Fuego y Agua Survival Run 2013

The Survival Run was advertised as a race that no one would finish.  It was a 70km obstacle course race held on Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua.  I felt confident in my fitness going in and I was hopeful the obstacles would be as creative as promised.  The Survival Run is part of the Fuego y Agua event, which also offers 25km, 50km, and 100km ultramarathons. Transportation was organized for racers: fly to Managua, take a two hour shuttle to San Jorge, take a 75 minute ferry to Ometepe. I made it to the island without any issues and my dad joined me a day later.

Survival runners were required to attend an 8am packet pickup on Friday.  Everyone expected something special and we were correct.  At 8am we were told we had 15 minutes to retrieve our numbers from a boat 200m offshore in Lake Nicaragua. The racers stripped down and dove in.  I’m fairly comfortable swimming in open water but a few racers struggled and one was disqualified because he was unable to complete the swim.  After some chatting and photos everyone went to their rooms to rest.

At 3:30am Saturday the 50km, 100km, and Survival runners met at the start line. Survival Runners were shown our first memorization test. We had to memorize a block of six colors and recite it at the next aid station if we were going to eat/drink there.

Then the race directors revealed the first surprise: we had to run to the first checkpoint carrying live chickens.  This lightened the mood and everyone began posing for photos with their chickens.  Before we knew it we were off!  The first five miles were run on soft black sand that started wearing out my calves pretty quickly.

At the prerace dinner we were told there would be dozens of local police on the course to ensure our protection.  Several “policia” were at the first checkpoint and took our chickens.  Then they handcuffed us with zip ties.  Great, I thought my hands would finally be free but now they were even less mobile. It was dark and relatively cool and we were on a road so I picked up the pace, figuring these would be the easiest miles during the race. Shortly later I got to the first aid station, recited the color test, had some water and washed my hands. A few miles later we turned off onto a rolling trail that passed farms and plantations. Eventually we ended up on a black sand beach.

Survival Runners were told to step aside and our handcuffs were cut off. We were given the first of four medal pieces and we were told we had to gather 50lbs of sticks from a massive pile and carry them to the next aid station. I gathered 52 lbs in case I drop a few and tied them with the twine I brought. I shouldered the sticks and began walking. For some reason I assumed this would be a relatively short carry but I was very wrong. After a few minutes the sticks would begin digging into my back/shoulder so I’d have to shift them around to get more comfortable.  Every time I shifted the bundle, it would move a little and eventually sticks began falling out.  This forced me to awkwardly bend over, pick up the dropped stick, and shove it back into the bundle. We carried the sticks for miles and it was miserable. I realized this was worst than the cement carry at Death Race because of the shifting bundle. I had to stop several times to retie the bundle.  Eventually I got relatively comfortable and started moving without much shifting. I hiked this portion with Shane McKay and Morgan Mckay.  I was surprised to pass Junyong Pak.  We exchanged “Hellos” and I continued along as he was retying his bundle.  It seemed like he did not have enough rope and was really struggling with the sticks.  Shortly after I passed him I made it to the next checkpoint and Morgan and I dropped off our sticks. Pak followed a minute or two later.

We were at Ojo de Agua, a popular spring-fed swimming hole.  We were told we had to climb a tree to retrieve our first bracelet. Tree climbing was advertised as part of the race but I had never tried it. The bracelets were hung approximately 20 feet up on four branchless trees.  Morgan picked a tree that had one branch, but was also thicker and hung over some wooden posts that made the idea of falling even scarier.  I decided it’s better not to think about the risk, grabbed another thinner tree, and climbed up in around 30 seconds.  I’ve done a lot of rope climbing and this climb was relatively easy.  I grabbed the bracelet and without thinking, began slowly sliding down the tree.  By the time I reached the bottom, my legs and forearms were rubbed raw.  I saw JunYong Pak climbing down his tree to avoid this. Then Morgan completed her climb and the spectators cheered for her.  I walked back to the aid station to have some food and memorize the next color test.  Pak asked a volunteer which way and took off at a sprint. I was blown away by his pace. I followed a minute later at a jog and followed Morgan for a one mile jog down another road.

We were turned onto a beach and Survival Runners were given a large log to transport down the beach. I tied two ropes to the log and walked into the water so I could float the log behind me. We waded through the surf for two miles in a large group of runners. I was behind Morgan, Pak, Isaiah Vidal, and Shane.

At the end of the beach we reached a group of spectators, including my dad who were on a tour following the Survival Run. We were told to dig a hole four feet deep in the sand under a flag to retrieve our second medal from a bucket. I used my pocket knife to dig and reached the bucket fairly quickly. I was told we had to follow the rocks along the coast around the side of the island to a dock. We were given a bag full of empty plastic bottles for flotation. I sat down and ate a little food before continuing.  I didn’t see any racers on the beach behind me.

