I flew to Costa Rica over the weekend to run a trail marathon. I suppose it would've been simpler to run a race closer to home, but I felt that this competition was hard enough that I'd feel like a radical person if I finished, but at the same time it was manageable enough that I calculated my odds of survival at 51% or higher. "More likely than not" is good enough for a lot of juries, so it seemed like a reasonable standard upon which to stake my life.
The race started and ended a couple hours north of San Jose at an ecolodge in a rain forest. I arrived on Friday night just before the dining room closed, so I had to throw down as many carbs as I could in five minutes, then I rushed to bed in my bungalow, where I laid awake for most of the night because the rain forest was super loud and I'd forgotten my earplugs.
At 3 a.m. the next morning I didn't really feel like getting up and running a long ways. A handful of runners were milling around in the dark at the starting line when I arrived. I half-heartedly stretched, because that's what everyone else was doing. I heard a guy speaking English, so I walked over and he told me how the trail would be marked, which was helpful since I'd missed the informational meeting the night before. We had a couple minutes to chitchat before the organizers bunched us up at the starting line, snapped a few pictures, then counted down from five. The race started at 4 a.m. on the dot.
I always hear about how adrenaline makes you run faster than you should at the beginning of distance races. Fortunately, I don't have a competitive bone in my body, so I was happy to slide into the middle of the pack and lope along the highway for the first half-kilometer, watching headlamps bobbing in the darkness all around me, before we turned onto a dirt road that led into the countryside. The path climbed and dove and the darkness was complete save the dancing spot of lit-up dirt and rock in the glow of my headlamp.
I found a happy pace about twenty feet behind Massive Calves and Inexplicably Pinned Race Number To Butt, and the first four or five miles passed peaceably. I was grateful for my training in the intense humidity of San Salvador, because the humidity here was so great that our breath made enormous vapor clouds in the light of our headlamps, even though it was probably 75 degrees out.
Around 5 o' clock, the sky showed its first hints of light, and about then I passed Pees Openly, who was, as you might have guessed, peeing openly on the roadside. I put away my headlamp when I hit the first checkpoint at mile 6 -- the world had turned that dark, soft blue that presages dawn and gives just enough light to comfortably pick out texture. Soon after leaving the checkpoint, I settled in behind Pees Openly, who I should note did not smell of urine (at least not at a distance of 15-20 feet).
These were happy miles for me, not necessarily because of Pees Openly, who I passed at about mile 7.5, but because the race was young and my legs were fresh and the dawn was amazing, with wispy mist clinging to carefully manicured, deep green fields and vast, leafy trees. I hardly noticed the miles disappearing beneath my shoes. Checkpoint 2 loomed at about mile 10. I took a couple minutes to refill my two-liter hydration pack and then kept moving.
The dirt road after Checkpoint 2 turned to mush as we gained elevation and entered a cloud forest. The mud was ankle deep for a quarter mile, then we crossed our first river. I slipped on a rock and went down halfway across, which frankly felt pretty good. On the far side of the river the dirt roads were gone and we followed narrow, muddy singletrack upward through the leafy, misty forest. The only guy in sight was I See Monkeys, a tour guide by profession who ably identified several species of fauna and flora over the 20 or 30 minutes we slogged uphill together. Eventually Happy Colorado Radiologist caught up to us, and I followed and visited with him for the next two or three miles. He asked if I have a mantras I repeat to myself while I run, and I said, "Yes, Taylor Swift lyrics of any kind, that is my running mantra." And he gave me a look that said, "I am not sure if you're joking, and I am now uncomfortable." We parted ways amiably at mile 14.5 or so.
