It has been a long standing fact, that movie sequels are never as good as there predecessors; not withstanding such rare exceptions as Godfather 2, Terminator 2, Aliens and of course, Grease 2. So after having an epic adventure of a week, filled with reunion and race highs and luggage and travel lows until Thursday, what possibly could make this years Nicaraguan adventure more memorable?
Thursday – The Day After
As mentioned in my first report, my 2015 Survival Run ended shortly before midnight on Wednesday February 4th. After I finished, I stayed at the sandbag station in El Zaopilote and offered to volunteer. I was riding a high (despite pulling the plug) and decided I would clean up the station of all the garbage, pails and water bottles. Unsure of what to do with a kilted Canadian Survival Runner at midnight in the middle of nowhere, race crew decided it was probably best to drop me off at my hotel and let me get a nights rest. I made my way to my hotel room, hap-haphazardly showered with a large spider I named “Phil”, and washed out the sand and rock from my gear and clothing. Phil was a good listener that night as I de-compressed after that adventure, and I appreciated his quiet confidence.
The next day when I woke up I walked back to Santo Domingo, to the race start, to see if I could find out where my fellow racers where. I found several people who had come in at various times throughout the night and morning. The day was a haze of weary faces and sore bodies, telling their tales of epic journeys and foolish mishaps, all wrapped up in the smell of lineament. I never moved from the table all day. I was in my element, I was among my friends and peers. As iconic Survival runner Eddie Yanick said to me at the Hunter Gatherer Survival Run, while sitting around post-race: “This is home to me”. I fully understand what he meant.
The night was filled with more stories and some well mannered frivolity amoungst the survival runners. As the remaining three runners were making there way to the finish line, the remainder of us went down to the beach to welcome them home. A beach party ensued while we waited.
Kudos to Nele Schulze, Mike Ruhlin & Team Beard™ (Chris Accord & Ben Sexton) for finishing the course, despite not being able to complete all the challenges. It takes a special kind of mental and testicular fortitude to push on past through everything, knowing you can’t win at this point. I respect them for their perseverance, stubbornness and resolve. I tip my cap to you.
Then the three final racers began to show up. First to the finish line was Paco “Raptor”Manzanares. Not long after Paco, Chris Shanks hustled down the beach and through the finish. Then finally, with less than an hour left in the 30 hour max, the tireless Mark Wheeler crossed the finish with a big smile on his face. All three exceptional athletes had endured over 27 hours on this brutal course. Congratulations to all of them for rising to the top of a very high heap of some pretty strong athletes. I feel lucky just to share the same course with all of these people.
Friday – Beer Mile
Friday Morning was scheduled to be the traditional running of the “Beer Mile“. To be honest, I was more nervous to do the beer mile, than I was to run in the survival race. The beer for the event was sponsored by a local hotel/ hostel and the proceeds from the event were going to the rebuilding of a local school. Ah hell, it was for charity. A beer mile is simple. Drink a beer, then run an 1/8 of a mile down the beach, and an 1/8 of a mile back. Drink another beer and repeat that process 4X. One mile, four beers. To finish it off Survival Run style, finishers had to do a shot of a local rum. Ugh, this can’t end well.
At the whistle, I downed my first warm beer (yuck) and took off. Despite a few unpleasant belches down the beach, I felt fine. As a matter of fact, each Tona had no real effect on me. I must admit, Tona beer is not like Canadian beer. I crossed the finish line and shot my rum. Done, over, finished. 4th place.
The rest of the morning consisted of more drinking games from the survival runners. I abstained, as my body already didn’t like me, and I didn’t want to tick off my liver too! I chose to get close to several other runners I hadn’t got a chance to talk with. I really enjoyed getting to associate with and share experiences with some really great people. Phenomenal athletes and people such as Dalton Houser, Amie Booth, Scott Smuin, Mark Wheeler and Helene Dumais.
