Behind the Lens with Hilary at the Coastal Challenge 2018

The Coastal Challenge (TCC) is a rugged, exceptionally difficult six day stage race through the rainforests and coastline of beautiful Costa Rica. I’ve known about this race for a while, as its reputation for being equal parts challenging and wildly beautiful precedes it, and when my friends at Run Like a Girl asked me to come photograph the race and capture the struggles of their intrepid team of 24 racers it was a no brainer. I was going to Costa Rica.

Setting the Stage

This race is an event like no other. Similar to other stage races around the world, runners complete a set distance every day, with their cumulative times deciding the overall winners. There are two distances to choose from — the flagship Expedition length distance which clocks in at 236km, and the slightly less daunting but still challenging Adventure distance (155km). What sets this race apart isn’t so much the format as the execution, as well as the sheer wildness of the terrain being tackled. Unlike many stage races in Europe, for example, which allow racers to sleep in proper hotels and beds each night, TCC requires that all racers camp together. Add tents, cold showers, camp meals and the occasional friendly camp iguana to the mix, and you’ve already pushed past the limits of some people’s comfort zones. This was the 14th year of TCC, and that experience shows. While there was often an air of organized, efficient chaos presiding over each day and the logistical challenges that this event requires to be successful, there was also a sense that this crew, lead by the indefatigable team of Sergio and Pigo (Rodrigo), know exactly what needed to be done and make sure it always gets done in time. TCC is a labor of love brought to life by a tight knit family that believes passionately in this race and the life-changing impact it has on racers lives, and from the minute I walked through the doors at registration that passion was evident.

The Players

There were just shy of one hundred intrepid racers milling around the yards of the Best Western in San Jose when I arrived at registration on Saturday afternoon, everyone bustling around collecting t-shirts and race bibs and sorting out last minute gear issues. Our Run Like a Girl crew comprised almost one quarter of the total race entries. As I watched this diverse group assemble, I was struck by how much I love this weird and slightly extreme ultra running community. Any of these racers could have simply booked a beach vacation on one of Costa Rica’s famous beaches, but they instead chose to spend their vacation time and money seeking out certain discomfort. And so here we were, complete strangers hailing from every background of life, having travelled from all over the world to this foreign environment to tackle an event that held more questions than answers. It was easy to answer things like “How far?”, but much less easy to know “How hard”? For many, this was easily the farthest they had ever run before, let alone adding the humid and foreign conditions. For many, there’s no telling how it’s going to go until you try.

As part of the Run Like A Girl (RLAG) team which was being spearheaded by Dayna and Courtenay — two thirds of the dynamic trio which also includes Hailey, although she was busy running another of their popular trail running retreats with Anna Frost that same week and couldn’t be at the race — I wasn’t at all sure what the week would look like. Courtenay and Dayna had previously run TCC and knew the terrain well, but I was keenly aware that not only did I know nothing about the race course, but this was also my first time visiting Costa Rica in general. I put on my best “I know what I’m doing face”, tried to recall the approximately ten words of Spanish I’d once learned in high school, and set out on what would certainly be an adventure.

I was assigned to the lead media jeep with longtime TCC photographer and multitasking driver, navigator, and media extraordinaire Andres Vargas, and internationally renowned ultra running photographer Ian Corless. Might as well jump right into the deep end, right? Go big or go home. Etc. I think my knees were only shaking a little as I clambered into the vehicle with these guys at 3:50am sharp on the first day, not quite sure exactly what I was getting myself into.

Waiting for racers. Photo: Andres Vargas

And We’re Off

I’m in awe of how well the TCC handles the many logistics required to pull this race off. As race day arrived, buses loaded sleepy runners into them for a 4am departure time from the Best Western (okay 4:30am by the time we actually drove off, this is Costa Rica after all), and our eclectic procession of buses and staff vehicles slowly began the three hour drive to the coast and the start line of Stage One. A pit stop in the middle of the drive was necessary to relieve anxious runners from their last minute hydration efforts, but the fact that there was only one working toilet for one hundred runners meant that we lost precious minutes of cool, pre-dawn running time in the process. One of the staff only partially joked that by Stage Three, none of these racers who were currently waiting so patiently would hesitate to hop into the bushes instead and use nature’s toilet. I felt certain that he was right, but looking at their still clean and showered faces, I didn’t think they were quite ready for that yet.

Our media jeep arrived at the picturesque beach start line an hour before the racers finally did, and we milled around the beach seeking out shade under palm trees as the sun climbed higher into the sky. I had a little river of sweat running down my back between my shoulder blades already, and it wasn’t even 8am yet. Uh oh. The buses couldn’t navigate the last few pothole filled miles to the beach, so racers trudged along the simultaneously dusty and muddy road, arriving at the start line with beads of sweat dripping down their faces. I grabbed everyone in our group for pre-race portraits, wracking my brain to remember who was who and trying to put names with faces. After a quick team photo in front of the start line, TCC 2018 had officially started, and the adventures had begun.

