Roman Urbina has packed enough adventure in his 50 years that seem like several lifetimes. The Costa Rica native has a super-impressive list of accomplishments: long-distance swimmer who swam 20 miles to raise awareness of endangered sea turtles, elite triathlete and multi-day adventure racer, ultra runner, motocross racer, surfer, and travel adventure guide. He’s also best known as the founder and race director of La Ruta de los Conquistadores, which is a three-day mountain bike stage race held in Costa Rica each November and one that takes several hundred riders from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. Now in its twenty-second year, La Ruta made Time magazine’s list of “Top 10 Endurance Competitions.” The only other bike race included on the list was the Tour de France. La Ruta is often called “the toughest mountain bike race in the world.” It’s easy to see why. Standing between both coasts are 240 miles of thick jungle, inactive volcanoes, unpaved farm roads, narrow trails, river crossings, and nearly 40,000 feet of endless climbing. Planet Wild and RailRiders recently spoke with Roman, with La Ruta just 40 days away.
Question: Tell us more about your athletic and adventure background.
Roman Urbina: I started surfing in the ’70s and was a pioneer in my country (considered by Red Bull as one of the legends of surfing in Costa Rica). In the ’80s, I became a triathlete and was one of the top triathletes in the country and part of the national team for 5 years. In the ’90s, I became an ultra endurance athlete and set a world record in open-water swimming, and created La Ruta de Los Conquistadores, a very tough mountain-bike race. In 2009, I raced against the best ultra runners on the planet met and befriended Scott Jurek who he told me about running with the Tarahumaras Indians, that same year I read Born to Run. In 2012, I went to Mexico to race with the Tarahumaras and that same year, I invited the top runners to come try out the first stage of La Ruta mountain bike race but running instead of on bikes.
RU: With the two Tarahumara runners, Silvino and Aurelio, I didn’t detect that they were ever in any pain or discomfort during the 100K race, though I was only able to run with them for about 45 minutes, and then I was unable to keep up with their pace. What I noticed was the following: they would take shorter steps than what I was used to, but at a quicker cadence. Their bodies were either straight or with a slight lean forward; their feet followed. They did not use their arms very much, with hardly any swinging and close to their bodies. Their running form was almost identical. They were silent when they ran in their huaraches or tire sandals; you could hardly hear the footsteps compared to mine in running shoes. At the aid stations they would only take pinole (a corn-based drink) and tortillas with beans; they avoided the Coke, Powerade and energy gels. They did not stop for long at the stations, and then they were gone like ghosts.
Q: As the race director of La Ruta, what have been some of the most memorable bike races in the past 21 years? From crashes to epic battles for first place, let ‘er rip.
RU: Every year has its memorable moment. In 2001, Tinker Juarez was the first foreign racer (U.S.) to win a stage. We also invited Bret Wolfe a single-leg rider and he finished the challenge. A few weeks prior to the race I had a bad accident training on my mountain bike. I broke femur, hip and 4 ribs, so during the event I was not able to ride a motorcycle on the course, so I used a quad and tied the crutches to the back. When I reached the finish line I had lost the crutches and could not get off the quad, luckily one of the teams had found them on the road and brought them to the finish line. In 1998, the top 100 racers got lost on the first day (they followed the top racer and he did not know where he was going and missed a sign). That same year the youngest participant– he was 13– finished the race. In 2006, a blind girl finished La Ruta on a tandem bike. In 2013, a cancer survivor finished the race with 12 of his riding buddies.
In 2008, this guy from Costa Rica contacted me and said that he wanted to do three things before he died: 1) go to Rome to visit the pope– which he did that with the help of the Lions Club in Costa Rica; 3.) meet the top soccer super star in our country –which he did; 3.) be a participant at La Ruta, though he was suffering from terminal cancer. We invited him to ride as much as he could on day two of the race and start with the top pros. He rode about 100 meters and stopped. The next day he sent us a very touching thank you note. He died two days afterwards. I have met some of my dearest friends through the race, like Bill Katovsky, then editor of Triathlete magazine, who one year ended up finishing day two of the race about 8pm soaked in ice-cold rain, dead last, in the dark, and with two traffic policemen on motorbikes who would not leave him alone in the jungle mountain section.
