Before the race even began we had to start off with a challenge. Sorry, I’m getting way ahead of myself. Allow me to back up a bit. Corinne and I arrived at Camp Eagle on Thursday evening after getting lost. Thanks, Siri. We wound up at the backdoor entrance to Camp Eagle. This inconvenience forced us to follow a random person up their driveway as the arrived home so we could figure out where the hell we had to go. Thankfully they were very nice and helpful. Apparently they helped another group earlier as well. As we began to turn around to head back down their driveway all we could see in the distance were hundreds of glowing eyes staring back at us. There must have been more than on hundred deer out in those fields. I don’t watch scary movies much, but all of this combined was definitely the making for one of those horror films, that’s for certain. So, we drove back down all the rocky roads and finally arrived at the eight mile stretch of dirt road that lead to Camp Eagle. The terrain was very rocky and filled with rolling hills. Of course, we were in the Hill Country of Texas. There was no way this could be anywhere near as difficult in terms of terrain compared to Vermont I recall thinking to myself as we arrived.
The creepy road we drove along went winding back and forth for a while and we saw plenty of animals that would make you jump every time they’d pop up out of the darkness. Either they would eerily stare back at us or run off and jump away from the roadway. At one point we saw what had to have been a Moose or something ridiculous and hooved.. It was HUUUGE! It turned out that the surrounding area was filled with Exotic African Game, basically we were in an area where rich dudes come to hunt exotic animals from their helicopters. Talk about making you feel uneasy – and hunted. We finally arrived at the check-in spot and went to our dorm. Staying in a dorm was a bad idea for us lighter sleepers. After a night of no rest, we switched to an individual room because sleep is one of the most important things before a race of this magnitude and skipping out on another night of rest would not be a good idea.
Fire Making Practice
After that first rough nights rest in the dorm Corinne and I headed out to get in some more bow drill fire making practice. One thing I’ve always known that I need to work on is my patience, I like fast results. My haste led to a few finger slices, don’t worry nothing a little paracord can’t fix. No worries, I eventually put a bandaid on. Actually a bunch of other Survival Runners walked by as we were deciding to head back to bandage my fingers up and suggested we practice further away from civilization…which made me laugh given how far from real civilization we really were. The idea was to get further from camp since there were still some campers left.
We spent a couple hours working to perfect our bow drill techniques. I don’t recall anyone successfully making fire but there was a lot of smoke. I spent a lot of time trying to find the best materials. From all my studies I knew juniper and sotol stalks were what I should be looking for. I made a solid bow from a juniper branch I found and some paracord. I found that it is really important to have an evenly smooth and cylindrical spindle to achieve the right friction and speed needed to even generate a subtle hint of smoke. It’s also very helpful to have a good stone with a groove in it to apply the necessary pressure on the spindle. After a lot of frustration and some close successes we decided to head back and get some food and rest before packet pick-up. Even though I hadn’t made fire from the bow drill method yet I wasn’t worried because each attempt brought me closer and provided me with more understanding of what to do and what not to do. In my head I kept thinking, “That spindle is key.”
So back to the race challenge. We had to be at bib check-in at 6pm and I was ready for bedtime. I came out in my comfortable ABB Performance pants and an OCR Freaks t-shirt, I was wearing all black, Mistake #1. I did make sure to wear my Inov-8 Trail Roc shoes just in case race director Josue Stephens had something physical in store for us. As expected, he did. I wasn’t very smart about this whole situation, arriving with both my Canon DSLR and iPhone in hand, Mistake #2. Josue began to explain the instructions to us and we were to grab a log based on our weight/sex, Men 160lbs and under had one pile to choose from, those who were over 160lbs had another to choose from and the females had their own pile.
After quickly leaving my phone and camera on a table, I jumped the fence and grabbed my log as fast as I could. I took the lead in a short matter of time, but I could already feel my pants were starting to slip and I did not want to put my log down if I didn’t have to with it weighing in at 80lbs or so. We had to run up the road then up and down a few hills before finally arriving at the top of this one hill. There we would have to carve our bib numbers into the log with our knife. While descending one of the hills on my way to the log drop area I could feel the bottom of my pants sliding down underneath my shoe. I did the only thing I could do, I threw my log as far in front of me as possible and stripped down to my Hanes boxers briefs. Safety was all I cared about, plus I had hoped the pants could serve as additional padding to the shirt that I now had draped around my neck. By the time I recouped and got into a rhythm again, I arrived at the bib carving and retrieval as the fifth or sixth person or so. From there, we were to descend the hill, cross the river, and then I was instructed follow the trail markers. When I came up and caught up to two other racers we discussed if we should just go back to the check-in area or continue following the markers. Based on my Death Race experience and the blogs I had read about Fuego y Agua I wouldn’t have been surprised if Josue marked a short 5K as part of the bib pick-up so I decided to continue on and so did Shannon Hulme. This was, Mistake #3. (Following the markers).
