I slid down into a too small chair at the elementary school table, futilely arranging my legs in a way that reduced the risk of injury and cramps. Despite my fatigue, I fairly bounced with my big news of the day. Pat and Haruki sat across from me, fresher and more energetic, their day finished long before mine, but causing them to miss entirely the big event of the day. “How was the rest of it?” Pat asked.
“We got ice cream!” I blurted out. While my six foot frame may not have fit the elementary school, my pure unadulterated joy in the frozen treat certainly did. I felt completely silly in my excitement. Until Franck leaped up, almost toppling his chair.
“You too?!” He blurted out, his English tripping over his strong French accent. “I did not know ‘helado’. They show me a photo! Ice cream! Oh-la-la! My eyes come out of my head! So good!” He rubbed his stomach, smiling blissfully.
I grinned–in truth, I had not really stopped grinning since the trip started.
I had found my tribe.
Several people on the trip were curious as to how I even found La Transtica. I was the only person from the United States running this year. How did I find a forty person race, under a French organization, in South America, while living in the US?
Google of course.
I turned fifty this year. I had four weeks of vacation, and I intended to make it memorable. I wanted to leave the country. I wanted to run. I had amazing memories of a three day race I ran in Italy, so I began researching international stage races. Most of them seemed so far away and exotic. And difficult.
I wanted hard but not too hard. The running I could do. The logistics intimidated me. Ten days in a country where I could at least get by on my high school Spanish seemed about perfect.
The inevitable next question was “Why?”.
What had caught my eye over every other race was the fact that it was not a race but a solidarity effort. It was a way to raise money for hospitals and schools in small Costa Rican villages. The run goes through these villages. What better way to celebrate my birthday than by paying it forward?
Bernard is the event coordinator. A more patient person would be difficult to find. In answering my emails, in dealing with the inevitable glitches, in explaining all the logistics, he was always polite and friendly. Having organized a 5k/10k fundraiser that left me wanting to punch people–hard–I could only shake my head in admiration.
I signed up almost a year in advance, but as always the year flew by and I found myself sleeping on the floor of the Denver airport, hoping to get some sleep before my 1am flight. I don’t know how people manage great flights and low rates, but I have always ended up on the red-eyes, in order to save hundreds of dollars.
My experience has taught me many immutable laws of travel, the first being you will get screwed by the taxi service at the airport. I was accosted as soon as I left the airport, but I was armed my email and a copy of the taxi service logo that held my reservation to the hotel Las Palmas. I was so fierce in my belief that I refused any help in finding it, until one soul practically dragged me back to where I had passed the “office” of the taxi service.
Then the fun truly began. They had no record of me. They had not heard of La Transtica. They had not heard of the hotel. I dug in my heels. The service was paid for. I was not paying for a taxi. I tried calling Bernard. The taxi guy tried calling. No answer.
He stared helplessly at me and I returned the gaze with purebred stubbornness. He called his office. He asked me my name again. I pronounced it the way I had heard it earlier: Watch.
He dove back into his paperwork and triumphantly pulled out the card. Watch.
My name was spelled wrong.
The second immutable law of travel: People are ultimately decent and will go out of their way to help you.
Bernard was waiting at the hotel. It was great to put a face with the name. His was kind and just a little tired. We spoke just briefly, enough to get to know each other a little. I tried a little French but ending up having to switch to Spanish. I explained in Spanish that my Spanish was better than my French. He laughed and replied that his French was better than his Spanish.
I was quickly checked into my room and left to my own devices. It was not quite noon and I nowhere to be until the next morning. Despite the flight, I wasn’t feeling terribly fatigued. I took a few minutes to relax then headed out the door.
San Jose is every city. Loud. Ragged. Traffic. People. Poverty. Wealth. History. Modernity. People on their phones. People begging. People selling. Police officers keeping a watchful eye. People. More people. I stopped counting McDonalds at eight. The number of Starbucks was not much less. I wondered if they imported the coffee beans.
I wandered for several hours, taking it all in. My main target had been the zoo, so I could at least say I’d seen animals, but the depressing exterior kept me away. My second goal was to find a coffee shop and have a cup of quite possibly the best coffee in the world. Finding only a Starbucks was far more depressing than the zoo.
I stopped at an outdoor park and admired the art. In Little and Nashville, an artist had painted colorful wings on walls where you can take your photo. This park had bronze wings with the same intent. Having no one to take my photo, I just took a photo of the wings.
