Sunday, February 24, 2013

Giving back: the Calzedo Kids run

Ometepe has a large population of dogs and puppies. Photo Jason Guidusko.
Omeptepe is a beautiful island formed by two volcanoes joined by an isthmus giving it an hourglass shape. Maderas and Concepcion volcanoes, both of the recent Holocene Epoch, rise from Lake Nicaragua around 5,000 feet with wispy clouds of condensed volcanic gasses encircling the summit of Concepcion. The flanks of this active stratovolcano are made from pyroclastic deposits and loose tephra from its previous eruptions, the most recent of which was in 2010. On the majestic Maderas volcano, plantain crops, coffee and tobacco plantations give way to rainforest on its flanks offering hikers breathtaking views from the summit crater. The island is inhabited by nearly 30,000 people as well as numerous dogs and horses that roam freely through the plantain fields and towns. While appearing very thin by American standards, these populations are clearly very healthy and thriving with little human intervention.

Concepcion volcano from Lake Nicaragua

The sheer beauty of Ometepe carries a magical experience shared by all who visit. It isn't to say that this beautiful island is without problems. The people of Ometepe are very poor; homes are dilapidated and tools and resources are in limited supply. Another quite apparent problem on the island is that of trash disposal. The municipalities of Ometepe do not offer any trash removal from the island, so the only viable means of trash removal is to burn it. The larger towns, such as Moyogalpa, are shrouded in a low lying smoke, much like the summit of the Concepcion volcano lies in its own cloud of gas. Loose trash lines the streets, beaches, and public areas throughout the island.

My journey to Ometepe had two purposes. One was to be a part of the inaugural 75K Fuego Y Agua Survival Run and the other was to take advantage of an opportunity to give back to the community that would host our event. The day before the event there would be an island clean up and the day following the races there would be opportunities to volunteer for the Calzado Kids run. The kids run was a 3K race for island children where all participants would receive a t-shirt, finisher's medal and a pair of new or gently used running shoes donated by volunteers and participants from the Fuego Y Agua event. I came to the island toting 15 pairs of gently used shoes donated from friends and family, extra pairs of new socks, and a laptop that served no purpose at home. I felt confident that coming from an affluent country with excess material goods surely I had something of offer the villagers of Ometepe to improve the quality of their lives. What I didn't realize was that the villagers of Ometepe would give more to me than I could ever possibly give back to them.
Me with some of the local kids I met who were playing a pick-up game of soccer with an empty Coke bottle.

On my first day in Moyogalpa, my friend Lani and I rented bicycles to explore the nearby area and stretch our legs as we acclimated to the hot, humid conditions of Nicaragua. We toured the region taking in everything: the landscape, the culture and the animals of the island. We traveled down the road in fresh, clean sundresses and sunhats (OK, that was just me) and being used to my $1,000 mountain bike, I promptly busted the chain on my rental bicycle by applying too much pressure to the pedals. I tried to figure out how to repair the chain, but without any tools, I was at a total loss. Within minutes, a man emerged from a nearby home and offered to have his son fix my bike. Figuring that they would not have bicycle tools, I politely declined in broken Spanish, but he insisted. Knowing I had nothing to lose, we sat near the road and watched the boy's mother as she swept dirt in the front yard. It was evident that the Nicaraguan people were very clean people who take great pride in their appearance and care of their homes, despite being uninhabitable by western standards. A few small children emerged and Lani and I took pictures of them much to their delight. The boy clanged on the chain with a good sized stone and wheeled the bicycle back within minutes at the request of only 10 cordobas (US about 43 cents) for his efforts. I was incredibly grateful for the help and the graciousness of the family. I was humbled by the realization that these people were not really handicapped by the lack of tools that I have become so reliant upon: they have simply adapted using simper tools.

Hundreds of pairs of shoes donated for the Calzedo Kids run.

After 4 days on Ometepe, the day finally arrived for the Calzado Kids run- the event I had been looking forward to since before I arrived in Nicaragua. About a dozen Fuego Y Agua ultra and survival runners were given our assignment which was to prepare and man two water stations for the 650 children who would soon fill the streets if Moyogalpa. About a half dozen of us were dropped off just outside of town and we prepared water cups for the runners who would soon be upon us.
At the starting line, the children were given their new running shoes and lined up in color coded t-shirts of their respective communities. Some wore their new sneakers right away, others proudly carried them for the duration of the 3 km race. The runners made their way to our aid station and their smiles and joy were infectious.
Calzedo Kids run. Photo Louise Lakier Photography

