Fuego Y Agua Survival Run: Adapt or Die!

Ometepe Awaits - Jeff Genova Photgraphy

Wow – what an experience!

The Fuego Y Agua Survival Run is exactly what the title implies: it’s a self-supported, 24-hour race on the beautiful island of Ometepe, which rests off the coast of Nicaragua in Lake Nicaragua. It’s an adventure race that combines ultra marathon distance running, volcanoes, and insane obstacles – ranging from climbing palm trees, carrying a live chicken for miles, to catching and gutting a fish – along the way. There is NO course map, NO water stations, NO paramedics on-course (though there were Red Cross emergency personnel at the ready to respond if necessary). It’s a serious race that requires experience and survival skills. Racers must agree to the following statement in order to race: “If I get hurt, lost, or die, it’s my own damn fault”. This factor makes the race very unique in that racers must accept full responsibility for themselves. “Adapt or die” is another slogan of theirs, and I was forced to dig deep and ultimately gain new confidence in myself as a solo elite endurance racer.

I had first attempted Survival Run in 2013 and was on a mission to win. It was their first year putting on Survival Run, and there were some organization problems. I was heartbroken when I got lost on course and missed the finish line by 2km. I was very upset about a DNF, especially because it was something completely out of my control. It honestly took me months to get over. I had to realize that Survival Run was so much more than a race; it was an adventure and an experience and something I really enjoyed. I knew I had to go back! I had been following Survival Run for a few years, and I watched it evolve and the organization became stronger. That’s why I decided 2016 was the year to go back!

Fuego Y Agua Survival Run - Digging for treasure     Fuego Y Agua Survival Run - Raft Building     Fuego Y Agua Survival Run - Puzzle Assembly
This year, the race started in an unconventional way. Racers are first divided into teams, approx. 15 racers per team. The mission: the first team to finish a sequence of challenges will receive its race bibs and start the 24-hour clock while continuing on as individuals. This provides a huge head start to the winning team. Remaining teams have just one hour to finish their tasks after the lead team is done and are unable to compete until all the challenges are completed. Luckily, all teams finished their tasks in time and the race officially began. The main rule of the race was to protect a raw egg the entire race. If a racers egg breaks at any point, they are unable to clear a checkpoint until that egg is replaced. Note: Initial eggs were obtained from Bird Shit island via raft flotation…over half the eggs were broken before the race ever started.  Good thing there was a restaurant on the fringes for egg purchase. I stopped and quickly made a protective nest for my egg out of a water bottle and grass – carried it tucked safely in my buff on my head. Fuego Y Agua Survival Run- Egg Safety
The first challenge was to fill a grain sack with plantain’s (20lbs for females, 30lbs for the males, and 50 lbs for a team to share). We then had to carry our sacks all the way up Volcán Concepción (an active volcano-which last erupted in 2010-approx. 1,600m high) and all the way back down. This task was insane! It was mid-day and the sun was blazing: it was SO hot! Concepción is an exposed volcano with little shade. It took approx. 7-8 hours for the elite racers to complete the ascent and descent – far longer than was anticipated. This was the hardest task I have ever been given in any adventure race. I had 4-litres of water with me, and I thought this would be more than enough: I was WRONG! I ran out of water near the top of the volcano-as did 99% of the racers (one or two had just a sip left for the descent). I knew I had a few more hours before I would have access to water, so I had to use my life straw to suck water out of a cactus plant that held water in its center. I felt pretty badass for discovering this survival skill! I was also really lucky that I made some friends during the Concepción hike: Chris and Curtis – “Team Misery;”  and we kept each other in high spirits by exchanging adventure stories and jokes. My new friend Chris gave me some Coca Cola, and wow – a warm Coke at the top of a mile high volcano felt like heaven, and the view was phenomenal! Wow!
Fuego Y Agua Survival Run - Concepcion Descent
The descent was surprisingly the hardest. I had figured going downhill would be a lot easier, BUT IT WASN’T! The trail down was steep and on loose rocks, I fell so many times on my butt that I bruised my tail bone! I finally reached the bottom and I knew the hardest part was over. I also knew this would take out half the competitors, and I was right.  Once at the bottom, I finally got to ditch those plantains, drink copious amounts of fluids, and try my hand at the 2nd slingshot challenge (the 1st was at the top of Concepción, along with a traverse over the edge of the crater).
Fuego Y Agua Survival Run - Morgan Slingshot Fuego Y Agua Survival Run - Morgan Fail Medal
This was also when I obtained my first medal of FYA 2016…FAIL.  One of the unique aspects of Survival Run is that you earn bracelets for completing challenges (12 or 13 this year I believe) and medals for completing stages (4 total).  The medals are awarded in the following order: FAIL, I, DID, NOT – is Josue a Star Wars fan? Yoda?  These are the holy grail of racing medals.  Racers go into the race knowing the paltry chance of achieving success…but we try time and time again.  I missed the time hack 3/4 of the way through the race when I would’ve received “I”.

