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Running Through Fire

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Pacing cows and dodging projectile coconuts in Nicaragua’s Fuego y Agua races offers a trail-running experience like none other

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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.

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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.

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A runner traverses the rocky paths past farms and through villages through the middle of Isla de Ometepe at sunrise. Photo by Guillermo Brenes Bolanos.

Fuego y Agua started in 2008 when race director Josue Stephens—who recently took the helm of Micah True’s Copper Canyon, Mexico, race, now named the Ultra Caballo Blanco—conceived an ultra on the island he had been visiting since 2003. Twenty-seven runners competed in the first race, and only 15 finished. This year, over 300 racers set off from the start line, thanks in part to Stephens’ enormous efforts to promote the events and recruit elite athletes. Among those elites were Clark of Fort Collins, Colorado; Diboun of Portland, Oregon; and James of Tempe, Arizona. With the exception of James, who was fresh off a win at Costa Rica’s Coastal Challenge stage race, the contenders were far from acclimated to Ometepe’s heat and humidity.

“I did no heat preparation, and barely looked at the course map,” Clark says. “The trip really wasn’t about the race, but more about the overall experience.”

The profile of the race was also boosted by this year’s addition of the Survival Run.

“The Survival Run is the dream obstacle race I have always wanted to run,” says Stephens, who has placed high in several Spartan Races, including a 10th-place finish in Vermont’s inaugural Spartan Ultra Beast in 2012. “Coming from an ultrarunning background, I am always testing my body to push further. Creating an ultra-distance obstacle event was the ideal next step.”

The race is named for the two volcanoes which, jutting together out of Lake Nicaragua, form Isla de Ometepe, a lush and quiet backpacker’s paradise dotted with small towns and beaches. The island provides a stark contrast from the dusty, car horn-polluted bustle of Managua. On the west side sits Concepción, a picturesque mountain (“If you a drew a volcano, it would look like that,” Diboun said at the pre-race dinner and meeting Friday night) that looms tall over race headquarters in the village of Moyogalpa. It is still active—Fuego (Spanish for “fire”). On the east side is its dormant sister, Maderas, whose caldera has been quelled by tropical growth and a large lake in the crater—Agua.

Those in the 25K would start in town and climb Concepción before turning around to finish in the same spot. 50K runners would climb Maderas and finish at its base; 100Kers would climb both and finish back in Moyogalpa.

“I designed the 100K course to climb the Fuego and Agua volcanoes in one run,” says Stephens. “The locals on the island did not believe anyone could do it. To them the island is an entire universe, and the thought of traversing the whole thing on foot in one day is unbelievable.

“Seeing the island on foot through the 100K course allows the runner to not only see both volcanoes, but to see the villages and everyday life of the island residents,” he continues. “There is a certain cultural experience and integration involved in running it.”

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Several countries and more than a few states were represented at the 2013 Fuego y Agua races. Photo by Guillermo Brenes Bolanos.

Early in the race, before the sun rose, Clark felt a little too culturally integrated.

“Are you kidding me?” he said, in disbelief that the lead pack was now being guided by several islanders on horseback to a missed turn. They had veered off-course, traversing a beach on the island’s south side until it dead-ended. James’ early surge—made more impressive by his lack of headlamp—had been nullified.

“Running in the dark in the lead was hard as none of the blue markers was visible,” says James. He later learned glowsticks and reflective tape had been stolen from the course. “I almost stepped on a sleeping dog and had teeth on my legs when it woke up. I was also stopped by a local law enforcement official who was asking me where I was running to and wanted money to let me continue.”

“Unfortunately the locals do not always understand what is going on and remove our glowsticks and flagging,” says Stephens. “In this race, we have 23 villages, farms, private lands and two national parks to mark and control course. This is not your average backyard race with course markings every few feet. This is Nicaragua and things are wilder.”

As the lead pack retreated in search of the course, there was no sign of Diboun, Sean Meissner or the Courys; it appeared they had caught the turn, which was drawn into a tree halfway across the beach.

