Wednesday, November 19, 2003

La Ruta de Los Conquistadores

-----Original Message-----
From: Brian Kemler
Sent: Monday, November 10, 2003 3:54 PM
To: Brian Kemler
Subject: Pre-Race Report: La Ruta De Los Conquistadores

Friday, I am competing in La Ruta De Los Conquistadores, a three hundred mile mountain bike race that traverses the Costa Rica. The route was created as a way for the Spanish to bring their plundered booty (back when booty had a different meaning) back to Spain and it took 20 years to build. I'll be crossing it in three days, on two wheels.

La Ruta starts in Jaco on the Pacific, goes through rainforests and jungles, into the capital city, San Jose, up to the 13,000 foot Volcan Irazu and down again through the blisteringly hot Caribbean coastal plain to its terminus in Puerto Limon. There will be 30,000 feet of elevation gain (and loss) over the course of the race. Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on the planet by comparison, is just over 29,000.

Billed as the most difficult mountain bike race on earth, it will be a formidable test of the 370 modern-day conquistadores. The race is a race of extremes; hot and cold, rain and sun. The weather will be vastly different in each of the 12 microclimates the race we’ll go through. It will span everything from rainy and 40 degrees to 100 degrees, 100% humidity that would make a stagnant August day in DC seem like a spring day in Boston.

I've been kicking around the idea of competing in La Ruta for five years. Until now, that never translated into anything more than a standing threat.

Finally, back in July, I set the course of events into motion that would force me to put my words into action; I sent in the $650 race entrance fee. The fee covers transportation, accommodations and food for the three days. After doing that, I figured everything else would take care of itself.

And for the most part, I am happy to report, it has. The race had me worried about a lot of things. I worried that it would be difficult to keep my training up through November, when I usually start to fade in September. I worried that my work travel schedule, the weather and the shorter days would overcome my ability to train as intensively as this race requires.

Fortunately, the weather and my travel schedule have been unusually obliging. I managed to get past my usual September burnout phase and get in many long training rides. I've been gearing up by doing doubling my daily commute to over 60 miles and doing back-to-back centuries (hundred mile rides) Saturdays and Sundays. Last Saturday, I did the longest ride of my life; 141 miles to Harpers Ferry, WV and back from my house in northwest Washington, DC.

Since then, I've been resting, eating well, sleeping, practicing Bikram Yoga and pumping enough cash into local bikes stores, outdoor stores and Patagonia to keep them going till New Year's. Two weeks ago, I flew to Oracle, Arizona and competed in the 100-mile Soul ride placing in the top 20. Well, 20th.

My good friend John "Rocco" Calgiano will be accompanying me as my own 1-man pit crew. I am looking forward to his company and, as importantly, having my bike in his good hands at the end of the day so I can replenish myself with food, water and rest.

Having raced mountain bikes for the last 10 years, I am painfully aware of what can go wrong in a 28-mile expert level mountain bike race. If I extend those thoughts out to the weather and distance extremes of La Ruta; I shutter to think. While I feel confident about my preparation, I can honestly say that this race presents me with a true test. While I've never quit a bike race in hundreds of races raced, due to physical reasons; it weighs on my mind that this race may be the first.

My friend Steve Hartell had an assuring comment about my training. He said “you haven't just been training this year; but rather your entire "career" as a mountain bike racer”. That rang true. And this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I will be putting over a decade's worth of racing to use crossing the continent on my bike.

In truth, I really still don't know how to train for a 3-day, 300-mile mountain bike race. What I can tell you, however, is that I have never been more fit, more confident, more determined or more psyched than I am right now.

I will do my best to keep you updated via email on my progress daily, though I will be limited by internet café access and more likely, exhaustion.


-----Original Message-----
From: "Brian Kemler" < brian.kemler@sas.com >
Date: Fri Nov 14, 2003 9:23 pm
Subject: La Ruta: Day 1 – Jaco to San Jose

Last night at the racers' meeting the race promoter Roman Urban gave us admonitions about alligators, poisonous snakes, monkey that hurl coconuts and bridge-crossings over rivers that we should think twice about if we’re scared of heights.

And I was already feeling apprehensive.

My roommate, Doutschan, coincidently one of two people I corresponded with prior to the race, arrived in San Jose the day I did. His bike, however, did not.

Until 10pm he could be seen running around Jaco frantically begging strangers en Espanol to borrow a bike. He finally located a local who would lend him a race-worthy, albeit too large, rig. The local told him "I am lending you this bike because I love mountain biking and I want to help you".

The promoters woke us up promptly at 3am to give us enough (or if you ask me, too much) time to eat breakfast and take care of last minute preparations.
Just after 5am, we left the gates of the Jaco Best Western situated on the beach.

La Ruta is a big deal here - everyone from our airport cab driver to the plumber at the hotel knows about it. It gets above-the-fold coverage in the national dailies like La Nacion (a race sponsor) and Al Dia. I’ve never had so many cameras shooting me during a race.

They staged the racers in the dark just outside the hotel’s gate and we waited for the sun to ride and them to set us off. Just after 5am the sun began to rise and they loosed us onto the route of the conquerors.

I went out at a blistering rate. My heart rate shot up higher according to my heart rate monitor than I've seen it in any race I've ever done. I actually felt like my breathing was measured and I wasn't blowing up. I couldn’t really back off this pace; I was just too amped up. I just kept it up but I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to hold it up and I might risk bonking.

