Tackling the epic Coastal Challenge trail run in Costa Rica

Edmonton runner Emily Sabo nails it

A Canadian runner from Edmonton, Alberta, Emily Sabo, recently completed the epic Coastal Challenge trail run in Costa Rica, and it changed her life.

Sabo is an accountant working in finance for a regional airline in Edmonton, AB. by day, but when she’s not balancing the debits and credits, she’s recently been hopping across a river in South America and running through a jungle as part of a race over 200 kilometres long. Some people like happy hour or a day at the spa, and some people find the utmost fulfillment pushing their bodies to the limit and in so doing learn about themselves and feel totally alive. Sabo is decidedly the later.

The Coastal Challenge is one of those special races. It is a six-day, 235-kilometre tromp on varied terrain along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica with a daily mileage between 23 and 49 kilometres and elevation gain/loss totally 10,000 metres. The race weaves into the Talamancas, a coastal mountain range in the southwest corner of the country and finishes near the Panama border in a small fishing village. It is considered one of the top trail running races on the planet.

“This race was unlike anything I’ve ever done,” says Sabo. “The heat, the humidity and the terrain were all things I was not used to.”

Sabo signed up for the race with a friend after reading about it on social media.

“It’s a different sort of challenge as compared to a larger ultra that’s done in one go, as you do have the opportunity to recover each day and push in all the nutrition, however, you have to push yourself to get back out there amidst compounding injuries and fatigue,” she says.

“The race had its own set of challenges as I wasn’t used to some of the terrain, particularly the river crossings, and also the blistering heat.”

Being from Edmonton, training for a tropical run through the jungle was one of the biggest challenges.

“I did a combination of strength training, yoga and running, however, as a result of the timing of the race much of the running was done indoors due to extreme cold temperatures,” she explains.  “In January, I put a focus on getting some heat training, and frequented hot yoga and bikram studios. As this was not an A race, my training was varied and focused on getting as much time on my feet as possible.”

As a stage race, at the end of each day, runners focus on recovery, set up their own camps and then swap stories with their new best friends from countries around the world. Because of the nature of the race, Sabo often found herself in the company of others on course and afterwards and it made the experience that much more memorable.

I normally find myself alone on the trail in most races, however, this particular race allowed me the opportunity to bond with other runners and have some good trail chats to keep you going on the long stretches,” she says. “The camaraderie built at this race was unlike any I’ve been to before, and I walked away with many lifelong friends who pushed and supported me throughout this adventure.”

That’s not to say there weren’t, shall we say, issues that cropped up.

“One of the biggest challenges I faced was injuring myself day two,” says Sado. “All the training in the world can’t prepare you for an acute injury. I took a tumble and my knee cracked into some rocks, causing a large amount of swelling and a gash on my left knee. The medics were amazing, put in a few stitches post stage two and sent me on my way. This impacted my speed and agility, particularly causing issues in downhill descents throughout the remainder of the race.”

Sabo always ran recreationally but never competitively. She also played college basketball. After she began running marathons a friend suggested she try a 50-km trail race. She was hooked.

“The race went much better than expected and I realized how much more I like the exploration of the outdoors, along with how each race is much more focused on completion versus time,” she says. “Less than a year later and I was running my first 100-miler.”

Like many ultra-runners, with Sabo, it’s about the journey, the adventure, the self-exploration and the honesty that she most enjoys.

“I honestly enjoy so much about this sport and how it’s impacted my life,” she explains. “Due to the unpredictability of ultra running, there is always something new and exciting you can add to your list that is sure to test your preconceived limits.”

Living in Edmonton, Sabo spends her weekends with friends or by herself driving to and from adventure hot spots in the Rockies such as Jasper, and Kananaskis. She encourages others to give ultra running a try, but cautions that people should always listen to their bodies.

