Recently I ran the inaugural Fuego y Agua 100K ultramarathon on la Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua. It was a very challenging race mentally and physically. I limped into the race under-trained, as I have not been able to train on hills the way I wanted to due to my Achilles problems that have been nagging me since July when I ran TRT100. This race consists of two primary climbs up the Maderas and Concepcion volcanoes, 1500 and 1000 meters, respectively. It's safe to say I was ready for the distance, but not those hills. When I arrived in Nicaragua last Tuesday, it was very hot and humid, and I immediately knew that this was going to be a tough race in the heat. Fortunately, the temperature was slightly cooler on race day, but was still about 85 degrees in the sun.
The race started at 4am in the town of Moyogalpa, at the hostel where I was staying with several other runners. When the gun went off at 4am, we began our journey. The race started by circling through the town before working its way to a dirt road, the beginning of our traverse around the island. I settled into a good pace, but still comfortable at the beginning, and visited with Roger for a while. He is also from Austin, and was running the 50K. After a few kilometers, I decided to make my way ahead a bit. The temperature was cool, and I wanted to take as much advantage of it as possible, because I assumed it would likely get close to 90 degrees during the day.
After about 5 kilometers, I caught up with Heather, a runner from Maine who was running her first 100K. She was running a very good pace for me, so we quickly introduced ourselves and decided to run together for a bit. At this point, we were coming off of the dirt road and onto the paved road around the western side of Volcan Concepcion. The road had some rolling hills, nothing big but not tiny either. During the up hills I let her go ahead a bit, and quickly caught up on the downhills. I could tell this was going to be a long day on the up hills, as my legs just aren't strong enough this season.
Soon we rolled into the first aid station at 18km, and I was feeling great. I had some bananas and grabbed a gel. I had finished my water bottle, but realized I had not drank any from my camelback. That was a wasted 70oz on my back for 18km which is not a great way to save my legs for the upcoming climbs. I dumped a little of the water, but not too much, and we took off towards Maderas. As we crossed the isthmus to the Maderas side of the island, I could feel it starting to heat up. I backed off the pace to make sure I would be strong on Maderas, but I really had no clue what that climb was going to be like. Before long, we rolled into the 30k aid station in about 2:50. At this point I put on some insect repellant, ate some food, and drank some jugo de naranja. I felt really good, ready to power walk up the 1500m volcano, or so I thought.
As we started up the hill, it was not steep and I approached it pretty aggressively. Soon, however, it got steeper and I could see that I wasn't going to keep up with Heather. I was surprised, I thought I would climb well because, although I don't run up hills well, I can usually power walk well. This hill, though, was steeper than what I was used to. In hindsight, I hadn't even begun the tougher sections. So she went ahead, and I focused on my breathing and keeping a consistent pace.
At about 1:30 into the climb, and about 2/3 of the way up, I hit a wall. The climb was so steep that every single step was making my quads burn and my heart rate skyrocket. I was not trained for this, and my heavier frame doesn't do well on these hills. I got to the point that I would stop every 30 seconds and lean against a tree and catch my breath. I kept wondering when the field would pass me by, yet no one had come up from behind yet. I tried to remain focused on my own race, and just kept moving. At this point, the trail went from muddy to a complete mess. I was high-stepping up 3 foot muddy rocks, and steep slippery slopes that required me to hold on to roots with my hands. I was now 2 hours into the climb, and my engineering mind took over. I was going 1mph, maximum. This climb was 10k, so that means this would take 6 hours!?! Something doesn't make sense, no one could do this for 6 hours. Fortunetely, I was just too exhausted to think straight. At the beginning of the hill, I was running/walking at a good pace and did much of the 10km, so I was much closer to the top than I realized. At about 2:15 into the climb, with my legs burning and my heart out of control, I peaked the volcano crater, and began the descent into the crater. To my surprise, I also came up on the leader of the 50K race, who was moving even slower than me. He also was hurting and we were both too exhausted to talk. I just said 'muy dificil' and continued. Adreneline kicked in, and I began the descent very quickly to the lagoon in the crater, where the next aid station would be set up.
When I got there, they were just setting up. The field of runners was much faster than everyone expected, and so I was the first to actually receive aid. Everyone in front of me had to continue on without refueling. I had the tastiest tamale and a banana, snapped a few pictures of the lagoon, and began my ascent out of the crater. At this point I thought the climbing was over and it was all downhill, little did I know what lied ahead on the ledge of the crater... After an exhaustive climb up to the ledge, I was in the midst of a muddy, messy jungle. The trail was almost non-exhistent because the brush was so thick. At first glance it looked safe, but if you looked carefully through the brush you could see that the ledge was narrow and there were steep muddy drop-offs on both sides. I'm not a fan of heights, so I took my steps carefully in this area. It took about 20 minutes, but soon I was descending off of the volcano. The path down was muddier and steeper than the path up, and it was impossible to run. In fact, I got a great upper body workout dangling from trees and lowering my body down 7 and 8ft drops. Several times I found myself literally crawling under trees or sitting on my butt and sliding down the mud. I was having a blast! This was the most fun I've has 'running' in a very long time.
After about 45 minutes, the trail dried up a bit and leveled off, so I started to run to the base of Maderas. I still had to be very careful not to slide off of the trail, but at least I was able to run. Twice I slid off the trail and slammed my shin into a root. It was swollen and bleeding, and I had to remind myself to slow down because an injury up here would be almost impossible to treat, or to get me off of the mountain. Of course, as I dropped elevation, it was also getting hot. In fact, by the time I reached the bottom it was about 85C and I was sweating quite a bit. The good news was that I was approaching the Hacienda Merida aid station, the halfway point in the race.