The remaining part of the race consisted of a combination of running trails with various unique challenges mixed in. We had to fill and haul a 5-gallon bucket with sand 10x; there were petroglyphs to carve – things that related to what the locals past and present might have done.  I felt pretty good during the race, I was very prepared from 2013 and my training was on point. I was battling for 1st place with Hélène (Hélène Dumais went on to complete the Devil’s Double – LOOK IT UP! Only 6 people in history have ever achieved this and she’s the only female!); we must have switched positions at least 15 times in 18 hours! This made the race so exciting and fun! I knew this year there would finally be a female finisher!

Fuego Y Agua Survival Run - Helene Dumais Slingshot  Fuego Y Agua Survival Run - Morgan & Ralf
One of my favorite obstacles was carrying a live chicken for miles! I got an extra fussy chicken, I named him Ralf. Every 5 minutes or so, Ralf would start squealing, and I would have to switch sides to try and make him more comfortable. This is when we ran into an aggressive stray dog in the middle of the night. I heard barking in the distance, and as I got closer, this dog was warning me to turn around. I had no choice but to move forward, there was only one path to follow. The dog became more and more aggressive and leaped forward at me, snapping his sharp teeth. I was prepared with a pocket knife, and I prayed I wouldn’t have to use it. I flashed my headlamp at the dog and he backed up. I briskly walked away and the dog kept his distance, while barking ferociously at us. Thank god Ralf and I survived, and I was able to bring my chicken safely to the next checkpoint.

The next task was to aim a 10-foot bamboo pole into a tree and get a bracelet. I nailed this and was off to the next checkpoint. This is where the race got really hard for me. I had to carry this 10-foot bamboo pole for a couple of miles along a treacherous coastline. Imagine trying to balance a 10-foot bamboo pole on 4-foot high wet boulders, in the dark, while being eaten alive by bugs. It was awful! I was really struggling to follow the flags; some were on the coastline and somewhere off in the bushes. I got so frustrated that I sat down on a rock and cried. I knew I was wasting too much time stubbing along the coast, and I was going to miss the next cut-off. I missed it by 30 minutes or so; I was disappointed, but I adapted. I wasn’t devastated like I was in 2013. I knew from past experience this situation was very possible and I was prepared for it.

This race is creative and unexpected. The best way to train for a race like this is to become a well-rounded person in life, not just an athlete. Survival Run will always challenge decision making, and strategy plays a big role. Any wrong choice can end your race. The thing I’ve had to accept with Survival Run is that it’s an adventure, and this was an EPIC adventure!  Things aren’t going to go according to plan, but it was fun, challenging and life changing.  If you are an adventure seeker, SURVIVAL RUN IS A MUST! ~Morgan

Fuego Y Agua Survival Run - Morgan's Map

Photo Credits: Many thanks to Jeff Genova Photography for the headline photo of Ometepe, the raft building, and the Concepcion descent.  You bring memories to life!

Is Everything Old New Again? Luna Sandals, the Origins of Minimal Running and a Tribute to the Tarahumara

lunas circleI was introduced to the concept of running in huaraches (Spanish for sandals) at the inaugural Fuego y Agua Hunter-Gatherer Survival Run where the first “obstacle” was to fashion footwear we’d then wear over the course of the 50k race. Months ahead of the event I began training in Luna sandals and it was during these long runs that I came to appreciate, and soon love, how organic and primitive it feels to run in sandals.