We hit a gradual and already muddy climb that led to a series of unrideable walls we would have to carry our bikes up like stairs. Through the second checkpoint (of five for the day), the course was like this. Even though I felt great, I knew at some point I would have to back down from the pace I was leading.

Along the way I saw panoramic vistas of the Pacific, monkeys (none armed with coconuts), and brilliant Blue Morpho butterflies with wingspans the size of a robin’s.

After the second checkpoint, a series of continually unrelenting climbs commenced. By this time it was approaching noon and 90 degrees. The humidity left my sunscreen and deet-coated body with a disgusting film. I was dripping salty sweat so profusely that it began to drip into my eyes and making them sting as though they had been doused with Tabasco sauce.

Suddenly, the road shifted from a reasonably rideable 10% grade to a much steeper pitch approaching 20%. I had to get off my bike and begin hike-a-biking (biker parlance for walking a bike). The heat and frenetic pace were taking a toll. It was all I could do to walk this climb.

Numerous riders were sidelined resting in the shade even as the steep pitch relented. I hopped back on my bike but I was overheating like the steaming Datsun pickup truck broken down next to me. I saw an increasing number of widowed bikes placed in the beds of race support pickups. Their riders had already quit and we weren’t even a third of the way through the first of three days.

I passed a metal shack, actually a house, and the owner was standing outside spraying us with her hose. I've never felt more refreshed or thankful in my life. Humanely, checkpoint 3 was just up at that top of this climb.

John, my pit crew, a cartographer by trade, was supposed to meet me there and replenish my supply of Gatorade, Cliff Bars and Hammer Gel. John, however, was apparently unable to home in on this checkpoint. He was nowhere in sight.

I actually assumed that this might be the case (maps here aren’t exactly accurate), and I ate at the checkpoints accordingly. However, I have a finicky stomach while racing and I wanted to eat only food I had tested under race conditions. I would be more reliant on the promoters’ food and its potentially mysterious side-affects than I cared to. Food is my fuel so I had to eat – enjoy it or not.

Back at checkpoint 2, I had a consumed so much mango that I had a bloated feeling in my stomach as though one of the seeds I ate had germinated and grown into a whole mango in my belly. At this point, I wasn't worried about sickness (having been to Central America a half dozens times managing to skirt the Montezuma’s Revenge). Though would this have been the case, I was prepared with Imodium AD as well as enough of the prescription antibiotic, Cipro to knock out a dual case of anthrax and the ‘revenge.

When I stopped at checkpoint 3, I felt bloated and immediately wanted to get back on my bike. As soon as I did, I felt better and commenced the last 63K segment of the race. I thought to myself, I could deal with 63K. What I didn't know was all but the last 10k of this section was uphill. I began the climb feeling strong and sure.

Eating was actually harder than climbing. So I resorted to self-administering force-feedings. I wanted to eat about as much as I wanted it to get hotter. This is to say, not very much.

The human body usually does an amazing job at self-regulating how much food we need to consume under normal circumstances. However, during these races I have to use my mind to regulate my caloric intake because my appetite will fall short of the mark.

I lost my appetite and it was showing. My body signaled this with a slight twinge in my left leg that I recognized as the onset of a cramp. A full-blown cramp is excruciatingly painful and potentially debilitating. During a race years ago, my left leg actually seized; locking out it straight for 5 torturous minutes as though had a case of rigor mortis. It caused me to fall off my bike and lay on the ground stunned and lame. Fortunately, I’ve learned they can be thwarted by acting quickly through a combination of ratcheting down my pace and getting additional food and water into my system.

Immediately, I practiced on-bike triage; I decided to sacrifice my stomach for the sake of my legs and I sucked down an entire liter of Powerade (hereafter referred to as Poisonade) that I kept in reserve since I didn’t have my Gatorade. As I did that, the road leveled and I thought I was at the summit. Unfortunately, it was a false flat.

I let my legs recover by soft-pedaling rest of way to the summit. The twinges subsided and I averted the crippling cramps. I could completely recover on the decent.

A sign read “40KPH” on a road that in the US would be corralled by guardrails (here, there are none) and marked with little yellow signs saying "15MPH". I passed cars on turns, and played chicken with chicken buses, water trucks and farm animals. I was pushing fifty *miles* per hour.

After the descent, they threw in several more climbs for good measure and one of the guys at checkpoint 5 stated we had “only” 20K remaining. As much as I wanted to believe that, I have learned to never believe what anyone tells me about distances at the end of a race.

Thus it is now my official policy to ignore anything but actual mileage signs as distance indicators – and even then I am skeptical. After some more climbs, I decided to ratchet my pace down a couple of notches to leave something in the tank for tomorrow and the next day.

I finished strongly racing through the streets of Cuidad Colon. I passed under the finished line and hit the Alpina Agua tent that was staffed with two honeys that make the babes on the Telemundo network look like chopped liver.

Across from the lovely ladies a DJ was spinning some ill Latin house music. He even mashed up Nirvana's "Come as You Are" to banging 4-4 beats. You would never hear house at a mountain bike race in the US (unless I was putting it on). I felt more at home than at home. I officially finished Day 1; I felt okay and I was psyched!