After running around for quite a bit, feeling lost and uncertain of our decision we finally decided we’d gone too far and should turn back before the sun set. We did not need to find ourselves stuck on one of these rocky cliffs without our headlamps, water, food or anything else. Instead of taking the same route back we tried to skip the trails to make our own path. After some rock climbing near the wooden cable suspension bridge to get back on the marked route we were finally on our way back to base camp. We were greeted warmly and confusedly as to why we didn’t just go straight back to the check-in place as instructed. I explained how I was misdirected to just keep following the markers and I took that one instruction too far. I tried to brush it off so I could enjoy the dinner the camp staff had prepared for us. I figured at least I was warmed up, though I couldn’t shake off some of the frustration. It didn’t help that during all this I had also left my KaBar behind at the log bib number carving. That left me worried the entire time Shannon and I were out running our little 5K. For whatever reason I was completely scatterbrained. Thankfully, Josue had found it and brought it back for me. Not only was I concerned because I needed a knife to do this race, but more so because my father gave me this knife last year. I didn’t realize it until I had thought I’d lost it, but this knife really means a lot to me.
Survival Run: Hunter Gatherer
After a good, short night’s rest we were ready to take on the Survival Run. Wake up call came at 3:00 in the morning. Race began at 3:45AM and I started off with a beer and war paint. Because why the hell not? Ahead of me lied 15-20 hours of who knows what before returning to the start-line and drop bag spot. I had my drop bag loaded with all kinds of food, jerky, trail mix, Cliff Bars, 2 bottles off Dos Equis beer, my ABB Performance Carbo Force drink with 100g of carbs to refuel after the first 50K. I had everything I needed to finish this 100K Ultra Obstacle Endurance Race.
At 4:30AM Josue finally said, “Go.” The race began with us quickly running over to a table set up by the guys at Luna Sandals with all our laces (3 strips each racer) and the option for either one large sole or two smaller foot sized soles. I choose the two and went to work making my sandal with my trusty KaBar. It wasn’t as great at cutting through the rubber as I had hoped. In fact it was awful. Not only did it cut through easily but my haste and tired state failed me and I cut out two left foot sandals before realizing it. I ran over grabbed another foot bed and went to town trying to make this one faster to catch up to everyone else who was mostly moving on to punching their holes for the laces. Shane McKay was the first out and Corinne and Gabi both left shortly after. I fell behind and told Corinne I’d catch up. I quickly finished my sandals tied up my Spartan Race finishers shirt custom made backpack by Tony. As I took off out down the road my pack exploded all over the road. This happened two more times before I added extra para-cord knots on every possible place that the pack could come undone. From here on I took off and made my way up to my log finding it right where I left it.
The descent in these sandals forced you to take extraordinary caution with each rock nearly slipping out from under you. Add in the darkness, prickly pear cactus and the heavy weight of the log and you’ve got yourself one of the most challenging combinations of misery you can imagine in a race. Well played, Josue. Half way down my lead toe knot pulled through the foot bed and I had to sit on my log and re-lace my entire sandal. Of course I was right next to a prickly pear cactus and had to remove a half dozen needles – they would not be the last that I removed from my feet. At the bottom of the wicked descent we were greeted by volunteers and instructed to attach a PFD (personal floatation device, aka a life vest) to our log. I took two life vests for mine as I was already a nervous wreck about swimming through this seaweed infested waters at night. I’m okay during the day, Corinne and I took a swim the day before, but in the darkness and over an extended distance. Anxious feelings and something my father told me about seaweed long ago crept into my mind and stirred a panic within me. “I can’t fuckin’ do this shit” was all I could think. That thought crossed my mind multiple times throughout this swim, but I fought my weak minded thoughts and pushed myself, and with the help of my fellow racers, continued moving into the water.
As I trudged through the river I could see we were nearing the large cabin area, the same place where the race began, I knew the water was about to become deeper and swimming with our logs as opposed to walking with them would become my ultimate challenge. My panic began to rise again. Without the help of Justin Atteberry, whom I met over a year ago when I crewed and played photographer at the Ultimate Suck, I would have probably taken much longer to finish this section of the course, that is if I’d have finished at all. The other racers: Paul Kavanagh, Shannon Hulme, Christian Griffith, and Isaiah Vidal also offered encouragement, which helped me to overcome my newly developed fear. Until that moment, I had no idea how terrified of swimming in a river at night I was. After taking some deep breaths, and eventually calming myself down, I pushed forward. Justin stayed by my side and helped me through every freak out I had. Every time I felt the seaweed slowly wrap around my torso to weigh me down and hold me back, or I felt it entangling and intertwining itself around my legs – he was there. Every time I began to lose my cool, Justin was there to calm me. I’m very thankful for all he did.
