Harrison Lessans competed in the 2013 Survival Run. He wrote such a long and detailed report of his experience, we just had to post it!
Note: this is VERY thorough and long, might have to take sometime with this one or chunk it. If you do manage to read it all, kudos! I appreciate it and I feel you can take something out of it all for yourself as well.
I awoke 3 and a half hours later at 1:50 A.M., but it felt like 15 hours. As little sleep as I had, adrenaline was fueling me from this very moment and I couldn’t even imagine an ounce of fatigue. I quickly rolled out on the foam roller, strapped all my equipment up (including the headlamp!) and decided to take a quick dip in the lake in full gear. I figured a little drop in body temperature before the race would serve me well early on, wake me up and fuel the battle that was about to go down. Hopping on my bicycle and igniting my headlamp, I rode out from Cicrin at 2:30 A.M. As I rode, I took the time to think about the past few days. Even without the race, this has already been an amazing experience and well worth the inoculations, travel fees and time commitments. I haven’t even thought for a second about school, work or any other obligations; it was the ultimate freedom. I looked into the sky and saw the most glorious night sky I’ve ever seen in my life anywhere. There’s nothing quite like it in America. When you are so far away from the lights of civilization, you get a much clearer scope of how small you are in the grand scheme. My walk down memory lane was broken by a familiar foe. As I was going along the brick road towards Moyogalpa, a wild dog ran out from the woods and began to give chase. I channeled my inner non-doping Lance Armstrong and just straight hit it. This dog would give up easily and kept pace for a pretty good two minutes. It would take occasional chomps at the bike/my leg, never quite making contact. Again, the last thing I want to do is hurt an animal, but I was one more attempt away from drop kicking it in self-defense, but fortunately for us both it decided to leave me alone. Situations like this kept my awareness on high alert. In the zone doesn’t even describe it. The only time I’ve felt this alive and focused was during the last two times I’ve done the World’s Toughest Mudder. Authentic, innate, sympathetic nervous system innervation is the only way to describe it. Basically, I felt like I was riding on my body’s full potential. At about 3:30 P.M., I arrive at the same location we were bussed from yesterday in Moyogalpa to see the other racers gathering for the start. I planned on leaving my bike here and returning it the next day before I leave to get my security deposit back, easier than having to ride with my stuff back the next day. Focused and determined, I check to see that the waters full, the sunscreen and insect repellant is applied, and all of the nutrition is easily reachable. I see more familiar faces such as Leo, Corinne and Michael all raring to rock and roll, and we exchange our courtesy good lucks, ready to take on the day ahead. All of the survival runners are directed to the start line where our first memorization task was presented to us. I don’t remember what the colors were now, but I sure as hell wouldn’t forget them until I didn’t need them anymore. I repeatedly said the colors over and over in my head again until I couldn’t forget them, while staying cognizant of the fact we were about the start. I look over to my left to see Junyong Pak holding a chicken, and so I jokingly chide, “you seriously gonna run with that thing?” As confused as I was, he replies with a chuckle and a shrug, “I guess so.”
Wait… he’s not kidding. I look behind him and everyone else is holding a live chicken. Soon someone of race authority hands me my own chicken with the following ultimatem: “If it dies, or gets lost before the next aid station, you’re out of the race.” I love it! This is fucking hysterical. Seriously, who thinks of this? The gun was about to go off and my mood quickly shifted from intense, game-face to fuckin’ giddy over the fact that we were all running through Nicaragua at 4 in the morning with a bunch of live, semi-pissed off chickens. This is too good. I hear the gun go off and what happened over the next 20 hours I won’t forget for a very long time.
A crowd of racers mixed between the survival runners and the 100 K’ers poured through the early morning streets of Moyogalpa. The other survival competitors were easy to pick out, as they were carrying the irritated chickens in various positions. Some people had them cupped securely in both hands, some had them nestled close their bodies by a flexed elbow and some had them in fastened securely in their backpacks. I personally was running around holding mine like a loaf of bread in one hand, like an old-school Michael Vick. Cavalier as it may be, I was never really worried. The chickens, on the other hand, didn’t feel as secure. They were freaking the fuck out. Feathers were flying, beaks were pecking, claws were scratching, wings were flapping. I’m pretty sure this idea was not run past PETA. Either way, it was what it was. We didn’t reach the end of the town before we began to bear left onto an offshoot path. We ran parallel to a farm land bordered off by barbed wire. My one thought was, “Baboo (the name I dubbed my chicken), there is absolutely no way I’m letting you go under that wire and slip away from me! I don’t want to chase you down, but I will come for you if you leave.” I could feel Baboo’s little heart pounding away at the sheer terror of the nature of his escort. As I ran with my feathered friend in tow, I commonly found myself switching him from hand to hand. Not that he was the heaviest bird on the planet, but it helped past the monotony. Speaking of which, I soon reunited with Leo and Michael not long after we traversed alongside the farm. We decided to stick together for the purposes of the race, justifying that our united efforts would serve us well on the rough road ahead. We didn’t know what we were in store for but we felt that as a team we could conquer the road ahead. We cracked jokes and eased the tension as we ran along the road ahead, chickens in hand. Eventually our path began to descend in one of the aforementioned dried out rivers, giving me flashbacks of when I was chased down by the pack of dogs a few days ago. If I was to be in that situation again, Baboo’s going to be the first one to go after I bail. Our path was not illuminated, and we were guided only by the occasional blue and/or orange flag about 2’’ x 2’’ hanging from a tree twig. Even with the headlamps, they didn’t exactly stand out. I was glad to have Leo and Michael point out the flags when I couldn’t find them and I returned the favor. They might be hard to see, but it could be worse. Once mid-day hits and the sun starts beating down, these flags will be easier to pick out, but it’s going to be an absolute sauna. We got lost a few times within the winding maze of dried out riverbeds, and saw a familiar face: Johnson Cruz Barrios, the winner of a past Fuego Y Agua race and a native of the island. Later on, he would prove to win the Survival run. Seeing him made us feel better about our place, and we assumed we were in the top 10-12 racers at this point. There was no cash prize, but this was about both the pride of doing our best and the experience. We’re all driven by innate competitive human nature. The labyrinth of riverbeds never seems to end, but eventually the path begins to open up and we see a bright light in the distance. It’s been about an hour into the race, and as fun as it was running with a chicken in hand, we closed in on the checkpoint, expecting to give up our chickens for food and sustenance. At least we were half right.
