Joshua Gustin Grant was kind to share his epic journey at the recent Fuego y Agua Survival Race, in Nicaragua. Way to go, Joshua!!
“Come to me tangled jungles, howling monkeys, and sharp-toothed sharks, for we have business.”
When I was young and growing up in the city, I dreamt of going to the jungles, of hacking through tangled rain-forests, as monkeys hung above me in the trees like squirrels, cackling at my search for treasure. You wonder, even as an adult, what it will be like when you get there. Will your dreams live again? Will there be steam rising from mysterious origins in the Jungle, will you truly be alone on this crowded planet, away from the influences of our electronic life even for a few moments? I would find out.
You can’t get Cordoba at a currency exchange place, or at the airport. It has to be ordered. People don’t go to Nicaragua. You know, drug dealers, machine guns, that sort of thing. I was worried about other things. Fuego y Agua Survival Run, on Isla de Ometepe awaited me, with its promises of impossible challenges natural and unnatural, many of whom would be alive and aggressive. It was not the typical race, even when placed alongside the Death Race and World’s Toughest Mudder, FYA stood out. It was more dangerous, more remote, and more indifferent to your well-being. People I trust had told me it was the hardest race they’d attempted. I wasn’t taking it lightly.
I was lucky to meet up with many other racers in the Managua airport, many from Team VPX, and I rode with them to the ferry in Rivas that would take us to La Isla. As in other underdeveloped countries I’d visited, being in a moving car was an experience not to be forgotten. There were open fires along the rode and people loaded on trucks to the point of absurdity. Speeding in Nicaragua was controlled by an endless series of uneven obstacles in the road that I guess could be called speed bumps. People view these as yellow traffic lights. They accelerate to outrageous speeds, weaving around other cars buses, people and the town cow before screeching to a halt centimeters before every bump and slowly scraping their undercarriage over it.
The average driver will use his horn 100 times on a ten minute drive. Beeps are required when passing people, cars, houses of friends, favorite trees, and the town cow. The standard signal is a series of short blasts. The streets themselves were divided into lanes based to the whim of those currently on it. Lanes are open for both directions of traffic. I’m not sure if this is the law or a sort of local institutionalized permanent game of chicken. We passed a woman with her wheelchair-bound father resting in oncoming traffic. On the side of the road we saw dead cows and discarded suspensions, and if you miss Datsuns, this is your place. The best way to commit suicide here is to cross the street or get in a cab.
The buses do not stop to let people on or off. They slow to a roll, a man leans out and yells “Managuamanaguamanagua!” or whatever the destination may be and people run over and attempt to jump on. After two hours we reached to ferry port. On the bigger ferries, the trip is under an hour. From the shoreline you can already see Isla de Ometepe. It is both beautiful and foreboding. As we boarded the rickety, battered ferry named “Che Guevara”, and began to chug away towards our destination, it began to resemble Skull Island, where King Kong resides.
I arrived at the house a number of us had rented in a place named Los Angeles. Despite the name, this town consisted of about a dozen houses and a basketball court. In one of the house there was a guy who’d sometimes serve you dinner. He had to check to see what animals he had in the back first. There was very little there and the house itself was even further in the woods, isolated from everything but trees and stray animals. Mike was there already. I convinced him we should get out of dodge and head for the start line. I hoped we’d find room in a hotel there as the start line had been changed late in the game and there was a chance there’d be space.
We scored a cell, I mean a room in Finca Santa Domingo for $25 a night. It had a private bath with a shower and one water knob. That meant no hot water. In the morning we went for a run on the beach and passed a herd of horses swimming,
I was certain, many of us were, that packet pick-up was actually going to be the start of the race. We laid our gear out for inspection (the prerace instruction had given us a “no more, no less” gear list”) and then repacked it. We had each been given an egg, un-cooked, to carry with us to get our packets. Many old friends were gathered at the start line, along with some truly amazing international athletes including an Ironman world champion and several world-class ultrarunners. Josue Stephens, FYA founder, told us we would need to run with our eggs “down the beach” and swim to Bird Shit Island to get our bibs, and then swim and run back. Our eggs had our bib numbers on them. If the egg broke, no bib. Josue told us that our bib retrieval time would be added to our total race time. We ran off then. I’d guess it was close to three miles to the island. Part of it was along the beach and part took place as a mad clambering over rocks. I went out a little fast and tried to slow down as we moved along. It was hard to judge the distance of the swim from where we were.
