Thursday, May 06, 2010

Ultramaratón Fuego y Agua Race Report

Volcan Madras at SunriseThe 2nd annual Ultramaratón Fuego y Agua (fire and water) was held on Dec 12, 2009 on the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua. The race had 25k, 50k, and 100k distance options. Ometepe Island is located in Lake Nicaragua. The island is formed by two volcanoes, Conception and Maderas, joined by an isthmus. The race courses involve climbing one or both volcanoes. Conception is an active volcano (hence the Fuego/fire) and Maderas has a lake in its crater (hence the Agua/water).

The 50k course runs from the town of Moyogalpa on the western edge of the island over to the Maderas volcano on the western end of the island, and then up into the crater (1400M, 4100ft) and back down to the finish line at the base of the volcano. The 100k race builds on the 50k course by returning to the eastern end of the island and running 1000 Meters (3000ft) up the Conception volcano and then returning to Moyogalpa. The course cannot go all the way to the top of Conception since it still an active volcano. In fact, there was a minor eruption on Conception either the morning of or the day before the race, but most of us were unaware until seeing the international media reports days after the race. I ran the 50k.

Race Banner
The Fuego y Agua Race directors
Race Directors

I leaned of this race after having met the race directors through trail running groups in Austin. I also heard stories from other Austin trail runners who ran this during last year's inaugural race. The race mission statement is to bring responsible eco-tourism to the island in a way that gives back to the islands people, which includes using locally produced food and supplies. Funds raised from the race and additional donations support the Calzado de Ometepe kids 5K race, held the day after the ultramarathon, which promotes fitness and provides shoes to children on the island. One of the race directors, Paula, is a graphic designer and put together some beautiful maps of the course. This was the second year of the race, and this year I have watched the race directors, along with local race manager Robinson, put a huge amount of effort not only to create an incredible well supported running experience for the participants, but also to be sure the event gives back to the local community of the island.

Course Map
Course Map

Location of the Island
Nicaragua Map

Before the race, I spent several days in the city of Granada which helped me get used to the heat and humidity before the race. On one of those days I went to the top of the Mombacho Volcano, which allowed for a distant view of Conception on Ometepe. A primary meal in Nicaragua is a rice and beans mixture called Gallo Pinto, which was often eaten for breakfast lunch or dinner. It was a good way to be fueling during the week before the race.

Conception Volcano, as seen from the Mombacho Volcano on the mainland a few days before the race.
View of Isla Ometepe and Conception Volcano from Mombacho Volcano

The Island with its two volcanoes as seen from San Jorge ferry dock.
Ometepe Island from San Jorge Ferry dock

I arrived on the island 2 days before the race after a 2 hour bus ride and then a ferry from the port of San Jorge. At the port I was able to see both ends of the island, and get some appreciation for the distance to be covered during the race. The race had sponsored a trash clean-up event on the island, but I did not arrive in time for that.

Conception Volcano as seen from arriving ferry
Ometepe Island from San Jorge Ferry dock

On the day before the race I rented a scooter and rode halfway across the island to the Oro de Agua (Eye of Water), which is a nice spring fed pool and I heard it was a good place to relax. The road to this place was rather rough and I had to take it slowly on the scooter. I wasn’t sure if I was on the right path, but I kept seeing blue arrows marked in chalk on telephone poles so I figured those must be pointing the direction (blue for water). Later, I would learn these were the course markings for the race and I had previewed much of the first half of the course on this day trip. I had not recognized from the course map which parts were road vs trail.

Conception Volcano, Vulcan Conception
Vulcan Conception

I found at the pool several others from the race had the same idea and I got to know them a little as we hung out and ate lunch. When the bill came for lunch, the waiter did not have sufficient small change to break my large currency, and so gave me a candy bar to make up the difference. I nearly forgot to add in the tip, and so I ran back to give the waiter my smallest bill which gave him a few percentage points tip above normal. This would be important later in the race. The person who had recommended I come to the pool had also advised me me to follow the path past the bathrooms to the top of a hill which gave excellent views of both the Conception and Maderas volcanoes.

Race supplies stacked up at race headquarters.
Supplies for the race
The top of Vulcan Conception was visible for a few minutes before dinner in Moyogalpa.
Vulcan Conception from Moyogalpa

The night before the race, most runners gathered at a restaurant for the pre-race meal and briefing. Since it was Christmas time, the restraunt was full of Christmas lights and decorations. The combination of tropical weather and Christmas decorations is not something I am used to. The race director explained the course and logistics of the race. Local school kids came in to perform some traditional dance. After dinner I returned to the hotel room to prepare my gear and get an try to get to sleep early.

