By Conor Sanchez
I was about 200 feet from the Volcano Concepción’s crater when the thought crossed my mind that I really had no business competing in this race. Perhaps I had overreached this time. Perhaps I was out of my league.
I knew I was close to the top (the smell of sulfur was in the air and the volcano’s vapors now blocked my view of the island’s coastline below), and yet it seemed farther than ever. I had climbed 5,000 feet in maybe 4 miles. My left calf was cramping, my stomach was protesting the energy gels I’d been consuming every 30 minutes since 5 am. It was now 3 pm, I had run over 20 miles, and my body was exhausted. The thick jungle forest had given way to a treeless, plantless rocky incline that resembled the surface of the moon. Worse yet, the weather conditions had turned from the fiery heat of the midday sun to a brisk cold wind blowing from every direction. With nothing to block the elements, I felt like I was one misstep away from being blown off the volcano.
At first I imagined extended switch-backs leading me up the steep incline, but this trail was as close to a straight line as you could get. One of the guys coming down the mountain from the top said he had started out the race with the intention of running the 100k. 33 kilometers in, he said he’d be lucky if he finished the 50k. People all along the trail were spent, severely dehydrated, and seemingly surprised at how challenging this competition turned out to be. At the last aid station I had loaded up with three liters of water; now I was down to one. This wasn’t an ultrarun, I finally realized – this was an ultrasurvival course – crawl, swim, hike, walk…do whatever you need to do to cross the finish line in the time allotted (16 hours).
Then, a crazier thought entered my mind. Since 1880, there have been eight eruptions, the last big one occurring in 1957. In March 2010, it spit out a huge ash cloud. What if today was the day? What if it was this exact hour the beast would decide to reawaken? What if I’d become that guy who perished during an eruption while participating in some fringe ultramarathon that required him to sign a two-page liability waiver. Heck, I had even taken an oath at the beginning of the race where I stated: “If I get lost, if I get hurt, if I die…It’s my own damn fault!” I could see my wife’s head shaking from the sidelines as the announcer shouted that into the microphone.
I kept climbing. On all fours now, it was a mad scramble and I was using every last ounce of strength I had to keep going up. No doubt, I wanted off this volcano, but not before I reached the top. It was getting more difficult to see in front of me as the vapors blew in my direction and I could no longer spot the arrows marking the path. Feeling a little desperate, I finally screamed out, “Donde vamos?!” A voice, maybe 50 ft. to my left, shouted back in English, “Here! We’re over here!” I started walking in its direction until I finally could see about three figures sitting down and looking out. I had made it. I had reached the top, my last checkpoint. Race volunteers recorded my number, offered me some more gels and bread. Relieved that I wouldn’t have to be climbing upwards anymore, I took a seat to catch my breath before starting my descent.
Then, the vapor clouds parted. I could see the entire island of Ometepe, and in seconds my moment of fear and darkness had transformed into a moment ecstasy. “This is freakin’ awesome,” I said aloud. It’s a rare day that Concepcion isn’t covered by a cloud. Today, the clouds had parted only twice. Within 15 seconds, the view was gone and we were engulfed in a big white blanket again. Feeling oddly replenished, I got up and began making my way down the mountain, at first crab-crawling my way down the steep rocky part and then trotting once the dirt path reappeared. When I finally got to where plants could grow, I felt a new burst of energy I hadn’t felt since 6 am when I watched the sun rise along the beach. My trot turned into a slow jog. The sun reappeared as soon as I descended out of the volcano’s hot breath. I even started to have some fun with the mountain, sliding down its steep muddy inclines and swinging from the tree vines that criss-crossed the path. I still had 6.8 miles to go, but the worst was behind me.
Four days after the big event, I’m still coming down from the high of running the most thrilling, challenging, uplifting race of my life (I’m also still pretty sore). The people I met along the trail hailed from around the world (Germany, Honduras, Costa Rica, Japan, the United States, Guatemala to name a few) and they were some of the coolest people I’ve ever met. You find yourself talking with complete strangers for a few hours, but by the end it feels like you’ve shared a lifetime with them. You see each other at your best moments and your worst, and cheer each other on as you inch closer and closer to the finish line.
I ended up crossing that line at 6:40 pm, placing 18 out of 49 finishers. In total it took me 13.5 hours and, aside from a handful of scrapes and bruises, I walked (or hobbled) away pretty unscathed. Michaela won the best wife in the world award for upgrading us from the hospedaje we were staying at to a more comfortable place with air-conditioning down the road.
If you’re interested in participating in this event, check it out here. I recommend it, but make sure you’re prepared physically. This race included lots of hiking, free-climbing (which I’d never done before in my life), and extreme weather conditions. That being said, I once thought that I’d never run more than 26.2 miles, that ultramarathons were reserved for freaks of nature that had some physical gift I didn’t. The truth is, we’re all capable of doing something like this with enough training and commitment.
And for what it’s worth, the slogan for the race is: “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experiment with a different lifestyle, run a marathon. If you want to speak with God, run an ultra. If before speaking with God you want to be with the Devil…run Fuego y Agua.” So, there you go.