On September 20, 2014, I ran the Tamarindo Beach Marathon in Tamarindo, Costa Rica. Of all the countries in Central America, Costa Rica is the one I’ve been most interested in visiting. It’s a peaceful, politically stable country with rain forests, diverse wildlife, active volcanoes, and numerous beaches. Tamarindo is on the Pacific coast. It was once a small fishing village, but has since grown into a large resort community. There’s a large beach where waves are constantly breaking, making it popular with surfers.
I discovered this race a few years ago on the race calendar of Marathon Tours & Travel. For the last few years, this race conflicted with other plans. When I looked this year, the race disappeared from their calendar.
In June, I learned that my friend Devin was doing this race. I first met Devin and his father Gary on a trip to Iceland. I learned from Devin that Marathon Tours & Travel no longer offered a guided tour in Costa Rica, but enough people expressed interest in the race that they offered a hotel package that included a discounted entry fee for the race.
It was WAY convenient to let them register me for the race. When I looked at the website for the race, I found the navigation to be confusing. Even when I selected English, most of the text was still in Spanish. Finally, when I made it to the registration page, it didn’t appear to be a secure page. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of entering credit card information on an unencrypted page. Instead, I faxed an entry form to Marathon Tours & Travel, and they took care of the rest.
To fly to Costa Rica’s Liberia airport, I needed to make connections in Atlanta. The flights from Atlanta to Costa Rica depart in the morning. Even if I took the earliest flight out of Minneapolis, I would only have 48 minutes for the connection. That’s not enough for an international connection.
Instead, I flew to Atlanta Wednesday evening and stayed at an airport hotel with a free shuttle. I was expecting to wake up at a civilized hour, eat breakfast at the hotel and have plenty of time to get to the airport. It didn’t work out that way.
I set the alarm clock for 5:15. After waking up at 3:30, I tried to go back to sleep. I eventually got up at 5:00. Breakfast didn’t start until 6:00, so I wasn’t in a big rush. While I was getting dressed, Deb called. She was wondering why I hadn’t called yet. I told her it was only 5:45. She corrected me. It was 7:45. The alarm clock in the room was off by two hours. I didn’t notice because I went to sleep within minutes of arriving.
I had to finish getting dressed and pack as quickly as possible, so I could check out in time to catch the next shuttle to the airport. I had to skip breakfast. The airport shuttle only runs twice an hour, so couldn’t afford to miss the 8:00 shuttle. After the shuttle dropped me off at the domestic terminal, I had to take another shuttle to the international terminal. I was lucky and caught that shuttle just before it left. I didn’t need to check a bag, so I went straight to the security checkpoint. The security line wasn’t long, and I was able to get to my gate just before they started boarding.
I was puzzled to see that the gate area was nearly empty. Apparently, most of the other passengers had tight connections. Everyone arrived at the last minute. The flight took off on time and actually arrived in Costa Rica early.
Including me, there were 12 of us who knew Devin. Half of us were on the same flight from Atlanta, and the others were on a flight from Houston that arrived a short time later. After arriving in Liberia, we all shared a shuttle to Tamarindo, which was about an hour away. It was hot at the airport, but the shuttle was air conditioned, and the driver gave us each a bottle of water.
We stayed at Hotel Tamarindo Diria, which is the largest beach resort in Tamarindo. We all had second floor rooms with balconies overlooking the beach. Most of our rooms were adjacent, so we could talk to each other when we were on the balconies.
The resort had a tour desk where you could book day trips, so I waited until I arrived before booking any activities. That was fortunate, since Devin and his friends did the same thing. We were all able to do the same tours. There were enough of us that we could negotiate a discounted price for the tours, yet we all knew each other. Devin’s wife Alida and friend Rosie both speak fluent Spanish, so we never had trouble communicating.
After checking in, we walked a few blocks to have a late lunch at Walter’s Place – a restaurant next to the beach that had excellent piña coladas. There were a number of good restaurants within a few blocks. We ate at a variety of restaurants, but we kept returning to Walter’s for piña coladas.