“It has been one of the most rewarding experiences as a result of the challenge, the places I’ve seen and the community that’s been built,” she says. “It has changed who I am and all the pain and suffering are an integral part of my identity. Don’t forget, it’s about the journey not the destination.”

Speaking of journeys, Sabo is looking forward to a few 50K races to kick off her season in addition to running the Mount Hood 50 miler in July. But, from the sounds of it, few will be able to compare to the Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica.

“The Coastal Challenge is so much more than a race, and really just an amazing life experience to be shared with others,” she says.


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Age and Mentorship in Ultrarunning

Ultrarunning is still a fairly obscure sport populated predominantly by the endurance world’s outliers. That said, ultrarunning popularity has been and continues to expand phenomenally. It has been historically pursued and dominated by Master athletes. In fact, even a few years ago, one would struggle to find a large number of athletes under the age of 30 in most ultramarathons. Even in 2013, approximately 54% of ultrarunning participants in North America were in the Master (40+ years old) class. Another 33% were 30-39 years old.

In the past few years there has been growth in younger demographics with many more athletes in their 20s and early 30s competing in ultras of all types and distances. There are even teenage runners participating in and placing quite high in competitive fields. Ford Smith, 17, of Austin, TX has been ripping it up from 26 to 100 mile events. Andrew Miller, 18, of Corvallis, OR is another who has been diligently crafting his ultra resume since he first entered his teen years. And then there are the even more surreal adolescent ultra phenoms such as Colby Wentlandt, 13 –the youngest to complete a 100 mile event at age 12, or Tajh, 10, and Teagan, 8, Redden, brother and sister who crush 50K trail runs as part of their everyday family adventuring!

A crop of the young guns are coming to ultrarunning from relatively recently completed collegiate track and cross-country careers. Others transitioned from elite (and successful) road-running into the world of mountain, ultra and trail-running. Then there are the mountain climbing and ski machines that have easily found their running legs. Not only is the expanding magnetism of ultrarunning attracting younger athletes, but this new blood infused into the sport is fast. On both the men’s and women’s fronts, these folk are winning regional, national and even international events with increasingly deeply competitive fields.

While races are won on the day, young runners, as a group, have not yet begun to break down many course records (CR) that stand on iconic and classic routes both domestically and internationally. The bars have been set, sometimes decades ago, by those veteran runners that spent much time in the sport, experimenting with and learning the myriad of nuances that culminate in exceptional ultra performances.

Naturally, the landscape of ultrarunning changes. The demographic shifts and expands and an increasing number of stakeholders result in an expanding universe. New runners bring raw speed and, possibly, great talent into the ultra gene pool. However, the nature of ultrarunning is far more expansive than physicality or some sense of imbued aptitude. Ultrarunning, while situated first and foremost in the individual, is built on community and no small part of that is the process of mentorship. Following in the footsteps of veterans and CR holders, the new generation of ultrarunners has begun to reap the benefits of mighty mentors.

Under Hal Koerner’s tutelage, the Rogue Valley Runners shop in Ashland, Oregon doubles as a training stable for a slew of very fast young ultrarunners. Kilian Jornet, possibly the greatest endurance athlete of his generation, has continually pursued legendary mentors the likes of Bruno Brunod, Stéphane Brosse and Pablo Vigil. Dominic Grossman, of Los Angeles, has drawn from his relationship with local legend Jorge Pacheco in leading to his own ultrarunning prowess in Southern California. Grossman describes: “Jorge taught me the standard of competitive ultrarunning: train hard, believe in yourself, listen to your body, and don’t give up. The details will work out if you’re consistent and keep at it. Four years later, I’m a much better runner for his guidance.”

This inclusion of mentorship and the greater supportive community in young athletes’ experience will help in leading them to greater feats than seen in the sport to date. Furthermore, this care can aid athletes in developing sustainable practices while simultaneously benefiting the sport by ensuring the passing on of the tightknit fellowship in shared suffering from which ultrarunning first emerged.