What someone in this situation needs to understand is this seaweed was very thick and in many spots completely unavoidable and all there was to light the way were the headlamps of some incredibly skilled, talented, masochistic athletes. As you tread through the dark murky waters barely lit by the moonlight the seaweed would wrap itself around your legs, your waist, your feet and ankles. It felt like it would completely consume me, and yes, I feared it would pull me under and hold me there. Trapped and unable to escape. This was my fear. This was my demon. The density of all the seaweed combined with my fear added an additional element to the already muscle and confidence-sapping challenge of having to swim a mile and a half with a floating log. By time we had hit the first dam the sun began to rise. My fear faded away and we made up some serious time as Justin and I swam side by side, purposefully swimming longer distances just to avoid any patches of seaweed that we might encounter. We even passed a few racers in the process. It felt good to be back in a secure state of mind. It goes without saying that dark waters really did a number on me. I guess I have something to work on.
Continuing down the river we eventually reached the final dam, concluding our swimming adventure. After tossing both logs down together I climbed my way to the ground below, untied my log and carried it over to where the volunteers were waiting for us. Thankfully, there were a couple of metal folding chairs so I could sit down in and reattach my awesome DIY Luna Sandals to my feet feet again. Now that the fabric was wet I made sure to secure the lacing just a slightly tighter than I had earlier. I also took the time to make sure I wouldn’t have to screw around with it later, which was the last thing I wanted to have to do during a 100K race was stop more than I had to. Every time you stop it’s a chance for your body to seize up, so constant movement is key. I collected my bead for successfully completing that terrifying swim down the river and consumed a Clif Bar and a GU packet if I recall. Next, I began my climb up the trail and across the wobbly wooden suspension bridge and followed that same path Shannon and I went on for our “5K Warm-Up.” Again, I found myself running alongside Shannon and we joked about how it was a good thing we turned around when we did the night before, the terrain that started to come up right after that turnaround point was pretty gnarly. It involved some rock climbing, scaling and lots of bushwhacking.
After going up another one of what seemed like an infinite amount of Texan hills, we finally arrived at the next challenge where the volunteers awaited our arrival. My two concerns were: How far behind from the leader were we? And how long ago did Corinne leave this challenge? I wanted to know if I would be able to realistically catch up to her during the running sections after having so many issues early on. I learned that she wasn’t too far ahead, so I listened to what the challenge was, and without hesitation opened my custom-made ruck, pulled out and opened up the yellow compression sack. This sack exclusively held my random gear such as my SteriPEN, paracord, and the item I pulled out for this challenge, my orange sharpie that I kept with me for moments just like this where memory would be key.
Our challenge was to crawl through this very small hole in the ground into a cavern; a very tight and narrow cavern that I am told was littered with snakes, scorpions and who knows what other bugs and such. Fortunately, I was so focused on finding our objective, find six symbols placed throughout the cave, that I never really noticed any bugs or reptiles. I went straight down the cavern and to the left. I snaked my own way through the different levels of the cave until I found myself in the very back where I found the first two symbols. All they symbols were found in pairs. The first four I found within 30 seconds of each other. Each time I found them I would take my bib off my compression shorts, scribble the symbol onto the back of the bib with my sharpie and continue to hunt for the next ones. The last two were a little more difficult to find, but thanks to Shannon, I found them and made my way out. I ended up sharing my Sharpie with a few people and even left it for Paul to use since he was entering as I was leaving.
Upon exiting the cave I removed a couple safety pins and peeled back my bib off to reveal all my drawings and asked the volunteers, “Do you want me to draw them, point to them, or will this suffice?” They looked over the symbols and let me carry on my way. In hindsight, it was pretty funny because you could tell they considered having me point them out but decided not to bother since I had all the correct symbols. The seemed very amused by my tactic for conquering this challenge. I was awarded my FAIL amulet and I was directed to collect a prickly pear cactus pad before the next challenge and went on my way. I was on a mission to catch up with my race partner, Corinne. A lot of the trails followed along a fence line that surely kept us separated from the exotic animals that were hunted on the other side. It was kind of creepy to think about. With every step I had to constantly make sure not to roll my ankles, step on a prickly pear cactus, or stub my toes. It was a constant battle and basically limited me to a cautious jog as opposed to anything that could actually resemble a “run.” When I was not running along the fence line I found myself navigating ravines, climbing over trees and dodging branches searching constantly for the little trail markers to make sure I wasn’t going off path or missing a sneaky turn. I found some of the markers to be extra tricky to spot sometimes. After climbing through a rather heavily covered area eventually I emerged only to find myrself climbing through a bed of prickly pears only to see a Windmill in the clearing at the peak of this hill. There, my next series of challenges awaited me.
As I walked up to the challenge I could see this was going to reveal another weakness, throwing. Growing up I played a little tee ball and threw around footballs like all kids do, but it became very apparent that my left arm was nothing special, it wasn’t meant to throw, my aim (when it comes to throwing) is just not there. That’s why I strayed further and further away from most American sports and stuck to what I was best at, climbing, swinging, jumping, and flipping. When I saw that we would have to hit one of these three skinny hanging log targets with a requirement of hitting at least one of those targets 3 times out of 7 chances. Immediately, I knew I was probably going to miss out on earning this bead.
