The Ultimate Race


A gentle rain began to fall soon after midnight, streaking the mud on my glasses and softening the sound of my horse’s hoofs on the jungle floor. In the humid dark, the contralto voices of a million frogs thrummed, and the crazy blue flashes of a world of fireflies painted a brilliant canvas of motion and light.

Only four miles to go now for my team in the Raid Gauloises, and we were so tired that the final straightaway felt strangely more like the end of a long, restless night’s sleep than the culmination of one of the world’s most inventive and taxing athletic contests. We had been canoeing, trekking, rafting or horseback riding in the jungle and on beaches more than 14 hours a day for 11 days--the last 24 hours straight without sleep or food--across the width of Costa Rica.

We had wet and blistered feet, bandaged knees, filthy faces, sore stomachs and tortured nerves. Yet we marched or giddyapped on--three horses shared among five people--the final checkpoint mere strides away now as a crescent moon rose through clouds over a crashing surf to the east.


An ambition both powerful and unknowable had driven us and 170 other men and women to compete in this race. In fact, competitors laugh among themselves at that persistent question of reporters: Why are you doing this? The answer always ends in a shrug. To win, of course. Or to finish. Or to promote a cause.

The creation of French radio journalist and sportsman Gerard Fusil, the Raid Gauloises (pronounced gal-WAHZ) aims to be the athletic world’s premier endurance event--an environmentally correct but exotic cousin of Hawaii’s Ironman triathlon or the Sahara Desert off-road race known as Paris-Dakar. In 1989, the first year Fusil persuaded the French cigarette maker Gauloises to sponsor his dream race, it was run in New Zealand. This year, it will transpire in Ethiopia.

Last December, it stretched in seven unmechanized stages from a canoe launching off the beach at Limon, on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, to a parachute jump over Quepos, on the Pacific. First prize: 200,000 francs, or about $40,000. The winning team finished in 7 days, 2 hours, and the slowest in 11 days, 5 hours.

Unlike a triathlon, which requires brute force, the Raid demands a marriage of muscle and mind: Teams had to use a compass and study 15 topographical maps to find their way on Indian paths in the jungle, read tide tables to know when to cross ocean estuaries and develop complex strategies to balance the amount of food, sleep and gear necessary to travel as quickly as possible. Each team had to include at least one woman and would be disqualified if any member quit. Poisonous snakes, crocodiles, malaria, broken bones, heat stroke, pneumonia and mental breakdown were constant dangers.

This is considered great fun in France, from which 80% of the contestants hail. The Raid has become a major sports and cultural event there, with dozens of physical education teachers, canoe racers, industrialists, soldiers and house painters willing to train for a year and to part with some portion of the $10,000 team entry fee. Television news programs devoted up to 20 minutes a day to coverage, and reporters filed daily on the teams, most of which were sponsored by companies or governmental bodies with bankrolls of $30,000 to $60,000.

So what was I, the lone American, doing there?

A French outdoor clothing company had the odd idea to sponsor an international team of journalists. I trained alone in California by running with a backpack in the Santa Monica Mountains, lifting weights, learning to canoe at Newport Harbor--and then learning to parachute at a paratroopers school in northeastern France. I only met my teammates--a French newspaperwoman, a Japanese photojournalist, a British ski store owner who writes for mountaineering journals and a French mountain guide--in Costa Rica, three days before we started. We were a ragged but scrappy squad that had just one objective: To finish.


The unlikeliness of it all reverberated in my mind as the finish line finally neared. Sponsors’ money had bought items like Gore-Tex ponchos, but cash could not protect me from the sharp memories of fear, exhaustion, hunger and rare elation that increased in intensity as I rode that last night deep into the midnight storm.

Race day had dawned for us 11 days earlier in Limon’s shabby Hotel Acon at 4:15 a.m., a wake-up hour we had to get used to. Music from a disco downstairs had kept up half our team until 1 o’clock. They rubbed their eyes raw when we reached the beach because the sun was already pounding down as hard as the waves.

Seventy gray rubber canoes lined Playa Bonita for the 7 a.m. start--two per team. A TV helicopter hovered just past the white water, and the drone of a giant generator for the photographers’ lights drowned out the sound of the surf.

This would be the first and last time all teams gathered together, and contrasts were stark.

The teams of real athletes received rubdowns from their assistance squads and swallowed complex-carbohydrate drinks to boost their energy. Our team gobbled breakfast bars, sipped coffee and struggled to figure out the life vests. I taught our photographer, Kazuma Momoi, how to paddle.