130 racers, or 1/3 of the field, dropped out of the race due to heat and exhaustion. I survived, finishing in 9:29 minutes placing me in the top 25% in place 100 overall and better still in my age category.

I didn't know that the biggest ordeal of the day had yet to start.

Rocco picked up my bike; though somehow it eluded both of us to pick up my baggage here instead of at the hotel where we both assumed it to be. I paid the DJ my compliments and then went to chill in our rented Toyota RAV4.

Suddenly, the mango was expanding in my stomach again. I felt nauseous, hot and I had a case of cold sweats - something I associate more with all night benders than mountain bike races.

I might have been in denial, but I told myself I felt little better and boarded the RAV4 departing for the hotel and a good night’s rest. The twitchy drive on the twisted, pothole-ridden roads to the Best Western Irazu only aggravated my sickness. I felt a volcano of illness welling up inside my abdomen, but, still in denial, refused to tell John to pull over. By the time I finally commanded John to pull the car over, it was already too late.

At 80KPH, I slung my head out the window and unleashed a slipstream of mango-laced vomit for the windscreens of the cars behind us. We pulled over in the parking lot of a drive-thru KFC and I sat on a curb with my head between my legs releasing the last of the mango seeds. It was not a good advertisement for the restaurant.

I felt somewhat better, but still so bloated I thought I was to give birth to a mango. But by the time I got back to the hotel I couldn't eat or drink - not to mention get up out of bed. I feared the worst, a bad case of the Montezuma’s revenge.

I took a shower and learned from John that my luggage, with my fresh clothing, was lost. Unfazed, I wrapped the hotel’s skimpy white towel around my waist and attempted to go to sleep, writhing in pain for nearly an hour. I went to sleep knowing that but for a miraculous recovery, there’d be no way I’d be on the start line in the morning.

-----Original Message-----
From: Brian Kemler
Sent: Mon 11/17/2003 2:54 PM
To: Brian Kemler
Subject: La Ruta: Day 2 San Jose to Turrialba

Five hours later, I had roused-to from what I feared might have been a race-ending illness. Miraculously, thanks to my new honorary sponsor, Gas-X, I mustered enough energy to eat dinner, write day 1’s race report and be reasonably confident I would be on the start line in the morning.

I knew I was feeling better because I was starting to feel angered that my luggage had been left in Jaco, a fact that took John an entire five hours to determine. Despite having more than enough time to drive there and back, John managed to somehow otherwise engage himself and it was looking like I wouldn’t have any dry or cold weather clothing for the coldest and rainiest day of the race.

When I asked him if he had made the other preparations on my bike I had requested, he told me “I don’t think they need to be done”. I told him “I didn’t ask you what you thought” and what ensued was a tiff culminating in a come-to-Jesus (please pronounce with H) meeting in which I put on a rare display of my inner asshole for my unsuspecting friend and pit crew.

The next morning I woke up at 4am, on four hours sleep and was still sin (without) luggage. Today, the wettest and coldest day of the race, my new Patagonia rain gear, neatly packaged in zip lock bags wasn’t going to do me any good. I faced the prospect of racing with yesterday’s wet and rank gear on a day when I would need extra layers to keep me warm and dry at altitude.

I would have to deal. There was no other option.

John and I tacitly kissed and made up (well, just made up) and I hopped on the bus for Hotel Don Fadrique, the race start and more importantly, the place where my luggage was supposed to meet me just in time for the race start.

We arrived at Don Fadrique and to my relief; my luggage was there, as promised. I got dressed in the lobby in clean, dry bike gear and packed my rain gear to shield me from the elements at 12,000 feet above sea level. Each year many riders are pulled off the course here due to hypothermia.

The race kicked off about an hour later than the designated 6am start time. We left a busy San Jose street as if we were going off on the start of the Tour De France. People lined the streets and we were massed in a big, sketchy peloton (pack of cyclists).

Mountain bikers are not necessarily accustomed to the nuisances of riding in dense packs and I’ve found the most treacherous and crash-prone times during a race is not on a sheer, wet, rock-strewn descent (like the one we’ll be doing today), but in such a pack at the race start when everyone is hyped up and vying for position.

As we raced through the streets I was riding at the back of the first 50 racers. I heard rubber tires skidding on pavement - the harbinger of an immanent wreck. I was on guard as a racer went down just in front of me. I managed to skirt the ensuing pile-up and I kept on riding for the 45-mile assault on the summit of Volcan Irazu.

The beginning of the climb was mostly paved we then hit some steep, rocky double track. By this time, we were above a cloud system and the weather was sunny as we looked down at the clouds below as if we were glancing out the window of an airplane. Nearing the top, we transitioned to some single track through lush green fincas (farms). The fertile soil looked as though it was made of coffee grinds from the beans growing here.

After going out so hard yesterday and still not feeling 100% after getting ill, I decided I would sit in on the climb, take it easy, recover (if you can really a 45 mile, 5-hour climb recovering) and make up time where my strengths would be the greatest; on the blistering, 45-mile descent into the town of Turrialba. Finally, I made it to the summit, strong, though slowed from my pace of yesterday.

It would literally be all down hill from here. On the descent, I made up a ridiculous amount of time. I passed racers as though they were still going uphill. Humanely, it wasn’t raining (though it did later on other racers) and while cool, I only had to add one layer, my favorite cozy black Patagonia cycling jersey, to keep me warm.

