In early March every year Belize hosts the La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge. Paddlers ranging from expert to novice travel from all over the world to compete in this 170 mile, 4 day canoe race in which the British Army keeps the official time. This is by far the largest sporting event in Belize and the crowds cheering on these determined paddlers can reach as many as 60,ooo people. In a country of just over 300,000 people that’s a turnout!
A great deal of attention is garnered by the teams competing for the top few spots but the mostly ignored and heart and soul of this race are made up of the heroic efforts of the rest of the pack. The Masters division is always hotly contested by more “experienced” paddlers and the Family, Female, Mixed, Pleasure Craft and Dory divisions make up the rest of the field. Peace Corps volunteers, Trekforce, a large contingent of ex-Pats and others are simply trying to reach the finish line alive and every canoe is racing the other canoes.
The effort required to complete each stage of this race is Herculean and 1st time racers are always surprised at what it takes to finish this event, every year people drop out. The entire field starts together each morning and trickle in throughout the day at the daily stopping point where most teams have support crews waiting with their camp set up. At the starting line the wake generated by 100 canoes in a shotgun start is a challenge to all the paddlers with canoes colliding, paddles clashing and teams trying to sprint off the starting line to separate themselves from the rest of the field and the inevitable capsizing canoes around them. Supporters at the finish line each day are treated to inspiring displays of intestinal fortitude as teams somehow come up with yet another burst of speed to overtake a canoe they have been chasing for hours or to fend off a team with passing on their mind. The roaring of the large crowds go a long way towards helping exhausted paddlers dredge up those reserves of energy they thought they had depleted miles ago. The finish line each day sees spent teammates high fiving and hugging as well as heartwarming displays of sportsmanship as competitors offer congratulations to teams that have fended off their best efforts.
La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge ends in Belize City to the biggest crowds of the race and is followed by award ceremonies, cultural dances and plenty of food and drink. Support crews load up their respective teams and well earned praise is abundant as every finishing team, some finishing with less than the three paddlers they started with, are champions reluctantly parting ways, going back to where they came from and their ordinary lives. Champions are champions though, even if they are bank tellers, tour guides, salespeople, and grandparents. Check out www.LaRutaMayaOutfitters.com for more information about the La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge.