FUEGO Y AGUA NICARAGUA 50/100K RACE REPORT CHAPTER 3: The runners and the race
The next morning, we woke up to meet the other runners of the events. We headed to the start/finish area which was hosted by the luxurious Hotel Villa Paraiso at Playa Santo Domingo. Milling about were runners of all shapes and sizes, in what seemed like a daze, limping, struggling to their breakfast tables, with bruises and cuts noticeably on their feet and ankles in particular. Meredith and I sat nearby some runners and realized that these are the people that had competed in the Survival Run the night before.
“Fuego y Agua Survival Run is a 80km+ Ultra Distance Survival Race on the volcanic jungle Isla de Ometepe in Nicaragua. The objective of this race is to strip you of all comforts and to put you in true Survival mode. The obstacles/challenges are natural and based on the daily survival of the traditional local culture of Nicaragua.”
We leaned in, feeling the slightly uncomfortable, still on the outside of this new community, to listen to their tales of success and ultimately failure. At this point in the morning, there were 4 survival runners still out competing in the grueling challenge which would eclipse 24 hrs. Meredith and I introduced ourselves to the table adjacent and were warmly welcomed in by Haidar Hachem, Christian Griffith, Jamie Boyle and others, all, dropped out or were cut off for time in the Survival Run. Their tales were harrowing, diving into a 15 foot cistern at 1:00am in the dark and lifting a rock to the surface. Carrying a live chicken 6 miles, swimming to a small island in the dark of night to collect an egg, which they couldn’t break for the whole race, all who failed in completing the competition. Imagine the TV show Survivor on steroids.
All that said, you’d be surprised to know that when announcing that we were there to attempt the meager 100k the next day, the responses from these behemoths of ultra running were shocking:
“Are you crazy!” “WHAT?!?!” “This is your first ultra?” “Good luck, seriously.” “I guess in this case you can consider that ignorance is bliss.”
My heart sank, Meredith stood motionless, and apparently, we were considered insane by the same people who just attempted the Survival run. These people could’ve dismissed us immediately, but rather they embraced us. The ultra running community is a tight knit group that drives one another to succeed. We sat there under the awning and chatted about strategy, gear, and game plan. It seemed that while our preparations were adequate, we forgot a few things along the way: Salt tablets, non-100% deet bug repellent (as 100% deet can make you hallucinate as you sweat), and a powerful headlamp for Mere. These incredible people supplied us with all our needs for the race the next day and we were grateful.
After breakfast we headed back to our living quarters and began to make our game plan. 5:00am race start. Time to first aid station, 1.5 hours max, time to second aid station, 40 min max. Time to 3rd checkpoint at the apex of the first ascent, 10:00am. Time to aid station before second ascent 1.5 hours, 11:30am. Time to Concepcion Peak, (3 Hour hike) 3:00pm 1.5 hour descent, 4:30pm. 10k to 33.5 mile mark at halfway, 1 hour Total first half time, 12.5 hours….”Shoot! We forgot to add in time for stopping and filling water/eating! Start over…..” Some amount of time later, we had completed our plan for the full 63 miles and our new time estimation had jumped from an initial 20 hours to 26 hours! Then we started packing our gear.
With gear packed, we took one last walk down the beach, had a light meal, and headed to bed for our early 3:45am wake-up. Nighty, night.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP Groggy and awake, “That felt like 3 hours of sleep.” Auto pilot engaged as Mere and I began our morning routine. Food, showers to wake up, getting our gear on. Mere likes to utilize every moment so she decided to cut up some pineapple before going to the start line.
A quick jog down the beach lead us to a throng of runners, waiting the official start.
Just before starting the race, all runners raised their right hand, and in tribute to Micah True aka Caballo Blanco, we recited the runners creed, “If I get hurt, lost or die, it’s my own damn fault” as the gun sounded, we began to run.
We raced slowly through a crowd of runners, winding through dark paths, looking for white chalk arrows and reflective tape in the trees that marked the course. Traversing volcanic fields of corn and banana trees, we made our way through a maze of paths through farmers fields eventually emerging on a black sand beach. The first 6 miles were variable as the sun began to rise.
At the aid station, we emptied our shoes of sand and loaded up on orange slices before taking off for the next checkpoint, 4 miles away. As we approached the next aid station, we readied our packs to fill them with water and eat some food. Side note, a friendly local let me clog their toilet, I’m eternally grateful. We turned to head up the road along the path and were met with bovine maximus.
The trail became sandy and nearly unrunnable. Our shoes were again, filling with sand so we stopped to empty them once again. We emerged from the cow trail into a wasteland of volcanic rock and sand.
The summit in sight and the heat of the day breaking the cool morning temperatures, we carved our way up the volcanic ravine, using the 40 foot cliffs shadows for cover…
…and began our first ascent…
…climbing to the ridge line…
…realizing that we don’t have enough water for the descent at the top,
and engaging with what would prove to be our eventual undoing of our 100k attempt.
