Fuego y Agua Survival Run: Hunter Gatherer 50k & 100k – GUEST Race Recap
1. an uncommon man of supreme style
2. the epitome of American male, who radiates confidence in everything he does. He carves his own path, and while slow to anger, is brutally efficient when fighting back.
3. David Kalal
After Facebook has exploded with posts about the recent Hunter Gatherer Survival Run, I asked David to share his race experience. David and I met a couple of years ago on the racing circuit, and have raced in a number of same events since, most notably S.E.R.E. Performance in NYC.
At 44, David has been a competitive athlete for most of his life. Raised in California, he now calls New Jersey home. After rock climbing for 14 years he and his wife, Angela (hi, Angela!), did a Spartan race in 2010 and were immediately hooked on OCR. They competed in the first Vermont Beast and the inaugural 2012 UltraBeast. In 2013 David completed 13 (!) S.E.R.E. Performance events, including the inaugural S.E.R.E. Assault, where he was one of the the only two finishers. When not climbing or running, he works as a psychologist in a maximum security prison and plays with his pugs, Dante and Loki.
Without further adieu…
Fuego y Agua 50K Survival Run
[by David Kalal]
For months I’d been preparing: I’d made Luna sandals from scratch and done long runs in them, I’d carved a survival bow, built a travois, studied the local plants, thrown a club at a target, and practiced making fire with a bow drill. And, most importantly, I’d just completed the Spartan Ultra Beast – nearly 30 miles with 11,000′ of elevation – just two weeks earlier. My confidence going into the Fuego y Agua Hunter Gatherer Survival Run was high. I was prepared!
After flying into San Antonio and driving two hours to Camp Eagle, the last eight miles of which involved driving down a dirt road, I pitched my tent and headed to the Pavilion for Package Pickup. As the “pure” Ultra runners received their bibs and bags of swag the Survival runners stood around edgily awaiting whatever task that Josue Stephens, the Race Director, had in mind for us. A short while later we learned that in order to get our bib we had to carry a log 2.5 miles uphill and carve our Race Number into it. No problem!
I grabbed a large (approximately 60-70 pound) log that I named Loki (after one of my pugs) and took off to make the slow, arduous trek to the top of the “nearby” hill. Once at the top I was given a number – 46 – which I dutifully etched into Loki and returned to finally get the rest of my pre-race goodies. Going to bed that night I thought of it as a “good warm-up” and remained optimistic.
A predictably sleepless night in my tent ended all too soon when my alarm went off at 2:15am. After a quick bite I gathered my gear and I was off to the Pavilion once again, nervous and excited for the long day ahead.
A quick note about the gear, Survival runners were allowed to carry only the items on a list we’d been provided. These included a knife, a water purifier (there were no Aid stations), food, a first aid kit (a snake bite kit was recommended, but I passed on it), a container to hold water, paracord, and a few other miscellaneous things. Not allowed were shoes or a bag. The latter we would have to construct out of fabric and cord while making the former would be our first “obstacle”!
Flash forward to 4:30am. The race begins and Survival runners are given three long nylon laces and two slabs of rubber, courtesy of Luna Sandals, to construct footwear to use for the next 30 – 60 miles. Despite my previous practice, the early hour and my adrenaline made this task more difficult than I expected. However, after about 30 minutes I produced a serviceable pair of sandals.
For my bag I used an old Japanese art that involved no sewing or cord. Using only knots, I created a capacious cross-shoulder bag that was quite comfortable. I dashed off through the start to the cheers of volunteers and the few hearty spectators awake at this early hour.
The first section reproduced our hike of the previous day – right up to the top of the hill where Loki the Log was waiting. The first obstacle involved getting our log down the hill to the banks of the Nueces River. Once there we were instructed to secure the log with a PFD and start swimming. Luckily, the river was warm enough to be comfortable, although swimming in the dark was surreal. I can’t say what distance we covered but it was at least 90 minutes later when I was allowed to come ashore by volunteers. I was given a bead to indicate that I’d completed the task and told the next Checkpoint was about 5 miles away.
Those were some tough miles, I couldn’t get a rhythm. The water made the laces stretch and I had to frequently stop and adjust the sandals. During the swim I hadn’t eaten or hydrated and now I was playing catch up. The terrain was unbelievably difficult, much of it not run-able. There were long sections of bushwhacking over loose rocks peppered by cacti. I finally stopped, sat down, and re-laced the sandals from the 5-hole system I had made to a more conventional 3-hole set-up. This was easier to adjust and made them much more comfortable.
I arrived at the second Checkpoint to find – literally – a hole in the ground! Survival runners were informed that we had to enter a cave system and negotiate our way through three caverns in which a total of six pictograms had been placed. Once we’d found all six we had to identify them from memory to “complete” the obstacle.
Shimmying down the hole I entered somewhat spacious cavern from which very…very…small passages opened up. Did I mention they were small? I have a slight build and weigh in around 160 pounds. In order to navigate the passages I needed to inch my way along on my belly with little room to spare. It was dark, it was humid, I saw a bat (later others would say they had seen scorpions and spiders) – I was overcome with trepidation. Gut check time, “why am I here?” I asked myself. Fully committed I spent the next 30 or so minutes crawling through the cave, but despite all my efforts I found only four of the pictograms. Once out I, unsurprisingly, failed the test (I totally guessed on the last two) and was offered the choice to go back into the cave. The thought of creeping around those claustrophobic caverns again sent a chill up my mine – I elected to continue on.