I’m not terribly adventurous gastronomically speaking, especially at the start of an adventure. Dinner was simple rice and beans at the hotel. I was its sole occupant and I enjoyed the quiet.
Breakfast drew more people and I could sense more than hear the various languages being spoken. I delightedly sipped my Costa Rican coffee as I listened without understanding. As I stood to leave, though, my wrist was gently grasped and words of French were excitedly spoken. I understood only “Road ID”, a reference to the bracelet I always wore which contains all my emergency medical information, so I knew I was speaking to a runner. My blank look caused him to immediately switch to English, which confirmed he had recognized the runner in me as well.
My tribe was arriving.
I spent the time between breakfast and the organization meeting meandering around the park near the hotel. People were out running and playing soccer. The clouds from the prior day had burned off and the jungle that once inhabited even the city was visible, adding a certain remoteness to its aura. Despite the natural beauty of the park and its unfamiliar flora, it still seemed human made.
The organization meeting started precisely on time for a tropical paradise, meaning of course it started fifteen minutes late. I already had my spot in the front, so I just watched as people came in. I was excited and nervous to meet the people with whom I’d be spending the next week. For at least the last ten years, I’d signed up for events solo and had a certain confidence that I’d become friends with at least someone.
As each person was introduced along with their home, a dark realization started to creep over my psyche. France. Germany. Japan. Not only was there no one there that I knew, there was a very good chance there was no one there who even spoke English. I silently cursed myself for not taking up French lessons again. I searched for translation apps as the meeting wrapped up, but found none that would work offline.
Well, I told myself, it’s not like I enjoy small talk all that much anyway.
I stood up and made my way to the back, where more coffee awaited. As I filled my cup, I heard someone say, “You are from the United States?” English! With a decidedly French accent. Oliver from Belgium, he introduced himself, although I realized later it was actually Olivier. He had the ease of someone who knew no stranger. And he’d been to Colorado–we had both run TransRockies, although in different years. We found we had mutual friends from the race.
Lunch was at the home of the French ambassador. When I had received the invitation, I panicked and immediately emailed Bernard to find out the dress code and if I should bring a gift. Bernard assured me all I needed to bring was my smile, which, not surprisingly, did not convince me. Only the fact that I had absolutely no idea what kind of gift would be appropriate kept me from bringing anything. Not the greatest of excuses, but there you have my unique flavor of logic.
During lunch, I sat with some of the volunteers of the run, who spoke almost exclusively French, but one knew enough English to translate. They were teasing one of the women for being from the south of France. I blurted out that I had watched a movie about that. He asked if it was the French version and I said yes. His look told me I had earned some respect.
After lunch, I met Haruki and Pat, from Japan and Canada respectively. Both spoke perfect English to my great delight. Both had the relaxed demeanor of the retired and well traveled, despite neither looking older than fifty. Neither spoke any French or Spanish yet easily made friends with everyone on the trip Pat had run the TransRockies as well and we reminisced about the hot showers and fantastic meals. Oliver joined us and the three shared names and stories of other stage races they had run.
I had no idea there were organizations that put on races all over the world. Cambodia. Iceland. Spain. My imagination ran wild with fantasies of literally running the world.
The afternoon was devoted to mandatory gear checks. For the first time on that trip, I had absolute confidence. No one had more mandatory gear than I. I loaned Pat my extra pair of scissors since he had brought no checked luggage. I showed them my Global Rescue insurance for my repatriation–yes, even if I died, everything was covered. Unless my death was a result of war, which case I figured it wouldn’t matter much anyway.
The hotel recommended the Italian restaurant next door for dinner. Pat, Haruki, Olivier, Pascal–unique for speaking five languages fluently and having completed a triple Ironman (I’m not sure which impressed me more)–and I headed over early, not a little sceptical. I learned later that many ex-pats opened restaurants in Costa Rica and some of the best cuisine can be found there.
That was absolutely the case for this little gem. Feeling it was still a million years off, we decided our departing dinner would be at the same location.
Having found four people who spoke English at least as easily as I did, I was feeling a bit more confident about striking up conversations with my fellow runners. While waiting for the bus the next morning,I met Barbara and Clair, from Switzerland and English speaking, Barbara being a professional translator. A little later, I noticed the Nashville hat of one of the Germans. I mentioned that I’d been in Nashville the month prior and Rene was off on what turned out to be one of his favorite subjects: music. He had not actually been to Nashville but it was on his list. We chatted until it was time load the buses, twenty minutes after the appointed time.