A truck was waiting to ferry our chickens to a brighter future, while our own fate took a turn for the worse. We were then handcuffed with trapwire and told that we would be told when we would be set free and to keep running. Neither Leo, Michael nor I were particularly bothered by this and it was actually pretty funny. It’s not the first time I’ve run handcuffed anyhow. We carried on down the road, it looked pretty similar to the roadway I’ve been biking on the last few days, but with it still being before sunrise, I had few points of reference. Our usual camaraderie kept the mood light and the time flying by. We crossed between running and walking in order to preserve ourselves as we strolled down the roadway. All of a sudden, our first aid station was spotted in the distance! We weren’t terribly hungry, but a while few carbohydrates, salt tablets, and hydration couldn’t kill us, forgetting our color combination or potential bird flu infection surely could. We took a brief huddle to reinforce what the memorization task was and passed it 1 by 1. We were then presented with a new memorization combination for the next aid station. I had to be careful not to cross them up in the future, but Leo and Michael were there in case I happened to slip up, or if they needed me for a reminder. Eagerly, Michael and I b-lined for the race nutrition, with Leo the only saavy one who put on hand sanitizer beforehand. I just hope the pro-biotic I’ve been taking the last week or so is going to keep my intestines from turning over. We press on not too long after, occasionally both passing and getting passed by a few survival runners. Most 100 K’ers had the same reaction seeing us: “You guys are fuckin’ nuts.” We embraced our role pretty comfortably. Speaking of comfort, I postulated the idea that we should start running on the trail parallel to the road, to alleviate the pounding on our knees. It’s going to be a long day and whatever we could do to preserve ourselves would serve us over the long haul. We hopped over the roughly 2ft cement ditch onto the trail and continued to press on. Little did we know that this was a cattle crossing and a certain element of danger was prevalent on this path. A few minutes later, the trifecta came face to face with one pissed off bull. Instantly our nuts shrunk to little acorns as we were petrified in temporary shock. I look at Leo and see he’s wearing a lot of red. My focus shoots back to the bull back in front of us. Almost in response, I see its back left heel repeatedly rearing back; the universal warning that “I’m about to royally fuck you up!” We immediately bailed over the cement ditch and take off as fast as we can down the road. In my periphery, I see the bull had already stormed in an angry rage right over the spot we had been but a second ago. Yeah, from then on we stuck to the roads and would save the swashbuckling shenanigans for later in the race. We passed Charco Verde at one point, so we knew we had proceeded pretty far, probably 7-8 miles or so. Michael’s cuffs repeatedly began to break off, another indictment on the Nicaraguan justice program. Being the sportsman he is, he kept asking me to help put them back on. Camaraderie and trust is built through shared experience and I’m glad we could take it in together. At one point, we encountered a group of natives who we proceeded to ask for directions. As Michael was the first to approach them, they proceeded to cut his cuffs and point him in the direction of a wooded jungle area. Leo and I tried to coax out a similar result, but the natives laughed at us and just pointed towards the wooded area. It was a little messed up, but we pressed forward regardless. The group continued to proceed through the open jungle area, gradually opening up into a sparse amount of lightly wooded farmland. At this point, Leo and I kind of got old with the cuff thing and just broke them. It was nice to actually run without our hands bound or full of a live chicken. Dawn was beginning to creep in over the horizon and our optimism was taking a turn for the better. The pathway began to wind down toward a beachhead, the other Volcano, Maderas, looming ominously in the distance. I see a group of about 5-6 racers huddled around a bunch of sticks and lord only knows what borderline-hazing task they have in store for us next. We had to take this bundle of sticks, and assimilate it into a pile that was bound by a rope. This pile of sticks was then to be hung from a scale that hung from a tree to the tune of 50 lbs. A lot of the logs had been carved hollow by the fire ants that lied within; fire ants that also did NOT hesitate to crawl over your forearms and starting having their way with it. Ignoring those minor inconveniences, I quickly piled the logs in place and began to wrap them into a bundle with my rope. My first weigh in was 42 lbs, so I added a few more to get to 50 lbs. I was followed up with some of the best news of the day so far. Through whatever method I so chose, I had to carry this 50 lb bundle of sticks to the next aid station. Now there is a smart way to do this and a not so smart way. If there was one thing I would change in my execution of the race, it was how I attacked this challenge. I tried to carry it on my back, arms abducted and externally rotated, trying to Atlas carry this sharp, uneven, raggedy bundle to the next aid station. I noticed Leo and Michael still working on their bundles, but they told me to press on and they would catch up. I figured they were probably right. Just for reference, it was 7:30 A.M. at this point, 3 and a half hours since the gun first went off this morning. At first everything was going smooth; difficult, but not unexpected. Its what I signed up for. Unfortunately, the sticks were only loosely bound once over through the direct middle of them, leading to the logs consistently falling apart and out of order. I would have to stick them back in a bundle, re-tie them and continue onwards by hay-bailing it back on to my crispy, sun burnt shoulders. While this process worked, it was extremely inefficient. As I progressed alongside the beach head, racer after racer began to pass me and move onward. I should have taken the hint that they had a better strategy than I did, but ego got the best of me in the moment and kept me stubbornly fighting this losing battle. While I was stubbornly trudging away, I noticed Corinne going absolutely HAM past me with her own bundle. You could just feel the heart and passion coming from her as she thundered past me and it was honestly pretty inspiring to be apart of. Corinne, Michael, Leo, and about a third of the race population passed me as I traversed through the heart of the island. The beach head turned inwards soon towards a dried out riverbed that bordered a farmland. The river here was a smidge more hydrated than the rivers I’ve seen thus far, and there was a certain beauty in not seeing this particular river bed as barren as the others. I stubbornly continued as the path trended upwards along this ridge, with more semi-frustrated drops and racer passing becoming prevalent occurrences. As positive as I told myself to remain, this was the closest I came to quitting or tapping out. I told myself one fundamental truth: that this pain and difficulty was only temporary and that for everything I’ve gone through thus far, I’m not meant to end out here. If I stop here, nobody is going to help me, or take me home. I’d only have to accept that I gave into negativity and that’s why I came home empty handed. There was so much more to enjoy and experience in this race ahead of me, and I’d be damned if this log carry was going to be how I go out. In the greatest hour of despair, I decided to place my trust in the greatest source of direction I could rely on: my gut. It told me to move forward, because somewhere ahead, something would work out for me. Sure enough, after the thousandth drop, a native saw my struggling and lent a helping hand. He removed my slipshod attempt at a binding and replaced it with two secure bindings, one on each side of the rope. You really have to appreciate the kindness of strangers in a situation like that. How can’t you like a guy who’s going to take time out of his day, and rope out of his satchel to insure that you can keep making bad decisions in the coming hours of Fuego Y Agua. Gratitude in hand, I pressed onwards through more villages and into some thick plantain tree forests. Drops were still plentiful, but I was able to rest the bundle on my shoulders and prop them against some of the wooden poles that united the flanking barbed wire fences that led us. Every drop began to be accompanied by scorching, inflamed tendons in my right shoulder and left elbow; a byproduct of my ineffective strategy. It was a consequence I was willing to accept, because I knew that this carry couldn’t last forever, no matter how it seemed to feel that way. Body position had to be constantly changed as the path was never completely straightforward once in the thick of the foliage. Just like everything else, the trees kept going on and on and on. Every time I rounded a corner, I expected the aid station to pop up in the distance, but it continued to delude me. Eventually, they opened up into a large clearing, which was guided by a faint dirt path. I continued to follow the path onwards, taking in the simple beauty of the surrounding sarenghetti that characterized the landscape. Grassland stretched for miles, littered with occasional rocky barriers that helped form the semblance of direction. Time had been passing so slow, and by the nature of how I was atlas-carrying the bundle, I didn’t check my watch for a time reference. I just kept faith that I would make up ground in the coming obstacles/running portions. All of a sudden, I hear the chatter of American voices in the distances and sure enough, the AID STATION. The sense of relief was inquantifiable. I happily dropped my burdensome bundle of sticks and proceeded to restock on nutrition. Not so fast! I had another memorization task to accomplish. I stumbled through cycling through my cognitive memory from a few hours ago when I last saw the color combination whilst handcuffed before sun rise. I managed to get the combination down, but I noticed the difficulty the heat and elapsed time duration was going to have on remembering it. Checking my watch, it read 10:02 A.M. I had been carrying the 50 lb bundle of brutality for over 2 and half hours. If you look up “do it smarter, not harder” in the dictionary, there is a textbook example. I stocked up on some melon, gels and water and other little goodies before proceeding around the bend to a mix of both relief and shock.