Another 5 miles of challenging terrain were spent skirting cacti and gnarly Mountain Cedar (aka Ashe Juniper) trees. The sun was blazing down and the sweat was flowing when I arrived at a Windmill – the next checkpoint. I had been advised to harvest a Prickly Pear pad prior to my arrival, so I scouted one of sufficient size and gingerly removed it with my trusty knife. Once at the windmill the volunteers supervised while I removed the thorns and turned it into a “cup” that would hold water (Nopales pads can be used to purify water in a couple of different ways). Success! Next a three question True/False test on the medicinal uses of the Prickly Pear – also success! I was told to construct a throwing club, an easy enough task, and then informed I had seven tries to hit a suspended branch three times at a distance of about 10 paces. Although I’d practiced throwing in the weeks prior I had tried at a shorter distance (I have a very small yard) using a larger target. Fail!
I refilled my water, filtering from a retention tank of greenish water dotted with dead bugs (I had chosen a Steripen as a purifier which apparently worked great since I’m not dead) and I was off.
After another 5 miles of (mostly bushwhacked) trails in the blazing sun I started to smell smoke. I knew what was coming and was excited to finally put all my fire-making practice to the test.
Turns out there were two obstacles at this check point; before making fire I had to pull out my club and make another go at hitting, or in my case missing, a target, this time a rock sitting on a tree stump. Partially deflated after my earlier failure this go around my throwing skills were no better…zero for seven. Next I started assembling my fire making implements. I had access to Sotol for the spindle and board. I made a tinder nest from cedar bark and collected two rocks that looked like promising capstones. I cut a bow and did my best to rig a paracord string. It was at this point it occurred to me that despite my weeks of practice starting fires I had only attempted to build a bow once. This lack of familiarity combined with my fatigue quickly led to frustration. I couldn’t get the spindle to catch and my lashing kept falling. Damn it! This was the one obstacle I really wanted to succeed at. Demoralized, I finally decided to move on having collected no Amulet for success at this station.
Already dehydrated and feeling low, it didn’t help that the next five miles of trail were some of the most gnarly, the hills so steep at times that I had to scoot down on my butt and use my hands to climb. A seeming eternity later I scaled a short rock face to find myself at a bucolic cabin nestled in the woods. There I was greeted by a kindly Native American gentleman and his daughter who led me through the next series of challenges. First, I presented my sample of Juniper berries and a sprig of Agarita, which were approved. Next I nailed 8 out of 10 on a multiple choice test of my knowledge of those plants. Success! Feeling better I set about to making my survival bow, which also passed inspection. Lastly, I made 3 feet of cordage by patiently twisting the strands of a local plant that I’d prepped while getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. Buoyed by my success and the knowledge that I was in first place of the 50k Survival runners I took off on the next to last leg of trail.
Thankfully the next five miles mostly followed a groomed, incredibly scenic single track trail, winding through groves of trees which provided much needed shade. “I’m a mutha-effin’ hunter gatherer!” I would recite to myself to keep my spirits up, although I’d mentally amend, “well, mostly a gatherer” recalling my lackluster “hunting” skills.
As I came upon the last checkpoint and realized it was an archery range I was glad I had taken a lesson before leaving New Jersey. Shooting a bow isn’t difficult, but there are some small nuances I was glad I’d learned. However, before I got to shoot I had to “gather” my arrows…which dangled serenely in the breeze about 25 feet up a tree. “Hmmm, maybe I’ll re-fill my water first” I informed the volunteer who directed me to the nearby river. As I laid next to the river going waiting for the little green light on my Steripen to tell me that Giardia wouldn’t be in my future I had another one of those “do or die” moments – “You’re a 5.12 climber for fuck’s sake David, go climb the damn tree!”
And climb it I did, to a height of about 20 feet, at which point I was able to cut the arrows loose and watch them plummet to the ground. After exiting the tree I was informed that I had seven tries to stick three arrows in the target at a distance of about 35 feet. My bow worked well, sending each of the shots hurdling to spitting distance of the target. Ultimately however, the breeze and my inexperience with aiming led to failing the obstacle. I hoped that this at this point I’d be able to leave in order to finish the race, but that was not to be the case.
“You have to construct a travois, fill these three bags with 40 pounds each of dirt and rocks, and take them to the next checkpoint 2.5 miles away” the volunteer blithely informed me. “Really?” I thought, “120 pounds is two-thirds by body weight….!” It was then that my spirits began to sink as I set about cutting the spars and lashing the travois. I began to feel dizzy and enervated as I filled and weighed the bags to the volunteer’s satisfaction. The travois quickly ate up the remainder of my 550 cord requiring me to unstring my bow and use the extra sandal lace we’d been given. Finally done, I lifted the front spars and started to walk…only to make it about three feet. The energy required to drag it was enormous. It was then that the monumental task of moving this thing 2½ miles sank in and I realized I didn’t have it in me.
This was a decision point. I could just skip the obstacle and run the last five miles, but I’ve seen too many people at Spartan races skip “hard” obstacles and still sport a medal afterwards. That never sat well with me. Instead, I decided to DNF the race at this point. I’ve since learned that no one completed the entire travois distance, which makes me question my decision. Regardless, it was with a heavy heart that I walked back to my campsite.
Overall, this was an amazing and unique experience. Josue put together an incredible variety of technical, intellectual, emotional and physical challenges. And, while this type of event isn’t for everyone, if you’re willing to push yourself beyond what you believe possible and you can agree with the statement “If I get lost, hurt, or die it’s my own damn fault” then I’ll see you out there next year!”
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Up next – an interview with the race director Josue Stephens, the race winner and fellow Canadian Shane McKay, elite racer Isaiah Vidal, who biked from Texas to Vermont and completed both the Beast and the Ultra Beast only two weeks earlier, as well as a female perspective on the 50k ultra run from Kim Kendra who came 3rd in the 50k Ultra Trail Run.
*Disclaimer: Please note that Fuego Y Agua has not paid or compensated me or David Kalal in any way to cover their event or give them a positive review.