Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Fuego Y Agua....Part 1

The Fuego Y Agua "Survival Race" is the hardest, most dangerous, most unforgettable race I have done to date.  This race is hard to write about because some of the moments were so unreal I feel I don't have adequate words to describe them.  The thing is I can't stop reliving the moments in my head, I have to get it out, and people want to know the stories.  I know every athlete out there had a different experience.  Some got lost a lot, some got lost a little, some never gave up, some pushed their bodies to exhaustion, many were pulled and missed cut offs, most did not finish, only 2 did.  This is how the race went for me. 

Our hotel was pretty lovely :) 

My alarm went off at 3am and almost immediately the race day adrenaline started.  I dressed, assembled my camelback, pinned on my number, ate a couple plantains and headed to the starting line.  I stood and talked to others as the pre race jitters and excitement grew.  We took pictures, looking so clean and unbroken, with no idea of what would come.  The survival runners were called to the start before the other runners and we were given a puzzle to memorize.  We had to memorize the colors of the blocks (not the name of the color that was written) in order to get aid at the next aid station. 

Once each of us had a chance to look at the puzzle we were told to get in line to get a chicken.  What???? A chicken!!  My mind started working and I pulled out two of my buffs and used them to wrap my chicken in.  I have actually never carried a chicken before but thought if you kept them covered they seemed to stay calmer (and at least that way she couldn't peck at me).  38 of us lined up at the start, chickens in hand, and we were off.  Off on a dark road which led to a dusty trail and seemed to wind through the backyards of some houses.  I held my little chicken like a football and seemed to be making good time.  The chicken was hot and we both seemed to be sweating. 

After about 4 miles we came to some police standing near a truck which I thought must be the first aid station....Nope!  The police took my chicken and handcuffed me with zip tie handcuffs then sent me off for another 4ish miles.  Running with the handcuffs was not extremely difficult but was a tiny bit impractical and scary.  I couldn't grab any of my food or items in my bag, and I dreaded the possibility of tripping on one of the many rocks on the trail. 

It was now near 6am and the sun was coming up.  I ran down a trail and came to the "third obstacle" and saw some of the other racers for the first time since the start.  They stood next to a gigantic pile of sticks and each was assembling their own pile.  My handcuffs were clipped and I was told to make a 40lb pile of sticks.  Some of the sticks were very light and it took me 3 attempts to get my weight to 40.  My first pile was 15 (so off!!), next pile was 24, and my final weight was 40.9lbs.  I'm guessing my pile consisted of about 15-20 sticks that I had each tied individually then wrapped the entire pile with my paracord.  I tied the knots very securely and took great care to make a tight bundle.  I then took my thicker piece of cord and threaded it through the paracord wrap, leaving two ends out which acted as backpack straps.  I leaned back on my pile, strapped it to my back and started down the trail. 
This is Johson - The eventual winner of the Fuego y Agua race carrying his pile of logs. 

I hiked with my pile of sticks for at least an hour and what I later found out was 5 miles.  The trail wound through a creek bed and dirt road, through banana farms, and peoples backyards.  I tucked my buff's under each "backpack strap" for some extra padding and found a child's sweater on the side of the road that I jammed between my back and the pile.  Despite these "comforts", this was no easy task.  Pieces of the pile dug into my kidneys, shoulders, and back.  The sun blazed.  Each mile seemed like the longest mile ever until I came to a familiar site - the oasis!

Morgan has a flawless climb up the tree!
I rounded a turn and came to the oasis that just yesterday my mother, Leslie, and her mother had swam at.  I had seen something suspicious in the trees when we were there previously but I didn't know what it was.  Leslie said... "your going to like this one... its right up your ally!"  A tree climb!  I was excited!  As I refilled my water and ate a few snacks I heard people cheer as Morgan McKay made it up the tree and then Pak.  I walked down and there was the same things I had seen the day before.  About 30 feet up were green bands wrapped around a piece of wood and dangling from the trees.  I was told we had to climb up the tree and grab a green band which was a bracelet.  I thought I could do this but to be honest had never climbed up a coconut tree before and this wasn't just a simple climb.  The trees did not lean over the beautiful crystal clear water of the oasis, or over soft brush... instead they leaned over a concrete slab with two wooden spiked posts and many wooden chairs.  A fall would mean at best a broken bone, if you landed wrong you could snap your back, impale yourself on the posts, crack your head... any number of these things WOULD have happened if someone fell.  For my climber friends who know me they know I am extremely afraid of climbing without spotters/ropes/and crash pads and have never solo'd this high in my life.  I was scared but had a plan.  I knew I had to move fast as Morgan had just completed the climb and we were girls 1 and 2.  I grabbed my 1/2 inch cord and made a semi prusic hitch around one of the trees.  I tried to use it to inch my way but but it was so hard, and I literally just inched my way up.  I had no grip on my feet and everything was so slippery.  I might have made it about 6 feet up when I knew it wasn't going to happen and I slid down.  My feet and inner thighs were now bleeding and chaffed.  The frustration began!  The volunteer recommended I try a different tree with a branch about 15 feet up so I did.  Again, sheer terror and frustration.  I did make it up to the branch but was so exhausted and terrified when I grabbed it I couldn't pull myself up.  I started hyperventilating and totally freaking out.  All I could see was the concrete below me and I was so scared.  I slid down the tree and had worked myself into tears.  Tears of pain, frustration, fear, embarrassment, shame.  More and more people came to the obstacle and the clock ticked.  I lost any lead or advantage I had had.  Many people climbed up the tree successfully and I became more and more frustrated why I couldn't.  Dan asked me if this was going to end my race.  "No!" I whimpered.  I apologize for anyone who saw me this way, for anyone I was rude to or yelled at, for not being able to pull it together at this moment but I was BROKEN.  Finally someone climbed a "different" tree that did not have any bracelets on it but was near enough to reach the bracelets.  This tree was half the diameter of the other trees and leaned backwards and I knew I could climb it.  I composed myself and climbed up the tree with relative ease.  Finally!  after a one hour panic and complete meltdown I had my confidence back.  I grabbed my bag and raced down a mile or two till the next obstacle.

