I I stumbled through the rocky juniper brush in the dark Texas night looking for a good place to build a survival hammock. It was after 10pm. The race was to start in less than 6 hours, though it felt like it already had. I had never built a hammock out of p-cord and a piece of canvas but I was confident it would work. After losing Josue’s maniacal packet pickup game (more on that later) the losing team was forced to sleep out on a hill with only our allowed race gear; meaning no camping gear, and I wasn’t going to sleep on the rocks. I found two suitable trees and started stringing up my p-cord and canvas. A scorpion crawled under a rock right beneath me. My hammock was kind of like an envelope anchored out at the top corners. After tying my best knots I weighted it cautiously. I slid into my canvas cacoon and it was pretty comfy. It had a small slit opening above me for air. I seriously hoped it wouldn’t break and send me falling down onto the sharp rocks (and scorpions) below. After some intermittent sleep next thing I knew I heard our 2:45am courtesy wake up call.
I knew I had to bring my “A Game” to Texas if I wanted to stand a chance at the Hunter Gatherer Survival Run. I wanted it. After last years failure out there, I wanted it bad. I was so close to getting all the medals last year; I could taste it, but it was out of my reach. Only one person finished last year, an Animal named Shane McKay. Here’s my report from last year. This race was a calling to me. It combined so many passions of mine.
Hunter Gatherer Survival Run was once again to be held at Camp Eagle in the beautiful Hills Country of central Texas. This year the Survival Run would be a 50k distance with a 24 hour cutoff. You never know what you are getting into at a Survival Run which is an element that I really enjoy and it’s a bit unnerving at the same time. Josue, the race director, gives a minimal gear list with things like a knife, fabric, headlamp, first aid kit, water purifier, etc. And if it’s not on the gear list it’s not allowed. No shoes, no GPS, no trail map, no extra layers, etc. He also lists some skills that you should practice and everything else is a surprise.
In the weeks leading up to the race I methodically trained the skills listed. I ran through the thick woods of the Pacific Northwest slinging rocks with a traditional sling at targets on cedar stumps and building deadfall traps down on the rocky river banks. I practiced archery at the Luna shop after work. At home I did bow drill friction fire with difficult woods just to build muscle memory. I ran along the forested shoreline of the Puget Sound in the rain and mud, slinging rocks out into the water at floating drift wood. I felt like I was 10 years old again. When I was a kid my favorite thing to do was to explore the semi-wildlands near my house, the fields, abandoned train tracks, and ponds. I would throw rocks, play with knives and sticks and bows and bb guns and all that good stuff that wild boys (and girls) love to do.
Every Survival Run has a packet pickup challenge the day before the race. This year it was a team travois challenge. We were divided into two teams of ten, then told that each person must build a travois (basically a wooden sled) and as a team we had 2.5 hours to haul rocks up a hill and pile them up. Who’s ever team had the bigger pile won. The losing team would sleep out there. After putting probably too much effort into the travois games my team lost. It was a lot of energy and effort to be using the day before the race. Losing hurt my pride, but the thought of sleeping out there didn’t bother me much.
Standing there barefoot in the dark at 4am at the starting line with 19 other crazy people, I felt prepared and determined. After the travois games and a night in my hammock this thing had already begun. After a countdown we ran the 20 feet to our supplies for sandal making, our first challenge. We (Luna Sandals) sponsored the race and supplied the sandal making material that everyone would be crafting into sandals to run the race in.
I hadn’t made sandals with a knife since last years race and it was harder to cut out the rubber sole than I remembered. My sandals didn’t turn out as good as they were last year but I was fully confident they would work. Shane was the first one done (again) with his sandals and off into the dark in a shockingly short amount of time. Shawn, one of my best friends, was second. And I was third. It felt good to finally get started. I was running in the cool night air. This was it. I had 24 hours to complete this course.
