Multi-day racing brings many challenges and variables not only in the terrain that you can and will encounter but also how one journeys from day-to-day. For example, the Marathon des Sables is a multi-day race that requires self-sufficiency, the only exception comes with water, provided by the race but rationed and the provision of a ‘bivouac’ which provides basic cover which must be shared with seven others. It’s why the ‘MDS’ has become THE multi-day race to do. It strips the runner back to basics.
The Coastal Challenge with takes place in Costa Rica, by general consensus, provides a more challenging course than its desert counter part, however, there is no self-sufficiency.
Don’t be fooled though, the race throws many a challenge at participants and below we provide ‘Hints-n-Tips’ that will make a journey into the rainforests of Costa Rica not only more enjoyable but more successful.
What is The Coastal Challenge?
The race is a multi-day journey that travels from Quepos to Drake Bay over five days and the sixth day is a loop around the Corcovado. Distances are as follows:
- 32km (917m+)
- 44.6km (1788m+)
- 38km (1811m+)
- 35km (2054m+)
- 52km (1822m+)
- 23km (584m+)
Is the race harder than Marathon des Sables?
To provide an ambiguous answer – yes and no!
- The race is not self-sufficient and therefore runners only need to run with a small pack with essentials and water.
- Aid stations are provided with some food and therefore the need to carry anything heavy is minimal but one should think about personal needs, tastes and requirements.
- You take your own tent (or hire one from the race) and therefore you have your own space to sleep and recover.
- You have a bag or box that is transported each day to the finish of each stage and therefore you can have fresh clothes, shoes, medical supplies, food etc at your disposal.
- Food is provided in the morning, post run and in the evening – you can pretty much eat as much as you like.
- Many of the campsites are in amazing locations and some local amenities are available, for example, you can have a beer or a cold drink most evenings.
- The ‘long day’ is not as long as MDS.
- The terrain is very varied and at times brutal, you need to be able to handle technical terrain.
- The course has many 1000’s of meters elevation and descent.
- Fire trails connect the forest, beach and technical sections which are hard on the legs.
- Beach sections are long and physically exhausting and mentally tiring.
- The heat is relentless.
- The humidity is 75% + and you will sweat, sweat and sweat.
- Your feet will be in and out of water everyday.
- The long day is not as long as MDS but at 52km with 1800m+ of vertical over very technical terrain with relentless heat and humidity, it is more than enough of a challenge.
How does one achieve success at TCC?
Within reason you can take as much kit as you need as this is transported daily by the race. The race organisation ask that you use ‘Action Packer’ boxes for a couple of reasons: 1. They are waterproof. 2. They are easy for the race to transport as they pack together and are durable. However, from a UK or Europe perspective they are a nightmare to travel with and are troublesome. I recommend *The North Face Base Camp Bag Duffle (here), an Overboard Waterproof Bag (here) or an Ortlieb Waterproof Bag (here). Waterproof is important as you ae going to a rainforest and you do stand the chance of rain on at least one day. You can of course use individual waterproof bags inside to separate and itemise clothing, equipment and so on. *The TNF is not 100% waterproof but I have used it and had no problems.
You have a bag that can carry all your kit, so, take 6-8 sets of clothing. It’s really simple, you run in one set of clothing and at the end of the day you freshen up and change into the next days run clothing (which you can sleep in). You can of course add some additional casual clothing if required.
Make sure clothing is breathable, comfortable and I recommend that tops cover your shoulders as this can be a problem area in such intense heat and sun. You will need a hat without a doubt and some prefer to run with a hat that has protection that comes over the back of the neck. Ladies – just a word of warning on ‘strappy’ tops, they expose more of your skin and you end up with some crazy sun tan.
Not looking after your feet is one of the main reasons (in addition to dehydration) why you will not finish the race. Feet will get wet everyday and you will run on all sorts of varied terrain from gravel fire trail to technical and rocky boulder sections. Your ankles will be twisted and your feet can feel pretty beat up. Obviously you can take advantage of having more than one pair of shoes, I would definitely take two pairs and ideally three. Maybe you could take one pair a 1/2 size larger as a ‘just in case!’
Think about the fit of your shoe. Forget the advice about going a size larger, for me, this is just bad advice. A shoe that is too big will allow your foot to move, a moving foot causes friction, friction causes blisters – the rest is a horror story and believe me, I have seen some horror stories at TCC. You need a thumb nail of space above your big toe, no more! Of course I provide generic advice here and should YOU know you need something different from experience, trust your instinct. Because the trail is often technical, you need a shoe that can handle a multitude of surfaces that includes rocks, gravel, sand, wet rock and so on. You need trail shoes! Consider your gait, the amount of drop you prefer and how much cushioning.
