Thursday, February 21, 2013

Fuego Y Agua 25k Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 8; 3rd Edition 
33.1 miles run in 2013 races
Race: Fuego Y Agua 25k
Place: Isla la Ometepe, Nicaragua
Miles from home: 4084 miles
Weather: 80s; humid

It is hard not to talk about this race without mentioning the planned run across Panama three days later.  I say "planned" as it was unfortunately and indefinitely postponed.  More on that at a later date, but suffice it to say that thinking I would be running 50 plus miles in the shadeless 95 degree 100% humidity of a Panamanian highway definitely colored my actions during the Fuego Y Agua 25k ("FYA".)

Simply getting to the FYA 25k ended up being a bit of an adventure.  After rather uneventful flights from Portland to Atlanta and again to Managua, Nicaragua (north of the volcanic island which would house the litany of races being put on that weekend) the trekking begin.  Nicaragua has, for the lack of a better phrase, absolutely no street signs. This can be a problem.  Fortunately, my great friend and fellow runner (and crew member for the Panama run) Shannon, spoke Spanish.  This was the saving grace on many occasions.

Nevertheless, the driving we did on the evening we arrived to find our treasure trove of a hotel with an armed guard which were ubiquitous in this country (seriously, the McDonald's had one) was nothing compared to the three hour tour we would take the next day.

Leaving ourselves "plenty" of time to make the 100k drive from Managua to the ferry taking us to the island of Ometepe, I preceded to waste two hours of that driving more or less in the completely wrong direction. Upon finding out of this snafu, we assumed part of the trip was sunk. We had to reserve that ferry spot for our car months in advance and who knows how many ferries went across each day and how reliable that schedule was.  But with nothing else to do we pressed on.  Arriving 90 minutes after we were supposed to leave we found out two things:

1. There were other ferries leaving that day. (yay!)
2. We couldn't get our car on any them. (boo!)

Upon further questioning, we did learn we could park our car at the ferry station and do a hop on.  Because, as any fan of Arrested Development knows - you're going to have hop-ons. So we eschewed the car and prayed we would be able to get to our hotel, the packet pickup, the start of the race, etc. with no rental car.

On the ride over we spoke to some other runners and found out that the ferry we had originally supposed to be on had been delayed with no real explanation and the one we were on was actually the one we would have been pushed to.  So we should have actually been able to get our car on it. This should have been a harbinger of how these banana republic countries tend to work but we were just happy to be on the boat.

As the ferry crawled along at the speed of smell, we realized too late we were baking ourselves in the rather relentless sun.  Fortunately many portions of our skin were covered and the worst of the burning was limited. Checking into our hotel was a breeze as it was literally (and I do understand this term) the first building on your right hand side as you stepped off of the ferry. The proprietor was waiting for us as we were the last to check in and soon we were introduced to our gulag-esqe room. When the water worked it was only of the very cold variety.  The shower handle was new however, as the still-remaining price tag revealed. Far from nice we were again just happy to have a room and semi-working internet.  That is far more than many people have so we just grinned and bore it.

We gained information that told us that the start and finish of the 25k was just a five-minute walk away as was the shuttle which would take us all to the pre-race dinner.   We spent the rest of the evening meeting new friends, reconnecting with old ones and trying to convince ourselves that it wasn't really as hot as we thought it would be. All in all, as I sweated away, I could not have been more happy I was "only" taking on the 25k.

The race directors for this race outdid themselves when coming up with challenges.  The 25k was made significantly more difficult than in previous years and we soon saw the course description, map and elevation profile of the new race. I assumed this was going to hurt a great deal and was vastly incorrect in how little I would assume it would hurt a great deal (if you follow that.)

After two long days of travel, getting to bed around 9 pm was a breeze. Riding the bus shuttles to and from the dinner allowed us an opportunity to catch sights around the island which we missed not having our car. We wondered if the locals grasped what we were about to do and if they did, whether they even cared. I have mentioned before how refreshing it can be to those of us a little wrapped up in our running to go somewhere that the people either do not know or do not care about what you are doing.  It helps keep everything in perspective.  "Oh, you are going to run 25k or do a survival run.  That's nice.  I have to go plow those rocky fields over there with these emaciated oxen in order to eat tonight.  Enjoy!"

