La Ruta de los Conquistadores
Sports Journalist Roy M. Wallack Crosses Costa Rica on a Mountain Bike in Three Days

La Ruta de los Conquistadores in Costa Rica is the toughest mountain-bike race on the planet (www.adventurerace.com). A three-day stage race of extremes - beauty, distance, weather and difficulty, La Ruta follows the ancient path of Spanish conquistadors who crossed Costa Rica in futile searches for gold. Racers travel 250 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea , crossing several distinct eco-systems and climatic zones. Through humid, mud-soaked rain forests, towering mountain passes, and lowland banana and coffee plantations, the bike race clobbers athletes with heat, cold and a cumulative elevation gain of 22,000 feet. Each year, 50 percent of all racers don't finish; it took Roy Wallack, age 44, three attempts to complete all three days - which he finally did last November.

"The hills on Day One seem straight up," says Wallack. "The climbs involve endless granny-gear chugging and hiking. Your quads, calves and hip flexors cry with pain. This gets you ready for Day Two, a climb up the towering 11,000-foot Irazu Volcano. The reward at the top is a two-hour descent, where I caught a glimpse of the Caribbean and the white clouds far below that looked like little cotton balls on far-off hills, which I soon realized were coastal mountains. I felt like I was at the right hand of God."

Wallack is no stranger to adventure. In addition to being the author of "The Traveling Cyclist," Wallack has spent 25,000 miles bike-touring Europe and North America, completed the 720-mile Paris-Brest-Paris Bike Race within the 90-hour time limit, and was part of Team Media at the Eco-Challenge Adventure Race, Utah.

Q: This is the third year you've attempted La Ruta. In your first two attempts you did not finish. How did you manage completion this year? (Describe what happened those first two years.)

Wallack: The key to surviving La Ruta is not being destroyed by brutal Day 1, which goes east through muddy, humid rain forest from the Pacific coast to the capitol of San Jose with 20,000 feet of elevation gain. The hills seem straight up; the climbs involve endless granny-gear chugging and hiking. Your quads, calves and hip flexors cry with pain. Without the right training and the right bike, you won't make it. At least a third of the riders fail Day 1.

Take 1997. Undertrained, I finished Day 1 on sheer willpower but ended up with leg muscles so spasm-ridden and depleted that I was literally afraid to even start Day 2, the massive 8,000-ft. climb up the Vulcan Irazu. In 1998, I was well-trained but didn't complete Day 1 because the derailleur on my cheap rental bike fell off.

This year, however, I did it right: I brought my own bike, a beautiful Specialized Stumpjumper FSR XC dual-suspension, and trained by replicating La Ruta as much as possible - which means going up and down the steepest possible hill I could find in L.A. That was the 4-mile, 2000-ft. climb up Paseo Miramar to Parker Mesa Overlook in Topanga State Park. One Saturday two weeks before the race, I did that climb five times. A week later, I did it six times. Then, to simulate the stresses of riding La Ruta's Day 2 on beat-up legs, I rode hard for 4 or 5 hours the following Sundays.

Q: How would you rate this race with other ultra-cycling events you have participated in? Please describe and compare these to other races.

W:La Ruta is harder than the other epic international multi-day mountain-bike monster, the 8-day, 400-mile TransAlp Challenge, which I completed last July. The TransAlp has 61,000 feet of total climbing as it winds from Germany to Austria to Italy and some days as long as 74 miles. Believe me, it is hellish - beautiful, but hellish. Still, 90% of TransAlp participants finish all eight days.

By contrast, only 50% of La Ruta participants finished all three days this year. It is truly an intimidating, humbling challenge. Whereas the TransAlp allows you to warm-up with a relatively easy Day 1, La Ruta tries to break you on Day 1. It is a shock to your system. Most people - even the well trained - have never experienced anything like it in their lives. How hard is it? Well, in 1998, the top American finisher on Day 1 depleted his body so much that he didn't appear on the morning of Day 2, having slipped into what would ultimately be a 4-day coma.

