For months, I’ve been trying to explain what this race is all about: 31 miles, No aid stations (carry your own food and filter and sterilize your water), oh, and you have to “do things” to complete the race. “Like what?”- Well, to start, you have to make your own shoes, you’ve got to make a bow, fletch arrows and then actually hit something with it, you’ve got to make a fire with a bow drill, you know, “things”. Still no comprehension as to why someone would put themselves willingly through this… To say “for the challenge” doesn’t quite describe it. For me, it comes down to the one thing that I’ve looked for since I started ultrarunning: Can I do it?
The short answer is: I didn’t. I “failed” (more on why I would use that word later) when I was timed out of the race after 14 1/2 hours, having completed a little over half the course. The thing about this race, though, is that because I learned so much and kept going despite the silly mistakes I made, it was an accomplishment. That, and the facts that:
- Out of about 18 starters, only 3 finished the race (a 300% improvement over last year)
- Sections of the course were designed by Barkley and Tour De Giants finisher Nick Hollon
- The archery section was designed by Tom Norwood, an excellent archer and lunatic
- I learned a ton just training for this race. I now know how to use a survival knife, do a flemish twist, create fire by rubbing sticks together, carve a bow (even with wood from Lowes), make and use a sling and build a deadfall trap.
- I lasted for 14 1/2 hours, completed every challenge up to that point and still had legs, even if I didn’t have any time left.
- And finally, met a bunch of warriors that can endure more than most people could.
So, here’s how it went down…
Friday (4pm)- Packet Pick up
Nervous anticipation as we wait for Race Director Josue Stephens. For his race in Nicaragua, he started the race a day early at packet pick up. Last year in this race you had to carry a log up a hill to get your bib. What’s in store for us?
Turns out, we are being divided up into teams, each person has to build a travois, use them to carry rocks up a ¾ mile hill, fill a six foot diameter circle, then build a cairn in the next 2 ½ hours. The team with the tallest cairn doesn’t have to sleep outside the night before the race. Yikes. I end up on team red and we set to work. Hauling a number of rocks up the hill, you quickly find the flaws in your building skills. After the first few rounds, we decide to pair up and get big rocks up the hill on the few decently constructed travois; every few hundred feet, handing off the travois to a “buddy” and getting a few minutes rest. The technique pays off as we hall a number of large flat stones that allows us to build a slightly higher cairn than the white team. We head down for dinner. This is going to be an interesting race…
(Note: all times are approximate except the start. Even though I had a watch on, I was more focused on pushing on)
Saturday (4am)- Pack and Sandals
The race is a combination of running (31 miles, not counting yesterday’s fun) and skills. First order of the day- make a pack out of paracord and fabric that will hold your approved items (at the bottom of the page on the link) and your food (did I mention there were no aid stations and that you had to filter and sterilize your water?). That done, next you had to make the sandals you were going to run in out of raw materials from Luna Sandals, (NFI) using only your survival knife and a punch. I managed to make a mistake on both of the first two skills that cost me time. First, my pack was ok, but at one point I didn’t cinch it up quite right and something fell out. Luckily, I noticed it quickly, but the memory of that drop haunted me later. Second, I had planned on lacing my sandals in a 5-hole pattern that would keep my feet stable in the shoe. At the last minute based on overheard conversations from veterans about chafing, I abandoned that idea and went with a 3-hole traditional pattern. Stupid.
Having completed this first set of tasks in about 45 minutes or so, I headed out on a short 2 ½ mile out and back, through a river and up a hill. The water and terrain showed the flaws in my sandal design, so as I re-entered the start/finish area, I changed my sandals to a 5-hole pattern. Better fit, but in my haste I made the holes a bit too high up, so they rubbed my pinkie toes raw. I could live with the pain and adjust by taping my toes, but the bigger mistake happened when I unpacked, then repacked my pack, leaving out a Ziploc bag with my medical kit and a number of the items I would need to complete the challenges. I didn’t realize I had simply left them there and by the time I realized they were gone (about 3 hours into the race), I thought they had simply dropped out somewhere on the trail (see haunted by a memory above).
9am- Fruitless Search Completed
Having backtracked from the checkpoint a few miles and two hours later, I had given up the search and was back at the checkpoint. I thought my race was over.
Luckily, there was no issue with me continuing. I realized I may not be able to do some of the challenges now, but I still had items I could use, so I headed out. The next challenge was only a few miles away. On route, I had to pick up my travois from the night before and carry it down to a section of cliffs. Here, hidden in the nooks and crannies were arrow shafts- I needed four. After about 30 minutes of searching in the cliffs, I found the four arrow shafts I needed (thanks to Corinne and Nick for the leeway as there were only four shafts left spread out over the entire cliff).
I had part of a cheeseburger, drank some Tailwind (NFI) and headed back up into the hills to Eagle Cave. Now, one of the reasons I had decided I could do this run was that I was ensured that the cave from 2013 was not on the list of things we had to do. Oh, well…
11am- The Hole
Technically a cave, the opening is a 2×2 foot hole in the ground. Tight places and I are not friends I was not looking forward to this. We had to find 3 arrowheads with different colored dots on them. We didn’t have to find 4 arrowheads because when putting the white dot arrows out, three copperheads made their presence known and the bag was abandoned. 7 hours in, I get in the hole, find I’ve caught Angela (the only female competitor in the race), and she’s been crawling around in there for a while, still missing her 3rd arrowhead. I quickly find two, then start crawling back to look in an area she hadn’t explored. I get back there and realize I’ve found the bag of white arrowheads. OK, didn’t they say something about copperheads back here? Time to go… Luckily, on my way back I spotted the third arrowhead I needed, accidentally gave away their position to Angela (giving aid to a fellow survival run is grounds for disqualification) and we both got out of there quickly. Time in the hole: about 15 minutes.