Next we went to packet pickup, which was right at our resort. We quickly discovered that this was a larger race than we realized. There were a number of large corporate sponsors including Toyota, Gatorade, Samsung and Asics. The race distances included 5K, 10K, half marathon, 30K and marathon. Those of us doing the marathon received flip flops and water bottles in addition to T-shirts.
Later in the day we went to another restaurant on the beach. We weren’t hungry enough for a full dinner, but we had drinks and appetizers. We discovered that it gets dark surprisingly early. Sunrise was around 5:30, but by dinner time it was already getting dark. Costa Rica doesn’t observe Daylight Time. Most shops are closed by 8:00. Most days we woke up early and went to bed early.
The weather was generally hot, but not as hot as I expected. Overnight lows were around 70, and highs were in the mid 80s to low 90s. What made it feel hotter was the high humidity and hot afternoon sun. We had one or two passing showers each day. Every afternoon, there was a thunderstorm.
Friday morning, we could afford to sleep in, but most of us were up by 6:00. The resort had a large breakfast buffet, and we had a leisurely breakfast. An overnight shower cleared most of the moisture from the air, so it felt pleasant that morning. I started feeling optimistic that if it felt the same way on Saturday, I could race for a fast time. We spent the rest of the morning swimming. First we went to one of the resort’s pools.
Next we went to the beach. It was the nicest beach for swimming that I’ve ever seen. We were in the middle of a shallow bay, between two long peninsulas. The water temperature was just warm enough that you could stay in it all day without getting cold. There were always large waves breaking near the beach. We were body surfing in the waves, although none of us were particularly good at it.
After lunch, we went on a wildlife tour. This was normally a morning tour, but we were able to persuade the tour operators to take us in the afternoon instead, so we wouldn’t have to get up too early that day. We hadn’t figured out yet that afternoon thunderstorms were inevitable.
The tour was by boat on a river through a national park. It was a long drive to get to the river. On the way we passed farms with acres of sugar cane. We also saw cows and horses, including these ponies.
When we got to the river, there was a large iguana on the dock, but it scrambled into the water before I could get a picture. The first wildlife we saw from the river was this group of bats, sleeping on a branch.
We were mostly looking for monkeys. By the time we got to the monkey habitat, it was starting to rain. We saw a few, but not nearly as many as we would have seen if it wasn’t raining.
Before long, we were in a thunderstorm. The boat was covered, but it was still difficult to stay dry. We weren’t seeing any more monkeys, so we went to a different part of the river to see crocodiles. It took time to find one, but it was worth the wait. This one came right up to the side of our boat. You don’t see that every day.
On the drive back to Tamarindo, our driver took a different route, so we could see the marathon course. It was raining, and it was getting dark, so it was hard to get a good feel for the course. We could see, however, that it was somewhat hilly.
Saturday morning was race day. The race started at 5:00, so we were all up early. We met in the lobby at 5:45, so we could walk to the start together. The races all started and finished on the street in front of our resort.
The course for the marathon was out-and-back. The shorter races started and finished in the same places, but turned around in different places. About five minutes before the start, they started a fireworks show that lasted until the start. There were also blue and red flames shooting up above the start banner. It was the flashiest race start I’ve ever seen.
The temperature was only a degree or two warmer than Friday, but it was much more humid. Common sense would have dictated abandoning time goals, but I decided to start the race on pace for 3:30 and see how I felt after a few miles.
As we started running, it was too dark to read my watch, so I ran by feel until there was enough light. With several races starting together, the start was crowded. It took a few minutes before I could settle into my own pace.
I’ve done other tropical races, but they all had flat courses. This one was rolling. The hills were never steep, but we were always running uphill or downhill. In combination with the humidity, it quickly became tiring.
Fifteen minutes into the race I heard a rooster. Then I heard a second rooster. Then there were several. You know you woke up early when you’re running before the roosters start crowing.
By the 5K mark, there was enough light to read my watch. I was going just a little bit slower than the pace I would need for 3:30. I didn’t even consider trying to pick up the pace. Realizing my early pace was unsustainable, I slowed down instead. By the time I reach 10K, I felt like my pace was sustainable. I was still running fast enough to finish within four hours, so I made that my goal.