Only you know this and nobody can tell you which shoe to use. Also considerer that a shoe needs to be breathable – your feet will get very hot but more importantly your feet will be in and out of water. A shoe that drains water is essential. As an example, Scott Kinabalu (here) has drainage holes that allows water to escape, inov-8 are also making a shoe called ‘Chill’ which is designed for hot weather (here). Some runners like to tape their feet to protect them, if that is the case with you, do that in training so that you understand how that impacts on what size of shoe you require.
Good socks are essential and in four years of running and working at TCC I have always worn Injinji and never had one blister! Take a fresh pair for each day. Finally, the TCC does have one or two foot doctors who will look after you should a problem happen, my advice, avoid the problems by understanding your needs before arriving in Costa Rica.
The race can provide a tent for you which you can hire, however, I prefer to take my own. The most important thing with your tent is that it must pitch ‘inner’ only. The reason for this is that it’s hot, really hot, and therefore you want as much air-flow as possible. An inner tent with lots of mesh is ideal too. You also don’t really need to worry about the size, I don’t recommend bringing a huge tent but I also don’t recommend bringing a tiny tent. Although I recommend an inner pitch tent, please bring the fly sheet that makes it waterproof – it is a rainforest remember! You can just throw the fly sheet over if required.
Unlike other multi-day races, what you require whilst on the trail is quite minimal. I recommend a ‘vest’ like pack that can hold bottles, bladder or bottles and bladder. You will drink lots and lots and over the years I have found that having a bladder and two bottles takes some of the worry away from drinking. At times, aid stations can be very far apart, you don’t want to be without water! I would take a simple first aid kit, a whistle (just in case), purification tablets, phone, pocketknife, cash and some sun cream. In past editions, some runners have taken a ‘Spot’ tracker or similar. Poles at times will be useful, it depends if you are a racer or a completer. Importantly, should you take poles, make sure they fold, make sure you can store them quickly and make sure you know how to use them. I would bring your favourite run snacks (gels, bars or whatever) and think what you will need for six days. I have mentioned clothing and shoes, no need to compromise, so don’t! Think about toiletries, medical supplies and personal items that will make your journey in the rainforests better – for example an iPod. You will not need a sleeping bag, it’s too hot, however, I do recommend that you bring a sleeping bag liner, it can often get just a little chilly around 2 or 3am. Pretty much everyone sleeps in run clothing. Bring a sleeping matt and one that provides good comfort, some campsites are rocky!
Think you have already understood that it’s hot, very hot. You will sweat immediately and you will sweat all day. This places unique demands on you and you will need to keep hydrated. I have already mentioned about carrying enough liquid – make sure you do! I would normally recommend drinking to thirst, but here, I would drink every 10-15min and keep that going. Electrolytes are a constant debating point, particularly with Tim Noakes ‘Waterlogged’ book. However, you will need to replace salts and how you do that will depend on you and your needs.
The course has constant possibilities for you to submerge yourself in water and reduce your core temperature – do so, it’s essential! Never pass an opportunity. Just 2-3 minutes fully submerged will allow you to continue on feeling refreshed. Never run in the sun when you can run in the shade and cover up your head and shoulders.
- Day 1 starts with 10km of good running. Everyone starts out way too fast and ironically, day 1 at TCC has the most drop outs through exhaustion and dehydration. Start slow! Ease into the race and without doubt, if possible, get some heat acclimatisation before coming out to costa Rica. Day 1 also starts much later than every other day, so, the shock is magnified!
- From day 2 you will start running with sunrise, take advantage of the cooler hours but don’t go out running hard like a wild animal. You will pay for it.
- Feeling tired? Run in the shade, walk in the sun.
- Poles are a benefit at times and I would certainly bring them so you can make a choice whilst at the race.
- Understand that this is a technical race with very varied terrain, lots of climbing and lots of descending. Practice this and prepare both physically and mentally.
- Learn to walk – everyone will walk at some stage.
- Take advantage of every possibility to submerge yourself in pools, rivers, ponds etc.
- Use a buff or similar product and keep that wet and cool.
- Pour water over your head regularly to avoid over-heating.
- Use a hat.
