For me, fitness is an essential component of my lifestyle. It’s how I ensure that I’m living a full and productive life, how I maintain my optimism, my health, and my self-image. And if I want a piece of chocolate cake – well, I actually do deserve it. Attempting to achieve health through calorie restrictive diets is a roller coaster. You lose weight, you plateau, you gain weight, you quit the diet, and then start all over again.
Here are my top five tips for improving your life through fitness:
Managing Weight…My Simple Weight Loss Tips
My entire life has been about managing my weight. I’ve tried many weight loss diets and trends over the years. But the only tried and true rules for me to lose weight are simple: (1) Write everything down, (2) Eat similar things each day, and (3) Burn calories. In my case, running works best (and now… with age, I also try to build more muscle).
When I became an endurance athlete and ultra runner, I began to to monitor my weight more frequently.
Lighter = faster!
(1) Write Everything Down
The only way to know whether you’re eating an appropriate number of calories each day relative to your weight loss goals is to track objective data. In other words, you need to know how many calories you’re eating and how many calories you’re burning each and every day.
So, one of my tricks is that I keep a little notebook in the kitchen (or wherever I most frequent a place (e.g., my purse!). When I eat something, I write down the number of calories I ate. I do this almost immediately after I eat so that I don’t forget to write it down. At the end of the day, I total up the number of calories I’ve eaten.
At the end of the day, I also write down how many calories I’ve burned during the day. The number of calories burned calculation can be something that you estimate based on your own resting burn rate plus your calories burned during activities during the day. In my case, I use my iFit VUE, which tracks my resting burn rate and my activities for the entire day.
For example, I know from my iFit Vue that I burn about 1,300 calories a day, not including any calories I burn from exercise or other movement. So, for example, if I run very EASY (12+ min mile) for an hour, I add approximately 300 calories to my daily resting burn rate for a total of 1,600 calories burned during the day.
If I’m trying to lose about a pound a week, here is my math:
First, you need to burn 3,500 calories to lose one pound. How fast you do that is up to you. I usually gauge about a week to safely meet this goal. So I know that I need to consume about 500 calories less per day than I burn to meet this goal for 7 days (1 week) to lose a pound of weight. Mind you, I might initially lose more than that, but typically that’s because I’m losing water weight in addition to body fat.
Example of My Summarized Daily Notes:
Ate - 1,300 calories
Burn - 1,300 (resting) + 500 (exercise burn)
Net Loss - -500 calories (Day 1)
Ate - 1,500 calories
Burn - 1,300 (resting) + 600 (exercise burn)
Net Loss - -400 calories (Day 2) ** short 100 calories from daily net weight loss goal
Ate - 1,800 calories
Burn - 1,300 (resting) + 1,100 (exercise burn)
Net Loss - -600 calories (Day 3) ** made up 100 calories for the day before
(2) Eat Similar Things Each Day
Estimating the number of calories you eat can be a pain. That’s why I find that its easier to develop a repetitive menu and to stick to it.
For example, I buy pre-made salads from the grocery store. I know that each of those salads contains about 400 calories. And I will frequently replace the salad dressing that comes with the salad with a low calorie dressing if I’m looking to cut calories a bit more.
Or, I also eat things in small quantities throughout the day, something like organic pre-made low-sodium soups (200 calories), plain yogurt with fresh berries (200 calories), or a healthy, high fiber cereal with Almond milk (200 calories).
By eating similar things each day, it makes calorie counting less of a chore for me.
Yes, sometimes I go off track for a number of reasons (e.g., dinner out, celebrations, holidays)…in those situations, I just get back on track the next day. That’s just life!
(3) Exercise nearly every day — sometimes twice a day
It’s really challenging to eat less than 1,000 calories per day. For me, it becomes such a big challenge that its tough to maintain that discipline for very long. But the more you exercise, the more calories you burn, the more you get to eat each day. That’s why I try to do at least an hour of exercise each day. But granted, sometimes that just doesn’t work out. And you, again, just get back on track the next day!
But what type of exercise? For me, running and power hiking have provided the best results. Aerobic training (such as running) at particularly high intensity, that is, exercise done at an intensity that makes it difficult to hold a conversation, burns a lot of calories.
And I’ve incorporated more strength training each year of age. Strength training builds muscle — and that muscle burns calories even when you’re at rest. So you get a double whammy if you do both. It’s a delicate balance as to how much strength training to do though — particularly when you’re trying to balance your life and run training. This is why hiring a coach sometimes makes sense.
Biking and swimming are fun, but those sports don’t help me lose weight as quickly as running or power hiking in the mountains. But more power to you if those are your sports. Just remember to make sure to get in some intensity, whatever sport you’re doing.
Supplements and Nutrition
Lastly, when you’re cutting calories, you should always make sure that you’re not shorting yourself on vitamins and minerals. So when I’m trying to lose a bit of weight, I regularly take an all-in-one powdered multi-vitamin supplement that I put in a shake or that I mix with water or a low-calories juice.
Likewise, its critical that since you’re eating a few less calories than is normal, you should focus on only eating foods with high nutritional value. Whole fruits and vegetables, eggs, yogurt, cottage cheese, quinoa and whole grain rice are some of the staples that I include in my diet. I try to stay away from pastries, candy and ice cream if at all possible.
Coaching an Athlete Through Injury
Injuries are an all-too common aspect of coaching athletes who run ultra-marathons. The extreme impact caused by running through the mountains, up and down hills and jumping over and around creeks, rocks and uneven ground makes feet, ankles, knees and hips susceptible to a variety of tendon and muscle injuries.
Over the years, my ultra-running friends and coached-athletes have, at various times, suffered from such annoying injuries as Plantar Fascitis, stress fractures, Metatarsalalgia, strained achilles tendons, calf strains, IT band pain and patellar tendonitis. And these are just a a few of the more common injuries.
But overcoming the physical injury isn’t always the biggest problem. Injured athletes also frequently become depressed by the idea that they won’t be able to train as they had planned. And if the injury affects the athlete’s ability to participate in a scheduled race, then the depression can seriously impact the athlete’s motivation to train, cause the athlete to overeat and dramatically impact the athlete’s fitness.
This starts a vicious cycle, creating deeper emotional stress and even less motivation. Within just a few weeks, a formerly fit, optimistic athlete can dig a hole that might take months of training before the athlete recovers to pre-injury levels.
In the worst case scenario an athlete might even give the sport up completely.
So my job is to keep the athlete focused and fit during the down-time caused by the injury.
Here are a few of the techniques I incorporate into training and facilitating the recovery of an injured athlete:
The Mental Side of Recovery: Reset Goals, Focus on the Future, Don’t Dwell on the Past.
The first conversation I have with an injured athlete is to explain that the world hasn’t ended.
I tell them that they need to be adaptable, keep a positive mindset, reset their goals and immediately develop and implement a plan to chase those new goals. Looking back and feeling depressed is not just pointless — it’s incredibly counter-productive.
I explain that there is too much work ahead to waste time thinking about what could have been. I also get them busy focusing on a new training plan.
I always point out that the most productive way to view an injury is to see it as an opportunity to strengthen other aspects of fitness that are sometimes minimized during peak run training. After all, unless an athlete is in a whole-body cast, there is always an aspect of an athlete’s fitness that we can work to improve during recovery.
Depending on the nature and severity of the injury, some of my favorite alternative forms of training during recovery are:
For injuries that require minimizing impact but permit full range of leg motion — a Plantar Fascia injury for example — cycling is an excellent way to maintain endurance, leg strength and to maintain the neuromuscular pathways. And if the athlete can tolerate it, climbing hills standing up can mimic a running movement.
For some athletes who really take to cycling during recovery, I will recommend that they consider signing up for group “century” rides — organized rides that frequently include routes of 50 miles, 100 kilometers or 100 miles.
And for those athlete’s who don’t own bikes or are wary of riding on a road, I’m a big fan of spin class — which can help maintain aerobic capacity due to the intensity of the classes.
Last year, one of my athletes broke his shoulder, which made most sports completely off-limits during recovery. Still, we found that he could hike with his arm in a sling. And since he was training for a very hilly ultra a few months out, I built a training plan for him that included hiking up mountains — including hard, fast uphill hiking.
Soon, he became a very strong, fast hiker, which benefitted him immensely in his ultra-marathon later that year.
