By Heidi Shilling
My journey to Costa Rica started in early July when I realized I had a chance to win a free entry to La Ruta de los Conquistadores, a three-day mountain bike stage race considered to be one the toughest in the world.
I had been texting with my good friend Annie about the race. She had recently moved back to Ohio and we became fast friends cut from the same cloth. She was a hell of a mountain biker—we would ride for hours talk about everything and nothing at all. She was wise beyond her years, never judgmental and always found a way to make me laugh.
The last text I ever got from her was about La Ruta. The very next day she was killed by a drunk driver. My beautiful, smart, silly, wild Annie was gone. The only thing that made me feel better after her death was riding my bike. Fast forward a few months and had won the Ohio Mountain Bike Championship series for expert women. The next thing I knew I was stepping on a plane headed to Costa Rica.
Day One: Welcome to the jungle
The La Ruta Conquistadores crosses Costa Rica much like the Conquistadors did in the 1500′s. It starts on the Pacific coast and crosses through rainforest, over volcanoes and weaves through villages and farms to the Caribbean Coast.
I was on the beautiful Jaco Beach on the Pacific Ocean crammed at the start with 450 other racers. I had the text from Annie fastened to my stem with a pink ribbon. The horn went off and I began to pedal my way into the great unknown.
We rolled down the beach and out of town onto a dirt road with a helicopter hovering above us. After a few easy miles the climb began. It was insanely steep and long. My breathing was out of control and I began to panic. A self-defeating thought popped into my head “How am I going to make it three days if I can’t even make it up the first climb?”
I looked down and saw the text ”Ride for Annie”. I settled myself down and got into a rhythm. I started to focus on breathing with each pedal stroke. I stopped looking up. I put myself into a climbing trance.
As the morning wore on it got progressively hotter. I started to feel like I had been put in an oven. The sweat rolled off my elbows in steady drips. I was in my easiest gear and wished I had a few more. After what seemed like an eternity I heard cheering. I had reached the top of the first climb at La Ruta and it was worse than anything I have ever climbed in my life. GULP…
The descent into the jungle began in a mild fashion. I actually thought to myself “well this isn’t too bad”. Soon enough it became bad—real bad. I was in a long line of racers. I tried to ride as much as I possibly could before it just became impossible. The trail turned into a slick clay slide with a crevasse that varied from one to five feet deep.
The trail on each side sloped down to the crevasse. I found myself constantly fighting being sucked into its muddy abyss. My bike became a burden. I was feeling weak and pathetic. I looked back and saw Juan Carlos from the Ride 2 Recovery Team who had his leg amputated just below the knee after his helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan. He was having trouble with his prosthetic leg. I was humbled, inspired and close to tears. I told myself ”He is not giving up and neither will you!” I looked down and saw the text “Ride for Annie”. I pushed on.
I was marinating in the humidity and become aware of just how bad I smelled. The jungle had brought out some wild funk from my very core. Up ahead I saw a horse and a young man helping lift bikes up a very steep section of mud and rock. If not for him, I probably would have died in that jungle or most likely ditched my beloved bike to get out alive!
The stream and river crossings became a welcome change. I used them to cool down and wash the mud off. I would ride as much as I could, but seemed to walk more than I rode. Besides wallowing around in my misery, the beauty of the jungle didn’t escape me. I saw 50-foot high stands of bamboo, giant foliage, vibrant flowers, a variety of colorful butterflies and a few toucans.
Everything was mammoth. The scale of the jungle made us look like an army of ants carrying our bikes. My brain only allowed me to see what I could handle. At no time did I ever consider what might be lurking about! It turns out there were giant boa constrictors spread out and curled up along the trail and river crossings! I probably would have cut several minutes off my time had I seen one!
The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. I didn’t ride with a computer, watch or heart rate monitor. I had no idea what time it was, how far I had gone or how far I had to go. Ask any local at any given point in the race and they would tell me I had 20 kilometers to go. Always 20 kilometers…
The checkpoints were wonderful—they had everything I could possibly want. I discovered the joys of little potatoes rolled in salt. After eating disgustfully sweet fake food all day these became the highlight of all the checkpoints. The volunteers and locals were helpful and kind. There were support crews all over the road for other teams. I felt like I was at the back of the pack of an off road Tour de France. One of crews found pity on me. On a particular hot and steep climb they gave me ice and poured water over me. It’s the only thing that kept me pedaling. There were more kind people along the way that gave me ice, fruit and raised my spirits with cheering.
