Thursday, 21 February 2013

10 Days in Nicaragua - Fuego y Agua Ultra

Writing this on my way home from an incredibly memorable trip to the Fuego y Agua ('Fire and Water') set of races on Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua, it seems I've been away for a month, not 10 days. Developing countries always throw interesting experiences your way and my first trip to Central America didn't disappoint. It was great to get away from winter and into 90F+ weather but I'll be glad to get a good night's rest where the air doesn't try to cook me at night while the bugs are kept away by industrial levels of repellent.

Volcanoes - Concepcion (left) and Maderas (right) in Lake Nicaragua

With two volcanoes on the island, separated by an isthmus and several miles, there were three running races on offer (25k, 50k and the main event in the 100k) as well as an intriguing new 70km obstacle race called the Survival Run. The latter barely registered on my radar when I signed up, but when I got there and started hearing about it I found out all about a parallel sub-culture to the running world. And the more I heard, the more I wanted to know - it was like a baseball fan finding out that basketball exists.

The first couple of days were spent with irunfar's Sean Meissner and Eric Orton (Christopher McDougall's coach in 'Born to Run'). We were treated exceptionally well by Race Directors, Josue and Paula Stephens, and his team with trips to sight-see the town of Granada, a mini boat cruise and a plush press conference with national TV coverage - not something you expect at an ultra. But one thing that would have helped is if any of us could speak more than restaurant-menu-level Spanish. Not many Nicaraguans speak any English and I only ever learnt any French and German, which didn't help (despite one failed never know!).

Over the next few days we headed over from the capital, Managua (not particularly fascinating) to Ometepe, involving a choppy small ferry ride. By this point Nick and Jamil Coury (fast Race Directors for Aravaipa Running who put on the 24-hour races I ran in December) had joined the group, as had Margaret Schlachter (an obstacle racer and owner of Dirt In Your Skirt, which is similar to irunfar but for that sport and with more of a female focus). Nick Clark, Dave James, Yassine Diboun and the elite obstacle racers started arriving and it began to get a feel like Transvulcania last year where plenty of fast runners were just hanging out and catching up. The main difference this time was more beer.

Thursday morning included a group trash pick-up on the streets of the village of Moyogalpa, where the races started and half of them finished. Having never done this, it was a fitting way for the 90% of the racers from abroad could help out with the local community and raise the impact of the race for the locals. Mind you, there's so much trash I'd guess that by now it's already back to its previous state.

After that I hiked up the nearest volcano, Concepcion, with the Courys and we found it was scorching under the sun, albeit with some cover on the way up through the jungle. Monkeys could occasionally be seen and always heard and iridescent butterflies added to the exotic assault on the senses. It was also way steeper than expected with not much in the way of switchbacks on the 3,000ft climb to the high point that the race follows on that climb. Views from the top were obviously spectacular and the top of the volcano was visible with smoke trickling out from the lava within. This is a rare thing to see since the top half of the mountain is usually cloaked in puffy clouds.

Nick and Jamil Coury heading towards the volcano for a hike

High on Concepcion. L-R: me, Nick and Jamil Coury

Dodging the barbed wire on the final descent

We had to hurry back down since I'd arranged a beer mile at 4pm, my first foray into race directing. Beer was definitely a theme of the whole week and local beer, Tona, sponsored the race - we certainly justified that and chose it as the official beer of the inaugural Fuego y Agua Thursday Beer Mile, using an out-and-back 1/8 mile stretch of road by the main race start.

Most people can guess how these things go with each runner drinking a beer before running a quarter of a mile and repeating four times with a penalty lap for not keeping it down. In the heat, a bare-footed Patrick Sweeney ran his slowest beer mile ever to win in 6:29 while I was beaten by the remaining 12 or so runners, including a close run-off for last with Sean Meissner after virtually everyone else had had time to have a shower. I believe I posted a 21:20, so purposefully left myself plenty of improvement for next time. But serious runners, Nick Clark and Dave James (both highly favored in the pre-race odds) chose to not run because they'd already been drinking earlier in the day and had just got off the ferry...a very poor excuse.

Beer mile winner, Patrick Sweeney
Race directing the beer mile. Photo: Matt B. Davis

The race itself started at 4am on Saturday so we didn't get much sleep with all the contenders in the 100k staying at the race hotel/hostel in a dorm room in the heat. Given I've had knee issues since early December which flared up at Across the Years 24-hour on NYE, I'd decided that the Carlsbad Marathon at the end of Jan needed to be my last run for a month. Missed training and not wanting to make the knee continue to be a problem meant I dropped out the race a couple of weeks previously but decided to do an irunfar-style job of live tweeting what I could by cycling along the course.

Unfortunately the road sections were often on sand or were rocky enough to require a 4WD vehicle and my cheap rental road bike was broken within minutes with the back wheel bending and rubbing the frame. I barely made it to the 50k point (finish of the 50k race and half-way for the full distance) before the runners. That was with them having to climb up Maderas volcano through mud, cliff-edges, a 'jungle gym' of scrambling through trees and some descents that needed ropes. This isn't a beginner-level race and even the leaders took almost three hours to cover 10k of Maderas volcano.

