29. BEN’S COASTAL CHALLENGE 2023
NOT A RUN IN THE PARK!
The Coastal Challenge, one of the world’s most grueling, scenic, and exciting long distance stage races takes place in our backyard – showcasing the area’s rich biodiversity, stunning scenery, and unspoiled beaches. Over a span of six days in February a small group of elite runners were (properly) tested, both physically and mentally, with no room for weakness, doubt, second thoughts or hesitation – this is the big leagues!
BEN TAKES ON THE CHALLENGE…AGAIN
We had local representation as Ben, who lives in Ojochal, took on this challenge for the second time (he first ran the race in 2019). By day Ben is a real estate franchisee with RE/MAX We Sell Paradise. But every morning, before 5.00 AM, he set out on a training run up and down the mountains carrying not only water but also a flashlight (he is running in the dark) and a taser (on numerous occasions he has seen Black Panthers in the area, and they are very active around twilight) …I am sure many readers would have seen him during the early morning runs or the long-distance weekend excursions along the costanera.
It was a very special run for Ben as his daughter, son in law and two granddaughters flew in all the way from Sydney, Australia, to support his amazing effort. With Heather organizing informal pit stop entertainment and his family cheering with horns and words of encouragement, Ben’s run may have been made just a tad bit easier.
The race comprises six daily stages spanning over 244 kilometres with a total of 8,750 metres of vertical gain (nearly the height of Mt Everest), taking the runners over beaches, through mangroves, thick jungles, up and down the coastal mountains, and across waterfalls and mountain rivers…all in our steamy Costa Rican tropical heat. A few river crossing are very dangerous (due to strong currents, depth, and even crocodiles) – so a boat is provided to ferry the runners across. Sounds like a week to remember?!
The start line is in Quepos with the track meandering southward to Dominical, Marino Ballena, Palmar Sur, and ending in Drake Bay – right on the doorsteps to Corcovado National Park, described by National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity”. All along the track, Aid Stations were set up to provide the runners with water, light snacks, and a place to sit down in the shade.
Ben’s support team – Heather, his son, daughter, two granddaughters and son-in-law followed Ben each day, setting up camps or hanging out at the Aid Stations to give Ben encouragement and pass him a cold drink or two. Heather’s karaoke system provided worthwhile entertainment for all within earshot! The support team would meet Ben a few times a day, each time packing up and racing across to the new meeting point – this sometimes required travel over dubious roads, or roads that show up on some maps and not on others…the support team thus had an adventure of their own!
Ben took this race seriously, as he should. “This is one of the hardest runs in the world. Imagine running a marathon per day for six consecutive days, except you are not running on flat roads but instead are going over sand, rocks, rivers, mud, up and down big mountains. And you are doing this in tropical heat, the sun scorching you all day long. Myself and most runners don’t care about the clock or who finishes in which place, all we care about is that we finish each stage and we take things day-by-day.”
This year’s run took place during the typical hot and sunny weather, being a few weeks too early for the unseasonably heavy rains of March. The runners know what to expect and how to prepare for the run, but they are not immune from human errors – in this case, a miscalculation of the STAGE 4 distance added 4 kilometers to the run. It does not seem that 4km is a big deal since the race itself is 244km long, but when you ration your water and carry only the amount you expect to need, having to run this extra distance without anything to drink can become a very serious issue. Ben made it to the STAGE 4 finish line right before nightfall, and he was a bit thirsty (as were many other runners)!
Fitting for our location, the Coastal Challenge starts on the beach and it ends on the beach – with plenty of sand to negotiate during the various sections. While not all runners made it to the finish, Ben had a big smile on his face as he ran towards the line, his two granddaughters joining him for the final stretch.
Coastal Challenge is not a single race but two runs in one – the EXPEDITION race is 244km in total while the ADVENTURE race cuts the distances in each stage, for a total distance of 131 km. Since Ben participated in the EXPEDITION race we will omit talking about the shorter version.
The race starts near Quepos and ends near Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula, home of the world-famous Corcovado National Park. It is composed of six stages:
STAGE 1 – Quepos to Savagre River.
33.5 km, 850m climb.
STAGE 2 – Savagre River to Dominical.
40.2 km, 1740m climb.
STAGE 3 – Dominical to Marino Ballena (Uvita).
47.5 km, 1735m climb.
STAGE 4 – Marino Ballena to Palmar Sur.
36.2 km, 2083m climb.
STAGE 5 – Palmar Sur to Drake Bay
47.8 km, 1732m climb.
STAGE 6 – Drake Bay circuit
36 km, 650m climb
In between stages the runners camp out in tents with a 3:30 AM wake-up call and 5:30 AM start – the sun is still below the horizon and Howler Monkeys are just starting to wake up. Three meals are provided by the organizers each day, with aid stations along the way.
Join me in congratulating Ben for smashing the race and reaching the finish line with a smile, and be sure to give him a friendly honk or wave when you see him slugging along the Ojochal area in the early morning – because there is always a Costal Challenge just around the corner!