I had caught up to a bunch of the racers from earlier who were still stuck at this obstacle, some of which had been attempting this for over an hour and a half. The scene in question was a series of palm trees 25-30 feet in height surrounding a concrete pool that made itself home to the spring: Ojo de Agua. I noticed racers shimmying up these trees in pursuit of some sort of prize it seemed like. I noticed when they came down that they had retrieved a green rubber wristband at the top of one of 4 trees. Based on the abundance of bands in some trees and the lack there of in other palm trees, I got an idea of which ones were easy to retrieve and which ones were not. Michael and Leo were still at it after awhile, and I decided that, before being gung-ho with this task, I should respect its difficulty and watch Leo and Michael attempt this to see how they would go about it. I’m not exactly the go-to expert on shimmying palm trees. Mike I noticed had already retrieved his band and was mostly there to provide assistance to Leo. Alongside the one tree they had chosen to scale, a smaller, less stable tree was there to provide support as it was easier to wrap the legs around and shimmy. The consequence was that it also teetered off balanced and leaned as you got higher up, so you had to transition to the thicker tree once it bent more, yet could bear the weight of a survival runner. Leo took a few tries, with Michael and I holding the base of the tree to limit any leaning of the tree. He took forever on his final try, but he finally nabbed it with satisfaction. They waited around for one try with me as I attempted to replicate what Leo had done, as I had been resting the past 5-7 minutes. I began to make the climb, slowly making progress up the base of the smaller palm tree, up to a point where an off shooting branch could be used for foot support before I transitioned to the big tree. I got to that point standing on the branch, ready to make the move, when things went south FAST. The tree leaned over very swiftly and rapidly, tossing me from my perch, leaving me to dangle by my arms from the palm tree with about 23-26 feet of air separating me and a concrete death trap. Out of pure terror, my body refused to let go, because I knew there was nothing but a litany of broken bones waiting for me if I did. While dangling precariously upon the palm tree, I could hear things such as “Oh my god!” “Don’t you let go!” “Somebody help him!” and other positive statements that were totally not going to make the situation worse. After hanging for a good minute and a half, I needed to find a solution fast or it was lights out for old Harry. Blocking it out, I managed to eke out every ounce of strength to swing forward and wrap my legs around the tree to get another point of contact. Squeezing the tree tight, I managed to eventually rotate myself over to the top of the tree and escape the temporary peril I found myself in. Disheartened in mind, and body, I needed a recharge at the base to collect myself and gain some strength back as there was no way I was making any forward progress up that palm tree. As I got down, Leo and Mike decided to move on as they had been at the tree long enough attempting and were ready to move on. I could hardly blame them and bid them good luck on the road ahead. I stumbled over to a chair sitting next to the spring as I laid there, arms seething in pain and slowly returning out of shock back into reality. I watched other racers try and fail. Some were done then and there, others decided to skip the obstacle and just continue running the course, not really caring if they DNF’d. That’s fine, its their race, but I’m too stubborn to skip an obstacle. I still felt too physically weak to make another climb, but I needed to nut up pretty soon, as other racers were beginning to move on and I was losing valid candidates to provide support for the small tree. The temptation to press on was present, but that unconscious feeling in my gut told me to wait around, because something good would come of my persistence and diligence. Sure enough, a native wanders on by and pretty much one-ups EVERY one of the survival runner. Joe schmoe Nicaraguan farmer scaled the tree in about 10 seconds with a brilliant strategy. He used the smaller tree for his hands exclusively and put his feet on the larger tree, in order to use the smaller one as a pseudo rope to pull himself up and scale the tree. Determining a more efficient method, I bucked up, got back over to the tree sans support group and began to scale the tree just as the farmer had. In about 70 seconds, I was farther than I was in my previous attempt. About 3 shimmy’s later, and I was the owner of a hard-earned green wristband. I slowly descended the tree with pride and received congrats from some of the race crew and volunteers. According to one director, I was one of the fastest to scale up the tree, as I was told it took others much longer than 45 minutes to ascend. Whether this was true or not, it gave me confidence knowing that if I could keep closing the gap, I could make up for the time I lost on the log carry. Going over the most recent memorization combination for the next aid station one last time, I proceeded off through the oncoming jungle, towards whatever adventure awaited me next on this wild ride.
As I proceeded through the narrow pathway, I began to appreciate the utter freedom I had not being physically hampered by some object. I wasn’t holding 50 lbs of logs, I wasn’t handcuffed and I definitely wasn’t running with a live chicken in my hands! Running untethered gave me an appreciation for the present situation. It didn’t take long for the next road bump to strike though. As I emerged from the forested pathway into a gradually opening clearing, my IT-Band syndrome began to flare up again in my left knee. Weeks of physical therapy and sports massages were implemented to get me ready to perform well in this event and I had hoped I could dodge this bullet. I was given the pivotal internal decision on whether to let knee-jerk negativity set in and sabotage my efforts for the rest of the event, or I could man up and make the best of my leg taking a turn for the worse. I just reaffirmed myself with the following statement: “Not here, not now. You have months to rehab this in the worst case scenario. Right now, just worry about what you can control.” I was playing with fire and knew that I risked further damaging my knee, or I could play it safe, tap out at the next aid station and hope my knee would be better in the long run. Fortune favors the bold, so I wasn’t about to bail out of this awesome experience. While I truly appreciate everything that’s happened thus far, my day wasn’t over yet and I knew it. I took this time to take in the surroundings and how glorious the island was. Bright, multicolored flora and fauna dotted the canopies, rays of sunlight knifed through the trees, the humidity broken by that crisp tropical breeze that hall marks any and every paradise. The clearing soon opened up to a road positioned perpendicularly to this lightly wooded path. Lightly chalked orange and blue arrows on the roadway directed me towards my right, so I proceeded onto the road. Of course, I soon began to trudge along the dirt path parallel to the road to take pressure off of my knee. Hopefully this time I wouldn’t come face to face with any pissed off bulls! For a solid 10 minutes, I ran alongside the road gradually picking up steam, and in the midst of everything, slow and surely began to feel my knee pain subside. Quietly grateful of the relief, I noticed a cabana to my left that marked the entrance to a large extensive beach that seemed to stretch for a few miles. In the distance, the lush Volcano Maderas stood proudly on the horizon, almost beckoning me to start pushing towards it. Of course, things are never as easy as just running there; not when you can carry something large, awkward and debilitating. At this gazebo was an arch that marked the entrance towards the beach head, and to the left was this one pretty tripped out volunteer with a large pile of thick logs next to him. As I approached him, he offered me a blue wristband and some white pineapple, both of which I was more than happy to accept on this scorching hot, action-packed day. I checked in with him and noticed him marking a #26 next to my name. Noticing other numbers listed next to the participants names, I gathered that this was my Looking at the logs, I could see where this was going. The task was to carry this log, however we chose to approach it, from this gazebo, about a mile or 2 down the beach until we were instructed on our next task. Two types of logs were prevalent: thin 8-12’’ diameters about 4 feet long with a smooth, slender bark or stockier 16-20’’ chodes with a thick crusty bark. Given the sunburn absolutely murdering everything outside of the underarmor sleeveless, I opted for the smoother surfaced log. Not so fast! As If I were naive to think I’d be given choice, I was chosen a log for me. I got this sharp, stocky bastard about a foot and a half in diameter, and about 2 and a half feet long, with bark that could tear my little red shoulders to ruins. Accepting the situation, I haybailed the relatively dense log and began to make my way down the beach. The beach looked a lot longer once you had a serrated, 50 lb burden over your right shoulder. In the distance I could see a throng of other racers, some in the water and some hoofing it on land. It was nice to have the beach to cool off in on a brutal day like this and I’d be more than willing to take a few dunks in the lake. Inspired by seeing my competition in broad daylight, I began to make my approach. Now the weight was never really that bad, nor was the unbalanced steps in the deep sand, but the slow twisting cut of the log absolutely abolishing my shoulder skin was deafening. I tried to rectify the situation, by constantly unloading and switching shoulders, but I was just prolonging the inevitable. I dropped the log and tried to think a bit more ambitiously. I tried to think of a way to move the log without it touching my skin. Of course! The rope! I removed a good chunk of rope from my bag and wrapped it around the midsection of the log. I attempted to pull out one of my tricks from the Worlds Toughest Mudder’s tire drag and just drag it with my hands gripping the rope that travelled over top of my shoulder (atleast the part protected by the tire strap and underarmor). In one word: fail; ripped up my shoulders and the compact nature of the rope cut pretty deep when pressure was applied. Not to mention, the rope itself tore up your hands when you tried to drag the log. Oh well, time for plan b. I fastened the rope around my midsection and rotated clockwise so that the rope would tighten itself; finishing it with a knot in the front to secure it. Temporary, but tolerable discomfort faded and I kept making my way down the beach head. While this seemed to be pretty efficient on my body, the friction of the log dragging left me pretty winded and exerted more tension than necessary on my thorax. If I was going to make any semblance of progress, much less close the gap on the competition, I needed to think a tad more enterprisingly. I looked towards the beach and hoped the log would float. It’d keep me cool on this scorching hot day and hopefully the buoyancy of the log would provide a little more give. Sure enough, this proved to be my best bet and my progress picked up exponentially. While trudging through what ranged from chest-high to knee-high waves, I took in more of the surroundings. Straight ahead was the glorious Volcano Maderas, layered with a thick junglesque green that slowly browned and formed the crater at the top. The landscape cascaded from its base for miles around; its jungles permeating the horizon and wrapping around to border the beach head on the right. Here natives were sparsely populated and going about their business as usual, you know, asides wondering what non-sensical task the bat-shit crazy white tourists would be doing next. To my left stretched an endless deep blue sea, glistening with that tropical sheen that you have to go to Central America to really appreciate for yourself. Costa Rica and the main land were just silhouettes in the distance. The journey itself through the ocean took a little over an hour. The vanity in me appreciated the solid tan I’d have to show for my efforts when I came back to the states. The health aficionado in me had its fingers crossed, hoping to dodge skin cancer just one more time! Common pitfalls during this log drag were (in) conveniently placed rocks that were positioned just under the water-line, sandbars which would hit the log with a hell of a snag and commonly changing elevation. Moving through these conditions for the hour, while appreciating the combined stupidity, humor, awe and badassery that comprised the predicament I found myself in. Before I know it, I had reached a large pile of logs, another volunteer and another task that was sure to keep me on my toes.
