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The Race for Last Place Begins

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The crazy, nocturnal Chronopost appear determined to keep the team that includes Times news editor Jon D. Markman from finishing last in the Raid Gauloises endurance race. But his team nearly reaches the breaking point after an attempt to hike 50 miles in one day across deep, dry sand.

Dawn in a jungle lagoon smothers your face like an old dishrag. It stinks, and you fight to breathe.

Gagging and already sweating at 4:15 a.m., I fired up our stove to make coffee and turned my headlamp in a semicircle to see my teammates sleeping in their canoes. Snuggled in survival blankets, they looked like tin-wrapped burritos.

Moments later a muffled shout came from the direction of the sea, and I saw a light 50 yards upstream. Had another team paddled all night from Sierpe in this confusing maze of canals? Soon two canoes tied together Indian-file emerged from the darkness to deliver the answer.

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It was the four remaining members of Les Fous Allies de Bahlsen. Climbing aboard the Raid checkpoint’s wooden platform, leader Maxime Laurent explained that they left Sierpe at 5 p.m., expecting to arrive by 11. But clouds had covered the moon, making it hard to see in the watery labyrinth, and by the time they stopped at 1 a.m., they thought they were lost.

In fact, they had navigated superbly. Their only mistake had been not paddling around one more bend, where they would have rammed the checkpoint. They fell asleep in their canoes, Maxime said, desperate and heartbroken, only to wake up 3 hours later to hear our stove roar to life. We repacked quickly, leaving behind anything that might weigh us down--food, jackets, sleeping bag, one tent--in our attempt to cover 50 miles of Peninsula de Oso beaches today and hit the ride-and-run in Carate tomorrow.

The folly of that idea didn’t become apparent for half a day, because as soon as we crossed back into the jungle we felt like veteran bushwhackers. Carrying a lighter pack, and no longer cowering from rain, we welcomed the mud and heat and pressed hard up hills.

This big spit of land, part of the remote and seldom-visited Corcovado National Park, writhed with virgin forest life. We spotted a pair of wild toucans, their shiny yellow bills curving down to their breasts. Remarkable two-lane highways of leaf-toting red ants crossed our path. Immense pairs of screeching scarlet macaws flew from tree to tree. Bananas, impatiens and flamboyant purple orchids grew everywhere.

We wondered how far the X-O Cats and Chronopost had gotten last night. We had seen no place to bivouac for five hours and depended on passing Indians to point out the way at crossroads.

At noon we finally reached the beach at a village called Drake--and had our answer. It was just as Canard had predicted. Up on a bluff overlooking the ocean we spied the X-O Cats and Chronopost together on the covered patio of a small bar and walked up to greet them.

They looked up at us humorlessly. A strapping woman in a bikini sat on the cement floor surrounded by bandages and smoking an unfiltered cigarette. She smeared Betadine on an ugly gash that had rent a teammate’s foot. X-O Cats chief Aziz Ojjeh crouched on a bench in the corner, his head in his hands. A blond woman wearing a Chronopost shirt slumped against a post, gazing out at the ocean. No one wanted to talk, but finally an X-O Cat named Gilles, a Pyrenees mountain guide, spoke up.

They had lost their way in the jungle soon after leaving the canoes, he said, and walked for hours in the broken moonlight, not certain if they were headed in the right direction. At one terrifying spot, they had had to cross an inlet on a slippery, steeply pitched log suspended 25 feet over the ocean. These shores, we had been told, teemed with sharks, crocodiles and poisonous snakes. Tough as that spot had been for our team, I told Gilles I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like in the dark. “Mmmm,” he said, smiling darkly. “But we couldn’t go back.”

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They had dragged into Drake at 3 a.m., he said, and slept on this patio until half an hour before we came along.

I wanted to sympathize but could only pity. It was their own fault.

Chronopost and the X-O Cats pushed off while we lunched on packs of French spice bread and plotted strategy. We realized now that we could only finish in two days if we took a shortcut: Instead of following the coast to the next two checkpoints, we planned to cut across the jungle highlands--saving eight hours of walking. We would accumulate massive penalty points, but it would help us finish.

I called the owner of the bar over, showed him the map and asked if the route were possible. He hesitated, so I cut to the big question. “Are there many snakes up there?”

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Si ,” he said. “Muchas, muchas vipers. Terciopelos. Bad ones.”

“And along the coast?”

“No, just in the highlands.”

That settled it. No matter how long it took, we would follow the coast.

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The beach stretched in front of us like a long crescent moon--radiant and white. Flawless, translucent waves rolled in from the Pacific. The beauty was practically lost on us as we walked with our heads down, aimed at the next point of land, and then the one after that, and the one after that.

Near sunset we caught up with the Bahlsen team and reveled in the glory of our isolation under the suddenly orange, scarlet and purple clouds. Not another soul appeared--nor did planes roar overhead, nor ships float past--as we shared Chirripo horror stories and laughs about our race for last place.

These were our true compatriots in the world now: four marketing executives for a Parisian cookie company who had put together a team not to win, but just to do it. “France cannot be France without grandeur,” Charles de Gaulle is reported to have said. That characterized their attitude and ours: The vanity of imagining ourselves able to occupy a grand place in both the material and spiritual worlds appeared to reach an apotheosis at this moment, still two days from the finish line, and I felt fulfilled in a way that even the next two days of difficulties could not erase.