In the early morning hours we had quite a bit of runnable terrain and I was excited to get some mileage under my belt early while it was still cool. After almost getting lost I ran into Shawn and Curtis who were also a little confused but with our heads together we were able to make it to the first challenge which was to search a cliffside for arrows tucked deep in the nooks and crannies. With a little bit of climbing I luckily found my 4 arrow shafts quickly and was on my way.
A few miles into the race I reached the cave. I remembered the cave from last year. Shane and Curtis were just finishing up in there as Shawn and I crawled in. We were to crawl back into the depths of the cave to retrieve three different arrow heads. A volunteer, Nick Hollan, informed me that an area that I was squeezing through he had seen a large copper head snake there shortly before and to be careful. I imagined worming over a crack to be staring eye to eye with big ole snake. But it never happened. Shortly after that, and after rumors of other snakes in a different part of the cave, Shawn almost put his hand on another Copperhead. This was a cave full of venomous snakes! Luckily I gathered my arrow heads and was getting out of there. Nick, moved the arrow heads to closer and safer locations to avoid the areas with snakes for the runners coming after us.
By the time we were done with the cave it was light outside. Shawn and I were running together and Shane and Curtis had maybe 15 minutes on us. The directions from the cave were to self-navigate to the zip line tower on a distant ridge. It was a freeing feeling to be racing and able to navigate as we please without having to keep an eye on trail markings. At the zip line tower we were instructed to get out our feathers and fletch our four arrows. Shane and Curtis were just wrapping up as we got started. I pulled out the vulture feathers we had pulled off a road kill vulture on the drive into Camp Eagle. We were able to trade our feathers for already split and cut fletching feathers, so I did. We fletched our arrows and were off again.
My biggest game plan going into this race was to take my time and to focus on performing the challenges as well as possible. After almost getting lost again Shawn and I rolled into the archery station where we would be making bows, bow strings, and shooting our first archery target. Shane and Curtis had already left when we got there. They had put a lot of time on us since the last station. Curtis, was an unknown and new to the Survival running community. He had done a few 100’s, a 24 hour GoRuck, was a bow hunter, and seemed like a strong tough dude. I suspected he would do well and here he was neck and neck with Shane out in front. Shawn and I were still in 3rd and 4th place with no one close behind us. Shawn was very prepared for the race, was in great shape, and had been in great spirits all morning about doing well and pushing hard. I was excited we were running together.
I stepped into the woods and started hacking a branch off a juniper tree that would make a suitable bow. I chose a long straight 6 foot section so I could make a full sized long bow that would be as close to possible to the bow I shoot at home. I hacked it down with my survival knife (SOG Force). I made my bow string with the provided artificial sinew. I did the Flemish Twist method but my strands got a little tangled and it turned out sloppier than the practice one I did at home but I knew it would get the job done. While I was working on my string Shawn had finished his and was taking his shots at the first archery target, which was a 3D Bear target on the ground that you had to climb a big oak tree and shoot the bear from about 12-15 feet up this tree. I heard Shawn talking to the volunteers as he took 3 of his four allowed shots at the bear. He missed all three. Then he missed his 4th and last try. And just like that he was out. Not totally out of the race but out of his chance to ‘complete’ the race. I couldn’t believe it. It was a huge bummer. He was so prepared and was shooting so well on the practice shots. He was disappointed, to say the least. After some practice shots I climbed into the tree with my bow and arrow. It’s a little awkward to climb a tree with a long bow and arrows in hand. I got into position and took my first shot and nailed the bear. It was so satisfying and exciting to make a bow and arrow on the spot, climb into a tree, and shoot a target first try earning my first ‘FAIL’ medal. After shooting I realized as a lefty I had an advantage on that shot from the tree because the positioning was more awkward for a right handed shot. The medal this year was a copper covered wood medallion with four quadrants. When each challenge was completed we would get a symbol to carve into the copper. After hitting the bear I completed the first 4 challenges and my first quadrant ‘FAIL’.
