I’ve been back in the states for about a week now and still have a dull, glazed look on my face from time to time. Thoughts of my trip to the top of Volcano Conception on the Island of Ometempe, Nicaragua haunt me. I’ve told my story to a few friends since I’ve been back and each time I start out like any other story I’ve told in the past about any race I’ve done….the difference is halfway through telling this story…I pause several times as the scene I’m describing flashes into my consciousness…shaking my head I continue telling my story.
Before I continue I must warn you that this may be a longer than usual travel report BUT I will tell you that the story includes being greeted at the Managua Airport by friends with cold beers in hand (curbside I might add), traveling across a beautiful Nicaraguan countryside to a ferry ( with only an inflatable raft one would buy at Walmart as a rescue boat), a steep active Volcano, a beautiful Hacienda Merida Eco Hotel who’s owner takes proceeds from the hotel to build a Bilingual School next door made of garbage, 50k Ultra Marathon Fuego y Agua with 15.4% grade, 9100 ft of elevation gain- 11 hrs 24 min, expending 6498 calories-leading to a 4th place finish.
The journey all started the day before Halloween at the Javelina Jundred Ultra. I was at the Ultimate Direction Expo before the race and as fate would have it, a couple of ladies, Gaelle Tait and Sandra Vivas, wandered by my booth and started chatting me up…one thing lead to another and they invited me to consider traveling with them to Nicaragua to race the Fuego y Agua Race ( initially I was going to sign up for the 100k but after talking to Jorge Maravilla at San Francisco Running Company, I thought otherwise- the previous year he was invited as an Elite Ultra Runner to race the 100k and EVEN HE THOUGHT OTHERWISE!)
The next thing on my list was to start my training. Now this isn’t my first Rodeo but I hadn’t raced in a few years but the last two 50k races I had competed in were the 2011 and 2012 Speedgoat 50k. If you don’t know, Karl Meltzer, the RD of the Speedgoat takes you on a journey up and down and around the Wasatch mountain range, not too unlike the strenuous conditions I was about to face in Nicaragua. I had dug deep before and was preparing myself to dig deep again but since I hadn’t the time or dough for a coach, I googled “training for a 50k” and came up with a guideline plan.
The journey began with a shot. Although I had a fairly complete Vaccine profile, I had to finalize my last Hep B shot, pick up some live Typhoid Vaccine and get the Malaria pill set up. According to the CDC, Malaria map, Nicaragua is a red zone for Malaria. As I had surfed the coast of El Salvador and recently visited Costa Rica, Nicaragua is about the only country in Central America that the CDC recommends taking Malaria pills as a precaution, fine by me, I love caution.
I’m not one to flash my Garmin on social media during training, in fact I only have an Instagram account and only about 8 people even know I did this race- not including yourself 🙂 Let’s just say my training was as adequate as I was going to get without spending time in Flagstaff, AZ doing some big boy Mtn training. I will say that I got some Bronchitis and Walking Pneumonia ( a few times over December and January leading up to the race) and didn’t actually run the last 2 weeks before the race. I got a nice 27mi trail run accomplished 3 weeks prior, so I felt satisfied with some down time. As an athlete, one gets anxious with downtime, but you have to trust your training and your program.
Since the trip was to a tropical area, I really didn’t need to many bulky cloths. The majority of my packing was for the race, here are some key items:
Ultimate Direction– FastPack 20 ( held 3L of liquid for my journey up and down and up and down the volcano-2-2L bladders of water and 4-18oz Body Bottle Plus full of Tailwind Nutrition) Jurek FKT Vest-coming out in Fall 2016, UD Marathon Shell-for usage on top portion of volcano.
Tailwind Nutrition– I brought 1- 30 serving bag of Naked flavor as well as several Single Serving sticks of Green Tea Buzz. I have been running with Tailwind Nutrition for a few years now and there is truly no substitute for sustainable energy from a simple source. Your body can only uptake roughly 60g of Carbohydrate per hour ( you can push this to 90g per hour by adding Fructose) and only 240 calories per hour…..think about it- this is exactly what Tailwind is about- how simple! I was on this course for 11 hrs 27 min- TAILWIND!
Here is a recent Science of Ultra POD CAST to support the physiology of 24o calories / 60g carbs per hour, it just makes sense.
Least I forget socks and other friction alleviating gear! I have worn Injinji socks for about 8 years now and my feet are stronger because of it. I hear so many athletes say ” I’m injured right now, but it’s about time, I’ve been working out a ton lately”. BS! I did my first Triathlon in 1992 and have since raced Marathon, Ultra, Ironman, Pro MTB, Cyclocross and Road racing at a high level and I have remained injury free! Don’t make excuses why you’re going to rehab, get the right gear, strengthen the right muscles and tendons, don’t overtrain.