For injuries that do not allow weight bearing, swimming provides an excellent alternative workout. Swimming builds core stability and strengthens hip flexors. Some light kicking can help quads from atrophying. And if the athlete becomes a competent swimmer, open water swimming in the ocean or in a lake can be a really interesting workout — and much less boring than pool swimming.
As a secondary workout related to swimming, while the athlete is in the pool, I’ll also have them do some water-running. Water running is a completely non-weight bearing workout that the athlete performs with a flotation device strapped around their waist. Unfortunately, water running can be incredibly boring, so it’s always best to prescribe water running workouts with short intense intervals.
Stand-Up Paddle Boarding:
This is a great non-impact sport that works well for athletes who truly need to minimize movement in their lower body. I also like this workout because it uses the stabilizing muscles in the legs and core without any need for the athlete to have range of motion or tolerance for impact.
And if the athlete falls of the board and has to swim, so much the better — that’s two workouts in one. :)
Strength work must be adapted to avoid the athlete’s injury, but I like my athletes to do what they can.
Some of my favorite moves include squats, hamstring curls, calf raises, knee extensions and hamstring extensions for the lower body. Abductor and adductor moves are also great. For strengthening the core, I like front and side planks, sit-ups done while sitting on an exercise ball and I particularly like having my athletes use TRX bands or joining a Pilates class.
It also doesn’t hurt to have athletes in recovery work on upper body strength. While runners tend to be worried about becoming bulked-up, focusing on high reps/low weight will build lean, not bulky muscle. And, in any event, the benefits of maintaining and building all-over-body strength, in my mind, outweigh any downside caused by building a small amount of upper body muscle.
Besides, in many of today’s highly technical ultra races, the use of trekking poles is helpful and even recommended by race organizers. And in order to be efficient in racing with trekking poles, it’s helpful to have strong lats and triceps.
Obviously, there are countless other non-running sports and workouts in which an injured runner could participate to maintain fitness during recovery from an injury. And I encourage my athletes to be creative and adaptable in considering any and all options — because the most important factor in maintaining fitness during injury down-time is to enjoy what you’re doing, maintain a positive, motivated mindset and to stay active.
Multi-Day Ultra-Distance Running Races (“Stage Race”)
HOW TO PREPARE & TRAIN
WHAT IS A STAGE RACE?
In the small world of ultra-running, there is a more exclusive, some might say, crazier, club of runners who participate in “stage" races. These racers run a race a day for a number of days in a row, often on trails, over mountains and at high altitudes. The winner is the runner with the least combined time for all of the stages put together. If you’ve ever watched the Tour de France… it’s like that — without a bike, or roads.
It’s an exhausting form of racing, both mentally and physically. Day after day, you wake up and run, say, 20 to 30 miles, eat; do what you can to recover; try to sleep; then wake up in the morning and do it all over again.
Some days you wake up and you can’t remember what town you’re in. Racing in Europe last year, I woke up one morning and couldn’t remember what country I was in.
And yet, despite the suffering, there is no better way to explore the world's most beautiful scenery than to run through it day after day. You see a lot of nature when you run a marathon a day through the wilderness.
Because of the difficulty of this type of racing, most participants consider finishing to be a victory. Not surprisingly, the finish line is an emotional place, where a lot of incredible athletes do a lot of hugging and crying.
So now that I’ve convinced you to give stage racing a try, how do you train for one?
PREPARING AND TRAINING FOR A STAGE RACE:
Unfortunately, there is an inverse relationship between how much information is available to teach you how to do a particular activity and the popularity of that activity.
Want to learn how to run a 5k? No problem. There are literally thousands of articles about how to train for a 5k. Want to learn to run an 8-day, 280 kilometer race over the Alps from Germany, through Austria, through Switzerland and into Italy? Good luck piecing together the small scraps of available information into something that resembles a training and racing plan.
So that’s where I come in. I’ve run two stage races in the last 3 years — one, a 3-day, 100 kilometer race in South America called El Cruce (http://elcrucecolumbia.com/el-cruce/sobre-el-cruce/?lang=en), and the other, an 8-day, 280 kilometer race in Europe, called Transalpine (http://transalpine-run.com/en/). I’ve also coached and supported racers at Transalpine and at TransRockies (http://transrockies-run.com/), a 3-day or 6-day race.
Because there wasn’t a ton of information available when I did my first stage race, I had to invent a training plan and test it out on myself and my athletes. And for the most part, we’ve had success — a few failures too, but I’d like to think that I made those mistakes so you won’t have to.
Let’s start with the basics. If you haven’t run a stage race, you’re probably wondering, like many incredulous runners I’ve spoken to, “how do you run the next day and the next day? After I run a marathon, I can’t walk the next day. I can’t imagine running another marathon a day after running a marathon.”
Good question. Here’s the answer:
Race Simulation Training. Training for a stage race is about conditioning your body to run long distances repeatedly with minimal recovery time. So the training technique I developed is to push my body to experience these extremes. Here are four tips to consider:
Distance Per Week. How far to run and how to progress into it will depend on the number of days in your stage race and the total distance you will run during the race. But as a general rule, you should have at least 6 months of solid base training under your belt before you begin to get specific about training for a stage race. (Averaging 30-40 miles per week during those 6 months of base training will probably be enough to allow you to get on with the serious training.) Then, 12 to 16 weeks prior to your stage race, you should build up to 65-80% (the more elite/experienced the athlete, the closer you’ll be to the 80% range), of the total race week miles in a weekly training progression. In other words, if you’re an amateur who has signed up for a 6 day, 150 mile race, I would recommend that your long run weeks be approximately 90 to 100 miles. You should hit these peak weekly distances a few times before the race (with your last really long week about 3 weeks prior the the race.)
So how do you structure a big week of training to get you to those miles? Well, like training for Ultra-marathons, you must do back-to-back long runs. When I was training for Transalpine, my training partner and I would regularly run 25 miles on a Saturday and follow that up with a 20 mile run on a Sunday. But I find that stage racing requires you to test yourself mentally and physically in a slightly different way. So, I strongly recommend that you do back-to-back-to-back long runs.
For example, during the 3 months before Transalpine, my teammate and I incorporated at least 4 weeks when we did back-to-back-to-back long runs — on the high end, we did something like 22 miles on a Friday, 20 on a Saturday and 18 on a Sunday, making sure to work on pacing, fueling and recovering just as we planned to do during the race. It should also go without saying that you should run these long runs over terrain that simulates your race stages. Importantly, if your race is in the mountains at elevation (like a lot of stage races), try to run in the mountains at elevation. You do not want to show up on race day and realize that every stage is going to be 20% harder than anything you’ve trained for.
Elevation gain / loss training. On your long runs, it’s critical that you simulate the race course to the greatest extent possible. If you’re in doubt, assume the race course is harder than you think. Stage racing is not like single-day racing, where the adrenaline and excitement of race day can help you push to the finish line. In stage races, you run out of adrenaline on day 1 and when its gone, the only thing that allows you to fight through the urge to quit is knowing that you did the necessary training. If you start to doubt whether you trained hard enough, every aid station will begin to look like a nice place to drop out.
With that in mind, it’s important that you not only simulate race conditions during your long runs, but you need to incorporate high intensity work during your shorter runs. If you’ve ever done a single day race and complained about pain in your quads from running hard on the downhills, you will understand how critical it is to make your quads bulletproof before you even consider racing a stage race.
And I speak from personal experience here. Like so many others I’ve spoken to, my biggest stage race training mistake was that I didn’t train the downhills intensely enough. Sure, I ran lots of hills, but in a race, you run downhills just a little harder than in training, and so, during your training, you need to simulate the pounding your legs will take. So, once or twice a week on short mileage days you should consider a workout something like: 10 minutes of uphill running at 8/10 intensity and then running down the same hill as fast as you can. Rest for a couple minutes and then repeat this effort 3-6 times as you progress through your last few months of training. This intense uphill-downhill training will give your VO2 max a bump and will make you stage racing ready.