Volunteers at water station #2

As the racers passed, I stood in the middle of the road with handfuls of cups announcing " le gusta el agua". The kids laughed at my terrible Spanish, but seemed to appreciate my effort. One thing that struck me was that despite the fact that the island was littered with trash, after drinking water, every child either placed their used cup back on the water station table or followed me to give it back. One little girl even chased down my hat after it was taken by a gust of wind and waited patiently for a chance to place it back on my head. I said "¡muchas gracias!" and she giggled and continued on to catch up to her brothers.
Adam and Matt mid-pack running alongside the kids in the Calzedo Kids Run

 In this moment, I realized something about the people of Ometepe that had taken me all week to articulate: they are happy, kind, proud and wonderful people. I felt a little embarrassed at my own assumption that poor meant unsatisfied and that I was somehow superior to the inhabitants of this small third-world island. In truth, I wonder if perhaps their simpler lives without the clutter of materialism of the industrialized world are better off? How is happiness and quality of life defined anyway? 
This isn't to say that there are not environmental issues threatening the future of the island that need to be addressed to preserve its beauty for future generations, but really, how much industrial intervention is really needed or desired?

Upon reaching the finish line, kids blanketed the town of Moyogalpa. Many stopped to pose with their medals when they saw that I had a camera and asked to view the preserved images of themselves on the tiny screen of my little digital Panasonic point and shoot. A glimpse into one another's worlds that perhaps is best left as separate as the 3,000 miles that lie in between us.
Post race posing for the camera


"It's a mystery to me. We have a greed with which we have agreed. You think you have to want more than you need. Until you have it all you won't be free. Society, you're a crazy breed. I hope you're not lonely without me."

-Eddie Vedder
Finish line poses after the kids run with RD Josue Stephens

Friday, February 22, 2013

Fuego Y Agua- final chapter: "I fail" and the DNF adventure.

My two successful puzzle pieces that together read "I fail". Sadly, we never got the pieces that read "did not".

"I really don't think life is about the I-could-have-beens. Life is only about the I-tried-to-do. I don't mind the failure but I can't imagine that I'd forgive myself if I didn't try."
Nikki Giovanni

Having missed the time cutoff and earned the title of DNF, we decided to continue up the Maderas volcano knowing that we would not be able to earn official Survival Run finisher status. I had decided long before that it didn't matter. We came to Ometepe for adventure, and we weren't ready for our adventure to be over. Not yet anyway. Lani and I agreed that we would take advantage of the opportunity afforded to us to ascend the volcano to the crater where there would be an aid station and continue over the summit to the section of the course referred to by racers as "the jungle gym".

This ascent was the first time that we had been completely alone along the course. Other racers had turned around at the checkpoint and volunteers at junctions were no longer there. We hiked in silence, stopping only once for a quick snack. Despite our unofficial status, we made good time up the volcano as the air became cooler and dryer with a sweet smelling breeze, almost like Maine in the summertime. The vegetation became green and lush and the trail thick with mud. No longer racing, our hike to the crater became a sweet, spiritual retreat that Lani and I shared without many words. We climbed down the sharp decent into the crater to the aid station where it all changed.

At the summit of the volcano there was a small, shallow, murky lagoon where we learned remaining survival racers would swim across to retrieve an egg that would be worn on their forehead down the volcano to the finish line. The volunteers were tired and appeared to be packing up for the day. We filled up our packs with water, but the food was gone. We tried to "check in", but it was clear that since we were not officially in the race any longer, our whereabouts were of little concern to anyone. The volunteers encouraged us to avoid descending through the jungle gym as the trail was technical and light was fading quickly. However, it was also clear that a return down our original path would bring us to a location where catching a ride to the finish was unlikely and we didn't know the island well enough to confidently find our way.
the crater of Maderas volcano. Photo credit Matt Davis?
So, we continued on despite their recommendations, knowing fully that there was a chance that no one could make the cutoff at the aid station and pass this way. No one took down our bib numbers or radioed of our intent, which was a little unsettling.
view of Lake Nicaragua with Concepcion in the background from the rim of the Maderas volcano. Photo Deborah Goehring?
We ascended the trail out of the volcano to be met with our first utterly spectacular vistas on the mountain. In one direction we could see out over Lake Nicaragua, the isthmus connecting the two volcanoes and Concepcion volcano in the near distance. In the other direction was the jungle of the Maderas, lush and green. It was breathtaking. As we traversed the rim of the crater, we could hear monkeys and birds in the jungle readying themselves for the night that would soon descend upon us all. After a few moments to take in all that surrounded us, we realized that daylight was indeed fleeting and we needed to hustle as far down the volcano as possible in the daylight. The "jungle gym" truly lived up to its name. We climbed over, under and between roots, swung on vines (yeah, that was awesome), and used some cables and ropes to help us navigate the terrain. On two separate occasions, I actually clothes-lined myself with overhead branches out of my view from the visor of my cap. Had I had an egg on my forehead, I think this might have been DNF number 3.