The concept of minimal running is probably not new to most. Since 2009, when Christopher McDougall published “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen,” millions of people have learned of the elusive Tarahumara, a tribe of ultrarunners who brave the steep and rocky trails of the remote Copper Canyons of Mexico in sandals they make from tire treads and leather. In the book, McDougall asserts that modern cushioned running shoes are a major cause of running injury. He points out that the Tarahumara Indians are able to run pain-free and injury free for hundreds of miles, well into their 70s, while there’s been an explosion of running-related injuries since the introduction of modern running shoes in the 1970s.taRAHUMARA

Before then, runners used shoes that had no padding, no pronation control, no orthotics, and no high-tech materials. Born to Run is also about the first ever ultramarathon held in the Copper Canyon and the fascinating characters who were attracted to that race. One of those Manuel_Ted_web_banner_grande“characters” is Barefoot Ted, who traveled to Urique in 2006 in order to compete in the CCUM. While there, he learned the art of sandal-making from a Tarahumara named Manuel Luna. Ted subsequently returned to Seattle and, with the help of Scott and Bookis Smuin, started Luna Sandals in 2010. Since then, they’ve been hand-making a growing variety of sandals appropriate for almost any activity.

This year, Luna has paid homage to their roots and introduced the Origin
sandal, a remarkable synthesis of tradition and technology. The Origin uses an upcycled tire tread as the outsole in a manner reminiscent of the Tarahumara. The midsole is layer of Vibram rubber which is topped with a footbed of sticky “Monkey Grip Technology” (MGT) rubber. Upon opening the box, I first noticed the tantalizing aroma of fine leather. The Origin’s straps are made from a high-quality, supple leather which,bft_origen_luna_5a41dc6d-c9bf-4de9-ba71-db3d9cebc847 according to the website “is sourced in the USA and is the same leather used by Sperry Top-Sider, maker of fine boat shoes.” Although a tad heavier than some other Luna models, this weight is offset by what I can only imagine will be the tremendous longevity imparted by the tire tread sole. Remember, there’s no need to replace sandals every 500 miles like regular running shoes, they will last until you wear the soles down to nothing. On the road they provided a comfortable platform and the wide straps kept my feet comfortably snug after some initial adjustments. The Vibram upper nicely mitigates the stiffness of the tire tread and will, over time, mold a bit to your feet.

On the trails, my “go to” Luna has been the Leadville, which has an 11mm outer sole of Vibram rubber. If you’re looking for greater “ground feel,” there are many thinner options, but this thickness prevents my feet from turning to hamburger on long, rocky runs. At 13mm, the Origins are slightly thicker, and the stability and stiffness of tire tread allows for a rock-dampening feeling that will, I think, surpass even the Leadville at origins_feetultra-distances. Although the leather is simple to tighten, for races, I’ll likely opt for the ease of adjustment of the Performance laces, which are also available on the Origin. Overall, these sandals are a wonderful tribute to traditional huaraches, and even if you’re not planning on running in them, the Origins would be great for hiking, trekking, or just post-race chillin’. The fact that they can effortlessly transition from the wilderness to kicking back at the bar with only the addition of a pair of jeans makes them ideal for today’s modern primitive!

In an age where endless discussions about “what shoe should I use?” litter Facebook groups devoted to obstacle racing, I think there is some merit in the concept of simplicity. Although the jury is still out (and probably nike-high-heelswill be for many years to come) about the injury-reducing potential for minimalist running, there is still not a single study to support the claim that cushioning or any of the other gimmicks shoe companies advertise will prevent running injuries. However, the scientific evidence does strongly suggest that humans evolved to run long distances, most likely to engage in “persistence hunting.” For millennia, before the invention of projectile weapons, our ancestors literally ran their prey to death on the African veldt.

At Harvard University’s Skeletal Biology Lab, Daniel Lieberman has demonstrated that most barefoot runners tend to land with a forefoot or midfoot strike. This does not generate the large impact force that travels through the ankle, knee, and hip joints as occurs when you heel strike. Fig1aConsequently, these runners do not need shoes with elevated cushioned heels to cope with these impact forces and can run easily on the hardest surfaces without discomfort.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you switch out your super-lugged, speed-laced, neon-hued shoes for sandals at your next obstacle race. It’s important to choose the “right tool for the job,” but I can’t imagine a good reason why you shouldn’t start incorporating some sandaled runs into your training and can think of many reasons why you should.  Running in sandals engenders the “back to basics” approach of training for functional movement on which OCR is based. Running in sandals will help you improve your form as well as strengthen the muscles of your feet and calves. And, aside from all the attention you’ll attract, you join a growing group of minimalistic runners across the world. Lastly, of course – it’s fun!