I use these products on a regular basis and am a better athlete for it:
Injinji socks- feet tendon strengthening goodness. Why would I wear a “standard” sock that doesn’t have any benefit other than covering my feet. The benefits of Injinji BLOW away any other sock on the market including their NuWool, Compression, Trail Coolmax socks.
Tops and Bottoms-I train and race in CW-X shorts, tights and tops. The Ventilator Web Top is the fastest wicking shirt on the market and just like Injinji- this shirt has a web support sewn in that supports and sets me in the proper running position- why would I wear any other “generic” sweat wicking shirt when I can get real benefit from CW-X?
Now throw in some 2Toms Blister Shield and 2Toms Sport Shield and I have left the gear excuses at the door. The combination of these 2 products is unparalleled and should be in EVERY Endurance Athlete’s bag. The Sport Shield product is Silicon based ( not like Bdy Glide- petroleum based…think about it- if you leave it in your hot car it will melt…same thing happens when your body temp goes up, it melts off and becomes less effective.) like the other products I mentioned above- why wouldn’t you want to use the best products in the respective category? I want my chafing protection to go the distance and not have to think about it, same goes with putting Blister Shield on my toes, no brainer people! I finished my 11 hour race with zero chafing and zero blisters and I was in and out of wet weeds and lake all day, literally.
Let’s talk strategy. I had heard several things regarding how this race had gone down in the past- athletes getting lost, spending the night on the volcano, running out of water ( dehydration), dust inhalation during the mast start from the beach, etc. Having knowledge of all this, I was prepared to make sure at a minimum I would not get caught off guard by these obvious detrimental experiences past athletes had during the course of the race. Here are the keys to my strategy:
- Go out front with the leaders to avoid the dust and large rocks on the horse trail
- Carry more water than I really was going to use. (Ultimate Direction FastPack 20)
- Consume calories from liquid based (Tailwind Nutrition)
- Don’t get lost- heads up running. Pay close attention to markers when down-running especially- don’t want to have to up-run to get back on course when the steepest grade is 67%.
The profile of the course is one out of a survival movie- 15.4% ave grade with a max grade of 67% but there were several miles between 11 mi-25mi that were over 30% continuous.
Here is the breakdown of the course:
START-6mi-I started the race with only 2 handhelds: 1 20oz bottle of water and 1-18oz Body Bottle Plus full of concentrated Tailwind Nutrition ( to last me 1.5 hrs 3 scoops). The terrain from the start was mostly flat beach running through clumpy animal track and through fields and fences, and more beach running to Aid2. There was a group of 4 of us out front and I needed a top off of my water bottle. The volunteer, an English guy, was there to help….well actually he couldn’t get the 2L water bottle open. This isn’t the first time in my life I had rolled in the lead or with leaders and the Aid station is caught off guard…no biggie but the guy kept saying “it’s a long day, blah blah blah”….I get that man but don’t you think the fact that I’m with the leaders and there is nobody in sight behind us, that I know what I’m doing, lol. Needless to say, we got the bottle opened and I was a n0w a few minutes back from the guys I was pacing with.
11mi-16mi to the top-The route started up a dirt road from the town, turning into a field 1 mile in and eventually there was no trail, only white chalk arrows on boulders showing the way. The field was littered with large boulders and grasses but quickly turned into a scree field of large “baby-head” boulders to midsize boulders to navigate. At several points I had to climb up to 5.4 climbing routes- pitching up my poles on top of the boulder . ( this year they added 2 ropes to assist 2 spots). Within the last mile to the top the obstacles included steep ash mixed with grasses to pull yourself up (think long big puffy thick wet grasses) to a rocky narrow spire to deeeeep grasses on the steep pitch where one could hardly see the top above them while struggling to pull up to the next grass patch. When finally at the top to the checkpoint the terrain was a wet slippery grassy slope.
16mi-20.5mi– My strategy for the top portion of the decent was to slide on my but until I started to get out of control or when my feet slammed into a rock. This was the most efficient way off the top of the volcano and having considered the consequences of breaking my tailbone, I felt the reward outweighed the risk and obviously worked out. Finally reaching a point where the route dipped into a dark tree and vine covered area I was able to make some progress scrambling, still keeping watch for the markers on the trees. This portion was muddy and I had to be mindful of the vines near the ground, reaching out to trip me up at every opportunity. My efficiency at aid stations and the top portion of the volcano allowed me to make up some time and I was near the competitor in front of me who graciously shouted back at one point that the ground was loose and to navigate through the upper portion. After the last boulder scree field, the route opened up to some rolling fields and a true trail. Nearly reaching the highway near the Aid #4 thoughts entered my mind that I hadn’t seen anyone for what seemed like hours, wondering if I was off track…..then the thoughts that as terrible as I felt, the competitors behind me must feel equally as terrible or worse!