All positivity escaped me but I found humor in knowing that I wouldn’t succeed. The Volunteers presented me with my first quiz when I arrived. There were three questions asking us about the qualities of a prickly pear cactus and of course now we were also to take out our prickly pear pad which I had already de-needled and we had to turn it into a canteen and prove that we could drink from it. I missed one question on the quiz – no bead. I got out my KaBar and started to clean up my throwing stick just a bit to avoid splinters. When I went to make my first few practice throws at the metal legs of the windmill I was dead on, so I figured after two throws it was time to try my luck. First throw, way off. Second throw a little closer. Third and fourth throws were perfectly aimed just came in a bit low. Finally, I hit one on my fifth throw and it wasn’t even a direct hit, I basically just clipped the edge of the hanging log with my throwing stick. To leave this challenge successful I would have to hit the next two throws dead on. Knowing my abilities and lack of consistency, I had little faith that I would succeed and expressed it very vocally. I know I wasn’t being positive but there is a reason why I got myself into sports such as gymnastics, cheerleading, and now obstacle racing. I suck at throwing sports. Period. So with my awesomely negative mindset I took my last throws. Two more misses and that was it. I only hit the throwing stick target once – no bead. All I succeeded at here was making my canteen.
At this challenge checkpoint we were also given the opportunity to refill our water from this giant water collection tank that was filled with mosquitos and who knows what else. Between the quiz and throwing challenge I took the opportunity to rehydrate and fill up. Thankfully, I had my SteriPEN Freedom with me and I was able to make that water clean and purified in just a short 48 seconds (for each liter that I filled). After filling my steel canteen and my foldable hydration pack, I ate some of the Saquito Chia mix the volunteers offered us and took off with my throwing stick that we were told to keep with us. I also grabbed an Epic Bar to try later. We were also told we were welcome to find another throwing stick later if we would like so I ditched mine and took off. I was now only 10-15 minutes behind Corinne, and I knew I could catch up to her at the next challenge so I took off.
The next few sections of the course had me cursing Josue and the course markings constantly. No matter how hard I looked or how hard I tried to get some sort of pace going I couldn’t, the course marking were sometimes too high to see. It didn’t help I had my eyes glued to the ground in front of me for fear of wrecking my feet and or ankles in these oh-so-protective barefoot sandals of mine. All of this slowed me down quite a bit, I had to constantly stop to scan the area and make sure I wasn’t missing a trail marker. It’s not that the course was poorly marked, it was very well marked in terms of frequency but too often the markers were either too high to easily see or from the angle I was searching they were just hidden behind a branch or a leaf. I was just not seeing them as easily as I’d have liked. The distance from the Windmill to our next challenge was 4.8 miles and around half way through all the treacherous climbs, rocky descents, and ridge-less ridge traversing, I looked down at the knife sheath that I had fixed to my left calf with paracord and to my absolute horror I discovered that my KaBar was no longer there, the button that holds it in place was undone. Had I left it at the last challenge? Did I lose it along the way? What was I going to do at the next challenge? At that moment all the frustration that had been building up came out and I screamed…”F*********CK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
After realizing my knife was missing I just about lost it – my mind, that is. At first I was cursing myself, “Now what the fuck are you going to do?” Then I was questioning myself, “How will you finish? Are you going to have to make your own knife out of stones?” Honestly, I had no idea what to do. And that’s when it hit me. This is the second time I’d misplaced my knife this weekend. Why was I being so absent-minded? Why was it hard for me to hold on to something I cared so deeply for? I started to feel overwhelmingly upset about losing my KaBar. I just felt horrible. My dad gave this to me. How did I lose it?! At this point I wasn’t sure what happened. Did it fall out of the holster when I stumbled on a few rocks traversing that one ravine we had to go through? Did I leave it at the windmill? Was my race over?
I continued heading toward the next task with my head hanging very low trying to stay on course. I’m not quite sure when it happened, but eventually, I felt numb about everything. Why am I even doing this race? Even if I had my knife, could I really make fire? Doubt started to get the best of me. I tried to shake it off and think positively. Maybe someone found the KaBar while they were heading this way. Maybe you left the knife by the windmill and someone can find it if they haven’t already. My pessimism slowly dissolved and overcome with the optimism; optimism that I needed to carry on. I started envisioning what it was going to be like the moment I made fire.
After what seemed like the longest four or five miles I’d ever experienced. I finally came to the next clearing and once there, I saw two large tee-pees, a few volunteers, and these boy scouts who basically, at first glance, appeared to be taunting the racers about how easily they could make fire. My first concern when arriving was to find Corinne, so I ran over to the area where everyone was making fire and I found her drilling away with her bow drill. I literally saw the determination burning inside her to make this fire. It was very motivating to see how hard everyone was working on their fire. Corinne had already burned through two spindles and was working on her third. It was a relief to finally see one another since the start of the race. I explained to her what had happened with my missing KaBar and shortly thereafter, we found out over the radio that someone had found my knife and was bringing it to the next challenge. This news wasn’t enough to calm me down. I had so much energy and I was as determined as ever to finish this race. Now that I knew I was going to be able to stay in this race, I kept pacing around and searching high and low for materials to make my fire. Patience is not a virtue I’ve been blessed with.