I began jogging along the beach and caught Isaiah where the large, rocky coast started. I found a trail a few yards inland from the rocks and followed that for a few minutes along with Isaiah. We passed all the other racers, including the leader, and island local Johnson Cruz. Later I found out the other runners were told they had to swim this portion. After they saw us on the coast, they got on the rocks and passed me pretty quickly. The rocks were large, moldy, and slippery. We had to duck under low branches, jump, and scramble. This section was treacherous and I was afraid of twisting an ankle. I tried going into the water and walking out there, but there were equally large and awkward rocks under water which made walking there impossible. I went the rest of the way on the coast.

I made it to the docks and followed the rest of the runners up a trail and onto a road. I jogged this stretch with Isaiah and Adam Jurcisin.

At the next aid station we were told we’d have to grab a 20 ft long bamboo pole, carry it up the beginning of the trail up Volcan Maderas, then use it to climb a tree. I was in 4th place when I left this aid station with my bamboo. At this point it was almost midday and it was hot and sunny. After a mile or two we found my dad and other spectators at a tree. I watched Shane climb his bamboo into the tree.  This required hanging under the bamboo, then flipping over on top of the bamboo when I reached the trunk, then climbing the last few feet onto the tree to grab a bracelet.  Shane made it look relatively easy.  When I tried flipping around on top of the bamboo, my hamstring cramped and I had to slide back down. This was frustrating and tiring. Isaiah caught up and got into the tree on his first climb.  I tried a second time and failed again.  Morgan and Chris Dutton caught up and climbed the tree effortlessly. I sat and composed myself, then finally I made it up on my third try. I gave my GPS to my dad because the batteries were almost dead.

GPS Stats

I followed the others a few hundred yards up the trail to the next climbing challenge: we had to climb the bamboo into one tree, grab a bracelet, then haul the bamboo up, reach it across to another tree, shimmy across, grab another bracelet, haul the bamboo across, and use it to get down from the second tree. My two trees were smaller and had multiple branches to grab on to.  This climb wasn’t as challenging as the first bamboo climb but it still took a lot of energy out of me. I was told to leave my bamboo pole and to hike up Volcan Maderas.  I followed Chris and Morgan up the trail.

Morgan went ahead and Chris and I stayed pretty close during the climb. The climb up Maderas was as difficult as advertised. It seemed like I was doing 20+ inch step ups for around two hours. I took breaks to sit or lay down for a minute to slow down my heartbeat and breathing during the ascent. I felt like I was getting close to the top because the temperature was dropping. I knew there was an aid station in the crater so I was pacing my water consumption to refill at the top. Unfortunately a sign pointed Survival Runners to the left to descend down another trail.  Chris and I realized we weren’t going to summit the volcano during this climb. Chris and I both ran out of water shortly after the descent started. The descent was faster than the ascent but it was a lot more muddy. The combination of large drops and muddy rocks made me decide to be conservative on the way down to protect my ankles.  Regardless, I slipped a few times.  Also, I was starting to experience some abdominal and oblique cramps during this descent. However, I knew I had to continue moving because I had over 3,000 feet to descend so I could reach water.  Also, I only had around three hours until the 5pm cutoff.

Johnson passed me as he ascended Maderas, and around fifteen minutes later Pak followed.  I had a sip of their water and they told me I was only two miles from the checkpoint.  It was 3:30pm. Eventually the trail smoothed out and turned into a series of wooden stairs that I could jog down.  I made it to the end of the trail around 4pm.  There was a cafe/hostel at the bottom of the trail where I bought a two liter bottle of water, which I immediately drank half of. I felt better and I knew I was near the aid station but I didn’t see any course markings.  I asked the locals if they knew where to go and they pointed me down a road.  I followed this road along with Corinne, Jason, and Shannon.  We followed the road all the way to another road that ran parallel to the beach.  Again, we didn’t see any course markings and some other tourists told us some other racers went right so we followed.  We jogged along but this felt wrong and we only had thirty minutes until the cutoff.  Pak told me the checkpoint was at the bottom of the trail, he never mentioned anything about roads.  Some other tourists said they saw some people chopping trees up a driveway so we retraced our steps and found the tree chopping station around 4:40pm.  We were given axes and told we had to chop down a marked tree before 5:00pm. My dad and other spectators were there but I didn’t have time to stop.  I started chopping but I had to stop after a few strikes because I was so worn out from the extra running while trying to find the checkpoint. After a few minutes the tree fell and I was given a bag of coffee to take to the top of Maderas.  

Later I found out this bag contained the third medal.  I received a sixth bracelet and sat down to drink water, a coconut, and some beer.  I should have realized I wasn’t in good shape when I thought a beer was a good idea in an already dehydrated state.

