Survival Run (www.fuegoyagua.org) is a race unlike any other: it is a twenty-four hour journey, lying somewhere between an ultramarathon, an adventure race and an obstacle course race. Racers are provided with a required equipment list, and a time and location for the start; they are not given the course, what obstacles will be face, or anything else. It takes place on the Island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua, Nicaragua, every March, and attracts runners from around the world.
The race is the brain-child of Josue Stephens. The first race was held in 2013 with about twenty runners. 2014 saw an increase in numbers, and ever more demanding challenges. In 2015, the win was taken by the ultra-distance phenom, Nickademus Hollon. Last year, 57 runners set off, and a relatively generous 6 finished, with Paul Romero and I taking a double win for Squamish… it was also the only year a lady, Helene Dumais, finished the race.
The Survival Run format kicks off with a prologue challenge, possibly with teams or possibly solo, which a racer must complete before being able to start the main race; the function is to separate the field early on, so that challenges don’t become clogged. After completing their prologue, racers can begin the main, solo portion of the race, where they run along a marked course to reach challenge points. The distance and route of the course are not given to the racers at any point – they must just follow markings and hope that their pace will get them to the end. Likewise, the racers don’t know what the challenges are until they arrive. This uncertainty adds to the challenge, forcing the runners to deal with the immediate problem, without the crutch of knowing what lies ahead. The challenges are based on the daily life and tasks of the people living on the island, and may be purely physical or may require specific skills. For each successfully completed challenge, the racer is given a wristband. Roughly at the quarter-marks on the course, there are medal check-points; racers must complete another challenge, and show that they have a certain number of wristbands; if they are successful, they are awarded one of the four pieces which make the final race medal. On each medal piece there is a word; in the order the medals are awarded, the words are “FAIL”, “I”, “DID”, and “NOT”… only runners successfully crossing the finish line can show “I DID NOT FAIL”!
Attrition in Survival Runs is very high – higher than almost any other race. Typically no more than five or six people will finish out of a typical starting line-up of sixty or more runners. The majority of drops occur in the first half of the race. It is not surprising that a race like this will attract an interesting cast of characters. While the majority of racers come from an obstacle course racing background, the front of the pack are primarily ultra-marathon trail runners with adventure racing experience.
My first experience with Survival Run was in 2016, when Josue offered me a free entry. The race began in the morning with a team challenge to carry rocks out to a small island a few hundred metres off shore. The individual race then began, carrying a 20kg load in a rice sack 1,500m vertically up an active volcano, until the sulphur stung our nostrils, and then back down, as the heat rose to 42 degrees Celsius. The front of the field took six hours, finishing as dusk fell, while the tail of the field ended their race at the bottom of the volcano in the middle of the night. Load carries, swims, and even making a rock carving, filled the night, culminating in a swim in the caldera in the crater of a second, dormant volcano, before the final push into the dawn to a finish carrying a pile of firewood down a beach, and my first win in ultra-distance trail running.
In the months following the race, Josue and I held discussions about bringing the race format to Canada. This has proved to be life-changing opportunity for me, and to help prepare, I came onto staff for Survival Run Nicaragua. Sitting on the other side of the curtain was a rewarding, and fun, experience.
Travel to Nicaragua was uneventful – after flying from Vancouver to Mexico City, a second flight landed me in Managua, where I met Gerhard Linner, the brand new director of the Fuego y Agua ultra marathons. Francisco, one of Josue’s regular transport drivers for the last four years, picked us up for the drive through small towns and rural farming areas, to the town of San Jorge, where we were to board a ferry for the island of Ometepe. As we drove the last 15km, we could see the larger of Ometepe’s two volcanos, the still-active Concepcion, rising above the trees.
Arriving in San Jorge, we found the winds were whipping the lake into five or six foot swells, and the regular ferry had been cancelled, replaced by a small fishing vessel, modified to be a people-carrier. The boat bucked and rolled its way across the lake for forty minutes, while the less sea-worthy passengers shouted over the side for their friend Ralf. Everyone was relieved to make land-fall at the town of Moyogalpe, at the northern end of the island. The forty minute drive south took as past landmarks I remembered from the 2016 race: where we carried buckets of sand in the dark after having received the first of four medals, where we emerged from the endless rocky trails after the volcano load-carry, and so on.