Oliver was seated alone so I asked if I could join him. We didn’t talk much on the four hour ride to Manuel Antonio, our starting point. He showed me photos of a backpacking trip he took across Israel. When he asked me where was on my travel bucket list, all I could muster was “Everywhere” as I mentally added Israel to the list. Oliver gave an understanding half smile and nod.
We stopped at a roadside souvenir stand near an alligator viewing bridge. There was fruit for sale, and I thought a banana would be a safe choice. I walked up to the stand, only to hear Pat asking about the other fruits. Before I knew it, we both had passion fruit and something no one could translate for us. Both were delicious.
Lunch was at L’Aviator, a bar and restaurant built around the remnants of the plane that kicked off the Iran-Contra affair. How it got from Nicaragua to Costa Rica is another mystery…
The start of the prologue was delayed fifteen minutes, which seemed pretty good considering the four hour drive ended up being six. We were all antsy to be started. I was sharing a hotel room with Ana Luisa, one of the Costa Rican runners. Her English and my Spanish ended up being pretty well matched, as were our personalities. She was a lot of happiness and energy in a small package, and it propelled her to a top finish in the adventure category.
She and the other runners looked out for me in the evenings, finishing hours before I did. Each evening finish reminded me of the goodness of people. Oliver was there to hug me, despite being clean from a shower and me covered head to trail runners in mud. Pascal and Rene would give me the low-down on which shower still had hot–or at least tepid–water. Pat and Haruki would secure my bag when Ana-Luisa couldn’t, and would listen to my stories of the day.
But I’m jumping ahead. The prologue was an easy 6k along the Pacific ocean. After planes and buses, running along the beach was pure joy. Flat and sandy are not my fortes but it didn’t matter. I was running in Costa Rica! For the next five days, that was my entire agenda. Eat and run.
Oliver jogged out and finished the last few meters with me. I high fived and hugged everyone, all of us already drenched in sweat and humidity. Jean-Maria, who would become my DFL (dead f*ing last) buddy and who also had English as terrible as my French, finished shortly behind, all of us there to cheer him in.
A few jumped into the Pacific to enjoy the waves and salty weather. I found a young man selling coconut water and purchased one. It was amazing. I wandered out to the ocean, enjoying the sunset in an environment so foreign to my Colorado mountains.
As I walked back, Rene offered his coconut to me, telling me I had to taste this one, it was so good. I should have known better–my new German friend had it laced with some seriously strong rum. My eyes water as he laughed.
Dinner was rice and beans, which would be our staple for breakfast and dinner, with the occasional pasta dinner. I sat with Tom, from England, and Sven and Emmanuel from Germany. The next night, I would see entirely too much of Sven’s elegantly tattooed body after a poorly timed entrance into the showers. Per usual, I was the more embarrassed one.
The environment of the staged race seemed to dispense with many of the niceties of first encounters. I never really learned what people did for a living and I couldn’t honestly remember where specifically most were from. We shared running stories, mostly embarrassing and totally relatable. I was in the minority having done hundreds, and they were amused by my tales of hallucinations.
The first full day of running was full of figurative and literal highs and lows. It was already scheduled to start late, as one of the days where we had to drive to the start, and the “tropical delay” meant the heat and humidity were already unbearable. In no time, Jean-Marie and I found ourselves in our last place position. We had chatted a little at the organization meeting and not only did our horrid accents match but our complete delight at being understood by the other.
We ran the entire day together, passing each other as uphills turned to downhills and vice versa. At the higher elevations, we ran through coffee plantations and Jean-Marie pointed out the beans and explained the colors–red and green, those at least we understood. There were banana trees, heavy with bunches of green bananas. There were small homes decorated for Christmas. It was foggy and rainy higher up, which should have felt good after the morning, but the contrast was just too much. For the last 10k of running, we were required to wear our rain jackets as temps dropped even further.
By that time, Jean-Maria and I had passed several runners, including Pat and Haruki. The heat of the day had done in several people and a few chose to drop to the shorter distance. Pat had ended up taking a wrong turn, the victim of a too-well marked course. There was almost equal markings on the wrong ways, and it all blurred as fatigue set in. I had almost made the same mistake on a couple occasions. To avoid what would have been his first DNF, Pat dropped to the adventure distance, Haruki along with him.