As darkness approached, trail markers became nearly impossible to find. I can't imagine coming down this trail in total darkness as the remaining racers would have to do behind us. Although we didn't take any wrong turns, I attribute it to the fact that there were two of us searching the landscape with our headlamps. Alone, it would have been more difficult. Nearly 5 hours after departing the tree obstacles, we made it to Monkey Island where the Survival Run finish would be. Only two racers would make the time-cutoffs and finish this race, although there were many of us who had an experience that surpassed any disappointment we may have experienced.

Looking back at this experience, I regret nothing and would change nothing. I met other Survival Runners and ultra-runners who shared the beauty of the Maderas volcano and Ometepe with me over the week that will remain in my soul forever. I don't believe you needed to run this one to be part of the magic it held. My eyes were opened to a whole world of ultra-running that I can only hope to be a part of in some capacity for years to come. DNF or no DNF, this one really delivered. 
Sean, one of our new crazy ultra-runner friends.

An extra special thank you to my dear friend Lani for believing me when I said she would never regret joining me for an adventure of a lifetime.
Thanks to Simple Fuel for such great support and love...

"I don't believe in failure. It is not failure if you enjoyed the process."
Oprah Winfrey 
Some of the friends we have left behind on Ometepe. Photo credit to Paul Bujis.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Fuego Y Agua Chapter 2: The Chicken 10K

“Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it's better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.”
― Marilyn Monroe
Isaah and his new pal. Photo by Dan Kruegar
It was 4 am and about 150 runners assembled on the starting line.  Survival runners and ultra-runners were equally anxious to get underway what would certainly be a long day for all. The 36 Survival Runners who would complete a 75Km course of unknown challenges were instructed to memorize a color chart that we would need in order to obtain food and water at the next aid station- surely several miles down the road. As I worked to generate a pneumonic device to help memorize the first letters of the 6 color sequence, I overheard some discussion about chickens. Chickens?? I should have known, as I knew going into it that absurdity would play a large role in the events to unfold. Live chickens were handed out to Survival Runners and we were told our chicken needed to be brought to the next aid station as our first challenge. My friend Margaret asked if she needed to arrive with the chicken alive... had the answer been "no" I suspect many chickens would have been jammed in backpacks and arrived in less than pristine condition. As instructions were clarified, chickens were swaddled in bandanas, clutched like feathered footballs and prepared for what would be a long journey ahead. My chicken promptly crapped on me and we headed out into the darkness. The chicken 10K was not physically challenging, but the prospect of losing the chicken hovered over us all, especially those not comfortable transporting squawking livestock. Lani and I found our chickens to be relatively content and quiet for most of the trip, although one particular noisy monkey that startled me along the trail in the darkness nearly caused an inadvertent chicken jailbreak. 
And the Chicken 10K begins... Photo by Deborah Goehring?