After removing my wooden escort from my care, I was directed towards a wooden flag sticking out of a shaded view of the sand. To my left, were a large pile of trash bags containing some sort of object or material stuck within. What now? I was instructed to remove the flag pole and dig a hole about 4 feet deep with whatever I had available (which was only my hands and my will), and locate a plastic bucket. Inside the bucket, part one of a four-part medal which was meant to read, “I will not fail.” I began to dig the hole vigorously, but it seemed like forever before I actually struck paydirt. You know when you are burying your friend in the sand up to his neck and its all fun and games? This is kind of like that, but you can stand in the hole and you realize how frustrating the dry sand repeatedly caving back into the hole can be when your goal is to fish something out of there. Sure enough, persistence prevailed and I was rewarded the edge of a orange and white puzzle piece that had an “I” encrusted on it. My goal was to get the other three pieces. I then looked towards my volunteer instructor and inquired on the next task. Survival runners had to take a plastic bag pull of empty plastic bottles towards this distant peninsula about a mile’s swim away across the sea and ocean. Around the forested peninsula in the distance, lied a “crystal dock” where we had to deposit the bag. The two options to get there were either a direct swim, or he said I could hug the shoreline and just walk along it to get to the location, but it would add at least another few miles onto the trek. The shoreline bowled in a “U-shape” for a good distance around, with several smaller peninsulas jutting in and out to add some distance. By all appearances, the shore was rockier and less sandy, with a thick jungle overlooking the bay. I peered out into the lake to see the consensus population swimming and making no visible progress. I also noticed the distinct lack of lifeguards or safety personnel. So fuck that, I’m running on the shore, given the choice. At least with that prerogative, I’m afforded the semblance of some sort of tangible progression. So I pick up my extremely light recycle bag (must have been a pound, if that) and make my way further down the beach towards my next objective.
The beach continued on for a couple clicks before it began to bend around towards the left, in the direction of the series of peninsulas that jutted out from the shoreline. I have to say carrying a plastic bag for this section of the trip was not nearly the same brutality of a serrated 50 lb log, an uneven bundle of sticks, running handcuffed or having to torture poor Baboo for a solid hour, but it was a welcome break, and honestly, almost felt like I was running uninhibited. Of course, given that it’s the Survival Run, every time you think you just might be in the clear, fate would have a nasty surprise in store for you. The shore turned into a series of thousands of small, smooth, black rocks. I want to say they were Obsidian given our proximity to the volcano. Regardless of their nature or origin, I know it was like walking on ice blocks lathered in Crisco. Thank god my INOV-8’s kept my ankles supported, because I was losing my stance every 2 steps and it was more of a desperate, soaked crawl across the rubble than anything. These rocks backed right up against a Cliffside, so there was no alternative for the traverse unless I wanted to chance the swim. I rounded the first peninsula along these rocks, and was already getting sick of it. Trying to think outside the box, I did a cost/benefit analysis to determine whether I’d make it faster swimming from one small peninsula to the next or if it would be wiser to stick to the shore. Considering how frustrating a journey the slick shoreline was turning into, I took my chances in the water. Little did I know that although the water looked deep, there were jagged rocks at knee standing-thorax height within the water. As such, they did a number on my knees until I wised up and went straight to a pulling stroke until I cleared that hazard. Once in open water, I had a new found appreciation for those swimming out there. This shit was hard! I was making very little noticeable progress. I’ll attest to my stroke not being the best one out there in the world, but it was a lot of work for a little progress; all things I’m sure were just another part of Josue’s sick, sadistic plan. While floundering through the bay, I had this worry in the back of my head that I would see some giant jungle snake hungrily slither into the water from the shore and I would just totally lose it. Not to mention, the janitor at my internship had also mentioned that Lake Nicaragua was the only fresh water lake in the world with Sharks in it. Trying not to think about those details, I just trusted that things would work out for the best if I kept pressing on and I’d deal with any situation accordingly. After getting to the second peninsula, I rounded it and began to cross to the third peninsula, trashbag in hand the whole way. Seeing as I met with similar results by the time I reached the third of the three smaller peninsulas, I wanted to see if there was a better way around the shoreline/water, as the remaining peninsula was pretty massive. As I was crawling on the compliant, obsidian death traps, I noticed a path of straighter (still slick) rocks with that hit a high ground, winding around to the right. On some of these rocks, I noticed some white chalky substance. Could this be part of the course? I looked in the distance to the distant peninsula and saw this high ground wrapped around overtop of the beachhead, with the downside of being thickly forested; I’m talking borderline shoulder-to-shoulder. At the bottom of the high-rise on the distant peninsula, I could see some sort of dirt path in between the high-rise and the obsidian shore. My choices were to take the swim, flail on the obsidian death trap that wrapped around the peninsula, or chance that following this high-rise that hugged right over top of the rock face would lead me to this path that I assumed may be the next part of the course. My gut was directing me up the rock climb that led hopefully led to this high rise, and to a degree I was right. To a large degree, I was also dead wrong.
Scaling the rock face, I found myself faced with an open field, which seemed to lead nowhere. A barbed wire fence lie in front of me rolling from left to right, and bordering off what seemed to be someone’s farmland. In the distant right was located a farmhouse, with the Cliffside bordering the bay on my left, gradually circling around in that direction. I didn’t see any clear path, but in order to keep progressing on top of the Cliffside I had to find a way over the barbed wire fence. Not being stupid enough to put my hands on the actual wire, I had to find a way over top of it, because there wasn’t a way around the fence for miles it seemed and the wire itself was too low to prone crawl through. Coincidentally, I notice a large boulder/rock structure conveniently shaped like a natural set of stairs, that circled up itself clockwise to the height of the top of the wire, and also positioned about 1 foot away from it. Guess I’d be taking the leap of faith. I climb the rock, toss my bag, hopped over the fence and prayed some native farmer wouldn’t try to chase me off his property, nor sick his farm hounds on me. Hugging the cliff, I maneuver around the plateau that borders the bay moving pretty spryly and energetically given the circumstances of the day. I was grateful that my IT-band pain had completely subsided and that I could book it as well as I could. If there was this much open space bordering the cliff sides of the plateau, this would be a cakewalk. Of course, I was soon met with a dense plantain forest that had no discernible path through it. There wasn’t a clear way around the woods and they seemed to be the only thing that would lead towards that beach path on the peninsula, so I entered and decided to look for some sort of direction. At first, there was a clear dirt path through the woods, with noticeable plants with trees bordering it to mark off what was more appropriate to travel on. Before I even knew it though, the path disintegrated into a grid of wingspan-wide plantain trees spanning endlessly in all directions. The sunlight barely peaked through the dense canopy that coated the sky, and all I bore witness to around me were messes of dirt, dried out leaves, cobwebs and the sounds of the indigenous teeming from every nook and cranny. I wandered onwards through the woods under the guise of confidence, but it didn’t take long before it was safe to say that I was totally fucking lost. In the middle of the woods… in a foreign country… probably with a hungry jungle cat around the next corner. Instead of panicking, I took a few quick breaths to relax and try to think of an objective solution to the latest hand I was dealt. I peered around trying to look for something discernible and locked eyes upon a few downed trees in the distance. As I moved closer for observation, I noticed that trees were cut down one-by-one. You have to think, if the trees had been chopped down in this order, then this must lead somewhere. Maybe the farmers were chopping down trees towards another field? Maybe it was from another plantation? Either way, it was better than what I was currently dealing with. Strangely enough, I didn’t question my path here. That unconscious sense of my “gut” as best as I could call it was directing me this way and I had this over-riding feeling that if I kept going through up and over these downed trees then I would find the solution to my problems (i.e. back on the race path or towards this “crystal dock”). Bag of plastic bottles in hand, I made my way over the plantain tree trunks, with the path subtley veering off to the left and opening up to trees more sparsely spread apart. I just continued to walk in this one direction, not with any noticeable signs directing me, but just listening to my gut. Tarantulas, cows, and more plantain trees were all I was privy to; no directions, no orange and blue flags hanging from the branches, no natives to ask for my bearings, just this feeling bigger than myself telling me that this was the way I was supposed to go. Eventually I was met with a barricade of drastically different, yet familiar in respect to the rest of the island, dense, jungle foliage. I scanned the trees and saw a dirt path that led into the jungle again; beats standing around hoping the situation would improve or being dissatisfied with the current state of things. Walking through the dense jungle path, I kept my eyes open for any sign of civilization that could lead me the right direction. Eventually I reached this one deeply forested hillside that had trail paths the winded both down and up the elevation. Listening to my gut, it told me to start making my way down the hill. Not long after, I noticed clearly artificially-made stone steps. Finally! Something to justify my instinct. Almost immediately after, the long welcome sight of orange and blue flags appeared on some branches over top of my head. So I was on the course, but where and in what direction? If I kept going this way, would I be going backwards? Only one way to find out. The path winded back and forth, slowly creeping down the hill towards what appeared to be a body of water. In the distance, I picked up the faint sound of human voices. Not just human voices though, English speaking voices! Huzzah! Now I can finally find out what the hell is going on. The site of volunteers on top of this large, flat, cube-shaped boulder was a welcome sight. A lady looked confused that I came from this way and I explained what happened since the last volunteer. She didn’t quite know where I went but said it was probably a lot longer than other people had gone. I peered around the corner and could see the silhouettes of some other Survival Runners nearing the end of their long, arduous swim in Lake Nicaragua. This must be that “crystal dock” the last guy mentioned (by far the least accurate description I’ve heard all day, massive euphemism on their part). The volunteer also told me it was good I checked in, but I was actually going backwards now. Whatever, at least I have my bearings now. I was told now NOT to leave my trash bags at the cube-rock (let’s just call it what it is), but at the top of the hill, next to a motorcycle. Got it. Time to make up some ground!
