The Sisterhood

Charity and sisterhood

Costa Rica Coast to Coast Race 2010

Race Report by Sister Emma Dixon-Gough

After a false start in April, which saw an excited group of adventure racers drown their volcano related sorrows in a communal and heavy session in the pub, the Hood finally made it out to Costa Rica in November 2010.  The 24hr door to door journey went without incident for most save for two of the group who managed to miss a connecting flight by the skin of their teeth.  They used the gift of a night in a lovely hotel and a guaranteed deep and luxurious sleep in the wisest possible fashion.  They got whammed in the bar, explored Houston by night, discovered the ‘Pink Pony’ and rolled in 5 minutes before breakfast finished to load up on their last meal for 6 days which didn’t involve a mandatory serving of rice and beans.  Oh boys, if only you’d known…

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A 5am race briefing at the hotel introduced us to Mike, the race organiser and our only non British competition; a slick, finely tuned troop of 4 Costa Ricans.  They moved as one, they looked great in Lycra and the guys had even shaved their legs for that extra bit of aerodynamic edge.  Goodness only knows what they thought of us.  Some of our girls hadn’t bothered to shave their legs since leaving Heathrow (if at all that year), there was kit everywhere, Alistair was running about wondering whether he had enough seasoning for the end of day team cook off and Jamie was going up for his 30th helping of breakfast which only kept him going as far as the cycle shop down the road.  On the 4hr journey out to the coast we plagued the very relaxed and down to earth Mike with questions on what we could expect.  Were there going to be snakes? What do we do if we see a jaguar? How tough is it going to be? What’s an average day. . . ?  His answers were vague but his manner inspired confidence.  Not even the quick stop off to take pictures of the enormous crocodiles we drove past, not unlike the enormous crocodiles we paddled past just a few days later, could undo his soothing work and we all slept like babies after a quick dip in the Atlantic ready for our challenge to begin the following day.

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It was a leisurely 10am start.  Despite packing for every eventuality Mike insisted that day one was about getting into the swing of things, acclimatizing to this beautiful country and that we take everything out of our bags.  In hindsight . . .  After a quick 2km hike down the beach to pick up our all important check point cards it was onto the bikes for the start of a 120km cycling stage.  The Costa Ricans sprinted this section and, needless to say, we never saw them again.  10 years of annual competing and a native understanding of the terrain are all well and good but I’m sure if we’d just sprinted that beach section we could have stayed on their shoulders and pipped them to the finish line. . .

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Stage one was eventful for all teams.  One team got so caught up in the scenery they forgot to look at the maps for the first few hours and missed a rather significant turning into the banana plantations of Quepos! For us, the weather played an interesting part in our first adventure. The rain in the middle of the night (under cover, in a bed) was so loud you couldn’t hear each other speak in a very small room.  It was a good indication of what to expect whilst we were out and about.  Incidentally, there is nothing like the taste of road grit and rain water flicking off the back wheel of your team mate’s bike a foot in front of you.  By the time we reached check point one our designated river crossing was a no go because of the morning’s rainfall

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A narrow pipe on a wobbly cable over a raging river- and that bridge is higher than it looks.  Yessssssssss, now we’re adventuring!!! Over this obstacle our day took an interesting turn when one of the team got stung with dehydration.  She soldiered her way through like an absolute legend, wiped out on her bike as we pushed into the night to make another locally assisted river crossing at about 11pm (imagine a little tin shack on a zip wire disappearing off into the night) and ended up on an IV drip during our two and a half hour ‘rest’ on the floor of an open air tree house at 2 in the morning.  Did she take the next day easy and re-coup?  Did she ‘eck!  At 5am we were up and out again, watching the sun come up as we peddled as fast as our legs would take us to the foot of some hills.  These particular hills went on all day and well into the night.  At times it was hot and sticky with the sun shining and the birds singing, at others there was water sheeting down the tarmac in rivers.  When we were nearly at the top we gesticulated wildly at a bemused chap stood under the shelter of a bus stop to ask if we were nearly there.  Our Spanish was so poor you couldn’t even call it broken – our sign language on the other hand was more than passable we thought.  Hand at the angle of a steep incline, sad face. . . hand flat like a summit, happy face. . .  point in the direction we were travelling. . .  shrug? Surely obvious?  He smiled, gave us the summit sign and the thumbs up.  There was much rejoicing!!  However all teams soon found that when it comes to judging distance the Costa Ricans, and Mike for that matter, can be a tad unreliable.  This was the first of many false summits on the trip but boy did they build our characters!  Having negotiated the tarmacked hills we were off towards Savegre, back in the off road wilderness.  Mike met us en route at about 3 in the afternoon with ice lollies, all smiles, saying that we just had another set of shingly little mole hills to negotiate and we’d know when we hit the top as there’d be a comms tower.  After hours and hours of pushing a mountain bike up steep gravel covered mountains we had never been so relieved to see a pylon in all our lives!  With such a morale boosting pick me up we crashed into transition and after 32 hours made it to stage 2.

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We left that transition after a good few hours sleep and some hot food in a bag with team 3 which put our numbers up to 9.  Team 2 were a few hours in front and the Costa Ricans had been surfing the Caribbean waves for nearly a fortnight now.  So began 2 days of hiking in the jungle with some amazing scenery, some marvellous mud, a smattering of cracking Simonisms, ‘look at that tree (said in a forest),’ and ‘who makes clouds?’, a few opportunities for sadistic first aid and the arrow on the Mike-o-meter swinging wildly between ‘what a thoroughly, bloody nice chap’ to ‘what a completely unhinged git’ depending on the time of day.