Shawn decided to continue on despite missing the challenge. It was warming up and we were entering some serious bushwhacking sections. I had my bow and arrows in one hand, a water bottle in the other hand, and my rolled up pack slung over my shoulder. This year my pack was a much simpler and quicker pack design. It was a large military bandana (Schmog) with all my gear rolled up in it and it just slung over my shoulder. It was surprisingly simple and effective. I could run without it bouncing too much and it was quick to pack and unpack. Last year my pack took way too long to pack and unpack making my transition times frustratingly long. But this year my transition times were quick. Leaving the archery station I forgot to fill up my water bottle. I only had half a bottle. oops. A single mistake in this race can make or break you. It was imperative to focus at all times. Another big challenge was just staying on course. Most of the course was bushwhacking through brush and trees, up and down steep rocky hillsides. It was marked well but it was just so winding and rugged that if you missed a marker you could find yourself wandering around aimlessly trying to decide which way to go.
The next challenge was at an old rustic cabin. At this station we were to make a sling and do a sling distance challenge and another archery test. My first throw with the sling on the distance test was a wild throw that wasn’t very straight but was well past the distance marker. The archery challenge was an uphill shot at a 3D deer target. I hit it second try. I was having fun! (Great job setting up the archery challenges Tom!) Part of each challenge is a balance of calming my nerves and staying focused at the task at hand. And then a flood of relief and excitement at completion. After drinking a bunch of water and refueling I was off and headed towards the next checkpoint, the Tipis.
By this point it was hot and the sun was directly over head. I regretted not putting on sunscreen before the race. I was told to gather the plants algerita, mullein, and prickly pear before the next checkpoint. After a lot of rough bushwhacking I arrived at the Tipis with plants in hand. First thing I was told to do was to find a nice flat rock (had to be 15-20 lbs.) suitable for a deadfall trap. They told me I would be carrying it to the next checkpoint so I tried to choose wisely. Next, was bow drill friction fire time. I gathered a suitable bow and top rock and started carving a set from the sotol stocks provided. I got setup and was really close on my first attempt. I started a new hole and got it on my second attempt. I dumped the coal into the juniper bark ‘birds nest’ and blew it into flames. It always has and always will feel good to start a fire with sticks. Next, I was to take my prickly pear cactus pad, make a cup out it, fill it with water, put it in the fire and bring it to a boil, add the mullein and algerita herbs, and then drink the tea. While my water was heating in the fire I went over to do the 3rd archery challenge, a flying pig. They had a 3D pig target setup on a sloped line so the pig would slide down the line and you had to shoot it while it was moving. I got ready and the volunteer let the pig fly. I nailed it first try. I went back to the fire and almost burned my hands and spilled my tea in the fire but got it done and took a sip. Not bad, except for the cactus hair spines I somehow got in my tongue. Four symbols earned and my second quadrant “I”, done. I got out my chisel and hammered them in.
By the time I was done at the Tipis Shane and Curtis were way far ahead of me. Shawn was still struggling with the bow drill when I left and struggling with deciding if he should continue or not. I grabbed my deadfall rock and left the checkpoint. I started out carrying it on my shoulder. After only a few hundred yards I knew I had to find a better way to carry it. I had my bow, arrows, and bow drill bow in one hand and my water bottle strapped to my ‘chest strap’. Shortly into this section I figured out that since my rock was nice and flat and long I could tuck it into the pack strap on my side. On level ground the rock would stay there on its own and going through brush i would cradle it like a football while letting my pack strap carry most the weight. Having the rock setup like that was a saviour for me even though it put a lot of pressure on my trap muscle from the upper shoulder strap and I dropped it several times almost smashing my feet and toes.