The downhill was extremely rocky, technical and wet - I was eating it up like dessert. Coming around a switch back, I heard my front tire leaking air and I couldn’t hold my line as my tire bled air. Unable to turn, I was hurtling straight toward a barbed-wire fence that might prevent me from going over the edge of the mountain but might also cut me in half in the process. I managed stop just in the knick of time, change my flat and get back to the business of killing it on the downhill.

The race ended in Turrialba, I finished in just under 7 hours, again hovering around 100th place. According to the newspaper La Nacion, of the 400 racers who started on day 2, only 240 had lined up today. Fewer will be lined up tomorrow and fewer still will be on the finish line on the beach at Playa Bonita.

I was psyched to make it this far. Thus far, I had survived the worst of the climbing, the psychological trauma of the lost luggage, a hapless pit crew and a painful and mysterious illness.

Tomorrow, there will be no Day 4 to worry about. There will be no reason to hold anything in reserve. I am feeling well, not too exhausted, and beginning to think that tomorrow is going to be the ride of my life.




-----Original Message-----
From: Brian Kemler
Sent: Tue 11/18/2003 1:19 PM
To: Brian Kemler
Subject: La Ruta: Day 3 Part 1 - Get On The Bus

La Ruta De Los Conquistadores is a race of attrition. We started with nearly 400 racers on the Pacific in Jaco Friday. Today, we’ll finish at the Playa Bonita on the Caribbean with slightly more than 200.

Compared with our 3am and 4am wake up calls of days 1 and 2 respectively, today, our last day, we’ll be sleeping till the leisurely time of 5am. Doutschan and are housed 3/4 the way back up Irazu at a lovely bed and breakfast sporting one of the best views in Costa Rica; Guayabo Lodge. It’s new, quaint and romantic (If I were here with that Special Girl instead of Johnny and Doutschan, that is).

Tonight they’re having a group dinner and I don’t feel like explaining my (vegan) diet or hassling them to make me something special. Plus I feel like I need a little BK solo time, so I head back down to Turrialba in the Rav4 to get some eats by myself.

I eat a massive espaguetti vegetariano at a local restaurant. Then, I gobble down some really bad Pan con Ajo (garlic bread) that comes con queso (with cheese) instead of sin queso (without) as I ordered. I had to manually remove the queso revealing a small, still living, ant. The service is taking a while - even by notoriously slow Costa Rican standards - 40 minutes to get my bread cum ant farm.

I am still so famished; I decide to have a second dinner at restaurant I had been to with my friend Brian from Colorado when we were here back in April.

There, I inhale an even larger (and better) espaguetti vegetariano. My appetite is back, and back with a vengeance. I know this is a good portent. I drive back to the B and B vibing to the warms sounds of Mark Riva’s “Sungrooves” Mix from Kristal Records, my new favorite label from Miami. I am in bed asleep by 10pm on track for a dreamy 7 hours of sleep this evening.

Before I crash out, I suck down a dose of my daily vitamin regime consisting of upwards of 15 pills. I take three Advil for good measure and give my legs a massage with Tiger Balm. I sleep like a rock.

Doutschsan and I wake up – there’s an extra bed in our room and so John gets to stay with us tonight, saving him from having to look for separate accommodations and critically having him closer to the racer he’s ostensibly supporting.

I’m psyched today.

Yesterday, I wasn’t hearing any music in my head. Today deep house is banging away like it’s Saturday night at my favorite Washington, DC club, Red, and my favorite DJ, Farid, is manning the decks. My energy level is surging above its usual level of hyperactivity.

For breakfast we’re served the best Gallo Pinto (the national dish, rice and beans) I’ve had to date in Costa Rica. I am chowing-down like it’s Thanksgiving day. We break for the bus that’s to drive us to the start and everyone is in jovial spirits exchanging La Ruta stories about; IV´s, ambulances, bike crashes, mechanicals and the secrets of survival.

Maybe we’re all so happy because we’re all still in the race and we are buoyed with the confidence of the accomplishment just for having gotten this far (and for only having one more day of torture to endure).

A Canadian woman, Tania, and I, regale each other with tales of the miraculous healing powers of Gas-X. In a sporting show of camaraderie, she breaks me off three to take with me in the race today. I obligingly accept, though I am certain they will be unnecessarily as fate has already dealt me my illness for the race.

Simone, a German woman who lives in Idaho, and I discuss the powerful properties of Body Glide (which happens to be her sponsor), a natural lubricant not found at your local sex shop, but rather in running stores near you.
When you’re riding or running in wet weather the motion causes moisture and sweat to grate under your armpits, or, in my case, in places not suited for polite conversation.

It’s as though someone is repeatedly rubbing your sweaty, salty skin with sandpaper. Before I left I wanted to make sure this wasn’t going to be an issue (as it had been in a couple of races I had done this year). The clerk at the local bike shop recommended it - even though I had to go the runner’s store next door to purchase it. My crotch is forever thankful to her.

Simone and I ended up riding a lot together on the first day, but I hadn’t seen her at all the second. Before we leave the bus we have tentative plans to race next year together in the Trans-Alps mountain bike race. All this is before we’re introduced by name.

Last summer Simone was riding in France. There she rode the famed Alp D´Huez, the “beyond category” climb of the Tour De France that helped Lance Armstrong make his mark on the tour. Compared with Day 1 of La Ruta, Alp D´Huez, “wasn’t so hard”.

