“Fuego y Agua”; For those that don’t “habla espanol” it translates to “Fire and Water”. Now I think I know how this event got it’s name. This is an ultramarathon and extreme endurance event (held in Nicaragua) that I have looked at from afar since it’s conception back in 2009. I always thought it would be so amazing to do a “destination ultra” in a stunning part of the world, but often wrote it off as bad timing, too far away, and expensive.
In the fall of 2012 I had a coffee with Ian Sharman in my neighborhood here in Portland, Oregon and he told me he was heading down for the race. I was intrigued and headed home, again, thinking how awesome it would be to make this dream a reality. With the help of some sponsors, an extremely generous race director (Josue Stephens), and the support of my family, things came together rather quickly. Before I knew it flights were booked, I was on the entrants list, and I was giddy with excitement for the 2013 Fuego y Agua 100k on Isla de Ometepe in Nicaragua.
Periodically I would get updates from race director Josue Stephens and I could tell that the event was very organized, and had a great mission. From reading the itinerary I was happy to see that there were many other happenings aside from the arduous 100k trail running race. For example: one of the days was “Clean the Island Day” where folks went around for a few hours and picked up trash and litter, and another day was helping out with the “Kid’s Run”. We were also encouraged to bring down some old running shoes, gear, etc., which I have plenty of, and I also brought a lot of kids toys and clothes as well. It felt good to give away a huge bag of these items knowing that people down there would really appreciate them. Also, from the itinerary, I could tell that we were going to be having a good time as in FUN! There was mention of crystal clear springs to swim in, night clubs with “human bowling” on a “slip and slide”, music, dancing, and good food. I tried to keep this talk to a minimum to my friends and family in the cold, dark Pacific Northwest!
When I got to the gate for Managua, Nicaragua at the airport in Houston, Texas I was sure that I would notice some runners. Instantly I saw a person with a laptop donning a sticker that read, “Ultra”. Boom…a fellow “tribe member”. I walked over and introduced myself to Alex Kurt (we would end up hanging out the entire week together), and then others started trickling in and mingling about the terminal and we all congregated and got to know each other. On the flight I sat in front of Junyong Pak, the winner of the “Toughest Mudder” (an extreme, obstacle race), and he prefaced me on this growing sport and some of the details that coincide with it. Before my week in Nicaragua and talking with Pak I thought ultrarunners were extreme and crazy, and now we seemed to be participating in the “junior varsity” event! Regardless if you were an obstacle racer, 25k, 50k, or 100k runner there was an instant camaraderie and genuine shared enthusiasm for the entire week. We were all feeling so blessed to be on a magnificent part of the earth doing what we love.
The race itself came around quickly on Saturday February 19th at 4 a.m. We were pretty close to the equator so race director Josue and his crew wanted to get us running for a couple hours before the sun came up. It was a good call but there was really no escaping the heat (fuego) if you were doing the 100k. I started off with a pretty furiously paced group of Dave James, Nick Clark, Rob Raguet-Schofield (50k), and a couple other 50k runners. We hit a long sandy road for the first few miles and eventually got spit out on to a paved road. I wore myInov-8 TrailRoc 235’s and felt like it was a nice choice for the course and conditions. I could already feel the humidity and tell that I was moving too fast for a long day ahead so I took my foot off the gas a little. It was quite an eerie feeling hearing the howler monkeys vocalizing as the new day was upon us. Definitely a sound that you don’t hear often! After a couple confusing points and back-tracking slightly after a wrong turn I entered a section of trail only to hear a couple runners approaching me from behind. It was friends (and 100k runners) Sean Meissner and Nick Coury. The three of us linked up and worked together during this next section of the race. It was awesome! The three of us sharing the sunrise together with a big volcano on our left and the water (agua) on our right. Then all of the sudden a woman came riding by us on a white horse on the beach! It was agreed that it was definitely an image that would be burned into our consciousness forever. We rolled in to the aid station and I casually asked how far Dave James and Nick Clark were ahead of us. The volunteer workers said, “you’re the first ones”! I instantly knew that they got lost, and I had a pretty good idea where, too.
I felt badly for Nick and Dave’s mistake but a small part of me got excited and motivated, and I quickly grabbed my Nathan hydration pack (which I had at a drop bag at the mile 20-ish aid station). I chose to go with the hydration pack based on the recommendation that I be “hands-free” for the section up on the volcano (Maderas) called the “Jungle Gym”. Nick Coury darted out of the aid station in 1st place, and then Sean Meissner with me closely behind. Sean and I worked together for a mile or so as we started our ascent. The sun was up, the heat was rising quickly, and the landscape was lush rainforest. Absolutely breathtaking! Every so often I would look up and do a 360 degree panoramic view just to see the lay of the land. Then I noticed Dave James behind us! He was back on track and before long pushed past us going up the volcano. I was in “low gear” as I was climbing and grinding up the 4,000 foot climb (that had no switchbacks!) continually reminding myself that I had a long way to go. Then I looked down the mountain again to see Nick Clark quickly approaching. Just as he caught up to me I heard something just above me in the trees. He came up behind me and said, “what is it?”…I replied, “monkey”! It was a medium sized white or tan colored monkey and didn’t appear to be a howler monkey. Pretty cool to see nonetheless. From that point on Nick and I worked together in tandem all the way up the steep, muddy, carved-out trail up Maderas. I was feeling really strong during this point which was probably around 25 miles in to the race. Then we hit the “Jungle Gym” section and this was the most fun I’ve had trail running in a long time. It’s exactly what it sounds like. There were roots and vines acting like monkey bars and I was hopping down ledges and repelling small cliff sides like a kid who was just let out for recess! I probably put about 30-60 seconds on Nick during this section. After the aid station in the crater of the volcano we linked back up together and ran together in to the 50k mark conservatively in 3rd and 4th place in 5 hours 20 minutes.