As the night moved on, the Survival Run and its band of merry maniacs moved aside and made way for Fuego y Agua’s bigger draw, it’s ultra run and it hundreds of racers.
Mitchell Wood, Scott Smuin and I had volunteered to work for the ultra races on Saturday morning. They were to start at 5 a.m. Saturday, so we were in for a long day tomorrow. We went to a volunteer meeting at 8 pm to find out where we would be stationed and what our responsibilities were. As would only be expected in a story like mine, I was going to be located at Concepcion volcano station #1. As a matter of fact, the three survival runners were located at the three volcano stations. I noticed that the two “cold” stations were given to the two Canadians, and the rainy station on Maderas volcano was given to Scott from Seattle. Ha!
Saturday – Survival Run Part 2
I begrudgingly fell out of bed at 3 am, put on my pre-packed survival run pack and walked the 5 kms from my hotel to the race HQ to meet my ride to the volcano. It took my 35 minutes in the pitch black and I made it right at 4 am. No coffee. Ben, Jeff and I were not happy. I was dropped off at the base of the volcano with the talented photographer Jeff Genova. The two of us were to make our way on foot from the jungle north of San Jose del Sur to my station located 1000 meters up, and several kilometers away.
I had packed a 2L bottle of water, but decided to grab a gallon jug of water too, just in case*. That left me with almost 6L of water for my day atop the volcano. I was told to expect cold temperatures up on Concepcion and to pack appropriately. I had packed my compression tights, thin cargo pants, compression t-shit, sweatshirt and running jacket. I was ready.
There were local “guides” who were going to carry my stations equipment bag up to the site. Jeff and I just had to get up to the point before the first runners did. It was 4:30 a.m. It was blacker than black out. We started our ascent.
In the dark, we started with a gradual climb through an volcanic washout known as “the valley of death”. So named because of its deep gravelly rock strewn all over the place. Every step through this material resulted in your foot slipping slightly, thus loosing its grip. Trekking poles would have been a good idea.
After a 2.5 hours climb of wicked switch-backs and spectacular views, Jeff and I made it to the station just after 7 am. The first runner made it to us at 7:45 am! Holy crap on a cracker!
Side Bar: Despite how this story ends up, it needs to be said that I enjoyed my day 100%. It was beautiful up there. It was the windiest weather I had ever experienced, nearly toppling me over once or twice and we were hovering just at the cloud line of the volcano.
I had decided to make this station the best checkpoint any racer could expect after traveling 25 km in distance and 1000 meters in altitude. I brought an iPod and wireless speakers and started to play some Bob Marley. After 15 minutes of Bob, I decided I needed something with a little more spunk. I switched over to my AC/DC playlist. Echoing done the crater and to the upcoming runners the music was motivational, inspirational and down-right awesome!
I spent the next 6 hours greeting runners, taking pictures for them with majestic back-drops, laughing, joking and motivating those who were a little intimidated by the course. Fuego y Agua courses are not your typical garden path jaunts.
I even got a chance to see and give some much needed hugs to fellow survival runner Mark Wheeler who was doing what’s known as the “Devil’s Double”. The Survival Run AND the 100 km ultra!
Also running in the 50 km ultra where SR Paul Kavanagh, Harrison Lessons and my newest pal Luz Sequeira. I promised to play Paul something great for him as he made his way up the volcano. What’s more apt than a rousing rendition of Thunderstruck echoing down the hills as he made his way up. What a great day.
And just like that. it all changed.
Paul just left my station. Jeff had just left to head to another area of the course. It was getting close to the time I was to be packing up and getting ready to descend. The wind started to pick up again. It hadn’t been windy since I had first got there 6 hours ago. I started to gather my gear and stockpile it by the large rocks to keep it out of the wind. My pants were still damp from the climb up the volcano, so I had decided to air them out, while weighed down by a very large rock.