Dinner and lodgings were in the community center, bags, wet clothes and tired runners strewn everywhere. I had a bit of a learning curve on the evening physio (massage). It was cool and most had on long pants, then stripped to their underwear. My underwear was placed semi-discreetly on a chair to dry and I’d failed to grab another pair. So I had to go back and get shorts, as well as a “serviette”, which my Canadian stepmom had already taught me was a towel. I slipped into my small sleeping bag and attempted the inelegant and horizontal dance of pants changing.
It was worth all the effort.
I slept “with” the English/German contingency, which had found a convenient spot near the bathrooms then proceeded to strategically block it off with barstools to avoid being tripped over all night. I made a mental note in my “Clever Hacks” folder.
The next morning, Jean-Marie and I high fived in respect for neither of us having moved to the adventure group. We took up our spot in the rear as we prepared for another big day of climbing. The day prior had given us close to 9000’ with very little descent and the third day would be more of the same. I had made a small goal to not listen to my music and be as present as possible in the moments, no matter how long and painful.
It wasn’t nearly as challenging as I’d feared. There was so much to take in, so much different from Colorado running, so much to remember and think about. I practiced small phrases in French and Spanish. I made mental checks of my physical condition–I was among the lucky to not get any blisters (except for some lovely ones on my sunburned shoulders) and very little chafing.
Jean-Maria began to fall behind and I passed the other Jean-Marie somewhere after the first checkpoint, as we began another long, hot climb. At the second checkpoint were the two women who became my favorite checkpoint volunteers: Teresita and Vera. They were the cheeriest, most supportive pair I’d ever met, even hugging me in my bedraggled state. Their English was almost nonexistent but I knew enough Spanish (including “helado”!) to understand their cheering and answer their questions. They worked hard to cover my now blistered sunburn, and made sure I understood the course change.
The course change took us off the dirt road and onto some serious single track. Some of the sections took my entire stride to get down. I had heart-stopping moments when I thought for certain I’d lost a shoe in the ankle deep muck. A tree branch grabbed my white cap and threw it in mud.
I was grinning the entire time. There was no time limit. I had brought extra shoes and lots of extra socks. I made my way down deeper into the jungle, until the trail began to flatten out.
The “flagging master”, whom I had spoken with during the luncheon, stood by a waterfall and asked if I wanted my photo taken. I knew him being there meant the aid station wasn’t far. And the handful of flagging in his hands meant that the Jean-Marie’s had both dropped. I was sad that I’d lost my DFL friend.
The sweeps kept me company the seven miles back up, stopping their truck to check on me every couple miles. One spoke only Spanish and one only French. Physically, I wasn’t feeling all that bad, but trying to chat with them felt physically taxing. Later, Haruki and I would joke about how it felt like they were trying to encourage us to drop. “Okay?” “Stop?” They were in reality being supportive, but the internal pressure of knowing that they weren’t finished with their work until you were finished with your fun made it hard to not just jump into the truck and be done with it.
Darkness and fog were setting in when they drove past a last time–“Dos kilometers!” and they were off. Just over a mile. I had a drop bag with food and my warm jacket, which I had brought to be a pillow, but had worn both evenings. My two favorite Costa Ricans were there and by the time we’d finished hugging, the finish area had been cleared out and everyone was ready to go.
We were staying in an elementary school that night. It was a short drive there. Pascal greeted me with intel on the showers–a not-cold shower was in my future. Tom directed me to food. Ana-Luisa had secured my bag, a place to sleep, and and outlet for recharging electronics. Even if I’d been fluent in either Spanish or French, I still would not have had words.
During the meet-and-greet after the organizational meeting, I had asked Bernard “pourquoi”. Why this race? Why Costa Rica? This was the third running event he had organized. The first was in Europe but he wanted to help a less fortunate country. He had worked with another organization that wanted to do an event in Costa Rica to raise money for schools and hospitals, but he had quickly realized they had no idea what they were doing (for starters, they did not appreciate the amount of food it would take to keep hungry runners going).
He had ended up creating his own event and working with an organization to raise funds. This was the thirteenth “edition” of the run, and this year, the funds raised through the race went to schools.
Which is why we were sleeping in a school. The next morning brought energetic young children in brightly colored outfits. They performed traditional dances as somewhat bedraggled runners looked on. I could not imagine their thoughts. At the end, Bernard made a short speech–as always, shorter in English and Spanish than in French–about how the ceiling over the sidewalk had been purchased by the event, a small but critical feature for a school in a tropical rainforest.