I realized quickly that to work with Andres and Ian would require being able to move quickly and efficiently as we tried to stay ahead of the speedy lead pack — and sure enough, as soon as the last runner passed us at the start line I saw Andres already running towards the car, ready to hit the road. We piled in and quickly bombed past the runners, trying and failing to avoid sending mud and dust their direction as we passed. I watched people’s faces as we went by; They were full of determination, and accompanied by that cautious shuffle pace that only ultra runners understand — an easy pace that indicates anticipation of the unknown, and an awareness that going out too fast too early would be a grave mistake.

This first day was my chance to get the lay of the land, both with regards to the crew that I was working with, and with regards to the race course itself. From what I could see, there were sections of dusty and runnable dirt roads, interspersed with steep climbs and fiendishly technical and often muddy descents. We drove through plantations of Palm Trees (home, I was told to my phobic chagrin, to the uber poisonous Fer de Lance). I stared at each snake-length stick suspiciously in case it started moving, but promptly forgot about my snake phobia as the lead pack appeared and we all hopped out of the car to capture them flying past a herd of Water Buffalo lounging under a canopy of Palm trees.

Mike Wardian and Tom Evans running stride for stride.

I knew from my incessant questions directed at Andres that this first day finished with a river crossing just outside of camp, so as soon as we got into camp I headed down there to await the team. The thing about these sorts of distances is that the race pack becomes very spread out, and I quickly realized that my biggest challenge would be making sure that I caught our entire team at different points of the race (I knew I wouldn’t be able to catch every single RLAG runner every day, but my goal was to do so as much as I possibly could, and to ultimately end up with photos of each of our team that really reflected the immensity of the challenge being undertaken). For the first day, I decided to sit in the river crossing until every runner had gotten through, just to get a sense of how everyone was doing and what shape they were in at the end of the first day. Six hours later I’d accomplished that goal, cheering in the last of our racers just as the sun went down. For much of that time I was alone, as the other photographers headed off to edit their photos from the day and hide from the heat of the sun. I learned a couple of lessons that day: always apply more sunscreen than you think you need, more often than you think you need it. Especially when sitting in a shallow river all day. 2) Don’t ever forget snacks when sitting in a river for six hours. 3) I am a delectable bug magnet.

Slowly evolving into a raisin. Photo: Gerardo Villalobos

After the last racer came in, I met up with Andres and Ian and we began the second phase of each day: uploading, sorting, editing and posting photos from the morning. I was updating the RLAG social media accounts during the race, and each night I tried to go through my photos and find a few that really represented that day’s flavour. In what would become the normal for the week, the three of us sat in silence at a small bar just up the road from the campsite, spending hours editing photos, warding off bugs, and cursing slow wifi speeds. This was my first time providing “live coverage” of an event like this in such a remote area, and I quickly realized that shooting the race was only going to be half of the work. And yet as I sifted through photos, looking at each racer’s face and seeing their struggles and emotions, I felt incredibly honoured just to be there to witness and capture their journey. It’s not work when you love what you do.

Second place Ester Alves cruising through technical terrain with ease.

Finding Routine

Racers:
For runners, each day looked the more or less the same, structure wise. Camp wake up call was 4am. Breakfast was served until 5am. The race started around 5:30am in an attempt to beat some of the heat of the day. Racers finished their days anywhere between 11am and 6pm, with varied amounts of time to spend sourcing out a cold shower or massage, eating, or relaxing. Depending on what you signed up for, before the day started you either packed your bags and left your tent for the camp crews to deal with, or you broke your own tent and loaded your bags onto a truck to be carried to the next camp.

Another stage, another adventure.

Kitchen and Camp Crew:
Rule number one: there will always be rice and beans. Each day the kitchen staff were up at 1am to cook and set up their new temporary kitchen so that they were ready to go when runners woke up at 4am. Breakfast typically involved some sort of rice and beans, scrambled eggs, cereal, the occasional pancakes, and fruit. Coffee was a must, although sometimes I wanted to take a caffeine IV to go. After the racers left for the day, the entire camp was dismantled, packed up and then reassembled by our tireless volunteer crew at the new campsite location, where kitchen staff had to get everything set up and lunch ready for when racers started arriving in the early afternoon. Lunch was a modest affair, consisting of cold cuts, salad, some sort of protein, and fruit (always fruit!), served up with cherry-red Powerade. Dinner was served at around 6:30pm, and it was guaranteed to feature (you guessed it!) rice and beans. Simple food, but hearty and filling. After dinner there was a mandatory briefing for all racers, where the next day’s route and its unique challenges were discussed. By 8pm you’d hear snoring from the city of tents as tired runners passed out, and by 9am the only people still up were staff getting ready for the next day.