Bahlsen pushed on through the jungle again when we decided to stop to swim and bivouac about 6 o’clock. I cooked the last meal in our packs--dehydrated risotto Milanese--and Kaz managed to buy some fried plantains from the startled senora at a lone house just inside the bush.

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But the euphoria of the day began to wear thin as the air grew cooler. Mike complained about the spoons I had brought; his stomach had begun to convulse again. Kaz writhed from the itch of bites; he had been saying for a week that his superior Japanese skin didn’t require mosquito repellent. Catherine had twisted her left knee and mourned it quietly in a sulk.

Up and down, up and down: first the mountains, then our mood swings. Just as we turned in, another “up”: The X-O Cats and Chronopost suddenly bore down on us out of the dark, their headlamps bouncing. We thought they were way ahead of us. In fact, however, they said they had taken a long lunch at the last checkpoint and found themselves pushed to walk at night by their lead guide, a big, bearded galoot from New Zealand named Gavin.

We shook our heads after they passed. We may have been out of food, over our heads and in last place. But at least we weren’t stupid.

SAND, SHARKS, CRABS

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We determined again at breakfast that this had to be our last day. We would walk until we dropped. Ahead was a long hike on the sand, then the horses at the run-and-ride. How long could it take?

But the route held more surprises. As soon as we turned up from the beach into the jungle, the sky let loose with thunderbolts and heavy rain. We were soaked by 6 a.m. And the path ambled at such crazy angles through an abandoned cacao plantation that we had to keep stopping to reorient ourselves from our soggy map.

Our optimism grew just as wet, lightened only by the delightful discovery of monkeys. Before starting the Raid, organizer Gerard Fusil had warned me that monkeys would disturb our sleep with their nighttime screams. Ominous as that sounded, I had been disappointed not to find any yet.

Yet as we trudged across a swollen stream around 8:30, we suddenly heard a loud screeching overhead. We looked up into the tree canopy and saw three white-headed capuchin monkeys galloping after each other, swinging from vines, noshing on bananas and yelping like Curly, Larry and Moe.

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Clearly, these were party animals. Monkeys are so well adapted to their environment, we learned later from a biologist, that they can take a break from eating and reproducing to just have fun.

Not quite as well adapted ourselves, however, we had no time to lose and quickly pressed on. After another hour the jungle spit us back out onto a beach called Playa Llorona and there was Canard again in another bizarre bivouac carved out of a dent in the trees. With his long, tanned face creased by a crooked grin, he asked if we had seen the X-O Cats and Chronopost.

We answered that they had passed us the night before and supposed that they were hours ahead of us. “No,” Canard said. “They would have had to cross here, and they haven’t yet.”

So the crazy, nocturnal Chrono Cats, as we had begun to call them, appeared determined to keep us from finishing last.

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Proud as we were to be ahead, Playa Llorona turned out to be 20 miles of deep, dry sand at the edge of the Pacific, nearly matching jungle mud for harsh walking.

Half a week later, in fact, at a party after the race, I asked the top competitors which part of the race had proved hardest--expecting most to say Chirripo Grande. Two out of three pointed to Playa Llorona. A mere beach? Hardly. I could not imagine trying to cross it at top speed, as the front-runners did. We later learned that several top competitors had collapsed along here--undone by the sun, the pace, the lack of fresh water and the ruthless gray monotony.

Time seemed to fracture and whirl. Our team broke up that day for the first time, each person lost in his or her own thoughts like dazed survivors of a shipwreck. We waded through the sand for seven or eight hours under the cloudy sky without talking, sometimes 200 yards apart.

We stopped twice to hack open green coconuts with a machete. We needed the six ounces of sweet milky liquid inside because we lacked fresh water; only brackish streams trickled from the jungle.

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Unfortunately, by this time it turned out that Eric had developed a more threatening thirst. He wanted to quit and join our assistance crew that night for a birthday dinner. We’d lasted 10 days, he said. Wasn’t that enough? It was tempting . . . but out of the question. I told him to cheer up.

Now it was an hour before nightfall, and it became clear that we wouldn’t come close to finishing--the ride-and-run still the timeless, meaningless “eight hours” beyond our grasp.

We decided to bivouac just before the final shark pen at a spot we named Hermit Beach because a Raid doctor no one seemed to like was stationed there by himself. The sand around his campsite literally crawled with monstrous little hermit crabs hauling their ungainly homes around on their backs. They covered anything you put on the ground within minutes.

The doctor left us for a final meal with his neighbors at the estuary two miles up the shore, and we raided his stockpile of food and gas. I hauled some oily Cheddar cheese out of his sack, some stale crackers, a bag of dehydrated veal with noodles, two Ramen packs, half a candy bar, rice and a pouch of Bechamel sauce.

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Kaz hiked into the jungle to find fresh water while I prepared to cook. Soon, though, the edge of our tent looked like a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock movie--our ponchos covered in a welt of frenzied hermit crabs. Then it began to rain.

As we massed together under an extension of our tent roof, passing the miserable candy bar for dessert and shooing away crabs, the straggly band of Chrono Cats passed us--their bobbing headlamps silhouetted against the dark ocean. Perhaps this time, we murmured quietly with resignation, they had us beat.

At least we had not beat ourselves.

By 6:30, we fell asleep jammed head to foot inside that stuffy tent, lulled to sleep by a unique Costa Rican lullaby: the rhythmic sound of marauding crabs scratching at our door, the wing beats of low-flying bats, the steady rain, rain, rain, and the surf.

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