Fuego y Agua 2016 Race Recap: Part 2 A New Dawn

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The Agua section of Fuego y Agua, the night section, the section where I would no longer be in the company of my running partner and husband whom had lots of navigational knowledge and back up head lamps, was, for me, the hardest challenge I’ve faced. I am incredibly humbled to have finished this race- an epic, grueling race and my first 100K ultra marathon. I am even more humbled to have won first place female. Below is my tale of enduring this second section of the race. 

After 12 hours and 33 miles of grueling technical climbs in the Nicaraguan heat…I reached the halfway point of the Fuego y Agua 100K, also the start line and finish line. I went straight to my bag, took off my shoes, dipped in the lake and changed. I re-packed my bag and got all of Andy’s stuff ready too. When he came in and discovered blood in his urine, we waited for a doctor to see what might be going on. As we waited I saw Anna and Markus leaving ahead of me. I felt competitive. Even more, I felt afraid of being left behind. If I left here without Andy, I would be alone.

Upon the doctor’s recommendation and good judgment, Andy stayed where he was. I kissed him goodbye and ran forward in a hurry. As soon as I left the beach, all of the excitement drained from my body and the happy music faded.

Just a few kilometers in, the chalk arrows turned right off the road and onto a trail I recognized from the morning. Fear and confusion and uncertainty grasped at me. In a fury, I sent a text to my sister, “send me all the maps you can find.”

Just then three dogs came rushing towards me, teeth baring and barking. I caught one by the eye and understood it would love nothing less than to bite me, so I threw my phone in the air and kicked it in the face.

My mind spun wildly off path during these first few kilometers of the second half, but I continued running straight to the town, which, when finally located on my maps, promised an aid station.

When I reached the town, a young woman ushered me up a trail to the aid station. Two quiet, calm young men encouraged me to keep going. They told me I was in first place. I told them they were wrong but they assured me that no other female had gone through. They told me, it’s a single trail and I wouldn’t get lost. So, I kept going.

They were, in my opinion, wrong about the latter.

The trail was a dark maze. Arrows went missing and all of a sudden one trail became three.

I encouraged myself to keep going further into the darkness. I narrated my search and discovery of every precious white flag and chalk arrow. I asked, “what was that?” to fleeting shadows.

I winced as I counted the scorpions out loud- one, two, three. Spiders with their iridescent eyes added a magical touch to the experience. The bullfrogs were up to no good though, I was sure. They jumped at just the last second, out of nowhere and then sat smugly with their big eyes and warty skin. ‘I just don’t trust them,’ I kept saying. Although I had yet to see any pythons, and though I knew it’d be unlikely that one would drop down from a tree and strangle me, it didn’t stop my mind from thinking about it.

In hindsight this all was likely quite comical- a mad woman running through the night hunting arrows, commentating her every move and jumping at shadows.

After what seemed like hours of drama with bullfrogs, dark trails and impossible-to-find white arrows, I heard the loud music of checkpoint Las Cuchillas. I began to see signs of civilization. I saw a small house or two along the trail. A little girl sat on a stone wall along the dirt trail, enjoying the evening, possibly watching runners and doing a bit of her own commentary. I’d love to hear how she would have described it all. She said “por aqui,” so I ran down the path to which she pointed and found a couple friendly faces. I had never been so happy, I thought. Relieved, but not losing any focus, I asked for batteries and a report on the person in front of me. Mark from Florida, gifted me a set of batteries and informed me, the next person was just a few minutes ahead. Feeling more driven than before, I pressed further into Maderas’ darkness. I didn’t refill. I moved quickly. Nothing would stop me from finding someone to accompany me over this volcano.

I saw a headlamp in the darkness above me. “Markus!” The headlamp turned back at me. “Hey?” I felt relief, gratitude and disbelief and thanked God incessantly for answering my prayers. At that moment, my determination became unshakeable.

Markus kindly informed me that snakes run away from the vibrations of your feet and there are no dangerous animals on Ometepe. We were most definitely faster together. Two sets of eyes finding the arrows, two brains discerning the trail.

An impossible amount of time passed as we meandered all over and around the base of Volcan Maderas, up and down, climbing but never actually ascending. We jotted down jungle paths, through banana tree forests and small rural villages. When we found the aid station- La Palma- we were greeted by a pleasant couple and another runner- Arian. The three of us left together, proceeding through a late night funeral march and down a long road of barking dogs and dark houses. When the arrows disappeared, we consulted the maps that I so desperately collected from my sister in Pennsylvania, while fighting off dogs on Ometepe. Speaking of dogs, there were a lot of them here- barking, growling, showing teeth and chasing me. Markus was experienced at ignoring barking dogs, so I followed his lead. We ran ahead of Arian, but he would catch us again later.

After reaching what sounded like the lake, on the farthest end of the island, we finally began going up- truly up. I couldn’t wait for this moment. I still had dreams of finishing at 3am and I just wanted to get going. Disillusionment would hit hard.

As we climbed into Maderas’ fascinating veins, we climbed into another world. The sky was no longer visible; the vines and trees crowded in. Leaves of the brightest green grew brighter and brighter, almost neon in the night. The mud grew high around our feet and the tunnels of green grew dense around our bodies. The air dripped heavy on our heads. We were quite literally in a cloud. Maderas’ walls rose up higher and higher with no end in sight. Grasping for rocks and roots, and steering clear of fire ants, I fought my way up.

