A Fuego Y Agua Survival Run Race Report
At the end of 2014, my wife left me.
And for good reason. The damage I did to her, has now been transferred to me, and I have been a chaotic mess since. It consumes me. It’s something that hurts every single day, and something that deeply affected my training, and my goals leading into this challenging event.
Therefore, this report isn’t going to be your usual report. There will be very little obstacle challenge clues, no turn-by-turn explanations, and certainly no holier-than-thou suggestions for next year – so if that’s what you want, there are 50 other race reports popping up all over social media, and from far more capable athletes than me.
My report is going to focus on the Survival Race from a personal perspective. I’m going to expose some things that are difficult to talk about. I’m going to share how, halfway through my year of training, the race took on a whole new meaning for me, and most importantly, I’m going to focus on how the people I met affected me. How new individuals came into my life at exactly the moment I believe they were supposed to show up. A living Celestine Prophecy.
I’m selfishly writing this for me, more than you.
This is Survival Run, Christian Griffith stylee, so yea, it’s gonna be a little weird.
Let’s start with Mikey
On the ferry over to Isle de Ometepe, the volcanic island in Nicaragua where the Fuego Y Agua 25k/50K/100K and Survival Run events take place, we met Mikey. Well, ok, “Mike.” Mike Jay. But, I call him Mikey.
Mikey impressed me within the first 10 minutes of meeting him, and this stoke only grew as I learned more and more about this man. He’s a retired Navy diver, currently living between the Nicaraguan surf town of San Juan del Sur, and Flagstaff, Arizona, in the states. He’s a veteran who has literally been through the shit, having served in the armpits of Afghanistan, and the Middle East, and who has scars from multiple bullet wounds.
Yup, real, live, honest-to-goodness “bullets.” Getting shot is still something I can’t truly comprehend.
In fact, I was lucky enough to meet one of his deepest homeboys – a man who carried him miles to safety as a wounded soldier in Afghanistan.
Heavy stuff. Heavy stuff in which I have no real frame of reference due to my sheltered existence, but stuff for which I carry great admiration and thankfulness.
Knowing that our room on the island sorta “feel through,” Mikey immediately stepped up to not only translate for me with the broken hotel, but also, and most graciously, offered us his room as roomies for a few days. This turned out to be the first in many “giving” moments with Mikey. Truly one of those people who cares more about stoking others, than himself.
I could go on and on and on about Mikey, and even his kick-ass lady, but unless you were there, it would probably be boring to you, and since I have the glorious gift of gab, I should probably just end his piece right here.
I love you, Mikey. I look forward to doing rim to rim to rim with you at the Grand Canyon this year, and hope that we remain boys, and grow our friendship for many years to come. You are one of those men that I admire, and aspire to emulate in my own life.
Buena onda, amigo.
Knowing there would be significant swimming in Survival Run, my arrival on the island had me worried. Because of my paralyzed diaphragm, I continue to struggle in the water – at least in comparison to the way I used to be where I was practically a human fish. The weight of the water constricts my chest and makes breathing a little more difficult, which in turn, creates small bouts of panic. Panic in the water es no bueno, so I have to concentrate intently on keeping my breathing steady and calm, keeping my heart rate low, and not allowing myself to panic, …ever.
Conditions on the island were very, very choppy, so being the cool dude Mikey is, we hit the water for some “comfort swimming” where I gained some confidence by swimming way out, a couple days in a row, to get comfortable with the challenging conditions. He taught me the combat swim stroke, and he and my friends Will, Haidar, and Shanna, swam distance and knocked out beach workouts to keep the butterflies away.
I went into the swim portion of the race with hella confidence, and actually crushed that part of the event, and I have Mikey and Will to thank for it. Chalk up yet another point for “the athletes” of Fuego Y Agua.
Race Day Doesn’t Always Go Your Way
Remember when I said I killed the swimming? Well, that was quickly negated by my inability to find my race number, so I might as well have just floated out there.
When Josue said, “go” we had to run about 5K down the beach, across some rocks, and then start swimming a little less than a mile towards “Bird Shit Island.” We were to retrieve an egg with a number on it, and then swim back with it without letting it break. I passed a lot of people on the swim to the island, and on the return swim back.