The race headquarters this year were on the beautiful beach hotel of Finca San Jose. One of the blocks was roped off as staff-only, so racers could not wander in and see the course map or preparations for the challenges; this is where I was shown to my room, which I shared with my safety director for Survival Run Canada, Fraser Koroluk.
Over the coming days, teams were assigned tasks – to mark and clear trails, to set up the banners and stage on the beach start/finish, check and update the race documentation, or to prepare the material kits for the challenges – different coloured wristbands for each, and ropes, buckets, etc as needed. The core staff of about ten, including two professional photographers and an endurance sports journalist, oversees a volunteer army of a couple dozen.
On one day, when we had completed all possible preparations, five or us were tasked with the special treat of checking the flagging on part of the Concepcion trail. We were dropped off at the trailhead, the same place we had come off the mountain in 2016. Our hike up started through dry, rocky riverbeds and cleared farmlands; this gave way to low bush; as we climbed, we were rewarded with expanding views of the whole island, including the smaller volcano, Maderas. As we continued up, the bush became more lush and leafy, and patches started to become wet. Eventually, we entered the lenticular cloud which so often covers the top of Concepcion, and we lost the views. About this time, the lush, low bush, which was by now quite wet, started to thin, and soon we were walking on a moonscape of open scree with visibility of 50m – it was easy to see how people could get lost up here. The steep, loose ground was treacherous, and there was an acrid smell of sulphur – this was not terrain for the faint of heart or those not lacking in safety mentality. After checking the marking, we scrambled the last few feet to the very rim of the crater; since we couldn’t see the bottom or the other side because of the cloud, it was an eerie place, and we didn’t hang around long. The treacherous footing over the moonscape made for slow going, until we dropped back into the vegetation zone, where the weathered clays made for better footing which we could run. The highlight of the running was a several hundred metre long gully filled with loose, mid-size scree, offering perfect resistance for fast, easy running.
Then, suddenly, we started to see new faces around the compound, and we realized it was just about race day. The two days leading up to a Survival Run are a slowly swelling party, as racers drift in singly or in small travel-packs from the far corners of the world. While most have kept in contact through the Survival Run Tribe Facebook group, and some have seen each other at other endurance events, this time has the feeling of an annual gathering of the tribes: a chance to rekindle friendships, exchange notes, and welcome newcomers into the fold. Chief and Gunny arrived with a rabble of Australians (yes, that is the correct collective noun), Richard brought a few of his Pinarellos (the Nicaraguan running club… while none have challenged for Survival Run, they are progressing rapidly, and I hope to see their colours on the start line in 2018). Some faces we had hoped to see were missing: Helene was in the middle of a crazy run in Hawaii, and Christian was off on another mission of uncertain, but definitely grand, scope.
The start is different every year – sometimes it is in the morning, sometimes it is in the middle of the nights, sometimes it is a surprise fire-drill in the middle of meal time. There is always a challenge to set the scene, get the racers in the mood, give spectators something to enjoy, and to split the pack up so later challenges weren’t clogged. This year, the runners were to meet on the beach at 5pm, as the shadows lengthened and the light on Bird Shit Island (yes, that is its name) grew golden. After Josue’s racers’ briefing and Fraser’s safety talk, the runners were instructed to line up and spread their kit out for inspection. A staff member would go to each in turn and confirm all the required kit was there (machete, rope, flotation device, lights, etc) and there was no contraband (GPS, wood saw, jet pack), after which the racer was given the rubber bands and leather patch to make a slingshot. For the first challenge, racers had to find wood to build their slingshot, and then hit a target, in return for which they received their race bib.
While some strong swimmers elected to swim out to Bird Shit Island (about a quarter mile each way) to get a wildcard wristband (which could be traded to bypass some challenges later), most immediately set off running down the 8km beach into the growing dark. This leg soon turned brutal as the beach ran out, and the racers had to wade through the shallows of the rocky shoreline as waves threatened to knock them over (one of the staff received a nasty gash on his shin a few days earlier on this section).
