Did That Really Happen?

Volcan Concepcion

A 2014 Fuego Y Agua Race Experience

“WE GOTTA GET DOWN!  WE GOTTA GET DOWN!” he screamed repeatedly, over and over and over, butt-sliding left and right across the warm bed of scree-like lava rocks.

The wind was blowing incredibly hard, so violently that the little bit of sweaty clothes we did have on cracked and smacked our skin like wet towels in a locker room.

It was so loud. Like a freight train. 60 mph, 70 mph, 80 mph, who knows? We didn’t have that kind of science available to us, but this is for damn sure – if you stood up, it’s very likely, you would go down.

And going down on Volcan Concepcion can mean a multitude of things – getting blown down, getting blown into a cave-in, or getting blown into the damn crater of the volcano. It’s a race situation that might just be the most surreal moment I have ever experienced.

“#$%^! WHERE’S THE TRAILHEAD!?!?”

“Oh, my God, I can’t see the trailhead!” Eddie continued to yell out, but I could barely hear him. He was less than 12 feet away from me, but I could barely hear him or see him. Between the yells of both Eddie and Gerardo, I couldn’t hear anything clearly, just muffled noises sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher in a Peanuts episode.

For a moment, a very brief, but very real moment, I had to contemplate, “what will happen to us if we are stuck up here?”

Josue Doesn’t Play

The quote that summed up the entire 2014 Fuego Y Agua trip was made by race director, Josue Stephens as I limped over to him, a few hours after the official finish of the grueling 100K ultramarathon, and simply asked, “why?”

In typical, Josue-style, he merely said, “I wanted to make it harder this year.”

And that he did. Clearly, 50% finisher rates of the previous years were too many finishers for him. He had to go bigger. Harder. More challenging.

Even as a victim of such changes, I can honestly say, without hesitation, that I am glad he did.

Changes for the Better?

In previous years, we ascended Volcan Maderas, the 4500 foot dormant volcano, with about 18 miles on our legs. This year, because we started in the small beach community of Santo Domingo, we hit the volcano fresh, with less than 5 miles in the bank.

This made climbing Maderas quite a bit easier, but shockingly, not much faster. Perhaps I found myself in a chatty group for far too long, because once I broke away from the group, I started climbing very fast.

A lot of runners who only had last year as a frame of reference for conditions, complained about the deep and grueling mud during the last 200 meters of the climb, as well as the knee-deep muddy conditions at the top, in the crater, and deep inside the jungle gym section; but having done this race four times, I knew this is the way it usually is, and that last year was pretty much a fluke of dryness.

Volcan Maderas also had a couple of dramatic blow-downs as runners descended into the crater, which for those of us with obstacle experience, made for some fun challenges.

Descending into the crater on Volcan Maderas
photo credit: Jack Jewell

Fuego Y Agua races require significant use of the upper body and hands to navigate the raw jungle terrain, but it also really breaks up the running, and adds a Tarzan feel unmatched by any ultra I have ever done in the states.

Fuego Y Agua 2014

Grab Your Partner, It’s Time for Heatdown

Now, remember when I said we used to hit Volcan Maderas after running 18 miles of the race course, first?

Well, that 18 miles was run primarily in the dark, at 4:00 a.m. when it’s rather cool, and comfortable. In those days, it usually just started to heat up as you hit the volcano, and then you were covered for hours by thick jungle, all the way up the volcano, and down. It wasn’t until you raced into the 50K aid station, the halfway point, that the searing heat started to smack you down.

This time, however, since we came off the volcano so early, Josue constructed a loooong, 20-mile stretch, around the uninhabited side of the Island, along some of the most rocky and treacherous terrain you have ever seen. Vehicles rarely go back there, and aside from a crew vehicle helping out a group of Costa Ricans, I don’t think I saw any vehicles at all.

It was RUGGED.

Heatdown at FYA 2014

This section was completely exposed in the grueling tropical sun with very little shade anywhere, and this is where most runners took a very special beating.

As I approached the aid station at approximately 42K (about a marathon’s distance into the race), I ran up on Zoli, a runner from Israel, who was laying on the road, shot-out, dejected, and afraid the aid station was never coming.

Comically, it was about 400 meters away from him.

Tough stretch, that pretty much sucked the life out of everyone, and created handfuls of grumpy zombies.

Halfway Done

I made the poor decision of wearing trail racing flats for the first 32 miles of the race. For the volcano climb, they were perfect; but, I had no frame of reference for the 20 miles of gnarly rocks to follow, and my flats literally melted. My bottom forefeet were so badly bruised and blistered that every single step became agonizingly painful.

Damn that Josue! (I say that an awful lot, lately)

Trashed feet

My buddy Eddie Yanick, a young 23-ish kid I know from the obstacle racing world, caught up to me a little over a mile or so from the 50K checkpoint. I was in daze and wobbling along, thinking I had until 5:00 p.m. to get there.

I didn’t.

