterproof bag or box for all kit
- Additional waterproof bag for electronics
- Pocket Knife
- Credit Card
- Run Poles
- Sleeping bag
- Music (ipod or similar)