Monday, November 12, 2018

La Ruta Chapter 1: Championa

From Jaco beach on Wednesday afternoon. 
It wasn’t until this weekend, reading case studies sent to me by a friend in the medical profession, that the seriousness of Rhabdo really sunk in. A week after spending 8+ hours in a Costa Rican hospital before checking myself out my liver and function is returning to normal, and I’m starting to feel like myself again, sorta. I wont be able to ride a bike for a while, and I get exhausted from walking the dog for 20 minutes, but I can reach down and touch the ground, sit with my legs crossed, and do a myriad of other simple things that were unreasonably painful a few days ago.

I don’t think I ever really learned how to be concise, in writing or speaking, and since this was kinda a big life event for me in which I want to remember all the details, I’m going to break this recap into two parts. Here is chapter 1. 

La Ruta is a three-day stage race across the country of Costa Rica. Racers begin on the sands of Jaco Beach, on the Pacific Ocean and traverse jungle, volcanos, rural villages and cities to reach Limon, a beach town on the Atlantic side. The race organizers transport your belongings to hotels every night, and feed you/wash your bike, leaving racers with little to worry about each day besides a 3am wake up call, and weather you have the legs to complete the roughly 130 mile mountain bike expedition.

My journey began with a head cold that resurfaced Monday, the day before I departed for Costa Rica, a full day of teaching followed by a red-eye flight, and a lost bike en route to cap it all off. Standing in the airport at baggage claim, waiting for the super nice Copa agent to make some calls about the location of my bike, I almost wanted to scrap the race and lay on the beach all week. Fortunately my bike just choose a later flight from my connection in Panama to San Jose, so after some stress and a few Costa Rican Red Bulls (what the locals told me they call espresso) I was reunited with my Edict and we were on our way to Jaco. On the drive I saw two red Macaws in the sky and a murder of crocodiles on the banks of a river we crossed.  I went to bed at 7pm and had no trouble falling asleep, too tired to be nervous or scared of what lay ahead.

Thursday morning began with a lavish breakfast buffet at our hotel.  My ears were still plugged from the cold and the flight, so it felt like I was dreaming as I forced myself to eat potatoes, plantains and fruit, kitted up, and headed out to the beach. Fortunately for me the other ladies racing Elite were super nice and we chatted in the dark on the start line about how soft the sand was, how one woman had done the race 15 times, and about what to expect over the next three days. Because of work I didn’t get much of a chance to research the course, to ask veterans of the race for advice, to think of a specific strategy. I basically assumed I would ride at a pace that felt good, I had no expectations because of the head cold and lack of experience/preparation.
Already sweating, before the sun was up Thursday morning. 
The race start was chaotic, with everyone running down the beach (the sand was WAY too soft to ride) chased by a military style helicopter. And then we all stopped just out of town for the ‘second start’, something about helicopter footage I guess. Everyone was trying to take pictures with Lance and the woman on a Felt beside me warned to ‘pace yourself, the climb is long and steep’. I took her advice (at least I thought I did) and when we hit the waterfall marking the start of the climb I rode my own pace, surprised to be putting out decent power numbers and letting that familiar ‘I’m leading the race, but surely second place is right behind me’ stress settle in. Everything just seemed to come together and I was racing bikes, gloriously charging up a massive hill on the heels of the elite men, doing the thing I love the most.

The first portion of day 1 was uneventful, a steep 2,200ft fire road climb followed by a series of short steep climbs and descents. At some point I found myself with Brad and a few local dudes and we had a blast bombing the descents and charging the climbs, unaware of the future consequences of my reckless enthusiasm.

At some point we entered the densely forested jungle in Carara, and our progress was slowed by frequent stretches of thick, deep mud, which forced us off our bikes. Progress slowed so much that I stopped worrying about winning the stage, and focused on steady forward progress. Darin Maxwell’s mantra ‘Every good ride has a hike a bike’ was making me smile, as was the ridiculousness of the situation. The footprints of riders ahead of us were almost knee deep, and I tripped and slid down each descent, covering myself in red, slimy mud. Every time I looked ahead, a line of dudes pushing their bikes up each climb deterred me from thinking about miles covered or time remaining, and instead reminded me to focus on conquering each little climb, each small challenge. Clean my bike in a river, push it up a hill, slide down, repeat.

I was shocked at one point to hear Lance behind me, specifically taunting me for potentially letting ‘these old men beat…’ me. Every time I stopped to clean mud from my bike he would catch me, and then there would be a rideable climb and I would drop him and his entourage, it was ridiculous.
Just about the point when we all felt like the mud was getting out of hand, when our nerves were shot and we no longer though it was funny, a group of supporters in a river crossing informed us the mud was over. They lent me a brush to aid in cleaning my bike, so I stopped once more to free up the crown of my fork, wipe clay off my rims and quickly scrub my drive train.