If you’re used to running in traditional, heavily-cushioned “foot coffins” with lots of “drop,” remember to start slowly, mixing sandaled runs slowly into your training regimen. Stretch your calves and Achilles tendons after each run, and expect some initial soreness as they adapt. Finally, listen to your body, and don’t do anything that causes pain!

Corre Libre Amigos!

tylertom

If you’re interested in the book that started the minimal running revolution check-out:
Born To Run.
Want the science behind minimal running? Dr. Lieberman’s website: http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/
A nice tutorial on good running form: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H26liWMDH8U
Ready to try a pair for yourself? Go to http://lunasandals.com/
For more on Fuego y Agua’s international lineup of ultramarathons and Survival Runs check out: http://fuegoyagua.org/#home

funnylunamuralShenanigans with friends in Urique, Mexico at this year’s Caballo Blanco Ultramarathon (formerly CCUM), a race that was ultimately cancelled at the last minute due to drug cartel violence in the city. Although denied racing in huaraches that day, the author has since enjoyed the experience of “flip-floping” numerous runners in “foot coffins” while running in Lunas.

Photo Credits: Luis Escobar, Mikko Ijäs, Tim Burke, Tyler Tomasello

Survival Race: Hunter Gatherer Review

Survival Race: Hunter Gatherer race report and review

Sitting in a rooftop jacuzzi, at the plush Mokara Hotel in downtown San Antonio, with Survival Race winner Shane McKay, soothing my aching muscles, bruised feet, and lacerated body, felt strangely foreign to me.

Twenty-four hours previously, I was navigating my way through ridiculously rocky terrain, in the dark, with bleeding feet, oozing cuts, and an overwhelming feeling of fatigue. I was 17 hours and 30 miles into the race, and my footwear had become pretty much nonexistent. When I could run, I looked more like an extra for the Walking Dead, stumbling after warm blood, than I did an endurance athlete.

During these low points in races, I used to ask myself why I do these things.

Am I just trying to look tough, or perhaps trying to convince myself that I am tough? What draws me to self-induced suffering?

But now I’m pretty clear what’s going on. I make myself suffer because I learn more about me, the real me, and how I handle adverse conditions. I’m on a quest to be the strongest man that I can possibly be – physically, mentally, emotionally – and every episode of weakness is frustrating failure.

Survival Race: Hunter Gatherer was yet another test in this quest. This race was much more than I ever expected. The course was gnarlier than I could have ever imagined. The challenges were more dramatic, more physically demanding, and many times took every ounce of my strength and determination just to get through them.

I hope you enjoy learning about the experience as much as I am going to enjoy reliving it.

Unlike Any Packet Pickup You’ve Ever Seen

At 5:00 p.m., the night be fore the race, Race Director [RD] Josue Stephens began blurting out some basic rules and instructions for us, but I don’t think I heard any of it. I was way too concerned with what we were going to have to do for ‘packet pickup’.

“There are stacks of logs behind me,” and I woke up. “…if you are over 160 lbs, you will choose a log from the far stack.”

ok, ok, ok, I get this.

“Then, you will carry your log, to the top of that hill, off in the distance.” He continued, “then, at the top of mountain, you will drop the log, carve your number into it, and run down the other side, cross the river, and run back to camp.”

Oh shi…

I raced over to get a log, but chose the wrong way around the pavilion, and by the time I got to the stack there were only 3 logs left, and they all looked fat, covered in bark, and hella’ heavy. I power-cleaned a log to my right shoulder, and started out, leaving the camp with John Taylor and Tyler Tomasello, destined to just take it slow.

Christian Griffith carrying his log to packet pickup to get his race number at Survival Race

Carrying the 95 lb log just to get my number

This was merely a preliminary challenge to get my race number – not the actual race – and with no time limit, I tried to force myself to not get caught up with everyone else.

Yea, right. Like my ego can manage such responsibility. Of course, I went out waaay too fast and way too hard.