The section, from the tipis to the windmill, was about 6 miles of hell, no joke. It was the full heat of the afternoon and almost all rugged, steep, winding bushwhacking. I was getting tired, hot, and was falling into a slump. I knew I had to go slow bushwhacking with my bow and arrow and rock in the heat but it felt SO slow. It felt like I was going 1/2 mile and hour. I was cursing at the course. It would wind up a steep bushy slope then wind back down to just within site of the teepees making me feel like I hadn’t made any progress. At one point it winded up a hill to a ridge that I thought the windmill was on and I got my hopes up that I was almost there and then instead of going along the road to the windmill the trail just dropped over the other side down some steep brush heading away from the windmill. I prayed for a road or trail to walk on. Over and over again. “Please give me a road!”. But no road, just another steep rocky gully. David Kalal eventually caught up to me and it was great to have some company. We hit a section where the trail was hard to follow. For about half an hour I had a lot of anxiety that we were not going the right way. David had missed an archery challenge so wasn’t direct competition. As far as I knew there was no one even close behind me. I was solidly in third place. And there was also no possible way I was going to catch Shane or Curtis of my own effort. If I was going to beat one of them it would be by one of them making a mistake. Going along the trail I would see pieces of fletching on the trail that one of them lost from it catching on a tree. Each piece I saw was a little piece of chance that maybe one of them was capable of making a mistake.
After many hours of dragging my ass through the gardens of hell I made it to the sanctuary that was the windmill checkpoint. As the sun was setting I took a quick break and soaked my feet in the spring fed pool. I got hydrated and ate some food while I soaked my now tender feet. My mantra for the day was “Stay present. Stay focused. Take care of yourself.” The first challenge at the windmill was my last archery shot. I had to shoot a 3D coyote from a crouched stance and a bit further distance than the other shots. First shot I grazed the side of it. Second shot, dead center! The volunteers cheered which felt good. Next, was the accuracy shot with the sling. It was a propped up log triangle about 15 yards away I had to sling a rock through. This one I was a little worried about. First shot missed. But second try my rock stayed true and magically went right through the center. I was ecstatic. It was getting dark and I just needed to build my deadfall. I got my figure four deadfall setup and the volunteer came over and tripped it. Quadrant 3 complete, I earned my ‘Did’ symbols. After finishing these tasks it dawned on me that I might actually be able to finish this race! All day I never let that thought get inside my brain, I just focused on the task at hand and getting to the next station. But now I had done most of the challenges and at 100%. Something was welling up inside me, pride, anticipation, excitement. I felt like a freight train, I had power and nothing was going to stop me.
Except maybe the next section of the course. Which was designed by Barkley 100 winner Nickademus Hollon. And with that I re-entered the gardens of hell. This time in the dark. It seemed the course was getting progressively more difficult. Shortly after leaving the windmill I couldn’t find a trail marker. I would wander through the brush fanning out looking for it then back track to the last one I had seen and start over. It was slow going. Several times I had to do this backtrack and search routine to find the trail markers in the dark. I wished I would have brought my bulkier but much brighter headlamp. The trail lead out into the dark deep corners of the area. It felt remote and lonely. I suspected no one would be following behind me, David dropped at the windmill, and Shane and Curtis were hours in front of me.
While pushing through a brushy drainage on some bedrock I felt an incredible pain in the arch of my right foot. My mind raced with the possibilities. Cactus thorn? no, too painful. Bee sting? no, too painful. Scorpion sting?!?! I quickly stepped away and looked around. Right where I had stepped was a hay colored scorpion that looked pissed. I must have stepped right in front of it giving its stinger the perfect angle to sting the arch of my foot. I had a moment of panic. I hoped this wasn’t one of the super poisonous scorpions. But I had been stung by a scorpion when I was a kid and new that if it wasn’t a super poisonous kind then I would be fine. The pain was worse than a bee sting but not unbearable. I moved on knowing there was nothing I could do but move forward. I didn’t put weight on the arch of my foot for a few minutes. I hobbled on the outside of my foot. But the pain subsided and quickly my focus was back on the rocky juniper jungle blocking my path.
At some point on this dark and remote stretch I had the realization/feeling that if I got lost I would be fine. I could setup my p-cord hammock, like I did the night before, anywhere and be fine. It felt liberating and empowering to realize that I felt comfortable surviving in that dark wilderness and all I really needed was some p-cord and fabric.