The checkpoints and the cheering helped me recover from the jungle. The last big climb was more gradual and long than the first steep one of the day. I was feeling strong and began picking off other racers. After a while, and I mean a long while, it began to take its toll. My feet started to feel like they weighed 200 pounds each. My energy level began to wane.
I passed a support vehicle and he said I had 20 kilometers to go. I thought to myself, “20 kilometers to the top, or the finish?” Little lightening bolts started to run through my thighs—always the first sign for me that cramping is not too far away. Then I suddenly felt like someone popped my bubble. I was instantly deflated and felt like I was going nowhere fast. My body was numb. A woman on a fat bike passed me. I tried to stand and fell back onto my seat. My legs were too weak to support me. I looked down at my stem and saw the text from Annie.
Reading this gave me a boost I needed to make it to the top of the last “big” climb. As I began my decent the sky opened up and it began to pour. The rain was so heavy I could barely see. The steep rocky road became an even steeper concrete road. It was the kind of road if you drove a car up, you might think it would flip over backwards. At this point I was convinced that the finish was at the bottom of this hellish descent. No, no another racer passed me and yelled 20 kilometers. 20 kilometers? Seriously???
More riding and slogging over muddy roads that resembled baby poop. There were more climbs. How could this be possible? My mood darkened with every passing minute. I realized I had been riding by myself for a very long time. I also realized I had ridden the entire day with my fork locked out. No wonder everything felt so rough! My mind was dark, my body was giving out and I wasn’t even done with the first day! Oh and I failed to mention today just happened to be my birthday. Happy f’n Birthday to me!
Somehow I made it to the finish. I was bribed into smiling for a picture with the promise of a beer. The day got better from there, a beer and a nice dinner with my new friend and roomie Michelle and then later a second dinner where Chris Carmichael shared a piece birthday cake. Turns out it was his birthday too. Wow, what a day, 60+ miles, 12,000 feet of climbing and my journey was just beginning!
Day 2: Up, up and away!
The alarm went off a little after 3:30 a.m. My body seemed to have aged 40 years overnight. My bike-riding hangover left me in a fog. My roommate Michelle was struggling too. We frantically tried to cram down breakfast, pack up all our belongings, and prepare for Stage 2. We loaded onto the bus with no time to spare.
While traveling to the start, I thought about the advice on stage racing that Cheryl Sornson, NUE Series champion, had given me a few nights ago. She told me that I would wake up and would barely be able to move. I wouldn’t think it would be possible to ride, but after I pedaled a while, my body would adjust and I would be just fine. I hoped she was right, because at that moment I felt like a truck had hit me!
This was the stage I had been dreading. It consisted of 8,500 feet of climbing up a volcanic mountain range and then down crazy steep dirt roads peppered with loose gravel and baby-head rocks. My goal was to keep my heart rate down, take it as easy as I could on the climbs, and not to die on the sketchy descents!
We started in a slow roll out and paraded our way through the city. Kids lined the roads in front of their schools cheering and waiting for high fives. The festive spirit of riding through the town made me forget about my deadened legs, my aches and pains. As we rode out of town the incline got steeper and the houses got bigger. Up, up and away…
My easy pace allowed me to really take in my surroundings and have some fantastic conversations with fellow racers. As we climbed the views opened up. The tree-lined streets gave way to a picturesque countryside. We cut in and out of dirt roads, a bit of singletrack, and paved roads. The climbing was mostly steady and gradual on the paved roads. The dirt roads and paths were another story. I spent a good deal of time pushing my bike.
As we got higher up the volcano the views became more spectacular. The beauty of this land blew me away. Many times I looked down at the text from Annie and wished she were riding with me. She would have loved this place. I was tired and sore, pushing my bike was a drag, but it just didn’t matter. This place seemed to have a magical element. Even the air had a special quality to it as if it was healing. I actually felt better the more I climbed.
The views were endless. I got to the point where I stopped thinking about getting to the top. I was just in the moment, taking it all in. The little towns were neat and tidy, the people were friendly, and those little potatoes at the checkpoints tasted like the best food I’d ever had in my life.
After awhile we were riding above the clouds, the farms began to change. I saw people working in fields that were so steep I was amazed they could even move around without tumbling down. As we rode higher, we entered more clouds and the temperature began to drop. There was a cool mist in the air and I could smell coffee roasting. The trees and vegetation started to look different. I saw plants with leaves bigger than my body and trees that looked like something from a Dr. Seuss book.
