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Fuego Y Agua, And The Origin Of The Egg Obstacle - Interview With Josue Stephens

After a much discussed Survival Run in Nicaragua, the race director Josue Stephens announced that he was bringing a similar event to the United States. Survival Run: Hunter Gatherer 50k & 100k took place few weeks ago in Texas, and the social media outlets are still chattering about the brutal terrain.

The races that Josue organizes are hot, hot hot – and not just in the temperature sense – do not go further than the Fall 2013 of TrailRunner. Alex Kurt in his feature article “Running through Fire” refers to Nicaragua’s Fuego Y Agua as “a trail-running experience like none other”.

In today’s post, I am happy to present the man himself, as he talks about the origin of the egg obstacle, how he started organizing races, and what it’s like to grow up with 10 siblings.

What is your name? Josue Antonio Stephens

Where are you from? I was born in Burbank, CA, and currently live in Austin, TX.

How old are you? 32

What is your background? Sport? How did you become a race director? I grew up living and traveling around Central America, Mexico, Canada and the US. Many times we lived in campers or tents in the mountains, forest or jungle. With 10 siblings living together in these types of situations and no TV, we were very outdoorsy. Growing up I trained for an ultra between the ages of 11 and 12 with my dad, played soccer in high school, rock climbed, mountain biked, hiked and did pretty much everything outdoors.

In a nutshell, at the age of 25, I decided I wanted to get into ultras again, so in 2007 I entered my first. I then ran multiple ultras through the fall of 2007 and 2008, including winning and placing in the top 10 for several regional races. I have since run several ultras per year, 50k to 100 miles, a few marathons, Spartan Races (10th at Ultra Beast) and Joe Deckers SUCK event.

I was hooked! I had been traveling to an island in Nicaragua since 2003 and immediately knew I wanted to do an event there. The terrain was brutal and the culture was intriguing.

In 2008 I put on a “trial run” of the Fuego y Agua Ultras by doing a donation based entry. We had 27 people and a great time. After that I began putting the event on yearly with continued growth.

In 2012, a good friend and inspiration of mine, Micah True, also known as Caballo Blanco, passed away. We had been in touch since 2007, and I had run the race in the Copper Canyons in 2008. Once he passed away, the big question was “who is going to keep this race going?” I decided with my experience, passion for Latin America and love of ultras, I would help continue the race. With the help of Micah’s girlfriend Maria Walton, who heads up the Norawas nonprofit, we have brought the race back and continued the traditions. Since then, I have been busy full time expanding the idea of extreme endurance events with a philanthropic twist. My goal is to create events that are much more than “show up, get a shirt, race, get a medal, and leave.”

How many similar events have you organized in the past? How was this event similar to the Survival Run in Nicaragua? How is it different? I am on my 2nd year for Ultra Caballo Blanco in Mexico, 5th year for the Fuego y Agua Ultras in Nicaragua, and working on the 2nd Edition of Survival Run: Nicaragua. Survival Run: Nicaragua was the first “obstacle race” I directed, but you can hardly call it that. The idea for Survival Run actually began the first year I put on Nicaragua in 2008. The original idea was no aid stations, super tough trail with bushwhacking, carry all of your own gear etc. I called it Survival Run 100k when I sent the first email to all the potential participants. However, as the race details progressed, I wanted to make it more accessible to everyone, so I added aid stations and a 50k option. That’s how Ultra Fuego y Agua was born.

In September of 2012, I finally decided to implement the Survival Run idea. I know the Nicaragua course like the back of my hand, so I stayed up all night writing out the ideas and essentially compiling the entire course. Everything was built on the concept of traditional daily life on the island, except for the egg obstacle, which was inspired by the Birdman Race (Tangata Manu) on Easter Island.

As for the difference between the Hunter Gatherer and the Nicaragua events… I aimed for both events to have a practical and an educational components to them. For example, in a Survival Run, all the challenges serve a purpose – for example, you may climb a tree to get something that you need later. In Nicaragua, the runners had an opportunity to learn a little bit about life on the island. To summarize, Hunter Gatherer was more about true self-sufficiency, and survival skills. It definitely required some preliminary training. I chose Texas as a race venue, because the Texas Hill Country is rough and tough! Meanwhile, Nicaragua was more about adaptation and being ready for anything that happened.

Wait… Rewind. The egg obstacle? Haha, sorry. I had the racers do the egg obstacle in Nicaragua. About 2/3rds into the race they went up the volcano (again!), swam into the crater lagoon and retrieve an egg floating in a basket. This egg had to be tied to their forehead using a bandanna from that point until the end of the race. If the egg broke, they could not get the last piece of their medal.

This idea came from the Tangata Manu race on Easter Island, where, as a rite of passage, local young men had to swim to an island, retrieve the egg from a bird, then bring it back unbroken to the mainland. The first one back won the maiden’s hand in marriage. Of course we do not include that last part. However, it’s a neat story.

[Solo’s note: Are you already putting the Tangata Manu race on your racing bucket list? Unfortunately, this traditional competition was suppressed by Christian missionaries sometime in the 1860s. Yay, Christian missionaries.]

