Sean Meehan writes about his experience at the Survival Run: Hunter Gatherer 2013.
This race report is aimed at anyone who is interested in trying a Fuego y Agua Survival Run, anyone thinking of trying an ultra-marathon or extreme obstacle race, as well as serving as a diary for myself, friends and family.
It is worth pointing out this was my first ultra-marathon and I had no distance running background. I was relying on a mixed background of hiking, kayaking, cycling and ball sports and a healthy dollop of stubbornness to try this race. My work as a volcano tour guide in Nicaragua also served me well for the terrain in this race.
Hunter Gatherer was billed as a mix of true survival skills and natural obstacles where muscles and grit alone would not be sufficient. Josue Stephens, the evil genius race director also advised runners “you will not finish.”
I arrived at the race venue Camp Eagle deep in West Texas hill country a couple of hours before Packet Pickup on the evening before the race. As a ‘welcome to race obstacle’ we had to select a log based on your bodyweight and carry it 1.5 miles up a hillside and carve your bib number in your log – it seemed like we would be getting further acquainted with our logs on race-day. I named my log Big Bob – he weighed about 70-80lb I’d guess (35-40kg), was about 6 feet long, and he was extremely efficient at removing skin from my shoulders. The terrain made quite an impression. It was hilly, with treacherous loose limestone and little in the way of actual trails - just orange markers identifying our bushwhacking route. Ankle snapping rocks were abundant, and cacti were ready to welcome every stray step – this rough country is the abode of rattlesnakes, intrepid deer and not much else.
A sleepless night followed as I tossed and turned nervously waiting for our 4am race start. It was intimidating to be surrounded by a field of elite athletes who knew how to handle themselves in a race like this. I gleaned tips and info and was generally enjoying the banter and camaraderie of the racers as they guessed what might be in store during the race.
Following a pre-race gear check – permitted gear was: survival knife, roll of para-cord, water canteen, water purifier, first aid kit, food, headlamp, t-shirt, shorts – the first task got underway. We were supplied with sandal base material and laces from Luna Sandals. It took about 45 minutes to fashion a crude pair of huaraches that I probably adjusted and retied a hundred times during the day to come.
I set off into the darkness to pick up Big Bob at the top of the hill and stumbled another half mile down to the Nueces River. Volunteers instructed that a life preserver was to be attached to the log and a 1.25 mile swim followed. This was tough and lonely in the dark. Thick duckweed in the river resulted in constant claustrophobic tangles. I had read Lonesome Dove some months earlier and couldn’t help thinking about the premature end another naïve Irishman had met in the Nueces river…I wasn’t prepared to bet on how real the threat posed by water moccasins at that particular moment!
Dawn broke as I dropped my log at the next checkpoint and set off running to try and warm up and dry out. About 3 miles later was the cave obstacle. Here runners had to descend 15 feet or so down a manhole sized sinkhole and navigate a confined cave system to find 6 symbols which needed to be memorized. It was hot, awkward, slow going – helped little by the presence of an unidentified snake – but 40 minutes later I emerged and passed the memorization task. This was probably my favourite obstacle, an inspired choice that really freaked some runners out!
On the next 5 mile run section I caught up with Isaiah Vidal and shared the trail with him for the next 10 miles or so. I knew his racing pedigree and was happy to have some company. Following the orange markers was tiring and often the route zigzagged up and down from ridge to valley without following well-trodden trails. There were frequent precipitous cliffs where an ibex would probably choose not to set hoof. The 10 mile checkpoint had water so I refuelled and attempted the throwing stick challenge managing to make the required 3 hits out 7 attempts on a target at 10 paces or so. A second challenge involved creating a waterproof container out of a cactus pad and answering questions on the medicinal properties of cacti. This highlights the diversity of hunter gatherer tests throughout the race.
With 2 more successful challenges under my belt my confidence was growing and I set off on the next 5 mile section to reach the fire making checkpoint at around 15 miles. At this point 10 hours had elapsed – half my allotted 20 hours – and I was only halfway through. My priority was to reach the end within the time limit, and although I was 100% on challenges to this point I did not fancy my chances on being able to start a bowdrill fire. Most of the runners that had been ahead of me were still at this challenge and were visibly frustrated. Their techniques were better than mine but some had been there for over an hour with no flames. I took on some water, salt and food and made my decision to head for the finish without attempting more challenges. In retrospect this was the right decision for me as it was my first ultra and I was expecting the remaining 16 miles to take the last energy out of me. In future Survival Runs the ruled will favour those who continue attempting all challenges…
I quickly caught up with Chris Dutton on the trail and he had reached a similar decision. He was a 100k runner but at this stage of the race it was becoming apparent that the terrain was so brutal that very few 100k runners would stand a chance of making their 17 hour cutoff before starting their second loop of the course. Chris was settling for 50k – I had another trail buddy to keep morale up. Our pace gradually improved as we hit some more traditional trails and got some runs in –as opposed to the hiking and scrambling for most of the day. It was humbling as we passed some other competitors who, despite knowing by now they could not make the time cutoff, were still endeavouring with the obstacle. Chris and I forged ahead still intent on just completing the run. By this stage my feet were swollen and the sandals had taken their toll. The image of a gigantic cold beer was growing in my mind…
We passed by the cordage making challenge (weave 3 feet of twine out of grass stalks) and medicinal plants station, as well as the archery challenge (make your own bow, retrieve arrows from up a tree) and travois station (build a travois and drag 120 lb weight for 2.5miles !!!) and were on the road for home. With 5 miles to go the sun was slinking low but we were in good spirits and moving quicker than at any point during the day. The final mile was an awesome downhill section on good trail and, though I could barely believe it, we crossed the line with 15 hours 5 minutes on the clock. Only Shane McKay, the winner and only competitor to complete all the challenges, was in the stable ahead of us. Shane is 53 years young and an inspirational beast - I feel confident that Hugh Jackman would feel sheepish in his presence.
It was surreal. I honestly did not expect to finish without some incredible ordeal or trauma but psychologically I feel I got it right on the day. I tried to remain calm and positive and deal with what was right in front of me rather than worrying about how far there was to go or how much my feet hurt. My nutrition strategy seemed to work as I never felt overly tired or delirious – I took one salt pill per hour, one Gu gel per hour, mixed my water with Saquito mix, and chowed 5 Clif bars. 2 days later I am pretty much 100% recovered.
It was truly inspiring to delve into the eclectic sub-culture that is ultra-running. There are some beautiful, creative, brave, crazy people and I learned something from each and every one of them. Their camaraderie and can-do spirit is a credit to the sport. The event was excellently devised and executed by the organisers and the volunteers were excellent on the day. The Survival Run brand is in its infancy but the concept is great and the kinks will be worked out I am sure. It offers a racing genre truly distinct from Tough Mudder or Spartan Race. I am a Luna Sandal convert for life, and this certainly won’t be my last ultra. I couldn’t recommend Fuego y Agua events highly enough. Be advised they are extremely difficult. That is the point. Get proficient at high level Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, triathlons or something first. Then come to challenge your body, and discover your soul.