I am not usually intimidated by the 26.2mile/42km distance, but the Tamarindo Beach Marathon managed just that. In the previous 12 months I’d notched up some seven ultramarathon races and challenges and had, after all, ran a 30 degree marathon (Medoc) in a cow suit, a kilt and all while full of wine last September. But this was different – in France it was permissible to be slow, indeed my running buddy Jim Groark and I set out to smash our Personal Worsts and succeeded admirably. Now, for the first time I was about to enter a tropical marathon and I had absolutely no idea if or how well/poorly I was going to perform in the humid environment. After all most of my marathon races have been run in temps ranging from below freezing to about 18c (though my mara PB was at Edinburgh in 28c)
I should also clarify from the outset that my purpose for being in Costa Rica was not actually to run this race, but to visit an old comrade from Aberdeen, Pete Turner (PJT), who now lives with his Tica wife Victoria in Heredia in the Central Valley of Costa Rica (Costa Ricans prefer to be called Tico/Tica depending on their gender). Heredia is just over 4000ft/1200 meters above sea level and considerably cooler than the Pacific coastal town of Tamarindo. Moreover, most of our time was spent hiking higher in the mountains, exploring the cloud forests and volcanoes at Monteverde, Poas and Barva and trekking up to the chilly heights of over 9500ft/2900 meters on some trips.
The cloud forest, though tropical, is really quite cold and so any dream of acclimatisation was soon shot to pieces. For sure Alexia and I got in some runs in both Heredia and Monteverde (climbing 1000ft in three miles on one of them!), but once down at the Pacific coast I went for a proper tropical training run.
We arrived in Tamarindo on the afternoon of 20th September, only some 40 hours before the race started. Once we left the relative chill of the air conditioned car, the tropical humidity immediately smacked me. We checked into our hotel and I decided it best to see what effect this would have on my running. I was in pretty good shape having knocked in the 36.5 mile (59km) Speyside Ultra Marathon the month before and given a decent account of myself at the Braemar half marathon a fortnight previously to Tamarindo. I was therefore somewhat stunned when I set off for a four mile run around the back tracks surrounding the town. To my horror I found the heat quite overpowering. It was not that my legs were sore, or my lungs wouldn’t function (I had not needed a puff of the inhaler since arriving in CR), simply that I needed more time to acclimatise to these conditions. My 10k and 15k races in Thailand and Australia had all been done after being ‘in country’ and at the similar temperatures for weeks at a time. But this was different as I had dropped down to sea level from much cooler, less humid heights somewhere in the mid 20s. In Tamarindo at this time of year the average temperature is 36 degrees during the day. September should be cloudy and cool. But for the days before and during the race we got clear sunshine until the evenings and the temperature was, according to the Ticos, ‘above average’, several telling me on marthon day it was between 38 and 40. Shit!
While I was out running and contemplating how tough I was finding the conditions, Alexia had scoped out the race registration. We headed down and picked up our race numbers. Nothing for it but to hit Bar Nibbana for Happy Hour. PJT and Victoria came to join us for a meal, but it proved to be an early, contemplative night. For sure we’d been in Costa Rica 11 days, but simply not in the right area to acclimatize.
The next day we spent ambling on the beach, swimming in the Pacific and taking a boat trip through the mangrove swamps. Ours was the only boat on the estuary – just Alexia, me and the Tico guide for over two hours. More novel wildlife: iguanas, crocodiles, black vultures, turkey vultures, tiger herons and a troop of howler monkeys – exotic stuff.
On our return we went to the pre-marathon pasta party in the pouring rain – it was, after all, rainy season. Afterwards we sat with a glass of wine looking out towards a spectacular electric storm over the Pacific. The barman came up “you running the marathon tomorrow? I’ve done it twice – but I think tomorrow’s going to be a real hot one”. Cheers mate – that helps a lot! We ambled back to the hotel getting a suitably warm drenching in the process. I took a shower and went to bed, setting the alarm for 3.30am in the hope of grabbing five hours sleep. I knew I’d be unlikely to get it.