With a renewed vigor, I backtracked up the winding path, through the vines, dirt, trees and stones that littered the hillside. At several points, I was at a crossroads. Both paths would lead up this hill top, but in seemingly opposite directions. I kept listening to my gut, as it had gotten me this far. The jungle foliage gradually opened up as I made my way up the hill and eventually were replaced by large stacks of what seemed to be grains, akin to that of a corn or wheat field. The paths were clear though, so I continued to make my moves and see where I would end up next. Eventually, these paths thickened with more trees, but finally emerged into a small clearing with two motorcycles and a pile of trash bags. I could finally ditch this bag and make on my merry way. This clearing opened up into a dirt trail bordered by more arid grasslands, but one of the bright sides was the absolutely gorgeous view of the island from here. Trees expanded outwards for miles in all directions, various tropical plants characterized the pathway, Lake Nicaragua glistened with that afternoon sheen and the Volcano Maderas lay in my crosshairs, directly at my 12. Speaking of the time, I took a gander at my watch and it was coming close to 1:00 P.M. It has not felt like 9 hours, but time really flies when you’re having the experience of a lifetime. I took a moment here to smash a protein bar and some honey stinger gels and continue on. A light jog along the path opened up into a three-way intersection that crossed with a road. This must be part of the road that encircles the entirety of Maderas. Following the chalk arrows drawn on the ground, I began to take the road towards the right. I picked up the pace significantly once I hit the road. Part of me wanted to not get caught by any racers behind me, part of me wanted to catch racers in front of me, and the final part of me was having a good old time cruising down the road, taking in the scenery. The homes, churches, stand-alone shops and natives sparsely populated the roadway, with the occasional horseback, motorcycle and/or car travelling on by. After 20 minutes, I hadn’t seen any signs of the race, be it flags or chalk, so I began to question if I missed a turn. I stopped by a few natives and dropped more than a few “cuando es Fuego y agua?” Mostly they just laughed and clapped, “Fuego Y Agua, si si!” That did not help at all. I eventually stopped a car and replied with my usual query and got the response of, “speak English mate.” An Australian of all people in all places was apparently a fan of Fuego Y Agua and had a course map on his person. He told me I was going the wrong way. Hesitant, I asked what he meant. Apparently, I was travelling clockwise around the Volcano, when I was supposed to be going counterclockwise before ascending. Should I just trust this innocuous, seemingly sure of himself stranger or proceed with the last set of directions I received? When the going gets rough, turn to your gut. I bid him farewell and decided to keep moving onwards. It took another 10 to 15 minutes, but I finally saw a sign that was chalked over with Fuego Y Agua memorabilia and directing me left, towards the base of the Volcano. A wave of relief washed over me, and I now knew that shit was about to get real.
I jog up the base of the pathway rounding around to the left and see the following: an aid station, a volunteer and another racer. Score! At least I was catching up to some of the whiz kids in front of me. This racer and I both passed our memorization tests, although my cognition was continuing its steady decline from 4:00 A.M. I then recognized my competitor as Paul Buijis, from www.mudandadventure.com. We exchanged our congrats for making it thus far and took the time to replenish some much needed hydration and race fuel. The volunteer, Leslie St. Louis, who I recognized from both the race bib swim the day before and the Ojo De Agua spring checkpoint, gave us our next task. We were supposed to carry a dense, 20 foot long, bamboo stick to a certain distance up the mountain-side trail until we were informed of our next objective. Paul and I decide to tag team this obstacle. Using the sashes of our camelbaks, we slung the bamboo sticks attached at our lower thorax above our hips, and were able to walk without moving or using our hands. This was an extremely clutch tactic, or so we thought. We marched up to rocky, mountainous pathways that normally wouldn’t be difficult to traverse if we weren’t joined at the hips from 15 feet away in a non-compliant manner. Paul took the lead and the onus was on me to make sure that our turns wouldn’t be too hindering. Rocky paths that ranged between forested and meadows dotted the landscape, the turns and uneven surfaces making our trek both easy and hard at the same time. I’d say we got a good 20 minutes into the journey believing our strategy was game-winning, before Michael Cole changed our minds. At my 6, I heard the sound of a familiar voice, and sure enough, there was Michael dragging his bamboo stick up the mountain solo, moving a lot faster than we were. He merely had it draped with the short end on his shoulder and the longer side dragging down the back with relative ease. Not too surprisingly, he questioned how I had gotten ahead of him when he doesn’t remember me passing him. I explained everything that happened thus far and he didn’t seem satisfied with my answer. He seemed to think I had cheated or taken advantage of something, which is an opinion he’s entitled to. I’m more of the persuasion that I had gotten lost while following the vague directions I had been given, but that’s neither here or there. Either way, he passed Paul and I and moved onwards. Seeing the legitimacy of this strategy, Paul and I decided to go solo at this point. Paul was able to pick up the pace and move ahead of me in the distance as I was fuddling around with my bamboo stick. So much for the temporary camaraderie, it was back to lone wolfing it. The sunburn, which was steadily worsening over the past several hours, hit full bloom now. Having any part of a bamboo stick on my shoulder wrecked it, which only sought to make things more difficult at this point. To find a strategy to compensate, I just kept shifting shoulders until the burn got too severe to handle, in which case I would switch back in this pain-avoidance cycle up the mountain side. I’d say I spent a good hour hiking up the Volcano side, through clearings, mixed deciduous and jungle forests and other arduous terrain. I eventually ran into another racer, I believe it was Audrey Michelle, who was heading back down the mountain after proclaiming herself done for the day. I asked her how close it was to the next obstacle or task and she said it was right around the corner. Apparently, I’d have to use this bamboo stick as a point of leverage to traverse a series of trees, with the goal of retrieving more rubber bands. Bring it.
I walk into this opening in the woods where the trees began to become sparser, and saw a litany of bamboo sticks propped up against the branches. On this one bamboo stick was a Survival Runner, feet crossed and ankles wrapped around the band, hanging upside down, and pulling his body diagonally up the bamboo stick hand-over-hand. He had propped the bamboo stick between this split in the branches of the tree, and wedged on the ground against a boulder of some sort in order to support himself. The hits just kept coming in this little adventure. I found a race director nearby who gave me my next task. I would have to use the bamboo pole to sachet myself up the tree and claim a wristband from the tree top, similar to the task from a few hours earlier where I had to shimmy up the tree overlooking the spring. I would then have to use the bamboo stick to get to a tree about a bamboo pole length away, and slightly higher off of the ground, without climbing down from the tree I’m currently on. At the top of that tree lies another wristband. Then I have to get down from this tree and use the bamboo stick to climb yet another tree and get a third wristband in this little clearing. Paul & Michael looked like they were in the process of undergoing this specific obstacle. I tried to tackle this smarter than the last time I had to traverse a tree, by watching some of my fellow runners tackle this obstacle and learn the ropes vicariously. Paul and Michael had completed it in no time and were off to advance further up the volcano and it became my time to shine.