Lake Nicaragua is a lake like the Great Lakes. You can’t see the other side and the waves were significant. Last year, ferries were halted for a couple days after the race due to choppy waters. Today they were very choppy. I am not an excellent swimmer. I’ve been practicing a good deal, but in pools. The swim out was around 2/5 of a mile through choppy, sharky waters. Yes, the lake is infested with bull sharks and you’re damn right I was thinking about them the whole way. The swim nearly killed me. I swallowed water several times and had to rest once each way by holding a kayak. Johnny Waite and Penny Light were the kayak pilots. There were no better people on earth to have in those boats at that moment. I got my bib, rested for a minute, and swam back. The trees on Ometepe are thorned. All of them. I discovered this on the run back to the start line. I lacerated my hand badly on one. I closed my fist and it quickly filled with blood. I superglued it.
When I got back, Josue said “Welcome back, Joshua. The race has started. See you tomorrow.” Off we went. The start line was located between the volcanoes Maderas and Concepcion, we were now heading toward Maderas along the beach with the water on our left side. For a while we stayed on the beach. Soon though, it began to darken and the coastline shifted to stone. I had separated from others and was alone running along these large black rocks. The rocks foreshadowed themselves.
An hour later it was dark. On Ometepe, it darkens quickly and the darkness is complete. There are no street lights and few structures. I caught up with a group of runners who turned out to be a few of the VPX guys and I stayed with them through the approaching horrors of Maderas. We were in deep water much of the time.
After a number of hours of this we reached the end and were directed by some men on a boat to exit onto a set of stone stairs that led up to a challenge. This challenge started by us climbing a tall stone cistern and diving in. At the bottom I found a stone and brought it back up. Diving in pitch black was interesting. The water was refreshing though. I tossed my stone over the side and climbed out. We then carried the stone up the hill a ways and were directed to create a cairn of stones with our stone as the centerpiece. The stones we were to use were at the bottom of the hill. Although I saw a few people trying to find stones on the hill, most followed the instructions and started the laps up and down the hill carrying stones. I made trips and was released. I met some of my companions and we jogged off carrying our original stones to the next challenge. I was feeling a bit nauseous, but we stopped at a small tienda and we bought coke and water. Both made me feel better. If I had known what was ahead, I’d have dumped all my Gu and other bullshit race nutrients and filled up my pack with coke and cookies.
After a good walk, we reached the base of Maderas. Here we ditched our rocks and were told to take five gallon jugs each up to the caldera atop the volcano. That would be about 42 pounds of swaying weight. I fashioned a rope yoke and had two jugs to either side and one wedged under my back as a counterweight. I was about to undertake the most difficult obstacle of my life. All of us were. We were also entering the jungle for the first time. Though the terrain thus far had certainly been wild and difficult, Maderas was jungle.
The trail we took up was a trail in only the broadest of definitions. It was bramble, muddy, slippery, thorny bramble with an evil grade. Each step was taxing. Ten would leave you short of breath. There were glistening, iridescent spots along the ground everywhere. At first I took them as dew. They turned about to be sizable spiders. With iridescent eyes. They were constant companions. People kept saying “Tarantula!” but mostly they meant these nimble, clever, omnipresent ground hunters. There were frogs the size of dinner plates as well. The air around us was filled with myriad voices of unknown creatures and the sky above was clear and painted with stars. For some time, these helped to distract us. Little by little, however, the path became gnarlier, members of our party began to drop off. The air thickened, the ground muddied further. Hours passed and we entered the cloud forest.