I had ’til 3:00 p.m. to get there. Less than 15 minutes, and I was wrecked.

After alerting me to such, Eddie breaks into a decent pace, and I just couldn’t hang on, but knew that if I was to make the cut-off, I had to run briskly. I was sure I was going to call it a day at 50K, but I wanted it to be MY decision, not a race decision.

I came through just a few minutes before the cut-off, where Josue was hanging around, and we chatted as I came through checkpoint.

Christian Griffith just barely making the cutoff

“You going back out?” he asked.

“Nope, I’m done.” I said, before following that up with the usual ultrarunner excuses, “dude, my feet …that course …those rocks, dude…”

You know, you try to find some way to rationalize why you simply aren’t good enough, cuz who wants to admit that they just aren’t good enough?

Josue Stephens and Christian Griffith coming through the 50K checkpoint

And there I sat, content with 50K, …but not really.

Damn You, Eddie

Bastard! There goes Eddie.

My buddy Eddie was being escorted out by Zac, co-race director, and I got this lame feeling in the pit of my stomach.

It was just a week ago that I had gotten on my high-horse, going all Mr. ultra-experienced man, telling Eddie how he should manage his racing and how he should consider my way of thinking over his way of thinking. I was convinced I was “looking out for this young man,” yet there he goes, headed back out into the race, …and here I sit.

Funny how God, Karma, Buddha, circumstance, …whatever, can serve us valuable lessons, and flip the switch on us quickly and dramatically.

“Screw it, I’m going back out” I proclaimed, secretly wondering what in the Hell I was doing, but I was not going to let Eddie go out while I sat on my ass in that chair and watched him run down the beach, headed to Volcan Concepcion, and the most exciting, challenging portion of the entire event.

No way.

John Taylor grabbed my drop bag for me (thank you, JT), watched me clean my feet with wet wipes, ignoring the monster blisters on my feet, changing shoes, grabbing a handful of who-knows-what to eat, and heading out, down the beach, after Mr. Eddie Yanick, that %^$! whippersnapper.

What Was I Thinking?

The sun was slowly going down.

After almost a mile on the sand, I came off the beach, and looked back to the hoopla from which I just came. I could barely make out all the celebrations and lights at the 50K finish, and as the adrenaline of soldiering on faded away, the pain in my feet rapidly progressed.

As I meandered through a banana plantation, heading to the gnarliest section of the race, the live volcano, Volcan Concepcion, I wondered aloud, “Oh man, what did I do?”

I was both excited, and fearful. This was a new route we were taking. It’s very long, 1600 meters (5400 feet) up, and very, very steep, without switchbacks of any kind.

I was alone.

But, thankfully, not for long.

Compadres on Volcan Concepcion

Standing at the base, looking up to the top of the volcano, looked like hundreds of miles away. The live crater rose to the heavens, hidden by a growing layer of clouds building around the top.

Volcan Concepcion

Little did we know that a system was developing up there that was about to wreck some climbers.

The start of the climb begins with a gradual approach, before making a dramatic change to large rocks, and a steep ascent. I just put my head down, found a couple of sticks, and ever-so-slowly started climbing the volcanic beast.

It wasn’t long before I heard people behind me, “What? That doesn’t make sense…” I wondered. “I thought I was the last to leave the camp at 50K.”

I was.

Turns out, Eddie, and another runner from El Salvador, Gerardo, had taken a wrong turn, and I passed them early in the climb.

“Man, am I glad to see you!” I admitted to Eddie.

Little did I know just how important it was for us three to be together on that climb.

Ascension into Descension

We climbed for almost two hours before finally coming to a group of guides who were serving as checkpoint volunteers.

“Are we here?” I asked most hopefully.

“Not even close, about 800 meters to go” said the volunteer.

I quickly did the math in my head, “dude, we are only halfway…”

It was dark now, and I just wanted to stay there, eat a burrito, and sleep.

As we left, the volunteer instructed us, “Don’t go all the way to crater, just go to the glow sticks. It’s not safe at the crater.”

Ok, “glow sticks,” check. Got it.

We climbed on.

This was literally “rock climbing.” Hand over hand, in a sort of crab crawl, as we took turns leading our three-man group. We ascended up the volcano, into the clouds, and started seeing a few runners who were ahead of us, coming down.

Interestingly, and shockingly, each new runner that came down looked worse than the runner before him.

One was climbing down backwards because his quads were so shot, he could no longer go forwards.

As runners passed us coming back down, we were given the following paraphrased quotes:

And most of this came in the form of another language, usually Spanish, but Gerado was able to kinda-sorta translate for us. Thank God for Gerardo.

We couldn’t understand why everyone looked so trashed. I mean the wind was blowing, and it was wet up in the clouds, but nothing too dramatic, …what gives?

We kept crawling.

Then, rapidly, about 100 meters from the top, conditions went absolutely crazy. The wind was blowing increasingly hard, flapping our clothes, erasing our voices, and forcing us to stay as low as possible.