I left the aid station shortly after 5pm.  13 racers had made the cutoff.  I put on my headlamp and began the slow and long climb up Maderas.  I began hiking with Corinne, Jason, and Shannon, but they pulled away from me.  The first half of the climb was very difficult for me.  I was moving very slowly but I was unable to catch my breath and I was sweating uncontrollably. It was similar to when you finish a WOD in the summer and sit down afterwards and a puddle forms around you.  However, I was barely moving.  I drank a lot of water and popped salt pills. I began experiencing more cramps and by this time it was dark.  Everyone talked about how you shouldn’t begin the second climb if you weren’t confident you could get yourself to the top and back down the other side.  I questioned myself a lot during this climb.  Around half way up I thought I lost the trail, cramped while looking around, and laid down in defeat.

I don’t know how long I laid there in the dark but I decided I didn’t travel to Nicaragua to quit.  I was going to finish the race. I resumed climbing and made it to the top around 9pm.  The trail forked at the top.  I didn’t see any markings so I headed straight.  I made a steep, short descent.  I couldn’t see anything because it was misty and raining.  Then I almost walked up to the lagoon.  I was in the crater!

But no one else was. No aid station, no volunteers, no racers. It was pitch black, raining, and I could not see past five feet.  I walked around and looked for course markings.  I couldn’t find any.  I knew the next section out of the crater was the most difficult of the entire course. I couldn’t guess, I needed a marking to guide the way but there weren’t any.  Then I heard Corinne yelling somewhere above me.  I yelled back a few times but I couldn’t understand where she was or what she was saying.  I was worried she was hurt or lost. I decided to take the same trail back out of the crater and look for a marking at the fork.  I got up there, but I couldn’t find any markings, and I couldn’t hear Corinne anymore.

I decided my only option was to descend the way I came up and hopefully call my dad to let him know where I was.  I began the long and slippery descent. The whole time I grew increasingly frustrated that I was going to DNF because the last, most important aid station and challenge was shut down. It’s unacceptable they didn’t wait for all the racers.  Later I heard the crater aid station had run out of water earlier.  They had one gallon left for the first group to the summit.  This group, including Isaiah, Olof, Shane, and Adam. These racers were held at the top for 45 minutes to wait for other racers so everyone could descend together. Eventually the volunteers went down with this group of four.  There were still a handful of us on the ascent.

Eventually I learned there was another swimming and climbing challenge at the finish line.  Johnson and Pak were the only racers to earn all four medals to spell out “I Did Not Fail”. I probably wouldn’t have made it in time to complete this last challenge, but I didn’t even have the ability to perform the swimming/egg carry challenge that was billed as the centerpiece of the race.

I made it to the bottom of the volcano at midnight.  I went to the cafe where I bought water earlier and talked to a couple English tourists there.  They didn’t have a phone or internet and I had to wait until morning to communicate with anyone.  I went to sleep in a hammock on the patio in front of the hostel.  Around 2 AM I was woken up by a security guard or police officer who was on the phone with Paula, a race director. I talked to her on the phone and I was told she’d send a truck to pick me up.  I walked over to the stairs at the entrance to the cafe and fell asleep.  I woke up every hour or so and moved back to the hammock at 5am. At 7am the cafe opened and I used their phone to call a cab which took me back to my hotel where my dad was waiting.

After the race I heard the aid station at the top was supposed to be manned until 10pm but the volunteers got tired and left.  I also heard some locals removed course markings.  This was the most technically difficult obstacle race I have done and I’m proud I participated with the talented field. The race was truly unique and creative. Two years ago I met my friend Jeremy at a race. We were both registered for the first World’s Toughest Mudder and we joked about how far it’s possible to push the young sport of obstacle racing. I think the Survival Run found that point. Hopefully the serious logistical issues will be ironed out before next year.

On Sunday after the race I developed nausea and a fever and possibly a minor infection from my cuts and scrapes.  The ferries were shut down for two days, delaying our departure.  The transportation was very simple on the way to the event, but became a major hassle afterwards. Eventually I made it home to Houston safely.


6 thoughts on “Fuego y Agua Survival Run 2013

  1. Denis, I am so proud of you. My husband and I followed you with your dad during the Survival Tour. You gave us all a little scare when we heard that someone was lost on the volcano. You are a true survivor! Glad to hear you are feeling better. Hope to see you next year.

  2. Wow, Dennis! Thanks for sharing ~ I was with your dad on the wonderful Truck Tour so got to vicariously experience a few of the obstacles ~ am totally IN AWE of you and the other Survival Runners. Mary (Leslie’s mom)

  3. Congratulations on attempting such a feat – I have no doubt you will return and conquer this one next year! Thanks for the amazing write-up on what I’m sure was an unforgettable experience. Your effort and perseverance are truly incredible – you definitely inspire me in my own athletic endeavors. Hopefully you enjoyed the experience and learned a lot in the process.

  4. Pingback: Survival of the Fittest | Rewired and Retired in Nicaragua

  5. Amazing journey! You may not have finished but accomplished more than most would ever try. Great job, you should be very proud!

  6. Just read this Dennis. Great account of the race, brought back some cool thoughts and memories. Hope to see you there next year or sooner.

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