Cloud forests are rare things. You must have just the right combination of humidity, elevation, and temperature. They are beautiful and frightening. You can see little. Sounds are masked and distances hard to judge. Each breath is thick as you inhale cloud, literally. When we stopped to take breaks, and turned off our headlamps, we would fall silent. It was as if this was an instinct. It was surreal, listening to the world around us that was enveloped in mystery. The dreams of my youth. The jungle holding us in place, our feet sinking into the mud. We were not different from other tribes of monkeys, huddling in the mist waiting for daylight. But we couldn’t wait. This was a Survival Run. On that volcano we understood. Rescue was impossible. If one of us were hurt, it would be a day before anything could be done. “Tell them I’ll be by the tree. The one with the coconuts.” And though we were now near the crest, and descending into the caldera would follow quickly, we were far, far away from the checkpoints. We just didn’t know it. Hours and hours more lay ahead with those jugs of water. Each jug a mere 8.34lbs.
They were awful, swinging around with every step, the ropes digging into your shoulders until there were no spots to shift them to, and they were liquid Sirens, on mountainous cliffs, undrinkable as we climbed and ran out of water. Carrying water that had to reach the goal unopened, as we sweated out gallons of our own and one by one depleted our reserves. In retrospect it was a beautiful agony, but in the moment it was a cruel torture. We carried up an aid station for the weekend’s races, a task out of the perennially chore-heavy Death Race, saving the race directors time and effort by doing their work for them, and all while desperately thirsty. Open a jug, drink heartily my friend, fail. That is all, only a failure at a race, no more. Our jugs remained unopened. We all resolved to get to the top and tell Josue to stuff his race, now and forever.
On this point we reached further levels of resolve as we realized that our first descent into the caldera ended in a climb back to the crest. Again we descended, again we climbed. We repeated this all around the edge of the crater, up and down, on the worst trails on earth, ever more desperate and hopeless. I had come to believe that it wouldn’t end, that this one task would comprise the entirety of the race, that we were given this Sisyphean gulag solely to face new and ever more rational justifications for dropping the jugs and the race. We were on a literal death march, but unlike those who had embarked on these in times past involuntarily, we could exit at any moment, sit down in the mud and drink water and wait for rescue. Such a brilliant temptation. Perhaps too brilliant.
Finally, we descended by rope into the caldera, all the way, at long last. This was confirmed by the fact that one of our loud calls of “Hello?” was finally answered. When we saw the lights ahead and finally reached the checkpoint deep in the caldera there was a strong sense of completion. We had beaten the race in our minds. Creating a more challenging task wasn’t possible, and we had all beaten it. Around us was a bizarre visage of thick brush and shiny metallic emergency blankets enshrouding racers who’d summited before us. Racers were ensconced in small groups on the ground trying to stay warm. We were in Nicaragua, but in the caldera the temperature was quite cold, and the wind was high and fierce. Hypothermia was a realistic possibility. In that vein we were instructed to jump in the crater lake and meander along the left shoreline in search of a red lantern and an egg. Eggs again. A couple of us got in right away to get the egg, a couple had had enough and got out their emergency blankets and lay down. The lake varied from deep water to hip deep mud to neither. Getting the egg wasn’t hard, but it was cold and annoying. We got back and were told to lay down and stay put until 3am. No matter what time you arrived, you were here until three. We also learned that we had missed the cutoff for the first medal. This upset me greatly. We had kept moving at a good clip with few breaks and hadn’t gotten there by the midnight cutoff. That massive undertaking and accomplishment had been for naught in my mind.
I sat there and stewed for close to two hours, metaphorically. In reality I was shivering as I hadn’t since the Winter Death Race, the nausea was strong and I managed no more than sips of water. Yes, they had given each of us one jug at the top.
When 3am came, we all headed up to the crest and then down the volcano. A few folks took off at a good clip, and the rest of us marched. The trail was called the Jungle Gym for good reason.
There was a great deal of climbing and clambering over trees and branches, many of which had precipitous drop offs on either side. Jason Henline, Brian Lynch, and I separated after a while and descended alone. The descent was very challenging and long. It took us close to three hours to make it level ground. Day broke along the way, but it brought less than the usual amount of rejuvenation. Our conversations had been about our disappointment with the race and the negative comparisons to other FYA events. It was our intention to exit the race at the next checkpoint.
