If I could sum up this event/trip in one word, it would be breathtaking. And I mean that both literally and metaphorically. It all started with a call from one of my best friends late December 2013 “Yo, you wanna go do Fuego Y Agua next year?” to which I replied “Where is it?” “Nicaragua.” “When is it?” “February 8th, 2014.” “Distance?” “100k.” “I’m in!”
That’s all it took from my partner in crime, Michael Deater, to convince me to take part in this trip to Nicaragua for not only the longest distance I had ever run, but also my first ultra even at that.
The preparation began. Michael was getting advice from our friend Christian Griffith on what to bring supply wise for the race. We bought shoes, nutrition, our registration and our tickets and we were set to go. That’s when it happened. The evil mastermind behind the race, Josue Stephens, decided to change EVERYTHING up.
*Just a side note, Josue is one of the nicest people I have ever met; he just really wants to put on one hell of a race. He wants to push you beyond your to test the type of person you really are. Hence the motto “Challenge your body, discover your soul.”*
From what we were told by Christian, we would have had 4 drop bag locations to have extra gear and nutrition throughout the race. He gave us a step by step agenda on how to conquer the ultra known as Fuego Y Agua.
We would start with some normal trail shoes as the first part of the race went through, well basically, trails. Then at the first drop bag location which would be at the base of the Maderas Crater, we would switch to a knobbier shoe, something with more grip so we would be able to climb up the volcano with ease. Then after descending the crater, we would reach the bottom and 50k of the race would be completed. We would then go to our second drop bag, switch to another pair of regular trail shoes and make our way to the Concepcion Volcano to where we would switch to knobby shoes again, ascend and descend the volcano and finish off the race. Or so that’s how we thought the race would be.
Josue, completely restructured the race this year. The race course was completely changed and we would only have one drop bag… at the 50k location.
But prior to all that madness, on Feb. 6th 2014, we finally arrived to Nicaragua. It. Was. Beautiful. It really opened my eyes too, because that had been the first time I had ever travelled to a third world country. Right out the airport it was just lush vegetation and many homes which were basically shacks. But no one seemed to mind, they kept doing their own thing, just to get by. It was about an hour and a half taxi ride to the ferry and then the ferry ride to Ometepe Island was about another 45 minutes to an hour. Deater and I made some friends on the ship who were also competing in the event. They had told us that they were doing the 25k and thought we were insane going for the 100k… we got that a lot. Anyways, we finally arrived, Ometepe Island. Mind you, the whole trip was hilarious because between both Deater and I we could barely form a single sentence in Spanish. The only things we knew with confidence were hola, bano & cerveza.
With the guidance of our friend Christian he had told us to stay at the American Hotel & Café and that the owners Simone & Bob would take great care of us. And Christian was right at that. The whole trip I felt like we were staying at my grandmothers house who just happened to live on Ometepe Island. They gave us guidance, tips and were just some of the nicest people I have ever met. AND THE FOOD! Oh my god that woman can cook. If you ever make your way to Ometepe Island, you go to the American Café and ask Simone for her lasagna and chocolate cake. Her chocolate cake is actually one of the top ten things to do while in Mayogalpo.
So February 7th rolled around. We woke up, exchanged our American dollars for cordobas and hopped in a taxi with our friend Robin who we also met there on the island. We had to get a ride to the other side of the island because that’s where the start of the race and packet pickup was being held. So we arrived at Hotel Villa Paraiso in Playa Santo Domingo for our packet pickup. It was a beautiful day. Sunny, a slight breeze with the waves crashing on the shore, and in the background, the gorgeous scene of the Maderas crater, the first volcano we would ascend and descend within the race. Of course, Deater knows everyone, so when we arrived at the hotel he was greeting most everyone there. I met a lot of new people and left that island with a lot of new friends. Like I’ve said before, the OCR community is a tight knit group. A small community with a bunch of people with this one common interest of the love of OCRs that can come together every weekend no matter what kind of week they’ve had and just have a great time. But ultra-runners take it to a whole other level. You have to be a special kind of stupid to put your body through any type of ultra-marathon. And the bonds that ultra runners share is amazing, and I’m glad to say that I have gotten to know that bond.