Terrain condition training. If the terrain is technical (rocky, undulating, river crossings), then you need to practice running in these conditions. Develop good eye-foot coordination and confidence by incorporating regular runs down technically challenging hills. Stage racing is mentally exhausting, and after a day or two, your downhill running skills will suffer — as will your mental focus. Also, if your race includes particularly steep, treacherous terrain like in the Alps, I’d advise practicing with trekking poles. Poles can provide a tremendous benefit on the steep uphills when you’re power-hiking and they reduce the impact on your legs on the downhills. Trekking poles also provide stability and help you to jump boulders and small river crossings. In Europe, you won’t find many ultra runners without them. But in the U.S., we have been slow to catch on to the benefits of running with trekking poles. Don’t let peer pressure or ego stop you from taking advantage of this helpful tool.
Course Reconnaissance. If you can train on the actual course, do it! Maybe take a long weekend vacation to the destination to run parts of the course. Of course, this isn’t always possible due to time or family commitments. But don’t worry, there’s a technological option available. Some treadmills, like the NordicTrack Incline Trainers ( https://www.nordictrack.com/fitness/en/NordicTrack/InclineTrainers allow you to draw your course on Google Maps and load it into your iFit account. Then the treadmill will automatically adjust the incline and decline for the actual course. And because these treadmills allow you run up a 40% incline and 6% decline, the course simulations are quite realistic. Pretty awesome! Wish I’d had this back in the day. ;-)
Recovery. Recovery time is often short during a stage race. Usually, you finish a day’s stage in the afternoon, you talk to fellow participants, maybe get in a quick cold-water leg-soak in a nearby river and then go to dinner. Some race-organizers, like Transalpine, provide dinner, hand out awards to the stage winners and then preview the next day’s race. This eats up precious recovery time. So, it’s important to have a recovery plan that works best for you and to stay on top of it each day.
In my first stage race in South America, I finished each day and then put on full length (waist to toe) medical grade compression pants. I also performed a stretching routine and used a rigid foam roller for recovery. I’ve now incorporated more advanced recovery technologies. I use electrical stimulation ( http://marcpro.com/ ) and air compression pants ( http://www.normatecusa.com/sports/index.html ). Of course there are other recovery methods like massage and cold/ice submersion that you might find useful. But whatever you do, practice it during your training and find what works.
And don’t forget that the most fundamental aspect of race recovery is SLEEP! This is when your body produces the hormone that helps with muscle recovery. So, get in bed as soon as possible. Get deep sleep. Take a natural sleep aide if necessary, like melatonin. But be careful to take a minimal amount, because my experience is that too much can make you tired after you’ve been taking it for several days in a row. Use a sleep mask and ear plugs. Especially, if you are sleeping in accommodations (tents, 500 year-old hotels, gymnasiums) with other (smelly, snoring) runners. Unexpected noise and light can interrupt deep sleep.
Wear a sleep monitor (I recommend looking at the wearables and other devices for monitoring at https://www.ifit.com/ ), if possible, to know if you are getting proper sleep. Monitoring your sleep will allow you to make changes, and to track how your body is reacting.
Again, do all of this during your training to prepare you for your race.
Finally, taking in recovery fuel and rehydrating within 30 minutes after each stage is very important. I usually like to take in 200-300 calories of carbohydrates, along with a small amount of protein immediately after the race. And then throughout the evening, I eat small amounts (400-500 calories), 2-3 times before bed. This strategy allows my body to absorb the food instead of piling it all into my stomach at one time. Also, if you have a queasy post-race stomach, consider using a liquid fuel at night and definitely consider a liquid fuel like Boost mixed with Carbo-pro a couple hours before the race each morning. Liquid calories absorb faster and digest easier.
Hydration and Hydration Packs. It’s important to run with the gear you are going to use in the stage race. I recommend using a pack — one that has no bounce. Use it on every long run (more than 2 hours). In this way you will condition your body (shoulders, legs) to feel the weight of the hydration pack.
For the most part, don’t run training runs with a support vehicle or hide water bottles. Ultimately, in a stage race, you are responsible for supporting yourself. Even though there are aid stations, sometimes, like in Transalpine last year, the distance between the aid stations is so far that you will run out of water. So you need a back up plan. If there are natural water sources (in the Alps we had streams and local fountains), you’ll be able to safely drink from those sources if you have a filter or water purification tablets. Running out of water in a stage race is even worse than running out during an ultra-marathon. Not only do you suffer to finish the day’s race, dehydration will dramatically slow your body’s recovery for the next day’s race.
Fuel. During long practice runs, it’s important to use the fuel you are going to use in the stage race. If you know what’s going to be on the race course, try using it during training. Otherwise, be sure to bring your own fuel! By day 2 or 3 you are going to be tired of eating the same gels and bars and you will have the urge to eat something new from the aid stations. This can be a big mistake. Unless you’ve tested the aid-station offerings in intense endurance situations, you may find that your stomach will revolt. I made this mistake on day 6 of an 8 day stage race — yes, I ate too much cake! Boy did my tummy not like this feeling during the last 5 miles of that stage. The lesson I learned is that I should only eat what works for me and that I should have other fuel alternatives that I alternate each day. Of course, if eating the same thing for over a week doesn’t bother you, have at it. ;-)
Elevation. What’s the peak elevation in your race? You must know this and you must know whether you can handle that elevation under race conditions. Some people experience elevation sickness or shortness of breath. Nearly everyone runs slower. If possible, schedule training runs up to these elevations. If you can’t get to a place where you can run at elevation, there are tools like elevation tents that you sleep in to help you adapt to high elevations. Unfortunately, its not the same as running at elevation, but it’s better than nothing. Also, in a pinch, if its hot where you live, you can train in heat and humidity to get a similar training effect as living or training at elevation.
Mental Training. Ultimately, you will experience things you can’t predict or practice. When negative things happens, stay calm, don’t panic, and get back to a positive mindset as soon as you can. The longer you dwell on the negative, the easier it is to justify quitting. Easier said than done…I know. And sometimes, physical issues will trigger negative thoughts. This happened to me when I twisted my ankle severely on one occasion and suffered delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) on another. Nearly every stage racer experiences mental ups and downs, but if you’ve trained properly, your chances of overcoming your difficulties will increase.
Gear. By race time, you should know what shoes, socks, skin glides, running shorts/shirts, hats/bandanas, sunglasses, hydration packs work for you. For multi-stage races, bring a back up pair of shoes and a spare hydration pack. Most stage races also involve varying weather conditions, so find the lightest wind and waterproof pants and jacket possible! Less weight is so important when running for long hours over several days!
Personal Medicinal Aide Kit. I highly recommend carrying a small baggy of emergency medical aide – ibuprofen, allergy medicine, gas/bloating medicine, immodium, etc.
Bathroom. This is a topic that many coaches don’t discuss. But a key to running well over many days is to minimize the amount of time you’re running with GI issues. So, like I said previously, really nail your nutrition. But even if you do everything right, prepare for the fact that when you run day after day you will not always have the privacy of a bathroom or portable toilet available. There will be mornings when the plumbing might not be working before the race, so I highly recommend bringing some tissue or individually packaged wet wipes. Modesty goes out the window! You’ll need to squat wherever you can. And sometimes there is no privacy.
Race Arrival. Arrive as early as possible to adjust to your new time zone. Recovering from travel (sleep deprivation and muscle inflammation) is critical. Even the most adaptable travelers usually take 1-2 days when they fly from one continent to another. Then, experts say, that you’ll need about a day for every hour of time zone change to fully adapt to a new time zone. So, if you’re traveling from the U.S. to Europe, you might want to consider traveling 7 days before your race.
Race specific tips. Read race reports from previous race years. They often contain some key tips you may not have considered.
There is so much more to know about training for an incredible endurance endeavor like a stage race. So, if you’re ready to join the crazy people and you have questions or comments, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, message me at the bottom of this blog post, or message me on my Instagram account at lilmaukarungirl.
Adventure - Vall de Nuria and Puigmal d’Err mountain, Pyrenees, Spain, 9/13/2014
Continuing on from my last post (Ribes de Fresser adventure), this was the next day when we completed our journey to the valley of Nuria in the Pyrenees to run to the top of Puigmal d’Err mountain.
And so our journey began, with my trusty friend and guide (Jose), as we took the Vall de Nuria Rack Railway, which I spoke about in my last post, from Ribes de Fresser.
The Pyrenees is a range of mountains that forms a border between France and Spain, and is about 305 miles long beginning from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea.