Scenes from the pre-race dinner and race briefing.
Race Briefing
Race Briefing
Race Briefing

I got up at 3am and made it to the startline around 3:30. A restaurant by the startline opened early and provided some free coffee and banana bread for the runners. Then everyone, 21 people running the 50k and 100k events, lined up and we started the race at 4:00am. (The 25k with 10 runners started later) The start line was a blue chalk line drawn across the road.

Race start line at 4:00am
Race Start Line

One American runner had forgotten to bring a headlight to Nicaragua and was trying to figure out who she could run with near her pace to follow their light. I had a spare light, and I loaned it to her a minute before the race started. She went on to be the first female finisher in the 50k distance.

The first half kilometer followed the main road out of town, and then we turned onto a dirt road which we followed in the dark for 8 or 10km. There were little glow sticks hung periodically along the course to re-assure us we were still going the right direction, and at the only turn where I might have missed a turn a volunteer on a motor bike was there to direct me the correct way.

Elevation Profile

I was at the back of the pack. There were no headlights behind me. But 15 or 20 minutes into the run someone surprised me when he running from behind without a light. He said something in Spanish which I thought was a greeting as he passed and so I said “hola” back. After the race, the guy who was running next to me at the time explained he had said “No Light” in Spanish as he passed. The runner, who lived on Ometepe, had been 10 minutes late to the start, but had still gone on to win the 50K race after running in the dark on the uneven road without a light.

Approximately 8 or 10km into the race, the course turned onto the paved road. There was planned to be a temporary water-only aid station, which was basically one man on his motorbike. Since I was last, I missed the aid station since he probably had to move ahead to direct the faster runners at later turns in the course. I had more water than I needed and had not planned to take aid at that station so it was not a problem.

Early morning run through small towns before the sun came up.
Dawn approaching

I soon caught up to 3 runners, one of whom was having traveler’s sickness and would later drop. The paved roads here were made of stone tile. One of these runners who has spent time in Nicaragua explained to me that during the Nicaraguan revolution in the 80’s, due to corruption much money given by the U.S. to help the people had been diverted by the U.S. backed government to various projects, including paying for road tiles. Revolutionaries in Managua repeatedly dug up the road tiles to form barricades, adding extra symbolism to the protest considering how funds had been mis-appropriated to pay for the tiles.

As the runners paused to wait on their sick friend, I moved ahead and out of last place. I ran through a couple of small towns as light started to come out. I happened to be in a good place for a sunrise picture of my destination, the Maderas Volcano. After sunrise, more local residents were on the roads going about their daily business. I ran past many people walking along the roads. In one hilly section, I ran past a couple of kids on bicycles who were struggeling up a hill and managed to stay ahead of them until cresting the top of the hill. There were a few points where dogs ran out and barked loudly, but none approached too close. There are a lot of dogs in the countryside, and the last thing I needed was to get bitten by a rabid dog.

Sunrise view of Maderas Volcano
Volcan Maderas at Sunrise

Most people I encountered looked at me funny. I spent much of the previous month in South America, and had become accustomed to exchanging some sort of greeting in Spanish, such as “Hola” or “Buenos Dias,” as I encountered people. But during this run, any such greeting as I passed people was usually met with blank stares, so I quit trying after a bit. I eventually passed a couple of people who seemed to know about this event and what I was doing, and they yelled some encouragement. At least I think that is what they were doing since I couldn’t understand the Spanish words they were yelling.

The first aid station in Urbaite
First Aid Station

I reached the first aid station at 17km (10+ miles) into the course. This aid station was staffed by two friendly volunteers, an American Peace Corp volunteer working in Nicaragua, and a local teenager. I filled up on oranges, bananas and peanut butter spread on local bread. I drank a couple of glasses of heed and then was off. It was not long before I turned down the same uneven dirt road that I had taken to the Oro de Agua.

House along the course

Half-way down this road to Oro de Agua, a familiar face rode past me on a bike. It was the waiter from the day before. He rode ahead and then pulled into a local residence. I continued on for another kilometer and came to a short steep downhill section of the road. A woman was herding some cows up the road coming in the opposite direction I moved to the right to keep distance from the livestock. The waiter rode up from behind and said “Sir, watch out for the dog”. He was pointing toward the house on my right. The woman herding cows was also pointing at the house. The closer I moved toward the house the more excited these people were pointing and yelling. The waiter again told me to “watch out for the dogs.” After running past so many barking dogs, I thought they were trying to warn me there was an aggressive dog at that residence. So, I moved further from the edge of the road to keep distance from the unseen dog. But I did not want to move too close to the cows that were approaching on my left as I did not want to spook them. Finally I realized the waiter meant to be saying “watch out for the cows” and wanted me to wait on the right side of the road until the cows passed. As I continued on after the cows passed by, I could see these two exchanging looks and laughing at the confused foreigner who didn’t get it.

