Friday, February 22, 2013

Fuego y Agua 100k

It was hot when we touched down in Managua, like outrageously hot. For a pasty English boy coming in from Colorado, the potential for a meltdown at the weekend's Fuego y Agua 100km run on the twin-conned volcanic island of Ometepe was significant.

In Managua, I met up with Yassine Diboun and Dave James, in addition to a couple of others who would be participating in the Survival Run, a 70km event with a host of natural obstacles and challenges that needed to be overcome in addition to the running.  

The still-active Concepcion. Pic: Sharmantor
The day after our arrival in Managua we were off to Ometepe where the pace of life was serene, the brews were flowing, and the hot tropical sun was tempered ever so slightly by a pleasant lake breeze. A short run after lunch on a sandy dirt track confirmed that, yes, indeed, it was incredibly hot. The views of Concepcion, the largest and most symmetrical of the isalnd’s two volcanoes, were huge and somewhat intimidating. Not intimidating because of the size and grade of the vertical relief necessarily, but more because of the strength of the sun and the exposed nature of the slopes.



Life on the ground moved slowly. Elderly ranchers on horseback looked on in a bemused manner as our little crew of lunchtime runners dodged cows, horses and dogs in the lane. Meanwhile trash and slash piles would smolder gently, releasing an odor that comes to typify the nose space of Nicaragua, and one that exists thanks to the non-existent garbage collection services in the country.

Yassine checking out a burn in Managua. Sharmanator
Some good meals, more than a few Tonas – Nicaragua’s omnipresent brew of choice – and all of a sudden, alarms are blaring telling me that it’s three O’clock on Saturday morning: time to race. My roommates for the trip – Dave James and Alex Kurt – are milling around performing their pre-race rituals: some nip lubing here, some pocket stuffing there and sunscreen slathering everywhere. Dave has come in from a stage race in Costa Rica a couple of weeks before and is sporting an Adonis-like tan so opts for the topless racing option. Ginger-Alex and I on the other hand favor more modest racing attire as we prepare for a day battling the tropical sun.

In terms of participant numbers, the race is really quite small. Between the 50k, the 100k and the Survival Run there aren’t much more than a hundred starters lined up for the 4:00am start; nonetheless, the race is a big deal for Nicaragua, and for the island’s businesses especially this is one of the busiest and most important weekends of the year. For Josue and Paula, the race organizers, the challenges of pulling off the four events are significant to say the very least.

Given the incredibly relaxing pace of island life to this point I have little to no anxiety as I stand on the start line waiting for the starting gun. Quite comically, the survival runners start their day carrying a chicken for the first five miles, and not surprisingly they are all immediately left behind as the race gets underway. Alex, Dave,Yassine, myself and a few others form a lead pack as we head out of town, working together to find course markings in the dark of night. We roll on the sandy dirt track we had previewed a few days previously, enjoying the mild pre-dawn temperatures as we settle into a steady race rhythm.

Race start: Sharmanator
After four to five miles of dirt road we find ourselves on the brick road that circles the island connecting the volcanoes and surrounding towns; it is a road that we will see intermittently throughout the day. A few faster paced miles on the road and then it is a right turn onto a rocky dirt road heading down to the beach. Dave is up ahead being molested by dogs, I’m stumbling around kicking rocks, while Yassine and the others have chosen to take their foot of the accelerator in anticipation of the long, hot day ahead. As Dave and I hit the beach for the first time, the sun is still yet to come up, and it continues to be something of a struggle to find the course markings. A couple of miles down the beach and we hit a dead end with an unmarked dirt road heading off the left. Dave wants to take it, but I’m pretty sure we’ve missed a turn. A couple of islanders on horseback come trotting by and after a broken conversation and much gesticulation it is semi-confirmed that I am right. Not long thereafter, a Guatemalan runner catches up to us and fully confirms after a brief conversation with the locals that we are indeed too far down the beach. Kindly, the herders lead us to the turn we should have taken some 15 minutes earlier.

Getting off course has become such a regular occurrence in my racing history that I’m barely phased by the turn of events. I’m running through a banana plantation on a volcanic island in a country that I’ve never visited before: life is pretty damn good and by crickey I’ve got all day to catch back up to those that passed through while we were wandering around on the beach. Dave seems a little more anxious however and  I can sense that he wants to catch back up as quickly as possible after being informed by locals coming the other way that we’re about five runners back. So, after a mile of faster-paced running I let Dave get on with it, slowing back down to my all-day pacing effort.

It is still dark as I pass through the aid station at the Ojo de Agua natural spring on the isthmus connecting the two volcanoes. Coming out of Ojo, I am soon back on the brick road and almost as soon I am accompanied by Ian Sharman who is squeaking around the race course on a rented and beaten up old pedal bike. Sunlight is just starting to illuminate the shoulder of Maderas, our first volcano of the day, and I can see that it is shrouded in a dense cloud above about 1,000 feet. Ian shoots a couple of pictures before I am quickly directed back onto the beach for a couple of the most stunning miles of running that I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying.

