By Ian Corless
Day four of the Coastal Challenge moved inland leaving the coastline behind for 35 kms of relentless climbing, at times the trail would be extremely technical and for the first time in the race's history, a new section of river bed running was added to spice things up. A 05:30 start guaranteed the runners a good one hour window of cool temperatures as they climbed higher and higher under a low blanket of cloud. Eventually though, the cloud burned away and searing heat punished the runners.
Ester Alves made her mark on the race by extending her lead by over 30-minutes. Barnes fought very hard early on to keep Alves in sight, however, the technical trail and a long section in a very technical river bed ruined any chance of holding the pace of the Portuguese runner.
Alves was in her element; comfortable with skyrunning and mountain races, she pushed and never looked in any discomfort on the challenging terrain. It was on the final descent (almost 1000m) were the real gap was really opened. Barnes said post race:
“I hated that final descent, I was out of my comfort zone and I knew any chance of catching Ester was over. I took my time and made my way down without injury.”
Alves finished the stage and many commented how relaxed she looked and how well she had adapted to the heat after a tough day one. A real point of discussion was how little she was drinking… a no, no for the locals and other runners but it worked for Alves.
“Every stage I have anticipation, I never know what to encounter… roads, forests, rivers or trails. It has been amazing. I wasn’t ready for the heat but as the days pass I am getting better and better. I love the heat. I trained before the race for 30km run sessions on little water and that has worked well here. Everyone has been amazed how little I am drinking. I like to go simple; fast and light! The competition with Elisabet has been great. She has won MDS and that inspires me, she has been a great competitor. I think if we were in the desert I am sure she would pull away from me but here I love the technical trail and that has been a great advantage for me.”
The men’s race looked all set for a group run to the line with Don-Wauchope, Calisto and Martinez running side-by-side over all of the first 25km. Don-Wauchope safe in 1st place, Calisto safe in 2nd and Martinez no threat to the overall standings. But where was Sa?
Sa was trailing a few minutes back.
When the trio entered the river bed, Sa apparently flew past like a man possessed. It was a last ditch effort to secure 2nd place ahead of Calisto.
“We were having a great run, relaxed, chatting and just a great day on the trails and then Sa flew past us,” Don-Wauchope said. “He really mixed things up and as he pulled away I went with him. He was really motoring. We started to pull away and I felt good. Eventually I pulled away and Calisto bridged the gap back to Sa. The downhill at the end was tough as it was so rutted but I was glad for another stage victory."
All credit to Sa for making a move and throwing it all on the line. Stage five was to follow, the longest stage of the week and arguably the most challenging due to a new route addition that added many kms of ridge running, a stretch of beach and a water crossing by boat. Many wondered, would Sa have another go? The longer the stage, the better he gets and heat is no issue as he has proved in the past by winning Badwater 135 in Death Valley.
The longest stage of the 2016 TCC may well have been one of the most beautiful but 50km+ under the intense Costa Rican heat really did test every single runner in the race.
Martinez finally found his Costa Rican legs and ran the stage with race leader, Don-Wauchope. They looked to be cruising on what was a very tough day. Don-Wauchope having run and won TCC in 2015 could appreciate the new course:
“The new additions are really stunning; no, fantastic! But they are tough and challenging. The beach section was extremely hard due to the high tide. We had to run the tree line which made it difficult. But it’s a beautiful new addition to the race.”
Crossing the sea to a river inlet by boat, both Martinez and Don-Wauchope took an extended break to cool off and then finished off the stage in style by cruising to the line together. Calisto finished 3rd and secured his 2nd overall.
It was a similar story in the ladies’ race but it was less planned. Race leader Alves took the lead relatively early on and at one point had extended it to approximately 30 minutes. A couple of navigation errors reduced this to just one minute in the latter stages and with just 8km to go, Barnes caught Alves and they decided to run together to the line.
“It was the correct thing to do,” Alves said after the race. “There was nothing left to race for in the final kms and I enjoyed the time talking with Elisabet.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Barnes, “I was feeling very rough this morning with a very dodgy tummy and it took me 20kms to feel good. Ester pulled away and there was nothing I could do. I eventually caught her but again we entered a very technical section and she pulled away. We finally came together again after the rope bridge with 8km to go, running together was a pleasure after a great battle. Today was beautiful but so hot!”
The stunning Drake Bay located in the Corcovado National Park hosted the final day of the 2016 TCC. It’s an idyllic location located within the Osa Peninsula. Turquoise seas, blue skies and lush tropical vegetation make it one the most iconic places in Costa Rica.
The final day is to all intents and purposes a victory lap. Racing only really takes place if overall top positions are close and any possibility to gain a place exists. In the 2016 race, gaps between the top three men and women were wide enough to make the day neutralized. However, despite this, Martinez from Spain wanted to run and from the sound of the gun at 0615 he pushed hard at the front of the race.
Don-Wauchope kicked back, pulled out his GoPro and let the runners go ahead of him; it was a day of fun ahead.
The ladies race was well and truly over and Barnes and Alves ran the whole stage together side-by side as they soaked up the Costa Rican ambience.
The final day is not without challenges though, an early run through a river bed, the crossing of a waterfall, hot running through open plantations and then a return journey to the beach finish at Drake Bay while weaving in and out of the stunning rocky coastline.
The 2016 TCC will be remembered quite simply in just a few words: Brutal, Beautiful and Hot!
It may well have been one of the hottest editions of the race and word in and amongst the camp confirms that the race really has been a true test. MDS 2015 and Oman Desert Cup Champion Elisabet Barnes, confirmed the thoughts of many on the finish line:
“This has been possibly one of the best races I have ever run. It has so much variety, so many challenges, no two days are the same and I have well and truly been pushed beyond my limits. The combination of such mixed terrain, intense heat and high humidity really do make this race an ultimate challenge. But in and amongst this, the camp is relaxed, the food provided by the race incredible and the whole Costa Rican experience is one I will not forget. It has been special, really special.”
Damian Hall from the UK has placed in the top 50 at UTMB, been on the podium at The Spine and the Dragons Back and he also found TCC a true test, “The heat has been punishing and combined with humidity it really has been tough. The terrain has been so varied, it’s runnable at times but then other times you are just crawling along. It’s a seriously challenging race and the line-up has been top quality, I am really happy with 5th. The camp sites are amazing, the food has been brilliant and all-in-all it’s been a fantastic experience.”
Iain Don-Wauchope and Ester Alves are the 2016 champions, it may well sound like a cliché, but in all honesty, any runner who survived this incredible 6-day experience deserves the ultimate respect.
Irrespective of pace or effort, the Costa Rican coastline never stops providing inspiration. It’s important to look at TCC as so much more than a race, It’s a journey, a running holiday and a voyage of discovery. Friendships made in the rainforests, on the beaches and in the camps last a lifetime. As the runners departed by boat for a 60-minute journey down the River Sierpe it was a time to reflect. From within the rainforest and mangroves they were able to look out, see the journey they had been on and fully appreciate the magnitude of their accomplishment.
2016 top 3 ranking for the Expedition race:
Ester Alves 33:04:32
Elisabet Barnes 33:46:20
Amy Gordon 42:18:15
Iain Don-Wauchope 24:25:11
Gonzalo Calisto 25:27:38
Carlos Sa 25:46:59
Full results are here.
Entries for the 2017 TCC will open very soon.