However, La Ruta is NOT the hardest cycling event I've ever done. That honor would go to France's quadrennial 750-mile Paris-Brest-Paris road race. The killer? Sleeplessness. P-B-P is not only all-hills-all-the-time, but an around-the-clock event with a 90-hour time limit. I finished like a zombie in 88:55 - and promptly fell asleep for 16 hours. At least you get a warm bed, 5 hours of sleep and a shower every night at La Ruta.

Q: Briefly describe each of the three days of riding in La Ruta this year.

W: Day 1, which breaks your legs and your spirit, starts at 5 a.m. at Punta Leona on the Pacific Ocean and heads east for 73 miles. In broiling heat and humidity, it goes through muddy tropical rain forest with dozens of river crossings. You spend a huge part of the day pushing your bike up 17 to 25% inclines and 20,000 ft. of elevation gain as you inch toward San Jose, which sits at 2,500 ft.

Day 2 heads directly up the 12,000-ft. Irazu volcano for 62 overcast, rainy and cold miles. Many first timers are caught unawares by the untropical chill and shiver without a rain jacket and insulation. This year, the coldest ever, the temps dropped to 40 degrees as we passed the large farms on Irazu's south and west flanks. Freezing rain and howling 40 mph winds sent many to the edge of hypothermia. Dozens abandoned before the beautiful and terrifying descent, which provides stunning vistas of the Carribean Sea and the east-coast mountains on the way to hotels at the town of Turrialba.

Day 3, 97 miles to the Atlantic Coast port of Limon, is a flatter but grueling loop encompassing mountains, a long paved descent into densely populated banana plantation lands with brain-rattling dirt roads, riding and hiking over endless miles of railroad tracks and bridges, and a final 15-mile beach-front ride to the finish.

Q: What was the hardest part of the race?

W: Mid-day on Day 1, when San Jose seems a million miles away, the sun is burning you alive, your hip flexors and calves ache like never before because of all the hiking, and there is yet another hill up ahead. At that point, it seemed impossible that I would make the day's 6 p.m. cutoff. (I finished at 5:50 after a ride of nearly 13 hours.)

Q: What was the most enjoyable or exhilarating part of the race?

W:The moment on Day 2, while descending the backside of the Turrialba volcano, that the distant skies cleared and I caught a glimpse of the Caribbean. The dirt road's elevation was still so high that the white clouds far below looked like little cotton balls on far-off hills, which I soon realized were coastal mountains. I felt like I was at the right hand of God himself, who surely was sitting there admiring his handiwork.

Q: How would assess the increasing popularity of these endurance cycling events?

W: In 1997, 100 people and 18 Americans did La Ruta. In 2000, 200 people and 80 Americans did it. At the TransAlp, there 800 riders - and 4000 applicants. Bottom line: The sky is the limit. Millions of mountain bikers are looking for the adventure and challenge that only these multi-day races provide.

Q: Any thoughts or comments about some of the other riders in La Ruta?

W: Costa Rica is filled with expat Americans - several of whom do La Ruta year after year. There's 62-year-old cattle rancher and endurance athlete Nat Grew, who typically starts Day 1 at 3 a.m. in order to finish. His son, Nat Jr., is typically one of the strongest Americans. The most famous may be 52-year-old Heart Ackerson, a latter-day child of the 60's with a thick grey beard and long mane of hair who rides shirtless in SPD sandals and cut-off jeans. A genius who invents medical products and has twice completed the Canada Ironman barefooted, Heart and his sprawling family walk around naked on his rambling Pacific coast estate. His 16 and 21-year-old sons, Orion and Rom, also completed La Ruta.

Q: Any training or equipment advice for a race of this magnitude?

W:Dual-suspension is a must if you want to maintain the sense of touch in your hands. And climb those hills - the harder the better.

Q: You wore RailRiders Eco-Mesh during the ride. How did it hold up?

W:The Eco-Mesh Shirt looked and felt cool. After a pause of just a few minutes, the sun would evaporate my immense quantities of sweat, leaving me dry, cool and ready for the next agonizing climb.
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