It wasn’t long before Corinne succeeded in making her fire. I was so happy for her. She went on and completed the next throwing challenge here at the tee-pees. This time, there were two stones on top of a tree stump and each racer had to knock them off with their throwing stick. After she finished this challenge I ran a short distance with her (since I was still waiting for my knife) to wish her good luck with the rest of the race. Corinne is one of the most incredible athletes out there, if anyone could finish this race, it was her. I went back to my area and observed the other racers. I saw that most of the guys had moved on from using their knives and were strictly focused on spinning that spindle as fast as they could in hopes of getting that tiny little ember, which just might be enough to ignite a fire, into their small bundles of tinder. At times, everyone was trying to tackle this seemingly impossible task. It’s astounding that we, as a species, once depended on this skill as a necessary means for survival. Today we’ve become so disconnected that most human beings would not be prepared to survive should the need for primitive survival tactics ever arise. I finally asked someone if I could borrow their knife, I was so frustrated and absent-minded that I don’t even recall whose knife it was, but thank you for helping me out!
Earlier, while I was gathering all my supplies, I had already made my bow using some of my paracord and with someone else’s knife, I was able to make my first spindle. I set to work trying to get a good spin going. Corinne had given me this awesome rock to use as my top hold, but of course, as was the trend, I managed to misplace that as well. I had placed the stone next to my supplies, but when I came back from gathering more sotol out of the tee-pee I couldn’t find the rock. It’s very possible someone else used it. I suppose that’s what I get for leaving a rock on the ground. I decided to move away from the other racers and more into the clearing so I could see when my knife was going to arrive.
After growing increasingly impatient with making the fire, I decided to take out some of my anger by knocking out the throwing challenge. We had seven attempts to hit the stone off the wooden stump two times. I only knocked it off once. Again, no bead for me. At some point, while waiting for my KaBar to arrive, Shannon Hulme came into the challenge and told me that he was done. He let me borrow his knife for a while as I continued to wait for mine. I don’t know how long it took but when my KaBar finally arrived I was already defeated. I’d already spent over three hours here and was nowhere near making fire. Determined, I gave it a few more attempts. It came to a point where I had to question what my next move. I didn’t have to get all the beads to finish the race officially but I did have to make fire. If I gave up on this I would be able to continue the race knowing I couldn’t finish officially. Yay. Welcome to the world of unofficial finishes once again, Tony. Before making a decision I discussed the options with Shannon. I knew all along I wasn’t going to make fire after wasting that much time, so it didn’t take long for me to realize it was better for me to take off now and make the time cut-offs rather than risk not finishing at all. I made sure to gather all my supplies, thanked Shannon once again and took off — leaving without my “I” Fire amulet. All I had so far were a couple beads and a “Fail” Symbol amulet. Whatever, another five or so miles and I’d be at the next challenge. Time to move.
From this point on, I was really just there to be there. I was no longer in the race, I was no longer a contender. Once again, I had found myself facing the reality that I could finish a race, but I wouldn’t be counted as an official finisher. This didn’t bother me as much as it did earlier this year when I finished with an “unofficial” at the Summer Spartan Death Race. No, this time it just was what it was, and I didn’t really care what it meant. I knew what I was getting myself into. I knew that going into this race I had never made fire or completed many of the tasks the Josue subjected us to. In that moment, I was just there to challenge myself to do something I’d never done before. Regardless of the outcome, I was there and this is how the story was unfolding. I accepted the results of my lack of preparation and vowed to finish what I started.
As I continued on this crazy adventure through the foothills of Texas I found my mind wandering all over the place. It wasn’t like your standard race where you move so fast you can’t really think. Here, a racer had all the time in the world to get lost in whatever fantasies their mind created. Every step was slow and steady for fear of snapping an ankle with the constant indeterminate measure of distance between you and the next person. These unknowns and doubts were my biggest fears out there. We literally ran through sections that lasted more than a mile up and downwith loose rocks that threatened to slide out from you at any given moment. On top of that, I was still bushwhacking everywhere I went. I constantly needed to look at my feet but also up as well. I just couldn’t look in both places at once — that’s when I’d end up with a branch jabbing my left shoulder, or the time where I earned myself a bunch of prickly pear cactus needles sticking to the top of my foot, underneath my little toes and, of course, a nice big needle directly into my big toe. This didn’t just happen once.