I was so enveloped in the beauty of this land I was shocked when I reached the top of the volcano. I couldn’t help but think that I had held back a little too much. I had been warned about how cold the descent could be so I pulled my wool arm warmers out of my Camelbak and my jacket out of my jersey pocket. I layered up and even put on latex gloves under my riding gloves to keep my hands warm. As I prepared to ride into Siberia, a volunteer gave me an amazing hot drink made from sugar cane. I considered hanging out a little while, but thought better of it. Time to get to business!
The descent began on a dirt road with loose rock. It was so nice to be heading down with most of the climbing behind me. The road flattened and a series of short steep climbs began. I started to sweat and then I began to roast. I was sweating profusely and soon created a tropical sub-climate inside of my jacket. I had woefully over-dressed. I decided to keep moving and hoped there would be less climbing.
The dirt road passed through some areas that were rocky, muddy, and had a few stream crossings. It felt familiar to me and I started to pick up speed. Soon enough, it turned back to the loose shifty dry gravel and rocks. Eventually, I reached my boiling point, so I peeled off my parka and continued down.
I was riding a hardtail so I couldn’t sit. After a while my legs turned to jelly. My hands and my feet were going numb from the beating. It was as if I was riding a jackhammer. I wanted to go faster but every time I let go of the brakes I would have a close call. I quickly decided it was better to ride conservatively so I could ride another day.
Finally, I hit the paved road and I was ready to fly! It was smooth sailing from there until I got stuck behind a van. Just as I tried to pass him he sped up. UGH! I followed him for some time. Truth be told he may have saved me from a horrible wreck. The grade was steep and the turns were tight.
By now I was passing through neighborhoods and towns. There were people, dogs and vehicles all over the place. The van finally slowed and let me by. I was flying! I could feel my pigtails being pulled straight back. I was smiling from ear to ear.
I came around a sharp bend in the road and there were five dogs in the middle of the road, one was in heat. I had very little time to react. I grabbed a fist full of brake, did some Dukes of Hazard maneuvering and somehow managed to avoid hitting them.
The descent continued into town where following the little orange La Ruta arrows became tough. Fortunately another racer was in front me and I blindly followed him. It was a little crazy getting through town. I almost got pinched off a bridge by a dump truck. I finally turned into the conservatory at what I thought was the finish and it was strangely quiet. A horrible thought crossed my mind, “20 Kilometers to go.” Thankfully after a few lonely miles I saw the finish. I crossed the finish line and felt like something inside of me changed that day.
Day 3: Pura Vida!
It was a little before 4 a.m., my feet dangled over the edge of the bed and I considered how I was going to pedal my bike for 78 miles, starting with insanely steep climbs. I was sore from head to toe. My throat hurt, one of my lymph nodes was the size of a small pea. Later it would grow to the size of a large marble.
I had gotten burnt to a crisp in the mountains, so I had the chills on and off all night. In my rush the day before, I had forgotten to put sunscreen on. Oh the joys of being one shade darker than an albino. Costa Rica was getting the best of me.
The bus ride to the start was a bit scary. I found it best not to look at where we were going or who was coming at us. I also made a mental note to not hang my arm out the window or risk getting it ripped off by oncoming traffic. We were late leaving the lodge and barely made it to the race in time.
The start was a slow rollout—despite my body feeling horrible I was in a great mood. Michelle and I were talking, singing and just having a good time. We hit the first climb and I felt surprisingly good. It was then that I decided to actually race. Up to this point, I had been just trying to survive. I figured I would just put it all out there; worst-case scenario was I would just bonk and limp to the finish. So I attacked the climbs and it felt good. The descents were a blast. Loved every death defying moment of it!
The temperature rose quickly, reaching the 90’s by mid-morning. Luckily the local residents were standing outside their homes on some of the hottest climbs spraying racers with water. I took advantage of every chance I had to get sprayed off. Kids lined up for high fives. The smiles and cheers took the edge off of the climbs.
I ended up riding with Juan Carlos again and his team from Ride 2 Recovery. At one point he said: “I have a feeling this is the last climb”. I remember looking at him and saying “I have felt all of the feelings and I’m going to trust yours.” Shortly after that, we finally reached the last check point before the descent into a series of villages. We had all been warned to stay in a group for safety. I thought it would be best if I stayed with the Ride 2 Recovery team as long as I could.
The descent was unbelievably fun. It was long, fast and had speed bumps you could launch off of. I felt like I was 12 years old again. We got through the villages with no incident. In all my fun descending and the scrambling to stay with the pack, I had forgotten what I had been dreading the about La Ruta: the iconic railroad trestle crossings.