Conception volcano is hidden behind early morning clouds.
Vulcan Conception is hidden behind early morning clouds

The waiter followed a short distance behind me until I reached the turn off to Oro de Agua, where he rode up to me and we exchanged a quick acknowledgment. It was then another mile or two along a rocky dirt road I came upon another runner, Jason who I know from Austin. He was stepping out of a little café. The race rules allow participants to buy supplemental supplies from local establishments to supplement the aid stations, and Jason took advantage to grab a soda. We ran within sight of each other until the next aid station.

Beach view

The course followed a road along the lake edge for a few miles crossing the isthmus between volcanoes. The course was well marked with a combination of blue streamers and chalk powder on the ground (and also glowsticks when the sun was down). The chalk powder was added as a backup after problems the previous year where local kids, unaware of how important the markings were to the runners, had taken the streamers and glowsticks down to play with as toys. This year, there were a few people from the race patroling parts of the course to check that the markings were still up, and directing runners at significant turns.

Elmer with his roving aid station on the motorbike checked in on us a couple of times as we ran across the isthmus. There was one woman who had set up an un-official waterstop at her home or business along the road but I already had too much water and did not need to carry an additional 16-oz bottle. At one point along this stretch, the wind must have been just perfect such that a bunch of birds were able to hover in near stationary positions overhead. As I reached the turn off to Maderas and the next aid station, Elmer was waiting there to be sure I did not miss the turn. From this turn, it was a short distance up to the second aid station at El Porvenir.

Elmer and his mobile aid station
Elmer and his mobile aid station, notice the water jugs on the back.
Second aid station at El Provenir
Second Aid Station at El Provenir

Gabi, sister of the race director, was running this well stocked aid station. I arrived at 8:30am, meaning I did the first 31k (17 miles) at a pace that if I could have sustained it would have given me a 50k PR. But I knew that even though I was 3/5 of the way through the distance, I was less than half way done time wise due to the volcanic climb ahead. Considering I had all day to go the last 20k, I left my light in the drop bag so there would be one less thing to carry. I ate half of a huge tamale filled with potatoes and rice and took a few glasses of heed from the aid station. I had been running with two water bladders full in a backpack, but had not emptied even one by either of the aid stations, so I only topped off one bag to reduce the weight for the climb. Jason looked like he was going to take some time to rest at the aid station, but I wanted to get this over with and so I moved on out.

Trail leaving the aid station
Bean fields with lava rocks
Roots cover the trail

The climb from El Provenir would be about 10k (6 miles) to the aid station in the crater, including an elevation gain of 1200 M (3600 ft) and then 100M drop into the crater. The trail began to climb through some bean fields and lava rock. The fields provided clearings that allowed for good views across to the base of the Conception volcano. But both volcanoes were covered in clouds and it was not long before I had climbed above the cloud line. The terrain was steep trail that was either covered in roots or rocks depending on the section. The rocks sections usually required some real steps up. It was a constant climb so I settled into a slow climbing pace and concentrated on steady forward progress without getting myself out of breath.

Last view before ascending into the clouds
Last view before ascending into the clouds

Halfway up I encountered some tourists coming down. Their guide told me I had at least two hours to the top and they warned me it would get really muddy. I did not believe it would take me that long, but they were correct. With the monotonous of the climb, I lost track of time. I had a watch, but I failed to remember correctly what time I left the aid station, and believed I had been climbing for much shorter time than I actually did. At 1000M I was passed by two of the other Texans who I had run with for a a few minutes earlier in the race. This moved me into second to last. The motivating thought I used to keep me going for the rest of the climb was to stay out of last place since there was only one more runner behind.

Chalk markings helped mark the trail until it became too wet.
Trail Markings
Rain Forrest

Eventually I got to a section that turned muddy but it wasn’t as bad as the tourists had led me to believe. It would get much muddier later on. There were some muddy walls that had to be scaled, so I kept thinking I must be nearing the crater rim. But after each wall I scaled there would be still more climbing. I finally reached the first rim of the crater (elevation 1300M) at noon. Then there was a steep descent into the crater. There were ropes to hold on to for part of this decent, but the path was steep and the wood planks defining the steepest sections of the trail were wet and slippery and so I did not move to fast as I wanted to in this section.