The “trail” was really just a punishing, steep climb on a giant bed of large, loose rocks. You could hear logs falling all over the place as athletes were dropping them in an effort to rest; but like CrossFit WODS, this can actually work against you because of the energy needed to again power-clean the log back up to your shoulders every time you set it down.

By the time I got to the top, I was trashed.

Race Director says my log was ~95 lbs, and that we carried them 2.3 miles up that “little mountain”. I’m glad I found that out afterwards, because had I known how heavy, and how far, I had to go with it when I picked it up, I may have just quit right then and there.

Of course, my race number was #5, which is probably one of the hardest numbers to carve into a fat, bark-covered log, especially fatigued, but I did a half-ass job, got my race number from the RD, and headed back down the mountain, crossed the river, and eventually ran back to the camp. {after getting lost because of beer-swilling John Sharp purposely ‘redirecting’ us}

Race number in hand, I sat around with the other runners cussing the log, John Sharp, and trying to figure out why we had to carve our numbers in it, and if that meant we’d be seeing that log again.

Naturally, we would.

Sleep is Overrated

I got zero sleep the night before.

I was in a ‘dorm’ with bunk beds, and the mattresses were plastic. We were supposed to bring our own bedding, but I missed that memo, so my sticky, sweaty body stuck to the mattress and made tons of noises as I flip-flopped to find some kind of comfort. Add in some snoring from peeps around me, and a race volunteer emergency rukus, and I heard alarms going off without getting a wink of sleep.

One runner noticed that everyone had that “1000 yard stare”, and we did. All of us anxious to get started, buzzing around checking our gear, sipping on water and coffee, and getting ready to make our running sandals and gear packs.

@4:30 a.m., the RD said go, and racers hurried to begin shoe construction.

Building sandals for Survival Race

Shoe cobbler, I am not. Clearly the worst sandals ever. Sorry Luna…

Clearly, as you will see, I am the self-proclaimed WORST shoe cobbler ever born. When I practiced this in Atlanta, I broke the shoes every time. Now, I was just trying to not break them, AND get finished relatively quickly so I could get started moving along. Nervously, I watched runner after runner finish their shoes, make their packs out of t-shirts, and head out towards the “little” mountain, all while I was still struggling with trying to poke holes and lace my silly sandals.

My finished Luna Sandal product

Can you imagine running huge miles in these? on rocks and cactus and in water?

This stressed me out, and instead of taking my time, I “rednecked” the process, making the most ridiculous looking running sandals known to man.

I finally got a version of sandal put together, and went straight to making my backpack. For my pack, I used an old, but quality, Across the Years long-sleeved technical shirt, tied off the bottom with paracord, put all of my supplies down the neck of the shirt, and tied the arms off with more paracord and used them as the shoulder straps. This actually worked out really well.

Lastly, I made a quick belt for my 6-inch SOG knife and sheath, out of plain old paracord, and then dashed out of the pavilion, headed back up to the top of the “little” mountain in the pitch black Texas night.

My race was on!

Slow Your Roll, Sparky

But, no more than 100 yards into my start, my sandal ties came undone, my shoes started flapping, and I realized I was in for a VERY long day. I stopped every 200 yards, all the way up the rocky mountain, just to fix and re-tie my ridiculous sandals.

At the top of the mountain we were told to find our log with our number on it, and carry it down the other side, eventually to the river.

This was an incredible challenge, much more so than the day before, because:

  • It’s only 4:45 a.m.
  • A pitch black sky (other than my headlamp)
  • With the log being 95 lbs, this made me 300 lbs of mass, going downhill
  • Add in the sandals, and poor ones at that, and my balance was awful
  • Plus, the nasty, round, rolling rocks that would slide out from underneath
  • And the lovely prickly pear cactus punishing you for miscalculated foot placement
  • And the shoulder skin is already sensitive from previously carrying them up

Other than all that, it wasn’t too bad {wink}.

A Swim in the High Grass?

At the bottom, near the river, volunteers were checking us in, and I was elated because I would finally be rid of this stupid log.

Nope.

Pointing to a stack of PFDs (personal flotation devices), the volunteers instructed us to wrap a PFD around our log, and get in the river, following the river until told to do otherwise.

Now remember, its still dark outside, and we really have no idea how far we have to go, or for how long. We are simply told to swim down the river with our log and whatever comes next is a complete mystery.