When my second last runner had started his decent, I turned around to head back to my perch. Above me and floating high in the air were my pants! Filled like a kite and floating on the volcanoes thermals, they flew up and up. They went into the clouds and to the top of the crater. What else do you do when your pants fly away into a volcano? I scrambled for my camera.
I was able to snap a few pictures and a video of them just before they were lost to the volcano gawds forever. Curses.
Little did I know that that was the first sign of things to come.
Saturday – The Descent and Leaving Bread Crumbs
I was told to wait for the “sweeper” to come to my station and leave with him. At around 1:15 pm he showed up. He was not alone. A sweepers responsibility is to to come up after the runners and gather stragglers who have fallen behind and are not going to make the time cut. He had 5 ultra runners with him who had unfortunately, had missed a turn at the base of the volcano and run an extra 10 km before looping and finding the ascent path. In the group were three Nicaraguan men, and American woman and my survival runner friend Luz!
When they came to my station, they were spent. Most of their water was gone, and the heat had gotten to some of them. I gave what was left of my gallon jug to the worst of them and they all split the remainder amoungst themselves. The descent was going to be at least 2.5 hours, so they needed to be hydrated. We packed all my gear (minus my pants of course), the emergency bag and we all set off down the volcano following the marked trail.
For about 5 minutes…
With some of the runners still weak and cramping we fell into a single file decent sliding down the steep grassy slopes on our backsides. I
was in good spirits and my energy was high. I decided to take the back of the line to prevent any one from lagging behind and possibly getting lost. 10 Minutes later, I came across the group arguing. Apparently the guide had missed the markings and overshot the cutoff. We were off course. We were also located at a crested peak and all ways around us were a drastic slope down, some even straight down. I found a tree with hanging roots, and we descended to the lower level from there, holding on to roots and stepping on outcrops of rock. The drop was only about 12 feet, but nerving nonetheless.
For the next few hours we moved at a glacial pace down those steep gnarly slopes. Several times we had to rappel, slide, and crawl through portions of the volcano. Without a usable trail we were forced to make our own. We used tree roots, branches and vines to lower ourselves down the nasty parts. According to Luz’s Garmin we had descended 400 meters in altitude in 3 hours.
As we moved down the volcano the group began to slowly distance itself from each other. Going down steep slopes with loose rock forced us to go one-at-a-time and spread the group thin. The further away from the top we got the more antsy the guide and some of the guys were to getting home. One of the runners, Niki was scared of heights and steep drop-offs and each time we came to one, she called for help. During these events, I would either guide Niki by hand or support her as we slid down areas together. She was a brave young lady. She conquered some fears that day for sure.
At 4:00 p.m. we stopped in a dried out creek bed. We had finished the steep parts and were now making our way through a beautiful section that looked like it was one a thriving water course (or lava flow). This is when the last of the runners water supplying was tapped out. This left only my remaining 1.5 L in my pack. To that point I hadn’t mentioned my water supply, as Luz and I determined it would be better to conserve it in case of emergency. We didn’t want some sort of Lord of the Flies action happening.
I decided to take a picture of the scene to document it. When I went to retrieve my phone from its case I noticed it was gone. My phone, iPod and sunglasses were attached by carabiner in a hard case to my pack. The carabiner was still attached but the case was gone. In that last decent with Niki down a rock slide, my case and all its contents was torn from my pack and slide into one of the volcano’s crevasses. They had all my photos from the trip on them. Curses!
We were forced to rappel a particularly nasty rocky slope which wasn’t really rock, but compressed ash. When you would step on it, it would disintegrate and send a rock slide down to the climbers below. This left us to go single file and stretch the group out quite thin. I think after a few hours, the group was getting impatient with waiting for the latter half. They continued on while Niki and I went down in a supported tandem and Luz covered the rear. I realized I had not seen the guide Neftali, nor the three Nicaraguan runners (Marcos, Carlos and Jose) in over 30 minutes. It was getting close to sundown and I was a little “disappointed” that they were so far ahead and weren’t waiting for Luz, Niki and I.