I did not know how well I would do in the race the next day but I figured top ten was feasible. All I had to do was show up and do it.

The Race

Basically, the race could be broken up into three parts- the roughly six mile run to the volcano, the three miles up it and then the six miles back down and return to the finish. My intentions were to be comfortably in sight of the leaders when we got off of the "roads" to head to the jungle staircase of the volcanic mountain of Concepion. At that point, I would promptly die going up the mountain, resurrect myself and then try to catch as many as possible on the way down.  This way of running had served me well at the Jupiter Peak Steeplechase a few years ago and as this race was the closest I had ever come to racing like this, I decided to employ the same methodology.  That race, starting at 7,000 feet and going to 10,000 feet over roughly seven miles, would not be as steep as here at FYA but the distance and total elevation loss and gain were virtually identical.  I assumed the higher starting elevation would approximate the humidity and heat I would deal with on this day.  Or at least I hoped so. To be honest, I had no other choice.

When the gun fired us off from the start, I felt good.  I really did not think I would be all that hot. There was a decent cloud cover to start the race and a breeze here and there. Perhaps it would be relatively decent!

The race course itself was approximately 15 miles long. Eleven of those miles were either flat(ish) or downhill.  There were only two aid stations but they came right before the big climb and then right at the top.  I had an 8 ounce CamelBak bottle which I felt would be perfectly fine. I fell in behind a few runners as a few others shot off in the distance.  Young looking and with no gear whatsoever, I figured they were newbies who would die in about four miles as us "seasoned" vets would real them in.  Virtually no time during these first 5-6 miles did I feel like I was pushing too hard.  I was not surprised to be sweating profusely .54 of a mile in (I checked on my Timex RunTrainer) but I was also not worried.  I simply drank liberally from the bottle and jogged along.

Less than a mile of running in the town of Moyogalpa had us quickly on trails where we would now and later dodge herds of cattle, dangerously thin horses and a variety of other animals shuffling away clandestinely in the underbrush. We had heard talk of cougars and snakes but as the adages goes, I do not have to be faster than those creatures - only the other runners.
There was a small bit of elevation gain as we passed the first few miles but nothing to note.  I did, however, stop and walk for a few steps at the top of one hill.  No need to be a hero here.  In fact, this is my tried and true method of conquering hills in trail races. As soon as I began running again, I made up the distance I had lost while walking on those in front of me and gained even more.  Having not exhausted myself to barely move faster this always seemed like the smart move.

Soon I reeled in a few runners and passed about four of them at once. We hit a paved road out of nowhere that simply shocked me.  I did not feel like I sped up but I immediately separated from the pack of guys I had been running with.  As Concepcion loomed to our right, I could see the first aid station was up ahead.  I grabbed a full glass of water, downed it and then filled my handheld with the electrolyte drink they had on the table. Through the first five plus miles I had averaged right around 8 minutes per. Controlled and easy, I was ready to move up the beast.

Making a short backtrack and then an acute angle turn, we were immediately swallowed by the mountain trail.  The breeze which I realized in hindsight had made those first few miles bearable instantly vanished.  Before too long I began run/hiking with Ben, a doctor from San Francisco. We covered the next half mile or so in tandem and while it was slow going I figured this mountain might not be so bad after all.  Then it got bad.

In all my racing I can never recall going from so good to so bad so quickly.  I have had telltale signs that a race was going south or a slow bleed of energy, but never have I gone from jogging along to literally laying in underbrush, not caring whether a snake, spider or fanged creature lay in wait to puncture my flesh.  The next three miles or so were atrocious.  As we more or less climbed a rooted jungle staircase to the top of the treeline I found myself taking a few steps and then stopping.  The "stopping" usually involved my head spinning, a blackened tunnel vision and the need to lay down lest I fall face forward. I know now that I had brought far less fluid than I needed and it was indeed hot. Yet I still do not know why the bottom absolutely fell out the way it did. I have been thirsty and hot before but nothing like this.