Like Martin Sheen’s character ‘Willard’ in Apocalypse Now I found myself drenched in sweat in a hotel room looking straight up at a large, slowly rotating fan on the ceiling. I’d been in and out of broken sleep for about an hour. I couldn’t help it – the words just came out in a giggling parody of the film – “Tamarindo… shit; I’m still only in Tamarindo”. Momentarily a part of me hoped the race was already run and I was waking up after the hard work was over. Unlike Willard I wanted to be back in the jungle: our agendas were different and it was cool up there.
But instead it was time to get up and get on with it. With the race starting at 5am I opted for a small bowl of muesli and a banana for breakfast. My blood sugars were still a little bit high from the pasta party, but what the hell – I knew I’d quickly burn the excess off. Lex too was preparing for her 10k and had at least got a better night’s sleep. When we opened the door PJT was already outside practicing Tai Chi waiting for us. As we stepped out of the room we could feel the heat. It was 4.20am and already warmer outside the room than in. As we strolled through Tamarindo the music from the start line got louder and louder. Runners were streaming out of every hotel and bunkhouse. Nerves seem to fall away from me as I soaked in the party atmosphere of several thousand runners eagerly lining together for the 21k/30k and 42k races. Lex, PJT and a host of other 10k runners and supporters lined up outside the start pen. And in one of those “small world” moments, a friend of Pete’s from near Heredia stood right beside me in the coral and reached over the barrier to greet his buddy. Fernando and I were then introduced and shook hands – we’d meet again a couple of times in the race. I also chatted to some American runners, one of whom told me she was hoping to get around a 3:30 (well that’s faster than I’ve ever gone) – I smiled and told her I just hoped to finish. But in truth I’d already said to Lex that a sub-4 hour time was not on the cards this time and that I reckoned anything under 5 hours would be a miracle.
The 40 minutes from leaving the hotel room had passed in a flash. It was still dark when the race started and there was the usual jostling at the start as we took off into the night. The route shadowed the edge of the mangrove swamp briefly before turning inland towards Villareal, Huacas, Braslitto Beach and up the hill towards the half way turn at Flamingo. A point to note is that despite the name ‘Tamarindo Beach Marathon’, the whole route is on tarmac, the ‘Beach’ element merely being part of the name of the town that plays host to the start and finish of the race.
I got off to a better start than anticipated, happily plodding along at sub 8 mins per mile over an undulating course. I knew I could have gone faster at that point but deliberately kept myself under control. It was very tempting to speed up, especially as the half-mara runners were in the same pack for the first 6.5 miles and some of them were hammering it. One annoying point was the new ‘Hilly’ carbo gel belt: within a mile I’d lost 2 of my 4 gels. The Lucozade gels (the normal size 30g ones) simply shot out of the belt loops into the darkness leaving only the 2x much larger 51g Zipvits in place. What a waste of money that was then…. and certainly not good for a diabetic runner to drop the emergency supplies at the start. But this eventually proved to be a minor irritation. More important from the outset was the water situation – would there be enough? It turns out there was plenty of it at regular intervals (every couple of kilometers) and delivered in large carbo gel size cellophane tubes stored in tubs of ice. These were easy to use – simply a nip with the teeth and squeeze. Very clever, and you got as many as you wanted.
The crowed thinned considerably once the half-mara runners reached their turning point and it was soon after this I found myself running with Fernando whom I’d met at the start. We ran together for about four miles chatting on the way and – with me drawing strength from keeping up with a Tico marathoner of similar age to myself. “You like Ultras at your age?” – PJT had apparently already spoken to him about me. “Let’s keep doing this for as long as we can” he grinned. As we got to the 15k mark the 30k runners also turned back and once again the pack reduced in size. Only now it was more a stretched thin line than a cluster – there were apparently only 223 runners doing the marathon of whom, I think, 188 finished (2 were disqualified having turned back early).