While making my way to the next challenge I remember coming down this path and I could see a cabin not too far off in the distance overlooking a cliff. It looked like that was the next place we would be going. I remember thinking to myself and remembering I had not refilled my water at the last challenge, that I have to be close by now. I was starting to get so thirsty. I didn’t want to stop, but I had to get to the next challenge, I needed to hydrate. Just as I thought I was about to head toward the cabin, Josue had the course swing to the left and as I turned around I could see the cabin getting further and further away. You are a cruel man, Josue, and we all love you for it. He did this more than once on this route, it was so uplifting every time I thought I was almost to the next checkpoint and then bam, the course would switch directions steering me away from that glimmering beam of hope, that cabin on the top of that ridge. I wanted to get to it as fast as possible. I was ready to just finish this damn race. I started to question the possibility of being able to actually do the 100K Survival Run. Would ANYONE be able to complete the 100K?
The further away from the cabin I found myself going, the more cruel I felt Josue was. At times I found it difficult to wrap my head around how I found myself here. Why did I sign up for this race? Why do I continue to put myself through these ridiculous challenges that bring out the primal nature within? I started questioning myself but the first answer I came to and always will come to when people ask “Why? Why do this? Why put yourself through something like that?” Because I can. It was as simple as that, and with that thought, that knowledge, I did what I had to do and I carried on and continued along the path Josue laid out for us. Up and down the hills, moving further and further away from that tiny beacon of hope. That cabin on the ridge.
In my mind I already knew reaching that cabin meant a few things. It would be the next source of water. My next challenge would await me and perhaps I would be that much closer to finishing this extraordinary race. In my haste to leave the fire pit I did not refill my water. That last time that I enjoyed the refreshing taste of water that I had to purify myself was during my last few attempts at starting a fire. It became apparent that unlike most races I was not taking my nutrition or my hydration very seriously. I was not eating as much as I normally would during a race of this magnitude. Upon that realization I thought back to other racers where I had been laser-focused on my nutrition and yet even with that perfect balance of carbs, protein, potassium and all the other important nutrients needed to succeed there were many races where I still had issues. Back in Vermont at the World Championships Spartan Beast I even had issues. Somehow out here in the foothills of Texas, my lack of nutrition or focus on it had little effect. In fact, I felt quite wonderful. My body was doing well, the feet – while suffering from the technical terrain and lack of protection, I found it wasn’t all that unbearable. My mood was starting to lift. My face began to pull itself up and I could feel an enormous smile forming, ear-to-ear. In the silence around me with only my thoughts to guide me I knew it was true, I love this shit. This is my happy place. This is what I, what we (as a species) are born to do. Astonishing. Being alone can either be the worst thing or the best thing, it’s all about perspective. That’s what this moment was. It was that feeling of enlightenment. This entire race was a meditation. I was finding myself yet again. And even though I did not succeed in making fire, even though I was unofficially moving forward one step at a time in this race, even though I was all alone with no one to talk to, I was happy. That’s why I do this. That’s why I challenge myself and find myself alone, whether it be in the woods of Vermont of the Hills of Texas, I do it for one reason and one reason only. To find my happy place.
Almost within an instant of making that connection, my happiness was tested. My concentration had strayed away from watching my every step and in that moment of bliss my foot came smashing down into a patch of prickly pear cacti. What felt like a 1000 needles pierced my skin, sticking deep within the tips of my toes and the top of my foot. “DAMMIT Josue!!!” That’s the edited version of what I really said. Profanities became my vocabulary for a brief moment, but I would not let this ruin my mood. I couldn’t. This is what I signed up for. This was my choice to take on this race and a few needles in my foot was not going to break me. No. I wouldn’t let it. So I picked all of them out with as much haste as I could trying not to miss a single one. (Even after a month I still found needles buried deep within my toes.) From there I continued on my way toward that distant cabin that loomed over the cliffside almost mocking me. I needed water bad and that cabin was my source. I needed to pick up the pace. Nearing the last stretch of trail leading to my next challenge Josue started taking us up a very interesting cliffside. The brush became thicker and I found myself ducking under branches while trying to find the right footing as began to scale my way up the cliffside. I was even faced with having to do some bouldering just to make it to the top. This is so badass, is all I could think. This adventure was proving to be one of the most complex, riveting challenges that I have faced to date. As much as I found my self cursing Josue, I found myself loving the brilliance of his twisted creation. Placing my hand on the boulder that protruded from the cliffside I pulled myself up over that last ridge and a feeling of relief swept over me. I made it. Finally, after all those moments of false hope I had arrived at the cabin. I was greeted by a very jolly man who as it turned out was the father of the two boys who had been “taunting” me with their superior fire making skills. As had become the standard at this point I asked him the same question I asked each time I arrived at a challenge. How is Corinne doing, and how long ago had she left. It turned out I wasn’t too far behind but she had left over an hour ago. I really wasted a lot of time because of my absent-minded loss of my knife. I needed to finish the challenges here fast so I can make up more time on the course. Before that though I needed to take care of the most basic of needs. I needed water. I asked where I could fill up my canteens and was pointed over to a cow trough. Are you kidding me? I walked over to it and it was disgusting. Filled with mosquitos and gnats. I turned everything off in my mind and just did what had to be done. I purified over 3Ls of water with my SteriPEN there, drinking