«Yeah, I ran the Bloody Gladiator last weekend...»
But for all the barbwire and mud pits these events feature, the truth is, they are not really difficult. They are still aimed at the general public and are very safe for weekend warriors of all calibers. Don't get me wrong; I have run some of these events myself and loved every minute of them. But although it's always a blast to roll in mud and jump all over the place, they are just not that challenging.
On the other side of the spectrum, there is another breed of events that are growing in popularity among the crowd of mean cross-fitters, tough ultra runners and survivalists. They basically throw you in harsh environments, offer little to no support and make sure the finisher rate will be as low as possible – including zero. There's one man at the center of this new trend; race director Josue Stephens. In an interview a couple weeks ago, I asked him what to expect from Hunter Gatherer. He said «The basis of this race is the Hunter Gatherer way of life. So our challenges will strip the athlete down to the nitty gritty basics and put them in survival situations through the entire course.»
|Camp Eagle. Where everything wants to kill you.|
The group at Eagle Camp was awesome. About a third of the field was Mas Locos from the Canyons, and most of the others were from the survival scene. A lot of paths had crossed before at Fuego Y Agua in Nicaragua last year, and whatever remaining ice was broken in seconds at the Beer Mile that evening. It was obvious, we were among family.
|Packet pick-up at Hunter Gatherer is no walk in the park.|
After a short night's sleep, we woke up at 3:00 am to get ready to cheer for the Survivors' start at 4:00. Instead of the usual busting out through the starting chute, they had to sit down with a knife and make their own sandals and backpack, then hit the trails. Looking at them tinkering, I was very thankful I would be wearing my rock-plated trail shoes for the day.
A little hour later, it was our turn to line up at the start. It was still dark and we had to run with lights, but we were allowed all the gear we could carry. There would be no food at aid stations, and we were only allowed to take water from various points on the course, so we had to carry a water filtering system. I personally went minimal and brought chlorine pills and a Buff to filter out scraps.
|These people's idea of fun baffles me.|
We hit the trails with high spirits and a good pace. It was still dark and we were making decent progress. Tim wondered if we were going too slow, and we agreed that we must've been about midpack, which is exactly where I wanted to be. My legs felt great and my energy even better.
Daylight slowly arose as we kept climbing along the switchback trails, which soon turned into... the wild. With only tape and reflector flags to follow, we left the single track and headed straight into the bushes. Naturally, we developed a really good navigation system; the runner in the front would lead the pack and follow the flags, until they lost sight of the next one. They then would say they lost the trail, so we would stop and all look into every direction in search of a clue. Whoever found the way headed towards the next flag, and the two other ones would fold back in line.
Using this very efficient technique kept us constantly moving forward, and we made good progress without any frustration. Soon enough, we emerged at the ridge and followed a trail that took us to the first check-in station, the windmill. We got there and unpacked some food, chatted a little bit and took it easy. Two runners were already there when we came in. One of the staffers then said something that took quite a bit of time for me to register.
«You're pretty relaxed for the leading pack».
Wait. What? «Well, there was this running couple, then this beautiful blonde girl.» Yeah, Stephanie Gardner. We know her. She kicks ass. She's awesome. And then?
«Well, then it's you guys.»
We exchanged looks of both confusion and amusement. The two other runners quickly packed and left on the trail. But I was worried. Being in the lead at any point, furthermore that early in a race, was a baaaaaad sign for a runner like me. I consulted with Tom and Tim, who were as surprised as I was. Everyone felt good... and, since there was nothing else to do than keep going and see what happens, we packed and left.
|Thorns. Spikes. Standard Texas terrain.|
Soon enough, we hit a clearing with a good exposed climb, and we saw the two runners who took off ahead of us at the check-in station. They were still moving, but they were showing signs of struggle. The first guy we passed said he was having a rough patch, and the second was having knee issues and was now walking with makeshift wooden walking sticks he'd picked up.
We passed ahead and kept going. We had a good rhythm and all three of us were surprised that we could stick together that long without any extra effort. After a while, we caught up with another runner, Jason, who was filling up on water and didn't look too fresh. He had some scratching and a small bloody gash on the top of his head, so I figured he must've taken a tumble. A couple hundred yards later, we arrived at another check-in, called the tee-pees. It took us some time to realize this was the half-way point, and when we did, Tom rushed to get his drop bag. Neither Tim nor I had one, and Tom generously opened the big Ziploc blag and said to grab whatever we needed. I took some fruit puree, which tasted amazing.