Vall de Nuria is a valley just below the crests of the Pyrenees in a province of Girona, community of Catalonia, Spain. The valley floor is about 6,600 feet above sea level.
Puigmal d’Err mountain lies along the Spanish-French border in the Pyrenees. The summit is 9,546 feet above sea level, and is one of the highest peaks in the eastern Pyrenees. The scenery is amazing at the top, with sharp peaks, views of the Mediterranean sea (on a clear day), and a trail that goes along the crest for miles. On the other side of Puigmal d’Err mountain is France, and there are footpaths leading from the floor of France up to the top as well. There are no roads. In the Valley of Nuria, there is a ski resort with 10 alpine ski pistes, hotel, church, lake, and historical museum.
Enjoy the pictures! Next post will be my following 4 day adventure of running from Girona, Spain to the Mediterranean Sea.
Adventure - Ribes de Fresser, Spain - 9/12/14
Finally getting these pictures posted. This was the beginning of my adventure to get to the Pyrenees with my friend from Spain, Jose Antonio, who was my excellent guide.
Ribes de Freser is a small mountain village at the foothills of the Pyrenees. It is some of the training grounds for the famous Spanish athlete Kilian Jornet; and nearby, he won the Ultra Trail Andorra in 2009.
Originally the village was a farming and mining community, then it became famous for its paper mills in the late 19th century, and now, it is a place for summer and mountain tourism.
We arrived here to spend the night, and ran to the Taga (a mountain top nearby). The next morning we continued our adventure on the famous cremallera railway which snakes its way up to the small ski town and pilgrimage site of Nuria - on of the most magnificent journeys in the Pyrenees.
— with Jose Antonio Torres at Ribes De Fresser, Pyrenees.
** check back later; pending update.
As I tell my athletes -- sometimes your A race doesn’t turn out as planned.
In ultra-running, a sport that takes place in nature, the unexpected is normal and being adaptable is a racing skill, just like speed, power and endurance.
Like most of us who compete at endurance races, I’ve had tough days before. Sometimes because I didn’t train properly -- sometimes because I didn’t fuel perfectly. But the Transvulcania Marathon (45K or 28 miles, a bit longer than a typical marathon) was a new experience. This was the first time I suffered because my body couldn’t cope with the combination of altitude, the technical terrain and the steepness of a course.
In hindsight, it’s remarkable that I managed to finish at all. This is a story about the mental and physical strength that it took to overcome the challenges of the toughest race I’ve ever done.
I arrived at the starting line feeling great and ready to go! Maybe a little nervous, but that was to be expected at a race with so many people and so much energy buzzing around the start line. There were over 600 people in the marathon and we were merging into a group of 2,000 ultramarathon participants who had started 13 miles and 4 hours earlier on the southern tip of Isla de la Palma.
The countdown began and we took off. Surprisingly, the front runners didn’t go out very fast, as I was told the Spaniards normally do. We took it easy up the gradual uphill start and made a sharp left turn onto a wide, runnable trail.
The first 5 miles were a breeze. The only obstacles were the 50 mile runners who were joining us on the same trail (or rather we were joining them!).
Because the runners doing the 50 miler had already endured 13 miles of climbing to get to the marathon start, they were understandably moving a bit slower than we were at that point. And so, we marathon runners had to weave in and out of them as we went along.
I arrived at the first aid station in great time -- filled my hydration pack with water and wasted no time taking off again.
That’s when the climbing began.
Up, up, up, up and up we went…on and on and on! It went this way for hours -- literally.
Every so often we had a short ¼ mile stretch of runnable terrain, which felt awesome. Finally, a chance to stretch the legs and go!!! My power hiking was in great form (which was a good thing, since it is impossible to run many of the climbs in this race).
At this point, I was sitting right in the top pack with some outstanding athletes. That would change later.
We ran along a spectacular single track – a cliff on one side, the mountain on the other. And when I say “cliff”, I mean a really steep, incredibly deep canyon created by an ancient exploding volcano.
With 2,000+ runners in the mix, there was constant passing and being passed. People spoke many different languages, but even if we didn’t understand each other’s language, we understood that the noise from behind meant “move out of my way!” And when someone didn’t hear you coming, you just tapped the person on the back.
I learned quickly to not let people pass me on the mountain-side of the trail, but rather to let them pass on the cliff side.
I learned this lesson the hard way when an out of control guy was running up from behind me while simultaneously trying to put on his pack. At the moment he tried to pass (on the mountain side – unfortunately for me), his big pack hit me and knocked me towards the cliff edge and a 1,000+ foot drop.
Fortunately, he was quick to react and grabbed my shoulders to catch me. Whew!!! He apologized (I think… his words, which I couldn’t understand, sounded like an apology), and off he went.
The journey between the place of my near death experience and the next aide station was beautiful. At times we were on top of the volcanic caldera ridge, 7,000 to 8,000 feet up and we could see 360 degrees around us. Spectacular!
We were above the ocean and the clouds…on top of the island. Just not at the very top…yet!
I could see in the distance, around the edge of the caldera ridge, to the top of the mountain range where the Observatory was sitting – a white dot on the black volcano peak at almost 8,000 feet elevation: El Roque de los Muchachos, they called it.
Sadly, it looked closer than it was.;-)
Soon we came upon a long line of runners who were stopped on the single track. Just stopped.
At first I thought someone was hurt and we were waiting for the person to be cleared from the trail. But then I realized it was an aide station and you had to stand in line and one by one have your pack filled with water.
So very slow. I had never experienced this in a trail race before, but then again, I’ve never run a trail race with nearly 3,000 runners.
As I said, most of the race was runnable to this point. But that didn’t last. We started getting into much more rocky terrain and climbing higher and higher. From this point to the next aide station and then to the top of El Roque de las Muchachos was where I experienced my first problems in the race.
With every step up the incredibly steep mountains,, the combination of steep grade and altitude was affecting my heart rate and my ability to breathe. I slowed significantly but made a conscious effort to only to take a short break if my heartbeat got out of control.
Around this time, my watch stopped recording distance and time, so I couldn’t tell how much further to the top. I could only see the summit in the far distance – which wasn’t helping me judge how long I had to run to get there, since I was moving so much slower than usual.
I started feeling the altitude more and more and it gradually developed into full-blown altitude sickness -- something I've never felt before, despite spending considerable time training at elevation.
Of course just when I was feeling bad, that’s when “mi amigo” who almost knocked me off the cliff, came thundering up from behind again. I had passed him on a straight away, (where I was taking advantage of the runnable terrain) and now he was coming back fast and out of control on a downhill.
He came barreling down and fell right into me, grabbing my shoulders from behind and swinging me slightly to the right as he passed me on his left. I wasn’t offended, and it actually made me laugh to myself, which seemed strange. At least he didn’t almost throw me off a cliff this time, I thought.
Maybe the elevation was making me light-headed.
The last 6 miles to the top of the La Roque de los Muchachos (the highest point in the race) were filled with brutal, grueling climbs. But the worst part was that the footing was so uneven. There wasn’t a flat place to put your foot anywhere.
I've climbed plenty in the mountains in the U.S., but this terrain was something totally new to me. To the Europeans, though, this was normal.
Sixteen miles to the finish. Baby step, step -- step, baby-step. And so it went. Mile after mile.
Though my stomach was churning and I wasn’t digesting very well, I tried to keep fueling and hydrating. I always tell my athletes that, as bad as things get, you can never stop eating and drinking. You can slow down, you can even take a short rest, but you have to fuel for the challenge ahead.
For me, on this day, I knew that to stop fueling would have meant an ambulance ride home.
The last 2 miles of the climb, I could see the top of Las Muchachos. Thoughts and emotions raced through my head. I was determined to finish this race, but I thought, “I might not get there. Will someone have to come get me on a stretcher?! OMG, please let me just get there. I’ve worked too hard to get to this point. Please, body, I know you are weary, but let’s just take one little step at a time.”
Ironically, my legs felt great. But my inability to deal with the altitude was frustrating because it was something I couldn’t control and hadn’t had problems with in the past. It was stopping me in my tracks, and I was beginning to have to throw up.
A few steps at a time, and I would have to let my heart beat settle down. Then I took a few more steps and took anther rest. I promised myself a longer rest if I could just get to the top of the summit.
There were many spectators along that last mile cheering us on. And, as we ultra-runners do, many fellow runners were looking out for me during this challenging section of the race.