The bus hauls us to the start area and I retrieve my bike from the Bici Ciclo shop that John has paid $50 to tune my ride each day after the race, thereby relieving himself of his duties (unbeknownst to me until our spat the other evening). I am thinking that $50 was a better deal than the $500 plane ticket I purchased for him to be my pit crew. Worse still, I am thinking I might get what I pay for.


-----Original Message-----
From: Brian Kemler
Sent: Wed 11/19/2003 3:25 PM
To: Brian Kemler
Subject: La Ruta - Day 3 - Part Dos - Sol y Humedad

The bus deposits us near the start line just outside of Turrialba, the western terminus of the now defunct banana railway. By the end of the day, if we survive, we’ll be at the eastern terminus of the railroad on the Caribbean Sea. We will be riding in between the tracks on large sections of the course.

They loose us on the last series of the climbs we’ll have to endure. Today is the easiest day in terms of climbing. We’ll be doing about half what we’ve done both of the prior days, a mere 6,000 feet - an elevation higher than the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi, North Carolina’s Mt. Mitchell. That’s over a mile, straight up.

John takes a photograph of Doutschan and me as we leave the start. He’s given standing orders to be at the finish line con camara (with camera) to shoot me as I cross the line on the beach at Playa Bonita.

I hit the climb and immediately something strange happens - I start passing most of the other riders. I am usually not a strong climber, but I feel so awesome and psyched today and so stoked to have gotten this far, that I am on fire.

I don’t care what happens to me today or what they put in my way. Nothing is getting between me and the finish line. I don’t care how I feel at the end of the race, there is no day 4 and I am pulling out all the stops - mental and physical.

The race is the only thing that matters in my existence.

I’ve been hovering around 100th place and my goal today is to finish above 80th to get my overall result close to the top 20-25% for the entire race. The effect of this race, as difficult and challenging as it’s been, has been to build in me a heretofore, unknown confidence.

As the race has progressed, so have my resolve, my strength and my determination. If I rode 45 miles up Irazu and climbed 12,000 feet yesterday, its foothills and 6,000 feet of climbing don’t seem so menacing.

I am still reeling in racers on the climb and I know I am above 50th place, a race high watermark. We start hitting some down hills and I am catching other riders like they’re the adorable Costa Rican kids riding next to us on bikes across the continent.

I am on.

I catch up to a fast descender and think I may have found the person who can actually hand me my ass on a downhill. I am having trouble getting past him. The pavement abruptly turns into a rock-strewn dirt descent through tiny villages. Suddenly, I pass him as though I am riding pavement and he's on the dirt.

The descent turns ugly with a muddy section reminiscent of the mud year at 24 Hours of Canaan - a comparison I’ve had until now (8 years hence) to make. I am not letting it stop me. Still on my bike, I am skating over the mud. I must have weighted my front wheel too heavily, as I eject from my bike, and I plant my helmet in the mud. It’s one of two times I will fall off my bike during the entire race. I get up, hoist my bike up on my shoulder and start sprinting past the other racers who are mired in knee-high sludge.

There are little pools of water in some places that would receive the word “brackish” as a compliment. If I am going to get some kind of funky disease in this race, it will be here. But I don’t care what I get – as long as I finish.

On this stretch, I pass a dozen racers. We hit a stream crossing and the other side is a muddy slope and we’re queuing to get up on the one sane line. The mud is so thick it’s suctioning racers' shoes right off their feet.

The dude in front of me plants his leg to jump on to the ledge above us and his leg is caught in the mud like an animal's in a leg-hold trap. He can’t move. I hurl my bike onto the ledge instead of waiting for him to retrieve his leg. I dive up on to the ledge and take a moment to pick up the bike of a professional Colombian racer in back of me. I then pull him up onto the ledge by his arm.

The terrain is rideable again, for me, and I am skating down another mudslide that leads to a river crossing. I am one of the few riders to take the line right up on to the swinging bridge and ride the slick, wet, muddy wood slats and make the 90 degree turn on the opposite side to a smooth transition onto the dirt road climb. As I pass my fellow riders flailing at the other side, I am feeling as close as I’ve ever felt to being an international rock star.

At this moment, I am feeling a strong sense of camaraderie with the other racers and sense of pride to be ripping it up in such an amazing event. We hit another climb and my legs are still on and I am still passing other riders.

It may be 90 degrees but as I mentally cue the song ¨Make My Heart¨ off of Kaskade´s new San Francisco Sessions Mix, a wave goose bumps hits my entire body to the lyric "Do you remember baby, the song playing the night we met"? Of course with house it's more about the vibe than the lyrics. I picked this up before I left at Warehouse Music in Georgetown.

I have never felt better or more alive in my life. I am taking the inside line on blind corners with the concomitant risk that when I get around the corner I will playing chicken with (choose one from below):

a) a car
b) a horse (sin o con rider)
c) a cow

I am living beyond the realm of fear or risk - though I know they both served a vital purpose in preparing me for this race. I don’t think if I hadn’t been nervous about the race that I would have as well prepared as I am and I wouldn’t be feeling as amazing as I do now.

As I approach checkpoint 1, I’ve passed a staggering number of riders and I am now confident that now matter what happens today, this has already been the ride of my life.