This year, backpacks with school supplies had been purchased with the funds raised. As the money was what we had contributed, Bernard wanted the runners to distribute the backpacks. Not a single runner moved. Bernard was standing next to me; he looked at me and said, “The runners are more shy than the children.”
I gave him a wry smile, picked up a backpack and walked alone to the center of the room. A shy young boy, not even six, was pushed forward to greet me. He hesitantly took the pack I proffered, hugged me, and fled. I turned and fled myself before anyone could see the tears.
The other runners began to line up in pairs, handing out the backpacks and getting their photo taken. The children were both shy and excited, some of them hugging the backpacks close and showing them to their friends.
Then we were off. This was the only day with a cutoff time. It was close to 30 miles, with another 7000 feet of climbing. The cutoff was for me a tight one, and I knew it would depend a lot on the technicality of the trails. The briefing the evening before had not been heartening, The trails were highly technical and many cautions were given. Pat and I chatted on the way up the first climb, his opinion being that all race directors over emphasized the technical nature of the trails and not only would I not die, but I would make the cutoff with time to spare.
I put a bag on the bus just in case. I liked Pat’s thought to be prepared but to not dwell on it. I knew I would dwell on it anyway, but leaving the bag was my way of trying to accept either outcome. I hoped that I would be either well in front of or well behind the cutoff, so I could just relax and enjoy the day.
The trail was all that and more. I never catch up with people on technical trails, but my long legs and trekking poles proved to be a huge advantage. I was once again in ankle deep mud and fear over my shoes. I clung to trees as I slid down the worst sections. I took it all in, knowing there was no way I’d make the cutoff and being okay with it.
We reached the lowest point and were faced with an equally ridiculous uphill. I used the trees to pull myself up, my poles dangling uselessly from my arms. It was blessedly short and once again we were on dirt road.
Pat had caught up on the uphill so we began the downhill together, trying to motivate and distract each other. It reminded me of the long downhill road from Jones Pass in Colorado, unrelenting in distance but not steep, technical enough to keep one’s attention but not enough to slow the pace.
About halfway down, Pat noted that, if the rest of the course were like that, I’d easily make the cutoff. “Don’t get my hopes up” is all I said. I had thought the same thing, while really wanting to not think about it.
End of the downhill and back to the uphill. My two favorite Costa Ricans were managing the aid station. I asked them as best I could in Spanish if the rest of the route was road or trail. They cheerfully replied that it was all road, and I felt my hopes getting up.
Two miles later, my hopes went right back down, as I struggled yet again in the mud to keep my shoes on. Pat was far ahead of me at this point, so I allowed myself a few swear words. I was just where I didn’t want to be, barely ahead of the cutoff.
I caught up with Laura, a runner from Argentina, not far after that. She had cut her leg in the first technical section, and was struggling with the mud and the pain. I tried chatting with her to make sure she was okay, but her own frustration and our limited language skills kept the exchange brief. I made my way past her but soon heard her cry out and an unmistakable splash. I turned around to check on her. Her frustration was at least equal to mine. She urged me on, but I waited until I saw her stand and start moving.
I passed through a huge hydrangea field, outside a small white home with a small white picket fence. Quaint and completely out of place in these jungles. I struggled with wanting to take a photo and wanting to beat the cutoff, completely irritated with myself that I couldn’t just stop and take it in. I argued with myself that I’d miss twelve miles of scenery if I didn’t make it in time. I took a photo out of spite and hurried on, almost missing a turn in the process.
I ran-walked until the trail turned back into a road, where I ran-walked some more. The road wasn’t much better than the trail, huge divots in the shoe sucking mud from trucks and the other runners. I continued to refuse to give completely into the frustration and ran as best I could, focusing on the present and happy at least that it was a gentle downhill.
I ran into the aid station with five minutes to spare, Laura right behind me. Pat was still there, waiting for the bus and he cheered along with the others. I was thrilled that I had made it, feeling as much grateful as annoyed that my frustration had spurred me on.
Laura caught up with me again on the uphill. We exchanged eye rolls and half laughs. The uphill was blessedly short but the downhill was again not completely runnable. I slowly caught back up to Laura as we navigated our way down. One more aid station where I learned the “fluorescent” in French means reflective, or at least I hoped that he was telling me the flagging would reflect my headlamp, because it was about to become pitch blank.