Suddenly, I felt the crowd moving forward. Contestants lined up next to their canoes. I grabbed a paddle just as the starting gunshot rang out. From the stern, I guided my canoe successfully through the heavy surf, but a blast of air from the helicopter blew my boatmate’s hat into the water. It was an inauspicious but prophetic start, more Marx Brothers than Indiana Jones: Instead of driving fearlessly toward the open sea, we doubled back in a circle to retrieve the hat. By the time we grabbed it, we had successfully staked out last place, a position we would rarely relinquish for the next 11 days.


To keep from losing each other in the ocean, our team lashed our two canoes into a makeshift raft. We rapidly learned to row together and were shocked to find ourselves passing another crew as we rounded a point. After three miles in the ocean, we rode onto shore with the waves, crossed a spur of land on foot, then put into the Tortugero Canal. In the transition we passed three more teams, and our spirits soared.

The canal resembled Disneyland’s Jungleland ride, a fact both disappointing and reassuring. Dark green, twisted mangrove trees rose steeply from its banks. The strong blue of the vast Caribbean sky seemed to stretch infinitely, levitated by heat waves.

As we rounded corners, we could see the pack far ahead of us, a few canoes much closer and a couple behind. And after three hours we passed under a railroad bridge on which a dozen Costa Rican kids hung and played. They cheered us on and cried out that there were just five kilometers to go. We felt lightheaded with delight: After months of preparation, we were finally racing.

Then came a decision that would change the course of the next 11 days. Eric Charamel, our leader, thought he had found a shortcut in the maze-like map of reedy canals. We darted left into a small canal and expected to miss a big oxbow, perhaps coming out ahead of some dumb teams that hadn’t noticed it. We lunged at our paddles and shortly arrived in the big canal disappointed not to have cut off anyone; in fact, we saw no boats at all.

We kept paddling forward for an hour, seeing no one. This was curious. We pulled over, had a look around and determined that we had missed the finish. Then a Raid patrol boat appeared; the skipper informed us that we were off course. Sheepishly and painfully, rubbing on sunscreen and sweating from the heat, we paddled back the way we had come, discovering that our shortcut had bypassed another tiny canal that marked the finish.

We paddled humorlessly up that final passage--our frustration muted by the excitement of spying a sloth hanging upside-down from a tree and seeing a yellow-bellied sea snake zip past our craft--and pulled in last. A giant TV camera recorded our humiliation, and half a dozen photographers’ motor drives whirred as we offered explanations and crawled up the bank to shore.


A buzzard circled overhead. We felt dejected, tired and relieved. Then a happy thought dawned on me. We had survived the first day. We were Raiders.


The next morning we awoke in a tent along a road in Hacienda Grana de Oro, about 2,800 feet high in the Tallamanca Cordillera. We had driven there in jeeps from the canoe finish along wildly angled dirt roads and figured ourselves at the end of civilization.

Here the foray into the deep jungle would begin. Starting at 5:30, teams began to trek into the foothills of Chirripo Grande, at 12,860 feet the tallest mountain in Central America, in the order in which they finished canoeing. Our last-place finish merited a late 8 a.m. start--a handicap from which we would never recover.

A light rain fell as we checked our gear. Each person would carry a 22-pound backpack, food, a sleeping bag and a long, sharp survival knife. We split up two tents among us, as well as other essential equipment like a machete, stove, emergency flares and first aid kit.

Our clothes stood in bright contrast to the other racers. The others wore serious khaki jungle gear. Because we were sponsored by Degre 7, a stylish French outdoor clothing company, we wore pink-and-yellow nylon pants, purple-and-yellow T-shirts and fuchsia hiking boots. The first few minutes of walking were the last time those colors were recognizable as anything but a shade of brown.

Ten minutes into the hike, rain began sliding from the sky in dull gray sheets. The trail, which arched over a handsome grassy finca before cascading into the jungle, became a twisted rope of mud. After two hours of splashing through swollen streams and slipping to our knees every 50 yards, we were soaked and mud-covered. We would not dry off for five days.


Compounding the misery was our fear of snakes. At a pre-race briefing in the capital of San Jose, Raid organizers displayed a live fer-de-lance. They told us this snake was, pound for pound, the most venomous in the world--and responsible for 90% of the fatal bites in Costa Rica. Most hills we would be hiking would be boiling with them.