One final step and I crossed the timing mat, making the cut off for this checkpoint about 18 miles into the race. YES!
Making a cutoff doesn’t normally enter my mind during a race, but I realized at this point in this race, it was no longer reasonable to chase a spot on the age group podium. It was time to adjust my goals and to recover enough to finish the race.
At the top, I found a place to sit and reflect. I was also hoping to settle my stomach. My body felt unbelievably weary. Almost like I couldn’t go on. But my mind was strong and I wasn’t going to give up.
I sat, drank a little coke and watched many others in a similar condition as me.
Sitting there, taking it all in, I saw many in the ultra race eating pasta. Oye, this didn’t look appetizing at all in my condition. But it did make me smile to see others employing their own fueling strategies to overcome the challenge ahead.
I must have looked pretty bad, because a couple of people (fellow runners and spectators) kept checking on me to see if I was ok. Did I need medical?
Maybe. Probably. But I’m pretty stubborn that way ;-)
I pulled myself together and made a new plan to get to the finish line. It was all downhill from here (at least that’s what I was told). The finish line was at sea level, and here, eleven miles from the finish, we were sitting at about 8,000 feet. So we were definitely going to have to go downhill.
But just because you need to go down, doesn’t mean the trail won’t go back up again before it goes all the way down.
I started off walking, as my stomach was still feeling a bit woosy from the altitude sickness. As I headed out and crested over the short hill where the aide station sat, I looked ahead and saw -- “what?!”
Up ahead, there were trails of people climbing mountains again. “Oh no,” I thought.
But despite my initial disappointment, I did what I had to do and adjusted my mental outlook again.
My mind is strong, I realized. I was taking each challenge, one by one, and not letting myself consider failure. Knowing this gave me strength.
And eventually, as the elevation dropped, I began to feel physically better again.
It is a bit of a blur as to what happened between the summit and the next aid station. I just remember keeping my head down, staring at the treacherous footing, worrying about falling and injuring myself. After all that I had been through, I didn’t care if I had to go slow. I just didn’t want to fall and get injured like so many of the other runners. (The male winner and the 2nd place female both had violent falls and were bleeding a ton at the finish.)
After the next aide station there were short gaps in the terrain where running was possible. But it was a battle to pass the guys ahead of me on the narrow single track. And it wasn’t very productive, because every time I passed a guy on the flats, he would try to pass me again when the terrain got steep and rocky again. These European guys were much more familiar with this type of terrain than me it seemed. Either that, or they were just too tired to realize the risks.
So to avoid hopscotching with these guys the whole way down, I just decided to hang behind them. To some extent staying back was helpful, because it allowed me to locate footing quicker by watching where the guys in front of me stepped.
But it was frustrating to be held back on the straightaway. I wanted to yell, “mas rapido!!!” and get these guys moving. I had a cut off to make and I was starting to worry.
In the last 8 miles or so, as we were running along the mountain side through a lot of trees, we came upon a woman who was lying down in the single track trail. The EMT was there putting her on a stretcher. It looked like exhaustion, since, fortunately, there was no blood. ;-)
We moved past her and kept running, but at this point the helicopter that was there to pick her up, kept buzzing all around us, pelting us with dirt and lava sand.
For the first time in the race, I got sand and small rocks in my shoes. My gators had been doing their job valiantly to this point. But because the helicopter was driving sand at us with such force, the sand and dirt found its way into every nook and cranny of our bodies and even made its way into my shoes.
But I was in a hurry and wasn’t willing to stop and dump my shoes. I just kept going.
I was distracted with the thought of getting to the finish, and watching my footing. My legs were getting more weary every mile and my feet were starting to feel like hamburger from running on rock for so long.
The sand in my shoes probably didn’t help matters.
And it is unimaginable how much jagged, boulder-sized lava rock you run on in this race.
I finally arrived to the last aide station. I recognized the area because I had been to this spot a few days before with Luis Alberto Hernandez (who would go on to win the ultra marathon and whom I met a few days before the race at the hotel where we were staying).
Luis had explained to me that this was the last part of the race and he showed me some of the terrain. However, something must have been lost in transition, because as I continued to descend, it was even more rocky and technical than anything I had seen that day.
And I still had 4 miles and over 2,000 feet down to the finish.
UNBELIEVABLE. Each step was on a rock. I was sometimes stepping 6 inches at a time, right, left, right, left and then hopping over boulders. You couldn’t let your attention drift for a second. If you did and you fell, the injury wouldn’t be minor.
I can’t express how crazy this last part was and how incredibly steep down hill it was.
As I hadn’t had the time or a watch since Las Muchachos, I was relying on trying to ask in Spanish or sign language how far “quanto kilometers?!” to fellow runners around me. No one seemed to really know. But that didn’t keep them from giving me answers!
I think I was told I was 3 kilometers from the finish 4 times, when we were actually more like 6 miles (10 kilometers) away!
In the last few miles, I found peace and camaraderie with the runners around me. There were many strong fit men around me, finishing at the same time, which made me feel proud to be where I was and it made me realize for the first time that I WILL finish.
In the final descent, about ¾ a mile from the finish line, it is a sheer mountain edge on a steep zig zag cobblestone trail.
You can see the finish but it’s slow going and the clock was ticking. At this point, I was really worried that, after everything I had gone through, I might not make the 10 hour cut off.
I just wanted to get there so badly.
But there were runners in front of me who were difficult to pass in these tricky conditions.
Eventually I took a risk, passed them, and I said “go, go go!” to myself.
“I’m almost there, I see it,” as the finish line approached and the crowd started to cheer for me.
Suddenly the tears start pouring with sheer joy!
“I’m in the chute…I’m there. I made it!”
This was the most humbling race I have done so far. And this picture shows it all. I’m so happy to have overcome such a grueling experience -- so spectacular, but insanely emotionally and physically challenging.
Mostly, though, this was a mental victory. I have never seen anything like this race course in all my trail running experience. I can’t even think of a place in the US to train for such conditions.
Many people would ask, “why do this?”
It’s for the same reason as we trail runners do any race -- it is for the feeling of accomplishment that comes with testing every facet of your ability as a human being.
I am, in every way, a stronger person because I did this.
And I would do it again.
Fuego y Agua 50k Ultra Marathon - 2nd Female Overall
Race and experience in Nicaragua written from the perspective of Stephen Kukta [pictures can be seen on original post @ http://hawiwind.blogspot.com/2013/02/nicaragua-february-14-20-fuego-y-agua_26.html]
Ometepe Island, 2 a.m., race morning. It's so early, the ants that live in our hotel bathroom are still asleep. I flip up the toilet lid to see one lone soldier walking the edge of the toilet bowl.
I have butter cookies crushed into the floor boards of the room, and this ant is walking the porcelain canyon-lip in search of who-knows-what.
So far, I'm no more impressed with the intellect of Nicaraguan ants than I am the Nicaraguan agency that built the Ometepe airport landing strip directly through the island’s main road.
A loud gust of wind nearly takes the tin roof off our hotel room. The metal groans and I hear an eerie howling from the monkeys living in the tall jungle next to the "resort". I suspect that the howling has been initiated by the monkey who tried to pee on us from the tree top yesterday -- that guy hates us.
A rare monkey sighting. Mostly they're loud.Man it's early. And in just a short while, I’ll be out there in the darkness running 50k around a live volcano and then up and into an allegedly dormant volcano. And all of this through a hot, muddy jungle filled with those monkeys and, allegedly, snakes.
Whose idea was this?
Start line. 3:45 a.m. Moyolgapa.
The night is sticky warm, with a light breeze from the south. The air smells like wild animals.
"Big David" Gluhareff, as I have come to call my new friend with the Herculean physique and the pleasant face, is standing next to me a few rows back from the start line. He's smiling, but not in a happy way -- more like in a germ-a-phobe-holding-the-wrong-end-of-a-toilet-bowl-plunger, kind-of-way.
Gently, Big David.Held between his beefy arms, at full extension, is a panic-stricken chicken. David looks a lot like a man trying to hand a baby back to its mother.
The chicken doesn't look pleased either.
David does not like germs. The idea of starting his event, the 70k survival race, by running 10k with a chicken has David a bit freaked out. David came here prepared to wrestle bull sharks, but right now he’d pay a lot of money to get his hands on a a pair of latex gloves and a paper mask.