The sun doesn’t linger in the evenings near the equator. Once it’s quitting time, it shuts down for the day and heads to the nearest bar. I was fortunately on paved road and able to run, but I meandered back and forth, completely unable to see anything outside of the light of my headlamp. I turned my watch’s face down so I couldn’t look at it every two minutes as I was prone to do when there was nothing else to distract me.
The rain that had started didn’t help the visibility. I was in a surprisingly good mood for having been running almost ten hours on the third such day, now in the dark and the rain. It was still feeling like an adventure, and I was still thrilled that I had made the cutoff.
Streetlights began to overshadow my headlamp and I knew I was close. I saw a few people milling around and they began shouting when they saw me. Soon other runners were out cheering me in. I high fived and hugged my way through the line.
Bernard grabbed me and hugged me hard. He told me how proud he was of me and how he loved the slower runners. How much harder we worked and how much less rest we got. He said we were the true heroes of the run.
We both knew that wasn’t entirely true. The people flagging were up before us, setting the course, then out again to take it all back down. The checkpoint people were at each aid station, cheering us on, feeding us, taking care of us, no matter how their personal day was going.
There was dancing before dinner. Some of the locals dressed up and lip synced to some tunes then dragged runners onto the floor. I watched from my “bed”, admiring the skill and energy of my fellow runners. Even if I knew how to dance, I could not have. This had been the hardest three days of running I had ever completed. I was proud and I was exhausted. If I thought my new friends would let me, I would have skipped dinner, crawled into my sleeping bag, and let the darkness engulf me.
The briefing during dinner was the most entertaining and most useless. Our leaders seemed to be three sheets to the wind. We had joked about the length of the French versus English briefings, but this night in particular, not only did the French briefing go on for a full ten minutes more, but the English was completely incomprehensible. Barbara was kind enough to translate for me.
The next day was easy compared to the last three. All runners started again together, so I enjoyed another day with Jean-Marie. He hugged and kissed when we reached the end of the adventure route. Laura and I continued on, leapfrogging again until another technical section had Laura proceeding even more cautiously than I.
It was a shorter day in distance as well as elevation gain. I was grateful to be finished before four o’clock, with plenty of time for a long(er) shower, food and general relaxing. Pat and Haruki had saved a spot for me. I took my time setting up my “bed” and laying out my wet clothes. Haruki had given me a new hack of sleeping on my damp clothes, which not only dried the clothes, but kept me cooler while I slept.
That evening was a presentation with the school children. The majority of the music was good old American rock and roll. I wondered if Elvis had ever truly appreciated the depth his influence would reach: into the jungles of a third world country, where the children love to dance.
The other presentation was The Three Little Pigs. One of the piglets was an adorable little girl who made sure all her fellow actors were in their proper positions. I root for her to maintain that sense of authority as she grows up. Afterwards was another presentation of backpacks and school supplies. This time, we runners were more eager to step up and play Santa.
The doors were left slightly ajar that night. The former night in an elementary school had people locked out of one room and locked in the other room. Getting locked out wasn’t so bad, but those who had been locked in, with an urgent need for the restroom, were a bit scarred.
And then a day off. I had been looking forward to this day for the last two. I had learned from the TransRockies run that my body loves running for many days. Not two weeks after TransRockies, I had run Devil on the Divide for the third time. A 50k with 6000 feet of climbing and a high point of 13,000 feet, it is not for the faint of heart.
I had run it for the first time in 2014, where I had made the final cutoff by a mere ten minutes. Last year, I had run it again, and missed the last cutoff by a mere ten minutes. This year, I beat my 2014 time by five minutes. It had been four years since I had set a personal record on a race.
So my restlessness trying to sit on the bus to Playa Negra wasn’t surprising. While I was happy for the day off, I was already in running mode and just wanted to keep running. I watched the scenery as it went by, too tired to make conversation or really even just listen. The contingency from Costa Rica was seated up at the front with me and I just let their musical chatter wash through me.
Ana-Luisa and I were rooming together again, our room much more quaint than the last hotel, with a much nicer shower, which I was actually eager to use, the promise of hot water delightful even in the unrelenting heat. Ana-Luisa and I walked across the street to the beach, and I tried to appreciate the ocean and the stillness, but I couldn’t. I layed in the lounge chair for about ten minutes, until Barbara and Clair walked by. I followed them back to the hotel, where Pat and Haruki were just leaving to walk downtown.
