Locals claim it as the toughest mountain bike race in the world.
The three-day stage race takes place in Costa Rica, traversing 150 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. Don’t let the miles fool you – this is not your normal 150-mile bike race. The terrain covers some of the most mind-blowing miles you can imagine. My daughter, Marisa Marsh, 23, and myself, at age 52, decided to do this race after befriending a Costa Rican in Telluride, Colorado, who had re-energized our interest in this epic race that has been on my bucket list.
Before I get into the details on this exhilarating, exhausting, beautiful adventure that apparently the Conquistadores took two decades to conquer, allow me to give a little background on our preparations. Besides the regimen of logging thousands of miles on Nebraska gravel roads, including the Gravel Worlds 150-mile day race, we kicked our training into high gear with one of our favorite traverses, the Kokopelli Trail from Fruita, Colorado, to Moab, Utah, which is a stunning, throw-everything-at-you, 150 miles over three days.
Then we headed to Southern California to the steep, technical trails of Laguna Beach, and even traversed Catalina Island from Avalon to Two Harbors and back. Throughout all of this, we squeezed in several trips to Telluride, Colorado, to do some long mountain pass rides. After accomplishing hundreds of thousands of vertical feet of climbing and several thousand miles in the saddle from blazing-hot to blizzard-like conditions, we felt well-prepared but quickly learned it is impossible to over-train for La Ruta.
Which brings us back to Costa Rica. Our journey begins with a flight from Omaha, Nebraska, to San Jose, Costa Rica, with our bikes in tow. We then head to Jacó on the Pacific Ocean side where the race begins. We are one of the first to arrive as we wait for the other 450 racers from around the world, many of whom are a part of sponsored teams. Our team of two without support is called “Los Malvavicos” (The Marshmallows), which is only appropriate because we are Mike and Marisa Marsh.
We start the race in pleasant conditions on the beach in Jacó at 5:30 a.m. with an old huey helicopter hovering over us with the Costa Rican news team. From the beach, we head into the canopy of the rainforest, and the terrain gets steep fast. Over the next 60 miles, we endure 12,800 vertical feet of climbing.
The first real challenge is entering the Carara jungle. Here we are welcomed by 100 percent humidity that can only be matched by Nebraska’s hottest, muggiest day on record, calf-deep mud that wants to swallow our shoes – and for good measure, steep, technical and slippery climbs and descents. Imagine a muddy slip and slide, and then add your bike and 4-foot-deep crevasses. If we had stumbled upon this on our own, there would be no question of turning back.
This continues for the next 10 miles, which we primarily have to hike-a-bike. We are relieved to find ourselves in one of the 15 river crossings (some waist deep) – an opportunity to cool down and wash some of the mud off us and our bikes. We are so soaked with sweat, it is indiscernible between being in and out of the river.
After we get through this challenge, we are consistently faced with abrupt, audacious climbs, some at a laughable 40 percent degree. Constantly wondering “how much farther,” we quickly learn to expect the worst but find ourselves desperately asking the locals, “Quanto kilometers?” just to learn their answers are always very wrong.
After 12 hours in the saddle and finishing in pitch dark, we are relieved but afraid for what is next to come in the remaining two days. We later learn the race organizers made this route the most difficult in the 25-year history (lucky us). This was our most difficult day on bikes, EVER!
After being bused to our hotel the night before and arriving at 10 p.m, we are told we must wake up at 3 a.m. for breakfast and be prepared for a 5:15 a.m. race start. With four hours of sleep and coming off the most difficult day in the saddle, we begin with a 9,000-foot climb up a volcano for over 25 miles. This is actually a pleasant climb compared to day one, covering Costa Rica’s beautiful countryside, although plenty of grueling accents force us to hike-a-bike through steep and slippery ravines.
This route is special, because the race usually cannot include this section due to the volcano being too active. As we reach the top and traverse, it becomes very windy, and we are challenged with rain mixed with sleet (we are at a 10,000-foot elevation).
The traverse is incredible as we ride through villages with cheering fans. At one particular section, we are greeted by hundreds of school children with their faces squished on their school fence, cheering at the top of their lungs as we ride by. Battling sleep deprivation and exhaustion, this is a very emotional moment as we had endured so much to this point. All that is left to do is embrace the locals’ love and support. It is truly a “pura vida” moment.
We quickly transition to a 14-mile down over rock gardens and finish in almost unbearable heat, riding through the villages of Turrialba. This was a good day!
After two tough days, this day we get a late start, which allows time to get some much-needed sleep. But a late start means hot conditions. Today is mostly flat and pace-line fast over 38 miles. However, it is not a day without obstacles to overcome.
For a quarter mile, we cross suspended railroad tracks with raging rivers 100 feet below. We walk on rickety railroad ties, some of them missing, which is not easy in bike shoes or with a racing heart. Some YouTube videos show people falling between the railroad ties, fortunately recovering before meeting the crocodiles below.
The race continues on a long portion of the national railroad track through banana plantations that jar our bodies for miles. It seems to be what the Costa Ricans would consider their single tack. We are relieved to find our final stretch along the coast on mostly packed sand, although we have to maneuver plenty of spills to avoid becoming one of them.
As we finally arrive at the finish line in Limon, we cross with hands together and so happy to be alive. The day would not be complete without a final sprint into the Caribbean waves.
In the end, our bodies and souls are extended to new heights. We pushed past physical, mental and even emotional barriers for which we cannot train. It is extremely moving to be part of a race that has so much national pride, and to see this country from a perspective few ever get.
What’s next? La Ruta de los Conquistadores in 2018!