We climbed and climbed but never arrived. I prayed and begged for the crater. My incessant iterations “come on crater,” “where are you crater?” soothed me as I took one painful, tired step after the other. I looked at my watch: ‘We have to be there soon.’ 1 hour passed. I thought: “I cannot bear it anymore.” Another hour. And another. As I watched hour after hour pass, I searched for something inspiring or beautiful about my present situation. But even the bright green hues could not free me from the hell of never arriving.

Maderas wore on us. We stopped, grasping a tree limb or anchoring on a small rock. We breathed, regaining some small will to go on. And then we continued climbing. We repeated this as needed- Stopping. Breathing. Climbing. I began to wonder if we were in a time warp. A trap. A maze. I heard voices that weren’t there. I lost all sense of direction. Though we climbed higher and higher, I began to think we were being pulled deeper and deeper into Maderas’ belly. I thought to myself, “Is Maderas playing a trick on me? Fuego y Agua, is this a dark joke?”

Trapped in Maderas’ belly, I began to fight for only one thing- the way out. I never knew a determination like the one I found on Maderas. Though I’ve endured quite a bit in life, Maderas showed me I could pull strength from somewhere even deeper. I could go further.

With Arian’s help, we barreled through Maderas’ belly and into her heart. The crater was misty and cold, and wet. Two men lead us over to a camping tent and a few bottles of water. We chatted, but not for long. I wanted to go down and get out.

The hike down was perhaps equally tormenting. Just when I thought I was going down, it went back up again. I wanted to go straight down, but the trail went left and right and every direction. We stuck together, slow and steady through steep and muddy terrain on legs barely standing and feet waterlogged and blistery. I prayed for it to end.

When the mud finally began to change and the trail leveled out just the tiniest bit, I began to run. I couldn’t believe we were actually getting “down.” I sped up. I got impatient. I left Markus and Arian behind, telling myself they would be fine. It felt wrong to leave them but I couldn’t stop myself.

I ran as hard as anyone could on legs barely moving. I used my arms on every high rock and tree to ease the force on my legs. I hopped carefully over rocks and landed controlled but risky on the roots and pebbles ahead. I pushed myself to go faster, as painful as it was.

And then suddenly, without any warning, Maderas’ veil was lifted. The trees opened up and I saw the sky. Stars. My eyes filled with tears, I keeled over, hands on my knees, wheezing in breath as if I was breathing for the first time since nightfall. Thank you Jesus, thank you.

I continued down the path, looking for signs of the farm I’d been dreaming about all night. Monkeys howled so loud I thought perhaps they were literally right next to me. But I wasn’t stopping to explore. Bats with red eyes stalked me from the ground, and then bolted at my headlamp when I’d least expected it. I didn’t care. Bats like banana trees. Banana trees mean farming. Bring it on bats. I’ve never been so happy to see bats with red eyes. At every chalk arrow and every white flag, I was overly grateful, as if my life depended on it. “Please don’t get lost, please don’t get lost,” I narrated to myself.

I found a barbed wire gate with an arrow. And then another. I was getting somewhere. A glow of the sun came up. I heard a rooster. A car. Life!

At the trail’s end, two people stood nearby on the dirt road getting ready to go about their day. I pointed to my right and asked if this was the way to the main road. They said, “Yes just down there!” I ran.

I knew once I made it to the main road I just needed to go left and it would take me home. I made the turn. I couldn’t believe it.

A final aid station sprang up on the left just a few kilometers before the finish. Our friend and volunteer, Ashley, ran towards me cheering and jumping and smiling so big. I couldn’t believe she was there. She said she would see me at the finish.

I wasn’t sure where to turn onto the beach but then I looked down at just the right time to see an arrow curving to the right. I looked to my right and saw a path to the beach. I ran towards the shoreline and followed the lake towards the giant blow-up finish line. I can’t remember if there was music. It was surreal.

Every step hurt, but I ran faster and faster. It was a terrible and wonderful finish- just far enough away to nearly exhaust me before arrival but also perfectly the right distance to enjoy every humble, awe-struck, unbelieving emotion at what was somehow just accomplished, and to relish the finish line in all of its glory after 25-hours of searching for it.

I began to see people, cheers, excitement, and cute dogs. I heard announcements about “the first female.” Camera men came running towards me. I crossed the line calmly, slowing my body, taking it all in. I veered to the side of the crowd, put my hands on my hips, bent over and breathed. As I lifted my head, I pursed my lips, put my hands on my head and cried a tear. It was an important moment, barely noticeable on the outside, almost like a secret. I became awe struck at the power within me- a power that was mine to harness but was not quite my own. A power that comes from beyond and can lead us out of dark places. I rekindled the truth for which I run: that in terrible suffering, pain and darkness, we can move forward.

This was the hardest physical challenge I have ever done. It inspired me and humbled me and reminded me again, to fight for more than I can imagine.

After every dark night, there comes a new morning.

I am thankful for my husband who helps me to go further. Thanks to my sister Mikki and my friend Mallory, my friends Jason and Ashley, the TMIRCE running club, and the hundreds of family and friends and running companions who followed along via Facebook liking every update and anxiously requesting news on my progress. Thanks to FyA.