Climbing 300 meters of the steep trail at Costa Rica’s highest peak, Cerro Chirripó, turned this reporter into a sweating, panting mess. The Chirripó trail is one of Costa Rica’s toughest climbs, and hikers normally take multiple days to conquer it. But on Feb. 22, 225 people will sprint up the mountain for an annual race, the Carrera de Chirripó.
With the struggle I endured on my short climb, it was hard to imagine anyone wanting to race up this mountain. It was even harder to conceive that hordes of avid runners and mountaineers have taken part in this body-punishing ritual for the last 25 years, many of them returning to the race year after year.
“This is the hardest race in the world,” said Francisco Badilla, who has raced in the Carrera every year since its founding in 1989. At 35, Badilla raced to win, but now at 61, he races for different reasons.
“My goal these days is just to get there and get back,” Badilla said. “The challenge is enough. Participation is enough.”
To prepare for each race, Badilla begins training two months ahead of time. Already familiar with Chirripó’s trail, he runs other mountains near San Gerardo for at least 10 hours a week.
Badilla owns the Hotel Descanso in Chirripó’s base town San Gerardo de Rivas, and he has constructed a racing shrine in the back lobby. A shelf full of trophies and racing medals sits across from a stone wall that also serves as a mini model of the Chirripó trail, and tiny wooden placards give kilometer markers.
Like the others in the area, Badilla’s hotel will be full on race day with runners and spectators alike.
“It’s a huge party for the whole town,” said Catalina Krolow, who has watched her husband compete 14 times in the race. “The emotion, the enthusiasm, the environment, it is just fun for everyone involved.”
The first Carrera attracted 49 runners, but the event now reaches its limit of 225 each year; people line up two days before registration to secure a spot. Though most tickets are sold at booths throughout Costa Rica, international racers can register in advance online. This year’s race will have 17 racers from abroad. Winners in each category receive a $500 cash prize.
“When we started this, we had no idea it would grow this big or still be going 26 years later,” said Rafael Fonseca, one of the race’s founders and an organizer this year. “The challenge just seems to attract people.”
Krolow’s husband Gerhard Krolow, a 78-year-old master’s track athlete from Canada, is one of those enthusiasts. Though he will be sitting out of the race this year due to a shoulder injury, Krolow tries to return each year to compete.
“There is just something about that mountain. It calls to you,” he said. His wife quickly interrupted him adding, “I would never ask if he loves me or the mountain more because I am not sure how it is that he would answer.”
Going there: The Carrera Chirripó takes off from the soccer field in San Gerardo de Rivas. Registration for this year’s race is now closed, but will open in November for the 2015 race. A calendar of other events during the race’s weekend is available at the race website.