The next section was a “self-navigation” over about a mile or two, bushwhacking the whole time (aka no trails). I got turned around and by the time I got to the next checkpoint, Angela had beaten me there (even though she left after me).
12 noon- Fletching
An item on our list was four large feathers (which, as I live in a city and don’t have regular winged vertebrate access, I had to buy online) and artificial sinew. I had the feathers, but had lost the sinew (see above). Luckily, we only had to turn in the feathers, and there was sinew provided for us to fletch our arrows. Fletched all four and headed out to the archery range, about 4-5 miles of trails and bushwhacking away.
Next stop: make a bow and shoot it.
2:00 (ish)- Bow Time
Making a survival bow out of a Juniper branch is difficult, but easier than trying to make one out of the 1×2 I tried to carve with my survival knife at home. When I arrived, there were a few runners there finishing up their bows and I felt good that I had (kind of) caught back up. It still took a while and I had to find a different branch halfway through the construction as the first branch turned out to be unsuitable. Once that was carved, stringing the bow consisted of making a Flemish twist with the string and then stringing the bow. I had the twist down, but couldn’t get the bowstring to stay taught. We then could practice with our bow as much as we wanted, but then had four chances to climb about 10-15 feet into a tree and shoot a “bear” about 15 yds away. After about 8 practice shots, I had hit nothing. It was getting close to 3:30 and I knew I was up against time, so I decided to give it a go, resigned that this might be my first missed challenge. Climbed the tree, wiped the sweat out of my eyes, pulled the string back as far as I could and let it fly…right through the heart. Well, 1/1000 of an inch into the bear at about where the heart was, but it stuck, surprising myself, the guy in charge of the checkpoint and the bear. I jumped out of the tree and picked up my bow and arrows (which I had to carry with me for the rest of the race).
Got the symbols for the challenges I had completed to that point, stamped them into my copper disk with my survival knife (chisel and nail having been lost with the bag) and stamped out my first word: F-A-I-L. To explain, the disk had four sections. By completing all the challenges in a section, you get a word. Do all the challenges and finish the race and they spell out I DID NOT FAIL. They build up over the race and you only get the NOT if you complete everything. One word down and it was only just before 4 o’clock.
Before leaving on the next leg (about 6 miles), I was told that I had to be through the next two checkpoints by 7:30 pm. I remembered the next section of running as being particularly brutal with a lot of bushwhacking, ridiculously rocky and cactus-y. On top of that, there was very little shade and while it wasn’t hot for Texas, it was pretty warm. Angela had just finished her bow making and so we agreed to head out together. 12 hours into any race, having someone to talk to distracts you from what I like to call “the demons”. Those voices that try to convince you to stop, remind you constantly of what hurts, and generally exist to beat you down. We ran, hiked and bushwhacked for 2 hours to cover that 6 mile stretch. (did I mention the terrain was pretty brutal?)
6:00pm- Bow and Sling
Rolling into what would be our final checkpoint, the last two skills were to shoot a target placed uphill from your position (by the way, once you made something you had to carry it. Carrying a bow and four precariously fletched arrows through all the bushwhacking made it even more fun and we found more than a few remnants of previous runners’ demise as we picked up the odd feather or arrow that had been claimed by the unfriendly vegetation.)
Hit the target on the third try (of only four allowed, so just barely) and then looked around for material to make my sling. My missing bag contained most of the material I needed, so I improvised and found someone else’s dropped sling and completed the challenge. By then it was 6:30 and we needed to go another 4 difficult miles, start a fire, boil water in a cup made out of cactus and then make tea with medicinal herbs we needed to identify in the next hour. We weren’t going to make and called it there.
We ended up 12th and 13th, outlasting 6 of the 18 runners that had started the race. A further 6 made it to the next checkpoint and only 3 finished the race. I felt good and had completed everything put in front of me. Still probably wouldn’t have finished the entire race (leaving the next checkpoint, you had to carry a 20 pound rock for 2 (I think) miles, build a deadfall trap with it, then run some more before getting in the freezing cold river for a 1.25 mile “swim” upstream.
We were driven back to the start. I ate some jerky, watched the first and second place guys come in and then crashed hard.
Everyone out there was an incredible athlete, both physically and mentally, and it was humbling to participate and learn from them. As I said at the beginning, I learned a lot. I like the dual nature of the challenge this type of race gives and will do it again if I can find the time to train properly. Next year sees the race moving to California, so I need to go practice my fire making….Success will be in getting further the next time…
PS- Big thanks to Jeff Genova for the great pics and to RD Josue and everyone else who made this happen!
Filed under: About my training | Tagged: 50k, arrow, arrowhead, bow, cairn, flemish twist, fuego y agua, gatherer, hunter, luna, luna sandals, mcdonald's cheeseburger, survival, Tailwind, texas, travois, ultra, ultramarathon | 2 Comments »