Wow – what an experience!
The Fuego Y Agua Survival Run is exactly what the title implies: it’s a self-supported, 24-hour race on the beautiful island of Ometepe, which rests off the coast of Nicaragua in Lake Nicaragua. It’s an adventure race that combines ultra marathon distance running, volcanoes, and insane obstacles – ranging from climbing palm trees, carrying a live chicken for miles, to catching and gutting a fish – along the way. There is NO course map, NO water stations, NO paramedics on-course (though there were Red Cross emergency personnel at the ready to respond if necessary). It’s a serious race that requires experience and survival skills. Racers must agree to the following statement in order to race: “If I get hurt, lost, or die, it’s my own damn fault”. This factor makes the race very unique in that racers must accept full responsibility for themselves. “Adapt or die” is another slogan of theirs, and I was forced to dig deep and ultimately gain new confidence in myself as a solo elite endurance racer.
I had first attempted Survival Run in 2013 and was on a mission to win. It was their first year putting on Survival Run, and there were some organization problems. I was heartbroken when I got lost on course and missed the finish line by 2km. I was very upset about a DNF, especially because it was something completely out of my control. It honestly took me months to get over. I had to realize that Survival Run was so much more than a race; it was an adventure and an experience and something I really enjoyed. I knew I had to go back! I had been following Survival Run for a few years, and I watched it evolve and the organization became stronger. That’s why I decided 2016 was the year to go back!
This year, the race started in an unconventional way. Racers are first divided into teams, approx. 15 racers per team. The mission: the first team to finish a sequence of challenges will receive its race bibs and start the 24-hour clock while continuing on as individuals. This provides a huge head start to the winning team. Remaining teams have just one hour to finish their tasks after the lead team is done and are unable to compete until all the challenges are completed. Luckily, all teams finished their tasks in time and the race officially began. The main rule of the race was to protect a raw egg the entire race. If a racers egg breaks at any point, they are unable to clear a checkpoint until that egg is replaced. Note: Initial eggs were obtained from Bird Shit island via raft flotation…over half the eggs were broken before the race ever started. Good thing there was a restaurant on the fringes for egg purchase. I stopped and quickly made a protective nest for my egg out of a water bottle and grass – carried it tucked safely in my buff on my head.
The first challenge was to fill a grain sack with plantain’s (20lbs for females, 30lbs for the males, and 50 lbs for a team to share). We then had to carry our sacks all the way up Volcán Concepción (an active volcano-which last erupted in 2010-approx. 1,600m high) and all the way back down. This task was insane! It was mid-day and the sun was blazing: it was SO hot! Concepción is an exposed volcano with little shade. It took approx. 7-8 hours for the elite racers to complete the ascent and descent – far longer than was anticipated. This was the hardest task I have ever been given in any adventure race. I had 4-litres of water with me, and I thought this would be more than enough: I was WRONG! I ran out of water near the top of the volcano-as did 99% of the racers (one or two had just a sip left for the descent). I knew I had a few more hours before I would have access to water, so I had to use my life straw to suck water out of a cactus plant that held water in its center. I felt pretty badass for discovering this survival skill! I was also really lucky that I made some friends during the Concepción hike: Chris and Curtis – “Team Misery;” and we kept each other in high spirits by exchanging adventure stories and jokes. My new friend Chris gave me some Coca Cola, and wow – a warm Coke at the top of a mile high volcano felt like heaven, and the view was phenomenal! Wow!
The descent was surprisingly the hardest. I had figured going downhill would be a lot easier, BUT IT WASN’T! The trail down was steep and on loose rocks, I fell so many times on my butt that I bruised my tail bone! I finally reached the bottom and I knew the hardest part was over. I also knew this would take out half the competitors, and I was right. Once at the bottom, I finally got to ditch those plantains, drink copious amounts of fluids, and try my hand at the 2nd slingshot challenge (the 1st was at the top of Concepción, along with a traverse over the edge of the crater).
This was also when I obtained my first medal of FYA 2016…FAIL. One of the unique aspects of Survival Run is that you earn bracelets for completing challenges (12 or 13 this year I believe) and medals for completing stages (4 total). The medals are awarded in the following order: FAIL, I, DID, NOT – is Josue a Star Wars fan? Yoda? These are the holy grail of racing medals. Racers go into the race knowing the paltry chance of achieving success…but we try time and time again. I missed the time hack 3/4 of the way through the race when I would’ve received “I”.
The remaining part of the race consisted of a combination of running trails with various unique challenges mixed in. We had to fill and haul a 5-gallon bucket with sand 10x; there were petroglyphs to carve – things that related to what the locals past and present might have done. I felt pretty good during the race, I was very prepared from 2013 and my training was on point. I was battling for 1st place with Hélène (Hélène Dumais went on to complete the Devil’s Double – LOOK IT UP! Only 6 people in history have ever achieved this and she’s the only female!); we must have switched positions at least 15 times in 18 hours! This made the race so exciting and fun! I knew this year there would finally be a female finisher!
One of my favorite obstacles was carrying a live chicken for miles! I got an extra fussy chicken, I named him Ralf. Every 5 minutes or so, Ralf would start squealing, and I would have to switch sides to try and make him more comfortable. This is when we ran into an aggressive stray dog in the middle of the night. I heard barking in the distance, and as I got closer, this dog was warning me to turn around. I had no choice but to move forward, there was only one path to follow. The dog became more and more aggressive and leaped forward at me, snapping his sharp teeth. I was prepared with a pocket knife, and I prayed I wouldn’t have to use it. I flashed my headlamp at the dog and he backed up. I briskly walked away and the dog kept his distance, while barking ferociously at us. Thank god Ralf and I survived, and I was able to bring my chicken safely to the next checkpoint.
The next task was to aim a 10-foot bamboo pole into a tree and get a bracelet. I nailed this and was off to the next checkpoint. This is where the race got really hard for me. I had to carry this 10-foot bamboo pole for a couple of miles along a treacherous coastline. Imagine trying to balance a 10-foot bamboo pole on 4-foot high wet boulders, in the dark, while being eaten alive by bugs. It was awful! I was really struggling to follow the flags; some were on the coastline and somewhere off in the bushes. I got so frustrated that I sat down on a rock and cried. I knew I was wasting too much time stubbing along the coast, and I was going to miss the next cut-off. I missed it by 30 minutes or so; I was disappointed, but I adapted. I wasn’t devastated like I was in 2013. I knew from past experience this situation was very possible and I was prepared for it.
This race is creative and unexpected. The best way to train for a race like this is to become a well-rounded person in life, not just an athlete. Survival Run will always challenge decision making, and strategy plays a big role. Any wrong choice can end your race. The thing I’ve had to accept with Survival Run is that it’s an adventure, and this was an EPIC adventure! Things aren’t going to go according to plan, but it was fun, challenging and life changing. If you are an adventure seeker, SURVIVAL RUN IS A MUST! ~Morgan
Photo Credits: Many thanks to Jeff Genova Photography for the headline photo of Ometepe, the raft building, and the Concepcion descent. You bring memories to life!