I propped the bamboo pole in a similar manner to what I saw when I first entered the clearing. Shimmying up the bamboo stick, back to the ground, I inched up the bamboo stick towards the parting in the branches. I was able to slowly transition my arms onto the branches while keeping my legs embraced around the tree as I emerged into the parting. Once I had my bearings, the wristband was an arm’s length away. Now to get to the other tree, but not land back on the ground first. To do this, I had to get the bamboo pole to sit in the parting of the branches I was currently in, and have the other edge of the bamboo balance between a parting of the branches in the subsequent tree. The only way to get the bamboo pole up was to pull it, and to say that it was an awkward task would be to underrate it severely. Extremely bottom-heavy, I found myself using my wits more than I anticipated. To best leverage the pole, I pulled the pole up with my left hand, right foot on one parting of the branch, right knee on the other parting, right arm wrapped for dear life around the same parting as the right foot and my left foot underneath of the pole. The point of this was to prevent the pole from swinging back down, and have enough surface area for me to cling to while allowing a smooth enough surface for the bamboo to slink up. With enough trial and effort, I was able to get this damn pole to drop onto the subsequent tree like a bridge across of a moat, but at the consequence of spraining my left wrist. Acceptable compromise, time to move on. In another “oh shit” moment, now I had to somehow get my body across this chasm some 30 feet up in the air, and about the bamboo pole’s length across. My strategy was to prone drag myself across the top of it, right ankle wrapped around the back most part of the pole and left leg dangling over the abyss. Bit by bit, I would intend to drag myself across, similar to how a Tyrolean Traverse was taken on. Either way, it was now or never. Fear wracking my brain, knowing that 30 feet beneath me were leaves, rocks and branches, I began to traverse across the pole. It only took four drags, but I can easily say I’ve never been more careful and methodical with how I’ve taken on an obstacle. I’ve already dangled for dear life once today and I’d be damned if I was clumsy enough to let it happen again. With a heavy sign of relief, I was able to get myself across and to the next tree. With yet another wristband in hand, it was time to go for the hat trick. I pulled the bamboo stick towards my position in the same manner as before, shaking off the discomfort of the sprained wrist. Eventually, the pole tumbled down and I was able to fireman pole it down the tree I was in. I was pretty grateful at this point to be back on solid ground, but this wasn’t bound to last. I dragged the bamboo over to the final tree and began to scale it very much like the first tree. This tree was a lot thicker, with a trunk that was way too wide to remotely wrap my legs around. Fortunately, there were countless vines and tiny branches to grab on to. I began to Tarzan my way around the bulk of the trunk, and meandered my way to the final wristband. The way down was not without excitement, as I began to scale to scale back towards the ground, a vine broke and I dropped the last 10 feet. Fortunately the bushes and branches broke my fall. At last, 2 and half hours later, I could rid myself of this bamboo and find some other means of torture to subject myself to.
It was 3:30 P.M. and I felt I was making good time, until I ran over to a group of racers who were being informed of something seemingly important by a Fuego y Agua volunteer. The first bit of interesting news began to sink in, when I was informed by the race volunteer that I would not be able to finish the race as prescribed. The rest of the race as intended had us journeying to the ¾ point of the volcanic incline, all the way back down the mountain, perform an obstacle, and then journey all the way to the top into the crater. From here, we had another task and then we would have to make our way all the way down to the base on another path, which wrapped around the volcano to the finish line from what I was told. The problem was that the 5:00 P.M. cutoff point was to be enforced at the initial trip to the base, and they would not allow us to travel back up after that. So for those of us moving on, we were given three choices: To continue as prescribed to the cutoff point and stop there, to turn back around and await pick up at the bamboo aid station, or to continue straight up Maderas, into the crater, and then down the mountain to the finish, bypassing the aid station of the first option. Regardless, we would not be considered an official finisher. I was given the easy choice, the hard choice and the harder choice, and I came way too far to make this anything less than something I would never forget, so its absolutely no mystery which of those options appealed the most to me. My fellow racers weren’t as spirited. Some of them had seen enough, some didn’t want to risk injury doing anything too reckless when they wouldn’t “finish,” but a racer named Pat decided he’d follow me up to the ¾ point, to which we would part ways. Right before we began to make moves, Pat let out a massive hurl on the mountain side. Convinced that he was just feeling a little woozy, but got it out of his system, we pressed on. Happy to have company, the next twist in this journey into hell sprang into action.
Pat and I began to scale the trails and forests of the volcano-side. The trail itself was littered with vines, colored flora/fauna, trees and the teeming ambience of wild-life. We were in the belly of the beast now. We began to make light conversation to ease the passage of time, but I saw that Pat was having trouble keeping up. He told me he was a campus security officer for Ottawa University. Safe to say, this wasn’t Canada anymore. I always thought it was pretty cool how we had such a diverse set of origins, all of us here on Nicaragua, and it made the experience all the more enriching. Eventually Pat had to drop, citing severe cramps in his legs, likely experiencing some form of heat exhaustion from beforehand. He told me he had enough and was going to gather enough strength to head back down, as we weren’t far from the bamboo location. Wishing him the best, I continued on my own once more. For another hour, I scaled the volcano, grabbing onto roots, ascending up boulders, navigating the dense foliage and keeping my eyes peeled for any sign of orange or blue flags that would ensure I didn’t end up lost and dead in the Jungle. Minute by minute, the time passed but I continued my journey through the dense umbrage. I noticed it was starting to get dark, so I checked my watch: 5:30 P.M. It was time to lock up that headlamp before Sundown in an hour, because that’s when shit would start getting real weird. Unfortunately, I hit my next game changer when I realized that my headlamp was nowhere to be found in my pack! I scrounged through every pocket, nook and cranny three times over, denial creeping in that it was hidden in that one place I couldn’t find it. I began to accept my new reality that it was 45 minutes prior to dusk and I had no light source by which to utilize. My thoughts began to creep right on back to my conversation with Rudolpho at the Managua airport, who warned me that if I got lost on the trails, I might as well build a fire and wait until morning, or I would die. With no light source asides the 3 cm diameter my glowsticks would provide me, the shit had officially hit the fan. I was at least 2 hours away from the last obstacle, and even longer from the base of the mountain. Going back was not an option. So I listened to my intangible gut instinct that had taken me this far, and it told me that the only way out was through. Going up seemed like my best option at this point. I could potentially run into somebody else with a flashlight or lantern or headlamp or something that wouldn’t leave me the dinner of some jungle cat. Otherwise, I was fully prepared to start using my glowsticks as a rudimentary light source, and crawl the rest of the race until I found civilization. Either way, it was time to get a move on.
I picked up the pace, continuing through the same obstacles of branches, foliage, rocks and dirt. The terrain began to get surprisingly muddy and slick, likely due to the condensation of the clouds that we were beginning to enter into. Too cool. I’d take more time to admire the scenery if my life didn’t depend on getting my high step on. Not too long after this, I emerged onto a small plateau that opened up, gazing out with a pristine view of the entire island. Despite the imminent beauty, that didn’t catch my eye nearly as much as the fact I saw another human being coming down the mountain, American no less! Unfortunately, he had no source of light for me to use. A minor setback, but not without positive, for he did bring good news that there were three racers, maybe 5 minutes ahead of me. The last racers had left over 40-60 minutes ahead of me at the bamboo obstacle, so this had to mean that I was making time. Could one of them have a headlamp? Could I cling for dear life in their vicinity as they led me home? If I was going to die, at least I wasn’t going out alone. I didn’t need any other reason to put the pedal to the medal. I sprinted up the volcano side with renewed vigor. There was absolutely no way I was not going to find these other racers before the sun went down. About 15 minutes later, I heard some mumbled voices in the distance. Could these be the people I was looking for? I yelled out various calls to get their attention and got some responses that, at the least, knew that I was behind them. I emerged deeper into the jungle to the sight of three other racers who were grouped up together. Thank god!
The racers in question were some that I had recognized had skipped the palm tree shimmy from earlier, to the names of Dan “Zambo” Zambardino, Laura Svette and Johnny Waite. I requested to join their little fellowship for the rest of the race, since I was down a light source. To my stupid amount of luck, and Zambo’s uncanny preparation, he had a spare headlamp that he lent me for the rest of the adventure. This roller coaster of a ride was bound to continue, and this time with a group of 4 who could provide a little company and some clearer direction through the Volanic wilderness.