The pre-dawn patrol

Media Crew:

Our days started earlier and ended later than the racers, and while they lacked the physical exhaustion of actually running the race, by the time I staggered into bed at 11pm each night I felt like I pretty much had run the race. Or been run over…one or the other. Each day we left camp an hour before the racers started so that we could make it to a high point on course before the racers arrived. “Thank god for Andres and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the backroads in that entire area”, I thought numerous times as he careened along bumpy dirt roads avoiding giant pot holes with ease. I felt very lucky to be part of such an efficient and seamless team. Thanks for being willing to take the newbie along, guys!

Sunrise view from the jeep.

Speaking of strengths, one of mine is my ability to fall asleep in about ten seconds…wherever I am. I often amazed even myself with how often I was able to catch five precious minutes of sleep, no matter how rough the road or how close I came to giving myself whiplash as we bounced along. And yet I wouldn’t have traded those early mornings for the world. We watched the sun rise each day from the tops of mountains, listening to birds chirping noisily and monkeys howling in the trees nearby. I held my breath each day as the sun peeked above the edge of the horizon, bathing the lush rainforests in a golden glow. We’d stand there in silence, just watching — a rare moment of peace in our chaotic schedules.

Minutes later, the first pack of elite runners would arrive, and we’d go from zero to one hundred on the busy scale. Shutters would whir furiously as the lead pack flew past us at impossible speeds, and then we’d be off to catch them at a new location, tearing through the countryside to get ahead again. I would try to figure out where we were in the course, attempting to intercept as many RLAG racers from the Adventure and Exhibition distances as I could. It wasn’t always easy to do so since I was bound by constraints like not knowing the course well and being reliant on a vehicle to get around, but it didn’t take long before I started being able to predict where I’d see the RLAG runners in relation to the rest of the field, and it was always fun popping up somewhere randomly along the course to say hi.

The Struggles:

The biggest things I heard repeatedly from racers were 1) they hadn’t expected the heat to take quite as much of a toll, and 2) they didn’t expect to have as many blisters and foot issues as they did. In the pre-race briefing, RD’s Sergio and Pigo warned everybody that managing those two issues would be the key to successfully finishing TCC, and they weren’t joking. River crossings meant that you often ran most of the day with soaking wet feet, which in turn allowed for more blisters, trench foot, and other similarly pleasant problems to settle in. I think everyone at TCC would agree that the medical crew at this race are true heroes — the number of destroyed feet that they fearlessly cleaned and patched over the course of six days was unparalleled.

The Finish

As an athlete myself, I’ve always been fascinated by how vulnerable this sport makes us. There’s no room for pretence or false bravado when you are covered in four layers of dried sunscreen, sweat and snot, and your entire world revolves around continuing to put one blistered foot in front of the other. The eyes never lie. And as I waited at the finish line of the final Stage, watching exhausted racers shuffle through unrelenting, shimmering waves of heat along the final stretch of hot beach towards their final destination, I knew how they felt. I had a lump in my throat watching each runner pour every last drop of strength into those final 500 meters that must have felt like an eternity. Some sprinted, finding reserves they didn’t know they still had, while others just shuffled. One foot in front of another. Repeat.

3rd place female and RLAG Ambassador Sawna making beach running look easy.

I had watched an evolution occur, you see. Six days earlier, I took photos of each fresh faced runner at the start line — each face full of excitement and nervous anticipation. Over the course of the race, I watched as those faces changed each day. Some days were harder than others, and lines of fatigue and sweat soon mixed freely with tears of joy and exhaustion. What I never saw, however, was defeat. Even as racers had to change and re-evaluate their race goals as physical carnage increased, those faces never wavered in their determination to finish what they started. And that is the real victory. Because once you realize that you possess the power to dig a little deeper each day and continue to meet those challenges unwaveringly, you’ve smashed your own glass ceiling. The sky is the limit, now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’d like to congratulate everyone who tackled this race, and to thank you for allowing me to join you on that journey. It was my privilege to capture your struggles and successes. Hasta luego!

Comments

  1. What a wonderfully captured account, both in words and photographs, of a truly life-changing and beautiful experience. It was an absolute privilege to experience Costa Rica with you Hillary – I cannot wait to see the rest of your pictures!
    Thank you for bombing and around after us and popping up with coke at just the perfect moment!

  2. Hilary your words truly describe how many of us felt from the beginning to the end of this very amazing challenge and scenery of Costa Rica, which has shown me inner strength and determination that I didn’t think I had but this was also supported by the amazing people who made each day/camp/ food to help us during this event but also the other runners who encouraged me and have become friends.
    So looking forward to seeing the rest of your pictures.

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