Then things started to suck more. The sun was up now, and the temperature was climbing. Then we emerged from the tight forest back onto open dirt roads and shade became scarcer. The hot, sticky air wrapped around your limbs and reached into your lungs. I started walking up even pansy hills, feeling a little light-headed. I wondered if I'd under fueled, so I pulled open a Cliff Bar I'd had in a pocket on my hydration pack for the last six months. It tasted pretty bad and stuck to my braces. It took me a full mile to pick all the chunks out. I caught up to Runs Marathons Wearing Dangly Gold Earrings (Which Is Weird), right about the time we crossed another river. I think both of us were too fried to exchange pleasantries, but we both stopped simultaneously in the middle of the river and just laid down in the cool water, like we were telepathic buddies. But when we emerged from the water, we weren't buddies anymore, because she wouldn't carry me the last half-mile to Checkpoint 3. Totally selfish, that Runs Marathons Wearing Dangly Gold Earrings (Which Is Weird). I walked the last half mile to Checkpoint 3 at mile 19, wondering if I had the juice to finish the race.
Wisely, I just plopped myself down in the grass at the checkpoint with a big bottle of water and just hung out. A couple of other runners slid in, including Whenever You See Me On The Course I Look Deeply And Profoundly Unhappy -- who been slumped over with hands on knees when I'd passed him just after Checkpoint 2 -- and Lady With Mysteriously Blue Electric-Taped Kneecap. They came and went, but I just sat there drinking a bunch of water and eating some bananas and trail mix, and then eventually I gathered my things and loped up a boggy trail into the trees, feeling loads better.
After a steep 10-minute climb, things leveled out and I found I could run again. I eventually matched pace with Vomited All Night And Much Of The Morning, who was running the race despite a stomach bug. He told me he'd chucked three times in the first 10 kilometers, but then a passing runner had given him three pills and said, "You will feel better if you take these." Generally in this type of cenario you should "Just Say No," but Vomited All Night And Much Of The Morning just wanted to fit in, so he took the pills. Apparently they did the trick, because not only was he no longer blowing chunks, he also politely indicated I was too slow, and moved on at about mile 21. I am not going to lie -- it was a little mortifying to get left in the dust by the guy who was up all night throwing up and who coated the first 10k of the course with his spew.
I couldn't tell you much about the next five miles. I vaguely recall trees and heat. A well dressed woman and her teenage daughter were out for a stroll, and they clapped and told me "Good job!" as I staggered by. Then they probably called 9-1-1. The final mile of the course was a cruel but beautiful loop through deep rainforest. The tight, muddy, slimy trail rose and dipped and twisted. I gave up running. The footing was treacherous and slow hiking was all I could muster. But a crawling pace had its benefits. I stopped to listen to the deep, echoing whoop of a Howler Monkey close by. I examined a huge termite mound. And after a nearby tree strangely rustled in the hot, still air, I looked upward and spied a family of Capuchin Monkeys spread across the canopy. The only unfortunate moment of this beautiful but challenging final loop came as I rested on a log and Whenever You See Me On The Course I Look Deeply And Profoundly Unhappy passed me yet again, predictably looking deeply and profoundly unhappy. "Almost there!" I chirped happily as inched up the trail toward me. Unable to muster the strength to make eye contact with me, he was able only to zombie-like repeat the phrase, "Al.Most. There." as he stumbled past. I have to admit, I really thought I was going to beat Whenever You See Me On The Course I Look Deeply And Profoundly Unhappy. But he gritted it out, I guess, because I didn't see his dead body along the trail.
The finish line was pretty anticlimactic. I guess I was expecting pumping music and a bunch of Coke and the prior finishers standing around going "Woot!" But there weren't a lot of racers to begin with, and our finishes were separated by five, fifteen, even thirty minutes. When I puttered into the finish area, a few tourists were walking by and six or seven people were sitting on coolers, chatting. I was about fifty feet from the finish line before someone noticed me and hollered to an organizer to grab a clipboard. Two ladies hastily threw down a couple of claps and that was it -- I finished with a time of about 6 hours 2 minutes. I learned a couple days later that I'd actually finished 22nd out of 53 runners, much better than I'd originally thought. So I crossed the finish line, stopped, turned around, saw there was nothing happening, and walked back to my bungalow where I struggled to bend over sufficiently to untie my shoes. The end.