To start with, the Hunter Gatherer 50k Survival Run is NOT a 50k trail run. I’ve accumulated numerous 50k trailrun finishes over the years and l’ll tell you, this is not one. I’ve been friends with the race director (Josue Stephens… aka many other not-so-complimentary names Saturday) since 2007 and when he says “it’s gonna be hard.”, he is not kidding. What sets this race apart from ALL other races I’ve done the last dozen years is that EVERYBODY here is a badass. With the “application only” pre-requisite to this race, there were no first-timer, weight-watcher, newbie, weekend-warriors here… everyone here has paid their dues and has their game-face on. Although I’ve ran the 50miler at Nueces (a Joe Prusaitis race in March at Camp Eagle) and I know how rocky, hilly, and technical the trails are, NOTHING could have prepared me and the other racers for the brutality of Saturday’s course.
HG Survival Run is billed as “ a brutal 50/100k obstacle course run” using natural obstacles and challenges. Strictly speaking, HG makes the Spartan Beast race look like an easy local 5k. We all should have known what was to come when Josue announced to bring your knife to packet-pickup. A typical race packet-pickup consists of friendly volunteers asking what size shirt you wear then giving you a sweet sack of race-swag…not today. I showed up in a pair of cutoffs and flip flops completely unprepared. To get our packet he instructed us to grab a log from a prepared stack…ladies in one pile, then the men’s divided into 2 stacks with an above and below 165# body-weight. I got screwed as I was frantically looking for a place to put my cell phone and got the last pick from the large stack. My pick, a 95# 5ft monster. Our job was to carry said wooden-devil 3miles up a 600ft rocky mountain where we would carve our race number into the log and get our packet. So, with everyone thrown completely off guard, we all plodded out of the finish pavilion up the rocky ascent. One guy in front of me dressed in slacks adapted and shucked his office-wear down to his boxers, prompting John Sharp to call out “dude, your twig and berries are flying around!” Upon returning almost 2 hrs later, we all met for pre-race dinner of chicken spaghetti.
Race morning was hectic as Brad Quinn co-race director had been out marking course since 6pm the previous night had still not returned. Josue was on the verge of cancelling the race and sending out numerous search parties fearing Brad was injured. Brad stumbled in at 3:45am unharmed, but the 2 miles section of course he was marking took him 9hours. WTF? With a countdown the race started and we all began making our footwear for the day… Luna sandals. We were given 2 sheets of rubber and a pair of nylon laces. I quickly placed my dusty barefeet on the rubber to leave an imprint of my feet then went to work with my SOG SEAL-Team knife. Sandals made, I started turning my shirt into a make-shift backpack. 37 min later I was out of the pavilion into the darkness… 5:07am.
First stop was the top of the mountain where we left our log the night before. Retrieving my now intimate wooden-buddy I descended the slope in the dark. Reaching the river at the bottom, our instructions were to strap a PFD lifejacket to our log and swim down river. I made my first joke of the day “What’s the rule about peeing in the swimming pool?”… the checkpoint volunteer responded “Don’t do it, it’s dyed… welcome to our OOL… notice there is no P in it… let’s keep it that way.” With a glow stick stuffed in my headband as my only lighting, I started down stream with my log. It took some experimentation to find a technique that worked well. I eventually settled on a one-handed side-stroke, switching sides every now and then. Reaching the first dam I heaved my water-logged friend over the 10 feet drop on the other side. Round 2. We all continued downstream now inundated by a hydrilla water-plant forest. At one point the weeds became so thick I had a moment of panic as I kicked hard to free my legs. The harder I kicked the more I became entangled and felt on the verge of being pulled under. I forced myself to relax and slowly untangled my legs in the dark. I reached the second dam 1.3 miles of water later and again hoisted my companion over the long drop. Jumping down the other side, I picked up my log and waded 50 yards down steam in ankle-deep stagnant nastiness. Checkpoint 2 I received my first bead of the day… a system Josue created to keep track of each challenge the racers completed.