So after we said our greetings, we made it just in time for the BEER RUN! Yes, you heard right, a beer run. What better way to celebrate an ultra-marathon you’re running the next day than with a nice little carbo-loading warm up. Contestants were required to have four beers on them. When the race started, you would crack open a Tona beer, which is a delicious Nicaraguan beer, and chug it as fast you can. Then you would run about an eighth of a mile down the beach, turn around and return to the start line and chug another beer. You would do this a total of four times to complete a distance of one mile. BUT! If you threw up at any point in the race, you would be penalized with an extra beer to chug and an extra quarter mile to run. I ended up finishing with a time of 10:42, fifth place if I remember correctly. Deater ended up throwing up, so he got first place in the ultra distance beer run. Lmao.
(Start/finish of the beer mile)
So after the beer run, hanging out a bit on the beach and talking with some newly made friends we headed over to Charco Verde for the pre race dinner. Getting off the bus you had an amazing view of the Volcan Concepcion and seeing it like this, you just stand there in awe. We headed in, sat down and just talked about the Survival Run that had taken place that Wednesday prior to us arriving. Dinner was good, of course you had some pasta and bread to carbo load for the race the next days, which honestly, I don’t really believe in. But anyways, as we were eating we had the pre race briefing from Josue himself and some of the locals put on a show with music, dancing and some very colorful garb. It was awesome!
At some point I stepped away from the table, put on my headphones and just kind of strolled around Charco Verde for a bit. I walked out towards the front and was just looking upon the Volcan Concepcion and in my head all I could think was “Tomorrow, I WILL be climbing that volcano.”
After dinner was over and we all loaded back up onto the bus and Deater and I headed back to Mayogalpo to prepare for the next day. But first, of course, we stopped off at the pizzeria next door to have a couple beers.
We got back into our room, packed our gear and just went to sleep. Honestly, it was a little hard to get some sleep because I was so excited/nervous for what was to come.
Our alarms started blaring and we were up and ready to go. We got dressed, grabbed our gear and headed to the bus stop to be taken to Hotel Villa Paraiso back in Playa Santo Domingo. It was amazing and nerve wrecking all at the same time. Seeing all these people gathered to take on this adventure either it being the 25k, 50k or 100k. We were all talking, cracking jokes and just getting ready for the run. They had some prerace treats set up for the runners, some scones and coffee. All I wanted was water, I couldn’t really eat at this point anymore.
It was still pitch black when we all lined up on the start line, the only lights were the laser lights blasting out from the start line and a slew of headlamps that were turned on, and finally, it was time. We were off.
It started with a two mile beach run in which Deater, Christian and I were together. And of course, Christian out of nowhere with a huge smile on his face just starts singing, “Isla De Ometepeeeeeee.” Deater and I cracking up tell him to just please be quiet!
It was about a mile into the beach run that I already started to slow down, I had been nursing some shin splints for a couple weeks which did not heal in time for the race and I already started feeling them. I let Deater and Christian run ahead and thought I would catch up with them later. It was about another mile run and then we turned up and off the beach and were on the road. It was a slight climb, nothing crazy, but a climb nonetheless. Eventually we came up on the first aide station Honestly, I was impressed. It was my first ultra-marathon so I didn’t really know what to expect, but they had bread, peanut butter, fruits, juice and water. They had a plethora of choices for you to choose from. I just grabbed a banana and headed on out. We had already hit the trails leading up to the first volcano. Still struggling a bit I had an interval pace going just so I could bare my shin splints.