Niki had gone ahead after coming down the last rock slide to see if she could see the others, while I waited for Luz to make it safely down. It was now 5:15 pm and the sun was beginning to set. We had found the marked trail again and were confident that we would be getting out shortly. I was again optimistic.
Then I heard screaming.
“We’re not lost, we’re just not found” – Jamie Boyle
Side Bar: Ometepe is home to a particularly unique type of primate called a Howler Monkey. If you’ve never seen, or actually heard one, they are something you’ll never forget. They come out early in the morning and when the sun sets. They have a very guttural grunt, that when heard among dozens of its friends can be very scary and quite intimidating.
Luz and I heard a cry for help, it could only be Niki. We began to run towards her calls and I hollered back to stay still and not move. About 100 yards down the trail we came across Niki who had got turned around and I think a little panicked at losing the guide, not seeing us and hearing the mounting guttural howls all around her. Niki took a few minutes to settle. I told her to stick to my hip and I promised that no matter what, I would get her home. We started to walk again down the riverbed. Unbeknownst to us, in our hast to rush to Niki’s side, we left the marked trail and again had were off course.
After 10 minutes of walking, we came across Carlos, Jose and Marcos sitting in a clearing talking loudly. I asked Luz to translate and see what they were upset about. “The guide has left” she said. What?!? What do you mean? I replied. “He’s gone!”
As I understand it, our guide Neftali was leading the group through the trail. He was ahead of Jose, Marcos and Carlos and apparently turned and followed the marked path not looking behind him to see that his followers were there. The runners didn’t see the turn and kept going straight, stopping once they realized Neftali had gone.
Now our adventure had taken a turn for the serious. At no point was I ever really concerned we wouldn’t make it back. However, now without a local guide and with darkness upon us, my normally confident optimism was being tested. I called Luz over and we had pow-wow. It was time to take action. The three guys were upset and arguing about Neftali, Niki was still a little spooked, and Luz… well Luz was like she was all day. Calm, cool and collected. We worked well together. #onetribe
Marcos and Luz each had a smart phone with sufficient battery and cell service. I got Luz to call race HQ and let them know the situation. After a conversation with them, we were asked to make our way to the closest roadway and we would get picked up. Sure, no problem. At this point I decided to take the lead and get us out of this place. I asked for any objections. I got none.
Luz called up our location on her phone. According to Google Maps, we were 2 km from the closest roadway. I could see it, it looked simple enough. Except I was forgetting Survival Run Fact #4: “If it can go wrong, it will”. The map gave us a direction, so I shared the plan and wanted to see if anyone else had any other ideas. With no objections we headed towards a farmers field a 1,000 meters away.
Knowing a roadway was ahead gave us a third and fourth wind. I decided to make the conversation light and raucous. We talked about ice cream, beer and the glorious feeling of getting a DNF at a Fuego event. A few times Niki asked if we were lost, my response to her was the same all night: “We’re not lost, we’re just not found”.
After 60 minutes of orienteering with Google Maps and a directionally challenged Canuck, the dried creek bed eventually turned into a farmers field. Success! I had actually found what I was looking for. Walking through the fields in the dark we literally walked into cows all over the place. It was an odd site, but I didn’t care. Luz and I had navigated this crew of wandering fools exactly where we wanted to go. I was feeling real good. Enter survival run fact # 3: “Never assume the worst is over”.
We came to a tree line bordered by some fence posts. At looking at our now reliable Google Map I noticed that the distance to the road was still showing as 2KM! How is that possible? We just walked for an hour and we are still the same distance. Luz and I were stumped. How can that be? We decided that the distance must be off, and we trusted the direction only. I had my machete in my hand and Luz instructed the path to be to follow the fence line right to the road. I started to walk ahead like a good boyscout with Niki at my side.
Side-bar: The following paragraphs are rated PG-13. Reader discretion is advised.