My nausea had passed, but I wasn’t eating. I knew that would quickly bring the nausea back and felt that I could get to the bottom on fumes. As is the custom in Nicaragua, we passed a number of farm animals wandering around without restraint. As Nele had been charged by a bull already, I kept an eye on them. City boys don’t trust big animals.
We entered a long sloping area with fairly dense trees and soon we were being warned by the troop of howler monkeys that resided there. It started with one low chugging howling call and soon was picked up by all the others as we ran by their trees. This went on for 20 minutes. The calls were not friendly, but the monkeys didn’t come down from their trees either. We were silent and just listened to the rhythmic calls as they lessened behind us and grew in front. The monkeys were excellent motion detectors and they did not like the invasion of naked apes into their domain. We did not overstay our welcome.
Eventually we reached our checkpoint manned by a couple of staff including Margaret Schlatcher. My companions dropped from the race at that point, for good reason and I planned on joining them. A group of other runners had already sat down at the small restaurant there for breakfast. The next challenge involved carrying a long, heavy bamboo pole 4 miles or so up the road. I sat down on the bamboo and thought a while.
Then I got up and walked over to the tienda and bought two cokes. I chugged them and sat down again. I knew I couldn’t quit no matter how bad I felt or how disillusioned I was. They promised the race was going to get better. Within a few minutes I felt energy coming back into my body from the cokes. I grabbed a big bamboo pole, tested it to be certain it would hold my weight, and headed off down the road.
It was sunny and warm now and I remembered to throw some suntan lotion on before I got too far down the road. I had to evade a troop of bulls and a stray dog that took no liking to me. I paid some attention to the dog as a high level racer was forced to drop earlier in the event after being bitten by one.
At the next checkpoint I was told there would be a series of tree climbs followed by a long run. We had to climb 8 trees and remove bottle-caps or bracelets from each to continue on. The first tree was in front of me and was an easy climb, the second was nearby and two folks I would later team up with were struggling with their bamboos to ascend this large tree. I saw a handhold on the other side that I felt I could just reach and took advantage of my grip strength to ascend and grab the bottle cap. I ran off. We had to drag the bamboo along and the easiest path for the most part was through the water. I found the third tree and Johnny Waite was there again in his kayak. Seeing that man always make one smile. This tree turned out to be the hardest. I tried a few different ways and failed and was still there when Kelly and Marcos caught up. We strategized a little, but I ended up climbing up my bamboo and just barely getting a cap. I was forced to rest for 5 minutes as they got theirs. My hand that I had cut earlier was shredded. I re-superglued the cuts. We headed off and tackled the remaining trees as a team.
During this portion I was stung repeatedly by various insects including 50 or so ants that found their way onto my arm at once, and two kinds of wasps. This was annoying. The trees themselves were very thorny everywhere and we all got quite cutup as a result, but we got up all 8 of them. After that we had a 10k in the water. It took a very long time and was frequently treacherous. The water is very murky and you can see very little. There are very sharp shin-height rocks everywhere and we all took some good, painful spills. All in all, it was a relaxing portion though. I did neglect to reapply suntan lotion to my neck, a fact I am still regretting. The three of us separated after a while and only two of us made the next cutoff where we finally earned a medal.
I had 30 minutes to reach the next check point so I dropped the bamboo and took off. I was hurting. I had taken in very few calories and was starting to feel pretty weak. I managed to run most of the way though and met up with Kelly to do the next challenge. We had a short swim out to a metal pier, then run down that to Josue who instructed us to dive into the water to search for another couple of bracelets attached to lines. As I dove and rose, I took the opportunity to speak with Josue about the ascent of Maderas and the medal cutoff. I basically said we weren’t told of the cutoff and that the act of reaching to checkpoint with all the jugs was worthy of a medal in itself, in my opinion. He listened and told me he would discuss it with the race team. That was good enough for me. I exited the water and got instructions for the next checkpoint. There were a couple racers really fueling up, but I just bought a couple Pepsi’s and took off. We had to climb a steep but relatively short hill (compared to Maderas) and run a 5k along a fence-line to the next checkpoint. It was an extremely hot run. I was using fence-posts to ascend and got stung a few more times, but I made pretty quick work of this section. I ran the down hills full our and reached Chaco Verde quickly. I was directed up a road that climbed steadily. Unfortunately, due to a mis-communication, aster running a few kilometers up the road, I was led to believe I was heading in the wrong direction and turned back for 10 minutes. I figured out the mistake with another runner Brian Selm and we headed back in the correct direction for a good while. It was hot as blazes.