Upon leaving the check station the sun was now beginning to show itself so I didn’t need my headlamp. I noticed that my log was the 4th to reach the station… I’m sitting in 5th??? I was just thankful to be alive. The next 3 miles was… run 5 minutes, adjust sandals, repeat… for over an hour. The next checkpoint was completely unexpected. I approached a man standing in the middle of nowhere. I asked him “what am I supposed to do?”… one of many times I would ask the same question that day. He said “There are 3 caverns… each cavern has 2 sheets of paper with a symbol on it. Find and memorize the symbols then return to me and match them to the symbols on this chart.” I responded “what do you mean cavern?” He pointed to a hole in the rock slab where we stood no larger than a man-hole sewer opening. I almost had a panic attack. I gulped and climbed down to a fairly large opening with 4 feet ceilings. There was a race-volunteer down there with a headlamp. I thought “OK, this isn’t so bad, I can do this.” Then he said, “you go that way.” And pointed to a narrow crawl space no more than 12 inches tall… (insert all manner of foul language thoughts here). No turning back now, I crawled on my belly about 30 yards fighting the urge to panic the entire way. I eventually accepted my situation and focused on my task at hand… 6 symbols. The narrow passage opened up into a space where I could crawl on my hands and knees now. The first 4 symbols were easy to reach, but the final two required me to stuff my claustrophobia and fear in my back pocket and press on. While in the hole a poor sucker that was ahead of me was returning because he forgot what symbols he’d seen… not happening to me. I exited the cave, recited my symbols with 100% accuracy, and got my first amulet of the day.
Soaked in sweat from over-exertion and mental stress, I plodded along to the next checkpoint, again stopping every 5 minutes to adjust my sandals. Gabi Stephens (the race director’s sister) and I ran together for the next 2 hours. At one point we got off course and ran into a runner we both knew was ahead of us. We retraced our steps and found our error… more runners are gonna do the same thing, so we spent some considerable time to blockade this easy misstep. The next 3miles there was no trail to be found… all bush-whacking up and down giant hills, crawling over boulders, under fallen trees, through brambles… Josue you’re evil. Finally reaching the Windmill checkpoint, I harvested the required prickly pear lobe and made a water holding device with it, then took my first quiz of the day involving the medicinal uses of prickly pear… pass… bead number 2. I was required to carry this cactus water carrier for the remainder of the race so I made a pouch from my cut shirt sleeve and strapped it to my backpack where it swung around and occasionally stabbed me in the side and arm with tiny needles I had missed while cleaning it. Another challenge at Windmill was to make a “throwing stick” and hit a target 3 out of 5 attempts at 12 yards. I made my stick, got good with it, and hit the target the first time… and breaking my stick. Not wanting to waste any more time I abandoned the challenge and went to the livestock tank to refill my water. With my supply depleted, I stood at the tanks edge… water was green and swimming with mosquito larvae. Again I questioned my motives for doing this race… and my own sanity. I used my shirt to filter out the sediment and insect babies, then used iodine tablets to sterilize the concoction. Time to leave.
The next 5 miles was not much more than me running, scrambling, and shuffling alone to the next station Teepee, where I would MAKE FIRE. It was getting hot now, so water consumption was increasing. I stopped at another livestock tank to dunk my head and fill my hydration-pack again. Upon reaching Teepee at 15miles at 9 hours, I started doing the math… I had originally signed up for the 100k(62miles). At this rate the 100k would take 36hours… and the thought of going back for a second loop made me sick to my stomach. Instead of thinking too far ahead (an ultra-runners no-no), I focused on “making fire”. Surrounded by two Eagle scouts no more than 15 years old each who made fire within a minute of trying, I was humbled. The Gods must have been in my favor, for on my second try after gathering all my materials I HAD MADE FIRE!!! It was my buddy Dan’s suggestion of pulverizing my cedar bark tinder with a rock that made it happen. Upon my first visible flame, I was sent into a state of elation comparable to your favorite sports team scoring. Stoked, literally, I stood and gave a loud and ceremonious Tom Hanks impression… “I AM MAN!!!! I MAKE FIRE!!!”. Awesome. After receiving my second amulet and giving Gabi a few pointers, I attempted the second challenge at Teepee… more stick-throwing. Who throws sticks??? I hit the target the first throw and AGAIN, my stick breaks. This time I say screw it and charge on to the next checkpoint riding a cloud of fire-making with the volunteer yelling “find Agarita and Juniper berries on the way!”.