20.5mi-24mi-I cruised into my crew at Aid #4 feeling better, getting out of the altitude and noticing that I hadn’t drank as much as I thought I had, CLASSIC!!!! I even put on the Camelbak bite-valve on my Ultimate Direction bladder since it has a higher flow that what comes on the bladder…..after noticing this I started drinking liberally better. I rolled in dancing the WHIP AND NAE NAE.
I really wanted my crew to think I was in good spirits and solid….although deep inside, I was like ‘whoooooa crap that was brutal AND I HAVE TO GO BACK UP!’ Needless to say, I spent 3 minutes getting my bladders back up to speed and my Tailwind replenished ( later I learned that most every other competitor took much longer that I at Aid) part of any race strategy- every minute adds up especially when there are multiple aid stations.
These miles are where the race gets tricky…I was roughly 5 hours into the race starting back up the volcano to the crater through boulder fields then up a steep loose path. This part of the race is longer and steeper ( towards the top) but is actually a trail that one can find in a guide book of the area. That said, it’s not a typical touristy route, you need a guide and supplies to reach the crater. There came a point during this portion of the race that I got a little disenchanted with the day and quite honestly if I wasn’t in 3rd or 4th place, I would have turned around and given up. I reached a point in the course that had a right turn back down the volcano (course back down) where there was a woman and man sitting to direct competitors returning to the bottom. At this point I took a sec and sat down to collect myself but before I could, the woman asked if I wanted a HUG. It took me a moment to process her words through my thick, dull brain but I kindly declined her offer. Looking back at that moment, I really could have used a hug but though if I took her up on it, I would break down and cry- what I really needed was for her to look me in the eye and smack me across the face! Sitting next to her, I uttered that I really needed a nutrition bar. She said they had no food but there was some at the top checkpoint they had placed there earlier in the morning. I sat there staring out into the distance with a confused look on my face as I reached into the exterior pockets of my pack looking for a delicious Bonk Breaker PBJ bar I had strategically placed in pack at the last Aid station. I knew it was in there somewhere but I couldn’t find it and so I stopped and started looking for the bar a few times, trying to relieve my hunger but also the gnawing feeling that it was in there somewhere. ( I realized later on the decent that I had been looking in the same pocket each time and the bar was on a side pocket and IT WAS THE BEST TASTING BAR I HAD EVER EATEN)
After sitting there staring off and shaking off the onset of a panic attack (realizing I had about an hour to the top from this point- 2 hours round-trip) I was read to wrap this thing up and get off this volcano and charged on…..well actually I would count 10 steps, stop to catch my breath then take 10 more steps….it was quite a mental battle with my physical body. I got to a point near the top where I was super exposed, the Sulfur smell was thick and I could hear voices…..I know what you’re thinking but no they were actual voices at the top! This motivated me to charge on, navigating the sharp volcanic rock and wind till I reached a man and woman sitting in the cloud of Sulfur with a clipboard and a box of gels. WHEW! I MADE IT! I threw on my UD Marathon Shell and sat to chat with them. They keep me in good spirits confirming I was in 4th place. I replied that the top 3 guys looked good and were really moving when I saw them pass me on their way down from the top but the man mentioned that one of them was out of water…..hmmmmm 3rd place may be within reach with 8 miles to go.
24mi-27mi -The decent wasn’t too terribly fast from the top, still navigating the wind and sharp rock but I WAS ON MY WAY DOWN! I got past the exposure and now into some slippery, muddy trail with overhanging trees, roots and vines trying to derail my efforts at every turn and although I was wearing gloves it didn’t make much difference when the trees you grab have thousand of sharp cactus like thrones…..WTF is that?! Finally at a point where I can breathe deeply I was at the most amazing potion of the course, a lava chute 4 feet deep with loose ash and rock. I was finally able to relax my legs and “ski” down for what seemed like 30 minutes! There was a point that I was grinning ear to ear realizing how great this felt and was able to take in the scenery and magnitude of what I had accomplished. It’s an odd feeling when you still have 8 miles left in a race and for all intents-and-purposes, you’re done! Finally back at Aid #5 I rolled in doing my dance again.
