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Race Report: The Challenge Irazu 40K, Costa Rica

After spending the week as a beach bum in Tamarindo, I returned to the Central Valley to participate in a 40 kilometer adventure run. It was much like my Turrialba 21k race, just twice as far.
 
I knew the course was going to be insane by my standards. With 5643 feet of climbing, I was really just hoping to finish the race and have some fun.



 
The weather was so-so. It was overcast at the start location with a little wind chill. Most people were wearing jackets, some even with gloves and beanies. In Costa Rica??? Ya, I know.
 

Can you find me?


 
The race began at 9186 feet so we were already way up there! I later found out that at our highest point we reached 11,210 feet, roughly the same elevation as the peak of Mount Hood in Oregon.
 
I placed my confidence in my training I had done up to this point and especially in my hike/run of Mount Chirripo the week before to take me through this race.
 
I decided to go with shorts, my Fleet Feet Bend tech tee, an extremely light and stoable North Face windbreaker, one Nathan handheld water bottle, and 6 gels that cost me $3 a piece! I tried to bring a big bag of gels down to Costa Rica but since I didn’t check a bag airport security screwed me. Apparently they thought I was a risk to national security.
 
Me and Julio were again racing partners. We didn’t do much warmup, just bounced around a little bit. The gun goes off and off we go! There were three distances; 40K, 20K, and 10K and we all started at the same time, 9am. There was an 80k option that started at 5am, no thank you.
 

Irazu Volcano


 
I take off slowly and try to settle into a pace. The first 5k was a gradual uphill climb on road. I would still consider myself a road guy so I felt comfortable here.
 
At the 5k mark we make a left onto a dirt trail and here started the steep climbs. It was hard to tell how I was doing as I didn’t know what distance most of the folks were running. I ran most of this next 5k portion, hiking only the steepest sections. I was already catching some of the carnage from the overly excited 10Kers who were already blowing up. There were actually a few Americans running the 10K, they of course were getting owned, wearing hydration packs, energy gel belts, compression everything, and all of the top of the line gear that most American “runners” have but seldom use or need.
 
At the 10K mark we had reached the top of the first big climb, the 10Kers headed for the finish, the 20Kers started their loop, and the 40Kers began a crazy downhill assault on the quads. I stopped briefly at an aid station, grabbing some water and gatorade. These liquids were basically little balloons that you tear a piece off with your teeth then down the liquid. I squeezed them into my water bottle and tried to do a good job of conserving what I could. I felt like I was pretty well hydrated throughout and only ran out of liquids once and only for a few minutes.
 

 
My constructive criticisms of this race are that the aid stations were fantastic but the signage for staying on course were not very good. I was constantly questioning whether or not I was on the right path. Every 2k or so there would be a small sign maybe 6 inches by 12 inches with an arrow hanging on some obscure fence post. I slowed up a few times to make sure that other runners were following the same route. I know it happens all the time to people but I realized that for me it would be an absolute nightmare to go off track during this type of race. Talk about taking the wind out of your sails…I think it would more likely completely sink my ship.
 
A few of the highlights were the water crossings and the run-ins with animals. I did a pretty good job of staying dry early on but once we hit about 25K it was pouring rain and very muddy. One memory that stands out was when I turn a corner and see a herd of about 100 cows coming straight at me. I was trying to be as delicate as possible while passing them; basically tip toeing by. I had no interest in playing Running with the Bulls like they do in Spain…GORED!
 

 
So once we hit 20K it became apparent that the last 10K of freaking steep downhill was exactly what we were going to have to now ascend. When you are flying downhill the distance just flies by, but when you are climbing, 1 kilometer feels like 10 on flat ground.
 
Again, I have no idea what place I’m really in. I haven’t been passed but I had seen some fast looking dudes take off early whom I thought were in my race. Surprisingly I come up on one of those guys as I continue this grueling climb. I pull up next to him and we start to chat. He was convinced that we were actually off course and at that point I almost believed him. I didn’t remember seeing any signs for some time and nothing looked familiar. He said he had gone off track for maybe about a mile. Wow, he was still ahead of me after being off track for a mile! I assumed that he was going to take off again and drop me…this didn’t happen.
 
We stay together for awhile and on the runnable sections he was content to just hike them and I was itching to run as I didn’t want the guys that I passed on the downhill to catch me. So on the next runnable portion I take off at a slow jog to see if he would follow. My legs felt like spaghetti but I was able to gap him by about 100 meters. But then we hit the really steep crap and for a good 30 minutes it was ALL hiking. I maintain my lead on him as we get closer and closer to the 30K mark. I knew that once I hit 30K, it was all downhill from there.
 
I’m turning around and looking at every straight away, I couldn’t believe they weren’t catching me because my legs were toast! I realized that hiking with hands on the knees felt a little faster and I just kept sludging on, completely out of my element…I’m a runner, not a power hiker. But I’m trying to think about how this is great training for ultras…just keep on going.
 
As I crest the top, I take another peak at my competition, and notice there were now two guys about 100 meters back chasing me. I did NOT want them to catch me! I hit up the aid station, grabbed a gel and a bar, filled my bottle and hit the road.
 
As luck would have it, the final 10K of this race was completely downhill and all on the road. A steep descent that I knew would thrash my legs but that I could run fast on. And since I was passing people on the other descent I thought that maybe I could gap these guys.
My lead on them was 1 minute at the peak with 10K to go. Somehow my lead would increase to 12 minutes by the time they crossed the finish line. I don’t know if they were just really slow on the downhill or if I was just flying because I was scared they were going to catch me.
 
These last miles were long but eventually I come around a bend and the finish line is right there! The announcer says something in Spanish that I didn’t understand, I cross the line and am greeted with a finisher medal placed around my neck. I look up at the lady and ask what place I was. She looks at me a little funny and responds, “First Place!”
WHAT?!?! I had no idea! I was sure there were some studs out front from the gun but I guess those were 20K/10K guys. The announcer then says my name and announces me as winner of the Irazu Challenge 40K. The crowd of Costa Ricans gave me a round of applause, a few thumbs up and pats on the back, I was stoked.
I sat down, ate a butt load of food, and waited for Julio to cross the line. He also had a great race, 7th place overall!
 
I wish there were more photos, the views were absolutely insane, I was blown away by this area. And the people! I haven’t met a group of friendlier, more gracious, welcoming people in my life. I already knew that the running community in general is pretty great but these guys set the bar pretty high.
 
Four hours and twelve minutes of running to cover just 24.8 miles. I came away with an $80 prize and a trophy. The Irazu Challenge was yet another running experience that I will never forget.
 
Here’s the promo video if anyone is considering this race for next year:

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