But once I ran to the plantain orchard to find my number, which was one of 45 numbers randomly attached to plantain trees somewhere in orchard, I couldn’t find my tree. I was there for what seemed like 45 minutes, seeing every number except my number. I heard runners come in, quickly find their tree, cut it down, cut off the bushel of plantains, and take off running for the next checkpoint, all while I floundered around, lost in the orchard, and number-less.
It got dark. I pulled out the headlamp, and finally found my tree.
Away I go, to the next checkpoint, with 16 pounds of plantains, my 25 lb pack, and a heavy load of frustrated aggravation.
I spent the next 30 minutes completely alone along a dark beach. Dark in Nicaragua is black-dark. No street lights (or very few), and very few “establishments.” It was so dark and lonely, I started to wonder if I had gone the wrong way down the beach. I came into the previous checkpoint around a lot of other athletes, but all of sudden found myself around no one.
On the beach, near the small hostel town of Santa Cruz, a drum circle of latin hippies pointed to a peninsula in front of me, and kept yelling “rocas” (which means rocks).
“Seriously?” I thought.
All that was there was a jagged, wet, slippery coastline of rocks. No discernible trail. No course markers. No confidence ribbons. Just rocks and trees and debris. We were to traverse this rocky coastline, for a looooong way. Slow, slippery and painful.
Luckily, Paul (American) and Luz (Nicaraguan), came up behind me, and I stayed with them almost the entire way to the dive challenge. Again, chalk one up for the athletes of FYA, as I never expected that section to be that long, and I started to turn back many times.
Early Low Point
The frustration associated with falling behind early, and then struggling on the rocks, had me a little mentally low. I started to question whether or not I was “Survival Race” material. “Should I have just stuck the ultramarathons like years past?”
I mean, “I’m no Nick Hollon, y’know…”
More miles passed, more challenges, and by the time I arrived at the grueling sand bag carry challenge, I just put my head down, ground out five trips up the 200 meter hill, with my heavy bags of sand, and spoke to almost no one.
Making It Up on Maderas
“Christian, you’re going to need to make up some time on the climb up Maderas,” said race coordinator, Sean Meehan.
Talk about another mental blow… I mean, I realize many of you don’t know about these volcanoes, and how hard they are, but imagine gaining about 1000 feet per 1K of distance. We’re talking 4,500 feet of climbing, about 3.5 – 4 hours of straight-up, with no switch-backs, and hella muddy. Like, shoe-sucking muddy. Hardly the place to consider “making up time.”
And worse, I was completely out of water.
People who know me are shaking their heads right now. Go ahead. It’s ok, I know what you are thinking. “Christian is such a race planning mess.”
And you’d be right.
And Then, The Lowest Point
After trying to tough it out sans water, I finally started sitting down at various points in the climb, fatigued, thirsty, probably dehydrated, and waiting for others to catch up, so I could beg for a sip of water.
Probably my biggest savior at this point was the incredibly strong female athlete, Ekaterina Solovieva. She came up behind me all positive and bubbly an’ shit, and offered me all kinds of water. I think I fell in love.
This started a pattern of drinking from “Solo,” then moving ahead. Stopping. Waiting for Solo. Drinking from Solo. Then, Moving on ahead… repeat.
Until we eventually summited the volcano, dropped into the crater, and then, promptly told, “Christian, I gotta turn you around…” Gabi Stephens was volunteering and climbing back out of the crater, unaware that the cut-offs had been extended, and thus turning us around, which then had me turning around people coming up behind me.
And I thought my race was over.
BUT, like I promised myself coming into Survival Race, I was NOT going to quit. The only way I am walking off the course is if I am told specifically to do so. Otherwise, I will keep moving, no matter how slow and damaged.
I caught up to Nicaraguan, Luz, and although we didn’t say much as we ran down the mountain, it was nice to be together, and I think we both benefited from the mutual company. I stopped her from getting lost multiple times 🙂
The sun came up. I was 12-13 hours into the race, and starting to come alive.
Better late than never.