27mi-33.5mi -Quick change into my Ultimate Direction Jurek FKT vest and a fresh Body Bottle full of Tailwind and I was off to the finish 6 miles away. Simple right? Pretty straight forward from here, most of the last 6 miles were on the Highway but the last 2 miles were beach running. When I turned onto the beach I could see the Finish arch and expo area in the distance….between a large outcropping of large black boulders….I though REALLY, THANKS! As I began to navigate the slippery, moss covered rocks thoughts of breaking my ankle or femur crossed my mind many times so I made sure I had solid purchase on the boulder before moving on to the next. Past the boulders I was in the home stretch.
Finish– I finished the 50k race in 4th place but at the same time I finished, another athlete from the 25k flat course was finishing in 6 hours coming the opposite direction. The announcer seemed more pleased with that athletes 6 hour 25k than my 4th place 50k finish. The finish was pretty underwhelming, pretty much my crew of 4 loud ladies and a few spectators…not like the spine tingling Ironman finishes with loud music and cheers from hundreds of spectators. After a quick dip in the lake to cool off and a confirmation of my 4th place finish, we were headed back to the hotel.
*I must add that the 3 guys that finished in front of me were amazing local Nicaraguan local runners. and 10+ years younger than myself.
Back at the hotel it was time for a nap…or what turned into a nap/ wake up the next morning sleep. I love finishing ultra long endurance events in the daylight- it’s not that I’m opposed to finishing in the dark, just that finishing in the light makes me feel more satisfied that the race didn’t take me into the night. The Hacienda Merida Eco Hotel is really a great place to stay if you’re visiting the Island Ometempe. It’s a little off the beaten path but there are motorcycles to rent from a reliable source, kayaks, tent camping if that’s what you’re into, and remember the owner takes proceeds from the hotel to build a Bilingual School next door made of garbage. Since we started our stay there on the weekend we didn’t get a chance to visit the kids until Monday. Sandra and Gaelle brought down school backpacks filled with school supplies, we brought down large bags of chocolate goodies.
Once we arrived back home in the US, I had plenty of washing to do. Although I brought some travel sized packets of Stink Free Detergent, I put the product to good use at home. As you can see, my Injinji socks were literally standing on their own! I have to say with a little detergent and a bucket, the Stink Free removed all the dirt and grime I had on my gear, I’m impressed!
A special, special thanks to my lovely wife, Jodi “Funsize”McMaster for all her support over the past 24 years of racing. Also a special thanks to Los Chicas Locas-Gaelle Tait, Ayda Varflo, and Arita Siero, Sandra Vivas and her mother Maria and father Eli. If it weren’t for this crew, I wouldn’t have had the chance to travel and compete in Nicaragua.
I have been practicing Pilates the past 6 months or so in prep for some of the core strength I felt I would need to climb up/down and up/down the volcano. After one class, a woman came up to learn more about the race but really wanted to know “what charity am I running for?” This stuck me as an odd but common questions. I replied that I’m not running for a charity, not that I’m not charitable, but I run because I love to run. I don’t run to lose weight, raise money for charity, personal goals, etc…I run because I love to run. In some way, I feel like I let people down by saying I run for the love it, is that weird? Am I in the minatory? Why do we have to run for other external reasons besides the love and passion of it?
About the blogger:
Travis McMaster is a Running and Cycling Industry Rep / Athlete covering Hawaii / California / Arizona / Nevada and racing all over the World. His Father ran Marathon in the late 70’s and 80’s also traveling around the country to races like the Gasparilla Classic in Florida, Avenue of the Giants in California and the Drake Relays Marathon in Iowa. Here’s a time line of Travis’s endurance accomplishments:
1989- First ride across Iowa (RAGBRAI)
1992- First Triathlon Storm Lake, IA
1996- First MTB Race Phoenix, AZ
1996- First 24hr Mtb Race Moab, UT
1997- First ITU Duathlon World Championship Gernicia, Spain
1998- First Marathon Avenue of the Giants Arcadia, CA
1999- First Cyclocross Race Portland, OR
2005- First Xterra Triathlon USA Championships Lake Tahoe, UT
2005- First Ironman Triathlon Coeur d’Alene, ID
2006- First Leadville 100 MTB race
2008-First Pro Mtb race Monterey, CA
2009- First SSWC Durango, CA
2009-First 24hr Solo MTB Race Oro Valley, AZ
2010- First Downhill MTB race Monterey, CA
2010- First 104mi MTB race on a Singlespeed Cyclocross Bike Williams, AZ
2011-First 50k Ultra Speedgoat 50k Alta, UT
2010-First Fat Bike Touring in Colorado River Delta, Mexico