Swimming through the tall grass

The creepy swim. All 1.2 miles of it.

Some people really had a rough time with this and I applaud those athletes who conquered that fear. The water started out knee-deep, but after 100 yards or so, we were swimming, and not just swimming, but trudging through really thick, high grass. This is where people became really uncomfortable because the thick marsh grass would wrap around your legs, arms, and anything hanging off of you, and many times gave you the sensation that it might pull you underwater – all this while swimming with that damn log.

I ended up swimming 1.2 miles with that log, crossing two dams, and finally getting to the very end of it just as the sun was coming up.

First reward collected.

A Symphony of Shoelaces

Ok, so that subtitle is a stretch, but it makes me feel like a real writer, so just go with it, please.

Seriously, though, I spent the next ~3 miles stopping and re-tying my shoes over and over and over again. The swimming left me slipping and sliding around the footbed, on already loose and goofy sandals anyway, and I was getting really frustrated. I watched a lot of people run by – all with nicely cobbled sandals, I might add, and I felt dumb.

The Bat Caves

Somehow, I finagled a way to keep the sandals tighter on my feet, and although my heels were still hanging out the back, at least I was not flapping, and could kinda-sorta run.

I ran up on a really cool dude from Las Cruces, New Mexico, and together we rolled up on the next challenge – the cave crawl – which clearly demonstrated that the course designers did not expect any athletes over 200 lbs.

Volunteers pointed to 2-foot diameter hole in the rock, and told us to “drop into that hole.”

Survival Race caves

We have to go down THERE???

Once in the “cave”, if you went to the right, you were forced to squeeze between this very tight slit between two rock beds, and drop yet deeper into the caves; and once down that deep, I was forced to slither, like a snake, because many times the vertical space was as tight as 12 inches. This was really freaky and if you were claustrophobic, you would not have passed this challenge. You would not even have dropped into that hole.

Some of the sections were so tight for me, that I had to wedge myself in between two rocks, with my arms out-stretched in front of me, expelling all of the air I had in my lungs and flattening my body as much as I could. I’d then reach for some rock, and pull myself through. I got stuck once, had to back-out of the crevice, re-evaluate, find some loose rock section, and dig a bigger hole for me to squeeze through.

cave entrance

It’s a tight fit for a lean dude, so you can imagine what it was like for a 205 lb chiller.

I gotta be the only runner who has belly-button scabs from Survival Race.

Inside the caves, we were expected to find six petroglyphs, memorize them, and point them out for the volunteers once we got out.

Naturally, it’s me, remember? So, I somehow misunderstood this, only found four of the petroglyphs, and upon failure in front of the volunteers once I finally crawled out, was told I’d have to go back down, find the other two, and come back repeating all six.

I cannot express to you how bummed I was, and there is probably only one person who really knows just how upset I was… that cool volunteer, who kept repeating, “I don’t know how you made it through there.”

But I did it. Sucked it up, put on my big boy panties, and dove back down in the hole.

I think some other athletes down there felt bad for me and started giving me hints where to find the other two so that I wasn’t stuck down there another long time, navigating multiple tight squeezes over and over and over again.

Thanks dudes.

I came back out, pointed out all six, and got my first amulet; but the mental damage had been done. I was freaked out, wobbling down the rocky terrain, headed to who in the Hell knows where… I just knew wherever it was, it was 4.8 miles away.

A New Definition of Bushwhacking

Bushwhacking in SW Texas

The Texas Hill Country terrain is gnarly. Period.

Bushwhacking on the Appalachian Trail, or even in the wildernesses of Washington, Tennessee or California, is one thing, but bushwhacking in Southwestern Texas is a whole ‘nother ballgame. The course was flagged right up the gut of a series of climbs that pretty much went like this:

  1. climb steeply up very rocky, cactus-filled terrain
  2. get about 3/4 of the way up, then traverse a ridge-less ridge
  3. go back down to the very bottom
  4. stumble a few hundred yards in a rocky, dried creek bed
  5. repeat #1

But what made this series of never-ending climbing and descending so maddening and slow was the millions of stabbings one must avoid throughout the process. If you looked down the whole time to avoid the loose rocks and cactus, you got stabbed in the face by hundreds of packed-in-tight dry branches, which by the way, were also so brittle, they’d break in your hand if used to catch yourself during one of the thousands of stumbles.