At checkpoint 1, I refill my already depleted camelbak, grab a banana (I’ve laid off the mangos) and jet out. The cameraman from the Tico Times (Costa Rica’s English language weekly) tells me I am in 40th place. Not so bad considering the national teams are here from all over Latin America. I actually have passed national team members from Costa Rica and Columbia. I am nipping at the wheels of the pros.

The question I ask myself is; how long can I keep it up? I don’t know the answer, but I am going to enjoy it as long as I can.

After a few more climbs we crest the last hill and the Caribbean coastal plain is visible for the first time. The flatness is like an oasis in the desert to eyes that have only seen mountains for the last two days. Though I know I am going to have to contend with the thermonuclear heat and I humble myself knowing that I still have a staggering number of miles to cover as even at this vantage point, the sea is not yet visible.

This part of the race favors my skills it will be downhill for a while. I pass a couple more riders until the road flattens out and I become part of an ad hoc and tacitly assembled international pace line with three other competitors now operating flawlessly as a team. La Ruta is now road race.

In road racing, riders take turns at the front of the peloton pulling, this is called a pace line. It’s called pulling because the rider in the first position in the pack is doing 20 to 40% more work than those drafting behind him or her. By taking turns at the front, the pack is able to go significantly faster than individual riders would be able to go on their own.

We suck in more riders as the tenor of the nation changes like the tone arm of a record player scratching over the surface of a hastily changed and poorly segued record.

Everything from the music to the people, to the terrain changes so hastily that you could mistake the Caribbean side of the county for an entirely different nation. The music segues to the vibes of dub and reggae, the people are of African descent, the terrain is flat and more ominously, it’s hot and humid as hell.

Our pace line hits the first of the dreaded sections of banana railway. It’s dreaded because we’ll have to ride over the ties in the middle of the track in 100+ degree heat for miles on end.

They route the course into the middle of the tracks and we’re riding atop jarring cement ties. It’s like riding on curbstones spaced neatly 24 inches apart. It’s so hot it feels as though we’re now drafting behind the steam engine of one of the trains that used to travel here.

We hit the first of a series of trestles spanning a wide river. The trestle bridges get progressively higher and sketchier as we go on. Our pace line, still intact, sucks in the first place American female racer who has now joined us rather than go it on her own. She will go on to finish in 42nd place overall. Checkpoint 3 comes up and I decide not to stop - regardless of what the pace line does.

It's now flat and we're blowing through villages and getting doused in a sort of mean spirited way with water by local kids. On the other side of the county the kids who hosed us down did it in a gentle and helpful fashion. Here we're the targets of bike hunting season. I have to cover my ears as I pass the kids they are hitting me so hard with water.

Our pace line has expanded and we hit the highway that has supplanted the railroad and I am now having trouble keeping up with the peloton.

I am feeling really hot and I drop off the back and make two failed attempts to latch back on. I am passed by another pace line and then another. I've dropped back a significant number of places and it's all I can do to suck the wheel of another individual rider.

I am blowing up. Without the pace line, I am like a helpless baby animal without its mother in the wild.


-----Original Message-----
From: Brian Kemler
Sent: Wed 11/19/2003 5:11 PM
To: Brian Kemler
Subject: La Ruta – Day 3 - Part Tres - No More Suspense Sol y Mar

I’ve hit the highway sin (without) peloton and have approximately 60k left to go to be able to claim to have ridden across the continent in the world’s most difficult mountain bike race.

The temperature is homing in on three digits. The 18-wheelers that replaced the trains are blowing past me at 100kph though it seems like 100 mph as I am being alternately sucked into their draft or blown back as though in a wind tunnel depending upon their direction traveled.

I desperately need to stop and get an agua refill and I spy a Soda (small store) where I stop and demand “dos aguas muy grande por favor”. The locals look in astonishment as I pour one over my head and take the other with me on the bike alternately drinking from it and cradling it as though its coldness is the wellspring of life itself.

Thankfully, the course diverts off the highway and through some villages onto a dirt road. Locals are riding along side me and I am having difficulty keeping up to them on their beach cruisers. I am surrounded by banana plantations which humanely provide some much needed shade. One Tico and I have a little conversation en Espanol, though we both barely understand one another. I am so dazed at this point I am not sure I would have understood him if he were speaking the Queen’s English.

My legs feel okay, but I am totally overheated and am hoping checkpoint 4 will arrive soon. I have no appetite and am beginning to feel that special bloated-feeling that led to me vomiting on San Jose’s rush hour traffic.

A mile down the road I spy the blue Alpina Agua (and am hoping the girls with be there) flags adorning the checkpoints and I know relief is within my sights. Right about now I am feeling as though I may have to quit the race a couple dozen kilometers shy of the mark. As far as I am concerned, I’ve still had the ride of my life, but I know I need to chill and recover somehow at this, the second to last checkpoint.

This mile takes an eternity. I start to hallucinate. The thought of being tethered to an air conditioned ambulance by an IV is starting to sound more appealing than being flanked by the Alpina chicas beach-side as they alternate spoon feeding me strawberry daquiris and pina coladas.

I make it to the checkpoint, 4 and stop slung over my bike. I make a failed attempt to force feed myself what I usually consider to be a race course delicacy; a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

A gringo spectator comes over to me and tries to offer me encouraging advice that’s going down about as well as the aforementioned sandwich. ¨Get back on that pace line, hang in there, etc¨.