I dropped my hydration pack, grabbed some food and my hat from my drop bag, and hit the aid station before leaving the area. Nick Coury and Dave James were not too far ahead of us and it wasn’t long at all until we caught both of them. Coury seemed to be fatiguing a little bit, and we caught up to Dave at a junction where he was unsure which way to go. We stopped quickly and were sent on the correct way by some spectators who had a map. Nick Clark and I pushed the pace as the mercury shot up on the hot paved and dirt roads. It almost seemed that every time one of us would eat a gel we would surge past the other. Dave was about a minute back and it seemed that Clarkie and I were duking it out with about 20 miles to go. At one point we hit a crystal clear spring near an aid station and I jumped in and fully submerged for a minute or so and it felt so refreshing! Once I got back to running I would periodically stop to urinate and hardly any would come out, and what did was very dark yellow. I knew I was a bit dehydrated but I was fairly confident in how much liquids I was taking in on a regular basis. I thought that maybe my body just needed to “catch up” a little. I was definitely feeling the heat and the fatigue but I was also feeling really strong. It was so exciting going through these little villages where people were lining the streets outside their shops and homes yelling at us in Spanish and clapping for us. The people in Nicaragua were extremely friendly and hospitable the the entire time I was there.
About mile 45 after leaving an aid station we hit an extremely hot and exposed dirt road that was to connect us over to the other volcano climb (Concepcion). I was later told that it was about 100 degrees on that road during that time of the day. At this point I started feeling some pains in my side that was accompanied with the urge to urinate again. I would stop again and same thing- nothing but a few dribbles of dark urine. The pains started getting worse and I slowed down considerably as I watched 1st place Nick Clark vanish out of sight. Before long Dave James came up and we walked together for about 30 seconds and I explained to him my issues. He was “grinding” hard at this point too and he chose to get out of the sun and run up to the next shaded section that gave maybe a 5-10 degree reprieve from the powerful and hot sun. Now the kidney pains were getting stronger and closer together and I was worried and a bit angry that I was “falling apart” so quickly after just recently having such an awesome race. I walked for a bit, then sat down for a few minutes, and nothing was changing as I continued to drink more and more water and electrolyte drink. I was almost “doubled-over” in pain and I had to make the tough decision to “pull the plug”. I know my body well and knew that something was wrong and I didn’t want to do anything seriously detrimental to my health. Eventually a local bus (which looked like an old school bus) came by and I flagged them over. The bus was full of people and I used “Spanglish” (a mix of broken Spanish, English, and hand gestures, etc.) to ask the driver for a ride to the race finish. He kindly agreed and I sat doubled-over for a 45-minute bumpy, hot ride through the back roads of Nicaragua. Finally I got back to the finish and told Josue what happened and made my way to the hotel with the help of Eric Orton. He got me some cold water and I made up some Nuun drink and took a cold shower. I also took some Vega Protein Recovery shake and then got a nice healthy Gallo Pinto (rice and beans) with greens. I was a bit depressed and I made my way to my bed after the meal and took a nap for an hour or so. When I awoke I could tell that I was stabilizing and the pains were very slight and fleeting and I was starting to urinate more and clear fluids. In hindsight I think I got a little behind in hydration while I was wearing the Nathan hydration pack up on Maderas and coming down in to the 50k aid station. I am not accustomed to drinking out of a camelback hose while running at that intensity and in that extreme heat. Lesson learned (the hard way!).
Many people told me that I made the right decision and I appreciate the condolences. It was fun to see everyone come in to the finish and ultimately the hotel after their respective races. There was definitely a lot of carnage out there that day between all the races taking place but, again, there was that shared positivity and gratitude to just be a part of it all. I had to continually remind myself that pushing through that could have gotten ugly and I thought back to Waldo 100k back in 2009 when my buddy Erik Skaggs had to spend a couple weeks in the hospital because of renal failure. I chose to not be glum about the whole situation and I tried to enjoy the rest of my stay on Isla de Ometepe in beautiful Nicaragua. A day or two later I was pulling Sean Meissner around in a rickshaw and I was feeling back to normal!
The whole Fuego y Agua event got a lot of recognition in 2013 and it deserves it all. Josue and his wife Paula Stephens handled the whole week with grace and provided an arena for connection. A connection between people in our sport and the overlap of obstacle racing, and a connection between Nicaraguans and people from all over the world. Part of the mission of the race is to promote eco-tourism and boy this is sure a vibrant place for it. I can’t say thanks enough to the race directors, all the volunteers, and everyone that made this event happen. Your generosity, kindness, and organization is sure to put this race on the map for years to come.
Thanks so much, Josue! And it was so nice to meet so many of you down there. I was proud to be representing Team Inov-8 and was quite amazed at what a presence the company has within the Crossfit and obstacle racing scene.
If anyone’s up for a vacation adventure with an epic race up and around some amazing volcanoes please look into this gem in Central America. You won’t be disappointed…I know I’m not! I can’t wait to take that ferry back to the island and play on the “Jungle Gym” once again. I’m also looking forward to taking care of some unfinished business with the other volcano and the last 14 miles of the course. Hasta pronto!