Josue Stephens is a promoter for running and survival races the way Don King used to promote boxing, but Josue gives back to the communities in a way that inspires me. Ometepe is an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua with two huge volcanos that are so tall they create their own weather pattern. Volcano Maderas and Volcano Conception were two of the biggest toughest climbs I have ever raced. Throw in a long, dry, hot, shade less dirt road in between and the 11:06 I spent at the Fuego Y Aqua 100K challenged me in a way few races ever have.
Coming from a solid base building week in Costa Rica where I successfully defending my title at The Costal Challenge Rain Forest Run I was a little tired but confident I would give Nick Clark a good race and sure we would both dip under Javier Montero’s course record. I was adapted to the heat and only had to run one hard day in Costa Rica on the first day to secure my win there.
Josue had done an amazing job of securing an elite field of runners including my former INOV8 teammate Yassine Diboun of Animal Athletics, Costa Rican legend Kurt Lindermuller of Altra , Irunfar.com’s Sean Messiner of Montrail, and Scott’s Ian Sharman of Talk Ultra. Salomon’s Jorge M. and Anna Frost were supposed to race but did not make the trip. Throw in my Team Aravaipa Arizona based training partners Nick and Jamil Coury and I knew this would be a fast race and a fun week.
The trip to Ometepe was long and tiring for me. Jamil and Nick flew into Costa Rica and joined The North Face’s Felipe Guardia, Talk Ultra’s Ian Corless, and some great Tico friends to celebrate my successful defense of my title at the Coastal Challenge Rain Forest Run. Because of limitations with United Airlines’ sponsorship of Fuego Y Agua I had to return to the states in order not to forfeit my return flight.
Sean, Ian, Jamil , and Nick Coury arrived early on the island after a day with the Tona girls. I always miss the fun ;) They had hiked part of the course and looked tired when Nick Clark, Yassine, Trail Runner Magazine’s Alex Kurt, and I arrived. Ian pulled from the race with a knee issue but was very supportive in organizing the first ever Ometepe Beer Mile where Luna Sandal’s Patrick Sweeny of Stone Brewery beat Trail Runner Magazine’s Alex Kurt in a close race. Alex and I had begun our carbo load with a Tona at lunch after a short run not aware that there was to be a beer mile. Nick Clark and I chose not to participate but rather helped clean up the empties and cheer on the runners. I could tell Nick meant business on Ometepe so I decided to blow off some stress and continue my carbo load Thursday night while supporting Tona.
The day before the race was pretty low key. I woke early and ran off my headache. While Yassine was saving drowning survival runners, I spent the rest of the morning eating mangos in a hammock at the hotel as they fell from the huge tree which provided some wonderfully refreshing shade. Packet pickup was well organized, and later we were all jammed into an old school bus and shuttled down to the shore resort for a prerace dinner. Pasta and Tona Beer to a gorgeous sunset was a nice relaxing way to spend the evening. Nick and I joked that when we were offered “accommodation” we kind of assumed that it would be at a place similar to the resort and not the hostel like setting that was race headquarters.
After a short night we awoke at 3am for the 4am start. Fresh delicious coffee and a super ripe banana was all I could stomach for breakfast, but I had eaten enough leading up to the race start that I knew my glycogen stores would hold me for a couple hours and I began my gel diet. The logistics of using GENr8 Vitargo without a crew was tricky so I relied on the aid stations. The 4am start was quite comical as no one seemed to care about the 100K and 50K Ultras about to begin. The survival runners were starting their race with us and had to run 8K with a live chicken. A fast survival runner and his chicken took the lead early and after Nick, Yassine, and I stopped laughing we quickly overtook him.
The glow sticks and reflective tape that were to be used to mark the dark portion of the course had either been stolen or not made it to the island so navigation was a disaster early on. At dawn Nick and I realized that we were off course and must have lost at least fifteen minutes trying to get back on track. For such an organized and professional event, I was very disappointed in the early course markings. Race day logistics improved but only a little for me. After our early detour I pressed on catching the lead pack of Sean, Yassine, and the Courys at the base of Volcano Maderas. I had a very strong climb and was surprised how cold it was in the cloud forest near the summit. Nick Coury and I piggybacked a little near the top and I had run enough downhill with him to know that I would not be trying to keep up with him on the descent off the first volcano without Hokas. I raced in a modified La Sportiva Vertical K I had taken a knife to in Costa Rica.