Several kilometres later, the course veered inland, where racers had to dive into a 5m concrete water tank, find a rock at the bottom, and throw it out of the tank… another wristband. Although diving into black water in the middle of the night is mentally challenging, and swimming up with a rock is physically demanding, this was just the start. After running across the island, runners we instructed to take their machetes, go into the black jungle, and cut 100lbs of firewood to a prescribed length. Unfortunately, several of the runners, including most of team Australia, got badly off course on their way to the wood-collection, weren’t paying attention to see there was no flagging, and ended up losing so much time that their race ended here.
While this was going on, I was heading up the smaller, lusher, wetter, and exctint, volcano – Maderas – with a flagging team to mark the course and set up the challenge at the top. This route sees many guided tours during the day, and flagging put up before nightfall would likely be removed to vandalize the course; indeed, even with our after-dinner start, as I was catching up with the rest of the team after a side-task, I found the flagging had been removed on a crucial turn, and I ended up exploring all side-trails, before I found a local who pointed me in the right direction. After four hours of steady upward movement, the last hour in ankle-deep mud as we entered the cloud forest, we crested the crater rim, and began the treacherous muddy slide down into the crater. At one point, a tree had fallen into the path, which was at that point a six foot deep trench, and we had to climb out into the jungle then through the mess of broken branches, before continuing down.
At the bottom of the crater we set up our tent (Shelter against the wind and rain for both us and racers in distress) and I swam out into the fog-covered caldera (a lake in a volcano’s crater) to set up the challenge – a flashing light with wristbands which the racers had to retrieve. This accomplished, we changed out of our wet clothes, ate our food, and settled in to wait for the first runner.
Meanwhile the lead runners had finished their wood collection, and were hiking up the equally steep, muddy and treacherous path on the other side. The first runner, Paul Romero, arrived wide-eyed and breathing hard just before midnight. After catching his breath, he dropped his kit, and started out into the caldera. With the heavy mist, it was impossible to see the flashing lights, and once out in the middle of the lake, the runners could not see more of the base then a faint glow from our headtorches. Although not a long swim, this was emotionally taxing for many runners, and the cold after the heat of the day did not help. As Paul returned to shore, his legs started to cramp, and we could hear his moans. Eventually he made it back, picked up his kit, received his “FAIL” medal, and started the climb out of the crater on the way we had come; his periodic screams as his legs continued to cramp were quite disconcerting. Ten minutes later the second runner, Alexis, arrived, dispatched the obstacle, and was getting ready to go when Johnson Cruz, the 2016 second place finisher and one of the favourites to win this race, arrived. Both Johnson and Alexis are from Ometepe, so we had the exciting prospect of a close race between them and Paul, and possibly a local win for the first time. As the minutes ticked by, more runners arrived, swam and left, now coming in small groups: the Austrian, David Dietrich, who had just missed the cut-off in 2016 (he had been racing with a slower team-mate, and now was back for revenge in the solo category), was fifth, closely followed by the first lady, his girlfriend Vanessa, looking like she was half way through a Tough Mudder, rather than at the top of a tropical volcano in the middle of the night, and then other friends: Gabi Stephens (Josue’s older sister), Corinne (Josue’s wife), the crazy Coloradan Chris in his jorts (cut-off jeans shorts – guaranteed to cause chaffing on any human), and others.
All this while, I was greeting runner, calling their number to Peter, huddled in the tent, who wrote them down and then relayed to race HQ via a satellite up-link. At 2:30 in the morning, I handed over these duties, to get twenty minutes’ sleep before changing back into my wet, manky running clothes, re-packing my bag, and head back out of the crater on my way to the next challenge I had to set up. My fresh legs, with only four hours of hiking in them, took me down the treacherous, steep mud at a good lick, overtaking several of the runners, and landing me at the next check-point 1,000m lower and two hours later. This mud was no joke – it would come up as far as my shins at times, and there was not a single step where you could avoid it for the first third of the descent; one of the “ladies to watch” ended up finishing her race in this mud when she wrenched both knees to the point she was still limping two days later – and since there was no extraction possible from this section, she spent over five hours slowly hobbling down in the dark until she reached the road-head.