The trail then began to climb on singletrack; James and Clark were off to chase the new leaders, dodging feral dogs and winding through through acres of banana fields and past tiny farm houses on the strip of land connecting the volcanoes.

“Running through the villages, we witnessed the real poverty on the island, but the kids’ joy was amazing,” says James. “This was no big-city marathon; no one cheered for us along the route. Most gave us odd looks of curiosity.”

Reaching the island’s north side, runners covered a flat, expansive beach, the sun rising over the water on their left and the massive green wall of Maderas, jutting into the clouds, looming ahead.

As we ran this section, Lindermuller turned to me. “We climb soon,” he said.

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Chickens were swapped for large logs. Photo by Guillermo Brenes Bolanos.

At least we had only ourselves, our water and our shoes to carry up the volcano. The same could not be said for the survival runners, who had dropped their chickens and were now required to tote a bamboo pole to the top.

“All we knew was we would encounter obstacles along the course,” said Margaret Schlacter, a Survival Run participant and the founder of the website dirtinyourskirt.com. “After toting the live chicken, we scaled a coconut tree suspended 20 feet in the air over a concrete slab to retrieve a bracket, dug a three-foot-deep hole in the sand, dragged a large log down a beach, carried a sack full of empty bottles to be recycled, and scaled a heavy bamboo pole 15 to 20 feet up into a tree, along with many other obstacles in the technical jungle terrain.”

“And I thought ultrarunning was crazy,” piped up Diboun.

Schlacter noted that every obstacle was related to everyday life on the island. “A few hours after I had carried a 40-pound bundle of firewood over five miles, I saw a man in tattered pants and shoes held together by threads. He was toting a bundle much larger than mine, going about his daily chores.”

The Fuego y Agua Survival Run is a more extreme development in the recent evolution of obstacle-course racing. First popularized by shorter, more mass-appeal events like Warrior Dash, the races began to grow in length and shrink in finishing percentage. Longer events like the Tough Mudder and Spartan Race pit athleticism and motor skills against endurance; the days-long Spartan “Death Race” includes mental games and arbitrary challenges in a race of attrition.

Before the Fuego y Agua Survival Run, Stephens had said he expected only a handful of the 39 starters to finish.

Upon our arrival in Managua, Diboun and I were oblivious that Junyong Pak, whom we had met at the gate, had earned the World’s Toughest Mudder title two years running, and that across the aisle on our airplane sat Olof Dallner, a Death Race winner. Their rivalry, we learned, is one of the most competitive in obstacle racing. A film crew was on the island to document the showdown.

The plot was thickened by the fact that Ometepe local Johnson Cruz Barrios was one of the pre-race favorites but had never competed against Pak or Dallner. It would be Barrios’ intimate knowledge of the island vs. the undeniable skill and big-event resume of the foreigners.

“It’s like Jurek vs. the Tarahumara in Born to Run,” Diboun observed.

The work of the survival runners was not limited to the race. At packet pickup Friday morning, Stephens pointed at a boat a few hundred yards off shore and explained that racers would need to swim to collect their race numbers. Not a single racer blinked before stripping to their skivvies and diving into the bull-shark-infested lake.

It seemed quirky, if uneventful, until cries for help started coming from the water. One of the swimmers was cramping and panicking; three spectators, Diboun included, dove in to save him. And just as the alarm died down, it was rekindled when shore-dwellers noticed a large ferry headed straight toward the swimmers. Alerted, the boat’s captain quickly diverted the ship toward a different dock.

“Well, that was interesting,” Stephens said as he walked back from the pier.

Near the top of 1400-meter Maderas, a technical, muddy up-and-down slog slowed me mostly to a walk, before we dropped into the dormant volcano’s caldera. Suddenly a coconut crashed down right next to me—I had narrowly avoided the most unique DNF in history.

It was in this section that I caught up to Meissner. “This blows,” I said.

“Sure does!”

Soon Costa Rican Diego Mendez scooted by, deftly hopping from rock to rock. “You should train in Costa Rica,” he said. “It’s just like this!”