Once again, we were told that we were respectively runners 4, 5 and 6 at that point. The excitement grew a little more. We quickly took off and started having a conversation I never thought I would have in my whole running career. «Sooooo... what are we gonna do? Battle for this?» It didn't take long to figure that one out. Hell no. We're a trio on this, and we run free. We all cross the line together.
Bushwhack after trail after rock climb after ridge, we kept going with great energy and motivation. Spirits were high and bad jokes were flying by, as was the time. This was going really well. After another check-in point, a high cabin on top of a rock wall, we started heading down and hit some pretty neat single track. But after a little while, Tom, who was in the lead, stopped. «I haven't seen a flag in some time now, have you?». Nope. «Tim?». No.
After some hesitation, we tracked back. We hit the last visible flag and tried to figure out if we were on the right trail... Then Stephanie shows up! «What the fuck?!» was the general greeting. «Are you guys ahead of me?», she asked. Of course not! She was not on the same trail, but literally 12 to 15 feet below, on another segment. We all guessed that everyone was doing OK, after she confirmed she'd been on the same trail we were, pressed on and hit a check-in station lower down by the river. But that was confusing, and time-consuming. We hit the trail again, trying to make up for time lost, but Tim fell out of rhythm.
When the sun came out and the temperature shot up, I stopped hearing Tim's footsteps behind me. I started having a rougher time, too, but Tom was doing great. When it became clear that Tim was not following closely anymore, we agreed to keep going, but wait for him at the check-in station.
When we reached it, a very excited Zac Wessler was waiting for us, cheering. «Guys!!! You are doing AWESOME!!!». Like us, he couldn't believe the kind of day we were having. Without saying much, Tom and I quickly prepared what we needed and got ready to get some water. Zac pointed us to where we should go... a murky, mossy river about 75 feet below us, down a rock wall descent. It took me the best part of 5 seconds to make my decision. Fuck it. I wasn't going down there. I'd just go and use the water I had. I looked at Tom, and knew right away he was thinking the same thing. «How much have you got?» One full bottle and two half-full handhelds. We were both OK to take the gamble.
Then Tim reached the check-in. He was still moving, but looked tired and was in need of water. When he saw where the river was, he immediately understood the pickle we were in. «Go ahead», he said, «There's no way I can make it to the next water point, and this is gonna take me some time. You guys are looking great, just go».
I felt really bad, but I also knew that if I was ever to do well in a race, my best chance was probably right now. We hugged, Tim wished us good luck and we took off.
|OK, let's make sure we take THIS step|
at the same time...
Tom and I spent the next following miles running at a good pace, power hiking the climbs and making good time. The sun came up a couple times and made things quite harder in the open, but we almost never stopped, always moving forward.
We reached the last check-in, called the zip line, tired but ready to finish strong. We took very little time and pressed on, after being told we had «only 3.5 miles to go, and it's all downhill». We went down for a while, true enough. But whether it was just a mislead comment from an ignorant staffer or a deliberate mind game to play on the runners, our path switched to bushwhacking again, then started going up. Several miles rolled by and we were still not finished; this was starting to weight down on us. We slowed on the last section, not knowing how far out we still were and unable to figure out when the home stretch would begin.
When the dirt road finally appeared, Tom and I both smiled to tears. We knew what this meant. There was no one behind and no one ahead. We had this. With wings under our feet, we flew down the steep downhill and the dirt road that led to the pavilion and the start/finish line. One step before the line, we stopped, counted to three, then took the exact same last step over the line. Perfect ex-aequo. We had placed 4th overall, and 2nd males. We might as well have won the Olympics. It was simply unbelievable.
The looks we exchanged spoke more than words at that point.
Neither Tom Norwood nor myself are elite runners and never even came close to finishing at the front of any race, let alone a survival ultra. But somehow, that day, we were granted the gift of knowing what it feels like, once in a running lifetime, to live the excitement of the chase, push through, and taste the ecstasy of victory.