But as I battled the bushwhacking another fear entered my mind. The Swim. I knew I wasn’t going to finish this thing without a swim. I suspected it would be up the river. The thought of swimming up the river intimidated me. Last year we swam the mile down the river with a log. Which ended up being fine because the log gave me a feeling of security. But what was I in for this time?
I shined my light up to a pair of eyes staring at me about 15 feet in front of me directly on the trail. I froze. Badger? No, just a porcupine. It eventually waddled off to the side and puffed it spines up and let me pass. After a few hours I eventually emerged from Nick’s evil trail section and made it to the cave. From the cave I was to self navigate to the cliff face next to the river where we left our travois’. When I arrived they told me to pick a travois and strap my bow and arrow and pack to it. I would be swimming up the river about 1/2 mile with it. I prepared myself mentally as I strapped my stuff too it. I picked a beefy travois in hopes that it would provide buoyancy. I also inflated my collapsable water bottle in my pack to give a little more float.
I dragged the travois down to the waters edge. Nick was there in a kayak to guide me up the river and presumably to report to the others if I died. I got into the water with my travois. The water was cool but not too cold. I wanted to make sure I maintained a good pace that wouldn’t overexert myself but wouldn’t leave me in the water for too long to just get too cold in there. Shortly after getting in I was wading through the duck weed that was tying up my legs and I lost a sandal. I pulled my other one off and tied to my travois. Nick told me Shane had also lost a sandal in there. I paddled the travois like a body board; keeping a nice kick going and a breaststroke style paddle. The wind was in my favor but the duck weed conspired to keep me in that water forever. Nick made jokes and suggested good paths. I slowly but surely made my way through the water, pulling the duckweed off my travois as we went. Nick complimented my swimming style and progress saying I was swimming as well as an injured seal. I appreciated his company. Here I was, in the dark, swimming up a river in Texas with a travois, 30+ miles and 20 hours in, with one of my greatest running inspirations guiding me through the black water. It felt surreal. At one point I could see a headlamp in the distance which Nick said was the end of the swim. I was getting cold but I could make it. I knew it.
An entourage of friends greeted me at the waters finish. I dragged my travois out of the water, tied on my one sandal, and tied my shirt around my other foot. I just had to drag this thing across the finish line about 1/4 mile away.
I was doing it. And I did it. I DID NOT FAIL. 3rd Place.
I dragged my travois across the line in 20 hours and 45 minutes. It’s hard to say how it felt. I was exhausted and it felt surreal and exhilerating. I completed a race designed for everyone to fail. I was now a part of an exclusive group of 7 people. Only 7 people have ever finished a Survival Run. I am honored to say the least.
Shane and Curtis finished at least a couple hours ahead of me. Shane just ahead of Curtis. They stayed neck and neck all day. What a showing; they are incredible athletes. I was 3rd place. And last place. No one finished after me. No one made the cutoffs at the windmill. I feel like the course was harder this year, more rugged and more bushwhacking. Last year several people finished the distance. Also this year there was no room for error. You either completed all the challenges 100% or you failed. It’s an element that sheer grit and determination won’t get you through. You also have to focus.
This race built up my confidence in myself. It helped me realize, as cheesy as it sounds, that when I am completely determined and focused I am capable of a lot. I also thought about it in the perspective of a recipe. I put together a plan (a recipe for success), I trained the elements and skills, I prepared my gear and kit, and I prepared my mind with the determination to win. And out there with the scorpions, snakes, and darkness I did win. I won against that course and against myself. And it feels damn good to win.
Congratulations to everyone who was out on the course. Survival Runners are an amazing bunch of athletes. Congrats Shane and Curtis on a inspirational performance. I love being part if this tribe. Thank you Josue, Zach, Brad, Tom, Nick, Corrinne, Mathias, Colin, Jeff, Jason S., Jason R., Amanda, and all the volunteers and friends who made it happen!
I know I said it last year but I’m really thinking about finally going to Nica for Fuego y Agua Survival Run 2015 in February. I hope to see y’all soon.