Then began the ascent, it was something out of a movie. You see the trails of the mountain before you and the sun had just started to rise. It was beautiful. So begins the climbing. Margaret Schlacter first caught up to me at this point. She found out how I was a diabetic and was checking up on to me make sure my blood sugars were okay. I gave her a thumbs up and a nod and she said “See you later!” The one thing I was jealous of that I had no idea about, were trekking poles. This made the climb for other runners quite easy. The one note I put in the back of my head while climbing this mountain was to find a walking stick.
After a certain portion of the climb there was a point where you could take a picture and catch the whole of the island in the background. I caught up with Anna Dager at this point and she was nice enough to take my picture for me. Anna, now that is a badass. She had been battling a stomach bug and still decided to take on the 50k like a boss! I tested my blood sugars after the picture and I was 76. I had a handful of trailmix and I was off.
Climbing, climbing, climbing. It was just continuous climbing. There were certain portions where it was a single track and you can slight jog a bit, but it was all uphill. And the further up you got, the more wet and damp the conditions got. I mean imagine, you’re climbing up into the clouds on a volcano!
This is where the trekking poles made a difference. I had a hard time just grabbing onto branches and pulling myself up the whole time while everyone else was basically using the poles for support. And the further up you got, the dirt you had started your run on, turned into mud. And that was even more of a pain to get through. My shoe got caught and fell off twice in the mud. I was annoyed.
Then there came a point where it was just branches in the way. You had to climb up and over these branches to just continue on the path. Mind you, people from the 25k portion were already on their way back the opposite way. So you really had to watch your step. Maybe a little less than a mile and BOOM! We were finally in the crater of Mount Maderas and it. Was. Amazing. It was like a horror movie. It was creepy, foggy, silent but beautiful all at the same time. I tested my blood sugars again refilled my water and was on my way.
Here I thought “Hey, we reached the crater, it’s all downhill from here.” Well, it wasn’t. We still had a climb, but what was different about this climb, was that you weren’t shrouded by trees anymore, there was about knee high brush and more climbing with the open air above, and the volcano beneath your feet. There was one point before you got back into the trees again where there was nothing but about a foot and a half trail beneath you, the wall of the volcano to your left and nothing but a drop to your right. I treaded carefully at this point because I was scared. I’m not even going to lie, I was by myself, it was extremely windy and I was taking deep breaths just hoping to make it across.
And then the descent began. Of course it was easier at this point and I started to pick up a lot of speed and slack that I had problems with when I was climbing the volcano. But then again there was this other point where I almost crapped myself again. It was a legit two foot wide bridge… of branches. There was nothing under except a drop. And it was about maybe ten feet long. I legit got on my hands and knees and crawled across that bridge. But I made it! And then continued on the descent.
I honestly was just rushing to make up time on the descent like I said before. I was by myself for a lot of the time and that worried me. I bumped into the Kalal’s a couple time through the course and we ran together for a bit. But at this point I got my second wind and just charged ahead. I was determined to make it back to the finish. The problem with that was that I took a wrong turn and didn’t hear David screaming after me because I had my headphones in.
Thank God I found the right path again and was on my way. A little while later and plenty of jumps and slight jogs through the descent and finally I made it into Miriad, which meant I was done with Mount Medaras! But that was only about 20k of the race and we still had 30k left to go.
This is where it got bad. While climbing and descending the mountain we were shrouded by trees and bushes and were in shade most of the time, through Miriad and the rest of the course it was all open and the sun was just beating down on you the whole time. This to me was probably worse than the volcano. You would think being from Florida that any type of elevation change would be terrible. I’m not going to lie, it was tough, but I made it. And the 30k portion of “trails” beat me down more than the volcano did. And what was funny was that at the first aid station after finishing the volcano, David got there and was like “Look! One of the runners went off course and I haven’t seen him since.” The lady at the aid station assured him I had already come through. He was like “Oh. Okay then.” And started back on the trails.