Up the narrow, winding trails of Ometepe we went, weaving through vines, scrambling over rocks and racing against the clock, as we tried to make it to the crater before sundown. It was a refreshing break having company for this portion of the race. Although I appreciated the challenge of doing it alone, we’re all stronger in groups and larger numbers and who knows what else was out there? The further up we got, the farther down the sun went and we were running short on time before it got dark and shit got weird. At one point, we ran into a volunteer located at a fork in the road. The paths either led us to the base of the volcano or towards the crater, so we knew we were getting real close. He told us to head back down, I suppose just following the orders of what he was told to do when he found out where we were going. Eventually we explained to him that we weren’t following the normal course outline and persuaded him to let us continue up. Not taking no for an answer had gotten us this far and I don’t see why it wouldn’t continue to help. At one point, the path began to start trending more downwards. This must mean that we had reached the peak and we descending into the volcano. This was getting surreal at this point. Down we journeyed, descending down plateau steps and eventually emerged into a clearing. This was it… the inside of a god damned volcano.
Since it was inactive, its not exactly what you would think. A giant concave landscape had a dense, lush forest bordering a flatter, grassland field with a small oasis dotting the center. To our favor, at our right were a few volunteers running an aid station. They had asked us what the last color combination was, but hell if we knew. This was based upon the aid station that was on part of the trail that we had skipped over. We guessed wrong, but they were forgiving and said, “ahhh fuck it, just take the water.” They knew we weren’t playing the game anymore, we were just fighting for survival. While chatting with Zambo and grabbing some crucial Go-Pro pictures, I heard the last words I ever expected to hear at that time from Laura: “Johnny, you’re not really skinny dipping in that thing are you?”
To my shock, I turn counter-clockwise to the sight of Johnny Waite running bare-ass naked, all bow-legged towards the lake, hand over his junk and not a shred of a shit given. His retort? “You only get to skinny dip in a volcano once!” He full-on belly flops into the lake, not realizing that it was about one-inch deep and full of thick, grimy mud, catching it all up in his gnads. He didn’t seem to care to much though. All of that fun over with, and once we were rested and rehydrated, Zambo and I decided to press on ahead and let Johnny and Laura catch up to us. We disappeared back into the forest and continued our journey. Next stop: Finish line.
Back into hell, the forest was thicker than ever before. We were literally bushwhacking ourselves through the foliage, back up the peak. At one point, we emerged out of the woods onto a rockface that was part of the crater and were treated to an absolutely incredible view of the “fishbowl” shape of the volcano. Unreal. Awestruck asides, we began to borderline vertically scale this rockface until we gradually disappeared back into the foliage. The sun had finally gone down and nightfall had hit us, and I was glad more than ever to have company for this adventure. The orange and blue flags guiding our path were harder than ever to spot, so it paid off for both our sakes to have someone else help pick out our path through the unfamiliar territory. Where I would miss a flag, Zambo would spot it, and I would act as a check & balance for him as well. Between the two of us, we were not going to be stopped. As the peak neared again, the terrain got… different. There were times that we were not even on solid ground anymore. What I mean is, we were literally climbing through and over trees. I remember at one point, Zambo and I were on tree branches that were so high in the air, that even with our headlamps, we could not see or make out the ground. We literally felt like fucking Tarzan, it was insane. There were paths I remember where we had to traverse the sides of roots and underneath tree branches, because the ground was mud that was so deep it looked like quicksand. Nightfall and the associated ambience only added to the chaotic nature of our pathway. Lets not forget the absolutely demonic sound of the unseen howler monkeys that littered the canopy. If you’ve never heard what a howler monkey sounds like, imagine the most demonic sound from the monster of your worst nightmare and multiply that by 100. When you are in the middle of the jungle, swinging through the tree tops and hear an unfamiliar, unseen, bloodcurdling snarl in the surrounding treetops, tell me you won’t shit bricks too. Light jokes kept the mood positive, as we needed it with our bodies beginning to give in to us. I didn’t even think about that though. I was having the absolute time of my life! Eventually Laura and John had caught up with us and we continued as before. Steep cliffs and thick foliage continued to pillage our path through the jungle. For hours we continued onwards, dropping down the rock-face steps and gradually exposing ourselves to drier terrain and wider pathways. And then the hallucinations began to kick in.
At this point I could tell I was reaching the end of my rope, but that is the critical time where you need to tie a knot and hang on. When you feel your weakest is when you need to be your strongest and that counted for all of us. I could tell at one point that our morale was fading. I was seeing eyes on the trees, cows made out of smoke that would disappear when I got too close and hearing whispers and voices. When they would repeatedly told me that none of them had said anything, we all knew I was going downhill fast. Our run had slowed to a walk, which slowed further to a crawl. We had to rest a few times because our feet were absolutely destroyed. Going down the mountain, my toes were being repeatedly crushed against the inside front of my shoes. It was getting difficult to walk, but like a wise man once said, “the short term pain of discipline far outweighs the long term pain of regret.” Besides, we could tell we were getting close. As we reached the base of the volcano around 10:00 P.M, we could hear loud music, which we assumed was the finish line. Of course, it’s never that simple. To speak to their sadistic tendencies, they had the music always out of reach and out of the way of the path. While we eagerly wanted to move towards the music, we wouldn’t dare stray from the path. Eventually, we emerged onto some farmlands, that looked familiar to those we had seen at the beginning of the race and I had seen throughout my time on the Island. In the distance the sounds of dogs going ape-shit and cows mooing would probably have intrigued or gotten us nervous earlier in the race. Now, we couldn’t care less. We hobbled onwards through the farmland, often not seeing any markers for awhile. That trusted instinct that had served me at many times throughout the race prior had continued to guide us further.
Around 11:15, we saw a light and a person in the distance, as well as some cars and what looked like a roadway. To our absolute amazement and relief, it was a volunteer! He asked us about what we’ve been through so far. Apparently, racers were getting lost like crazy all over the place or pulling out, and few had continued on like we had. There were still about 7 other people or so on the mountain somewhere, and they had no idea where they were. I could tell their fingers were crossed that they would turn up. We explained our journey from the bamboo stick tree climb and he rewarded us by informing us that the finish line was about half a mile away. Success! While standing there, faded and worn, I remember having it pointed out that there was a massive tarantula the size of my hand about 2 feet to my left. This volunteer asked me to put my foot next to it so he could take a picture for size comparison. I just stared him down and shot him the dirtiest look and said, “I’ve been pushing my luck this whole trip, I’m not fucking with that thing! I’m right near the finish line.”
We hobbled with a renewed enthusiasm towards the direction of the music, led by this volunteer. More buildings began to pop up, and we eventually saw this brick pathway that led toward the right-most wall of this building. We could hear more music and see the lights of a campfire around the corner. Hands joined together we hit our victory march with stride and emerged across the finish line! At 11:30 P.M., our suffering was finally over… or so we thought. Volunteers eyed us down with intense relief as if they had just seen ghosts! We found out that we were just the third, fourth, fifth and sixth people to cross the finish line out of the 37 that began this escapade, which means that 33 people had either tapped out or were still out there on the mountain. That really puts things in perspective. Of course, that doesn’t account for the fact we did not go back down the mountain and then back up and perform whatever obstacle was necessary to get our third medal piece. We were also told there was an additional obstacle that involved a half mile swim with across a lake to something called “Monkey Island,” that the organizer told me they overestimated and it ended up taking double length. They gave us the option of doing that, but we had enough at that point and there was no real point in subjecting ourselves to a half mile night swim with no safety personnel for the sake of mere bragging rights. At this point, since only 2x World’s Toughest Mudder, Junyoung Pak, and local prodigy, Johnson Cruz Barrios, were able to finish the entire course as prescribed, we had no shame in what we did or did not accomplish. At this point, it was about rest and reflection.
