How does a fortysomething suburban working mom prepare to spend six days camping and running 155 miles through Costa Rica’s jungles and mountains?
I found out by getting to know Tamara Buckley Johnson of Pleasant Hill, California. I occasionally run with her and her ultrarunning group, Team Diablo, which is named after Mount Diablo in the Contra Costa region east of Oakland. When she mentioned that she’s traveling to Costa Rica to do The Coastal Challenge Rainforest Run January 30 through February 4, I had to hear more about this arduous odyssey in a dream destination.
Tamara, 46, has never traveled to Central America and never before participated in a multi-day staged event that combines trail running with camping. She works as a marriage and family therapist and is the mom of two daughters, ages 15 and 22. She started long-distance running at age 35 and graduated to ultras in 2006, finishing dozens of 50K – 100K trail races and four 100-milers, including the Western States Endurance Run.
The Coastal Challenge Rainforest Run will draw 67 runners from eight countries. It’s organized by TCC Adventures, which hosts similar races in Bolivia and Panama. The route, following trails near Costa Rica’s Pacific coastline, is divided into six stages that vary from about 12 to 37 miles daily. Event organizers transport each runner’s overnight supplies to the next night’s campsite.
The Coastal Challenge motto: “Be Ready for Anything.”
Here’s what Tamara had to say about why she’s doing the event, how she’s preparing, and how she fits her running into her regular life:
Sarah: Why are you participating in The Coastal Challenge?
Tamara: Because I want a different kind of running experience. I love adventure, and I’m easily bored by repetition. My friend Kelly Ridgway participated in The Coastal Challenge in 2009 and said it was by far the best running experience of her life, so she encouraged me repeatedly to join the challenge. There’s no doubt that when I wake up in the morning, I am hugely motivated to run by the fact that I’m training to run somewhere remote, beautiful, and challenging.
How do you think it will challenge you in different ways than ultra trail runs you’ve done before?
I’m having a hard time even imagining how this will play out. I think it will be all about physical and emotional pacing. It will be important to keep my mind as well as my body in good shape each day with the effort being spread out over six days. I’m going in with the mindset to run, have fun, finish each day, and enjoy the sites as opposed to racing an event.
Tell me about your peak training weeks leading up to the event. Have you altered your training for it, and if so how?
I have definitely altered my training for this event. I’ve taken fewer rest days and have been running consistently back-to-back long runs. After a long run of 20 to 30 miles on Saturday, I would typically take a rest day, but for this race I go out and run on Sunday for 10-12 miles and again on Monday 8-10 miles. I run four days a week 8-10 miles, one day of 12-15 miles, and a weekend run of 20+. I do take one day off and do nothing. I also added the stair master several days a week and an extra day of core work. I’m concerned that I have not had enough heat training, but for the next two weeks I plan to spend more time in the steam room at the gym.
What are you most excited about—and most nervous about?
It’s been a blast getting all the gear together, and I’m excited to put up a tent by myself for the first time. I’m also excited to see Costa Rica by foot and likely some parts of it seldom seen by most visitors. I am even excited to see what my body does after running day after day. It’s so interesting to me to discover what the body is capable of—or not.
I’m nervous about the silly things that I cannot control, such as the snake population or pissing off an alligator. By far my worst fear is getting lost. Anyone who knows me will confirm that I have a difficult time with directions once I leave my driveway. It’s my understanding that there are long periods of time when we will be running on our own and that careful attention to the directions at the pre-race morning meetings is important. Also, this is the first time I will be away for ten days from my family for a running event. I’m nervous about leaving for that length of time, and also the fact that they will not be there to support and cheer me on.
What kind of special gear are you bringing in addition to the running gear you typically pack for ultras?
I’ve made so many trips to REI, I think they all know me by name. I have not done a great deal of camping in my life, so many of the items on the list I did have to purchase. I bought an “action packer,” which will hold all of my gear, clothes, and anything I will need for the trip. It looks like a large black cooler that has wheels and locks, and it is very sturdy and will be transported to the finish line each day. I purchased a small one-man tent, a hammock, an extensive medical kit, sleeping sheet, pillow, mosquito netting, lightweight quick-dry camp towel, ear plugs, blister repair kit, water purification tablets, insect repellant, and a very small chair. There were many little items I bought that most likely I will not need but just looked so cool that I just had to have. In the past I’ve camped for two to three consecutive nights, but this will be my first time camping for six nights. I’m confident this part of the trip will not be a problem for me, as I normally can adjust well to discomfort and new situations. [Editor’s note: Famous last words? ;-)]
The course goes through rain forests, cloud forests, mountains, and along the Pacific Coast. Even though early February falls in Costa Rica’s “dry season,” the tropical climate could deliver some strong storms. How are you preparing for the weather and the varied terrain?
I have not prepared specifically for tropical weather or storms. As an ultrarunner, I’m not easily intimidated by weather conditions—in fact, my motto is, “bring it on!” The elements only make the event more memorable for me. I love the challenge of different conditions, circumstances, and experiences, and it certainly won’t stop me from doing something I want to do.
Do you know anyone else who’s running it, or will you go solo?
I’m joining my friend and runner Kelly Ridgway. I think there are forty-five individuals in the Expedition Route and only fifteen are Americans. It will be fantastic to run with and get to know runners from all over the world. [The event has two categories: the more difficult Expedition, which is 30 to 40 percent longer and has timed cutoffs; and Adventure, which is shorter and not timed. Tamara is doing the Expedition.]
How did you get hooked on ultra and trail running?
I started running in college for conditioning while on the tennis team. I found that I liked running better than tennis, so I quit the tennis team and continued to run, but I didn’t run more than five miles until 1999. My sister urged me to run the Chicago Marathon, and I did so in 2000. I ran as many as thirty marathons between 2000 and 2007, and I began running ultramarathons in 2006. I have started five 100-milers and finished four: San Diego 100, Angeles Crest 100, In the Hood 100, and Western States. Vermont 100 I dropped at Mile 68 due to severe stomach issues that I could not get under control.
How do you fit ultrarunning and travel like this into your life?
I’m fortunate to make my own schedule, so I am available mornings to run and train during the week. I’ve been a Marriage and Family Therapist since 1993, specializing in children and treating most childhood disorders. I have a busy private practice and work less than a mile from my home three days a week. The weekends are more challenging, and the guilt of being gone most Saturdays on long runs for eight to ten hours is definitely there. I think my family has learned, as well as I have, that I am not a fun person to be around if I want to be on a long run or at a race and I don’t go for whatever reason.
My family is extremely supportive of my running, and for all my big races they have been there to crew and pace me. They have made many sacrifices, and for that I am so thankful. I have always felt that my passion for running has more of a positive effect on my marriage and children than negative. I am happier, more relaxed, and a healthy role model for my kids. I think it’s very important to continue to fulfill myself as an individual as well as a partner and a mother.
As for the financial part of my running, I work hard at my job, I make decent money, and I pay for all of my running expenses myself. I do not ask my husband to support my running financially—this is my hobby, and it feels good to me to work hard and pay for my own experiences. I am not a big shopper and not into designer clothes and expensive jewelry. If I’m going to spend money, it’s typically on my children or my running.
Thanks, Tamara, and good luck to you!
I’ll publish a follow-up report from Tamara in mid-February after she returns from Costa Rica. You can send Tamara well-wishes in the comments below, and if you’ve participated in one of TCC Adventures’ events, let us know what you thought of the experience.