Conquering La Ruta

Suffering Shared: The Road to La Ruta, Part 8

Features By Photo by Sung Han

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth part of an eight-part original GP series, The Road to La Ruta, in which contributor Dirk Shaw chronicles his training for the Fool’s Gold 100 and La Ruta de Los Conquistadores — one of the toughest mountain bike races in the world. Check back throughout the summer to watch the story unfold.

road-to-la-ruta-promo-200x75Road to La Ruta is a series of dispatches, essays and features captures the intense journey of a cyclist as he trains for a mountain biking race across Costa Rica and what many consider one of the toughest in the world: La Ruta de Los Conquistadores. Read the series »

Suffering is a universal language. October 24-26 were the hardest three days I have ever spent on a bike, but they were also the most connected I have ever felt with the people and the world around me. The power of a shared experience, through joy and pain, transcends almost everything. It crushes barriers of language and culture. Now I know why everyone becomes so emotionally bonded to this race: words are unnecessary when you have shared the suffering of a ride that is practically straight up for nearly two hours in the blazing heat. It’s not just the physical stuff, but the whole shared experience with people from over 40 countries trekking across Costa Rica. For me, it was transformational.


The first day was long. We started with about 90 minutes of climbing at grades of anywhere from 18 to 24 percent, roughly the same pitch as an A-frame house. We then descended into the jungle in Carara National Park for a 10k hike-a-bike. Hiking is much too passive a word for what we did; we scrambled through muddy crevasses that were six feet deep and too narrow to push your bike, so you had to ferry it on your shoulder to the other side. A 10-foot boa constrictor was spotted hanging out in a river bed. A friend and former La Ruta finisher, Mario, had helped me prepare for this section of the race by breaking down the jungle into three parts: the big river, the crevasses and the little house on the left. As small as these tips might have seemed, it was a great way to break this section down into comprehensible pieces. Thankfully, there was also a bit of entertainment along the way thanks to a fellow racer who had a Jambox in his CamelBak and was blasting some local tunes.

After a couple of hours of slogging through the jungle, we emerged at the base of the final climb of the day where a seven-time finisher of La Ruta said to me, “My friend, it’s a long climb.” It was also hot, humid and extremely difficult. To distract myself from thinking about how steep and muddy it was becoming on the way up, I decided to engage in a conversation with a 64-year-old named Michael from the Netherlands. He had recently retired, packed up his life and built a home in Costa Rica. It was inspiring to see a “senior” rider in such top form, and also a great reminder that it’s never too late in life to live your dream. Eight hours and three minutes after my first pedal stroke I crossed the finish line, simply happy to complete the stage without a DNF.


Day two brought a beautiful ride over the top of the Irazú Volcano National Park. We climbed more than 20 miles to the peak, then descended 8,000 feet over the next few of hours into the town of Turriabla. Having made it through day one in one piece I could breath a little and take in some of the scenery — and it was spectacular: racing through the city with people cheering, the double-track road, the climb leading up the peak of the volcano high above the cloud lines. The temperature went from spring to fall and then back to spring again.

After the stage, we jumped in our Mitsubishi Montero to head to what we thought was a hotel, but ended up being a bird sanctuary on the mountainside of a rain forest. The house could only fit about 20 people. At first I just wanted my privacy, but after a quick nap I joined a group of other racers in an open-air living room. We talked about the day and I learned about Ride 2 Recovery, an amazing group that hosts rides for veterans injured in the line of duty. I was glad to be here, surrounded by the soothing sound of rain hitting the trees, with these new friends.


The third day — the final push — began with two hours of climbing. Once I finally made it to the top, I paired up with Ernie from Denver. Neither of us much wanted to ride alone on the way down to Playa Bonita, where we’d heard about instances of riders being accosted for their bikes. Ruud, a Marine from the Netherlands, joined us for the last four hours of the day. I’d like to say how grueling it was; in fact, it’s amazing how riding with people makes the time go by so much faster. We talked about everything under the sun, from past rides, to our favorite Colorado IPAs, to what our kids think their dads are actually doing.

These would have been some long stretches without company. We had our heads down, hammering on the flats, working in a small group like a mini peloton picking our way across the bridges and banging along the railroad tracks. The bumps of the tracks finally ended on a hard-pack sandy road, and there it was: the ocean.

We spread out from single file to three abreast, sat up high and relished the last 5k, at peace knowing with absolute certainty that we’d cross the finish line. There was a collective and unspoken sense that we had done it. We’d finished our first La Ruta de Los Conquistadores. We were Conquistadores.

The Road To La Ruta was more than just getting fit for a race; it was more than three days of grueling climbs. It was a road to self-discovery, breaking down preconceived notions of what I thought I could accomplish both mentally and physically. Sharing both pain and success with my fellow riders were some of the most vital moments in the race itself, and important ones in my life — but what I learned about myself over this year of La Ruta goes deeper.

James Clear, an avid writer on changing habits, nailed it in a recent article when he observed that most goal-oriented people are focused solely on the end result. He notes that too often, we see success as an event that can be achieved and completed. But when you look more closely at those who consistently achieve their goals, you realize it’s not the events themselves or even the results that make them different. It’s their commitment to the process. They fall in love with the daily practice, not the outcome.

I love the process: the early morning rides, the lactate threshold testing, the cuts and scrapes and wipeouts, the lows of tapering, the nutrition powders and homemade gluten-free oat bars, the power meters and broken helmets, even the Chamois Butt’r. The daily practice, not the outcome. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when you cross that finish line and what was once a pipe dream becomes an indisputable fact.