As I licked my wounds, applying gauss and bandages to my mangled feet from the medical kit in my camelbak, I was hearing reports of other racers being spotted on the mountain and the organizers praying they returned. I saw the organizer/volunteer who had given me the choice to go up the mountain previously and relayed to him what happened since. He was astounded. Clearly this race had defied their expectations. Even more or so with the logistics. Our “rescue” cabs that would take us home apparently just decided not to show up, so we were forced to wait until about 1:00 P.M. or so before we could get rides back. We were all in different locations so they would just drop us off one by one. That entire time I just laid in a hammock, happy to NOT move at ALL for awhile. I earned that right in my book, to come from off the couch to into a volcano. Around 12:15 A.M, a group of 6 or 7 other racers who had banded together had also crossed. Apparently, they had gotten to the Volcano Crater Aid Station after us, but found it abandoned. I guess they assumed that there were no more racers on course and bailed, to the evident chagrin of those who just finished. Zambo’s girlfriend soon came over to us and we began sharing our war stories. Like any normal person, she was in utter dismay. Unless you actually went through this, you would probably find it very hard to believe. We all get the chicken part was hilarious, but its not nearly the most memorable! That moment can’t be narrowed down to an individual occurrence. While our reflections passed the time by, I was in the minority of racers who had to leave the Island the next morning. Safe to say, I really wouldn’t mind a little R&R right about now. Unfortunately, it was about another hour before salvation arrived in the form of two taxi vans that would escort us all back. Wounded to the soul, we all hobbled into the Vans and told the driver of our destinations. The next hour faded in and out of memory, as every bump would bang my head against the seat anterior to me and jolt me awake again for another few minutes, before I lost it again and passed out. It seemed like everyone was in the same boat as me. Around 2:30 A.M, a little over 24 hours since I was last awake, I was finally dropped back off at the orphanage. With my last breath, I pleaded for the driver to show up here again at A.M., I told him I’d give him enough American Dollars to make him the Prince of Ometepe or something like that and he laughed and agreed. Seeing as I had to sail out of the Island at 9:00 A.M. in order to make my 3:15 P.M. flight back to the states, I was praying he would show up. As he left, I limbered over what was left of me to my room in the orphanage, crept into it silent as a lamb, as to not wake my gracious hosts and passed out in absolute record time.
Of course, it was little over 3 hours later before I was up and moving once again. This puts the count at about 6.5 hours over the last 3 days. Yet, all things considered, I was not that tired. I see everyone else in the mission group had left to the main courtyard to grab breakfast, so I got the opportunity to wake up, pack my things and then limp on over to join them. As they locked upon my battle weary state, there were obvious questions about the days prior events that I didn’t even begin to know how to answer. The whole thing was pretty hard to process, much less relay to other people in anything more than brief highlights. Most replies from me just led to more questions. “You carried a chicken?!?!? What about bird flu? How are you getting through customs? You carried 50 lbs how many miles!?!?! How are you not dead? Why did the handcuff you?!?!” etc. Still, they were pleasantly amazed that I had even tried it, much less accomplished what I did. As 8 A.M. drew near, I thanked them all for their hospitality and gathered all of my things for the road home. To my relief, the cab driver did, in fact, show up and was happy to transport me back. Lost on me in my delirium the night prior, this guy was super cool. In the roughest of spanglish contexts, I told him some details about the race when he asked. He seemed more interested in the “sucio mamacitas” we were eyeing down on the way home. What a boss. At around 8:20 P.M., we arrive back at the start line, where the PTSD already started to kick in early. I used some of the free time I had to drop my bicycle off at the rental place, and the cab driver was nice enough to escort my luggage with me until I returned the bike. The people there honestly did not expect to see me again, much less the bike. I stared down the fellow who said he knew what the race was going to be and just shot him a glare that told him how much of a bastard he was for concealing that. I had just enough time to high step it back to the ferry and spot more familiar faces like Corinne and Leo. Leo and I were planning on leaving together as we were taking the same outbound flight to Miami. We all swapped our stories from the previous days events. Shout out to Corinne for not giving in and coming across the finish line at around 2 or 3 in the morning. Absolute resolution, gotta love it! As the ferry drew near around 9 A.M., I bid my last farewell to Ometepe and we took our journey back to the mainland. After catching up on some light reading, we eventually arrived back on the mainland around 90 minutes later. No sooner that we departed from the San Jorge ferry, were we cab-bound to the Managua airport. As Leo and I began to talk about future races, he began to wonder why I stopped responding to his conversation. He turned around and there I am limp and done for. After a nice hour power nap, we arrive at the airport, ready to leave Nicaragua and get back to the states. Of course, if this journey said anything, nothing is ever simple here in Nicaragua. A little airport subway turned into quite-evident food poisoning on the plane. There was a rule I was supposed to follow not to eat fruits or vegetables with edible skins. The lettuce and tomato was an obvious violation in hindsight and I was paying the price. The combination of discomfort from nausea and the discipline to keep my shit together through customs was enough to keep me from sleeping for the flight home. I had the pleasure of meeting Josue’s daughter, Charity, on the plane home. I had more than an earful to give her about the sadist bastard her father was…. And then I loved him for it. Awesome work!
Around dinner time, I arrive in Miami international, along with 3 other international flights. So of course, it took about 2 hours to get through customs. Two hours of standing in line, kicking my suit case forward, trying like hell to stay awake and NOT look like I had the plague. Eventually I meander through the logistics of airport security and arrive with an hour to spare before my 9:30 P.M. outbound flight to Baltimore. I could taste freedom. I did not trust my ability to stay awake and miss my flight, so I got an old couple to remind me to wake up in case I passed out. If only they knew what I’ve been through. I finally board the plane and it was home stretch from there! I had the company of another mission group who had done some charity work in a different country on the way back. We exchanged stories and I was treated to the same standard of utter shock and amazement, with the justified minority that thought I was just being an idiot. At 12:15 A.M., on our very own Presidents Day, February 18th, I sachayed on over to my relieved as shit parents, fist raised with pride and the comfort that I was finally in good hands. As I was carried out and back to the house, I ignored the obvious questions and told them I would just let them know everything tomorrow. At this point, I was in no mood to do anything but sleep. That night, I don’t think I’ve ever had more sound a slumber in my life. I’m talking 14 hours of bliss! The next day, I was able to regurgitate the entire experience to my dad, who had trouble picking his jaw off the ground.
So lets’ reflect, whats the take-home message here? I came to Ometepe needing a break from reality, needing a chance to make up for a perceived failure and find some ounce of redemption in a new challenge that could supercede my failure in the World’s Toughest Mudder. What I came back with was something far more valuable. It’s like Michael said, my problem was that I had the wrong outlook on things. I looked back on life and focused only on my regrets and I let the pain of those past memories fuel the “strength” for my future actions in order to better cope with the shame and guilt I felt over them. The sad thing was that by using those as motivation, I gave them power and kept my eyes always focused on the past pain or future plans to rectify it and never on the present moment. I wasn’t able to fully embrace and cherish the utter harmony of being in the exact moment. In this sense of irony, I was letting life pass me by because I was so focused on the past and present, that I didn’t enjoy the now, letting these moments slip by me and giving me the regret of “where did the last 20 years go?” that I’ve been trying so desperately to avoid the last 2 years. My intentions were noble but my process was obviously flawed. I think if this lengthy, vividly detailed note is any indication, I was able to appreciate every single individual moment I encountered. Grounded in the present moment, I was able to cherish every second of this experience and what it brought me, clearly since I’m writing this months later down the line, and provide for myself a whole new paradigm moving forward. To those I tagged in this, or to those who happen to come upon and read this, I do it for a reason. As much as I want to make sure I record this experience for my own appreciation and recollection I hope that my hindsight can be your foresight. I hope that you don’t let the hustle and bustle and busyness of life distract and deter you from enjoying the present moment around you. Every single moment is absolutely perfect and precious, and we all only get limited moments here on this earth. Every moment you don’t appreciate, you squander or you gloss over is one you aren’t going to get back. We only get so many chances to enjoy the moment. I didn’t understand that when I was 20 years old. That’s why life had to debilitate me with a knee injury and slow me down so I could see how great the blessing I had in life and the perspective of what I should be grateful for around me was. Bad things happen to good people in order to show them how to get better. To be around an impoverished country, where orphaned youth had nothing, but were happy with everything, to be running through the early dawn jungles of Nicaragua holding a chicken like a loaf of bread, to climbing through 200 ft trees suspended at the top of a Volcano in the dark of night, I’ll never forget these moments. They’re what make life glorious and worth living. But don’t everyou’re your head get down about the past. Your success and happiness isn't determined by your resources, but by your resourcefulness. What you get out of life is far more relative to how you respond to what you are given than what you are provided. It’s the beauty of our past experiences that either reinforce what we are doing is correct or guide us to a more prosperous future. And if what I’m writing can bring you hope, faith, wisdom and insight, then I’ll keep recollecting my experiences and hope that those I cherish and appreciate as friends and family can better their lives for it.