Monique Pua Mata is an accomplished endurance and cross country mountain bike racer, but this year is her first time competing in La Ruta de los Conquistadores.
"It lived up to expectations," said the current US marathon national champion after stage 1. "It is a hard race for sure... it's one of the hardest ones I've done."
As heavy rains happened much of the day prior to the start, Mata was concerned. She had heard years of stories of unimaginably thick mud, especially in the famous Carara National Park jungle section on stage 1.
"I was a little worried yesterday with the downpour, but today we had beautiful weather," she said. "Then I was worried on the first climb. I wanted to get it out of the way and was thinking about the jungle. But I was like, 'keep moving forward and stay in once piece and don't get flustered'. I stopped a few times to lube my chain, and I stopped in the rivers to wash off my bike, but I never got frustrated."
"I heard about this race years ago and always wanted to do it because you hear what a challenge it is. A race like this - whether you finish first or last - to conquer it is huge. In my head, I made it a little harder. I had something completely different in my head about the jungle. It was kind of nice though. When you expect the worst times two and it's worse, but not times two, it's good."
While Mata didn't find the jungle section as tough as she'd expected, the climbs did live up to their billing. "The climbs were everything that people had said. You're either going straight up or straight down."
Mata spent the day mostly alone and as the lead woman. The hardest part was not knowing where she was. "I was by myself a lot. There were a few guys I went back and forth with. Through the jungle, I stayed with two other people. Maybe I saw a total of four others. It was strange with 500 people out there to be by myself."
Mata said the course was well marked and that the people out on route were very supportive. What may have helped her most was good preparation.
"I knew it would be hard, so I prepared mentally. I expected the worst and kept moving. I also focused on my nutrition, which my friend [former La Ruta winner] Manny Prado had advised. I threw a pack on for awhile so I was constantly drinking."