Yet, if you looked out for all the branches, trying to somehow navigate without getting lacerated, you’d lose sight of footing and end up with prickly pear cactus spikes in your heels.

This is no exaggeration. I’ve done a loop of Barkley, and I’ve crawled through the jungles of Nicaragua, both of which are known for being flat-out gnarly and bushwhacky – and aside from the briars in the “Rat Jaw” section of Barkley, SW Texas is by far the worst. And I’m 100% convinced my race brethren and sisters are nodding and laughing as they read this right now.

After two hours of this mess, I felt I was probably getting close, and knowing I needed a pad of prickly pear cactus for the next checkpoint, I cut one off in the woods, rubbed all the spears off of it with a rock, and stuck it in my pack.

By this point my shoes were floppin’ around again, and my bare feet were taking a beating, but I just didn’t care anymore.

Only 10 Miles In?

The next challenge was somewhere around the 10-mile mark and I had already been going for hours and hours. The early afternoon sun was overhead now, strong and bright, and the temps were pretty much what you’d expect in southwest Texas.

At the checkpoint, we had to pull out our prickly pear pad, do all the necessary things for making a cup out of it, fill it with water, and drink. Then, we had to take a short quiz on the some of the edible plants indigenous to the area, before finally throwing a spear at some targets. I found a decent stick, but I was too tired to carve the stick, or practice my throws. You were allowed 7 throws, having to hit the target 3 times. I hit it twice, so I didn’t get that reward …but I did get a bead for passing the quiz and creating a very sexy cactus cup.

Hanging my head in failure at the spear throw, I was told to carry my spear another 5 miles to the next checkpoint – Fire-making.

And off I went, again, through another ridiculous series of miles and miles of steep bushwacking and dried, rocky riverbed traversing.

I was so shot-out by this point, I just didn’t know how a finish was even possible.

Fire For Hours

After what felt like nine years, I rolled into the fire checkpoint to see a whole handful of athletes that had been waaaay ahead of  me, and they were all struggling with making fire.

I gathered all the necessary materials, made my bow, my spindle, all out of soltol plant wood, and gathered my nest, hoping to get really lucky and nail my fire. I stayed there for close to an hour – no fire.

Some people stayed for as long as 3 or 4 hours, and some finally got it after such perseverance, but not me.

I realized by not getting fire, I was now putting myself in that lonely hole of “sure, you can finish, but you will still be a failure.” But, truth be told, I expected that coming into this race, so I was OK with it. To add insult to injury, we also had another spear throw challenge here and again I came up ONE short. Dammit!

I would keep fighting until I was told otherwise.

A Conference with the Race Directors

Sad and dejected and frustrated with yet another ridiculous, technical descent, I found myself just kinda standing on a grassy jeep road as a white Subaru approached. It was RDs Brad Quinn, and Josue & Paula Stephens, as well as an athlete or two who dropped at the fire checkpoint.

I tried to complain, but they didn’t show much mercy, and the vehicle was full, so all I got was a, “just get to prospector’s and you’ll be fine,” and away they drove. My first chance to easily give up, gone, in a puff of kicked-up Texas dirt.

I didn’t even know what “prospector’s” meant, but I had a really gnarly, steep climb ahead of me to find out.

Cool Dude in a Cabin

We actually got to do a small bit of easy rock climbing to actually get to the cabin, also referred to as “prospector’s”, and I really enjoyed that little tidbit of upper body and balance testing.

Sitting on the porch of the cabin was a funny, interesting guy who seemed to know everything about everything , and by the time I was getting to him, he had his script down:

“You are going to take a test on the local plants and their uses. Then, you will make some cordage out of wheat grass. And last, you will make a bow that you need to carry with you 6 miles to the next checkpoint.

By the way, nice shoes.” {smart ass}

This was all fine and dandy, but all I wanted to do was drink some water and sit down for a second, …or an hour; but, I took my test, and passed it proudly with a 9/10.

I, then, made some poor attempt at cordage which got a huge laugh from my new friend. He showed me how to first crush the plant, tear it into tiny fibers, and then braid it into cordage.

I did it. Kind of… but I got my bead anyway.