As team 2 passed through the first check point the race team handed Julia a beautiful home made birthday cake, iced only moments before they arrived.  When we came through a few hours later Hugo the paramedic became fondly dubbed ‘Doctor Death’ as he set about Alice’s gashed knee with a Swiss Army knife, some iodine and a crazed expression.  One race, so many different experiences!

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We 9 entered the steep, muddy jungle section late afternoon, just before we lost light completely and Ben did a fantastic job of leading us through the dark (darker for some than others Gia!) to the very top where we bed down for the night in a cabin – an actual cabin! There was music, dancing.  I do believe Mariah Carey’s hero came on ‘accidentally’ which was dedicated to all of the girls by all of the boys as a nod to our fearless, Amazonian grit under pressure and our initiative at boiling water for space food in any available vessel over and any kind of heat source so we all got fed before ingeniously toasting our underwear in the oven for a little bit of luxury.

The following day took us up high to over 2800m.  The day before we’d been in dense sticky jungle, now we were higher than the clouds (which are made by monkeys for anyone that’s interested…)

We saw hummingbirds, birds of paradise and the chatterings of the lesser spotted hooded sister bird rang out for hours on end playing the ‘how many can you name game.’  The girls’ topics for this made the boys blush more than once and it was definitely an education for us all.  Who would have thought Simon knew so many Tom Cruise movies..? Jamie’s bag was the source of endless delicious treats, Charlotte was the victim of some improvised physio and first aid and Julia gave David Attenborough a run for his money with her interest in local flora and fauna. Fireflies guided us into transition that night where we picked up our bikes and took on the rest of the downhill at speed to find the crew set up in a nice, dry bar where we could get our heads down for a decent rest.

Well, it would have been decent had a Mike shaped ‘rat’ not tripped the security alarm at 2.30am.  By 3am we were back on the road again and by 7 in the morning we’d cycled 15km up the biggest bitch of a hill, nearly lost a soldier under the wheels of a Costa Rican logging truck, and were on our second breakfast of the day – soaking wet but strangely satisfied.  The rain made for some miserable, freezing downhill on the tarmac but once we were off road we were in our element and even managed some nifty little tricks and turns.  Our route took us through the busy town of Cartago, giving Team 1 a nice little urban McD’s break after all the remote tranquillity of the jungle whilst they got some emergency repair work done.  We pootled on through and caught up with Team 2 at a lovely little bakery in Orosi.  We swapped a few stories of the route so far and heard about the close shave the boys had had in the night with the plastic scorpion Jules had popped in one of their shoes (which they nearly lost when Captain Dan fearlessly picked it up and made ready to launch the threat into the river!) After a night in a derelict house, spooning in the same binbag due to extreme cold and a lack of dry clothes (yeah, yeah) those boys had had a rough 24 hours; you could see it in their eyes.  We wished them well and dodged the rice and beans in favour of some delicious pastries (epic fail!) before setting off into the beautiful countryside up near Cachi.

By the time we came into the next checkpoint- a hidden little tinker on the other side of a football pitch- we’d been up and down a fair few hills and it was time for a full fat Coke break, Biltong and a few thousand jelly beans.  We had 3 more monster hills to go and about 6 hours left of our 145km bike stage.  Unbeknownst to us Mike was paling at the thought of our tiny little two wheels taking on the might of the Costa Rican Mack trucks in the pitch dark on slick, winding roads.  He needn’t have worried.  The Hood have all been dipped in the River Styx with the only vulnerable inch of us being our Salomon shod left heels.  Although it was a slightly emotional evening for most of us at one point or other our ability to dig deep and get the most out of an emergency Snickers prevailed.  Late into the night after a 3am start, a few wrong turns, an onslaught of unforgiving hills and a hidden check point or two each team dragged their delirious little selves into Mike’s magical jungle camp.

Due to the outrageous amount of rain the river was too high to raft and we were held at camp for a day whilst contingencies were drawn up.  No complaints from us.  Mike’s camp is an idyllic, eco joy; all candles and hammocks and strongly built tree houses.  The guys can rustle up a mean feast too so for 24 hours we all relaxed to a level rarely experienced in our London Lives.  Chat around the dinner table was a great furore of en route tales with Dr Death providing the entertainment as he tenderly dressed Reedy’s wounds with his usual flair.  Only Bergo remained quiet, secretly scheming ways to get Julia back for the Scorpion.  He will strike when she least expects it. . .  Plan B saw us leave early the following morning, hike back up to our bikes, ride in a wicked little peloton to the rafts further down river and motor onwards to the Caribbean.  Sorted.

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For those that don’t know, paddling is what we do.  It’s a beautiful thing watching the Hood move in time, pull together and glide through the water.  Many a happy hour has been spent messing about on the river, honing technique for a force to be reckoned with.  This last section however, due to a mixture of surprisingly un co-ordinated team mates (timing Bergo!), a bottle of rum, some stonking sunshine and fabulous surroundings meant that the only efficient paddling done was past some fookin’ enormous lizards as we wound round the canals of Costa Rica!  Crocodiles are one of life’s great motivators.  We arrived at the finish line together 126 hrs and 450km after setting off from Bejuco, completely used up and totally amazed at what we’d just done.  Only slightly more amazed were the boy’s faces when the girls arrived in the bar that evening after a shower and a quick change, totally unrecognisable from the muddy little urchins that got off the bus just 20 minutes before.  Pina Colada and volleyball anyone…?

Saylo, Mike, teams thank you for such an adventure.  May it be just one in a long line, may the charities keep benefiting from our ridiculous antics and may the memories keep being made in such style.