I thought I had reached the muddy part, but it would get much worse.
Starting to get muddy

Eventually the path opened up into a flat grassy field where I reached the bottom of the crater. This volcanic crater hosts a rain Forrest with a lake in the bottom of the crater. The lake steams from the volcanic heat. With the fog, I could not see the rest of the crater around me. The 4 guys manning the aid station were standing there, by the edge of the lake. These guys had been up there for some time and had carried a ton of water up to the top.

3rd Aid station in the Maderas Volcano Crater
Third Aid station in the volcano crater

At each aid station, we are given a different color of wrist band to wear as proof we reached each aid station. So now I picked up my third and final wristband. The aid station volunteers spoke little English, and I spoke little Spanish. They wanted to know how far behind me was the last guy, but I had no idea since I hadn’t seen him for a few hours. (The official results recorded incorrectly my arrival at the aid station an hour earlier than it was).

Different colored wristbands were distributed at each aid station, providing proof I arrived at each.

The aid station workers insisted that I would need to take their flashlight. They predicted I wouldn’t reach the end until 7pm in the dark. But it was so early at 12:15 and I believed there was no way I would need a flashlight since most of the rest of the course was downhill and should go faster than the climb up. I thought maybe they mis-understood me and thought I was in the 100k race which would extend longer into the night. I also though my climb since the 2nd aid station had taken much less time than it did. I didn’t want to carry the flashlight since it was heavy with two C batteries, especially after carrying too much water weight earlier in the race. We started to argue about it and I finally let them put the light in my pack to end the argument. It would turn out they were correct to insist I take the light.

Views climbing out of the volcano crater.
Climbing out of the volcano
Looking up, this climb is much steeper than the picure gives it credit for.
Climbing out of the volcano

From the aid station, the trail soon began to climb up a steep, exposed single track. I needed to use my hands in a few places to climb up. I could barely make out some of the curvature of the crater that curved away from me in the fog. Approaching the top I entered the section where tree roots had overgrown the trail. The trail went up and over the roots and so I had to constantly climb over, under, and through the root system. It was a good think I was wearing a hydration pack instead of handheld water bottles because I needed both hands to grab hold of the roots to pull me up and over. This section was aptly named the Jungle Gym.

Below is a picture of the jungle gym. Notice the blue streamer that marks the trail. Notice how it is in the middle of the root system. In this case the trail climed up and over the roots at the streamer and then veered left.

Jungle Gym

This second rim was not so well defined; so I kept thinking I hit it just to find I had a little more climbing to go. This section was rather muddy. I had stable footing when I was standing on a root. If I stepped off the roots, sometimes I would step into mud a couple of inches deep. But every once in awhile I would step into a muddy void between the roots and find myself knee deep in mud. These voids looked no different than normal mud, and so I couldn’t tell I had hit one until I stepped in it. This forced me to be very careful where I put my feet.

And now, the real mud
Terrain climbing down the volcano
More Nastiness

I reached what I think was the second rim of the crater at 1400M elevation almost exactly one hour after hitting the first rim. After that I still continued climbing through the jungle gym for a long time on the decent from the volcano. I went carefully as I lowered myself from one drop-off to the next. I had to be careful because one slip and fall could leave me injured in an area where rescue would be difficult. I wish I had done more upper body gym workouts. Since it was so foggy I was not aware how steep some of the drop-offs were. At one point I heard Jason above fall and curse, and so I knew he might be catching up. Not wanting to fall into last place, I tried to speed up before he realized I was close, but there was not much I could do to go faster until the terrain improved.

Gradually the trail transformed from steep brush to steep rocks where the drop-offs were just step-downs, and I could take these a little faster. In fact it became easier on my knees to let gravity pull me down the hills a little faster than trying to do it slow and carefully. I passed the two others who passed me on the way up. Then suddenly, I crossed below the cloudline and a view across the island opened up.

Crossing below the cloudline
Cloud Layer

The further down the volcano, the less steep it became. Soon I was running through cow pastures and bean fields illuminated in the late afternoon light. I had a couple of miles to go, and I just tried to keep moving. During these final miles I looked across the island to the other volcano and I thought about my friends who can no longer run, and remembered that every day I can do activities like this is a gift. Those thoughts kept me moving.