It a’int Over ’til the Fat Lady Sings
Running at a decent clip, Luz and I came cruising into the checkpoint at the bottom of the volcano, just as the course designer, Ben, was instructing other athletes on the challenges necessary to complete this checkpoint.
Challenge: Roll a rock, well over 100 pounds, through a dried creek bed, and up a hill, for somewhere around a ridiculous 50 yards or more, before sawing down a bamboo stalk and climbing a tree with it. Looking back, and hearing all racer stories, I learned you could have carried the rock, and some did, which would have been right in my wheelhouse, but nope, I’m stupid, and actually tried to roll a square rock for 45 minutes…
I was about to time out again, so I left, with female competitor, Nele Schulz, before we both got pulled, and finally getting a chance to get to know her. Nele is a Spartan Death Race competitor, and popular athlete in our little sick circle, and I was curious to learn what she was all about.
Another challenge skipped, but still in the game.
I was about to regret being “still in the game.”
The Mean, Nasty, Evil, Slippery, Dangerous, Challenging, Rocks
Nele and I were actually having a rather pleasant morning, minus the 150 degree temps at 8:00 a.m., and the piercing sun searing our skulls on the open dirt road. We took time to talk to competitors, who had made the previous challenges, and thus were walking down the road carrying bamboo. Female leader Corinne, and somewhere-in-the-front-pack John Taylor, were both in decent spirits considering we were all shot-out, sleepy, and somewhat shocked at the race difficulty thus far.
The four of us happened upon a little local store, …well, really, just a house with a Nica family selling sodas out of an Igloo cooler…, and scored some sugary sex. It’s was an ice cold life-saver, but like most cold things in the jungle, fleeting.
It wasn’t long before we found ourselves at what I found to be the most difficult challenge of any of them – the long, “who-knows-how-many-miles,” rock traverse. Course designer, Ben, said he’s done this traverse in 2.5 hours, but fresh. It took us over 4 hours, not even close to fresh, and feeling unsure and lost the entire time.
By this time, Nele and I had teamed up with Mike Ruhlin, the quiet beast, and the three of us scattered across the rocks, swam around difficult sections (with our packs, of course), and did our best to bush-whack around points that we simply could not find a way around otherwise, or that we thought might be smarter – which it never was. But, had it not been for Mike and Nele, I may have, at best, had a complete nervous breakdown out there, or at worst, flat-out froze on the rocks, convinced I was lost, and waiting for a rescue boat.
I cannot express how helpful it was to find slivers of shade during this rock-climbing-scrambling-crawling section, and sit down with my new friends, and bitch about how crazy Ben and Josue are to think this is something we should be doing, now 15-16 hours into the race. “Adapt or Die,” the race motto, continued to pound in my head, and we’d suck it up, slip on our soaked packs, and scramble on.
“Guys, You’re Done”
Oh my God, music to my ears. The race directors made the decision to stop us from climbing Concepcion, the final section of the race, as it was most likely that we would not make the cut-offs, and bringing down the volunteers made sense. Nele, being the bulldog that she is, argued for a mere second, and I shot her the most searing stink-eye. “NOOOOO, NELE. SHUT UP.” I was done. Dehydrated, hot, tired, and dead-legged. I did not want to climb, and was happy to get pulled; but if they would have let us, and Nele would have gone, I would have had to have gone, too, dammit.
We made our way to the final checkpoint before the Concepcion climb, and I cried to whoever would listen about how thirsty I was, and how badly my body hurt. Then, promptly crawled in the back of a pickup track, laying on an empty kayak, took off my mud-caked shoes, and waited for the ride back to start/finish, where I’d eat 2 full meals of fish, lobster, shrimp, chicken, beef and pork with gallo pinto (beans and rice), fried cheese, salad, plantains, and 8 glasses of passion fruit juice. Oh, and a bowl of ice cream. Maybe, two.
What Makes a Successful Race
Let’s be perfectly clear, I did not finish Survival Race. Not officially, not unofficially, not even close. I did not cover the entire distance, did not complete all the challenges, and even if time permitted, some things were just too challenging for me; but I did not quit. Even when I thought my race was over, I kept moving as though I was still in the fight – and I was. It’s a good lesson, both for racing and life:
Never give up, never give in, and never walk off a course until you are specifically told to do so. And even then, continue to question it. Continue to fight until the bell rings.