What is the demographic of the racers you attract? Why do you think racers are attracted to the idea of a Hunter/Gatherer themed event? As the second Survival Run, Hunter Gatherer really began to define exactly what a Survival Run is and who will race it. However, the main group now seems to be the ultra endurance athlete or the obstacle course racer who wants something more.

It is interesting watching the two worlds collide, the ultras can run but are a bit taken aback by challenges, the ocr runners are slower but take the challenges by storm. As Survival Run evolves into a unique event, outside of the standard Ultra, OCR or Adventure Race, it will develop its own breed of racer.

Hunter Gatherer is the race that scared a lot of people away, the concept was so far out there, many people just did not want to even try it. Fashioning their own footwear was a huge roadblock for a lot of people, but those who made it to the race, had less of a problem with footwear than they thought. In racing, in life, we get to where we rely on our gear, our packs, shoes, electronics, gels, special drinks, you name it. The appeal of Hunter Gatherer was that it stripped you from your “blankie,” then it put you through one of the toughest challenges of your life.

Everyone who toed that start line overcame a lot of fear to get there.

Can you give me some numbers for your recent events? How many people applied? Registered? Showed up? Finished? Fuego y Agua Nicaragua started in 2008 with 27 people, we are expecting over 500 in 2014. Ultra Caballo Blanco had 585 starters. Our finish rate for the 100k in Nicaragua is always around 40%, and for 50k is about 70%.

For Survival Run Only: Survival Run Nicaragua 2013, we had 130 applicants, 38 starters and 2 finishers. Survival Run: Hunter Gatherer 50k we had over 150 applicants, 23 starters, 13 Finishers, but only 1 who completed the course and received all 4 Amulets ( I – DID – NOT – FAIL). [Solo’s note: The one who completed the course is a fellow Canadian Shane McKay. Read on for some of his thoughts on this event!]

Why make the event application only? Do you accept everyone who applies? How do you make a decision? Is there a cap on the number of runners per event? The event is application only because we do not want people going out and killing themselves. Nutrition, Hydration, navigating tough terrain, those are all things an athlete must be experienced in for a Survival Run. Ultra distance and obstacle course racing experience are required in these events. We also require our applicants to have volunteered at an event before, this way they are able to understand what goes into producing an event.

I do not accept everyone who applies, but surprisingly, 95% of those who do apply, are eligible. I think just reading the race description keeps people away.

I make a decision based on Ultra experience, OCR experience, and if the person seems they are missing the right amount of screws. After Nicaragua, we are overhauling the application process and will have a few additional criteria. As demand grows for these events, we will be turning more people away.

I cap the Survival Runs depending on the course and what it can handle. This will always be a smaller and more exclusive event. Those who participate in Survival Run belong to a tribe of the select few who dared take on the challenge. Survival Run: Nica is capped at 100, Ultras are capped at 400 for those who only want to run.

Do you race the course yourself? If not, how do you know that it’s actually doable? I have gone over each section multiple times, camped out on the volcanoes in Nicaragua, spent hours with a heavy pack marking miles of course, sleepless nights coming up with the obstacles, working out details, etc.

I “test” the obstacles/challenges, and I master the skills myself. Since coming up with the Hunter Gatherer concept, I made bowdrill fires, learned how to identify medicinal plants, and how to make and shoot a bow. I ran. I swam with logs.

The race challenges are built on the way I train at home or when traveling. I never have anyone do a tree climb I cannot do, and having done long endurance events, I am aware of human capabilities and limits.

We have our first draft, where I come up with all of the challenges, then the process where we test for difficulty, scalability and logistical reality. The race we produce is much easier than the rough draft!

What was the hardest part about planning this event as a director? What is your favorite part?

There are always logistics to deal with, but scaling the challenges to work for multiple people is always tough. My favorite part is the camaraderie that comes from the event.

Do you come up with all the obstacles yourself? Where do you find inspiration? I do come up with the obstacles/challenges. I draw a lot of it from my Dad, who always showed us new things and kept us thinking. As kids, we were very well read on indigenous tribes, how they hunted, and how they lived their lives day in and day out. My Dad is the one who inspired the egg obstacle from Easter Island’s Birdman Race.

What kind of training would you recommend to a racer considering one of your events? Get out of the gym and into the woods. Hunter Gatherer does require some skills, but the premise of Survival Run is to be comfortable in natural environments, climbing trees and rocks, swimming, jumping, carrying, throwing, and adapting.

What is your next event? I am co-directing a road marathon with a friend of mine, and then I go into full planning mode for Fuego y Agua Nicaragua (Feb 5-8 2014) and Ultra Caballo Blanco – Copper Canyon Mexico (March 2).

Are you planning to bring the Survival Run back to the United States? Yes, Survival Run: Hunter Gatherer will be in the US again next year! We also have an event in Wales we are planning.

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Are you booking your tickets yet? Wait. There’s more. In an upcoming post, the race winner Shane McKay shares his training regimen, and Isaiah Vidal, “the superfreak of fitness”, discloses a surprising career aspiration.

Off to hunt (and maybe gather), Solo

*Disclaimer: Please note that Fuego Y Agua has not paid or compensated me in any way to cover their event or give them a positive review. Anything you read here is my independent opinion based on interviewing the race director and/or racers.


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