RU:Costa Rica is a small country with a so much diversity and and incredible beauty in a relatively calm and safe place. It has first-class accommodations and services. Technologically, it is more advanced than most of the Latin American countries, and education has been a focus of the government for the last 40 years.
Q: What are the top 10 places to visit if this is your first trip to Costa Rica?
RU: My top ten places for first-time visitors to our beautiful, geo-diverse country:
1. Arenal Volcano is this incredible volcano that is located next to the Arenal Lake (it is about 45 miles wide and there are lots to do from wind surfing (one of the top places in the world ) to kayaking and fishing; there are many trails to explore, caverns, and waterfalls; you can spend many days doing different things, and on top of this there are hot springs.
2. Pacuare River is like none other on the planet and it is considered by the experts as being one of the top five places to raft. The Pacuare is an unspoiied and undeveloped area of Costa Rica, so it is rafting through incredible tropical jungles.
3. Poas Volcano is another place not to miss because it has the largest crater in the world; the colors and the rock formation are intense.
4. La Paz Waterfall is close to the Poas Volcano and is an interesting place to stop and have lunch and learn about the birds and animals in Costa Rica; there is a zoo and butterfly garden.
5. Mal País beaches has great surfing, nice hotels and white sand. Picture Hawaii in the ’70s.
6. Pt. Viejo Limon means you have no need to go to Jamaica. Located on the eastern side of Costa Rica, the Afro-Caribbean culture and music are always present in a very exotic venue; and there are places to snorkel and surf.
7.Monte Verde Cloud Forest is wet and green year round so take your rain gear. There are zip lines, hikes and many nice hotels to stay at, cool temperatures at night. The Quaker culture started the community of Monte Verde, when Americans escaped the military draft of the ’60s during the Vietnam War. Peace and hard work was what they brought to this area.
8. Santa Rosa National Park has so much to offer from unspoiled beaches to incredible hikes; it is also the home of Witches Rock. a world- famous surfing spot
9. Rio Celests. Have you ever seen a neon-green river? Rio Celeste was formed by the chemical volcanic elements near Rio Celeste.
10. Chirripo. Great for hikers. It takes around 7 hours of uphill hiking to get to the summit of the tallest mountain in Costa Rica. At almost 4000 meters, Chirripo offers views of the entire country. Yes, you can see both Pacific and Caribbean coasts.
Q: What are some of your favorite adventure destinations in Costa Rica, and why?
RU: Osa Península and Caño Negro island are my favorite adventure destinations, because it is still very wild and it’s like going to Jurassic Park. Osa is somewhat dangerous because you could become part of the food chain (jaguars, snakes) if you are not careful but on that same note it is the ultimate adventure for people who really want to see the earth as it was millions of years ago. No roads, no Internet. Totally wild.
Q: Is there any place(s) in the country you haven’t traveled to, and wish to one day?
RU: I would like to go to Punta Burica on the border with Panamá. Great waves for surfing, wild, isolated.
Q: Finally, what do you like most about RailRiders clothing?
RU: I was first introduced to RailRiders clothing in the late ’90s during a week-long adventure vacation in Costa Rica with world-champion adventure-racing stars, Ian Adamson and Robyn Benincasa, and it was a fun trip instigated by Bill Katovsky. I was amazed by how versatile, quick-drying and stylish the shirts were. They were comfortable and classy looking– expertly portraying the adventurer style. For the tropics, they are ideal because the natural fibers do not get heated up like other Lycra and Dry-Fit stuff.
To contact Roman Urbina about organizing your own adventure trip in Costa Rica (biking, hiking, whitewater rafting, surfing, horseback riding, or sightseeing), email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org. He has been conducting private tours for over 20 years.