A long mile later, we hit the lake inside the crater, and chugged from a gallon jug of water at a cup-less aid station before starting back up the lush crater wall. At the peak I remembered to look around and was greeted with a fantastic view of beaches, lakes, lush greenery and Concepción in the distance. The jungle met the water as far as the eye could see.

I tripped immediately.

The early stages of the descent, known fittingly as the “Jungle Gym,” seemed more suited for obstacle racers; tightly packed trees and rocks slowed runners to a tedious crawling, climbing and sliding routine. At one point, faced with a particularly gnarly mess of tightly packed trees and rock outcroppings, I snatched an overhead vine to swing, Tarzan-style, around the obstacle. Hands clenched on the vine, I applied weight to my coiled right leg for liftoff but slipped and flew off the trail, projecting several GU packets out of my race vest.

Eventually, the incline mellowed and I could run again. With a couple of miles to go, scorching in the heat in the middle of the island’s southeast farm fields, two cows, apparently sensing my distress, opted to run ahead of me—veritable bovine pacers—rather than skirt to the side.

For us 50K runners, the finish line was a welcome lakeside beach. The 100K runners had to turn their backs on the water and head back onto the simmering roads. I cooled off in the water and caught a rickety white minibus back to Moyogalpa with Jamil Coury and speedy Brit Ian Sharman, who had accepted an invitation to the race but was heeding an injury and didn’t run.

On the way, I learned that Jamil had been passed late by Mendez and came in second in the 50K by a mere minute. Whatever exuberance we held at seeing our finishing times was tempered by the fact that the first four 100Kers—Clark, James, Diboun and Jamil’s brother Nick—had run the first half of the 100K significantly faster.

After Diboun dropped in the scorching midday heat, Clark passed James, whose hard-hitting early strategy finally did him in. “When you race in the tropics you have to take advantage of the window before the sun is overhead [so] I pushed the pace,” James said. “[But Clark] left me out to slow cook in the sun.”

Less than an hour after word came through Stephens’ radio that Clark had tagged Concepción, the bearded Brit ambled down the same street on which we’d set out that morning.

“Where’s the finish line?” he shouted, thinking he was still one town away.

“Right there!” Jamil pointed at race headquarters to the right.

Clark crossed the line in 10:34:59—a half hour under the old course record—and promptly inhaled two beers and a slice of pizza.

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50K runners celebrate on the beach at the finish line. Photo by Guillermo Brenes Bolanos.

“I didn’t make too many mistakes,” said Clark. “I fueled and hydrated well, stayed patient all day by running my own race and maintained good forward progress. The second 50K was test of perseverance under the hot sun.”

Thirty minutes later, James came tearing down the street and around the corner to the finish. “Buy me a Coke!” he shouted to Jamil, tossing him a handful of Nicaraguan córdobas. Not far behind, Nick Coury stumbled across the line and more or less tripped into the waiting chair.

“I just sat there and tried really hard not to pass out,” he said later. James finished in 11:05:44, also under the old record; Coury finished in 11:20:50.

Having had their fill of sun and dust, Clark and James climbed into the back of a pickup destined for the cold waters of the Ojo de Agua springs across the island. A few hours later, after dark, I sat drinking Toñas with Sharman, the Courys, and several other runners in a nearby cantina. Clark hopped in, cleaner but still donning his soiled jersey; late 100K finishers trickled in for food and beer, and word came in that local favorite Johnson had bested Pak—the only other finisher—in the Survival Run. The night wrapped up early, despite Sharman’s protests.

A few days—and one bumpy boat ride to the mainland—later, a group of us walked back from dinner in Managua to find the field across the street from our hostel engulfed in flames; it seemed the un-scorched plot had been a mosquito haven and this was the going solution. As the sirens of a lost fire truck encircled us, a diminutive local man ran into the field, pulled a large branch from the nearest tree, and began slapping the ground where it burned. With each stroke of the tree branch a puff of dried grass, leaves, and burning embers floated into the night sky, slowly fading away.

This story originally appeared in our October 2013 issue.

Alex Kurt was referred to as Ginger Alex in Nick Clark’s post-Fuego y Agua blog post. He lives in Minneapolis.