With little water left, the grueling descent took us through a maze of jungle and rock falls to an old, exposed lava flow and burnt out forest with little cover from the mid day sun. Dehydrated, kidneys hurting, and out of water, we had 1 mile to go to the aid station. At this point, we were about an hour behind our goal time. Thanks to some friendly runners, specifically, Jacksonville, FL Mike, we were treated to a swig of the last of his water. (He gave it up to us since he was planning on throwing in the towel at the next aid station.) About a half mile from the checkpoint, I saw a trail guide with a Powerade and a bottle of rum. Naturally, I stopped and asked him for a swig and a chase. The sugars in both the rum and Powerade were enough to energize me to the end. Mere still had plenty of pep in her step.
At the aid station, I collapsed and chugged bottles of Revive, a Nicaraguan Gatorade beverage. We also ate cookies, oranges and watermelon. It took nearly 40 minutes for me to recover. -1 hour 40 min off our goal time with a 3 hour ascent to Concepcion crater ahead of us. I nearly gave up there but Meredith strongly encouraged me to “Get up and start running”. I complied, not being in my right mind, and we took on a companion, “Jesus” Jordan from Colorado (his shirt said, “I run for Jesus.”)
The ascent to Concepcion crater is broken up into 3 parts. The first third is an exposed rock ascent in 95+ degree heat. The second is a jungle of thick trees where we took our first respite from the heat. While Meredith, Jordan and I rested, we contemplated continuing on as the strenuous nature of the race was wearing on us. All of a sudden, a runner coming down emerged from the jungle. “Don’t go any further!” she exclaimed. “It’s terrible up there.” “I’m a recovering addict that’s addicted to ultra running, but this is not what I signed up for!” “It’s straight up from here! Don’t bother.” Needless to say, I say, this was the opposite of the motivation I required. As she grumbled on her way down, I said to Meredith and Jordan that I was discouraged and didn’t want to continue. This was a turning point. Meredith looked me in the eye and said, “You haven’t hit your limit. If you think your going to hurt yourself by going on, then okay. But I came here to run this race and I’m going to the top of this mountain. I’m going to keep going until they tell me to stop.” So I got up and said, “I guess I can go to the next checkpoint at the top…” Re-invigorated, we were met with runners coming down the mountain who were ecstatic to see us! They yelled, “Hey Boston! Way to go, almost there.” “The top is worth it!” With a renewed sense of motivation, we crept up further and further, stopping for a PB and J, drinking our water every 15 minutes, and peeing a lot. What seemed insurmountable 3 hours earlier was within sight at the apex of the crater. We made it to the cloud covered summit where the smell of sulfur was overwhelming.
The run down the volcano was the best part of the race. We encountered a large scree field of little pebbles that we “ski-id” down for nearly 1500 feet. Our adrenaline was pumping and headlamps secured as the sun set on the island. The entire descent to the base aid station took just over 1 hour while the ascent took more than 3 hours. In the dark, we refilled our water and ate some snacks. 10k to go. While we were running the road, we felt our third wind and caught up to a runner who was struggling. He told us he was just trying to finish the 50k and needed to get there in the next hour to ensure he didn’t get cutoff for time. We told him to stick with us and we’ll get him there. At the 4th mile in, mile 29 overall, the three of us entered a banana plantation where bats were swooping around us, attracted by the noise of our running and the lights of our head lamps. We also saw lots of glowing reflections around us, the spherical, reflective orbs of the eyes of wolf spiders. “Keep running, keep running.” I repeated in my head. We made our way to the beach and could see the lights of the halfway point ahead of us. A spring in our step, we utilized the harder sand near the shore to assist our stride. Eventually, we came upon the halfway mark at 15 hours 10 minutes. (2 hours 1o min slower than we planned) to crowds cheering.
Wooden medals were placed around our necks (presumably for finishing the 50k) however, Meredith and I were set on continuing our adventure. We dunked ourselves in the lake to wash off (I stubbed my toe on a rock and lost my pinky toenail! It was excruciating.) Mere bandaged my toe, we changed clothes, loaded our packs and were about to set off to the next checkpoint 3 miles down the road, when Josue Stephens came and congratulated us. We said thanks and he replied, “where are you going?” We said that we were doing the 100k and he told us that if we had missed the cutoff to continue the 100k by an hour. We were shocked and dismayed. Meredith could barely contain her anger. We had the energy, we had the will, we hadn’t hit our limit, and yet we were being told to stop by the race director. The confusion came from there being no clear communication around cutoff times for those continuing the 100k race at the halfway mark. Something the race director would powerfully take responsibility for by offering us a chance to attempt the full 100k again in 2016.
Thanks to Josue’s generous offer, we will return to Isla Ometepe on February 6th with friends Jason Rossman, Scott Platt, and Joshua Grant, to give it another go. You can follow our adventures through our Facebook Group. See you on the trails.