Nearby, the rough and tough, tattooed John Taylor from Texas has named his chicken Pablo.
Though tough, John is also smart. He quickly renames his chicken Pablita.
On the other end of the competitor spectrum is another new friend, Paul Battaglia. Paul is doing the 50k for his 50th birthday.
From an endurance training standpoint, Paul is on the less-prepared end of the ruler. He’s here to explore his limits -- relying on heart and determination to get through -- sort of like Christopher Columbus setting out from Spain in a kayak.
Fortunately, he’s carrying a camera and a Go Pro, so if he dies in the jungle, we’re likely to recover some great footage.
Seeing the 40 or-so tough as nails looking survival runners -- most covered with some combination of piercings, tattoos, mohawks and facial hair -- gently cradling confused looking chickens, lightens the mood for all of the competitors -- well at least the competitors who are not carrying chickens.
But under their calm demeanors even the 50k and 100k runners are a little fearful.
We are all aware that today will be a challenge. Running first in pitch blackness and then in tropical heat through jungles and over volcanos would be enough -- but we’ve all heard the unearthly sound of the howler monkeys and we’re wondering what else is out there.
I'm here for moral support and as a photographer. Laura finished the El Cruce Columbia, a 100k 3-day stage race, the previous Sunday. Her goal is merely to finish today's 50K race on extremely tired legs.
4:00 a.m. -- Mile Zero
As we take off from the start line, leaving the fluorescent light of the start line for the blackness of the narrow cobbled streets, I try to keep the mood light by chatting with the other racers and cracking bad chicken jokes.
As we weave through the crowd of runners, I say good morning to Andres, a triathlete I met the previous day.
But Laura's all business and I have to end the pleasantries with Andres quickly. After only a minute of chit-chat, Laura is almost out of sight. My headlamp shines about 20 yards ahead of me and she’s well beyond that, so all I can see is her bobbing headlight and some reflective stripes on her hydration pack.
I step up the pace and keep her in sight.
Even at this early hour, a few Nicaraguan locals are out in the streets, perhaps curious about the parade of headlamps bobbing up and down.
More probably, they’re wondering when they'll get their chickens back.
I say "Ola!" and "Buenos Dias!" left and right.
As we make the first left turn off the village street and onto a dusty trail -- some sort of dry river-gully, it seems -- Laura has moved into first place among all of the women. She clearly feels fine, and I'm starting to wonder whether it's me who should be concerned. Not only am I still tired from Team Every Man Jack's murderous triathlon camp last weekend, but the gap between the elite guys up ahead and us is enough that we are essentially running alone in the dark.
And I don't have a clue where the turns are.
Although we were told that the course would be well-marked, the moon is not particularly bright, the dust being stirred up from the river gully is thick, and I'm positive it will be impossible to see the painted arrows on the ground or on telephone poles.
Word on the street is that there were supposed to be glow sticks marking the way, but that they were stolen.
Should be easy to find the thieves -- assuming they're hiding out in the dark.
Sometimes, when the trees thin, I can vaguely make out the triangular shape of the massive live Volcano that towers over Moyolgapa. It obliterates the starlight in a massive triangular area straight ahead.
I know that I need to keep the volcano to our left as we head south. But, as I say, it’s straight ahead.
Two miles in and I’m already worried about being lost.
Fortunately, a few guys and a couple girls join us at the front. The combined power of the eight headlamps makes it clear that we are on a trail with no turns -- which is a relief.
As some of our group push on a little faster and some drop off, a guy named Tyler with a cool tattoo on his back, running in what looks like indigenous indian sandals, forms a three person pack with us and we settle into a steady running rhythm.
Suddenly, our dry river bed dead-ends into a deep gully and we nearly plunge 8 feet straight down a cliff.
Only the momentary bobbing of a headlamp in the distance allows us to see that there is a parallel trail to our left and that we need to jump up an embankment to get back on course.
This is the easy part. The rest of the race should be interesting.
5:00 a.m. -- Mile 6.
The river bed dead-ends into a road and we turn left, following Tyler’s tatoo. Happy to no longer be coughing up dust, Laura kicks it up to a 7:30 pace without regard for whether we made the correct turn.
Early morning commuter paces Laura.A local on a bike cruises alongside Laura and watches her intently. His dog falls into step, a few feet off Laura’s heels.
After a hundred yards, I’m getting the distinct spidey-sense that the course should go right, not left. I stop and head back to the intersection, search my brain for some words in Espanol and ask a man on a horse: "carrera aqui?" pointing in the direction of Laura's quickly disappearing headlamp.
"Si, si," he replies, pointing in the direction that Tyler and Laura have gone.
At that moment, I realize that the man on the horse has no idea where the runners are supposed to be going -- he’s just telling me where they’ve gone.
But I’m out of Spanish words and carrying a bottle in each hand. Charades is out of the question.
I have no choice but to chase after Laura and hope that we're not running up a volcano unnecessarily.
At Laura's quick pace, it's now very difficult for me to make up her quarter mile lead. It takes me over a mile to catch up, even running sub 7 minute miles.
Remarkably, as I catch up, I see that the guy on the bike and his dog are still right where I left them -- happily keeping pace with Laura, and taking advantage of her headlamp to see the road ahead.
I'm getting the distinct impression that the guy and the dog are commuting to work.
Moving together in a little pack, we gradually pick off a group of three male runners and confirm that we’re all on course. One of the runners, Marco from Nicaragua, offers me some cold Gatorade that he got from a passing Land Cruiser. Life is good. Ultra runners are awesome.
Unfortunately, this good feeling doesn't last long.
6 a.m. -- Mile 13.
We’ve turned off the paved road, heading south now, I think. And south is good. It means we're not running in the wrong direction.
We're running down what appears to be a dirt alley, between ramshackle little houses. I'm 10 meters back. There are no headlamps visible ahead and none behind. A very faint light is creeping into the sky, but so far, we haven't seen a single course marker -- and we arrive at yet another T intersection.
As luck would have it, a couple is walking down the street. Now confident in my Spanish, I ask: "carrerra aqui, o aqui?" pointing in both directions.
The woman points left. The husband doesn't look so certain.
Laura starts to run left, while I look for confirmation.
I search for a chalk arrow, a blue flag, a mark on a pole... anything at all that points the way.
Two minutes later, I'm about to leave the intersection when three headlamps pop out of the darkness. It’s the guys we passed a few miles ago.
The combined power of our headlamps allows us to spot a dark blue arrow on a dark brown pole pointing right.
Laura is long gone in the wrong direction, however. And she’s wearing headphones.
The three guys, head right. I go left, racing after Laura.
It takes another hard effort to run her down and get her attention. With Rhianna thumping in her headphones, it's hard to make myself heard.
This detour costs Laura at least 3 spots -- which annoys me more than her. I’m worried that perhaps some women have passed her. But Laura could care less.
It takes immense self control for me to shut up and let her enjoy the race for its own sake. Not everything needs to be about competition, I say, not believing myself.
The road dead ends into a short beach on the west side of the island, then turns east and up another dusty dry creek.
This island is like the world's foremost home of dry creek beds.
We run slightly uphill for a few miles before we see a runner up ahead.
Forgetting that this day isn't about competition, I blurt out: "Let's catch this guy." I'm hopeless.
As we get closer it's apparent that the runner is a survival runner. He is running with a 50 lb. stack of wood on his shoulders and is nearly running the same pace as Laura.
I say, "Hi! Nice work" as Laura passes. The guy not only keeps up the pace, but as I ask him his name he smiles and says “my name is Olaf. I am from New York!”
His name is Olaf and he loves pain.
7:00 a.m. -- Mile 17.
We slowed a bit over the last hour. With the sun rising, the temperature becomes a factor. That, and we spent a few miles climbing over the hilly saddle of the island.
The pace, however, allows us to enjoy the amazing beauty of Ometepe Island and it's people.
After running through a banana field, weaving in and out of banana trees like in a 3d movie, we end up on a dirt road and run through nearly medieval villages.
Old ladies are out at sunrise sweeping the streets. Children play. Chickens, horses, cows and oxen wander freely.
And we run in wonderment.
