Date: Saturday December 13, 2008
Encountering change can be very challenging. You are suddenly placed out of your comfort zone not really knowing what to expect, facing the unknown. Sometimes change brings incredible experiences and becomes a springboard for good things to follow. I was given the opportunity to embrace and immerse myself in another culture for a very brief time, but I planned on making the most of it.
Two weeks before my departure, my journey to Nicaragua would become 'real,' immediately after I received my shots for Hepatitis A&B and started taking oral medication for both Malaria and Typhoid Fever.
I felt pretty good about my training leading up to the race, as I had a few long runs and some solid sessions of hill repeats. I knew the course would very difficult due to the climbs upMaderas and Concepcion, the mix of rocky and muddy terrain and the possibility of hot and humid weather conditions.
Unfortunately, due to work, my visit to Nicaragua would be rather short. I drove to the San Antonio Airport on Thursday, the 11th. While waiting to board my flight from San Antonio to Houston, I found out that Roger and his wife, Dawn, would be on the same flights as me all the way to Managua, Nicaragua. There was a delay going to Houston, but it did not effect us catching our flight to Managua, as it was also delayed for more than an hour. Once we finally boarded in Houston, we sat on the runway for what seemed like another hour. Logistically, once I got into Managua, I was planning on taking a taxi down to San Jorge, stay the night and then catch the ferry over to Island of Ometepe in the morning. However, we did not arrive in Managua until 11:30 p.m.-much later than I anticipated.
After I got through customs in the Managua Airport, I had to figure out whether I just wanted to stay the night in Managua, or cab it down to San Jorge or another city closer to the coastline. Roger and Dawn were extremely generous in offering for me to stay with them in Managua for the night, however, out of respect, I was not going to inconvenience them in anyway. Initially I was going to stay the night, since we got in so late, but I decided to give it a go bargaining with the taxi drivers in the limited Spanish I know for a ride down to San Jorge or Rivas.
Josue, the race director of the race, teammate and good friend had told me not to accept any fee over $50. The first cab driver requested $80. I could not help but laugh and say no thanks. After a few other offers of $70 and $60, I finally met a guy who claimed he was related to Josue. I knew he was full of shit, but I figured I could possibly squeeze him down to $50. I eventually got him to agree to $50, but he asked other drivers if they would take me and no one was budging an inch. At this point, I just wanted a bed, but I wanted to experience an authentic Nicaraguan hotel. There was a Best Western right across the road from the terminal, but I told myself it was certainly not an option.
I jumped in a cab that took me to downtown, Managua. I made little conversation with the driver before we arrived at my destination. I got out of the car and was escorted up to an iron-gated entrance. I have to say that the hotel looked pretty sketchy, but I looked forward to the experience. The host unlocked the gate and let me in. I was welcomed by a few stray cats that scurried across my path leading up to the welcome desk. I signed in and asked how much it cost for the night. $10 for a bed and bathroom at "Hospedaje Santos!" Here is a brief description I found on the internet that is fairly accurate: "Sprawling, ramshackle hospedaje popular among travellers, with tons of atmosphere, funky art on the walls and an indoor patio with cable TV. Rooms, however, are dark and none too clean – try to get one upstairs, where ventilation is better. All have ceiling fan, and some come with private bath. $5-10."
The host took led me upstairs to my second floor room. He opened the door, turned on the lights and gave me the key. I was exhausted, but I first took inventory of the room: 2 twin beds with no sheets or pillow cases, a bathroom that was flooded which included a toilet and shower and a tiny, rusty sink off to the side. I brushed my teeth without using any water, took out my contacts, put a shirt over my pillow and sprawled out on the bed. After lying in bed for about 30 minutes I heard a noise in the distance that sounded like a gun shot. The noise repeated several times and seemed like it was getting closer and closer to my room. Sounds ridiculous, but I was contemplating moving the bed away from both the windows and the door. Dogs were constantly barking and even roosters were throwing out calls like the sun was coming up. Needless to say, I did not sleep much, but found out the next day, what I thought were gunshots were actually kids lighting fireworks(similar to m-80's) throwing them in the streets.