Pic: Sharmanator
The sun is now breaking over the horizon behind Maderas, I am running on sand beautifully packed down by the gently breaking lake waves, while headed straight for a lush and mysterious volcano obscured by a cloud of its own making with the sounds of monkeys and tropical birds pulling me in. Even better, I will soon be climbing 4,500 feet of vertical relief to the caldera at the top of the volcano; I can’t help but holler out in joy. I can see Dave a third of a mile ahead up the beach, but I’m not sure if I can make out any other runners beyond that. Either way I am not in the least bit concerned as I figure I’ll make up plenty of ground on the ascent.

Soon after being directed off the beach I make a left turn which marks the beginning of the Maderas climb. It begins on a wide double track trail, which quickly leads to the Porvenir aid station. I take my time hydrating at the aid, as I've decided to maintain the one-bottle MBS Twitch setup that I’ve been using up until now, so I can keep both hands free to help with the steep, slippery and rooted climb ahead. As I pull out, I’m surprised to hear that the lead pack of five is just two minutes ahead and running as a group.

Ah, yes. Pic: Sharmanator
Immediately upon exiting the aid station, the terrain becomes very rocky, and no more than a kilometer up the mountain I take my first – but by no means last – digger of the day on what would end up being an unusually clumsy run for me. Just below cloud level before hitting the jungle proper there are a couple of metal benches set out, so I take the time to look back to check out the views of the isthmus and the lake, which predictably enough are gob-smackingly stunning. I roar again and the monkeys yell back; good god this is fun.
   
No more than a fifth of the way into the climb I catch sight of Sean Meissner, with Yassine a quarter mile ahead of him. I quickly go past Sean but lose sight of Yassine as we re-enter the thick canopy. Then I hit a junction, make a wrong turn, run out of trail, retrace my steps, make the correct turn and then five minutes later re-pass a bemused Sean. Ho hum. The trail has really steepened up by this point and it‘s into full-on, hands-on-knees power-hike mode.

It takes me another 20 minutes to pick up Yassine again, and as always he is in great spirits clearly enjoying his morning as much as I am. He lets me by but matches my pace, so we work up the mountain together checking out the monkeys and relishing this wonderful experience. As we ascend, the air thickens with moisture and the ground turns to mud, while the roots become somewhat treacherous underfoot. As we go past Jamil Coury, running in the 50k race, I decide to err on the side of caution and let Yassine take off while I watch him put his northwest mud running chops to good use.  

After some good slogging, I hit the rim of the crater and drop into the caldera marveling at the dense forest and beautiful crater lake. Yassine is just pulling out of the caldera aid area as I slide in. I take my time hydrating, filling my bottle and chomping on fruit and chocolate, all the time eyeing the bottle of rum quietly calling to me from the tree branch it is set up on. I think better of it and scuttle up the other side of the crater in search of Yassine. At a break in the trees on some good exposed rock I catch back up and once again Yassine and I navigate together seeking the rim and the traverse section through the aptly named 'jungle gym.'

The roots and branches up here are so thick there is zero hope of running. We are now crawling, jumping, swinging and ducking our away along the course; once again the fun level is raised to new highs. It takes some time to work our way through the thick, thick canopy but eventually we begin to descend and once again I let Yassine do his thing through the higher elevation slip and slide terrain. I am grabbing onto branches with every step to stay upright, negotiating massive step downs cautiously and beginning to wish for dry trail. After about 1,500 feet of descent things dry out enough that I finally regain some confidence in my foot placements and begin to let it roll.

Nearing the bottom of the steep stuff, I catch back up to Yassine and once again we go stride for stride on our way to the 50k turnaround on the beach at ‘monkey island.’ We see Nick Coury coming back at us as we approach the 50k finish, followed a couple of minutes later by Dave. We roll in a full six minutes behind Nick, 5:15 into the race after taking just under three hours to negotiate Maderas. The sun by now is high enough in the sky that the morning has become legitimately hot and it is clear that the remainder of this race will mostly be about heat management and dogged perseverance. Running in this kind of heat and humidity is rarely pretty and almost never fast. I pick up a second bottle, chomp on a banana, hydrate aggressively and then get back to it.
50k Finish, 100k turn. Pic: Sharman

Running out of Medina, the small town we are now in, there is absolutely nowhere to hide from the sun, but Yassine and I seem to both be rolling well, surging past each other every ten minutes as our staggered sugar highs kick in gel hit after gel hit. Within two miles we are already reeling in Nick, and then another mile down the road Dave comes into sight. He stops at the turn we had made to get on Maderas earlier in the morning  amid a bit of confusion with the course directions. The four of us regroup and figure out that we’re supposed to head straight to the beach, and soon we are back on that beautifully hard packed sand running away from the volcano with the sun at our back.

The Survival runners are there heading towards Maderas dragging or floating logs along the beach as one of their additional challenges. Meanwhile Yassine and I begin to build a lead at the front of the field. Again, our pacing is somewhat erratic and we surge on and off with the spikes in our blood sugar. I begin to crave the natural pool at the Ojo de Agua spring that is now just a few miles down the track. We pull off the beach, run a mile of road, return through the cow pasture, jig through the banana plantation and then jump into the gloriously cool Ojo pool. I take my time, making sure to really bring down my core body temperature. This allows Dave to catch back up, and he and Yassine get out of the aid station a good minute or two before me. Again, I am not concerned.