one of the liters before finding out what challenges await. Along the way we were supposed to gather Juniper berries and algarita. I had grabbed mine before even leaving the fire-making challenge and stuffed them inside a wrapper from my GU Chomps. After presenting those to the man, I was handed a test all about the qualities of those plants. From the airport to the race Corinne and I had studied the plant guide we were given by Josue. Since finishing graduate school I knew that the less I study something the better I usually do so I only reviewed the material as much as I felt I needed. The real test here was how well do I know my ability to retain information. As I waited for my test to be graded I wondered how I would do. Passing was 7/10…I nailed it. Only missing one question and realizing my mistake before he even told me which one it was. Feeling extraordinarily proud of myself I was ready for my next task. We were to take a few strips of Sotol fibers and we had to soften them up with a rock so we could make it into almost a string-like material. Then we were to braid them together a total of 3 feet. Having grown up with two older half sisters and a younger sister, I found this to be way too easy. Once I finished I was presented with my beads for completing the first two tasks and I was given my final task before leaving the cabin. Make a Bow. This was it. One of the tasks I had been waiting for. The Bow and Arrow has been one of my favorite weapons since I was a wee little one. I went over to one of the Juniper and found myself the best curved branch I could. I hacked away at it with my KaBar and began to shave off the excess bark. I noticed some of the other racers were taking a significantly large amount of time to craft their bows. I was more concerned with making the time cut-off than anything else so I did not put in the time or effort that I would have liked to but felt I had made a fairly decent bow. I strung it up with some of the orange string I was provided and made my way. Once again, I was all alone. And I felt absolutely epic running along those trails, bow in hand.
Continuing on the trail I eventually came to a section of single track trail. I remember catching up to Paul who had run back to make sure he was on the right path because he hadn’t seen a trail marker in a long time. I was standing directly underneath one as he approached and assured him he had to be on the right path as I pointed up to the marker. He turned around and took off with a much faster pace than I could keep up with. In that moment I started to feel lonely. There was nothing I could do to catch up. I didn’t have the motivation at this point. My feet hurt, my legs were sore, I was tired. I needed to keep moving. I kept thinking to myself that the end of this race must be near. Maybe when we get to the top of wherever all these single track switchbacks lead I thought, maybe that will be the last challenge. I hoped. These switchback went on forever slowly guiding you up the hillside. It felt like it was taking forever. The further I got the more I understood why Paul came back, there were almost no markers along this trail. It was single track, as a fellow race director I could understand why Josue didn’t put many up. But that didn’t change the fact that I wanted more confirmation that I was on the right path. I knew It was easier to just mark the places the major intersections in order to guide a racer. As I continued on, I was always hoping that I would see another trail marker soon.
I remember when I reached the top of the hill that seemed to go on forever there was a large cross, it felt very creepy to me at first because it almost seemed like it could be the location for some sort of cult gathering, but then I remembered all the religious kids that were here at Camp Eagle on retreat the day we arrived. I guess it made sense though this seemed like a very distant place (from my perspective) to have a cross. I had no clue how close or how far we were from Camp. For all I knew I was over 20 miles away from the cabins. I was hoping to find the next challenge here at the top but left the area disappointed and continued on my journey.
Arriving at the challenge location the sun had begun to set and the wind was picking up. I could feel my body temperature starting to drop. I had caught up with a one of the runners along the last stretch of single track trails and we came into this challenge together. I was greeted by the two volunteers and once again asked the same question I always asked, “How is Corinne doing and how long ago did she leave?” I was making great time I thought because she was only about 30 minutes out. Next I asked what had to be done because I simply wanted nothing more than to catch up to her.
Still holding my bow and seeing the target I knew my next challenge was to test my bow. To retrieve my arrows, I was to climb a tree and cut them down before I could discover how well made my bow really was. I walked over to the tree feeling excitement rising within me and a sudden burst of joy overcame all the pain and suffering I had been trying to keep at bay. Growing up I’ve always been a big tree climber, it wasn’t uncommon to be at a party and have someone ask where Tony went only to find me up in a tree. I looked up and at first I could not make out any arrows and then I spotted them all the way up, almost at the very top. Sweet!!!! I jumped up, wrapped my armed around the first good branch and began scaling my way up. With all my years of gymnastics it’s no surprise that I’m a human monkey. I sliced the rope holding what I declared as my set of arrows down and quickly climbed back down. As I approached the target range the wind had picked up. I laughed maniacally realizing there was no way in hell I would succeed regardless of how well made my bow was. I lined up my first shot and just laughed at myself as my arrow basically dropped not even 3 feet in front of me. There was no way I would make however many shots we were expected to make. I asked if I could just test the machine-made bow just to see if it was possible for me to hit the target with the wind, the way it was. Being fairly good at shooting a bow and arrow I figured if I couldn’t make it with a legit bow there was no way I would succeed with my homemade one. With full tension and my aim lined up to adjust for the wind I let the arrow fire and with little surprise my arrow stopped very short of the distance needed to fly far enough to pierce the target. It wasn’t meant to be. Wanting to still make the cut off I decided to be realistic, with wind picking up and my body was starting to shiver I needed to start generating body heat. Fast. After that many hours of rockin’ out my body was becoming fatigued and could not retain heat as the sun began to set.