The sun came up and even though I got very little sleep, I was anxious to get to the island. I went downstairs and checked out, walked to what looked like a main street and flagged down a cab. The driver took me to the central bus terminal. Talk about chaos. All types of buses lined up, people scurried about, vendors and booths selling all kinds of goods, drinks, etc. Immediately upon arrival a man took my bag from the back seat of the cab. I told him that I needed an express bus to Rivas and he took off ahead of me with my bag on his shoulder. I quickly followed him and two other men. A quick 5 minute walk of dodging and weaving through people brought me to an old, yellow school bus. I boarded via the back exit where the man loaded my bag on the rack above my seat. He asked for a tip of $5. I thought this was ridiculous for the mere fact that he was demanding and rude. I wish I knew how to say, 'stop being a jackass or go eat shit' in Spanish. However, I had to remind myself of where I was, and faked my appreciation by paying, but I only had a $10 bill. Of course, he said he did not have change, but would get some. 10 minutes went by and he finally brought back change in cordobas, the national currency. The other 2 men that did absolutely nothing had the audacity to ask for a tip, as well. I will admit that this pissed me off. I love tipping people in the service industry, especially when they do a great job, but I was not about to pay anyone that did not earn it. I told them to share the tip I gave his friend. They were not too happy and that irritated me even more. Lesson learned: carry my own bag to wherever I need to go.
I sat on the bus and waited patiently for us to depart. During that time, vendors walked through the aisle selling all kinds of food and drink. I thought this was pretty cool. Promptly at 7:30 a.m. our bus departed from the terminal to Rivas. We made several stops along the way where people got on and off, including a variety of vendors. The numerous stops made for a long 2 1/2 hour bus ride crammed in a school bus, but it was more than worth the $2.00 cost to experience and see Nicaragua.
Once I arrived in Rivas I got a cab to San Jorge and got on the Ferry to the Island of Ometepe, which I could see in the distance. The active volcano of Concepcion(has not erupted since 1957) and the dormant volcano of Maderas were apparent, although clouds covered the upper fourth of each volcano. Lake Nicaragua was quite choppy due to the high winds, but I love the water and was really looking forward to getting on the boat. I went up to the third floor of the ferry where the sun was beaming so brightly I could feel I was closer to the equator. Once I go settled on the boat I met a man who moved from the U.S. to Costa Rica 4 years ago. We talked about travel, reasons why we were going to the island, public education and some politics. Anyone who knows me well knows I am not a fan of talking about politics or religion, but I enjoy listening to what other people have to say. We basically conversed for the hour trip over to the island.
I got off the ferry and had absolutely no idea where "HostelIbesa" was located. I figured I would walk around, explore and then eventually ask someone for directions. I walked up the main street of Moyogalpa and immediately saw a banner promoting the race, "Fuego y Agua." I met a woman, who was co-owner of the hostel and she graciously escorted me to the hostel a few blocks away. She gave me my key to my room. The room was tiny, but it was clean and it had the only thing I really needed: a bed.
I decided to walk around town, buy some bottled water and buy 2 postcards: one for my wife and the other to send to my little niece's school. They had a unit on the Gingerbread Man and the teacher asked anyone that traveled leading up to Christmas send a postcard from their respective location saying it was the Gingerbread Man and a brief note about their travels.
Once I returned from my mini-tour of Moyogalpa, I ran into TJand met several other runners: Franco, Alex, Heather, Jose, Amy and Vicki. TJ and I decided to grab some Victoria's(one of the national beers of Nicaragua) from "Hotel y RestauranteArenas Negras" and then went to "Restaurante Aly" for some grub to tie us over until the pre-race meeting and pasta dinner.
After our mid-afternoon/early evening snack, we walked back to the Hostel Ibesa for the pre-race meeting and dinner. I met Carlos Barrera, the owner of the hostel. He was very friendly and ended up being an incredible host. Before the pre-race meeting began, I also met other runners which included Richie and his wife, Tom, Loren, Armando and his wife and Theresa. I was honored to run with such a quality group of people, which included my teammates TJ and Brad and my friend, Roger.
Abi, Josue's sister, kicked off the pre-race meeting talking about the logistics. Josue continued the briefing and answered any questions. The chief of police of Moyogalpa stopped by to introduce himself and ensure the safety of all runners. I thought that was pretty cool. Then Josue translated the meeting from English to Spanish for the solid group of international runners. Countries that were represented included: U.S., Scotland, Italy, Nicaragua and Colombia. Immediately following the meeting we had an awesome pasta dinner. Once everyone finished their meal, the majority of runners went to bed. It was around 9:00p.m. and we had to wake up at 3:00 a.m. for a 4:00 a.m. start.