The sun was up now and as we neared the half-way point I found myself running on my own again, Fernando opting for a slower pace. It was a couple of miles pull up a hill to Flamingo – not steep, but as the heat reached the low 30s, my pace decreased accordingly. I’d made the half-way turn in 1:50 something, but I had started slowing towards the end of the last brae. I took one of my carbo-gels and headed back down the hill towards Braslitto Beach, but was stunned at how sluggish my pace had become in such a short space of time only just keeping it under 10 mins per mile. As we reached the end of mile 14, even that would seem fast as we started a climb of nearly three miles which, by the end, had really taken its toll. Fernando caught me up again, but his breathing was laboured. I asked if he was OK and he nodded. I would not see him again until the end.
The sun was now fully overhead and there was not a cloud in the sky. Like so many of my Tico companions I was finding it a real problem to balance quenching my thirst and not flooding myself with water. Cyclists and motorcycle support riders drew alongside and offered water as required. That useless Hilly belt redeemed itself as it was continually re-loaded with tubes of water. At each stop I grabbed a handful – some went over my head, some poured into my mouth where I kept it until it became too warm then spat it out, and every now and then I allowed myself to drink a whole cold tube. I also found a use for the cups of energy drink (they came with ice in them) – pour it into your hat and leave the icecubes there to melt over your head. That actually worked! One Tico smiled as he saw me do this and said “I really don’t know how you are still going, even I’m burning up”. It was a good point: coming from the Pictish part of Scotland I tend to go from ‘blue’ to ‘scorched’ without passing ‘sun tanned’ on the way. But I had taken the precaution of lathering myself with total-block, even under the white running shirt. The UV might not get me, but the heat was certainly having a good go at it. For a couple of miles I’d been experienceing chills and had goosebumps on my arms – classic syptoms of heat exhaustion. Time to really slow things down.
By mile 22 I saw something I’d never seen before at a marathon. Everyone in sight ahead and behind me had stopped running: I had stopped too. I found myself peering down at a dead snake on the road while trying to find some air among the moisture I was breathing in. I had come to a complete standstill and for a moment I could not see how I could get going again. Suddenly a Tico grabbed me on his way past “come on amigo, vamos”. He took the last of the water from his belt and gave it to me “only 7k to go friend”. He was right, I had not come here to walk and I started moving again. As we neared the finish streams of runners were walking back along the course towards us, returning to their homes and lodgings having finished their various distances. Each and every one of them screamed encouragement to the remaining runners still on the course. Cars honked their horn “vamos, vamos” being a common refrain from the passengers and drivers alike. I had long since stopped looking at my watch – I was too scared to. Having stopped now a dozen times to walk or take on liquids I thought I had probably embarrassed myself taking on this climate.
I crossed the finish and briefly thought I was going to fall over. A Tica came over to me as I slumped over the barrier – a broad smile – “Agua?” Yes please. Alexia and PJT were waiting for me grinning in the sunshine, Lex having achieved a very presentable time at the 10k. Weighted down with possibly the largest marathon medal I’ve ever seen I sat in the shade by the finish line. Alexia handed me a cold 500ml can of Imperial Lager. I looked at the watch. 4:18:27 – this was much, much better than I thought.
I’d actually managed to finish 108th overall and 8th in my category. On checking the Garmin it seems I’d only paused for six minutes in total including two loo stops. I’d have put money on it I’d stopped for much longer than that.
As we sat there chatting I learned that the winning time was by a local, Deyner Sanchez Orozco, who crossed the line in 2:44:11, while the winning female from Kenya, Leah Jebiwot Kigen, arrived in 2:57:19. I am, as always, impressed the elite runners and their ability to push so hard, especially in such testing conditions.
About 20 minutes after I came in, Fernando crossed the line after a determined effort – and promptly collapsed. He was taken away on a stretcher and put immediately on a drip in the medical tent a hundred yards away. We went over to see him. He grinned broadly back. I remembered his words “let’s keep doing this as long as we can” – Absolutely Fernando, absolutely – we’ll find another race soon!