Nick Coury was first to the 50K in what would have been a new course record. I was a few minutes back running much easier knowing that the heat of the day would take its toll on us all soon enough. Yassine and Nick Clark were a few minutes back close to the 50K turn. I caught and passed Nick Coury on a stretch of dirt road at the base of Volcano Maderas. Nick had stopped to buy a cold drink in a road side store. Power Aid had not been able to get its product to the aid stations so our options were warm water and even warmer red Tang. I was sick of the Tang but knew I needed the calories and sugar to keep moving so I drank it. I pretended it was GENr8 Vitargo to get it down into my stomach, but it did not digest the way my sponsor’s nutrition does L I didn’t bring money with me because I didn’t want to be tempted to stop in a store for a cold beverage. I had raced enough in Costa Rica to know that the period of discomfort would pass, but 100K was a lot further than the 50K-80K stages I had raced before at The Costal Challenge on any single day.
A police officer on a moped stopped me to ask for money, where I was going, and what I was doing. I pretended to not understand him and just pointed to my bib. He didn’t shoot me so I pressed on. I was turned around by survival run race officials who did not know the ultra course. The volunteer would later apologize to me and admit he was caught up in the other race, ironic. I had lost my lead and was even more upset when Yassine and the Nicks caught me. The most gorgeous section of the run at sunrise in the morning down the beach was hot and slow on the way back. Nick Coury was falling off the back paying for his downhill, but Yassine and Nick Clark were surging for the lead on the sand. I was pissed off and knew there was a long way to go so I sat back in third figuring one of them would break or get stopped by local law enforcement. The few times I had comfortably surged to take the lead had ended up going wrong and I knew I would not be surging anymore in the heat of the day at 10am nearly 70K into the race.
Nick Clark, Yassine, and I took a break to soak in the cold water at Ojo de Aqua. I would have been happy to call it a day in the cold water and was not excited that we had to run more. It was 10:30am and very hot. The sun was overhead and we had a long stretch of cobble stone road sans shade to the next volcano. I kept Yassine and Nick in view until Yassine slowed to a walk and Clarkey started to pull ahead. I ran past Yassine knowing that to walk in the direct sun was suicide. I walked some of the few and far between shaded uphill sections of dirt road to the last aid station before the climb up Volcano Conception. I was miserable and so hot I took watermelon grinds after I ate the fruit to cool myself by rubbing them on my neck and head. Gross, I know but the effect was amazing as I worked my way up into the shade and began the miserable long climb up Volcano Conception.
I didn’t have a watch on, I don’t race with one anymore since my third marathon in 2002 when I tried and failed to qualify for Boston missing it by seconds. I knew I was losing time and the five minuets I was back of Nick at the last aid station would increase because I could not bring myself to stomach any more Tang or warm Power Gels. I started to feel light headed on the climb and dreamed of cold mangos. It was cold at the summit camp where the aid station workers gave me water and an orange. The wind was blowing and I knew I would not be catching Nick. I started down the steep descent overlooking the finish in town miles below and the Lake. It was still hot toward the bottom and I began to come to grips with a second place finish as I jogged in under the old course record.
I learned a lot on Ometepe that February day. Course markings in third world settings sometimes get stolen or left on the main land. Race officials will sometimes turn you around. Police will ask you for money. Tang will be interchangeable for Powerade. The most important lesson I learned however is that on any given day anyone can win. Nick Clark is an amazing athlete. He is patient and wise. He beat me fair and square and I have tremendous respect for the man. I look forward to racing him again in the future. Second is the first loser so I did win something.
I met some amazing people including Amy Perez and her brothers. Amy had given me a beer in Steamboat after the all night frozen suffer-athon that was Run Rabbit Run. The Perez family took Nick and I back to the springs at Ojo de Agua after the race to soak our legs, drove us back to our lodging from the pre race dinner so we could skip the packed school bus transport, and spent the day after the race at the beach at Punta Jesus Maria with us celebrating Nick’s win. The volunteers and staff at Fuego Y Agua were amazing and the locals were very friendly. I even had a chance to tour the medical clinic with Dr. Adam of NDI. I am very grateful to have had the chance to race Fuego Y Agua.
Josue did a wonderful job with the award ceremony giving those on the podium masks. Instead of prize money he invested in a kids race where the locals received medals, t-shirts, and sneakers. Thanks to Tona for the beer; United Airlines for the flights; and Josue for all his hard work and effort to try and make his race a world class event. After the race the winds picked up and some runners had to reschedule their flights back. Luckily I was traveling with the RD and when we left on the ferry it was calm. We spent our last afternoon at an amazing eco resort. I got to run up some trails on the side of Volcano Maderas through coffee plantations the next morning before our departure. The food and fresh fruit smoothies at the Cornerhouse café in town were incredible! I look forward to returning to Ometepe someday to race again and also to volunteer for NDI at their clinic.