It’s all I can do to rally to get back my rig. I coast five meters. I know I am going to throw up again – though this time don’t even have the energy to fight it. It’s all I can do to go another 10 meters to avoid hurling in front of a group of elementary school-aged children watching the racers on with admiration.

I come to a stop underneath the shade and relative privacy of a tree and begin to fertilize it with several streams of clear bile. I remember that I have the three Gas-X pills Tanya gave me that I thought I wouldn’t need. I suck down all three with a blend of agua and poisonade.

I suddenly feel fine. Ah, the amazingly cathartic effect of regurgitation. Now I understand why my cats Yuki and Domino are so friendly after a bad batch of PetGuard´s Premium Feast Dinner. I wish I could resolve all my problems like this, particularly the relationship ones. I am back on and back on my bike and pedaling again. I feel okay and no longer fear not finishing.

We hit another section of rail and I catch back up to some of the riders who passed me while I was doubled over watering the flora with vomit.

The trestle bridges are starting to get sketchier and more harrowing. Earlier I was so confident on them that I would walk past other riders on the outside of the rails with the river 100 feet below. Now the rail ties are so worn each one requires an individual visual inspection before planting a foot.

All of a sudden, another racer’s right leg disappears through the gap - as though a trap door. He clings to his bike and hauls himself up and keeps going like a champ.

To span some of the ties, a full four-foot goose step is required. There’s plenty of room for both bike and rider to fall through to what we are told are alligator infested waters.

In places it’s not that hard to ride the ties because there is enough crushed rock in between them to make the ride relatively smooth. In other places, however, it’s like being grabbed by the scruff of the neck by a giant and being bashed up and down pedal stroke after pedal stroke after pedal stroke. At one point my right hand falls asleep due to the unrelenting jarring. I remove my gloves and get the feeling back.

I try to drop my gearing to something easier though strangely, it’s still difficult to pedal. I am worried that I am bonking until I realize something’s wrong with my bike’s rear derailleur. I have the choice of stopping and fixing it and losing more time or going on with only the front derailleur, which instead of 27 gears to choose from only gives me three - easy/medium/hard. I choose to ride it out for a spell until my chain falls off. I get off the bike and notice the cable has unfastened itself not because it’s broken or frayed, but because it’s been over lubricated.

I should have been suspicious each day when my bike arrived back to me from the people John paid to tune it cleaner than the day I built it. The only way to get a bike that clean is to douse it with too much oil. That, in addition the oil received from the well-intentioned, but overzealous race-side support crews led to the cable slipping off its mount. I take a minute, refasten it and the bike is back in commission. Next year, the only hands that will grace my bike will be my own.

I hang a right off the tracks and either the wind is really gusty or -- I am hearing and now seeing for the first time the crashing waves of the Caribbean Sea! I’ve made it to the other side of the continent and the guys at checkpoint 5 are telling me I have 15k to go.

I jettison all my excess food and leave with one full water bottle. I am still catching riders and getting passed here and there. Rather than focus on killing myself for one or two positions, I meditate on the rest of the race and try to savor this last half hour. This is the fulfillment of a five-year dream and the ride of a lifetime - I want to remember it.

I am as psyched as I was the day I learned to ride a bike.

I leave the dirt road that parallels the ocean and hit the pavement. I am on the outskirts of Puerto Limon and have less than 2k to go. I ride no handed down the last descent to the beach and make my only wrong turn of the race as the race marshals momentarily steer me incorrectly down the wrong road before they correct themselves and me.

I right myself, and head down the last 100-meter stretch, cross underneath the mammoth blue inflated finish line arch with no hands. I continue to ride straight into the beach and let my bike come to a halt and drop it beneath me l in the sand. I strip myself of everything but my bike shorts and sprint past bikini-clad Latin honeys and dive head first into the Caribbean Sea.

I made it.

Not only did I make it, but I feel fine and don’t have a single cut or bruise. Today
I finished under 7 hours in 73rd place. The next day my name is listed in the national daily “Al Dia” as having finished 92nd overall. I haven’t even gotten any food but I am already thinking about next year.

I meet up with John after my swim and wait around for some of my newly minted friends like Doutschan, my roommate and now friend to finish. Doutschan, if you recall, had his bike lost by Taca Airlines and was lent a bike by a Tico mountain biker. The approximate value of the bike he was lent is equivalent to the per capita income of the average Costa Rican.

After he finishes, Brett Wolfe finishes. Brent has one leg. I wait around for Simone to finish. When we meet again she’s not particularly in the mood to discuss racing the Trans-Alps. Though we exchange contact information.

It is not until later when I look at her card, which is a humorous Photoshop mock-up of an Idaho driver’s license that I notice the quote on it that best sums up the spirit of the 222 La Ruta finishers:

“We all have the extraordinary coded within us waiting to be released” --Jean
Houston

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

SoulRide Arizona 2003

Sometimes the fun of mountain bike racing is not just racing. It’s the process of getting to the race; the trip, the destination and then of course, the race itself. This was true for this weekend. I redeemed some frequent flyer miles and hopped on a plane for Phoenix, Arizona to compete in the Soulride in Oracle, Arizona, a two-hour drive from Phoenix.