Cows on the side of the volcano

As the sun was going down, I reached the gate of Hacienda Merida, the resort containing the 50k finishline and aid station for the 100k race. I entered the resort and kept going. I wondered if anyone was still there this late in the day. It was not obvious where the aid station was. After I ran past the main office, the resort manager and organizer of the aid station called me back. It had been 3 hours since the last runners came through, and people here were understandably snoozing on the hammocks and missed me as I ran past. I had arrived just in time for this sunset at the lake.

View at the finish line

It was a good thing that the aid station volunteers at the top of the volcano insisted I take the flashlight. Although I did not need it, I could easily have needed it if I had been just a little slower or had an accident on the way down. It had taking me far longer to finish than I ever anticipated, and I felt humbled, but happy to have the accomplishment and experience.

The hotel staff brought out some fresh juice. A local runner who dropped from the 100k race was there, waiting for a quorum of runners to arrive sufficient to fill a taxi back to the start. The manager recorded my time and gave me an update on the rest of the race. He had just received the call that the 100k winner had already finished. He wanted to know how far behind me were the other runners. I knew there were 3 people behind me, but I had no idea if they would arrive 5 minutes or an hour later. I took a shower to clean off. Just when I was done, and just as the manager was climbing back into his hammock, the last three runners came running in together. We all shared a taxi shuttle bus back to the startline. As we drove back, the taxi stopped to pick up other locals and also some of the volunteers from the aid station who had come down the top the opposite way cleaning up the trail markers.

In the end, out of 21 people who started the 50k and 100k races, only one 50k Runner DNF'ed due to sickness, 15 finished the 50k race, including 4 100k race runners who dropped and were still eligible to get credit for the 50K distance. 5 people completed the 100k distance in times ranging from 11 hours to 19 hours. 10 people ran the 25k up and down the Conception Volcano. The organizers had put together an excellent event. I am amazed at the effort put in to organize what is still a relatively small event in a unique location, and I would recommend this to anyone.

Several days after the race, I heard that there had been news reports of a small eruption on Vulcan Conception the morning of the race. The 100k race continued on to run up part of this volcano. I had no idea that had happened, but after I had returned to the U.S., I read one volunteer report that there was a layer of ash on the ground at the aid station on Conception.

Calzado Kids RaceThe morning after the ultramarathon, several of the runners came out to volunteer at the Calzado de Ometepe kids race. This was a charity event sponsored by the ultramarathon organizers and Natural Doctors International promoting fitness and providing shoes to children of the island. I took lots of pictures wrote about that event in another post.

In the afternoon there was the post race banquet. Runners and volunteers gathered at a local restaurant for a meal consisting of typical Nicaraguan food. Awards were presented to the top finishers. The race had contracted with local artists to create some unique trophy sculptures. Afterwords there was music, dancing, and a piñata bashing.

50K winner, receives his award
50k Winner
Awards were commissioned sculptures from local artists.
People scramble for the droppings from the pinata
Wrapped up in the remains of the pinata while people dance in the background
Remnants of the Pinata
Views from the ferry leaving the island.
Leaving the island

Leaving the island

I had to leave the party a little early to catch the last ferry ride of the day off the island. Afterwords, I continued my travels guided by @NicaGuide for another week in Nicaragua, visiting Leon and Matagalpa. If you are still reading this and made it to the end, I thank you for taking the time to read this. Thanks to the race directors for submitting some of my pictures along with their race reports in the April issue of Ultrarunning and also this iRunFar article.

Links from me:
- More Photos of the race in my Online Album
- Google Map of the places I mentioned for this Nicaragua Trip
- Report from the Calzado Kids race
- More Blog Posts or Photo Albums from this Nicaragua Trip

About the race:
- Ultramaratón Fuego y Agua Race Website. Next event is Feb 12, 2012
- run100miles has an excellent race report capturing his completion of the 100k race.
- This Video by another runner shows some of the terrain (difficult terrain example at around 5:30 or 6:00 into the video.)
- Course map
- Course elevation profile
- Article at iRunFar

More blog posts from Nicaragua travels:
- Managua and Coyotepe
- Granada at Christmas time
- La Granadilla
- Mombacho Volcano
- Empowerment International
- Masaya: the City and the Volcano
- Calzado de Ometepe Kids 5k
- Leon
- Cerro Negro Volcano
- Juan Venado Nature Reserve
- Organic Coffee Farm Visit

Related Posts:

1 comment:

  1. John, excellent race report, travel log, photographs. Sounds like you got a big tatste of Nicaragua. I really enjoyed reading this.


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