As I emerged from the thick jungle into a clearing I knew I had never seen that lone palm tree staring at me from the center of the field. Shit. I was lost. It was my first full day on Omotepe Island in Nicaragua and I was already getting into trouble. I could see the rippling blue waters of Lake Nicaragua out in the distance. Down was the ultimate direction I needed to go. But a barbed wire fence stood in my way. The bottom of the volcano was so close but the fear of being attacked by dogs kept me from trespassing through the farms and plantain fields blocking my path. Backtrack. Back up the Volcano I went. I had been out of water for hours, it was getting late in the day, and I didn’t have a headlamp with me. I have no idea what I was thinking when I packed for this ‘little outing’. I backtracked through the thick forest of exotic vines and ferns, Howler monkey roars in the distance reminded me that I wasn’t in ‘Kansas’ anymore. That morning on my way up the volcano I marked all the junctions so I would know which direction to go at each junction coming down, or so I thought. After 30-40 minutes of climbing back up the Volcano I finally came to a junction with an arrow I had made, clearly pointing the other direction. I don’t know how I missed it.
Volcan Maderas is an inactive 4200 foot jungle covered volcano with the upper half usually enshrouded in clouds. There are no graded switchbacked trails. The trail goes straight up. And when you start to think ‘this trail ain’t so bad’, don’t worry, you haven’t even started yet. You will know you are getting close to the top when you are completely soaking wet, your legs are entirely covered in mud, the wind is howling through the fog, and a little bit of fear starts creeping into your stomach.
After making it back to my hotel just as darkness fully set in I was sore, tired, and hungry. I looked back on my day climbing Maderas and realized Omotepe and the Fuego y Agua events were the real ‘f’ing deal and in a league of their own. I arrived in Omotepe almost a week early so I could acclimate and get a feel for the island before the Survival Run which would start on Wednesday, Feb. 4th at 5:00pm.
Pigs, horses, dogs, cattle, and chickens wandered the streets seemingly as they pleased. Kids played mostly unsupervised, boys had sling shots in their back pockets. I saw a mom and two daughters fishing with nets every day I was there. Men and women of all ages did all kinds of hard work like carrying large bundles of sticks, logs, or plantains. Most of the houses were simple, often with dirt floors and no windows, sometimes still with palm thatched roofs. Most of the roads are dirt roads and a lot of people get around via bicycles or motorcycles. I saw a man on a bicycle carrying 8 mattresses like it was no big deal. I don’t want to romanticize their lifestyle because honestly I have no idea how they feel about their lifestyle but it was refreshing to be in a place that was so immediate and physical. People’s lives were literally right in front of them to taste, touch, feel, and control in person. The internet universe was almost non-existent for them. It kind of reminded me of traveling back in time to the 80’s when I was a kid and social life was simpler, no internet or cell phones. Your social life revolved almost exclusively around the people you see every day.
I spent several days exploring the island on foot and by bicycle, mostly by myself. A lot of that time felt very introspective and relaxing. Every day I walked the beach taking in the smells and sounds. Volcan Concepcion towers over the island, almost always in view, as a reminder that this was a powerful and magical place. I practiced my horrible spanish and embarrassed myself with it at least once a day but every successful interaction felt like a little victory. 4 days before the race I got travelers diarrhea (TMI, I know), it wasn’t horrible but it wasn’t pleasant either. When the day before the race came and I still had it I decided to track down some Immodium. I took one dose and that took care of my bowel troubles for like 4 days. Nobody likes bowel trouble while they are racing.
Race day morning a group of us staying at El Encanto obsessively went over our gear list and packed our packs. The race was to start that afternoon at 5pm. We sat around all afternoon in anticipation. About 45 racers lined up for gear check at the starting line on the beach at Santo Domingo. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon. Gear checked, packs packed, repeat the mandatory oath: “If I get lost, hurt, or die it’s my own damn fault.” Amen. Go time. I had been dreaming of this race for two years. I knew this was the big kids league and here I was finally running down the beach in Nicaragua with a machete and a bunch of other assorted gear strapped to my back.