- Flowing water is often drinkable but be careful, I take water purification tablets as a precaution.
- Never pass a feed staton without filling bottles/ bladder.
- Think of your own food needs and diet requirements.
- The course is exceptionally well marked and be attentive, it’s easy to pass a marker when you have your head down. Not seen a marker in 5-minutes? Chances are you have gone the wrong way.
- Wildlife will surround you and the reality is that you will not see any of it as the animals are too frightened of you. However, you will hear lots of noises, that is part of the fun! You stand a good chance of seeing monkeys, maybe a snake, spiders and birds.
- Calf guards or compression may be a good idea on some of the more technical sections, however, I prefer the airflow to keep cooler.
- When back in camp after a day running, take shoes off first and put some flip-flops on and let your feet breathe. Check for any irruption and blisters and get that seen to asap.
- Have a shower and freshen up, get some fresh clothes on.
- Eat and hydrate.
- Take a nap and elevate your legs.
- Masseurs are available at a charge (tbc).
- Evenings are very social and you will be able to relax and bond with fellow runners. However, you do have your own personal tent, so, you can escape and have quiet time if you wish.
- Waterproof bag or box
- 2/3 pairs run shoes
- Run apparel for 6 days
- Casual clothing
- Tent that pitches inner only but bring fly sheet
- Head torch/ tent light
- Sleeping bag liner
- Travel towel
- Food for running
- Sun cream
- Medical kit and medication
- Credit card
- Rope to make a washing line
Running a multi-day race is an experience and something to cherish. Look around and take advantage of what is a stunning environment. Accept now that this race will challenge you and that it will be tough. Get your head in the right place. Prepare as best you can for heat, humidity, technical running, climbing and descending, if you come prepared, the race will be so much easier.
I always provide impartial advice based on my experiences and knowledge. However, I do accept that I don’t always know or understand what ladies require at a multi-day race. Niandi Carmont has run the shorter Adventure Race and the full distance race at TCC and she provides here a little additional advice for female competitors:
You might be spending a significant part of your day out on the course but it is always nice to have something clean and light to change into other than run kit. Since you don’t have to transport this, think about light cotton sundresses you can change into after your shower at the end of the daily stage. It will be boiling hot and humid in the evenings so no point bringing anything warm.
Flip flops are a must. Bring a good quality pair that won’t break the first day in camp. Your feet will swell up and will have macerated in run shoes the whole day. They will have taken a pounding and thank you for allowing them to breathe a few hours. Also I recommend taking showers with flip flops as the showers won’t be sparkling clean and this will reduce the risk of catching anything like athlete’s foot or plantar warts which are highly contagious and prevalent amongst ultra-runners.
Bring a 2-piece swimsuit – there will opportunities to bathe in rivers or the sea at the end of the day.
I suggest a very, very light negligee to slip into in your tent if you don’t like sleeping in the nude as you will be sweating and no doubt not be using your sleeping back or liner. Temperatures hardly drop at night and it remains humid.
Don’t economise on sun cream – bring a spray, high SPF type, which is non-greasy. Don’t forget you will be sweating a lot in the high humidity so this will have to be applied regularly on the course. Carry a small tube (Tingerlaat (here) do a tiny tube with SPF 50). Take a small tube of anti-chafing cream or gel (Gurney Goo do small tubes) in your pack too. With the high humidity and being constantly wet, running through water even runners who don’t usually suffer from chafing will find this an issue. Apply beneath your sports bra and inner lining of run shorts.
I would recommend against running in ‘skorts’ as you will be constantly sweating and trying to cool off in rock pools to keep your body temperature down. The skirt part will just weigh you down with water. Bring single-layered run shorts or short breathable tights. You will probably suffer less from chafing too with tights.
Hair conditioner is an absolute must as you will be showering every day and if you don’t want to end up with damaged, straw-like hair or knots, bring a good conditioner. I have had plenty of experiences of leaking bottles of haircare products so I take enough L’Oréal sachets which pack very well and are single use.
Don’t wear rings! Your fingers are going to swell up through heat and some dehydration – so leave the solitaire at home. You will just have to put up with the unsightliness of sausage-finger syndrome for a while.
Bring waterproof zip-locks for cash and toilet paper to carry with you on the daily stages as you will be running through a lot of water and believe me you will be happy to buy an ice cold coke some days on the course. Also make sure your mobile phone is in a waterproof casing/bag or don’t take it with you on the river sections.