A herpetologist assured us that a person had to step on a fer-de-lance to be bitten--so walk carefully. Then doctors showed us how to administer a serum in the event of a bite, but warned us that most bites in the jungle were fatal because a victim had to reach a hospital within three hours.

Oh, and two other things:

* If you are allergic to the antidote, it may kill you. So determine if you’ve truly been bitten by a poisonous snake (triangular head, gray and black markings) and aren’t just suffering from hysteria. Wait five minutes, for instance, to see if you are in intensifying, intolerable pain. That’s one sign. Unstoppable bleeding is another, since venom contains an anticoagulant.

* If bitten by a coral snake--mostly red and marked with thin yellow bands surrounding a fat black band--you had to take a special antidote. If bitten by a mostly red snake marked with thin black bands surrounding a fat yellow band, not to worry. The underlying message appeared to be: If you’re colorblind, you will perish.

The idea of watching where you stepped sounded easy at the briefing, but as a practical matter it seemed impossible. Our feet slipped all over, and we reached out to steady ourselves on any available rock or vine. This heightened the tension of the cold, sloppy hike--and the need to keep our heads down kept us from enjoying the jungle’s deepening green beauty.

Yet there were moments of wonder and surprise in those first hours. About five miles into the hike, we came upon our first Indian home--a thatch-roofed hut set next to a dirt barn decorated with cutouts of Santa and reindeer. Despite having read a lot about Costa Rica, none of us realized that people lived in the jungle.


As we arrived, filthy and sopping wet, this family of Bribri Indians took pity on us. We looked hungry, so they offered up a bunch of bananas. We protested that we had no money; what would there be to buy in the jungle? But a smile and thanks was all they appeared to need.

Neatly dressed Indians repeatedly showed up on our route after that, quietly appearing to point out the right route to Chirripo, then silently returning to the jungle. The shadows grew longer as we trekked farther west, and our hopes of reaching a clearing called Chirripo Arriba became more remote. We repeatedly struck off in the wrong direction and backtracked, losing time and energy.

As it grew dark I began to despair of finishing the day, much less the race. I was wet, exhausted, fearful of snakes and doubtful we’d ever find the right way. Then I nearly reached the breaking point. The slippery path careened downhill and broke to the right; to my left, the muddy bank dropped off sharply into the bush and the river.

I stood petrified, the rest of the team marching ahead and just one person behind me. I swore I would quit right there. My right leg trembled. I couldn’t move. I gestured for the person behind to go ahead; he couldn’t get around me. Finally, I lunged forward and continued. “I’m no raider,” I thought, sick with self-contempt. “I’m a city boy from L.A., and I’m going home tomorrow.”

But still I moved forward, one step after another, deeper into the dusk, deeper toward new resources of self-control, deeper into the jungle. I might falter again, but now I knew I wouldn’t quit.

The first night in the bush we made two awful discoveries: Our stove was broken, and we didn’t have enough food. Our British teammate, Mike Browne, managed to fix the stove with a rubber band and a sliver of wood, but we wouldn’t be resupplied with food for three days. The light eater in charge of our team’s food had packed each of us one Cup-a-Soup, one pack of mashed potatoes, a slice of cheese and a candy bar for each night--about 3,000 calories less than I figured we needed.


This demoralized us, and I slunk into the tent at 6 o’clock feeling we could not continue on those rations. The night was hot and very humid; we lay still and sweaty on top of our sleeping bags and listened to the jungle. We expected screeching monkeys and giant buzzing insects; instead, there was barely a sound, the silence only punctuated by lonely birdcalls, a rustle of leaves and the slap of someone batting a tiny mosquito.

We awoke at 4:15. This was the first morning in which we would have to put on wet, dirty clothes in the dark--and it never got easier. I unzipped the flysheet and stepped out again into the mud. Mike, an expedition veteran who has climbed in Alaska and the Himalayas, had awakened first and fixed us each a cup of tea with milk and sugar. This became our routine.

The Raid is hard because it never stops. Unlike an adventure vacation in the wilds, there is no time to relax. Yet when I interviewed the winning teams after the race ended, I discovered that we had had it comparatively easy.

The top squads like GIGN, composed of members of an elite French anti-terrorist police unit, went into the jungle as light as possible. They took no tent, sleeping bags or stove. At night, they strung a light plastic tarp over sticks gathered from the forest, laid a poncho on the ground, then curled up between the layers in a thin Mylar survival blanket. For food they carried scientifically measured packs of grains, legumes and powders containing high concentrations of calories and vitamins.