I was about 20 feet ahead of the group, and had a “kick in my step” when Luz called out to me to stop! I turned back to her, and she calmly told me to come back towards her. I was confused and asked her why. She quietly said… snake.
The next few seconds went by in super-slow motion. I remember wondering how she could see a snake from that distance to me. Then, slowly out of the peripheral of my left eye I saw movement. As I cocked my head to the left I saw that a snake’s head was 18 inches from my cheek and moving towards me!
I did what any hardened survival runner with steely resolve and unwavering nerve would do at a time like that… I screamed like a frightened child, and meekly flailed my machete like a fly swatter in panicked reaction to wish it away.
Luz told me not to scream, as that scares the snake. My heart was racing as I looked back to see the “beast”. “It’s just a baby” said Marcos. It was a 3.5 foot long Boa Constrictor and was attached to the fence post and obviously attracted to my heat signature. “They are not venomous señor” said Jose, “But when they bite they are very hard to get out of the skin because they have curved fangs”. Thanks Jose, good to know.
We decided to take the wide way around and avoid any other snakes that might be along the fence line ( I saw one more full size one before the night was through). We headed into the forested area and left the wide open field. In hindsight, this was our biggest mistake. After 30 minutes of walking along another dried out creek bed we came to a wall of trees. I decided that this wasn’t going to work for us, but only slow us down. We turned around to head back the way we came and somehow we got turned around. It was 8 pm, I had just shared the last of my electrolyte water with everyone and it was really dark in that jungle.
Despite my best efforts, with the help of Luz and her phone, we could not figure which way was out. We were walking in circles and our bodies were starting to shut down from dehydration and exhaustion. One runner was even so thirsty that he resorted to peeing into a ziplock bag and drinking his urine through a filter Lifestraw. I wasn’t that thirsty thank you.
Jose and Marcos were starting to shut down. They were becoming light-headed and very irritable. We had been in constant contact with HQ, Luz’s mother and Marcos’ brother (who as I found out later, was not much help and running around accusing and threatening everyone at HQ). I really concentrated on focusing everyone’s attention to the situation at hand and not on Neftali, HQ or family members who were driving aimlessly around the island.
I started to talk to people like we were in the cockpit of a plane and doing a systems check. “When was the last communication?” “What did HQ says when you gave them our coordinates?” “Who’s feeling sick?” , etc, etc. I figured getting excited over things out of our control would not help us. Survival Run fact #1: “Anxiety is your enemy”
Our last communication stated that rescue groups were in the area and for us to keep heading towards the road. I was struggling trying to understand why our GPS coordinates weren’t working when they were sent to HQ. Apparently the phone’s GPS coordinates were showing us on the other side of Ometepe. Must have been something about the volcano. This would explain why the Google Maps was sending us in circles.
At around 9:30 pm, we were almost at a standstill. Two runners were cramped, light-headed and moving very slow. The terrain had become rough and we were stepping onto lava rock with every step, making the risk of falling in the dark, very high. I was certain that the direction I was leading them was going to end up back to that cattle field any minute. Frustration amoungst the 3 guys was escalating. I’m kinda glad I didn’t speak the language, as I might told them to shut up. But I wasn’t about to lose my cool. I told them to take a 5 minute break and I would head about 100 meters out and see if the treeline broke.
I trudged through the vine laden scrub growth, stopping every 5 feet to chop away vines that were ensnaring my lower body. After the 100 meters I was disappointed to see it was still lots of trees. But I was so sure.
When I got back I suddenly felt light-headed myself and was having a hard time maintaining my strength. I was “bonking”, and heavily. That little hero trek of mine just sapped me of my final bit of strength and I was now lethargic and not much help physically.