We reached the Concepcion checkpoint with 30 minutes to spare. I bought more cokes and refilled my water and three of us were about to set out to climb Concepcion, the taller of the two volcanoes, when the race volunteer told us we had to summit by 4:30. It was just about 1:30. There was a two mile upward sloping trail to the base and then two miles or so up to the top. I was crestfallen. I knew there was no way in hell I could make the top in three hours. Coming down Maderas had taken three. If I had been at full strength with a full belly, it might have been doable, maybe. World class people had ascended in 1:45 from the base, but the base was a couple miles away. We went anyway. The two racers a walked with pulled ahead and rested. I decided to keep going and hiked alone for a long while. My companions continued on too, but lost the trail and took their own route. I made it to the base and took a few steps up what I considered to be Concepcion itself. I wanted at least to say hello. I was feeling lightheaded and taking too many breaks. I knew it would crush me to go further and get pulled off close to the top. I decided to turn back.
As I started my descent I got dizzy several times and had to sit a while. The heat was oppressive, but I was thinking clearly enough to know I’d made the correct decision. Mike and Kelly came upon me on one of these breaks and I told them it was impossible to make the cutoff. They told me it was totally possible. We both shook our heads at one another and went our separate ways. I understand why they went. If I had been able to eat, I probably would have kept going to, however futilely. They ended up getting pulled off the mountain at 4:30 a thousand feet or so from the top, but I’m pretty sure they don’t regret trying.
When I got down, I was able to get a taxi after a while. Race staff were gone, and we were in a remote area. One happened to drive by, but he was going to pick up his dad. I talked him into it with Cordobas though. Along the way I found Brian Selm. He’d gotten off trail and said he’d become a bit delusional in the heat but had found his way back to the road. We rode to Playa Santo Domingo, found Josue and let him know we hadn’t summited. That was that. We ended in somewhere between 5th and 8th places depending on how they counted the summit attempts. Three racers finished the race and a fourth made the top of Concepcion.
Josue told me that he’d decided to award the first medal to those that made the Maderas checkpoint with all their water and got the egg. I thought that was an excellent gesture on his part. I ended up with two medals: “I” and “Fail.” That was that.
After the event, I returned to my cell/hotel room and showered up. There was a woman hanging sheets out to dry. They were strung between coconut trees and swayed in the breeze like a field of ghosts. It was warm. We all spent a few awesome hours cheering on the three guys who finished, Nick, Ben and Johnson. I ate two dinners and maybe a third one later. I slept amazingly well and woke up had two breakfasts and joined Camille, Jamie and Dave in a car driven expertly by Nele. She stayed on a while and the rest of us took the lancha and bus back to Managua. We stayed overnight, ate, and had a truly great time before parting in the morning and returning to our homes and families.
Despite my feelings on Maderas, I very much enjoyed this event. Though I still plan on taking a break from these mega-events for a while, I could see myself coming back to Ometepe. It is a simpler place for many reasons. You can build a house for $3000, but it will be made of cinder blocks and tin and come without water. People scrape out a living by selling bananas or with little tiendas where you can buy Coke and chips. The homemade food on the island is delicious and fresh. The freshest eggs I’ve ever had. I really feel like I had a chance to finish this one. I’ll stick to Oreos and Coke, and share them with the howler monkeys as their guttural calls resonate throughout the thorny jungle, the leaf-cutter ants march on, and the trees shift in the breeze that comes quickly off the lake.