Some time later I was at the aid station, grabbing a bottle from the CTS crew, and the next thing I remember I was climbing this road that seemed impossibly steep. At this point Brad had stopped to fix his twenty-seventh mechanical, and my only companion was a young looking kid who warned me that I needed to slow down, that this was a long, long climb. I felt good, but heeded his warning, although the steepness of the climb meant I only had one option, push hard or fall over.
The kid was right about that climb, not only was it crazy steep (think 13+ % for a mile or more) but my blissful ignorance about the route meant I got to enjoy every second of the crazy long thing, wondering how much longer it could go on.

I felt fine, I was pushing the pedals, I was hopeful about the top being near, passing people who choose the shorter adventure route, laughing through slippery rock gardens and rushing river crossings… and then suddenly everything went to shit. Like the flip of a switch I went from feeling ok, hopeful even about the end being near, to an almost complete shut down, legs aching, delusional, tired, hopeless, lost my mind style shut down. I begged volunteers and spectators to tell me this was the top at each bend in the road, I told them I couldn’t do it, I started weaving across the road. And then when the steep one lane road climb turned onto a slightly flatter two lone road, I assumed we had reached the top, and the possibility of finishing the stage started to seem more possible. Shortly after the false feeling of relief washed over me though, I found myself continuing to climb. I resumed begging the spectators to let me go downhill, or let me drop out of the race, and each time they assured me I was really close to the top. My inability to ride in a straight line started to get dangerous, as now there was two way traffic on the road, and a ditch to my right that I kept falling in. I became certain that I was in Brazil, racing Ironbiker, and that the left hand turn I was supposed to take had already passed. I argued with the spectators now, and in the stretches between people I wondered where I was, and why I wasn’t at school teaching. What day was it? Why was I riding a bike? How soon until second place caught me and I could give up?

Eventually it all became too much, my body was shutting down and I knew it was no longer worth it to keep pushing. I stopped in the ditch and stood on the side of the road, not really sure what I should do since I didn’t know where I was and I don’t really speak Spanish. A white pick up truck rolled up a minute or two later, and the crew inside hopped out and helped me sit on the tailgate. They fed me Gatorade and water, and coaxed me back on my bike. The true top was only 500m ahead they promised. I was winning by a large margin, all I had to do was bring it in.

Thinking the finish was at the bottom of the descent in front of me I got back on my bike, and slowly made my way to the turn, where I was pleased to drop into the steepest road descent I’ve ever ridden. The road plummeted down the side of the mountain, dropping more than 2,000ft in elevation in 4 miles. At times the curves in the road were almost slalom like, twisting down into town at what felt like breakneck speeds.

The next chunk of time is a blur, I remember crossing a bridge over an incredibly beautiful river, and then turning uphill, being kinda pissed that we weren’t at the finish yet. I remember the white truck following me up the climb, trying to push, and having to resort to survival mode again. I remember drinking baggies full of Gatorade from random dudes on the side of the road, and asking for water on my espalda from the guy with an icy bottle. The white pickup people told me there was a gradual 2 mile climb to the finish, so I focused on turning the pedals over, smooth and steady. Somehow my brain was still ahead of my body though, because the train really came off the rails here. I caught a woman doing the adventure route and decided to ride with her. I couldn’t hold my left arm straight anymore. I was leaning to the left, and couldn’t steer straight as a result. I started falling over, for no reason at all, on a smooth, gently uphill fire road. I would just tip over. One of the times I fell I twisted my ankle badly, and sat on the ground for a minute, not really sure what was going on. The pick up people helped me up, and one of the guys from the truck ran along side me, gently leaning me upright every time I tipped to the left. The official in the quad ahead of me was upset. He didn’t like that I was unable to ride by myself, but the pick up people assured him I could do it. I was no longer in control of my body, just doing what I was told as best I could. I crept towards the finish. As soon as the course turned into a little pump track/skills park to the finish I was on my own, crashed one more time into a little log ride on the ground, and rode under the finish banner, still slumped over despite my best effort to hold myself upright on my bike. 
Hunched to the left since my left arm wont stay straight. 

All along the route people had yelled 'Championa', 'fuerte, championa' at me, and the finish was no different. It was hard to enjoy the glory of winning the stage though, all I wanted was to get help from the EMTs. 

I immediately asked for an IV of fluid right at the finish (after struggling to get off my bike), joked about what a disaster I was, and was laid on a stretcher to have my vitals checked. After a short analysis of my condition the EMTs decided I didn’t need an IV. I begged and begged for one, waited a few minutes and begged again. Each time they told me no. After 5 years of racing bikes, 2 of which being ultra endurance, I KNEW I needed IV fluids, that I couldn’t possibly drink enough to fix what was wrong, but didn’t know what to do as they were adamant that I didn’t need it.

And that’s probably where the start of my medical problems took a turn from bad to dangerous. It’s also where I’m going to stop for today 😊 haha an unintentional cliff hanger, but this is too long already. Will wrap up my second and final day of La Ruta de los Conquistadors in a few days.


  1. Hope your CK levels are returning back within normal range!! Rest up!!

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