This first ever Fuego y Agua Survival Run was billed as an application only ultra OCR (obstacle course race) that would take a maximum of 50 participants 70 K up and down a remote Nicaraguan island with two volcanoes, through jungles and scorching tropical heat – a race no one would finish. Leading up to the start of the race nothing was disclosed. Rumor was the expected pass rate was 15% (Navy SEAL type number there) and that the distance would be more like 75-ish K. Packet pick up was at the ferry docks the day before the race. We were unexpectedly told to retrieve our bibs from a boat about four hundred meters out in the water. I think 36 went in the water. 35 would officially start the race the next day.
At the 4AM start we were each handed a live chicken. I ran with Edwina the chicken for a few miles to the first checkpoint. I said goodbye to Edwina and was immediately placed in handcuffs. Ran in those for a few miles (which were to be the easiest of all mileage for the day). The sun came up. I got to the start off another challenge, handcuffs were removed, was given one of four potential medals for the day (four unique medals that when combined spell I DID NOT FAIL – with NOT being the last medal) and told to make a bundle of sticks at least 50 pounds. I carried 53 pounds up down about five miles of varied terrain. That sucked. Somebody said they saw the three time Spartan Death winner Race Olaf running with his stack for portions of that section. I got to drop the sticks at the next aid station where the next challenge was waiting for me.
Was tenth or eleventh at this point, supposedly right behind Pak, of all people. I had to climb a tree which had a bracelet attached to a high hanging branch. I like climbing things, including trees but the branchless tree and the height of the wristbands messed with me mentally in a big way. After a couple of attempts I thought I was done for the day. Finally, after almost an hour, I tried another approach – shimming up a side tree and then reaching over to the tree with the bracelets. This method was then followed by anyone else having the same difficulties.
I ran (slow, slow jog or speed walk at this point) for the first time without any additional things to carry – beside my hydration pack with 2 liters of water and miscellaneous gear – to the next challenge. Was given a 50 – 60 pound log and told to bring it the next check point a couple of miles down the beach. Took off my shoes, tied a rope to log and went in the water to drag the log behind me. Got about half way and unexpectedly found a set of rocks with my foot. Expletives yelled. As I fell over and hit the rocks with my other foot I lost the rope in the surf. Tied the log with parachute chord and continued on.
I got to the spot where I could get rid of the log and was told I could dig a couple feet down in the sand at a marked spot for my second medal. There I picked up Sturdy plastic bag filled with empty plastic jugs. I was pointed to a point of land that curved into the lake about a mile – mile and half away. I was told I could either follow the rocks along the way, which were described as pretty treacherous or swim. I was told I was not allowed to go into the woods to avoid the rocks. Swimming seemed like the most direct route and a nice chilling break from humping in the sun. Zip tied the plastic bag with containers to my pack and got started. Biggest mistake of the day. I swam against the current for about an hour and a half. When I finally got to the rocks close to the point that I had been told to go around, I sat down and collected myself. I put my sneakers back on and had a protein bar. Had to pee but didn’t even have the energy to get up and wade into the water. So I just pissed myself while sitting on the rocks.
Got rid of the plastic bag at the drop off point a quarter mile along the rocks around the other side of the point of land and started hoofing it along the route to whatever was next in the line up of challenges. Seemed like we almost always doing something. Route was not so clearly marked. On the road I came across four survival runners coming towards me with their plastic bags and jugs. They were told they just had to get to the point, not how. Someone said they were told just don’t swim. Kind of rubbed me the wrong way. I think in the end there was only three or four of us that had swum even though the plastic jugs were clearly for buoyancy. I watched a few people pass me on a land route while I was struggling against the current. Not the fault of the runners – but one of a few discrepancies I had with the first time race.
I asked a few locals if I was going the right way. Somehow I got to the next aid station. I was given about a forty-pound bamboo stick that measured about 20-25 feet in length that I needed to carry along the trail about one fourth of the way up Medero Volcano.
Another runner came to the aid station a couple of minutes after me and we decided to join forces and hang our bamboo poles into the straps of our hydration packs – each of us supporting a bamboo pole on both sides, one of up front and another in the back. When a little while up, another runner, Cole, came up on us and quickly passed us carrying his pole, I said to my bamboo partner maybe it better we split forces go up individually and I followed Cole up.
When I got to the next challenge area I had to lean my bamboo pole against a tree, climb that pole into the tree up a little higher and retrieve another wristband. Then while in the tree I had to pull up the bamboo pole up from where it was leaning, pull and throw the close end of it over to another y point in a tree about 15 feet away so that pole spanned both y points of the two trees. I shimmied the span of the pole to the second tree climbed up and grabbed another bracelet and pulled the pole back through the second tree to climb the pole back down on the other side.