I joined them and we strolled along the beach back into town. They continued to prove they were my tribe by first stopping in the gelato shop and ordering the largest size gelato available. Who knows if the gelato was really that good, but the moments savoring it were the best.
Next stop was a shop that sold local artists wares. I managed to do 75% of my Christmas shopping in that store, finding beautiful handmade journals and bracelets and local coffee and chocolate. T-shirts were discounted if you bought three, so we all bought one.
It didn’t take long from that store to find the next stop. A rum/wine/coffee and chocolate pairing establishment. I don’t think words were actually exchanged as we entered the shop and each ordered a glass of wine and chocolate. We sat outside, where a woman from Germany was enjoying the same. She was a school teacher and had taken a year sabbatical to explore the world. I envied her and her students.
She was at least close to my age, and I felt a kinship with her. This trip was the first time in many years where I did not feel invisible. I wanted to pull a chair up to her table and ask all my questions. Was it the same for her? Did she feel like she was breaking barriers traveling solo at her age? Did age matter as much in the rest of the world as it did in the US?
Haruki and Pat were headed to Panama after the run and she had just returned. They chatted not so much about must-see places but that the entire area was must-see. She also explained how sabbaticals worked in Germany. A person could take as many as they wanted, their salary divided to cover the rest year. For example, if you take a sabbatical every fourth year, then one quarter of your salary is held back for four years, and you are paid three quarters of your salary for that year.
I wondered what it would take for me to just save that money on my own, knowing that would never be instituted here in the US. A quarter would be a huge take, but twenty percent or many even fifteen wouldn’t be impossible. It would take sacrifice definitely. But the reward: a year off. To do whatever. With hopefully ten to fifteen years left in my career, I could so easily see this as a way to break up the monotony of full time employment.
As we paid for our chocolate and wine, Pat bought her a glass of wine. I hugged her tightly and told her she was an inspiration. She was beaming when we finally let go.
By the end of dinner that night, everyone had heard of the wine and chocolate bar and most were ready to head back into town that night, the final day be damned. Plans were made for after the final run to meet there.
The next day dawned with a tropical storm, my first. We sat in the dining area and watched the deluge. The start of the run was postponed as the team tried to figure out the logistics. Most of the run that day was to be along the beach, and the beach simply did not exist. They began the plans to move the run to the road where necessary. None of us truly cared. We were running in paradise. The tropical storm just added excitement.
We started around ten. I did not bother to pack my rain jacket. The rain seemed to come from all directions. It felt like the perfect finish to the six day event: miserable had it been anywhere else yet perfect for that moment, for that adventure.
I took off with an easy pace. It was a flat seventeen miles, but more importantly, it was my last run of this adventure. I wanted to take it all in. I’d left my MP3 player with my jacket. I wouldn’t need it.
I ran along the beach, feeling the strain in my calves. I splashed in the puddles, letting my feet get soaked. The rain soaked my hair and ran down my face. My t-shirt and shorts stuck to my body. I watched for sloths and monkeys and snakes.
And I ran.
The route meandered on to the road then back on the beach. In places, I was in the ocean, going around trees and rocks. I ended up thigh deep in the water. It was the last day, I kept reminding myself. Back on to the road.
A little less than eight miles into the run, I saw another runner coming towards me on the road. He told me in Spanish that the finish was less than a kilometer away. I smiled–he had mistaken the checkpoint for the finish. Or I had misunderstood what he said.
The route took a turn on a trail and back onto the beach. The checkpoint wasn’t far. I passed Barbara. She called out to me, “This really is the finish.” I looked at her, confused, then looked up at the checkpoint. All the runners and race support were there, waving and cheering.
I had no idea what was going on but obviously this was the finish. I gave high fives and hugged my friends. Someone told me that it was too dangerous to continue, so they’d called the race there. I felt the usual sense of relief and disappointment, immediately deciding I would just celebrate it.
I threw off my pack and ran into the water, completely forgetting about my glasses and hat. I managed to hold onto the hat, but the glasses are now floating somewhere off the coast of Central America. I didn’t much like them anyway.
We boarded the buses, went back to the hotel, changed, then back out to lunch. Lunch was a bit of a cluster, as the expectation was runners would eat as they finished so the restaurant did not hold that many people. We piled in as best we could, eating quickly so we could make room for more.
