Adventure on two wheels: A 100-miler in tropical heat

Karen Jarchow
Special to the Daily
The Rincon de la Vieja MTB 100 Challeng is Latin America’s very first and only 100-mile mountain bike race.
Jose Andres Vargas | Lead Adventure Media |

EAGLE COUNTY — Those of us who have congregated in the Colorado Rocky Mountains tend to share qualities such as a deep passion for the great outdoors, a sense of adventure and contentment in a mild climate. Our valley is full of athletic ability that thrives in mild to moderate temperatures. So what happens when you pluck a deceivingly delicate mountain flower and send her to the tropics of Latin America to compete in extreme conditions? Have a seat, grab some coffee and keep reading if you are curious.

My name is Karen Jarchow, a Vail Valley transplant since 2007. This valley has opened so many adventurous doors for me. In 2010, I started racing mountain bikes in our local Vail Recreation District Mountain Bike Series and quickly progressed to the elite level. I owe my current adventures to those first steps this valley offered me. Flash forward to present day; I sit here after returning from my first international racing experience.

Like many Vail locals, I share my adventures with my partner in crime, Jeff Kerkove. Together Jeff and I packed our bikes, loaded a plane in Eagle and about a day of travel later landed in Liberia, Costa Rica, to embark on the Rincon de la Vieja MTB 100 Challenge.

This race is unlike any other, being Latin America’s first and only 100-mile mountain bike race. The Rincon de la Vieja 100 Mountain Bike Challenge travels through five different microclimates and circumnavigates the active volcano Rincon de la Vieja.

I knew I was going to face some battles, as heat and I have never gotten along very well, not to mention my sweet spot for racing really taps out near the 100-kilometer distance, not at 100 miles. So how does a mountain flower prepare for an event seemingly so far-fetched it could be comical?

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Luckily, Jeff and I reside in Eagle, where temperatures are warmer and our west Eagle trail system provides miles and miles of roads and trail that are similar to the riding in Costa Rica. Little did I know, riding on the hottest day in Eagle wouldn’t even come close to the conditions we would soon experience during the race.

We stayed at the race resort, Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin, in a newly built set of rooms that we renamed the American Compound; it housed six of us who were invited from the states. The stay was perfect — comfortable beds, clean water, amazing food that you knew came from the land straight to your table and a list of fun activities that made you want to return without a bike.

We were there for the adventure of the race, so we kept the pre-race activities to short spins around the resort prior to towing the line.

The start of the race was set for a brutal 5:30 a.m., which later proved to be an example of cultural differences, as we didn’t start rolling until 6 a.m. Two-hundred fifty riders started rolling through the downhill start that would eventually become the finishing climb. We had approximately 20 minutes of neutral rolling before the race began in the Northern Pacific dry plains of the Pampa Guanacastera.

The first section provided some of the steepest roads I have ever seen! Being a climber, I loved it and admittedly went a little too hard in the first two hours, hitting each short climb with vigor. I found myself sitting in third behind American Sonya Looney, and as we started our very muddy but stunning climb into the clouded forest, I backed off my effort, reminding myself that I had 100 miles to complete. In retrospect, I wish I had backed off a lot sooner now that I know the conditions I would see in the miles to come.

As we made our way up to their Continental Divide, the third-place female caught me with the help of a man she was being paced by. My stubbornness got the better of me and I blasted in front of them, creating a small gap, only to have her brought right back to my wheel via her male riding companion. I rode off her wheel for a while and then fell off as I could not keep up their pace with the rising temperatures.

After the Colorado-like long climb up to the Continental Divide, I was ready for a ripping descent. Instead, I got a long, gradual big ring descent with little gear kickers thrown in for good measure. This is where my body started really feeling the effects of the rising temperatures. Most of the race up until the top of the divide was below 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but as we descended into the tropical rainforest temperatures rose into the 90s and 100s and remained there for the rest of the race.

I fueled as much as my body would allow, fighting the start of nausea, muscle cramping and headache as we came upon the Junction of the Rincon de la Vieja and Miravalles volcanoes. We were now in true mountain biker’s heaven in a more narrow limestone trail where having some technical skills kept you having fun and ignoring fatigue. From the end of this trail to mile 90 is where my body went into complete shut-down mode.

At first I found myself stopping numerous times with a nauseous pain, thinking I had to pee but never could. I would get back on my bike and carry on, spinning lightly in hopes my body would right itself. Next went my head, going from throbbing to spinning. On the final stretch of trail, a mere 10 kilometers from the finish, my vision started to blur and narrow. At this point I didn’t even know if I was hot anymore. I just wanted to lay down and fall asleep. I had stopped sweating, my vision was continuing to blur and I was experiencing a intense confusion.

Now back on the Pacific Slope, my final stop was near a support car as it was casting an inviting, small amount of shade. At this point, I had no idea where I was in the field, nor did I care. Luckily, the people in the support car spoke English and tried their best to get me going. They poured cold water over me and I will never forget the shock and pain it sent through my body. I am truly lucky they were there, and looking back, they completely saved my wilting mountain flower body from permanent damage.

Turning down medical help. I returned to our hotel, where I sat in the shower with shoes, helmet and jersey still on until I felt strong enough to stand.

Sixty-four ounces of water, electrolytes and a deep nap later, Jeff returned to the room to check on me, inform me that 100 people did not finish due to the heat and share his own stories of battling the temperatures. The high’s maxed out at 111 degrees, something not even the locals expected.

Although I didn’t complete the total 100 miles of the Rincon de la Vieja, I got what I was wanting — adventure. Each race and adventure I take on, I learn something new, grow a little stronger, a little wiser and live to see another day. A good friend, local and adventurer Ellen Miller, once told me that she has learned far more from the mountains she hasn’t been able to summit than the ones she has. Those words ring very true through this experience, and I am continually fueled to carry on and take on what new adventures may come.

A heartfelt thank you goes out to the race’s director, Juan Carlos Solano, for his hospitality, generosity and the amazing opportunity he offered to me. If you are looking for a one-day adventure in Costa Rica, I highly recommend the Rincon de la Vieja Challenge 100 MTB race — a race that is quite honestly the hardest day I have ever had on a bike and I cannot wait to do again.

Karen Jarchow lives in Eagle.

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