At the next challenge, I was surprised to have caught up with the lead runners, as they did battle with the most physically demanding, and also the most skill-intensive, challenge of the race – the log-split. A couple days early, we had worked with the farmer, Ben (also the owner of Ometepe’s finest dining establishment, Café Campestre, a transplanted Englishman, and a veteran finisher of Survival Run in his own right) to fell two foot thick trees, buck their limbs, and mark two metre sections. While Ben luckily wielded a temperamental chainsaw (which quit as the final tree came crashing down), the racers were instructed to choose an axe, cut a tree at a section mark, and then split the resulting log into fence-posts, which had to be carried through thick jungle undergrowth the 100-200m up to Ben’s house. Not only does cutting a tree section up to two feet across take a great deal of physical exertion, if your technique with holding and swinging the axe is lacking, the demand is doubled or tripled with wasted energy. After delivering the posts, racers moved down the hill to a bamboo stand, where they had to fell a four-inch thick spike of bamboo and buck it to 7m length… not with the nice sharp machete they had carried, but with a naked hacksaw blade.
Paul fell into third place on this as the locals, Alexis and Johnson, showed the value of familiarity with the task. Indeed, Alexis burned out of the gate an hour or more ahead of Paul. However, after collecting a bicycle at the next village (yes, they had to cycle with a 20 foot long length of bamboo!) he was paying for the price of his blistering pace, and we passed him walking next to his bike in the early morning light, in what was to be the last leg of his race.
The bicycle leg took them back to the start/finish at Finca San Juan. Here they had to use the slingshot again, then swim out to another island – substantially further than Bird Shit Island – using the bamboo as a floatation device. Paul was again in the lead after smoking the swim and blasting back out into the delightfully overcast and cool noon time. Remember those wildcard wristbands to get out of tasks? Well, they couldn’t be used here – it was do or die for runners, and die is what Alexis and Johnson both did – swimming was not home base for either of them, and the choppy seas proved a bridge too far. Further back in the field, however, this most certainly was Vanessa’s home base, and she set the fastest time of the day, overtaking three guys, including David, who she ran with for the rest of her race.
Meanwhile, back on the other side of the island, Josue and I were marshalling the mighty ship Mozorola (a 45 foot fishing vessel re-purposed as a passenger ferry) into position off the shore in a sheltered bay called Tesoro de la Pirata (something about pirates, which is what the crew seemed to view themselves as). Once in position, the crew secured three ropes under the keel; at the mid-point of each rope was a metal shape, and runners would have to dive under the boat, identify the shape, and then tie a corresponding knot in a rope – each time, laboriously hauling themselves up a knotted rope onto the boat. Once the ropes were secure, the rescue divers inspected the hull and lake bed for hazards – sharp flares of metal, nails, rocks – and gave it a clean bill of health.
All done, we settled back to wait for the runners, taking turns napping in the cool wind. Around noon, word came via Facebook that Paul had arrived, and we soon saw his long, slow stroke coming across the water – clearly very tired but still in control. Soon he was crawling over the gunnels. It took him several minutes to wrap his head around the task, but then knocked it off without pause, and was on his way back to shore, being shadowed by the safety boat with rescue diver at the ready, as were all runners.
It was at this time that we were getting reports of Johnson and Alexis in their final struggles with the swim on the other side of the island, and we alternated rooting for them and trying to treat each other knots and discussing past Survival Runs.
Next up to bat were what we came to dub the “First Couple of Survival Run”… the impossibly strong-looking and cheerful David and Vanessa. We laughed our hearts out when Vanessa issued her burn-notice on Paul as she approached the boat. It didn’t take them long to grasp the challenge, and after trying in good humour to convince us that they only had to do one rope each (since they could exchange knowledge of the shapes and guess the third by elimination and assumption), they were launching themselves over the sides and, between kisses, tying knots. We were completely convinced that they would finish, and were rooting for them; it was with considerable disappointment that we later heard that Vanessa had failed at the do-or-die slingshot challenge.