They suffered, they said, but they flew.


We strode uphill into the dawn with one new objective: keeping our feet dry as long as possible. Wet feet blister far more quickly than dry ones because of the increased friction.

The goal proved elusive. Hiking up and down a ridgeline about 500 feet above the Rio Chirripo, our boots repeatedly sank into mud up to our calves, and by 8:15 our socks were soaked again.


Marching into Sitio Hilda, a flat spot in the jungle and the Raid’s first checkpoint, gave us a much-needed rush. As we approached about 3 p.m., a three-man video crew appeared over a rise and recorded our late arrival. Suddenly it felt again like we were participating in an athletic event--not just a masochistic exercise.

By dusk we had bathed in the river, had our feet examined by a doctor, and were the happy recipients of charity by the camera crew. They invited us in out of the rain to their light shelter and offered us warm food, pate and fruit. At last we enjoyed a moment in the jungle, which we could finally see as the mist cleared.

It was to be our last happy moment for 48 hours, as a cameraman named Jeff warned me before I headed to our tent to sleep. Ahead of us loomed Chirripo Grande, another 9,000 feet straight up. “The last three days were tourism,” Jeff said. “Tomorrow you begin the Raid.”


Our assault on Chirripo began half an hour late, at 5:45. We cursed our slowness at breaking camp: every comfortable minute you lose dawdling at daybreak is a nasty minute lost from your advance near dusk.

The first two hours were flat, and we kept our boots dry. At one point we met a Raid staffer leading a limping woman in combat dress. She pushed back a shock of blond hair, smiled grimly and complained of a genou entorse --a twisted knee. She was out of the race. We felt both sorry and gleeful: Her team, Les Fous Allies de Bahlsen, had been disqualified; we would not be the first to lose a member. By the end, 15 more competitors would drop out.

Soon the going grew harder. We had to wade across the icy, swiftly moving Rio Chirripo twice. Each time, the water rushed past at our waists, and we faced the river head-on--never turning sideways, lest our knees buckle in the crosscurrent.


At the last crossing, we filled our water bottles for the last time in running water, dropped in tiny clarifying tablets of Micropure, and headed up. We began at 3,900 feet. Our goal: to camp at 10,000 feet. We had seven hours till nightfall. If we could climb 900 feet an hour, we would make it.

A jungle mountain is more like a pile of leaves than a pile of rocks. After ascending from the river valley floor we found no stones at all on Chirripo. It was like climbing a giant compost heap. Each step sounded a “thump” instead of a “crunch.”

For the first four hours we climbed like monsters, easily meeting our goal. But soon the altitude and steepness took its toll. We climbed straight uphill, often scrambling on our knees and pulling ourselves forward by yanking on tree trunks and bamboo shoots. Fewer than half a dozen flat passages stretched longer than five yards. We shimmied on our stomachs through muddy tunnels of bramble bushes, and we grew very thirsty.

Occasionally, through a break in the tree canopy we could see how far we had come, but mostly our vision remained fixed to the ground. Our universe drew tighter and tighter; soon we could only fix our eyes a step or two ahead. The mountain became our cocoon, our prison, our master. And inevitably, we slowed: First to 600 feet an hour, and finally just 450.

I felt disoriented from the exertion and lack of food as night grew nearer, and by the time we decided to bivouac at 8,800 feet, a two-hour hike short of our goal, my thoughts began to spin. Catherine Vautrin, a strong 33-year-old mother of two who writes for the big northeastern French newspaper La Liberte de L’Est, had walked like an Amazon for three days but now could barely keep her head up. We tried to make a fire to dry our boots. The wood, mostly soggy and rotten, flared but declined to burn. The jungle is an irrepressible tease. We went to bed wet again.


Overnight it rained hard, and at midnight I prayed for about the fourth time in my life. “Please God, don’t let it rain all night and all morning,” I begged. I figured it would be impossible to reach our next goal--Chirripo’s peak--if it rained.


In fact, the rain stopped long enough to make breakfast, but by 5:30 it began again--harder than ever. Despite the lousy conditions, I had begun to enjoy the day. As we broke through the tree line, the vegetation changed from the suffocating density of giant ferns to the gray scrub brush of a tundra.