I climbed one more tree to earn what would be last wristband for the day (there was one more that I would never earn for the third medal).
At that point in the race I was told I had two choices. Due to where I was at in regards to time, I could either end the race where I was and climb to the top of the Maderas Volcano and head right to check out the lagoon within Maderas, or I could climb up to the top of Maderas and head left climbing back down the other side of the volcano towards the next aid station and challenge and go for the third of four medals knowing that I wouldn’t be allowed to continue further. With my sights on the third medal I began the trek up the remaining ¾ of Maderas.
Climbing up Maderas I quickly started bonking, having to take more and more frequent rest breaks to catch my breath. I wanted to get to the top thinking there was an aid station where I could call it a day at and get a ride back. I don’t know what I was thinking there. About three hours later, right before sunset I reached the top. The lone volunteer at top with a radio and no other aid supplies (no water or nourishment) told me the only way back to civilization was back down. As I ate a protein bar (I still had plenty of my own water and calories) Pak came cruising up the volcano from the other side. He asked how far ahead Johnson Cruz, the current leader, was? Johnson was an hour ahead at that point. Already going full speed, Pak turned it up a notch and continued towards the lagoon.
I put on my headlamp and began the descent down the volcano along the path where Pak had come from – in the direction of the aid station where the challenge for the third medal was supposed to be – some kind of tree chopping challenge.
About a half hour after Pak had passed me the other way I came across a group of four runners coming up the Volcano behind Pak (Vidal, McKay Olof and one other). My solo trek down the steep muddy path took me about two hours. I encountered in total about 10-11 runners going up the volcano in chase of the coveted fourth medal and race finish. All but one (Shannon Hulme) was in a group of sorts.
After a couple of hours descending the trail in the dark and without seeing any race course markings I came to the bottom of the volcano. I came across my first sign of civilization. A local pointed me to a path going right and said to go ten minutes in that direction. About twenty minutes into the trail (which was starting to go back up) I came across the headlamp of another runner, Cole. Cole who was about 20-30 minutes ahead of me was sent the same way. Having gone even further into the “10 minute” trail than I, had he had turned around. We hoofed it back together to that first building we had come across to call a cab.
While waiting for the cab we were approached by a large group of, mostly female, extended tourists who were very intrigued with the two muddy, sunburned crazies coming out of the woods and the race that brought us here. I almost let Cole take the taxi back alone. We would never figure where that coveted checkpoint was with the third medal challenge. Supposedly we were only a few hundred meters away.
Side story: Olaf inadvertently missed one of the challenge points and made it to the bamboo/tree climbing challenge area before any Survival Runners were expected there and thus no volunteers were present yet on site. Olaf continued to drag his bamboo pole up the volcano and back down the other side. This physical feat blows my mind.
With only two official finishers, the local, Johnson, who came in first (watch out Hobie and Cody) and the well known Pak, who finished twenty minutes behind, I don’t feel the least bit discouraged by my own performance (two medals, 55K+ of terrain covered and all kinds of previously unthinkable physical feats). My lack of sun protection for my head (the resulting sunburn line on my head is quite the conversation starter – to put it nicely), zero training and the time wasted on the swim are what did it in for me. I do know I could have made it further if I hadn’t wasted so much time in the water. I would have liked to have seen more of the beautiful island of Ometepe (especially the lagoon) – but I would have never saw any of it if it wasn’t for Fuego y Agua.
In the end only two of 35 starters finished (6 %) the almost 80K race. About 11 or twelve people were able to get three of the four medals needed to officially finish and were in the hunt for the fourth. Cutoff times were pretty strictly enforced. For safety, competitive and logistical reasons I think that was the right thing to do. I heard from a few runners that volunteers were pulled off critical spots of the course, i.e. the top of Maderas, before all competitors had passed through for their final ascents – leaving a couple of them to run out of hydration and justifiably a bit bitter. It is a miracle no one got hurt. This was definitely a big boy and girl’s race. I ran (and swam) for hours by myself. Quite a few multi hour volcano ascents and descents were done solo at night.
One runner said the Fuego y Agua Survival Run was tougher than Tough Mudder’s annual year-end grand finale, the 24-hour World’s Toughest Mudder. Pak (the winner of both of the two World’s Toughest Mudders held to date) said he thought Fuego y Agua was mentally and technically harder than WTM but that WTM was physically more challenging. Forgive me if I misquoted this, as it was late in the night and we were several beers into the after party.