I can’t help but think that someone should tell the little old lady with the broom that 300 crazy runners are about to mess up her nice dirt street and she might want to delay the sweeping until after the runners pass through.
Unfortunately, I don’t know enough Spanish to explain all this.
Instead, I smile, wave and say "Ola!" hoping that being friendly will make up for the disruption we are causing.
I'm thrilled that no one is chasing... and the beach is nice too.
The village dead-ends into a beautiful long sand beach and we are directed to run in the sand instead of on the parallel road -- sadists. But with the sun rising to our left and the Madera volcano shrouded in fog, just to the right of the sunrise, the beach run seems effortless.
We pass some Americans with the race organization and a lady tells Laura that she’s in second place.
I can tell that this helps lift Laura’s mood -- which is important, because we are closing in on the difficult part of the course -- the volcano. And for the first time, we can see that the volcano’s north flank is steep -- really, really steep. A lot steeper than it looked when I reviewed the elevation profile on the website. Worse, the whole thing seems to be covered in dense jungle. The elevation profile didn't say anything about jungle.
This is going to get ugly.
A mile later, the earth begins to tilt uphill and the flat ground becomes bowling ball-shaped lava rocks.
Laura dances through the boulder field a few hundred yards ahead, while I slow down to take pictures.
When I start to run again, I realize that the left side of the trail has better footing. I move onto that section, round a corner and nearly get bulldozed by a horse. In fact, I nearly get trampled by a whole peloton of horses. At the last instant, I jump to the right and squeeze myself against a fence to let the herd?/gaggle?/team? pass.
After the last horse passes, I jump back on the trail to chase down Laura.
Just then, an ox appears in front of me. And it isn’t giving the right-of way -- swaying back and forth, he takes up the whole road. I dodge right again.
Next comes a dude riding a horse. Then a dog.
"It's like trying to run upstream against the Rose Parade," I think to myself. Just in case there’s a herd of elephants ahead, I peer cautiously up the trail before setting off to catch Laura again.
I notice though that our pace to this point has been outstanding. Laura is well ahead of her personal best time for a 50k, which is incredible given that I'm the only one interested in her placement.
Unfortunately, it looks like the good times are about to end. Trees start to appear randomly in the path, the trail gets steeper and the volcano is starting to look like a green wall.
8:00 a.m. -- Mile 21
Ok, so things are slowing down quite a bit now. We dropped from about 10 minute miles over the first 17 miles, to about a 15 minute mile pace over the last 4 miles.
And now the trail -- if you can call it a trail -- is downright treacherous.
It occurs to me that we’re really climbing up a channel cut by a stream that is now navigable only because it’s the “dry” season. Another freaking dry creek bed! Roots, wet areas, big boulders and high step ups appear every few yards. I find Laura a walking stick to help her keep her footing.
The stick looked more substantial in person.Because the geniuses at the airline lost my luggage in Houston, my footwear is not ideal. I’m wearing what I wore on the plane -- brand new Saucony A5s -- which are the type of shoes a Kenyan might wear to run a 10k. In other words, Saucony never dreamed that some moron would try to climb a volcano in them.
And the technology one might find useful in a 10k on a dry road is a bit counter-productive at the moment. The ventilation holes in the sole of my footwear are allowing mud, water and rocks to join my foot inside the shoe.
Fortunately, a cement-type mixture of small stones and mud eventually block the ventilation holes, keeping the water out. Unfortunately, this makes the shoes distinctly uncomfortable since I’m now running on pebbles stuck into the soles of my shoes.
The jungle ate the tread off my shoes.
To make matters worse, the tiny little bit of tread that was initially glued to the bottoms of the A5’s is peeling off.
So while Laura was making good time, I was going uphill like a man trying to run up a water slide at Wet 'n Wild.
9:00 a.m. -- Mile 22
The Garmin GPS watch shows that we are setting a world record for not going fast -- traveling at a staggeringly slow 44:00 minute per mile pace over the last mile.
Snails have ascended this mountain faster. But then they're better adapted to the jungle and have better footwear.
As slow are we’re going, Laura and I are breathing hard and are moving at maximum forward/upward velocity. Nobody’s stopping for breathers in this group -- unless, you count the multiple times I have to stop after slamming my head into low-hanging branches.
Fortunately, my cap, my sunglasses and my headlamp provide a small buffer against the impact and I’m not concussed -- at least not that I can tell.
Unfortunately, each time I hit my head, all of my head-gear falls into the mud and I have to bend over to gather it up. And when I straighten up, I nearly always hit my head on the same branch again. So maybe I am concussed.
We keep moving -- because the jungle continues to be full of frightening sounds and we don’t want the monkeys or the vipers to eat us.
9:00 a.m. -- just shy of mile 23.
Could this be it? The top of the Maderas Volcano?
I've never been happier to see a muddy, algae infested pond in my life.
“It’s so beautiful!” I exclaim loudly to anyone who’s listening. But no one is, even though the caldera is full of people.
Inside the crater of the Maderas volcano.My Ironman buddy, Andres is here, standing knee high in the water. A guy named Joe is sitting under a tree doing a rum shot from the aid station’s rum stock -- he needs the fortitude because he’s doing the 100k.
I want to rest in the shade.
Laura, however, is already on the move. The aid station volunteers point the way, and off she goes.
Yep, that's the trail alright.
"Noo!" I think.
And to make matters worse, the trail looks distinctly uninviting. An impossibly steep, dusty trail up a cliff getting baked by the sun.
Seriously? Shouldn't there be a ladder here? Or maybe an elevator?
10:00 a.m. -- Mile 24
Six hours into the race, we are now climbing on hands and knees through something that, but for the occasional blue flags marking the way, looks nothing like a trail. It’s just a jungle gym of trees, cliffs, boulders and mud-slides.
Stretching pays off.But things could also be worse.
At this very moment, Big David Gluhareff, is laying on the side of a road, exhausted and dehydrated, wanting to nap, but worried that monkeys might steal his gear if he closes his eyes. He’s also worried that he might be trampled by one of the many horses or oxen that seem to wander down the roads freely.
Valid concerns, all.
And John Taylor is, at about this same time, sliding down a bamboo pole, shredding his forearms and calves into raw meat.
Paul Battaglia is at least three hours behind us, just starting the hellish ascent up the Maderas volcano. During those three hours, temperatures have risen about 20 degrees to the low 90’s. It'll be a miracle if Paul finishes.
And now, just as we reach the rim of the crater and have a spectacular, if deadly, view standing on the razor's edge of this volcano's rim, we are joined on our journey by another happy traveler.
A view worthy of the effort it took to get here!Joe, the guy who slammed the rum shot at the last aid station, pried himself from under his shade tree and caught up to us.
Standing in front of that last aid station, the rum shot, sitting between the sodium tablets and the GU packets, seemed like a terrible fueling mistake. But standing on this narrow cliff, 4,000 feet above sea-level, hearing the insane howling of the monkeys and dealing with the quicksand-like mud, I'm jealous of Joe's calmness.
As we enter the thickest jungle so far, I'm waiting for Joe to put a gap on Laura. But Laura is skinny and flexible, so moving through this more difficult terrain is right up her alley. She's right on his heels -- and sometimes, she’s right on his toes.
Let me explain.
Even with a shot of rum in his system, Joe has the good sense to realize that falling down a 10 foot ledge onto a muddy boulder might cause some damage, and more importantly might require him to find out if his health care plan covers Nicaraguan hospitals -- probably not an international call he wants to make. So, in order to avoid that red-tape nightmare, Joe has adopted an unusual racing strategy. Approaching a drop-off, he grabs a tree, spins 180 degrees and crabs down backwards on his hands and knees, looking back up at us.
He does this over and over -- probably dozens of times.
I make fun of Joe, but in truth it’s not a bad strategy -- particularly since the last of the tread has peeled off my Saucony A5s and I’m just sliding around out here.
Since Laura has adopted the more common sit-on-your-butt-and-slide-down-the-mountain-facing forwards strategy, Laura and Joe are able to converse face-to-face as we head down the mountain.
At mile 25, our odd squad is joined by Aaron Shapiro, another young guy. Aaron is moving a little faster than us. We ask him whether he wants to pass.
“No way! I’m so glad to see other people, I’m staying with you guys,” he says.
For the next half hour, our four-person platoon creeps slowly through the trees and down the muddy embankments. I’m wondering if the trail is ever going to become runable again.