As I finished, people near the entrance were excitedly taking photographs. I quickly realized the subject matter was a sloth. It was the one thing I had yet to experience on this trip. Haruki, an excellent photographer, and I made a mad dash in the rain across the street. We got drenched all over again videoing and photographing the sloth, who seemed to be in a bit of a hurry given the tropical storm that now enveloped the area.
Bernard warned us against going into town given the weather, but when the bus stopped, half the crew piled out. Haruki and I made our way to the gelato store as everyone else headed to the wine and chocolate bar. We stuck to the small size this time then headed over for wine and chocolate.
Rene and Hans had opted for the rum, Germans that they are. Barbara and Clair had coffee and had gotten the actual chocolate pairing. Im Palisade, a couple of the wineries have you sample their dessert wine before and after a piece of chocolate and the difference is remarkable. It’s like drinking a completely different wine.
Pretty much everyone else had red wine. I wanted to try a local wine, so I opted for the white. It was too sweet for my taste, and I switched back the Malbec I had enjoyed the evening before. I sampled the chocolates, but my mind was more occupied by the people around me. The feeling was the same as when I’d moved to Colorado, that feeling of not just being at home, but being home.
An introvert and engineer, strangers are not my forte. Speaking different languages, we were all made a little vulnerable and we all rose to each other’s bravery in reaching out to communicate. And in our running efforts. And in just being people.
The rain was increasing in intensity, so Pat, Haruki and I took a cab, while the rest walked. We felt smug in our decision as the rain pelted the windshield but we were not sure we ultimately ended up any drier than those who walked.
The awards ceremony was that evening. We all huddled in the lounge area by the pool as the tropical storm continued to release its fury listening to the closing remarks. One by one, we received our finisher t-shirts, coffee, necklace, and a special gift: a USB port with photos of ourselves across the seven days.
Usually with races, runners have to purchase photos, so receiving dozens as a gift made the event all that more special. The photographers were among the hard working, up early and out late, documenting many of the moments that made this trip so special. And there were so many.
The evening was casually festive, with the running behind us, two free drinks in hand, and a local band playing reggae. I wanted to try the rum but I also didn’t want to be overly drunk and subsequently overly sick. Pat offered me a taste of his and I was happy I had not ordered a full glass. We took advantage of the drinks but fatigue from the running and not great sleep had many heading to bed. The loss of electricity from the storm sent the rest of us the same way.
The next day was bittersweet and long. Our four hour bus trip took seven and traffic road work and the storm conspired against us. But still there were no complaints, as we clung to those final few moments. I ate lunch with Franck and his wife Tatyana, who was from Russia. She had rarely spoken to me and I told myself she was shy, not that she didn’t like me for being from the US. As we ate, she insisted everyone at the table speak English so that I could be included. That small gesture touched me.
The lateness of the arrival meant that the final celebration was cancelled. Pat, Haruki, Rene, Hans, Pascal, Oliver and I met up for drinks. Jean-Maria stopped by to say goodbye. Pascal translated for us and Jean-Maria had our longest conversation of the week.
We had hoped for dinner again at the Italian restaurant but another, larger group of runners beat us there, so we ate at the hotel restaurant. Later, we walked over for dessert and coffee, which is really what we had wanted anyway, the chocolate torte being the stuff of dreams. It was ten o’clock when we arrived, and we lingered as long as we politely could.
Or maybe it was just me. Never had I felt so strongly that I belonged, and I wanted the feeling to last. Before going back to my job with east coasters who lived to work. Before going back to mountain rescue with people whose entire identities and egos were wrapped up in being a rescuer. Before going back to people who called me crazy without ever trying to understand.
Maybe it was just that we were all on our best Type B behavior. Maybe it was because it was the tropics. Maybe we were all just too tired to disagree.
But I don’t think so.
Perhaps that’s why my adventure ended the way it did. My last stop in San Jose was the art museum. After spending a couple quiet hours, I headed back to the hotel. Just outside, I ran almost literally into Oliver. He spun me around and we strolled slowly back to the hotel, arm in arm.
We had the same flight back to Miami–or were supposed to. We shared a quiet taxi ride to the airport, I think each lost in our thoughts and the sadness of goodbyes. Just before boarding, I was “encouraged” to take a later flight due to overbooking. I wasn’t entirely thrilled by the change in plans, but a nice voucher and another night in Costa Rica soothed my disappointment.
I told Oliver and his regret seemed deeper than mine that we would be saying goodbye earlier than expected. As they began the boarding process, we shared one last hug. Oliver pulled back, taking my face in his hands. Then he kissed me.