But besides the event itself, 2015 was yet another Fuego Y Agua success because, like every other year, I came away with new friends, new perspective, and new growth. If it wasn’t for the following people, my race and experiences on Isle de Ometepe would not have been the same.
Check out these shout-outs, and while you are, imagine yourself being here next year, and experiencing the same kind of things:
Ben, Sean and Josue
You guys out-did yourselves, and Josue, once again, I cussed your name a record number of times, convinced that you are a true masochist. I feel sorry for Corinne. But seriously, we’ve been boys for 5 years now, and you continue to impress me with your growth as an RD, your vision, and your dedication to making the most difficult events on the planet.
Sharing this event experience with my cousin continues to make this event a new kind of special for me. Watching you come in, 4th female, and blazingly fast, during the grueling 50K impressed me so much, and I pounded my chest saying, “that’s MY cousin,” all weekend. I sure hope this becomes tradition for us.
Dude, sharing some serious shit with you has my mind stirring. I appreciate the straight-up advice, calling me on my bullshit, and helping me to see past my fears and reliance on money, pride, popularity and all the other shallow, meaningless crap. Love you, brutha’.
Seriously? You’re human? I won’t believe it until its proven to me. Congratulations on your 100K finish, and knocking out beach workouts with you was a blast. I had a total conversation with you while you slept in the hammock, post-race. 🙂
Whatever, dude. I already threw a bunch of love at you. And, by the way, Annie is the bomb, and I love her, and you should marry her, and live happily ever after in Arizona, …and then sell me your beach place in San Juan. Done… I’ll pay you $20 month.
You, along with others, saved my life on Maderas by hydrating me. I’m not sure how or why I thought I could clear that section with no water; but, the biggest thrill of all was being carried 3/4 of a mile, on your back, during the beer mile. My first Beer Mile, and as usual for me, done uniquely and differently.
Nele, Haidar, John Taylor, Paul, Will (and family), Mike Ruhlin, Colin, Jamie, Amie and all the Survival Race competitors
Many tightly formed bonds, some new, and some renewed, that will continue to run past the life of Facebook. You are all family, and if anyone of you doesn’t make the trip next year, there will be a hole in the game. Love my Survival Tribe. Love this band of weirdos.
Jason Rita (and film crew)
Thank you for being such a strong supporter of me. I loved doing the interviews for the show, and love talking about the Survival Run experience. I can’t help but get really excited and expressive – like a kid – and you totally feed it, allowing me to just express myself. Thank you.
G-Unit, we’ve been boys for years now, but I watched you blossom as a photographer during these events. You went over and above to score great shots, and I encourage everyone to go buy some. Incredible. You made me feel good, and proud, and like a real athlete.
Gabi Stephens (and friends)
As usual, you surround yourself around special people. Jenni and Kate were flat-out awesome, and I feel lucky to have gotten to know them both; and of course, Brendon and Andrew being around is super special for me. It’s so cool watching them grow up inside this FYA family, and the relationship I have developed with the kids makes me feel part of the family. “Christian Stephens.” It has a ring to it, ya know?
A special shout-out to Devil’s Double finisher, Mark Wheeler, cuz bro, you are the real deal, man. At 45 years old this year, I struggle so much with getting older, and feeling like it’s starting to take its toll; and then athletes like you show up and destroy all preconceived concerns about age. You became my biggest inspiration, and I admire you greatly – not only your athletic prowess, but as a damn good man, as well. (with a beautiful wife, too, doh!)
Volunteers and Anyone Else I missed
Without the volunteers, there is no race. No safety. No instruction. No guidance. Seeing a smiling face, even when I know you guys were working like 12-14 hour days, was really uplifting. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And thank you to all the individuals who touched my race, and FYA experience, and sent me home feeling like this.
I feel complete. Strong. Good. …and happy.
Another successful Fuego Y Agua event experience. Who’s in for 2016? We have a an extra bed…