The next 4 miles to the Prospector’s Cabin was uneventful other than more bushwhacking, climbing, and descending. I’d like to know what the total elevation change of this course was. It was hot, slow, and boring. Getting to PC, I was expected to make 3 feet of cordage made of native grasses and take a quiz over the uses of the native Texas plant Agarita and Juniper berries. The Nicaraguan- native station attendant passed both my cordage and quiz… 2 more beads. He instructed me to make my homemade bow before leaving for the shooting range 5.1 miles away. I argued and said I didn’t want to carry it for 5 miles…. To which he said “YOU MUST MAKE BOW HERE!!!”. Ok dude. I sit in the shade after refilling my pack with water an eating a bite. I found a nice 6 feet section of Mountain cedar and whittled her down to a functional bow. I leave PC with 10 miles to go… 11 hrs total on the race clock. The next two miles are very runnable and I’m feeling good. Calories, check. Water, check. Electrolytes, check. Life is good. Then, a sudden movement to my left causes me to jump 3 feet in the air… a 3 feet long Timber Rattler 12 inches from my foot. Holy crap!!! At this point I go primal, use my newly made bow to pin his head down and using my knife to behead the serpent. Growing up in Sweetwater, rattle-bug encounters were a weekly occurrence, so I wasn’t gonna let this guy ruin the race experience for me or any other of my trail-buddies. The in an act of boyish adventure, using his bloody head, I inscribe “H G” on a flat rock in the middle of the trail alongside his headless body. I hope the runners following me will appreciate my actions… be they vegan or not. I take the rattler for later use, which makes for good conversation later in the evening. With a completee adrenaline-dump I proceed full-steam ahead and it takes me almost 2 hours to cover the 5.2 miles from PC to the archery range, collecting turkey-buzzard feathers along the way for my arrows.
I arrive at the archery range where a small Asian man with poor English instructs me that to get water I should walk the 50 yards down to the river before it gets dark and I “ farr off criff”. After retrieving water I went to the task of using my handmade bow. Mr. Miagi then took me to a 50 feet tall 200 year old oak tree and told me to “crimb tree and get two arrow”. I look up and there is a stash of several fiberglass arrows 40 feet up in the small branches… no need for buzzard feathers. So, in sandals, I scale the Mother-Oak and retrieve my projectiles. From here I have 5 practice shots to learn my weapon, then 7 attempts to hit a target 3 times 25 yards away. I complete the challenge in 4 arrows. I ask for the amulet and he tells me “now you shoot for distance”. We walk down a path an eighth of a mile away and I attempt to shoot 3 arrows into a ten yard diameter target a good 75 yards away. My first two arrows fly too far as I aim at a 45 degree angle upwards. The next 3 are right on. Amulet #3. My next task is to make a “travois” and load 120lbs of rock-filled sacks on it the drag said contraption 2.5 miles to the next checkpoint. This would prove to be the nail in my coffin. I made a good redneck “deer-drag”, loaded it with my required weight of rocks then took off. I’ve pulled a 135# sled at the gym for 5km once on a Saturday for sh!#s and giggles, but after over 14 hours of hell, this final leg was just too hard. I’d take 30 or 40 steps, feel my heart about to explode out of my chest and was forced to stop and rest for over a minute. I repeated this process over and over for well beyond a mile at which point I reached the suspension bridge which led back to the pavilion where most of my friends were laughing, drinking, and carrying on. Battling a cramping glute , exhaustion, and the realization there was no way I could drag this heavy SOB another 1.5 miles to finish the race as Rx’d, I had an epiphany. It was like at that point my brain said “you’re done”… and I was. There was no shame, no regret, no excuses… I was simply cooked, and I accepted it… with a smile. It took me 15 hours 7 minutes to cover 28 miles.
Over the last dozen years I have had my share of DNF’s and have always felt a sense of remorse for not having pushed harder or held on a little longer, but this time was different. Even though I could have dropped my travois and continued the last 3miles to the finish just running, all I could think of was “I have nothing left to prove.” I had 3 of four amulets, had completed more of the challenges than I thought I was capable of, and was by all accounts toward the front of the pack having passed most of the runners ahead of me at Teepee (where I made fire!!!) and only one other travois ahead of me. I let go…. It was a gloriously fabulous failure.
In my racing history, I have accumulated well over 30 ultramarathons including 5x 100milers, 6x 100ks, and other serious long distance adventures/challenges, but none has left me with the sense of accomplishment as what this run did. I’m a true believer that “life begins just outside your comfort-zone”. I stepped out of my comfort-zone along with a hundred other runners who no-doubt are feeling the same sense of pride as I do today. Feeling a need to show my gratitude I take the rattle from the dispatched viper the day before, fashion a necklace and award Josue as “EVIL-Race Director” at breakfast. Josue’s returned the favor… the race medals were most unusual as they were “partial-credit” in nature… 4 medals total “I”, “DID”, “NOT”, & “FAIL”… I got all but “NOT”, so my medal says “I DID FAIL”… so proud. Usually after a big long run like this everything below my waist hurts. After yesterday’s events, I can say that the only thing on my body that doesn’t hurt… is my beard.