11:00 a.m. -- Mile 25
We’re still in the jungle, though the steep drop offs and trees are becoming more manageable. But Laura has sprained her ankle repeatedly and has become tentative. Joe and Aaron, being guys, are moving with a little more recklessness and leave us behind.
Remarkably, Laura is still in 2nd place. It seems that among the women in the 50k race, nobody knows how to move fast through this difficult terrain.
As the Howler Monkeys begin making those blood-curdling sounds again, I can’t help but want to get out of the spooky jungle. Four hours in here is plenty.
It feels like we’re being hunted by invisible creatures in the tree-tops.
Rainforest. Check. Time to exit.
12:00 p.m. -- Mile 26
Holy cow -- we are running!
I've given up all pretense of enjoying the day merely for the sake of the adventure. I’m locked in on the idea that Laura might be able to hold on to 2nd place -- though I am mostly able to exercise self-control and keep my competitive thoughts to myself.
I wasn’t so sure about her chances when she was cautiously making her way through the last mile of the less-dense jungle. Heck, as slow as we were moving, a brisk stroll would have been fast enough to pass her. The first place woman in the 100k race blew by so fast it left a vapor trail.
Of course she was using ski poles to bound down the slope. Pure genius.
But Laura built her lead on the run and now that we're running again, I feel like no one can catch her -- if only I can just convince her that it’s safe enough to open up her stride again.
I open my big mouth and start giving a motivational speech.
Laura has been in good spirits all day, but the fatigue from running 100k last week, combined with the stress of spending 4 hours climbing through a jungle with her annoying husband sets her off.
She comes to a complete stop and glares at me.
I knew the second I opened my stupid mouth that it was a bad idea. I just couldn't help myself.
I cringe apologetically, exerting every last ounce of willpower to not look behind us to see if anyone is catching us while we're stopped.
Laura takes a deep breath and starts to run again. But I swear I can sense that she's running ever so slightly slower, just to make me squirm. She might even be hoping that someone catches her to punish me for my bad behavior.
She's evil, I think. No wonder I love her.
A mile from the finish, we leave the uneven, rocky trail and make a left on an uneven rocky road. The road is worse than the trail. It doesn’t seem possible, but somehow the Nicaraguan transportation agency has managed to create a road that doesn’t offer a single level spot where a person might put their foot.
I sense that the same people who built the airport runway through the only road connecting the north side of the island to the south side also hired the engineers who designed this road.
Well at least we’re going mostly downhill, we’re close to the finish line, and I can see that there’s no one within a quarter mile behind us.
I’m going to podium!
I mean, Laura’s going to podium!
Joe (c) with Aaron and Laura halfway through the 100k.
Finally, at 8:28 into the race, we are directed down to the beach where Laura joyfully runs into through the finishing chute to some loud cheers and a PA system blaring something about "Secondo Damas!!". Then she is swiftly handed an empty beer bottle from the race sponsor, is photographed extensively and heads directly into the lake.
I finish 5 seconds later to no applause whatsoever.
Absurdly, a minute after I finish, Aaron and Joe, who had dropped us an hour ago, show up. In keeping with their laid back natures, they stopped at a market alongside the road to pick up provisions just a mile from the finish line.
As Joe kills off a mid-race beer to steel himself for the next 50 kilometers of running, Aaron tries to talk him out of doing the last half of the race. He tries appealing to Joe’s rational mind using logic:
“It’s too hot. It’s too far. You’ll have to climb the other volcano in the dark.”
Joe answers by having a second beer.
Then, fueled largely by alcohol and a disdain for logic, Joe sets off -- and he eventually finishes the race -- after about 18 hours of running.
Can we go home now?
While Joe is making his way back to Moyalgape on foot, Laura, Aaron and I are unsuccessfully trying to catch a ride back.
After sitting on a rock at the side of the road, feeding an emaciated dog Power Bars and Ritz crackers for 2 hours, we assault a Nicaraguan couple and their kids who are climbing into an SUV, begging for a ride. And thus begins our friendship with Oscar Amador, his wife Martina and their children, the most lovely family we’ve ever met.
Covered in dirt, sweat and various brands of sports drink, we pile into the buttery leather interior of their SUV. Naked above the waist, I do them a favor by not putting my disgusting race shirt back on.
For the next hour, we ride in air-conditioned luxury, eating the kids’ Doritos -- the children looking on hungrily from the third row of seats.
John Taylor's tattoosLife is good. We could care less that we’re traveling 5 mph bouncing over a boulder-strewn dirt road mile after mile.
Indeed, things could be a lot worse -- as they are for John Taylor and Brian, a fellow survival runner pal of John’s. Just before scoring the ride with Oscar, we had observed sadly as John Taylor and Brian arrived at the 50k finish area only to be told that they were 5 miles south of where they needed to be.
Unfortunately, “Big David”, John Taylor, Brian, Olaf and all but two of the survival runners were unable to finish the race. Between dehydration and wrong turns, it became impossible for nearly all of the survival runners to make the climb over the Madera volcano in the dark, which is a good thing since one of the runners who attempted to finish had to be rescued from the jungle at 2 a.m. that night.
But in the face of all the race-carnage, Paul Battaglia the 50 year old with a dream and little endurance training, finishes. It takes him 14 hours -- two hours past the official cutoff, but who cares. The man is a survivor and an inspiration.
The day after the race, Laura, and a fellow elite runner, David James, who took 2nd to the great Nick Clark in the 100k, (both men breaking the course record) volunteered at the kids run start line, where 600 local children received shoes and ran a 5k.
Laura was swarmed by the many girls who heard that she was “secondo Damas” and who wanted to run with her as she jogged among the pack of children during the race.
"Secondo Damas" with her fans.That day, after taking pictures with the kids, tired and sore, but at least not bleeding and bandaged like our survival runner pals, we hung out in the beautiful old village hitting all the hotspots -- The Corner Cafe, the Pizza Parlor... the place where I paid $1.75 for a sweet haircut -- sharing stories of our incredible adventures.
Later in the afternoon, Laura received her well-earned trophy for finishing second in the 50k. In the U.S., the trophy would might have been a block of engraved plastic. But here, the awards were meaningful -- hand made masks, created by a local artist.
Laura, her trophy. Plus Ian, Yassine and Joe.
Of course all good things come to an end -- but not this story. Not yet.
And so it was that at 7:30 on Monday morning, we packed up and were shuttled to the ferry dock for the hour long ride back to the mainland. We were sad to be saying good bye to our new friends.
Not to worry, though.
This being Nicaragua, the Sunday evening ferry carrying Oscar, his family and his friends Fernando, Jose and Erick (the “Nicaraguan Rat-Pack” as I came to think of them), grounded itself while attempting to dock on the mainland.
Then, in a seagoing version of a Three Stooges routine, after offloading the passengers, the grounded ferry crashed into the ferry attempting to pull it free. At this point, instead of simply docking the damaged ferries at the dock where they crashed, the geniuses in charge of the ferries decided to tow the damaged ferry, still containing the guys’ cars, 10 miles back across the lake back to Ometepe Island.
The Rat Pack, Jose, Oscar, Erick and Fernando from l to r.The guys gave chase to their cars (after sending the wives and kids home on alternate ground transportation), boarding the next boat back to the island.
And so it happened that nearly all of the competitors and our new Nicaraguan friends were reunited at the docks on Monday morning -- a brief (we thought) second opportunity to say our farewells, we thought.
That’s when the Nicaraguan Navy began canceling ferries in bunches -- and we observed men carrying a very large propeller into a shed and begin pounding on it with hammers.
Ian, Nick, Laura, Alex and lots of pizza.Soon, Oscar, Fernando, Jose and Erick, more familiar with how things work in Nicaragua, gave up all hope of returning home and headed to the local pizza parlor for food and drinks -- while some of the elite ultra-runners including Ian Sharman, Nick Clark, David James, Yassin Deboune and me, optimists to the end, spent the day on the docks eating pizza, sitting on the ground, staring at the ferries that were destined to not ferry anything anywhere that day.
And that’s how we were gifted one more day on Ometepe Island, hanging out with some of the best new friends you’d ever want to be trapped on an island with.
Gotta love Nicaraguan efficiency -- somehow it just works.
And I can’t wait to go back next year.