Luz told HQ that we were all in a worse way now, and making it to the road wasn’t going to happen. We were instructed to huddle up, conserve our energy and listen for the rescue crew in the area. We sat down on top of the lava rock and tried to rest. I needed to lean against Niki to stay upright, but that eventually lead to me laying down over the rocks. Luz started blowing the most irritating whistle I’ve ever heard while we sat and waited for help.
“Bonking” is a strange sensation. While dehydrated, I was completely conscious of everything around me, my mind was still sharp. My body however was a sack of cement. Thirst wasn’t an issue anymore. Just taking breaths was difficult.
Then around 10:30 we started to hear voices; the good kind. The group would get excited and screamed frantically. I calmed us down and had the group do one big “group yell” after hearing a voice, then wait 30 seconds. This was working. After another 30 minutes our saviour arrived. It was Neftali!
That’s right. Our erstwhile and misguided “guide” had returned 5 hours later, still carrying the emergency bag from my station. However, he had no water. After some choice words of frustration from some of the group, Neftali told us which way was out and to follow him. I was tired and weak, but I told Luz I could walk, just to keep an eye on me. Neftali led the way out (which coincidentally was the way I had forged through earlier). I moved like a zombie from the Walking Dead.
Another 60 minutes passed. There were some moments of directional confusion, but eventually we made it back to the field. When I came out of the jungle, I felt weird. I was speaking like I was drunk. In my mind I was completely coherent and wondering what the hell I was saying, but my mouth was spewing off random rants. Thank gawd for Luz.
She took a hold of my packs top handle and guided me through the field. It was walking home from a bar (not that that’s ever happened Mom). I was commenting on the funny looking cows, the bright moon, that darn snake and anything else that came to my head. My legs were lead and I was starting to stumble. Luz sat me down and let me lie on my pack. The rescue party was minutes away and they had water she said.
The next thing I knew, Luz was feeding my small sips of electrolyte water. I just wanted to chug the thing, but Luz knew what to do. I didn’t want to take anymore unless I knew her and Niki had some too, which I was glad to see they did. After 15 minutes of slow sips, I was feeling better.
The new guides lead us out of the field, down a roadway that was going to take us to the road and a waiting truck. I was told it was a 20 minute walk. 20 minutes my dehydrated butt! It took me an hour to walk out to that road. My legs may have had fluid again, but now I was starting to feel the muscular cramps that come after re-inflating yourself with water. I limped heavily under Luz watchful eye to the road. Then my headlamp died.
At about 100 yards to go, I saw regional Race Director Ben Despacio come running up to Luz and I with two nurses. The gave me the ugliest looking banana I’ve ever seen. It was gold. Ben took an arm and half carried me the remaining distance and put me into his truck. When I got in, I was happy to see Niki in the back seat smiling at me. I smiled back and said “I told you I’d get you home. This will be the best DNF story you’ve ever had”.
I never did see Neftali, Carlos, Marcos or Jose once we left that cow field. You’re welcome I guess.
Ben took me back to my hotel, via HQ, where we picked up my friend Mitchell who had climbed and descended Concepcion twice that day helping to look for us. Ben drove us back to El Ecantro and drove me right up to the gates. I shook his hands and told him that I forgot to give him something. I reached into my back and handed him my clipboard with all the racers times and pin numbers from my station. I had promised to return it.
As he drove off, Mitchell and I turned to head to our room. El Encantro’s proprietor Carlos was waiting by the rooms. “You didn’t tell me you were coming back Jamie” he said. “What do you mean Carlos!” was my reply. “Your email said 5 days, I checked it twice”… After the day I had just had, my hotel had booked my room out from us. Our stuff was still in the room when we left, Carlos had packed it up and locked it away. Not wanting to get into it at that time, I asked if he had any beds, hammocks or rocks I could sleep on. He let us into the hostel room and Mitchell took the last bed, while I took Scott Smuin’s bed, as he was working his shift on Maderas volcano and wouldn’t be back until 9 am. I hit the bed hard.
It was 3:00 a.m. I had been up for 24 straight hours.