Adam (HERO!!!) carries his log down the beach

Our next obstacle was a log carry.  Three of us reached the logs together and the volunteer picked out which logs we would carry.  The carry was on the beach and we were given the option to carry, roll, or float the log in the water until the next check point.  I had a 4 foot by 1 foot log and chose to carry it on my shoulders.  This seemed to be a good strategy and I made quick time down the beach. (2 miles?)
I dumped the log and was told to start digging under a blue flag.  I was looking for a bucket that was supposedly 5 feet down and had a medal in it to grab.  I dug for what seemed like 20 minutes and was never ending.  With each scoop of sand I pulled out of my hole the wind blew in what seemed like tons more.  The sides of my hole started collapsing and It was frustrating and physically difficult.  I flung sand everywhere and used my long saw/knife to poke down and find the bucket.  Finally the white edge was revealed and I reached in and grabbed my medal.  I covered the bucket back up and looked up for my next task, accidentally leaving my knife in the sand in the excitement.
Survival runners Morgan and Dennis Dig for their buckets

The next task was a swim/walk along the island carrying a white sack full of plastic bottles.  The sack wasn't heavy and did float so was relatively helpful.  The final destination for this portion was about 1.5 miles away.  The lake was very rough and the wind was making waves and white caps. I am not a great swimmer so I decided to walk along the rocky shore.  The rocky shore was slippery and I bashed my knees and shins many times.  At a few points the brush got too thick to walk on the shore and I headed out to the water.  The water was murky and hidden below were large volcanic rocks.  The waves tumbled me against the rocks, bashing my knees more and throwing off my prescription glasses.  The water was refreshing but exhausting and treacherous.  I feared the rumored fresh water bull sharks seeking out my bloody knees and visions of "jaws" ran through my mind.  This part of the race was very isolated.  I could no longer see any other competitors or volunteers.  There were no boats watching for safety, no one watching at all.  Finally I reached the dock point and climbed out.  I believe I ran about a half a mile until where I came across the second aid station.  I could barely remember the colors I had seen hours before and almost didn't choose the right combo.  Thank goodness I did as I was able to enjoy watermelon, pretzels and refill my water.  A nice Nicaraguan woman rubbed some lotion on my battered legs and the next part was explained to me.  I was told we were going to start the first ascent of the volcano and that I would need to be careful and not "bonk" so I ate a salt tab.  Oh, and before I left I had to take a bamboo pole up the mountain with me.  Great I thought!  A walking pole will really be helpful.  NOT exactly a walking pole.  I was led to the pile of poles and chose one of the smaller diameter ones - probably 4 inches diameter, 20 feet long, and at least 35lbs.  Well then....I'll just hike my pole up a few miles of the volcano.  No problem...except that the front kept bumping into rocks, getting stuck in branches, the back was dragging on the ground, and my shoulders were now pretty raw and sore from the logs and sticks I had carried earlier. 

I carried my pole up the mountain for about 30-45 minutes until I came to one of the largest groups of spectators I had seen all day.  Someone yelled at me "Your mom is up there"  and I was so happy.  She had trekked to Nicaragua to see me do this crazy thing and I hadn't been fast enough to catch up to her tour group yet.  She came down the mountain with her trekking poles and her "Barbwire 4 Breakfast" shirt and gave me a big hug!  It was instant energy!  I was so happy and amazed she had trekked miles up the trail just to see me.  I was then told to use my bamboo pole to climb into a rather large tree and retrieve a bracelet.  Jeff and Jason helped hold my pole steady and I easily got to the bracelet!  It felt so good to finally show what my climbing skills were!  I wasn't done with my pole yet though and lugged it another 1/8th mile up the mountain to the next tree obstacle.  This one was more difficult.  Here I would have to lean the pole up into a tree, climb up, get a bracelet, then pull the pole up with me and balance it across to another tree about 8 feet away, climb across the pole and get a second bracelet.  It took me a few tries to get my pole up the first tree but after that this was relatively easy for me.  The descent was the hardest part and sliding down the tree further chaffed my inner legs but I had completed two obstacles with relative ease and was done with my bamboo pole. 