John Taylor was the fourth person to arrive. As he struggled to haul himself up the rope and onto the boat, we were blown away by his mental fortitude to keep going. Then he casually mentioned that he had broken his toe 20km into the race… I saw the toe, and the distinctive blue-yellow-blue across the break… it was broken. This man is a BAMF… but wait for a bit later where he one-ups himself! He struggled with on of the knots for a long time – I could clearly see he knew it, but his brain was back-firing. Any other runner, I would have considered giving him a medical DNF, but I knew John could handle himself on the ragged edge. After getting the bowline, John made short work of the other knots, and we watched his exhausted swim back to shore. Only elite endurance athletes (and possibly mothers of multiple children) can understand what John was going through to keep going.
Our last customer was possibly our most entertaining. Just as were starting to tear down the challenge, we got word that Chris of the Jorts had arrived on the beach, and after some refreshments from the restaurant he was swimming out. He looked pretty good puling himself out of the water, at least by the exacting standards of Survival Run, but when he heard that he would have to haul himself out of the water another three times plus dive under the boat, he cried uncle. After visiting with us and chatting, he dived back into the water and swam to shore, despite our offers of a ride in the boat. He was already beyond the (soft) cut-off, and didn’t see the point of beating himself up more.
We finished striking the challenge, and headed for shore, where Josue (who had come to meet us) clarified the cut-offs policy. If Chris got off his butt and put down the beer he was drinking, he still had a chance of gaining the third (“I”) medal. Spurred by this, Chris applied seat of jorts to seat of bicycle, and pedalled off into the sun.
Josue drove us back to Finca San Juan, where I helped set up the final obstacle. The final obstacle in Survival Run is always a pro-forma, a “photo stunt”, a formality… no-one who had gotten that far could conceivably fail, but it meant they weren’t just running across a finish line. In 2016, we had to carry 15 lbs of fire wood for a kilometre down a perfect beach. This year, it was a bit harder – carrying 30lbs of bananas down a farm track, then a few hundred metres along the beach.
That dispatched, I cracked a Tona beer, chatted to friends, and waited for Paul to check the box… there was no chance of a sprint for the finish this year.
As if scripted, the light was turning gold and the shadows were growing longer when the cry went up that Paul was on the beach. Volunteers, staff, family cheered as he made a final strong finish to cheers. After finish-line speeches were done, most the crowd left to eat dinner and drink beer while they waited for David, while a few button-holed Paul – much as he wanted to sit down and have a shower, the gregarious Californian couldn’t walk away.
Around this time, word came that John Taylor had left the race. This didn’t gel with the John we’d seen on the Mozorola, so I knew there had to be more. Had his toe blown up on him? Had there been another injury? It turns out that the people manning the final check-point before the climb up Concepcion had miscounted John’s wristbands and let him continue, whereas he was short by one. Part way up the brutal and heart-breaking climb, John had realized what had happened, and had decided to return to the previous check-point to step off the course. John had tried and failed at Survival Run before, and finishing meant a lot to him; it was unlikely anyone would have noticed, or thought less of him for not picking up on the innocent mistake which had been made. Quitting was not an easy option for him to take… and those are the decisions which show your true character. Good on you, John!
The final act of the race was perhaps the moment that stolen the heart of the crowd. It was well after dark when David’s headlight appeared on the beach, moving slowly but steadily. He crossed the line to great applause – he had finished his business with the race and hadn’t left most everything out on the trail. That was when Vanessa stepped onto the finish line to put his medal around his neck, and plant a long kiss on his lips. The First Couple of Survival Run had been crowned.
Dinner and partying continued late into the… umm… late evening (after a race like this, neither staff nor racers have much left), and the next morning, there was a deserted air about the beach. By 9am, bodies were starting to appear, and there was quite the crowd by 10am for the annual tradition of the Survival Beer Mile. This race is even more of a gong-show than a normal beer mile – exhausted racers stagger and limp slowly, family and friends dive in, those who don’t drink beer partake in “Coke Miles” and “Rum Miles”, and no-one is really sure about the standings. The $5 entry fee goes to a good cause to improve the island life – this year it was contributing to water filters for the island’s school. No-one really remembers who won, but everyone left feeling that Survival Run Nicaragua 2017 had finished on a good and wholesome note.
Next up: the 2017 Fuego y Agua Ultra Marathons on Ometepe in May, and the inaugural Survival Run Canada in August.