Two-weeks hence, I will be competing in the 3-day, 300 mile La Ruta de Los Conquistadors in Costa Rica. I am trying to get in all the preparation I can. Most of my riding has been on the road and the weather this time of year in Washington is making me less than motivated. I figured the Souldride was a good excuse to get some race-level training in - in the sun!

If you can picture the set to an epic Hollywood Western; old ghost towns, house-high cacti, abandoned rail trestles, old mines, cattle, and panoramic views of stone outcroppings - that pretty much describes this course. Epic.

The 100-mile event jumped off at 6am; there were also 60- and 30-mille loops. It was still dark and cold. I remembered the sunscreen, but had forgotten that the desert actually gets cold at night and didn’t bring anything more than the most minimal cycling attire. I shivered as I waited in the dark for the race to start. The 6am start time wasn’t so bad given that I was coming to the race with Eastern Time programmed into my body.

The race promoter set 120 of us off with both barrels of a double-barreled shotgun. We set off on a road and split into two groups. I fell off the back of the first, took the led on the second, then dropped back till we hit a gnarly single track climb. It was rocky, narrow and laden with cacti. While the other folks were walking, I took off on top of the rocks putting a nice gap between the second group and myself. I was riding solidly since I am used to riding technical terrain when it’s wet. This year I have had plenty of practice -having done every single race I’ve competed in in the rain. Well, in Arizona, it may be technical, but it’s dry and that made it seem easy.

I had some difficulty on the sandy sections of the course till I figured out the technique for riding ‘em. The sand was taking riders out left and right. I went down once and got a bad Charlie-horse on my inner thigh - which subsequently ended up hurting every time I tensed that muscle – that is to stay, every other pedal stroke.

Then, I found that if I maintained my lateral balance and weighted my body toward my back wheel, I could literally surf over the sand. After the initial single-track section, most of the race consisted of fire road until the last 10 miles. There, they threw in another single-track section along the Arizona trail presumably to either torture tired souls or make people who came 3/4 of the way across the country remember that it was single track that that they came all that way for.

At the beginning of the race, I rode with my friend Nicole, a displayed Virginian whom I met a few years back at the Shenandoah Mountain 100. Nicole is now living in Arizona and racing professionally for a Mexican mountain bike team. How cool is that?

I managed to keep up with her for a while, but we both ended up lost; once together, then separately. Then she ended up ahead of me and I didn’t see her again till the end of the race. The course was rather poorly marked into the first 30 miles. Whether that was the promoter’s fault or the fault of people pulling down the markings, I wasn’t going to let it get in my way of having a good time. Though it did cost me nearly a half hour and I must say I wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of getting interdicted by the US Border Patrol. After I split off from Nicole, I rode most of the rest of 70 miles by myself.

I passed through an abandoned town that looked something more out of my travels to Guatemala than say, Arizona. There was a small store painted in bright blue with signs in Spanish. At that point a grueling 13-mile climb commenced. I felt solid, passed a couple of riders and made it to the top where there was an abandoned mine. The entrance had been cemented shut and a Buddha had been painted on the wall. I doubled back to rub his tummy as I passed for luck.

I passed through the succession of aid stations; three, four (at this point I was still on target for a solid, 9:30 pace). When I hit the fifth aid station, I had 17 miles to go, again still well below a 10 hour finish time. I kept going and going and expecting the race to end, but they must have been wrong about the 17 miles. It took me nearly an hour to get to the last ten miles of single track and then another 45 minutes or so to get through that.

I was getting really bored on the fire road and hitting the single track totally energized me. This section of the course should have been named the “cactus gauntlet”. The trail was not more than 18 inches wide and as I wending through it, I feared one wrong move and my shins would be impaled with hundred of needles. I managed to get stuck a couple of times and my legs and arms are superficially scrapped. Luckily, I didn’t go down and land my ass on one of the chair-size round cacti.

I hit the last section of road and finished in just over 10 hours, still with plenty of daylight to spare. The top time was 8:08, I finished in 10:40 in 20th place of 120 racers.

After the race I could only think of one thing: hot food. I rode two more painful miles back to the casita where I was staying on a ranch with horses and teams of humming birds. I went (in my rented “Chevy Classic”) for a “burro” at one of the only three restaurants in a town where there is not a chain store in sight.

There, I met an 83-year old waitress and Oracle native who regaled me with stories about her medical issues and her love of the New York Yankees. I didn’t have the heart to tell her where my baseball loyalties lie. She was a riot – when a man ordering carry out forgot his bag, she made a pun about “old bags” and then feigned being offended. Another man left the restaurant and when he went to pay, I caught a glimpse of his concealed handgun.

The night before the race there was a pre-race diner at the Oracle community center. There the locals, mostly old timers, stuffed us with food as if we were turkeys getting ready for Thanksgiving. I sat at a table with complete strangers and we started talking about, what else, mountain bike racing as we listened to the sounds of a two-man band. Nicole joined us and we all reveled at the sounds of the band. The singer belted out our favorite Elvis, Johnny Cash and other county tunes. The keyboardist also played trumpet – sometimes at the same time. Everything was charmingly off-key and tempo. The backdrop of the bingo board completed what was a perfect atmosphere. For the night this place had more charm than the 18th Street Lounge.

It’s funny because in all the years I’ve been racing I have thoroughly enjoyed the places that racing has brought me, but it’s taken me this long to realize that the journey and the destination are often just as much fun as the race itself.