The Sunday Adventure Club: Fuego y Agua 100k - Race Report. Richie Cunningham | 2008 100km Winner
This year my running has taken me to some strange and exotic places, and not all of them in my head. The Fuego y Agua 100k was going to be one step further.
I've ran in some varied environments; freezing cold temperatures in the mountains, mud and bogs, athletics tracks, hard packed stony trails, the aggressive heat and altitude of Mont Blanc (which I didn't fare well in) but none like I was about to encounter.
Fuego y Agua translates to Fire and Water. The fire of the active Concepcion volcano and the water of the dormant Maderas volcano, with it's amazing crater lake at the top and the muddy, boggy cloud-forest which covers its slopes. The course can be summarised as a 30k ish undulating trail, then a 1500 metre climb and descent, another 30k on trails then a 1000 metre climb and 10k or so to the finish. Add to this the temperatures and humidity of a tropical climate, some snakes and frogs armed with lethal venom, no such thing as an OS map and a volcano which has erupted with quite some regularity every 50 years, last time 1957.....!
I couldn't wait to get going.
I'd been in Nicaragua for about 3 weeks by race day, travelled around a bit seeing the sights and also recce-ing the two volcanoes. I hadn't ran for more than about an hour at a time since it was so hot but I had made sure I put in some good hard sessions to try to help me adapt to the heat, this was going to be the most important thing. The mileage wasn't a priority since it was only 7 weeks before this race that I had clocked 127 miles at the 24 hour so I couldn't really put in any distance in that short space of time.
The other thing to prepare was my race gear. I decided to go minimalist and run with a bumbag, 2 x 500ml bottles, a couple of packs of biscuits, a few gels and a bag of boiled sweets. I also had 3 drop bags at aid stations with drinks, gels, food and importantly a more cushioned pair of trail shoes for after Maderas when my feet would be sore from wearing my fell shoes. There are also lots of places to buy drinks and food along the trail sections so I made sure I had money too.
As far as tactics go, I felt the best approach for me was to make use of the cool 4am start and push the pace hard to the bottom of Maderas then I should avoid the hot temperatures as I climb higher and therefore not start to feel the heat until about the 40k mark where I would just have to tough it out from there.
The tension was high when the runners started to gather at the start around 3.30am with not much talking going on as we eyed each other to see who might be the ones to watch. There was a local Nica guy there who looked particularly handy, the Columbian guy looked like he knew his stuff too and the two tall Texans, Pete and T.J looked like big strong guys as did the two Italian guys. This was going to be an interesting race.
So with lots of honking of horns from the motorbikes the race was underway and immediately the Nica guy took off like he was in a 10k not seeming to be concerned about having a torch as we headed onto the pitch black trail. I just settled into a good pace and tried to be careful not to turn an ankle as we made our way along the rough dirt trail and soon I had caught up with Nica. We leap-frogged each other all the way until we hit the paved road section then ran shoulder to shoulder at a pretty fast pace for a 100k pushing each other on to see who would drop first. It wasn't until about 5k before the Maderas ascent that I moved ahead and I never saw Nica again although I spent the whole of the race looking back expecting to see him anytime!
Approaching El Porvenir (pic courtesy of Josue Stephens)
When I reached the El Porvenir aid station it was just being set up, so I inhaled a banana, downed a gel, refilled my bottles and since my drop bag food no-longer looked appealing I left it and made for the big climb.
Refueling at El Porvenir (pic courtesy of Josue Stephens)
Keeping my pace up I ran a good bit of the climb until it got so steep and technical that it was hands on knees and hike hard time. The sound of howler monkeys seemed to be getting really loud too, their calls sounding really quite fierce and intimidating. I had a good rhythm going and made short work of the climbing, passing two of the guys who were going up to help set up the aid station in the summit crater. I said hello and carried on as the climb turned more muddy and slippy with each step, the path eroded under the tree roots so much now that I was having to use my hands more and more to climb over and sometimes under them.
The route starts to get tricky
It was absorbing stuff (literally!). I ate all my biscuits now (along with some mud which I was now covered in) since the pace had been slowed by the terrain and I could digest them a bit better. I felt pretty good as I negotiated the treacherously slippy descent into the crater my mind fixed on a good drink of water and a nuun tablet to help me rehydrate at the aid station. As I emerged from the bushes like a madman I realised straight away that the two guys I had passed WERE the aid station, I had mis-heard, there was no-one else here! Ok, nothing for it but to get on and get down to the next one as quick as possible. I carved my initial in the mud in case there was any doubt I had been here, although I don't think I could have gone anywhere else, and started to follow the tagging which marked out the trail. The bushes got really dense as I made my way up out of the crater then opened out onto a neat path on some smooth rock which climbed so steeply I was soon using hand-holds to pull myself upwards. I stopped a few times to look back at the view of the crater with its lake below, I smiled to myself as I realised what an amazing place this was to be racing and tried to take in as much as possible before I pushed on and up.