Leaving Ojo I find myself back on the brick road, really quite unsure where exactly I am headed. I can see Concepcion off in the distance, but have no idea how long it will take to get there or indeed what the route will be. It takes about 20 minutes to catch back up to Dave, and another 10 to pick up Yassine. Dave is not interested in latching onto my pace, but Yassine and I once again fall into the same funky rhythm we’ve been hitting on and off since the turnaround, surging past each other all the way to the next town down the road. There is a small aid station set up in a little park and again I hydrate aggressively, eating fruit and letting Yassine take off first.

I figure that the Concepcion climb is nearing so plan on trying to build a real lead there. As it turns out, I would pass Yassine once and for all a few minutes past the aid station and he would end up calling it quits at the next aid station due to kidney pains that thankfully turned out not to be serious. The road to La Flor, the penultimate aid station, is one that I am in no hurry to ever see – let alone run on – again; in fact, I’m pretty sure that it’s the dictionary definition of ‘endless.’ Slogging away on this beastly road in the intense late-morning sun with shade to be found nowhere, the runner has a view of Concepcion that somehow never seems to get any closer. I am now reduced to a pathetic shuffle desperately trying to conserve what little energy and drive I have left for the 3,000 foot climb up to the aid station on the shoulder plateau of the Concepcion ridge that I am endlessly being taunted by.

Aid station location is on the hump. Sharman
Finally, and I do mean finally, the aid station materializes. I check the watch and note that I’m 7:18 into the run, meaning that I have 3 hours and 40 minutes to get up, down and back into town if I am to breach the 11 hour barrier that I have arbitrarily set for myself as a time goal. But I’m not that motivated. It’s just too hot to find motivation and that section of road has almost sapped me of my will to live. I am just thankful that the racing aspect of the run appears to be over. Nonetheless, the change of grade – from gradual to ridiculous – on Concepcion is welcome, as is the canopy and breeze, so I steadily make my way up the mountain and to the ridge aid station where I am welcomed by a very strong wind. I take some time to get in a couple of oranges and bananas, somewhat dreading the very steep descent down the mountain in the direction of Moyogalpa and the finish line, which is clearly visible from this great vantage point on the volcano. In my tired state, it looks ridiculously far away.

The descent is loose, steep and incredibly bruising. The course transitions back into the trees, onto singletrack, then doubletrack, I see a house, two, trash on the side of the road, concrete, town, the finish line banner … oh, thank the sweet baby Jesus. I cross in 10:35 for a new course record, but find more satisfaction in the cold Tona that is promptly thrust into my hand. My post-race stomach is in unusually fine fettle and I eat a slice of pizza, drink another beer and then just like that I am back to reality and loving life again.
Pic: Sharman
Thank you Josue, Paula, and everyone on the island of Ometepe. Agua Y Fuego is a truly unique event that is about so much more than racing 25, 50, 75 or 100 kilometers; it’s about community, bridging cultures and promoting travel opportunities in a beautiful country with a very kind heart. Go visit Nicaragua! You’ll be glad you did.  
Tona! Pic: Amy Perez (International Superstar) 
Gear:
Pearl Izumi E:Motion Trail N1s
Pearl Izumi Ultra Shorts
PI Elite Tall Wool Sock
Ultraspire MBS TwitchCell
Ultraspire Isomeric Race bottle
First Endurance Trucker Hat 
Highgear Axio HR
Black Diamond Spot Headlamp

Fuel:

3 x First Endurance EFS Liquid Shot Flasks (1,200 cals, Kona Mocha)
2 x EFS sports drink (250 cals)
12 E-Caps
5 x banana
6-7 x oranges 
4-5 slices watermelon
2 slices pineapple
10-11 cups of Tang
Bottle Ultragen post race

Paula, myself, Jamil, Alex, and Nick hanging at the 100k finish. Sharman.
At packet pickup. Sharman.
Ferry ride over. HAIR! Pics: Yassine
Checking out Ometepe
Killing time waiting (all day) for a ferry that never came. Pic: Margaret Schlacter 

9 comments:

  1. Well done and great report (as always)! Although I am pretty disappointed you didn't win the beer mile I heard took place the day before. I think it was 9 degrees on the Rock this morning, so need to worry about the heat for a while.

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  2. Rob - was up on the Rock yesterday in the driving snow; felt so good!

    Heard that the beer mile was happening 20 minutes after I had just consumed a huge lunch. There was no room in the inn for four more beers. Disappointed to miss out.

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  3. Awesome adventure Nick! Congrats on the win.

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  4. I recognize a lot of those photos...

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  5. Nice! I heard they were having this medal ready, just in case. http://i.imgur.com/2lssxZu.png

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  6. Congratulations Nick !!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  7. Congratulations Nick, we were thinking about you on the beer tour back home. Great run! Hope this streak continues...

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  8. Thanks guys. Yeah, Rob, trying to make 2013 the year of no 3st places.

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  9. Great Work! I like how you referenced your sponsors at the end! :)

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