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CTS coach Jim Lehman: La Ruta was 'the hardest thing that I've done on a bicycle'

La Ruta De Los Conquistadores, a four-day mountain bike race, begins at the Pacific Ocean and ends on the Caribbean shore. In between, lies about 236 miles of Costa Rica's rugged countryside, including deep stream crossings, brutally steep climbs, endless miles of mud and some railroad bridge crossings that test the courage of mountain bike racers brave enough to give it a go. - Photos by Ammie Pulford and Luis Castro (fotica.com)


Carmichael Training Systems premier coach Jim Lehman stared through a gaping hole in a railroad bridge, then made his leap of faith. He didn't have far to jump, but the conditions and a rumbling river far below made for some high drama in the 2010 La Ruta De Los Conquistadores mountain bike race in Costa Rica.
Lehman won the men's 40-49 classification and finished 17th overall in what many people consider to be the toughest mountain race in the world.
"It is an amazing race and I would definitely encourage people to do the race, but I’m not sure I need to endure that again, especially since I had such a positive experience this go around," he said.
A Colorado Springs resident and father of two, Lehman was part of a CTS contingent of athletes and coaches that competed in La Ruta earlier this month. He shared some incredible details of his experience with PikesPeakSports.us. Here is the interview.

You won the Men's 40-49 classification and placed 17th overall. That's an accomplishment that doesn't appear on many resumes. How does it feel?
It was great experience.  Having never been down there, I really didn’t know what to expect.  It can be challenging to maintain fitness and motivation this late in the year, but I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so I wanted to make the most of it.
Fortunately the Front Range weather was pretty cooperative as well and we had great training conditions up until the week before we left for Costa Rica. I wanted to go down there well prepared, so I could ride hard each day and recover for the next day.  For the most part that plan worked and I felt good each day and probably had my best legs on the last day.
As for winning my category, I had looked at the results from the previous years and thought it was feasible, but you never really know until you get down there and start the race. To have everything click and to be able to put together four solid, consistent days is a true accomplishment down there.
You face a lot of adversity each day during La Ruta, so if your body and your bike hold up each day then you’ve truly had a successful race.  

Everyone talks about how tough this race is. It's billed as the toughest race on the planet. What do you think, and what makes it so difficult?
I don’t know if it is the toughest race on the planet, but I will say that it is probably the hardest thing that I’ve done on a bicycle.
I’ve ridden the Leadville Trail 100 twice and I thought that was hard until I went to La Ruta. The first stage at La Ruta took roughly the same amount of time as Leadville and I still had three more days to go!
There is a reason they refer to La Ruta as an adventure race.  Each day you had a slew of challenges thrown at you: hiking through a muddy jungle, river crossings, climbing 34-percent grades, ascending and descending volcanoes, riding on railroad tracks, walking across railroad bridges and riding/walking through knee deep water.  Every day was incredible: incredibly hard and exciting at the same time.

What was the biggest challenge for you in this race?
Conquering the first day was the biggest challenge for me. I had heard stories and seen photos of Carara National Park, or "the jungle" as people affectionately call it.
This day involved multiple river crossing, hiking up muddy slopes, climbing over/and around downed trees and climb 12,000 feet in 68 miles.
We were fortunate in that Costa Rica was at the tail end of its rainy season and we had several dry days leading up to this stage, so navigating the jungle wasn't as difficult as it has been in the past.
We still had to deal with some significant mud, but at least it was never more than ankle deep.  Once I had this first stage behind me I felt more confident and less intimidated by the race. This isn’t to say that the other days were easy, but the jungle was the day that had me the most concerned.  

What moment in this race will you always remember and why?
Each day was full of memorable moments, so it is tough to single out one particular moment for the race.  However, I think the railroad bridges will always have a special place in my heart.  I don’t think there is a race promoter in the US who would even think about using those bridges in a bike race.
For the locals, these didn’t seem to pose much of an obstacle, but I must admit that I was a little tentative as we approached the first one. Once again, I had heard stories and seen photos of these things so I had some preconceived ideas of what to expect.  Once I found my rhythm it wasn’t too bad, until we came to the first “missing” railroad tie.  Normally this wouldn’t be such a big deal as it really isn’t that far to step, but keep in mind that railroad ties are wet, we’re wearing cycling shoes, carrying our bikes and there is a river flowing below you. It took a few moments to compose myself and then summon the courage to step across the gap. It was a truly unique racing experience.  

As we understand it, the race begins at the Pacific Ocean and ends at the Caribbean. What was it like riding the final miles and crossing the finish line, and did you ride it right into the ocean?
The final stage started in the rain and we had wet conditions for most of the day, which turned out to be a blessing as this stage normally finishes in 100-plus degree temperatures. We were able to ride in relatively cool conditions most of the day and that made it much easier to maintain hydration levels throughout the stage.
However, there was one negative side to this precipitation. The final 10km of the race were on a dirt road that paralleled the coast line. This stretch of road also happens to run right through a wetlands area and when it rains a good portion of the road is covered in ankle-to-thigh deep water. While it was fun to ride through the first few water holes, my tired legs didn’t think it was funny after a while.
Luckily this didn’t last too long and then we were back on a paved road for the final run into the finish.
We rounded the final corner to a fantastic view of the Caribbean. It was a little too far to ride right into the ocean, but after I handed my bike to one of our mechanics, I took off my helmet and shoes and walked straight into the water. I washed the sweat and grime of the day off, bodysurfed a few waves and suddenly I felt like a new man. What an incredible experience: Four days prior we started on the Pacific coast and now I was swimming in the Caribbean, truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

A native of Akron, Ohio, Lehman has coached at CTS since 2000. He earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Villanova University, and received his master's degree in exercise physiology from Northern Arizona University. He is married to Jessica. They have two children, Luke and Lily.

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