It felt like a movie. You know when you see a storm on a ship in a movie and actors are yelling at each other and nobody can hear and everyone is in a panic? This was us. But we kept our head down determined to reach the top.

Then we popped out of the tree line, and all Hell broke loose.

“GET DOWN!” yelled Gerado as he led us up.

Great suggestion, but dude, me and Eddie are already down, bro.

We were worm-crawling on our bellies, and freaking out, because we couldn’t see anything. The clouds were so thick that our headlamps were reflecting off all of the moisture in the air, creating a sort of white-out. I could barely see my hand in front of my face.

Then, the scree rock we were slithering on began to get warm. Unusually warm.

“Holy crap, dude, the rocks are getting warm!”, I yelled, “We gotta be getting close!”

And before I could get that sentence out of my month, Gerardo screams loudly, “GUYS! STOP! We are here!”

My hand was literally on the lip of crater. Not just close to it. Not even five feet from it. Nope, right smack-dab on it. Another two feet, and this story could be entirely different.

Concepcion crater

We sat up, huddled together in the dramatic, crazy wind and blowing rain, smelling the strong fumes of sulfur pouring out of the crater next to us, and congratulating ourselves for persevering and making it to the top.

That lasted maybe 30 seconds.

Now What?

“Wait a minute, I don’t see any glow sticks!?” I screamed.

“Me neither…” yelled Gerardo back.

Eddie is strangely quiet for awhile, but he’s shivering badly. I’m not sure what’s going on with him. Is he having a Zen moment? Is he in shock? He looks really freakin cold.

We all begin scurrying around the lip of the crater trying to find something race-related to prove we were there.

Nothing.

My hat blows off, seemingly into the crater, but because I can’t see a damn thing but white and lava rock below me, I’m not sure where it goes, but its gone.

Eddie begins to come unglued a bit.

“We gotta get down! We gotta get down!”

I can see he’s cold, and I can see he’s scared. I can hear he’s scared. I am, too, but I’m kind of in a state of shock with the dramatic scene unfolding in front of me. It’s both really freaking cool, and really freaking scary, all at the same time. Sensory overload.

That’s when we all realized we made a big mistake.

In our scurrying around, and due to the fact that we can’t see more than five feet in front of us, we lost where the trail opens back up into the tree line below us.

It’s very dangerous to crawl around sideways on Concepcion, and especially that high and close to the crater, because there can be cave-ins that do just that.

I started to drop down and move to our left, looking for the trailhead; Gerado, to the right.

Eddie was with me, and we moved erratically in a panic, looking around, squinting between that fine line between white-out and the brown lava rocks, just trying to find a way to get out of the conditions for a minute and collect ourselves. Gerado, moving to the right, and being in much more control, finally found the opening in the brush, whistled loudly at us, and we followed him down, back into the jungle.

Other than thanking Gerardo profusely for his calm reactions, the three of us remained mostly silent for the first hour of descent back down.

Grateful for life as it was at that moment.

Coming Back Down

“How are we ever going to explain this experience, Eddie” I asked as we descended.

“I have no idea.” was pretty much his response. “I don’t know that we can.”

We now understood why each runner we saw coming down looked worse than the guy before him. We now understood why they were climbing down so slowly, as the descent, now wet and muddy for us climbing at night, was as nasty and slow as the climb up.

The name of the game was two steps and fall. Over and over and over.

It was like an MMA fight. The rocks just kept kicking and punching us the entire way down.

Volcan Concepcion is no joke, especially in the conditions in which we got to taste her. It felt like she did not want us there, and she was certainly succeeding at running us off.

Just Not Good Enough

And like that, we were faced with the race reality no one enjoys – we just weren’t good enough.

We were too slow climbing Concepcion. We wasted too much time on the climb, too much time at the top, and too much time during the descent.

At 1:00 a.m., 20 hours into the race and with only 4 hours to go the remaining 18 miles, our race was over.

Too Hard?

A lot of buzz developed about the race. Some people limping away angry.

Did Josue make it too hard?

With only 15 finishers in a field of 65, is that something a race director wants?

I’m willing to bet that yes, that’s exactly what Josue wants, and I accept it.

There was talk regarding, “should we change the course?” And man, after a lot of introspection, I really hope he does NOT change the course. The bar has been raised, set to a new level, and for those of us that want it this gnarly, want life-changing experiences, they are here, on this Island for the taking.

I have finished this 100K three times before, but this course beat me.

I don’t want a lesser opponent, I want to be a stronger fighter.

Either way, I’ll be back for the magic that is Fuego Y Agua 100K next year, and whatever the course, even if harder than THIS year, I will strap on the gear, buck up, and set out to do whatever Josue thinks we will not be able to do.

Somebody’s gotta beat this dude at his own game.

Why not me?

p.s. This is what the crater would have looked like if we could have actually seen it. Kinda glad I didn’t.

Volcan Concepcion crater