I knew my shoes and socks would be a mess after Maderas, so I planned to change my shoes at this point. If I changed here, I knew blisters would not be a problem. But, lo and behond, when I got to the aid station my drop bag was not there. One thing I've learned doing long distance running is that you can NEVER focus on the negative, always keep moving forward. So, I made due with cleaning off my socks and shoes in some running water, put them back on, and took off again. I knew it wasn't ideal, and most likely I would deal with blisters over the next 50K, but I've been through much worse and there wasn't anything I could do about it now. I also found Heather at the 50K point, she was cleaning off and getting ready to go back out. I was happy to see she was going to continue, and we decided to leave together for the next aid station. It was definitely nice to have the company, but I also knew that it was hot and there was a good chance my next 30K would be slow.
Sure enough, I was right. We ran about 5 kilometers together but clearly I couldn't keep up. I'm quick to admit when I can't keep up, mostly because I don't want to get sucked into a pace that that risks my overall goals for the race. So I let her go for a second time, figuring that this time I would not see her again.
I struggled on for the next 25K in the heat. I was not adjusting well, I could barely manage a slow jog. Each time I tried to pick up the pace, my heart rate would shoot through the roof and I got nauseous. The only way I could stay cool was to stop at a Pulperia every 10 minutes, buy some cold water, and dump it on my head. It led some some pretty confused looks from the locals. A stupid American running around the island, stopping at the local stores, clumsily asking "tienes agua fria" then instead of drinking it, dumping it on his head and neck. But it worked, and once a few clouds came in to block the sun, I found myself running again. In fact, as I approached the aid station at Altagracia, I was moving well. In the town, there were many children out cheering (or laughing?). Some would come up next to me and run with an exxagerated form, I'm not sure if they were mocking us or not, but I wouldn't blame them if they were. As they would drop off, I would say "Vamos" and they always laughed. When I finally reached the aid station, I was surprised to find Heather again. Looks like I would have a running partner again, which would be nice after the long lonely miles I had just completed.
We left together for the final push before Concepcion. I was feeling quite good, but also cautious since my quads were like jello and I still had a 1000 meter climb straight up a volcano. It was still warm, but not hot like before. The dirt track was mostly rolling hills, unlike a lot of the flats I had been doing. These hills took their toll, and we did a lot of walking on the rolling uphills. I wanted to run, but just didn't have it in me. Or, even when I could, I kept thinking about the climb ahead and how I would need every ounce of energy I could get. These miles went fast, though, and before I knew it we were at 75km and the base of Concepcion.
At the aid station i had some watermelon, drank a ton of water, and changed out my socks. I felt some adreneline now, because I could sense the finish. There was still some hard work ahead, but once I left that aid station I knew nothing could stop me now. I also knew that we left the aid station with 5 others just coming in. I run to push myself not to race others, but we're all a little competetive or we wouldn't be out there, and in this case I didn't just want to let 5 people run right past me.... Not that there was much I could do to stop it on that volcano, because as soon as I hit the steep areas I could barely move forward. For those that hven't run this race, let me be clear about these volcanoes. They are real mountains, and there are no switchbacks. Were are ascending at an extremely steep and unrelenting angle. Once you've redlined, there is no pace you can recover. The key is not to redline, unfortunately I learned this the hard way.
About 1:45 into the climb, I was perched against a tree trying to hold in what little food I had in my stomach. I could have quit right there. I had no clue how much farther the climb was and I was worried about how I would get off the volcano in the dark without getting lost. I couldn't take more than 10 steps without getting sick. In the past 10 minutes, I had seen 5 runners pass me by and they all looked much stronger than me. I was completely broken. At this point Peter, one of the volunteers, came zipping up te hill hanging glowsticks. I asked how much farther and he said not much. I was desperate, so I asked him to quantify and he said "definitely more than half way." I almost sat down and quit right there, and if there was an easy way to do that I would have, but I had to keep going at this point or I'd never get home. Then, as he was almost out of earshot he screamed back that we were almost at the top, just a few miinutes away. It was te encouragement I needed, and I felt a little energy rush through my body. I started moving again. Still slow, but the positive attitude goes a long way.
Before I reached the top, I watched several people descending. They were a good 10 minutes in front of me. I didn't want any more bananas or gels, so I asked Peter what else he had. He gave me some Tuna, and it was like heaven in a vacuum sealed bag. I ate almost all of it, and felt re-energized. I zipped down the hill immediately passing 2 of the guys in front of me. I kept going at a slightly dangerous pace in the dark, and before long I found 3 more runners. I spent a little time with them, but I felt too good to slow down. In a race like this, I've found that it's important to run hard when you feel good, because you never know when the tides will turn. And so I ran.
I was now 5 kilometers from the finish and getting on the main road. It was a straight shot back to Moyogalpo and the finish line. I ran most of it, got lost a little, and even got a motorcycle escort for the end. It was a cool way to finish, running through Moyogalpo. There were people all over, but I'm not sure any of them had a clue that I was running a race. I just smiles, said "hola", and kept going.
Finishing the race at Hostel Ibesa felt great. A bunch of runners and volunteers were around at the finish line to cheer me in. I was happy to see them.
The best part of this experience wasn't the race, it was the experience of traveling to a foreign land, meeting runners from all over the globe and spending a week with them, and then having the opportunity to share the run (and the island) with them for a day. I look forward to running more international runs in the future, and I hope to see these guys again. I had an amazing time on this trip, and I can't wait to do it again someday. I would recommend it to everyone, but I will also warn them that the race is not for the faint of heart. You can not over prepare for the heat and hills of this race.