Running Through Fire
Pacing cows and dodging projectile coconuts in Nicaragua’s Fuego y Agua races offers a trail-running experience like none other
Volcan Concepción is one of the two volcanoes on Nicaragua’s Isla de Ometepe; ultrarunners and Survival runners participating in the Fuego y Agua races summit both peaks. Photo by Rebecca Devaney.
For my first 24 hours in Nicaragua, I was a zombie.
I’m one of the 100-million or so self-described coffee addicts, but it turned out I was on to something. There is an irony in many coffee-producing countries that despite a healthy supply of local beans, they are mostly exported and a decent cup is hard to come by. I had struggled with this once in Nairobi—Kenya AA coffee is easier to find in Target than Kenya itself—and now Managua presented the same challenge as I sleepwalked through a series of (thankfully) prearranged shuttles around the airport, the small hotel and ultimately the ferry port two hours south on Lake Nicaragua.
On the volcanic island of Ometepe, at a bistro owned by a British expat, Nick Clark, Yassine Diboun, Dave James and I were finally able to pry our eyelids open with a strong Americano.
So it was with great delight I found the same expat serving coffee at 3:30 a.m. at the check-in of the Fuego y Agua 100K, 50K, 25K and 75ish-K Survival Run two days later.
“This is real cowboy coffee right here,” he said, handing me a polystyrene cup full of thick brown dregs. “It’ll knock you right back on your ass.”
It did. It was then, with newly widened eyes, that I noticed that each of the 39 competitors in the Survival Run—an ultra-distance version of increasingly popular obstacle races, with challenges unknown to racers prior to the event—was walking around with a live chicken. I was grateful I’d signed up for a race—the 50K—where the route, exact distance and absence of chickens were all known entities.
In a novel twist, Survival Run participants started their race carrying live chickens. Photo by Guillermo Brenes Bolanos.
The 4 a.m. start time quickly rolled around. “Survival runners to the front. Ultrarunners behind them!” the loudspeaker boomed. Competitors carrying chickens were better for the TV cameras, no doubt, and I figured it was for the best; with perfectly T-shirt-shaped sunburn wreaked on my Minnesotan skin in February, now clearly visible under the small track singlet I wore to the race, I was hoping to avoid not only film crews but any form of race photography altogether. I stood out so badly that I had briefly considered wearing arm warmers for the 95-degree-forecast day to help even out the contrast.
But the prospect of starting a race by weaving through the chicken-toting runners was less appealing to sponsored athletes with course records on the mind. With some grumbling, Clark, Diboun and James cordoned off a spot on the front, just outside the metal beams comprising the start corral. The Coury brothers, Nick and Jamil, squeezed behind them. Costa Rican via Germany Kurt Lindermuller and I stood off their shoulders, happy to let them clear the way. The countdown ensued.
“3 … 2 … 1 …”
Camera flashes lit up the dark morning as our group of runners and one speedy survival runner, clutching his calm chicken as a halfback carries the football, dashed around the first corner, up the cobblestone main drag of the sleepy, quaint port town of Moyagalpa, and turned left onto a dusty path, toward the volcanoes.