As we got out into the countryside, we ran past farms with mountains in the distance. There was lush green vegetation everywhere. The soil was a rich reddish brown. It reminded me of Hawaii.
There were aid stations every one or kilometers. They had Gatorade in paper cups and water in thin plastic tubes that you could tear open with your teeth. They were similar to the tubes used for the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. I quickly got into the habit of drinking a cup of Gatorade and also drinking a tube of water.
By the time I ran 15K, the sun was getting higher in the sky. I realized that direct sunlight was going to be a big factor in the second half of the race. Soon, I saw the leaders on their way back. Most of the runners were from Costa Rica, but there were also a number of elite runners from other countries attracted by prize money.
I reached the halfway mark in 1:55 and began the return trip. I was getting hot, but I was still confident that I would finish within four hours, even if I slowed down. I underestimated how much hotter I would get.
On the return trip, I could feel the sun on my back. In between the aid stations, there were volunteers on bikes and motorcycles bringing Gatorade and water to the runners. I drank at every opportunity. At some of the aid stations, there were volunteers who would pour cups or pitchers of ice water down our backs. At others, I would drink a cup of Gatorade and pour a tube of water over my head. It helped briefly, but within a minute the cold water in my shirt would heat up in the sun.
At 30K, I was still running fast enough to finish in four hours, but I could feel myself slowing down. With 10K to go, I drank both Gatorade and water and realized I would need a bathroom stop before the end of the race. There were port-o-potties at the aid stations, so I decided to make a bathroom stop while I had the opportunity. That was my undoing. The port-o-potty was hot inside. I felt like I was in a sauna. When I emerged, I felt like I had been cooked. I couldn’t resume running, so I started walking.
At first I was resigned to walking the rest of the race. Then I realized how long that would take. After a few minutes, I coaxed myself to run at whatever pace I could manage. Before long, I was walking the uphills and running the downhills. In the last six miles, the downhills are longer, which helped.
Those late miles were slow, but I eventually finished in 4:14:37. The finisher medals had spinners in the shape of turtles.
I moved quickly through the finish area. I ate a piece of watermelon, but skipped most of the other post-race snacks so I could get back to the resort quickly. It was still only 9:15, and breakfast went until 10:00. I think it’s the first time I’ve been able to eat a full breakfast after running a marathon.
I was badly overheated. Breakfast was on an open-air patio next to the beach, and I couldn’t cool off outside. My room was air conditioned, but that felt too cold. I wasn’t able to regulate my body temperature. I eventually recovered by wading into the ocean. The water temperature was perfect, and the waves were soothing. Most of us spent the afternoon either swimming or sunbathing.
There was a post-race party in the evening. Most of us were too tired to go, but we could hear the music and the fireworks. Tamarindo definitely doesn’t skimp on fireworks!
Sunday was a busy day. We scheduled an all-day adventure tour at another national park that had trails, rivers, rain forest, a canyon and hot springs. It took about an hour and a half to get there. We started with horseback riding.
We stopped briefly by these waterfalls, where a few of us went for a swim.
Next we went tubing down a river with 25 sets of rapids. After a lunch stop, we had a zip-line tour over the forest and through a canyon. I’ve never been zip-lining before. I was initially nervous, but I could see that our guides were meticulous about safety.
We rode three zip-lines before reaching the edge of the canyon. Next, we rappelled into the canyon, swung across to the opposite side, and climbed up the canyon wall. Then we did four more zip-lines and climbed back out of the canyon. By the time I did the last zip-line, I was getting comfortable enough to do it upside down. We ended our tour with a soak in the hot springs.
We stayed just a little bit too long and had to walk back to our bus in the rain after the thunderstorm started. After the long ride back to Tamarindo, we had dinner at an Argentine restaurant that had good food at reasonable prices.
Monday morning, I got up early enough to take one last dip in the ocean before breakfast. Then we had to ride back to Liberia to fly home.
I loved Costa Rica. My only regret is that we weren’t able to get to the Arenal Volcano, which has been active for several years. Many of us were interested, but it takes four hours to get there and another four hours to get back. That makes it difficult to go there as a day trip. It’s tough to see a whole country in four days, but I think we saw a lot.