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?


  1. WOW--utterly spectacular. You are 2 brave & amazing women--along with the other competitors, of course, but I KNOW you, Shelley, and feel my life is better for that. What an honor to know such a courageous SUPER athlete!!!!

    1. Aww, shucks Lori. You are making me blush. Thank you for your kind words.