First challenge was the infamous swim to Bird Shit Island. This is what I had been worried about the most leading up to the race. I took an 8 week swimming class to prepare for this moment. I strapped the ‘flotation aid’ that we were required to make to my waist and started wading out into the waves. My floatation aid was two 2-liter bottles stuffed inside a buff with both ends tied with pieces of bike tube, wrapped around my waist. So I had a little float belt fanny pack. It proved to be a great aid and confidence booster. Even though it’s a lake the water is very choppy. Strong winds really get those waves going. I swam out alternating between a modified crawl stroke and back stroke without much trouble. At the island I received my egg and stuck it in my back pocket. I was instructed we had to carry the egg for the entire race. If you broke it you would have to find another one somehow. I was having fun. The swim was challenging but way less intimidating that I was expecting. My preparation had worked. After the swim I wasted some time organizing my pack, tucking my egg into a safe spot, and finally got on my way.
I arrived at a plantain field just as Paco and Chris the leaders were leaving. I was to find a plantain tree with my bib number attached to it, chop it down, harvest the plantains, and bring them to the scale to be weighed. After wandering around slightly panicky for what felt like forever I finally found my tree just as it was really getting dark. I pulled out my machete and it felt so good to chop down a tree with one swing and see it fall over. Why did it feel good? I have no idea. Why do little boys (and girls) like to play with sticks and throw rocks and chop things? It’s just in our nature I guess. And in that regard I have ‘grown up’ very little since I was a boy. My plantains weighed 21 pounds, plus my pack was heavier than I anticipated probably another 25 pounds or so. I was to carry the plantains a couple miles back to the start. I started awkwardly running down the dirt road with the plantains over my shoulder. I noticed a tarantula slowly scurry across the road in front of me. And then while my mind was off in LaLa land my foot landed in a dark pothole that I didn’t notice and I rolled my damn ankle. I had never once rolled my ankle in the 5 years I had been running in Lunas. And now I rolled it while trotting on a dirt road. It hurt bad. I cringed and hobbled it off. For a few seconds I thought my race might be over. But I kept going. I knew there was some damage in there but it didn’t seem bad enough to stop me. So a little slower and a lot more careful I kept trucking.
Back on the beach to the start. I dropped my plantains and ran along the shore in the peaceful night breeze. Stars above and waves lapping at my feet. The biggest bull frogs I had ever seen laid out on the beach like land mines. After the beach I entered a rocky coast line. And when I say rocky I mean a coastline that no sane person would ever decide to traverse of their own free will, especially at night. The rocks were so slick at a lot of points I had to have three points of contact at all times. It felt more akin to crawling. At one point I slipped and fell forward and there about a foot in front of my face was another tarantula. I thought it was kind of funny that I happened to fall right where a tarantula was, like it was supposed to be part of the course or something. I traversed the coast in the moonlight and eventually made my way to the next challenge which was to dive into a water tank and retrieve a rock with a piece of elastic taped to it. I climbed up to the side of the tank and took a moment to gather my resolve. “Do it first try.” I told myself. It would be much better that way. I took a breath, jumped and penciled into the water. I pushed my self deeper and deeper. When I didn’t hit the bottom with my feet I flipped myself head down and started swimming down. I had to remind my self to stay calm and don’t bail. I reached the bottom and searched with my hands in the pitch black water for a rock. Found one and back up. Success!
Onward into the night. More running. Next was a sandbag carry. I loved that some of the obstacles seemed utilitarian for someone. The plantain harvest challenge helped the farmer harvest his plantains and on this sandbag carry we were helping someone get a giant pile of sand from the bottom of a hill to a building site at the top of a hill. I filled a 5-gallon bucket with sand and dumped it into my bag and started trekking up the hill. It was tough work. We had to do 5 loads. Sweaty and covered in dirt I finished it up.