Maderas crater lake (pic by Amy Sproston)
This was new territory for me, I had been up the previous section but returned the same way on my recce, and it was also starting to become really technical with my arms working constantly now as I was almost climbing through the trees following route markers around the rim of the crater. The wind was blowing quite strongly now and every now and then I would get a view down through the trees and bushes just to remind me that I was on a very narrow ridge and a slip here would be very dangerous. Eventually the descent started and I found my rhythm as the terrain became more runnable, changing as I descended to banana trees and coffee plants as I got lower down. I was also becoming aware of the heat and how much I needed a drink so I started to run really hard thinking if I give a big push here I can refuel at the aid station. I was now back on the flat and had passed a few unlikely looking buildings as I looked around for the aid station, surely it must be near I thought. I passed some locals on the trail and shouted "Merida", the name of the aid station, and they pointed back up the trail. I had missed it and my drop bag with food, drinks and shoe change. Should I turn back? No way! I'll just have to survive in the fell shoes and find somewhere to buy some supplies. I carried on for about 20 mins and as the sun burnt down I could feel I was getting really dehydrated and starting to feel like if I didn't get a drink soon I'd be reduced to a walk. Just then I saw a small shop manned by a couple of kids, maybe about 8 years old. I ran over and shouted "agua y cola!" at the startled wee boy as I stood dripping sweat everywhere fumbling for my money. I also bought a homebaked biscuit and managed to eat it by chewing it along with mouthfulls of water and swallowing the mixture back, the kids were enjoying the display of terrible table manners from the muddy, sweaty, smelly gringo! "Muchos gracias!" I shouted as I fled back to the trail feeling brand new again.
The next miles were spent running from one side of the trail to the other trying to catch all the shade I could, shouting "buenos dias" and "hola" as I passed bemused locals. One guy on a motor-bike even stopped and offered to go and get water and bring it back to me, I wished I'd seen him earlier! After another few miles Abi, one of the race organisers, passed in a pick-up and stopped to give me some water and gels what a lifesaver that was. Soon after that I hit the paved road and was flying again and kept the pace going all the way to Altagracia (68k) where the next aid station was, I wasn't going to miss this one! By the time I got there the faster pace meant I didn't feel like eating anything and had to concentrate not to throw up. I managed a gel and some energy drink (which to my amusement is called Heed, you have to be Scottish to understand!) but there was nothing funny about the way my stomach felt as I left the aid stop.
After Altagracia the route followed trails which deteriorated more and more until it looked more like a river bed I was running on. It was at this point that I needed to go to the toilet... and quick! I looked around and there was a big banana plantation on my right so I negotiated the barbed wire and got on with, er, business... it's not every race you stop for a dump under a banana tree! I also managed to drop my watch somewhere at this point because it had been clipped to my bag strap and fallen off when I removed it, I wasn't going without it because it had all my splits on it and I'm sad that way, so I hunted about everywhere wasting a good bit of time in the process before I found it.
It wasn't long before I'd passed through the next aid station and was on my way up Concepcion. I still felt strong as I passed locals on horses moving some cattle along the trail and soon I was into the full climb through a real jungle-like environment I even saw a White Faced monkey only a few feet away in the trees, I heard something hit the ground near me and wasn't sure if it was throwing things at me or just knocking bits of the tree off as it moved, I wasn't hanging about to check! I emerged out of the trees at the 1000 metre point, which was as far up as was deemed safe to go on an active volcano, to see the lone aid station guy who, to my relief had water and gels. Since I had no Spanish and he no English he drew a very good map of the route back in the dirt and with that we shook hands and I started the run back down. This is where the route doubles back on itself and I passed Amy, Arturo and Pete on their way up (no Nica!?). It was starting to feel like I was heading for home now, so with a gel in my bag and full bottles I confidently gave it all I had as I hit the flat sandy trails heading for Moyogalpa and the finish. At one point I thought I'd made a mistake emptying all but a couple of mouthfuls of water as the trail just went on and on but eventually I arrived in the town and sprinted as hard as I could to the finish.
It was a strange feeling sitting at the finish line after 11 hours 40 minutes, elated to have come first but sad to be at the end of my adventure.
Josue, the race organiser greeted me with a hug, and I thanked him for the race.
This event has got to be one of the most exciting and unique races I've ever had the pleasure of taking part in, and the work it must have taken to organise I can't begin to imagine. Josue really stuck his neck out putting this event on and it's people like him who keep this sport very much alive so I just want to take this opportunity to say thanks to him and all the volunteers who made this happen. Well done to you all.
P.s I later found out the Nica guy was doing the 50k... so THAT'S why he went out so fast!!