Nick Coury had the lead 100k lead in 5:14, ahead of the 50k front-runners, then Dave James, Nick Clark and Yassine just behind. Around 5:43 the next runner was the 50k winner from Costa Rica, Diego Mendez, around a minute ahead of Jamil Coury who claimed second in that race with Alex Kurt in third. Alex was at the race to write an article for Trail Runner Magazine so that'll be out in a few months.

Jamil relaxing in the lake after taking second in the 50k

50k and Survival Run finish

Nick Coury in the lead in the earlier miles

Nick Clark at about 17 miles around dawn

Since my bike wasn't much use, I waited for a shuttle back with Jamil and Alex but it took a very long time (one of the few areas to improve in future) so I tried to ride back to make sure I'd be at the 100k finish in time for the winners. I got half way before Jamil and Alex drove past in the shuttle bus and got the driver to pick me up, saving me from the burning sun and lack of shade. Luckily we did make it back in time to see Nick Clark predictably come in first in a new course record of just under 10:35. Dave James was next in 11:06, also under the old record and Nick Coury held on for third around 11:20 while Yassine had to drop with pain in his kidneys at 70k (he's fine now). All suffered through the heat and with the climb up the Concepcion volcano, plus course markings weren't ideal so there was some time spent getting lost for many runners that day - Clarky reckons he went wrong to waste 10 mins.

However, the race I really wanted to see more of was the Survival Run because they followed the 50k route plus lots of additional diversions. Margaret's blog covers their race in detail, but they all had to start by running the first five miles with a chicken then they got put in handcuffs by the local police to run for another two miles (without the chicken). Obstacles included climbing trees, carrying 40lbs of wood and cutting down trees. Even their packet pick-up the day before involved not knowing what they'd need to do, then they had to swim out to a boat to pick up their numbers and swim back within a short time limit.

Given this was the first year of the event and most obstacle races are much shorter than an ultra and include looped courses in more controlled environments, this was at the very hardcore end of the spectrum. Of 50 entrants, only two finished - world class Junyong Pak (apologies if I mis-spelled but couldn't find his name anywhere) and local hero Johnson Cruz. Johnson was the big story of the whole event, not just for winning by almost half an hour and finishing, but because he lives on the island and holds the 50k course record (5:06). He's also about the nicest guy you could ever meet, shown by the fact he helped out Jun Yung on one of the obstacles (not a normal thing in a race from what I understand unless the person is in danger or a back of the pack competitor just trying to finish).

Yassine Diboun out acting as a life guard for the Survival Run  packet pick-up and having to dodge a ferry

Starting the Survival Run with a chicken

Survival Run packet pick-up

The start of the 50k, 100k and Survival Run at 4am

Overall it was a fantastic course and I'll have to come back to see the Maderas volcano since it's dormant (unlike Concepcion) and has a crater lake and unique jungle and terrain. Everyone seemed to have a great time at the race, but the Survival Racers had a lot of cuts and bruises to show for their efforts.

The drama wasn't over with the race finish since the weather turned and by Monday was cloudy and windy with some rain too, stopping the ferries from being able to operate due to poor infrastructure at the mainland side. The next day the only ferry was at 5am and many of us sat in the port all day long until we finally accepted nothing would be operating. However, the ferry problems meant most people who didn't leave on Sunday had to rearrange flights, often at great expense and hassle. We did get off the island on a 5:30am ferry on Tuesday and got a chance to relax back in Managua before heading back to the cold of more northern winters. However, since we didn't see any lava we did still get the fuego side of things to go with the agua of the island - a security guard started a fire on an empty lot 200ft from our Managua hotel because he'd been told to clear the land. Smart guy...almost burnt down the neighborhood.

Yassine fire-watching (from a safe distance)

Overall, I'm honored to have been lucky enough to experience the long week with so many great runners and to have met kindred spirits (even if they do like Cross-Fit) in the obstacle racers. I'm even going to do a Spartan Race at some point to see what it's like and why the sport has grown from nothing a couple of years ago to many times larger than ultrarunning in the US. Might need some gym work first!

Full results from the races are soon to be on Ultrasignup. Of note, Sean Meissner came 4th, which he hates, but he did break the female course record. Sean also wrote up articles on irunfar about the event.

More links:

Yassine Diboun's report
Sean Meissner's irunfar write-ups of before, race report and after
Nick Clark's report

Other random photos:

Relaxing on the island

Granada's cathedral

Meissner and Tona

Pre-race press conference

Church on Ometepe Island

Pre-race dinner

Clarky winning in 10:34

Meissner and the grande cerveza

Yassine trying out a Survival Run training piece

This is how Meissner coaches people at irunfar

Not so sure he wants to dangle on the rope

The podium prizes - locally crafted masks

1 comment: