Legends tell of a place deep in the heart of Texas where fire and water join the hills to try to destroy all who enter. The sun burns, the water is undrinkable and the buzzards circle. We entered this place willingly, and (thankfully) it spit us out whole…
The first annual Fuego y Agua (US) was held at Camp Eagle near Rocksprings Texas. The race offered four levels of challenge (50 and 100k “run only” and 50 and 100k survival runs <details here>). I chose the easiest, and it still was one of the longest 50k’s I’ve ever “run”. I finished in 9:51, which was good enough for 6th overall in the 50k run (out of 13 runners, one of whom dropped out (DNF)). In the 50k survival category, 10 of the 23 DNF’d and only 1 person did all the challenges and finished the 50k (in 16 hrs, 22 min). No one finished the 100k in either event. To say race director Josue Stephens had created a challenge is an understatement.
The survivalists started at 4:30 AM and the runners at 5:30. The reason they started early was they had to make the running sandals they were going to run in. Materials were provided by Luna (NFI) and armed with a knife, a sheet of rubber and some strapping, they went to work. The day before they had to carry a log (weight commensurate with their own weight) up a hill to get their race bib. Crazy.
By the time we woke up and meandered down there, they were putting together their sandals and their “packs” (they had to make a pack out of a shirt or bandana, no hydration packs here). All had finished and set off before we got the go signal, and at 5:30 we ran off into the dark of Camp Eagle to begin our odyssey.
We quickly caught the survival runners (they had that same log on their backs as they ascended and then descended a pretty steep hill (100ft straight up, then 159 down to the riverbed)). We cheered them on as they took their logs into the river for a swim while we ran along the bank and back up into the hills. We didn’t see any of them again, and as noted before, a number of them never made it.
I was fortunate to run into two veteran runners- Tom Norwood and Francois “Flint” Bordeau and we ran together for most of the race, only parting when it became apparent that they were in much better shape than I was (around the 40k mark we decided that I should use my own two legs to run rather than have them continue to drag me on the litter they had fashioned out of oak branches). They are the reason I was able to finish at all, much less place so well. The combination of Tom’s running skills (he wore Luna sandals the entire time) and Flint’s East Canadian tracking skills (we avoided what we were pretty sure was a rabid wolf in the first few hours) got us through a number of interesting places on the course.
We were spared navigating the more treacherous parts of the course in the dark, but as the sky brightened, so did the metaphorically maniacal glee in our RDs eyes. While the pace could indeed pick up as we could now see, we were led into areas where men fear to tread. Up hills, down gullies and full of bushwhacking (seemingly endless crawling over/under/through trees/bushes/rocks/cacti). Our pace slowed considerably, but having 3 sets of eyes to find the next marker assured us we were heading in the right direction (and not towards an untimely fate) and helped us make up time. By a few hours in, we figured we were near the middle of the pack. We reached the first checkpoint with water and decided to take a break and fill up. The water was in a giant round tub fed by a well that needed to be sterilized, but not necessarily filtered. We had passed 3 runners, two of whom then re-passed us at the checkpoint. We got of there quickly, determined to catch them again and hopefully stay ahead of them.
It took us a bit, (more ups and downs, a bit of bushwhacking), but we caught them again and they were struggling. Hudson and Chris were both running their first ultra (Chris in Lunas), having decided to run it only a few weeks before (unbelievably). Chris had knee issues and the heat was getting to Hudson. We stayed with them for a bit, gave them some salt pills and words of encouragement, and then headed on. This was about 12-13 miles into the race and it was a testament to them that they not only kept going, but finished well.
So, having passed them, we descended back into the special hell that Josue designed, on our way to the halfway point (15.87 miles, 4hrs 44 min). It was at this point that we heard the incredible. There were only three 50k runners ahead of us! Visions of podiums and paparazzi spurred us out of the checkpoint.
I was feeling pretty good at this stage, but I wasn’t eating enough (he now says in hindsight). To keep us occupied, though, there were a lot of interesting things to see and do.
and of course, the one thing you always (read never) do in a 50k, rock climbing!
The ups and downs faded away, and the course now became runnable. This initially confused us as we were sure we had missed a turn somewhere- this part actually looked like a trail! The long day of climbing started to take its toll on me, though and as Tom and Flint hit their stride, mine hit me back.
As I mentioned before, I hadn’t been eating enough as I was trying to “listen to my body” and go by feel rather than by schedule. It worked for about 35-40k, but what I thought was silence turned out to be willful blindness and my body had to stage an intervention to get me to listen. At the 40k checkpoint, my water was low enough to warrant a trip to the river to refill. Flint and Tom had waited for me (we had decided to try to finish together for a “joint” 4th place finish), but it soon became apparent that I wasn’t in nearly as good a shape as they were, and I urged them to go on. Descending about 30-40 feet to the river’s edge, I filled my water bottle, took out my ultraviolet sterilizing pen, and….
If I didn’t get the water sterilized, my race was over. Even though we only had a few miles to go, I couldn’t run it without water. For what seemed like 30 minutes, but was actually only about 5, I tried to get the thing to work, constantly looking over my shoulder and sure that Chris, Hudson or one of the other runners would be coming into the checkpoint at any minute. I finally got it to light up, sterilized the water, ate some food and got out of there. One big up hill and a bit more bushwhacking, and I stumbled into the finish, 16 minutes behind Tom and Flint. As it turned out, the closest runner was still about an hour behind me and it was another 3 ½ hours before the final runners crossed the finish line. My GPS said we did about 4700 ft of climbing, and then laughed at me.
Overall, it was a great race, very different from anything I’d ever experienced. I made some good friends and was overawed at the limits that some people can push themselves to and still keep going. The survival runners were inspiring and I would entertain attempting that next year, except for one challenge, the hole . It’s the entrance to a bat (and other things)-filled cave that many spent an hour in. No thanks.
Inspired? Yes Idiot? Yes, but if every mile on my quest to run 2014 for the kids at SouthSide Early Childhood Center is this entertaining, there will be an even bigger smile on my face when we open the doors to the new school!