by Kimmi Runner
“The hardest bike race in the world,” they call it. La Ruta de los Conquistadores is a stage race that follows the same route the Spanish Conquistadors blazed 500 years ago to cross from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. This 161 mile route snakes up and over 5 mountain ranges through some of the toughest terrain on earth. It includes trudging through the Carara Jungle, summiting two active volcanos that sit 10,600 ft above sea level, forging through countless pirhana-infested rivers, and crossing rural bridges where one misstep would have you plummeting 100 feet down into flowing rivers said to inhabit crocodiles. It took the Conquistadors 20 years to make it to the Caribbean.
We had 3 Days.
November 2nd, 58 miles, 13K elevation, 12 Hour Cutoff Time:
The energy at the starting line was electric. I suppose I was expecting everyone to have that “deer in headlights” look, anticipating in fear what was sure to be one of the hardest days of our lives. I was shocked to find huge smiles on everyone’s faces, racers dancing to the loud music, and seemingly everyone hooting and hollering, taking as many selfies as possible beneath the circling news chopper overhead. I quickly began to be swept away by the contagious energy, and I welcomed the excitement that was quickly replacing my nerves.
The countdown finished and we were off, heading away from the comforts of the Crocs Resort on the Pacific Ocean, and towards what looked like a mountainous Fangorn Forest. Within what felt like a matter of minutes, we were climbing an old dirt road. It was steep, long and relentless, and the weather was hot with high humidity. My legs and lungs felt good and I settled into pace up the first of the mountain ranges. Two hours later, I had refueled at Checkpoint 1, filled my bottles and Camelback to the max with CarboRocket, and began the descent down the other side. We took a sharp left turn and instantly the terrain transformed. We were officially descending into the jungle. I smiled. I had dreamt of this moment for almost 7 years, since the day I put this race on my Bucket List. Though I knew that I had the hardest part of the race ahead of me, I felt mentally prepared to take it on, and I let myself surrender to whatever Mother Nature was about to put in my path.
Due to the hurricane that hit Costa Rica a few weeks prior, the mud was more relentless than La Ruta had seen in years past. Parts of the “trails” had washed away, and immediately following negotiating our way down the slides using ropes, we had to trudge our way through thigh-deep mud pits keen on attempting to swallow your shoes off your feet. However the teamwork was amazing. Everyone helped and encouraged each other, no matter where you were from and what language you spoke. It made the slow progress more tolerable, dare I say pleasant at times even. We snaked (no pun intended) our way through the Carara jungle and all of its river crossings, and four hours later, we emerged. True to La Ruta fashion, there was no relief to be had, as we were immediately climbing and HAB-ing again, on roads, gravel trails, and yes, more soul-crushing jungle singletrack.
Nearly 13 hours later, I finished what is safe to say the hardest day of my life, in the dark. I had not made the 12 hour stage cutoff, both due to the nature of the terrain and some gear issues that required some attending-to along the way, but it uplifted me to know that 55% of the field hadn’t either. I had no time to dwell on it, as we had a 2:30am call time the next morning to be bussed to the start of Stage 2, the Volcano Stage.