I then got busy on my bow. I could picture badasses like Shane McKay or John Taylor, sitting here for hours, whittling away on the perfect bow, but me? Oh hell no. I grabbed a stick, tied some cord to it, filled up my water bottles, and left the cabin humming weird show tunes. I actually found myself doing the Laverne and Shirley, up the hill, leading away from the cabin.

Yes, I’m that lame when I’m completely exhausted.

Really? A Trail?

Shockingly, two miles after leaving the cabin, and descending more terrain that had me cussing Josue’s name (and his mama’s name), we were actually dumped onto a real trail. Honest. No kidding. A real, honest-to-goodness, blazed trail.

I was so surprised that my first reaction was to NOT believe it.

“This is a trick, and I ain’t fallin’ for it”

The arrow pointed down the trail, and there weren’t any flags anywhere else, but I found myself asking myself, “self, why would Josue put us on this perfectly good trail when he could take us down this ravine and into another one of those gnarly dried creek beds?”

To make matters worse, I ran down the trail tentatively, and there were no markers. Up until now, the race was marked really well, but had to be because we were always bushwhacking.

I was tired, confused and cussing Josue again (but this time left Ms. Stephens out of it), and ran back to the arrow TWICE out of fear that I was going the wrong way.

I finally committed, kept on going down the trail, eventually found a marker, got passed by Gabi and Isiah, and after moving past the creepy cross, found myself at the “shooting range” just as it got dark.

I didn’t climb the tree and retrieve arrows for my bow.

I didn’t shoot my bow.

I didn’t make a travois.

Instead, I accepted that my bow was crap, and when they said we’d have to carry the travois 2.5 miles, mostly uphill, I collapsed internally. I barely had the strength left to complete the loop, let alone build a travois and pull it 2.5 miles.

This is a travois.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one.

As I made my way to the last checkpoint, it looked like a travois graveyard – everyone ditched their travois somewhere close to leaving the checkpoint, including the winner; BUT, as I shuffled down the trail with a cool dude named Paul, we rolled up Corinne Kohlen. If you are in the Obstacle Racing community, ’nuff said, but if not, Corinne is a true elite athlete in the sport and one I admire greatly. While the rest of us “studs” ditched the whole travois idea, Corinne was busy struggling with hers, having pulled it well over 1/2 mile.

I felt lame.

But, I was stoked for her, and amazed at her tenacity and grit. I’m a fan for life.

An Evil RD, or The Finish That Never Comes

True to character, the race director ran us right up close to camp, but still with 3 miles to go. You could hear and smell the finish, but all you could do was catch a glimpse of lights through the trees before the arrows pointed you back uphill again, away from camp, and seemingly back into the dark, nighttime wilderness.

And not once, but again, and again, and again …until I found myself telling anyone who’d listen (I think is was Scott from Luna Sandals who was now the lucky victim of my whining) that Josue was a mean, evil, RD who wanted nothing more than to make things so hard that no one could really ever finish.

Either Scott got sick of listening to me, or he smelled the barn, or both, but before I could finish my whine-fest, he took off down a rocky hill at full speed.

I followed, …minus the whole “take-off” part.

More of a controlled stumble.

And like that, I heard the cheering of friends, crossed the finish line, stopped and pointed at my shoes, and endured 15 minutes of laughing, jokes, photographs, and the constant, “you ran all the way in those?”

I still don't know how I was able to go this far in these monsters.

Yup, I did.

And while none of us completed the race exactly as Josue had designed it, Shane McKay, a rancher from Canada, nailed all the challenges, and was considered the much-deserved victor.

The rest of us were just glad we “survived”.

You have to be a special kind of knucklehead to want to train and race this kind of stuff. It’s designed for you to fail. Josue is not in this to coddle runners. He doesn’t care if anyone finishes his race. He is a race director who wants to challenge athletes beyond anything they have ever experienced, or could even imagine experiencing.

Lastly, one cannot express the joy and satisfaction from these kind of events without a nod to the other athletes, and volunteers. Whether it was your day or not. Whether you dropped at 10 miles or 5 miles from the finish line, it doesn’t matter, because there’s a brotherhood that develops, between all of us, male and female, that lasts long, long after the event is over.

I feel part of an extended family that knows me. Knows how I think. Knows what drives me, excites me, and challenges me.

I live a fantastic life and I’m thankful beyond words.

That’s all. Thank you for reading.

sr-amulet