Anyways, like I said before, I had only used my Inov8 X-Talons, which sucked on this back portion of the island. The terrain was basically rolling hills of dirt and rock. And with no shade whatsoever the sun was hitting us at all times. But while the trails and the heat sucked, the people were amazing. It was great running through the villages and seeing the faces of the people that inhabited the island. When you would run by, they would run towards the fences and wave and try to cheer you on to keep going. And some people would even offer ice and water because they saw how miserable you looked. There was one point between aid stations that I just had to stop on the side of the road. I was feeling terrible. I hadn’t tested myself in a while so I went ahead and did. My blood sugars were in the high 300s. And I realized that at some point after reaching the crater, my site for my pump had dislodged and I hadn’t been getting any insulin for a couple hours. This is where it got funny. I took out my syringe and bottle of insulin and was injecting myself on the side of the road. Some kid on horseback was riding by at the same time and just had this look of astonishment of what I was doing. It probably looked to him like I was shooting up or something. I had myself a laugh and kept on going to get this race done. At about 35km my legs completely gave out on me. I had to use the support of my walking stick and walk the rest of the way. At this point, I was so beaten down I started to rationalize with myself why it would be okay to quit. I had come so far, I was still by myself, I did what I could. I was nearly on the point of tears. But then I remembered what I was really there for. I was there to push myself. To prove that I could do these types of endurance events and to show that I could push myself to the finish no matter what the circumstances. So I trudged on. I tried to run a little here and there, but to no avail. So I just kept on walking. Met a nice kid on the way though. He only spoke Spanish so that made it kind of hard to communicate. But we walked and talked for a bit. Actually got my mind off the misery I was in. I remember the first thing I told him after he walked up next to me was “Yo no hablo mucho espanol.” He laughed. He asked me if I was doing the ultra, I said Si. And we walked and talked a bit even though we probably both had no idea what the other was saying. I loved it though.
I finally made it to the last aid station where Sam & Bev were. What I loved was that they were so spirited about how close I was to the finish. They were like “You only have a 10k left! 4k till you reach pavement again, and then another 6k till your done!” Oh yeah, only a 10k left.
So I kept on walking. Night had fallen again and I was already back in the town. One of the last things I remembered seeing was as I looked over to my right, I saw these flashing lights that seemed to be forever away. Thinking to myself I was like “There’s no way that could be the finish.” I know that when we started it was dark and there were lights at the start line, but there’s no way those could be those same lights. I kept on walking, following the arrows that were leading me to the finish. At this point, it was the second time that some dude on a scooter had come by asking me if I wanted a ride to the finish. On the surface I said “No, I’m good.” with a smile and just waved him by, but on the inside I was screaming “I’M FINISHING THIS RACE EVEN IF I HAVE TO CRAWL!” Finally, the last arrow I saw pointed me down some stairs and I was upon the beach again. And I died a little on the inside. I had to walk on the beach for the distance we ran when the race started just to make it to the finish. So I kept on walking. And finally there it was, the finish.
I speed walked and hobbled just to make it through. There were volunteers there cheering me on that I had finally finished and were trying to put the medal around my neck. I locked eyes with a chair that was sitting there past the finish Line and made a dash to it. I threw my stick down and just flopped on the chair.
Fourteen hours later, and I finally made it back to the finish. 50k done. And I thought for sure since I never caught back up to Deater that he had gone on for the 100k. So I already decided I would stay there and wait till he got back.
The nice girl who initially tried to put the medal around my neck came back to were I was sitting and was congratulating me trying to give me the medal. I told her I couldn’t take it. I missed the time cutoff for the 100k and completely missed the cutoff for even the 50k. That’s when I heard it from the background. “TAKE THE MEDAL!” And of course, who else, Deater was there actually waiting for me. I took the medal and went back up to meet with the other racers who had finished the 50k.
While I completely missed the time cutoff and couldn’t go on to complete the 100k, I was proud to say that I did a 50k for my first ultra ever, in Nicaragua even at that. What’s really funny, was that the longest distance I had run prior to this was a half marathon. From all the amazing people I met and became friends with, to the amazing adventure I encountered while going on this trip, I can honestly say I cannot wait till I get out there again for my next ultra!