I have a paralyzing fear of heights. It’s the kind of fear that I have come close to having a full blown panic attack with in the past. We crossed onto the first railroad track. It was insanely bumpy and jarring. In the distance the river crossing was getting closer. I started to sweat profusely and my heart was beating out of my chest. This was it, I had come all this way and now I felt like I was going to pass out. I looked down at the text from Annie and touched it. Annie was fearless, so I had to be fearless too.
Each step took me farther over the water at least 50 feet up in the air—no guard rail, no safety net and gaps big enough for me to fall through. In fact, some of the gaps were so large that my 29 inch wheel fell though. I found myself holding my breath as I balanced on my slick cycling shoes. Some of the tread on my shoes had been sucked off in the mud on the first day in the jungle. One wobbly foot in front of the other and before I knew it I had gotten over the first crossing. Whew! One down six to go…
Once we hit the flats I had a hard time staying with the Ride 2 Recovery guys. They were flying. I knew I had to back down or bad things would happen. I fell off of the back of the line and rode by myself and with other racers from all over the world. After three days of riding with many of the same people, we were no longer strangers. We were all on our own personal journeys yet shared the same path.
Although many of us didn’t speak the other’s language fluently, I came to realize a smile, thumbs up and a pat on the back all mean the same thing. I even rode with a man that only had one arm. He was incredible. I still can’t get my mind around how he navigated the jungle and the sketchy descents. There were long stretches of railroad tracks, farm roads and a few stream crossings.
A few guys passed me that I had ridden with earlier in the day. I asked how far we had to go. “20 kilometers.” Oh yes I should have known! I rode through pineapple fields, coconut groves and banana farms. I gave high fives to row after row of barefoot children in front of what appeared to be their door-less, dirt floor homes. It didn’t stop them from laughing and cheering. They were absolutely beautiful.
I finally made it to the last railroad crossing. I had somewhat conquered my fear and really wasn’t too concerned about crossing it. Then the unthinkable happened, I slipped. Before I knew what was happening, a police officer grabbed my hand and another took my bike. The one with my bike scurried to the other side. The police officer walked me across the entire way holding my hand. The other guys giggled, I felt like I was walking down a bizarre nightmare-wedding isle.
Once we reached the other side I thanked him, gave his hand a squeeze and took off on the longest section of railroad tracks I have ever ridden. At first I thought about everything that was wrong in my life. The mental chatter in my head was deafening, little by little it went away and then like magic my mind was clear. I had reached some sort of Zen only achievable after riding from coast to coast in Costa Rica.
I reached the last checkpoint, had my last little boiled potato rolled in salt and made my way down a sandy road no more than a hundred yards from the Caribbean. The sky was crystal blue and so was the water. There was a little breeze in the air that made the heat tolerable. I looked down at the text from Annie and burst into tears, not just a tear, but full on sobbing. I realized Annie had been with me the entire race. She got me through the worst sections and now the race was going to be over. In the most unexpected way, I didn’t want it to end. My pace slowed and I took it all in, breathed it in and let it all wash over me.
After I crossed the finish line, I ditched my bike as fast as I could, walked across the burning hot sand and jumped into Caribbean. The water felt amazing on my exhausted sun burnt body. I walked out until my feet couldn’t reach the bottom and let the waves bring me in. Finally got close to the shore stood up and got slammed by a wave that scrapped me along the bottom filling my jersey and shorts with sand. All I could do was laugh, a fitting end for my race!
Later that day they were announcing the awards, so I made my way down to see some of my new friends receive their trophies. Gerry Pflug got third in Pro Men 40-49 riding a rigid singlespeed and Cheryl Sornson got third in Pro Women. To my surprise, they called my name for Non-Pro Women. I looked around to see if maybe there was another Heidi Shilling. No one else made a move so I decided they must be calling my name. I hadn’t kept track of the results, so I didn’t have an idea I had a shot of stepping on to the podium. My goal had been to finish and I ended up getting third at La Ruta de los Conquistadores!
It was an amazing opportunity to ride my mountain bike through one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Costa Rica is full of some of the happiest kind people I have ever met. When traveling through the country you will see Pura Vida slapped across everything from billboards to T-shirts. Roughly translated it means pure life. Its meaning goes way deeper, than just a simple greeting or goodbye.
After three days of traveling from coast to coast, I came to understand the true meaning of Pura Vida. It’s a way of life. It’s about community, family and celebrating all that is good in your life. It’s not about money or possessions. It’s about living in the moment, appreciating life and sharing your love with friends and family. It’s something that I have taken home with me and hope to never lose.
I don’t know if Annie ever visited Costa Rica, but she truly understood and lived Pura Vida every day of her life. I now realize the answers I seek will never be found at the finish line. They will always be found in the journey. Pura Vida my friends Pura Vida!