I will spare a broken record storytelling of me wondering if I would ever actually make it to the top and say I felt lethargic, embarrassed and just plain useless. I really assumed I might end dead last.  The only thing that kept me going was the promise of liquid and electrolytes at the top. (This is where my only complaint with the race will be.  An otherwise well-run event, the aid station at the top of the mountain was lacking. I wouldn't want to be the one who has to haul all the provisions to the top of  this formidable hike but when you are expecting them, well, you hope they will be there.) When I got to the top, 3,000 feet later I sat/lay there for a solid ten minutes.  I was taking in electrolyte tablets that the volunteers gave me, drinking water and just watching people come up to the summit, aid themselves and then leave.  I finally felt like I could move again and thought I would crush this downhill and make up for my sorry showing so far.

I was wrong.

When I noticed that people who had left the top many minutes ago were still plainly within sight and seemed to be gingerly walking down the hill, I couldn't figure out why.  Then I realized that going down the hill was probably going to be more difficult than going up it!  The footing was nothing but loose rock and scree with absolutely nothing to grab on to to slow your descent.  The view was breathtaking and you swelled with bride knowing you had conquered this monster but that didn't help your trepidation going down.

May I also add the wind at the top was so fierce that even at 180 pounds I had thoughts that I might be blown off of it.  I saw smaller men and women getting thrown around like rag dolls. When your equilibrium is already unbalanced from severe dehydration and you have no footing, 50 mph gusts of wind make you look like a drunken fool. Many times I saw runners come to a complete stop just in an attempt to compose themselves.

The nice thing about the slow going was that it allowed for runners to chat here and there. I met a prodigious amount of wonderful people from all over the U.S and the world.  I tried to stay lighthearted and joke around when all I wanted to do was stop, drop and roll down the rest of the hill.  Believe me, there were many times were a toe caught on a tiny rock almost made that happen! Coming down was quite steep.

When we finally got off the face of the cliff and into more runnable downhill I was too shot to actually take advantage of it.  This was the most frustrating part of the race for me personally. Here is where I could actually excel and instead I could do nothing but shuffle.  This was far from the first and definitely not the last time where I reminded myself that this race was really just the precursor to my reason for being in Central America. I was not in Nicaragua to push myself hard.  That is what I would be doing in Panama in 72 hours.  So whenever it got pretty ugly out there on the course, I would just sit down and rest. My pulse was racing, I was no longer sweating and I had nothing to prove.

With about two miles left we rejoined the course we had run earlier in the day. An impromptu aid station was set up by Patricia and Fernando (I hope I recall their names correctly) and I am 100% sure that if not for the electrolyte drink they gave me, I would have had to walk those last two miles. I cannot tell you how thankful I am that they were out there. I know some people before me and others after me did not get to enjoy this aid station but those of us who did would probably hug them right now if we could.

The final miles were just mostly gently sloping downhill and familiar from the morning.  The terrain and overhanging trees had blocked most GPS signals for the day but fortunately while it looked like we had three miles of running left, I knew it was less than one. I had a strange encounter with a runner in the last half mile that made me laugh both at the time and when I recounted the story later.  Another runner had also dealt with this same odd fella on the course and his behavior was one that made for good story telling later.

In the last few blocks, I came upon a runner who had passed me a few miles later. I saw him run and then walk and then jog and then walk again.  As I passed him I said "Let's go!" and he soon was trotting right next to me.  I used his energy as much as he did mine and even when he slowed a bit, I refused to cross the finish line without him by my side.  My goals completely shot for the day, my body a wreck and my energy levels dangerously low, I still knew that finishing side-by-side with this fellow competitor would make me feel the best I had all day.