It wasn’t the type of decision I normally would like to have made and there will be rules in place next year to prevent participants from doing this but I decided to not even waste my time building a travois. This was the last obstacle and I recalled the time I made one during my first Spartan Death Race. With a teammate it took us over 45 minutes to build our travois at the Death Race, there was no way in hell I was going to waste that much time after seeing all the ones that were left behind not even 50 yards away from where I stood. Clearly everyone before me found this task to be impossible to finish within the time cut off. I opted to skip the challenge completely, knowing what I knew this was the best option for me if I was going to finish unofficially, I was going to do it in within the time cut. I took off without even trying to make the travois.
As I ran I saw one travois after another, abandoned. There were still tracks in the gravel, however, and the further I got the more and more amazed I became. Who the hell was dragging their travois still?! I thought to myself as I began to climb the first, steep, switch back hill. As the trail began to narrow and become a very rocky, and technical single track trail I was astonished to see that someone was STILL dragging a travois through this. I wondered if they just dropped the weight or something because it seemed impossible to drag a travois through what little passage there was. Then I saw her. That’s right, it was Corinne. The only person who had the strength and determination to drag the travois through this insane terrain. This is where my race stopped. When I saw her attempting this challenge I couldn’t go any further, I had to see her, see this through. It was getting darker by the minute and there was no way I would let Corinne pull over 80lbs on a handcrafted travois through these narrow and twisting trails with steep ledges and cliffs she could fall down. No way in hell. I asked her how I could help and she was in her zone. I mostly guided her through the terrain, watch that branch, ROCK!!, you know that sort of thing. At one point there was a break down and she wanted me to just go on. I couldn’t do it. I had to make sure she finished, I could never leave her alone. I was so impressed and inspired by her perseverance. She insisted on dragging that travois all the way if it was the last thing she’d do. I couldn’t understand why she was battling this obstacle with such tenacity but I was there to support her however I could. Mostly, keeping my mouth shut.
Other racers passed us, all shocked that Corinne had gone so far with it. They continued on and that was it; we were the last two racers on the course. Dead last. No one succeeded at this obstacle, everyone quit, myself included, but Corinne pushed on. We eventually came out to a clearing and we had thought this must have been the place where this ended. There was no way Josue would have us take a travois over this brush and such. We both decided the volunteers might have left this area already and that’s when the battle with the travois finally came to an end. We were told it was a 2.5 mile trek with the travois, uncertain how far we had gone but given that it had been over 4 hours we figured this had to be the drop point. Corinne abandoned her travois and we started up a fairly steep climb. About a mile later after a lot of upward climbing we arrived at a volunteer station and discovered the real end to the travois challenge. With complete disbelief we realized how insane this challenge really was. There was no way anyone would have finished this challenge within the time cut off. It simply was not possible in that amount of time. We began our descent through more wicked terrain and we were finally on the last leg of the race.
At some point it started to rain. Already wearing Corinne’s pullover I was still shivering. Trying to keep myself warm I continued to run a little ahead of Corinne and then I would wait for her. Corinne managed to stay warm but I constantly checked on her to make sure she was okay. I forgot entirely about myself and after witnessing what she put herself through with that travois. I wanted nothing more than for her to finish this race strong. Josue has a way of getting you excited during his course, he’ll bring you just close enough to camp so you can hear the chatter, but then he swings you away to take you off into the woods uncertain of how much further you’ll have to go. This happened a few times and when we had just under a mile to go my barefoot sandal ripped completely off, the tongue part of the lacing had torn. I busted out some medical tape and strapped the entire sandal to my foot. I was really hoping this quick-fix McGuiver would last until the finish. No such luck. By the time we could finally see the lodging and START/FINISH area with under a half mile to go my sandal came dislodged again. Corinne continued running and I quickly caught up with my right barefoot sandal in my hand. We ran as fast as we could, the rain was accelerating as it came down from the dark sky above and just after we crossed that finish line, Dead F#$*ing Last, the most torrential down pour followed and we were so thankful to have finally finished. My body ached, I was cold. We had made it.
Unofficial or not I was extraordinarily proud of my FAIL. This was the most challenging event to date and if you had asked me right then and there if I’d do it again, I’d have said, “you’re nuts!” Now, I think I need to go back, better trained, better prepared. Fuego Y Agua Survival Run: Hunter Gatherer is THE primal survival test that all should experience.