With good spirits from seeing my mom and completing the obstacles I continued the trek up the mountain.  It was long, and grew steeper and more slippery with each step.  About 1 hour in I ran out of water and began to worry.  I began asking anyone I saw for water.  One local gave me a half an orange which I very graciously accepted and a couple tourists gave me about a liter of water.  An hour later I was still hiking and out of water again. 
This climb was insane and never ending.  It was the Vermont beast on steroids.   Finally I came to an intersection of sorts between the 100K race course and the survival run and I was told to head down the hill!  There was no water or aid at this check point and I had now been hiking uphill for at least 3 hours (alone) but I was still happy to be heading downhill.  The downhill was just as slippery as the uphill and I grabbed branches, sticks and rocks and I tried to make up some time.  I moved relatively fast but the downhill took a different route than the one I had came up and seemed to take forever.  The clock was ticking and the 5pm hour was drawing closer.  I knew I had to make it off the mountain and find the next obstacle before 5pm in order to continue with my race.  I saw Johnson and Pak heading up the mountain and Pak told me I was about 2 miles from the bottom.  I soon caught up to Jason and Jeff and we continued to head down together.  Pak had told me our next obstacle (and the last before the cutoff) would be to cut down a tree.  I cringed at the fact that I had left my saw at the sand dig!  Ugggghhh!  Jason and Jeff and I continued on for what seemed much much longer than 2 miles and we came to a village.  At this point we had not seen any other runners come up the way we had come down but we knew there were about 8 more unaccounted for.  I assumed that the tree chop was so difficult that they were all stuck there cutting down trees with pocket knives and I made a plan.  Since I had lost my saw I would buy a knife.  Jeff and Jason ran ahead and I stopped in someones backyard and explained to them in my not perfect Spanish that I needed to buy their large kitchen knife to cut down a tree.  I offered them 200 cordobas which is about the equivalent of $8.  I heard them talking that it would cost them 80 cordobas to buy a new one but they didn't want to sell it to me.  They understood my Spanish perfectly but must have NOT known about the survival run and the obstacles and thought this pale white chick was totally insane!  I begged, begged, begged them to sell if for at least 10 minutes and finally at 300 cordobas a deal was made!  I told them I would return the knife because I assumed the trial came back that way as we had seen Pak and Johnson an hour or so up.  I was so stoked on my purchase and ran down the street after Jason and Jeff with my shiny long knife in my hands. I must have looked like a total maniac as now Jeff and Jason were way ahead of me and I ran alone.  I hit a road and saw them up ahead but the clock now said 4:30 and we had been running for at least 5 miles since we had seen Pak. We began asking anyone we saw where the people were cutting down trees and which way to turn.  The hot afternoon sun burnt us as we were all out of water and we began to get really frustrated and worried that we couldn't make the time cut off.  I ran into Dennis who was also lost and we started walking with 3 tourists who had seen other racers cutting down trees and they led me in the right path.  Jeff and Jason were too far ahead to yell for them but they soon caught up.  At about 4:45 I came to the last obstacle - the tree chop.  I walked proud with the knife I had bought only to be told that we could use an ax!  People weren't stuck cutting down trees with pocket knives as I had thought.  Jason, Jeff, and I were just so off trail that we didn't see anyone going the right way.  Morgan appeared from the trail just as I got there and although she had had a good lead on me she had gotten lost too and we were now there together at the last cut off at the same time!   During the race she had set a blistering pace and I had tried hard to catch up to her after my epic fail on the tree climb.  With this twist of fate, I caught her... but only for a minute.

I was led to a tree with a blue ribbon tied around it and started hacking away at it.  I had never cut down a tree before so my strategy was horrible but the volunteer directed me to make diagonal chops to the trunk.  I was totally exhausted.  My mom and Leslie's Mom Mary were there watching and I wanted to make them proud. I chopped with all my might, taking many breaks in between.  At about 8 minutes before the 5pm cutuff my tree fell and I held up the ax in the air with so much pride!  I had made the cutoff and would be going back up the volcano.........

Exaustion as the clock ticked towards 5pm

Jason and I after we had cut our trees and just slid in before 5pm.

Using my knife I bought to cut open a coconut after we made the cutoff.
I had now been racing for 13 hours but hat happened next was where the true "Survial" part of the run began.....


  1. I love how you bought the knife!

  2. Great account! You did amazing! I kept asking your friend how you were doing when I saw her at the aid stations. It was a pleasure meeting you last weekend and give your mom my best!