My goal for the day was roughly in the 2:30 range.  As I passed under the clock and saw it was just a few minutes over four hours, I was obviously disappointed. Fortunately, I did not know then that my Panama Run would be moved to a date as yet to be determined.  While others were enjoying the free beer, I wanted none of that.  Throughout the past day I had ventured into a small market to buy water and Coke. Each time I gave the woman inside more than what she was charging for the drink.  Knowing I did not have the energy to make it back to my "hotel" I did know that I could make it to this market which was just a block or so away.  Hoping my small acts of generosity would by me some credit (I had no money on me) I hobbled to the store and asked for a coke. The shopkeeper could not have been more happy to extend me the courtesy and in fact tried to tell me I did not have to pay.  I would have none of that and even though it took me more than a few hours to make it back to her shop, I definitely paid her back (again, more than she was charging.  Shop local, right?)

I had to have the Coke as I needed energy to move again. I knew Shannon would be having trouble on the mountain as well (or at least I thought she would) and I wanted to to go lend a hand. When I finally got my carcass ambulating forward I was barely out of the small town before I saw her with a small entourage of Nicarag├╝ense children on her heels she looked like a celebrity. She also looked like she could run four more miles! I told her she looked great and she grunted, saying that she did not think she had the last few miles in her.  What she didn't realize was that her GPS was not accurately telling her how far she had run and instead of knowing she had about 3 blocks left, she thought she had 3 miles! When I told her where the finish was, I have rarely seen a smile so big.

We both finished far slower than we wished to for the day but were happy to have just finished. The race grew exponentially this year and I have a feeling they will soon need to cap it. This is great news for the race directors who are both wonderful people. That said, I do not see myself venturing here to run again. This lack of desire says nothing about the race or its organizers. It says everything about me.  Mainly, I am not a mountain climber and I am not a hot weather runner. I like to run races. Yet, in spite of the difficulty of this weekend I am extremely pleased I made the venture down to this country. Getting out of your comfort zone is a good thing.

With regards to my gear for this race, I was supremely happy.  I had only worn my Karhu Flow 3 Trail Fulcrum shoes on one run prior to this. However, they held up perfectly.  The terrain was not so difficult as to require serious lugs and the mid-level nubs on the Karhu worked just great.  In spite of all the slipping and sliding down the mountain, I didn't have a single blister.

The only problem with the 8 ounce CamelBak handheld was with me - I chose to bring too small of a handheld.  But the ease with which the nozzle turned to allow me to drink and the way it never came close to leaking, was only surpassed by how well it fit my hand while running.  I also snuck a PowerBar Strawberry Banana Gel in the pocket as well and never once noticed it.

My Timex Run Trainer worked as well as one can expect when running underneath serious foliage and zigzagging back and forth.  When there was even a glimpse of the sky, the GPS was spot on.

One of my biggest concerns with the heat and humidity was chafing.  Given I spent nearly twice as long on the course as I wanted, I expected to be ripped to sheds. Lubed up to the hilt with BodyGlide, however, I had nary a scratch or abrasion to be found.  Honestly, this is just absolutely amazing with how much I sweat.

The Julbo Trail sunglasses were superb. The photochromic lenses adjusted as quickly as the overhead tree limbs changed.  The lightweight nature and wide lens also felt like feathers.  All told my gear didn't even come close to letting me down. It all performed perfectly.

Here, more than a few days have passed and I am still feeling quite lethargic. I am beginning to wonder if perhaps I caught a little bug down in Central America. Even though the race was quite difficult, I should be recovered by now. Hopefully the oodles of money I spent on all my immunizations kept any nasty little devils out of my system and I will be back in tip top shape any day now.

Finally, my hat goes off to anyone who attempted any of the races on this day.  It was a hot one. The course was tough. Simply going out there was indeed an accomplishment.Kudos to all the fantastic people I had the pleasure of meeting and I do hope our paths cross again soon.


Ragfield said...

I can't help but grin a little bit. Your experience on the volcano sounds a lot like mine last year (and to a lesser extent this year). Congrats on the well deserved finish!

Marco Lopez said...

Congratulations Dan. This is Marco. We met at the Ferry coming in. Hope to see you guys again in 2014. Cheers

Half Crazed Runner said...

Beautiful! Congratulations! The scariest place I want to run is the Antarctic.