The Maderas Volcano was next. I started the climb with ultra-running badass Mark Wheeler. We trekked up the volcano in the darkness chatting about all kinds of things. At one point I mentioned I hadn’t gotten as much training mileage in this winter as I would have liked and he said the same and that he was probably only doing like 60 mile weeks. I would have been embarrassed to admit that I was closer to 60 mile months so I kept my mouth shut. I sure as hell wished I had 60 mile weeks under my belt. Eventually Mark pulled ahead of me and I trekked up the muddy jungle volcano alone. I finally reached the top and descended in the fog down to the Lagoon, a lake in the crater. At the check station I needed to make my slingshot then swim across the lagoon, climb a tree, retrieve my first idol, and swim back. As I was getting ready for the swim I saw Mark coming out of the water. He was shivering uncontrollably and couldn’t really speak. The lagoon is eery at night. Visibility in the dark fog was about 15 feet. I waded into the chilly muddy water. The lights from the checkpoint faded behind me quickly. I tried to keep the left shore in sight. At times I would lose it and look around and see nothing but darkness, fog, and water. Here I was in the thick dark fog swimming in a creepy lake at the top of a massive Volcano on an island in Nicaragua…
I made it across and retrieved my first idol from the tree. The idol read “FAIL”. I made the swim back and was definitely freezing and shivering. I grabbed all my stuff and got moving as quick as I could. I didn’t want to sit around and get colder. I needed to move quickly to get my blood flowing. I started climbing back out of the Volcano crater in 5th or 6th place overall. In my haste to get moving I forgot to fill up my water at the lagoon. That proved to be a big mistake. I was completely out of water for most of the descent down the volcano. I slipped and slid down the never ending mud slide of a trail. Coming down the Volcano is when I started to unravel. I just couldn’t move quickly. I was going so slow. I was exhausted, felt a little dizzy, and had been out of water for a long time. Several people passed me on the descent. I bonked hard.
I made it down to the bottom of the Volcano as the sun was coming up. I was a mess. The descent took me WAY longer than it should have. At the checkpoint at the bottom I made a trip to go buy water from a tienda about half mile away. Back at the checkpoint I sat and drank and ate. But I was dead. I felt tired, sick, and beat. About 15 hours into the race and I knew there was still a VERY long way to go. I also knew there was no way in hell I could climb another volcano. Conception is a 5000 ft. gnarly volcano that is steeper and taller than Maderas. I knew I didn’t have it in me. I have a capacity to suffer if I have my eye on a prize. But to suffer for the sake of suffering is not my style. Even if I thought I could continue I didn’t want to knowing there was no possible way I could finish. So that was it, I accepted my FAIL and hitched a ride back to my hotel and climbed in bed.
Ultimately I think my lack of sufficient training mileage is what killed me. But now I have a very good idea of what it takes to complete that race. Three tough dudes ended up finishing. Veteran Paco Raptor 1st, local farm owner Chis Shanks 2nd, and Mark Wheeler 3rd. Congrats guys! They finished in between 27 and 29 hours. I know the caliber of athlete that it takes to finish this thing and honestly I have yet to put in the training to break into that caliber of endurance athlete.
My Lunas performed excellent on most of the course. The muddy sections of Maderas are like nothing I have ever been on and not ideal sandal wearing terrain but they got the job done. I used a 5-hole pair of Gordos with toe socks.
Three days later I volunteered for the 100k and spent the night manning the Maderas Crater check point. I climbed Maderas 3 times on the trip and I didn’t get a chance to climb Volcan Concepcion. Now I definitely have to go back. Concepcion’s towering presence still haunts the back of my mind and it probably will continue to do so until someday when I’m standing on it’s rocky rim in the howling wind with victory at my finger tips.
The Survival Run Tribe is such an amazing group of people. I had such a great time hanging out with y’all and I can’t wait to do it again. Thanks Josue, Ben, Sean, Gabi, Peter, and everyone that helped put it on. Great job! And thanks to Jeffrey Genova for the stunning photos.