About 5 miles down the road we were met by the Ometepe police who relieved us of our chicken duty and handcuffed us for an unknown offense cited in Spanish (poultry poaching?). These shackles were surprisingly inconvenient. As I had not been able to access my nutrition or water well carrying a squawking chicken; I had concluded that a sleeping chicken was well worth compromising a little of the early race nutrition. Handcuffs guaranteed another hour or so with no food and limited water in the Central American heat. Another 5 miles or so, we reached the second checkpoint and we were finally relieved of our burden.
Corinne and her shackles.
At the next challenge we received our first of 4 puzzle pieces to the finisher's medal that read "fail".  We then bundled 40 pounds of sticks and were instructed to carry them to the next checkpoint an unknown distance away. I prepared myself to carry the load a mile or so and Lani and I each bundled our sticks with twine. We carried the bundles on our shoulders allowing some of the weight to be distributed to the tops of our backpacks. While the weight was not tremendous, the load was awkward and the pile shifted frequently and needed to be re-bundled several times. We sang songs, played games, swapped stories and wound our way around the island in the mid-morning sun until we reached the checkpoint at Ojo De Agua, a grueling 5 miles from where we had first collected the bundles on the beach.  After enjoying a wonderful little aid station at the little oasis we had visited just two days earlier, we were presented with the a challenge that changed everything.
Johnson, the eventual winner, with his bundle of sticks
 The challenge at Ojo De Agua was a tree climb. About 20-25 feet up a branch-less tree there were bracelets that needed to be retrieved to complete the challenge. The bark was slippery, there were absolutely no hand or foot holds and the trees all stood precariously over a concrete patio with only rocks, chairs and concrete below. This is when it became clear to me that this was no Tough Mudder or Spartan race. This was real and unlike anything I had ever been confronted with before. There were no safety nets should you fall off the obstacle nor were there any hay bails or other protection from certain injury should you fall from the height. My friend Corinne (who is an amazing climber) was at the base of the tree in tears having tried and failed the obstacle several times. Without thinking, Lani muscled her way up the tree, making little grunts with each pull and scraping her legs so bloody and raw they would later become infected. She reached the bracelet without stopping and slid down and cried out in pain from the abrasions of the tree. When she returned to the patio, she admitted to me that this was the hardest thing she had ever done.
tree climb- bracelets were 25 feet or so up
I assessed the situation and felt uncertain about my fate. Lani is much stronger and fearless than I. This isn't a self-doubt proclamation, it is simply fact. I am the runner and she is the strong one. I made a couple of attempts on a few different trees evaluating each possibility, finally settling on a thinner tree adjacent to a tree containing a wooden block with several bracelets. Once committed, I made surprisingly good time up the tree until I got about 2 feet from my destination. At this height, my weight caused the smaller tree to bend in such a way that I was pressed between the two trees and unable to ascend further. I tried to release my death grip on the smaller tree and jump-reach for the bracelet which resulted in a several-foot slip down the tree. Three or four attempts of the same effort with slightly different technique resulted in the same fate: inches away from the top. My arms were shaking from adrenaline and my legs both chattered with what climbers often refer to as "sewing machine legs". I am familiar with this term as I once considered picking up rock climbing as a hobby. This was, of course, I became fully aware that I am freaked out by heights. After the third slip, I descended the tree knowing fully that I would not go up again. Here is where I earned my DNF.
This is not the first time in a race a little voice in the back of my head has told me not to proceed through an obstacle for fear or safety reasons. This is, however, the first time I have ever listened. I have always said that I will continue as long as a race is fun for me, but not at all costs. I don't regret this decision, this challenge was not mine to have. While I limited my disappointment to a pity party for one, I felt a little sad in my moment of realization. Naturally, the cameras were all there to capture this moment.
There was no question that the only option was to continue on with the race, despite the scarlet letter of DNF. The DNF really didn't matter. I came to Ometepe for a killer adventure, not a medal. A label of unofficial status was not going to change that.
We continued on, now in the mid-day heat, to the next challenge which was to transport a log down a long beach of the isthmus that connected the two islands of Ometepe. My log was probably about 60 pounds and awkwardly shaped. Lani and I decided the best method would be to attach a rope to our logs and "walk the dog" along the 2 mile shoreline despite a pretty impressive freshwater surf. The intense sun's rays quickly deprived me of my 2-liter water supply and the hidden lava rock beneath the waves cut my feet several times. In hindsight, I never should have taken off my shoes and socks- I wound up falling in the water so many times my shoes were drenched despite being tied up high on my pack. We reached the end of the beach where we retrieved our second puzzle piece after digging down about 3.5 feet down in the sand. The medal read one letter only: "I".
Adam shouldering the log down the beach.
Morgan digging for medal #2
memorization for aid station access...
Our next destination was on the tip of a point a mile or two away. We were told we could swim a shortcut distance using a burlap bag of plastic bottles for flotation or we could follow the slippery, rocky shoreline. Normally, I would choose the swim, but the wind had stirred up the lake in such a way that would force us to swim against an obvious current. We chose the shoreline instead. Several wipeouts on the rocks were inevitable and delivered as promised. The unexpected treat was the ground nest that one of us stepped in resulting in nearly a dozen bee stings apiece. I don't remember seeing the nest, but I clearly recall the simultaneous sensation of the searing pain from multiple stings and Lani yelling "beeeeees". I ran. Lani ran. Sadly, not in the same direction. I went up, she went down- eventually falling into a ravine that brought her down to the water's edge and whacking her head. In about 10 minutes time we eventually reconnected and were able to confirm that neither of us had a bee allergy or were otherwise too injured to continue. At this checkpoint a kind soul handed me a coconut and I gratefully drank the water. I am not sure what could have been better in this moment.
A few miles later we arrived at the third aid station and completed the memorization task. We felt great and my friend Leslie gave us great words of encouragement and reminded us to stay up on electrolytes and nutrition. We each retrieved 25-foot bamboo poles and were began our ascent of the Maderas volcano for our next challenge. While the climb was not very difficult, the bamboo pole seemed to hang up on every vine I passed and rested on what had clearly become bruises on my shoulders from the wood carry earlier in the day. I alternated shoulders and continued up to the next challenge about 2 miles into the jungle.
Johnson headed up Maderas with a bamboo pole in hand...
"Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light." Helen Keller
photo Jason Guidusko
The two challenges in the trees were both tree climbing challenges that required the use of the bamboo poles and tree ascents. These were difficult challenges, but not on the order of the first tree climb. While Lani heroically tackled the challenges, I learned that we had just missed the "soft" cutoff and would not likely make it to the next challenge in time avoid being pulled from the course. Torn, I decided that my job was now that of support crew and that I should avoid delaying Lani by staying to complete the challenge myself. What took about 10 minutes for Lani and I both to realize was that a translation of "soft cutoff" is that we could not continue to the next challenge. DNF. Again. I took my second helping of DNF and Lani accepted a similar fate. Twelve people were up on the mountain ahead of us: we would be the first of many to be told that we had not made time cutoffs. Others decided to return to the aid station below to get a ride to the finish line. Lani and I decided to continue our adventure despite the DNF. While we would be denied the opportunity to complete the tree chopping challenge which would be on a spur trail a few miles off the main trail, we were given the option to skip the diverted trail section and continue along the course to summit the volcano...
And so the unofficial adventure began... be continued in one more installment.
Adventure lies ahead...
Photo Matt Davis?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Fuego Y Agua- preparing (not) for the adventure of a lifetime (part 1 of a couple)

