Brett Wolfe: First One-Legged Racer to Finish Ever
November 22, 2001 Costa Rica
Brett Wolfe, who lost his leg in a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1990, and was nearly killed when, in 1997, he was hit head-on during a race by a jeep, this year became the first one-legged rider to complete the brutal La Ruta, a race in which 30% of racers dropped out. Over the 300-mile course, with a three-day combined 24,000 feet of elevation gain, Wolfe dehydrated, got hypothermia, ran out of fuel, fell only once, and lost 5-8 lbs. He rode day one in 11 hours, 45 minutes; day
two in just under 9:30; and, day three in 8:20. He finished 167th. He was not last.
I started to write my usual verbatim story of how we went through the race: the obstacles of heat exhaustion, running out of fuel, hypothermia, pure abuse, and it started to become a novel. And some how it didn't seem that important. I believe La Ruta is more than about the top three guys, or even about elite athletes like me who race at another level. Don't get me wrong, they did a fabulous job out front, Tinker (Juarez) and (Jose Adrian) Bonilla and crew. What impressed me more were the gritty, real stories that happened along the way, the amazing companionship, the magical realism that made this race, in my eyes, so unbelievable.
I have enclosed a few anecdotes from people whom I met and interacted with at the race. I am sure there are countless impressive stories out there, but here are few from the wolf....
Juan Acosta made his first impression on me when we were on the rolling farms and hill section between check point 2 and three. Most of us Northerners were overheating in the recorded 104-degree heat. I was unbelievably close to heat stroke and I was slowing down my heart rate and pace just to continue foward. Juan checked in with as we rode together and poured water on my back without asking. I told him not to waste his water but he said he had plenty and proceeded to help others in a similar fashion.
And his generosity didn't stop there. He continued to reach the checkpoints just before me and would tell my supportive sweetheart that I was coming soon. And at the last stretch of stage one, when my pace was dragging due to countless hike a bikes, he nodded to her at the finish, unable to talk before he started his own IV from dehydration.
His last gesture was to nod, as he couldn't speak, and inform Elana that I was on my way, before he had to start his own IV solution with the help of race staff after the Stage 1 finish. He also helped two other racers who went into shock on the bus ride home that night . He stopped the bus, bought IV saline at the local pharmacy, and inserted their IVs. One of the individuals recovered, the other spent the remainder of his race in the hospital.
My partner, Elana, who after watching Shannon the Stoker, the back rider in the only tandem team in the race, help me out at a checkpoint, jumped in to help not only me but countless others who came into the checkpoints throughout the race. She held bikes, warmed people suffering from hypothermia (including the knucklehead wolf who didn't think about liquid cooling), cheered on racers, and gave psychological support to other racers besides myself.
The nameless individual who held an umbrella over my partner as she feverishly worked with me to get my core temperature up to normal so I could continue on in stage two. He held my coffee when he realized that my involuntary shaking was so bad that there was more coffee on the ground than in the cup.
The long, grey-haired fellow, an American living in Costa Rica working as a scientist, who completed event wearing no shirt (except in stage 2), jean shorts (don't ask me how as I had no skin on my backside after day 1), and his sons. Their family constantly gave psychological support. One son, Rom, placed 30th and the kid is only 17 years old and prefers surfing...
The racers who were unable to continue, sacked, but who stayed to help others by donating clothes at critical stages. Several individuals gave me clothes at the top of Stage 2 to help bring my core temperature back up to functional level (from hypothermia) before continuing on the race Stage 2.
Juan, a local who spoke very little English (and I very little Spanish), who befriended me at the beginning of stage one and checked in with me after each stage to see if I made it. He finished the last seven kilometers of stage three without a seat after his seat post broke. Muy Fuerte. He has only really been riding for four years and he just rode a 300-mile stage race with 24,000 feet of climbing in the most adverse conditions I have ever ridden in.
And another local individual who complimented me and then mentioned he was bar fly for three years who just started riding to try to get healthy. He finished the complete La Ruta. Those of you who think it was too easy should note there was about a 40% attrition rate by the finish..
Andrew who breaks his derailleur on section two of stage one and continued with a makeshift single speed only to finally break his chain five miles from the finish of stage 1 and continued to push his bike to the line without complaint.
Unlike some gringo who nearly cost me the race (I made the cut-off by three minutes) when I offered support on section 1 of stage two, a hike-a-bike section. He didn't want support, he expected me to fix his bike while he watched. I lost my patience and told him make single speed on a hike bike section.
The countless tico (word for local) racers who befreinded me on the course, complimenting me on my riding and determination and strength, giving me Spanish lessons along the way, jumping out of the way when they knew I was going to be faster, just as I got out of their way on the hiking and climbing sections.
The local kid in the banana plantation who poured water on the crazy gringo with one leg to keep his northern blood cool. The local, not even a race official, who caught my bike when the river became too strong and swept me off my platform, to the concerned local who followed me across the railroad tie bridge not coddling, just spotting.
To the police who, stoic at the beginning of the race, complimented me and, on the last stretch of stage three, adopted me without words. They first started leading me through these incredibly deep puddles, headset deep, pointing out the higher lines. It helped that I was opening the gap on several groups of riders that I considered needed a bit more humbling. When I thought the motorcycle cops were finished with me and they would not pass, they instead started pushing cars out of my way, freeing me to open up the throttle on the last four kilometers.
Suddenly I had police escort stopping traffic and clearing a path on the way to Limon. I was flying. I was able to finish strong to give, as the race organizer put it, 150%, for myself, to the racers that helped and encouraged me along the way, to the countless locals who adopted me, to my beloved partner, and to the country that gave me a magical race.
Brett Wolfe, MountainZone.com Correspondent