I slept fairly well, but 3:00a.m. came too quickly. I loaded up my Nathan Pack with gels, Succeed salt caps, a pair of extra socks, a bandanna, a disposable water-proof camera, somecordobas in case I needed water along the way and my headlamp. I decided I was going to try and use only gels as my primary fuel. I sported my Team Traverse visor and t-shirt, Patagonia shorts, Bolega socks and Vasque VST shoes. I filled up my bladder with water and then grabbed some breakfast. I was ready to go!
Typically I run for someone else in my mind and heart, or for a good cause. It brings me motivation and inspiration, especially during low points during a run. The majority of the time, no one knows about this source of motivation except me. It fits my personality best. A few weeks before leaving for Nicaragua Ireceived an email from a parent of one of my former students. In her email she explained how she lost her son during infancy many years ago and wanted to do something special in memory of him. As a result, she came up with the unique idea of asking her friends and family to do one nice/generous thing for someone else. I was certainly touched and wanted to run Fuegoy Agua in honor of Jaison.
It was interesting to see how many locals were out and about riding their bikes or walking so early in the morning before the sun had even risen. As I passed by each local I would say, "Hola!" The majority of locals positively reciprocated a response. Would this occur in the U.S.?
The next 10-12k to the El Porvenir aid station was pretty cool, with the exception of getting chased by one dog and almost bitten by another. Most of the stretch was along the coast of Lake Nicaragua. I received a nice breeze off the lake and just cruised along at a steady pace enjoying the atmosphere. There was one point where I had to stop and ask a local if I was going the right way. He was very friendly and pointed me in the right direction. I gave him 10 cordobas for his help. Second-guessing myself cost me a good 10 minutes and took me out of my rhythm.
Before I knew it, I came into the El Porvenir aid station, the 30k mark. I refueled and Amy passed me as she was very efficient coming in and going out of the aid station. I felt I was in good shape both mentally and physically-just shy of 2 1/2 hours had passed. I must say it was weird wearing a watch again, since I had not worn one since early August. I mainly wore the watch to make sure I was taking in enough salt and gels.
The majority of the climb consisted of a combination of power-walking and jogging through mid-shin deep mud and finding a creative way of moving upward. There were several places where I had to actually use trees and branches to propel myself upward to make progress. It was like a jungle-gym and all I could think was, 'Josue definitely created this course.' Most of the way up Maderas, Amy and I leapfrogged each other, but before the climbing got difficult, yet fun, we swapped cameras and each took a picture with Concepcion in the background. It was an awesome shot, but my crappy disposable did not capture much. The lighting was awful. Hopefully, Amy got a good picture out of it. This ended up being the only picture I took while running, and while immediately after the run I was disappointed I did not take more, once I got my pictures developed and saw the poor quality, I did not feel so bad.
The descent was just as difficult as the ascent. The mud and steepness made for many tricky moves: jumping into mud-holes, swinging from branches and sliding down patches of slick mud on my ass. It may sound crazy, but it was fun and I felt like a kid. I reached the bottom injury-free and felt like it was a huge victory.
At this point in the race it was getting hot and the sun was giving me the middle finger. For about the next 3 hours the heat would get the best of me. In addition, gels were not cutting it and I started to have stomach issues.
About a mile from the 50k aid station, Hacienda Merida, I was cruising along through single track that included rocks and roots. The overgrown brush blocked my view from seeing where my foot would land next. All of a sudden, I landed on the outside of my foot and my ankle rolled outward. Simultaneously, I heard a loud crack and thought I fractured my ankle. For a brief moment I faced my biggest nightmare: getting injured to the point of getting a DNF. The next few strides were painful, but I kept moving, so I knew it was nothing too serious. Apparently, as I rolled my ankle I split a root or branch on the ground. I was thankful nothing serious happened and strolled into the Hacienda Merida aid station, where Amy was already off to tackle the second half of the course.
I wanted to put on a new pair of socks and refuel. My shoes were a mess, but I figured that new socks would at least bring some short-term life to my feet. I threw on my socks and then tried to open my bladder. I could not twist it open. After struggling for a few minutes I asked a gentleman, who seemed very friendly, if he could try, but he was unsuccessful, as well. He gave the bladder to two of his friends and asked them to go to the tool shed and try to open it. About 5 minutes later they returned with the cap twisted off. I was very appreciative. I drank a large amount of water before I began to head out of the aid station. I asked the gentleman where I should exit out of the aid station. As he told me I must have been off in my own little world. I ran out the way I came in and thought I was going in the wrong direction. I asked a lady and she pointed me back towards Maderas. I thanked her and ran about 200 yards before skepticism crept into my head. I turned back and started running towards the lady back into the aid station. She must have thought I was crazy. I ran back into the aid station for clarification from the gentleman and then was on my way-in the right direction. As I left, Armando came into the aid station.