But by the time we reached the checkpoint at 10,932 feet at 8:30 a.m., a frigid wind swept away the charm. Now, for the first time, we were not just wet but freezing, too. Yet we were not alone. Waiting for us--the last Raid team--at this ugly, cold spot high on a remote jungle mountain stood a rescue unit of 15 people. We may have been crazy, but they looked so absurd shivering there in the rain that I gave in to my first laugh in a day and a half. Only the French.

We now had to make a fast decision: To continue to the next checkpoint--the summit of Chirripo--or head down on an old Indian trail. The summit had been our goal for three days, but our ultimate goal was to finish the race with all five members. Eric foresaw a hypothermia threat if we had to bivouac up there in a storm. The vote wasn’t even close once we discovered we would only be assessed a five-hour penalty for skipping the peak.

We spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon slipping, sliding, bumping and screaming down a narrow mud chute of a trail. Kaz won the prize for the best head plant: a full somersault that ended face first in a puddle. Catherine hit her head so hard on a limb that she nearly cried. I banged both shins so often that blood seeped through my heavy trousers.

Yet after five hours of this nightmare, we began to see rocks on the trail. Then the jungle opened into a long, open slope of grass. We encountered a fence--civilization!--and a cow. We floated into the checkpoint at the tiny, 3,600-foot-high town of San Gerardo on a cloud of triumph and marveled at seeing people doing ordinary things.

A doctor working in a dank, converted work shed checked our feet. Dr. Olivier Aubry--my vision of a Foreign Legion medic come to life--had Popeye biceps bulging from a black T-shirt, narrow oval glasses and the soft hands of a diamond cutter.


After a few moments of prodding under the light of a single, flickering bulb on his bloody bench, he pronounced my feet among the best he’d seen. I looked at them--shriveled, wet and thickly blistered--and told him I could barely imagine what others’ must look like. He shook his head and winced. “ Tres mal, “ he said, very bad. Then he lectured: “An army marches on its feet. You must smear them with Vaseline every day from now on to waterproof them. Many teams will lose members soon from infected feet. Don’t be one.”

After five days in the jungle, we had felt the worst was over and the next five or six days--rafting, canoeing and hiking on the beach--would be a vacation. How wrong we were.

Monday: Rum, white water and the apocalypse. The Raid Gauloises Thirty-five teams of athletes from around the world jumped into canoes off Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast on Dec. 1, 1990, to begin one of the world’s toughest endurance races. The teams--consisting of four men and one woman--sped to the Pacific through eight stages of competition. The fastest took 7 days; the slowest, 11. To win, teams had to finish with all members. Only 25 did. Next year: Ethiopia. 1. Canoeing: A 17-mile paddle north in two canoes--first in the ocean, then a canal. Teams from New Caledonia finishes surprising second. 2. Jungle Trekking: A 40-mile hike up a side of Chirripo Grande closed to the public for decades. Summit is highest in Central America. The two Costa Rican teams finish 1--2. 3. Running: A 20-kilometer sprint without backpacks through hilly dirt roads and a banana plantation to General Viejo. Cheering townspeople and field workers line the course. 4. Rafting: A 65-mile jaunt on the Rio General through rapids rated up to Class V. Each team must have a member who is a certified river guide. Wildlife encountered along the shore: iguana, herons, crocodiles. 5. Canoeing: A 15-mile paddle on the Rio Terraba. Rain-swollen river is unusually fast, and several teams capsize. Then 15 more miles on flat Rio Sierpe to ocean. Smart teams sync their start to favorable tide. 6. Beach Trekking: A 40-mile hike through deep sand along gorgeous coastline. Worst snak danger. Panthers, sharks and crocodiles patrol shores. Scarlet macaws fly overhead. Top teams travel night and day. 7. Ride & Run: Three horses for the five teammates in final 25-mile stage. Riders must keep runners in sight. Travel must be synched with tides to allow crossing of estuaries. 8. Parachuting: Three teams at a time fly 45 minutes to jump into a jungle clearing. This stage became optional because many racers had foot injuries. After successful landing, the Raid was over. A team of French anti-terrorist police wins. Team Equipment: (one per team) * 2 Flares * Gas stove * Rescue beacon * Machete * Set of 15 maps * First-aid kit * Snake-bite antidote (plus syringes) Backpack contents * Compass * Headlamp * Food * Canteen * Mirror * Polar fleece sweater * Socks * Survival blanket * Sleeping bag * Tent * Waterproof jacket * Waterproof matches