The Most Beautiful Race in the World

“This is what it’s all about.”

As we raced carefully across the rocky, single-track cattle fields at the base of the volcano, two teenage Nicaraguan boys, eyeing us inquisitively, sprinted off their tiny farm and joined in our fun. Running recklessly behind Martin and I, fearless on the technical terrain, the boys were smiling and laughing and jumping around that entire gnarly stretch. Pure Joy. We didn’t know much Spanish, and they didn’t speak any English, but nothing really needed to be said.

We were four boys, running, for different purposes, but each loving every second of it.

This is Fuego Y Agua

Riding the ferry to Isle de Ometepe

Fuego Y Agua is a challenging ultramarathon on the volcanic Isle de Ometepe in Nicaragua. Runners have the option of running 25K, 50K, or the 100K, the last of which takes runners up and down both island volcanoes, Volcan Maderas and Volcan Concepcion.

Race Directors Josue and Paula Stephens take special care to make this event special for all the runners, the Ometepe locals, and the many volunteers that come from all walks of life; but, the most impressive to me is the shoe donation and the local 5K race for the kids.

All runners are asked to bring shoes to the Island to donate to locals who simply do not have easy access to such things. This year, we collected over 400 pairs of shoes, and there’s no way to articulate how good it makes me feel to know I was part of making a lot of little kids, and some adults, really, really happy.

Setting up a water table for the kids race

Sunday, after the completion of the race, everyone pitches in to setup mini aid stations for the Kids 5K race. I could write an entire article around the fun and excitement associated with this aspect of event participation, but I’ll refrain, and instead share more about the ultramarathon.

4:00 A.M. Comes Early

Walking to the start of this year’s race, I was heckled by a local Nicaraguan stumbling across the street who obviously had yet to call it a night. I laughed at the contrast between us as I nervously climbed the hill to race headquarters, focused and ready to battle, once again, with the Island volcanoes.

100K and 50K runners from all over the world were lined up, ready to test themselves against the various challenges that make Fuego Y Agua very unique and even more challenging. I couldn’t help but think about the 25K runners, still sound asleep, as their race didn’t start until 7:00 a.m.

Lucky $%*!.

The start of the 2012 Fuego Y Agua

Chasing the First Volcano

From the start, the race takes runners along a rocky, sandy trail that has a way of sucking the life out of you if you aren’t paying attention. If you’re smart, you’ll seek out special side-sections where the sand is more compact and runnable, but eventually ends up the same way – dusty, dirty, soft sand that wakes up the achilles quickly.

This year, we were treated to a black-sand beach section, that while challenging, made for a surreal experience. I hit the beach just as the sun was coming up and seeing daybreak from this perspective was something that will stick with me for a long, long time.

Throw in some technical single-track trail off the beach, a trot through some thick, lush banana plantations, a few sneaky gates to leap, a quick checkpoint through Ojo de Agua, and it wasn’t long before runners found themselves at El Porvenir – the base of Volcan Maderas.

Welcome to Hell

Volcan Maderas is hard. Period. There are no switch-backs. Runners begin climbing scraggly, rocky single-track, before hitting the most technical section of the volcano. Think mud. Lots of deep, disturbing, steep, slippery mud …for a really, really long time.

Entering the crater on top of Volcan Maderas

At the top, being that Maderas is a dormant volcano, we descend into the crater to hit the checkpoint, grab some fluids and food, and immediately begin to climb back out of the crater, and into the Jungle Gym.

Swingin’ Like A Monkey

That’s what you do in the jungle gym section. The trail turns into sections of nothing but shin-to-knee deep mud, tangles of tree limbs, and sneaky little sections that require runners to crawl, dip, dive, jump, swing and hang across all sorts of natural obstacles. It’s a wild experience that made me laugh out loud as I navigated by blue ribbons alone.

Listen for the monkeys.

When they start getting crabby and making lots of noise, you know you’re finally getting close to the bottom of this beast.

50K – End of Line or Only Halfway?

After the volcano section, runners enter the Hacienda Merida, where 50K runners get to call it a day, and 100K runners hit some drop bags, clean up a little, refuel, and head back out for a brutal, all-out beat-down under the exposed Nicaraguan tropical sun.

Hangin' with my new German buddy, Martin

Volcan Concepcion, the second volcano runners must ascend and descend, stays in your sights for the remainder of the race. It taunts you. Teases you. Begs you to “come get some.” Eventually, after long stretches of hot exposed dirt running, road running, and rock running, you get to do just that.

And Volcan Concepcion serves it up steep, dusty, dirty with all kinds of neat interesting critters and nature along the way – scorpions, big spiders, thorny trees, creepy giant frogs, rat-squirrel-looking-things, and plenty of ants to make sure you don’t stop and lay in the dirt to rest.

Volcan Concepcion

Descending Concepcion offers runners just enough grade to be crazy-stupid, but usually slams you on your butt a few good times to ensure you don’t forget her. She throws rocks and obstacles at you that you never saw coming and mangles your mind into thinking the road to home just ain’t comin’.

But when you see that dirt road, you know

You know it’s only a few more miles and you’ll be running into Moyogalpa with a big ol’ grin, a pair of dirty ol’ legs, and a feeling of accomplishment that is only intensified by the warm and exciting greeting you get at the finish.

Shredded, but happy at the finish of the 2012 Fuego Y Agua

There’s a special vibe at Fuego Y Agua. Something that is very difficult to articulate. One must experience it to fully understand it.

I’m already registered for 2013.

Will you join me?

A little post-race vibe expression as I find a chill spot to reflect