From Hacienda Merida to Altagracia was pretty tough. There was a point where I needed water desperately. I stopped at apulperia(a beverage stand) and got two 1.5 liter bottles of water. I filled up my bladder and still had a bottle and half of water. I ran with one in my left hand w with the other cradled like a football in my right. I must have looked ridiculous, but I did not care. Despite the relatively flat terrain, the heat was taking a toll on me. I stopped once to put my head in the lake to cool down my body temp. That felt great for about 15 minutes.
At almost 70k, I came into the town of Altagracia, where I refueled at the aid station. Armando, a runner from Colombia, had caught me and we ran together for the next 10K+. Even though we did not not talk much, running with Armando brought positive energy. About 5k into the run we missed a left turn. We ran about an extra half mile before getting close to the lake and realized we missed a turn. We went back in the direction we came from and ran into a local. Armando asked for directions to get us back on course. I could see frustration on Armando's face and he just mirrored how I felt, as well. There was another pulperia and Armando and I shared a coke. I was hoping the coke would settle my stomach because it was really starting to bother me. We drank some coke, I gave the native some cordobas for his help and we were on our way.
Armando and I came into the La Flor aid station, did not waste much time and started the trek up the volcano of Concepcion. I should have stopped to eat more, but my stomach was telling me otehrwise. As we left the aid station I started to envision the finish line: climb up Concepcion, come back down and then head back to Moyogalpa.
Unfortunately, about a mile from La Flor I decided I had to stop and take care of my stomach. Armando moved ahead while I was in the brush for a solid 10 minutes. So much for gels. My stomach apparently does not like them and they really don't supply enough calories for me. Although my stomach felt better and I lost about 5 pounds, I had no energy and needed calories. There was no way I was eating another gel-lesson learned. I had to dig deep, as I climbed Concepcion. About 3/4 to the 1,000 meter turn around Armando came barreling down. He was looking strong. Then I saw Amy come down and asked her how much further until the turn-around. She said only about 5 minutes. I got a very short charge of energy knowing I was almost there.
Once I got going on the flats I ran into Brad. He mentioned he was looking for the way up to Concepcion. I told him I was lost myself and was not the best person to answer that question. Thankfully, I believe he had a local get him back on course and he finished strong.
At one point, about 3 miles from the finish, a guy came up on his motorcycle asking me if I wanted a ride. I explained the best I could that I was in a race and that would be considered cheating. He responded by saying he would keep it between me and him. I laughed, said no thanks and continued on.
Once I saw the lights of the town of Moyogalpa I started to pick up the pace. I ran into town and crossed the finish line-what an incredible experience! After a quick snap shot, I congratulated Richie and Amy. They had incredible races, as did Armando, whom I congratulated later in the evening. I showered quickly, as I wanted to see other runners come in.
Sunday morning a group of us went to breakfast at "Pizzeria de los Ranchitos." We ate a hearty meal and then caught a van to "Ojo de Agua." What a place! It is basically a secluded fresh water springs that supposedly has healing and anti-aging powers. I call bullshit, regardless it is an awesome place. I took a few pictures that, unfortuantely, did not turn out well. From there we walked to "Villa de Paraiso" for lunch. It overlooked Lake Nicaragua and had a great seafood selection. I had a huge fish that must have been 16 inches long-it was pretty tasty. Immediately after lunch, TJ, Tom, Theresa and I had to get a cab back to the Hostel, so we could catch the last ferry back to the mainland.
We had an early wake up of around 4:00 a.m., took a taxi to the airport and waited in a very long line to get our bags checked. To save you from the heartache of details getting home, let's just say it was a very long day of traveling. We were scheduled to get into San Antonio at 3:00 p.m. and did not get in until 7:00 at which point my bags never showed. I did not get back to Austin until 9:30. Anyone that knows me well, knows my past track record with flying and how it always becomes an interesting journey to get to and from my destination.
I want to thank Josue for a great job directing the race! In addition, making it possible for me to get down there for this most memorable experience! Thanks to my wife, family and friends, "The Chameleon", Team Traverse and my teammates, the awesome volunteers, our host Carlos and his wife, all the great runners/people I met and the natives of Nicaragua that kept me on course!