“love the life you live.
live the life you love.”
― Bob Marley
When I signed up for the 2013 Fuego Y Agua Survival Run I had no expectations. No expectations of the event or what the race organizer, Josue Stephens would throw at us. No expectations of how I would fare in the February heat in Central America. No expectations of myself. I had never attempted to train for a race in what I would consider the "off season" and had no clue how to go about preparing for such an event in the subzero temperatures of Maine. Regardless of what any common sense would tell me, the allure of being part of the first annual Fuego Y Agua Survival jungle run was too much to walk away from. After only two conversations, my training partner Lani and I decided we couldn't turn down the opportunity to be a part of what would prove to be the adventure of a lifetime.

Our adventure began about 7 weeks before the start of this event. Normally, I train for about 12 weeks to prepare for a big competition. For the World's Toughest Mudder in 2011, Lani and I dedicated nearly 16 weeks to training. With only 7 weeks to go, we hoped that relying on base fitness would substitute real training in many regards. Further derailed by a nasty flu that Lani picked up and chronic plantar fasciitis in my right foot, our efforts to get out for long training runs were relatively abysmal. We resolved to mostly strength training in an effort to prevent further injury to my foot, including some pretty grueling sauna double sessions to prepare for the heat. Normally, an utter lack of preparation like this would unnerve me. I suppose to some extent, it did. I hate thinking there is a chance I could fail to give it my best. But this time it didn't matter. The prospect of traveling to an exotic place to join a group of amazing, talented, crazy and fun people into the unknown kept our spirits high and our sense of adventure alive.

Before we knew it, bags were packed, families were kissed goodbye, and Lani and I boarded our flight to Nicaragua to see what Josue had in store for us. But before any race surprises, we decided to check out the island that would host our international adventure- Ometepe. 

Tourists? How better to explore the island than by scooter?
A little prerace coconut and R & R at Ojo De Aqua

Lani making friends while their brother fixes the chain I broke on my rental bicycle...

After 2 days of visiting the island and meeting new friends, we headed down to the docks to pick up our packets. Turns out, the packets were on a small rowboat maybe 1/4 mile off shore. We were told to get our packets we needed to swim out and grab our bibs and return within 20 minutes. Unprepared for this, Lani and I stripped down to our skivvies and headed out into the shark infested unknown. And so our great adventure began...

Of course I am unprepared and already in my bra and underwear in the first 30 seconds of the survival run (right at the back of the group and forgetting to take off my little brown hat, naturally).
3:30 am on Saturday, ready to rock and roll...

Enjoying scones and coffee, oblivious to the chicken traveling companions we are about to receive to start the Fuego Y Agua Survival race....