I never knew Texas could be so beautiful. The rolling green hills carpeted with Juniper and Oak stretched into the distance. Broken limestone and prickly pear cactus littered the ground. I was at a private campground called Camp Eagle in the Hills Country of central Texas. I was standing around anxiously awaiting our packet pickup for the Hunter Gatherer Survival Run. I knew there would be some challenge to pass before we could get our bib numbers. Josue, the race director, said to show up at 5pm with your knife for packet pickup.
Hunter Gatherer Survival Run is a first of its kind event. It is a primitive skills themed 100k (or 50k) ‘obstacle’ race with challenges and obstacles based on hunter-gatherer lifestyle. I was in love with the idea from the very first time Josue mentioned the concept to me. This was my dream event. It combined so many aspects of passions of mine; ultra-trail running, primitive skills, climbing, wilderness, etc. And then Josue asked me if Luna Sandals would like to sponsor it and have all the participants making and running in Luna Sandals. And that just topped it off, dream event come true. Race director Josue Stephens is creating a new line of events called Survival Runs. They are a completely new type of ultra-distance wilderness themed natural obstacle race. These events are dangerous. They are not for beginners. They are by application only. The risks involved are very real. Often the most rewarding things in life have risks. And I accept the Survival Run (and Caballo Blanco Ultra) motto: “If I get lost, hurt, or die, it is my own damn fault.”
The first Survival Run was on a volcanic island in Nicaragua back in february with some seemingly ridiculously hard and unique challenges. Check out this video to get an idea of what it’s about. These Survival Runs are bringing together the ultra-running community and the Obstacle racing community. Its really cool to see the two different cultures coming together and something unique emerging. At Hunter Gatherer there was a nice mix of die hard obstacle racers and ultra runners mingling into a new breed of wilderness athlete.
Finally Josue got on the mic and directed the 30 or so survival runners to a pile of logs that we would be carrying 2+ miles to the top of a big hill, carving our bib number into it and returning to the start. I was one of the last to pick a log. Luckily at the bottom of the pile was a perfectly smooth and long log that figuratively had my name on it. I hoisted the 75 lb. log onto my shoulder and started on the journey. Carrying heavy things was one of the tasks I felt the least prepared for. Most of the other runners were crossfit training obstacle racers with a lot more strength training than me. I got into a good rhythm and decided the quicker I can get to the top of the hill the sooner I can get this log off my shoulders. I also tried hard to keep a positive attitude about the log and keep smiling. It is easy to get sucked into the ‘this sucks, this is so brutal’ masochistic attitude. I cruised up the hill switching shoulders and trying to keep good posture. Soon enough I was at the top of the hill and I believe I was the 4th person to the top of the hill. Which it wasn’t really a race to the top but it was a huge confidence builder to complete this strength challenge without too much trouble.
That night we tried to go to bed early but shortly after turning the lights out in our little cabin a teenage dance party started raging in the bathhouse about 50 yards away. Luckily that only lasted about an hour. But even after it ended I found myself lying in bed unable to fall asleep. My alarm went off at 2:30 am. I probably got 2 to 3 hours of sleep. We wondered over to the Start for our pre-race gear check.
At 4:30 am the race began in a way I don’t think any race has ever started. Everyone grabbed some sandal making materials, sat down, and began making the footwear they would be wearing for the race.
Luna Sandals supplied the sandal making materials. I prepared it and brought it down with me. Technically that gave me an advantage because I knew the material we would be using and I am very grateful that Josue and everyone let me race anyway. In reality I knew it wouldn’t be much of an advantage. Before the race I tried to share as much as I could about sandal making and encouraged everyone to practice a lot. Making sandals is pretty simple. Learning to tie, adjust, and run in them is what takes more practice.
I got to work cutting out my sandals. I took my time and made them well. Shane McKay was done and the first off the line in no time. I finished my sandals and started making my pack. We were not allowed to bring a pack. We had to make one. I made mine out of a buff, a bandana, and some p-chord. I had practiced my method and was confident in it. I got it all packed up and was off the start line into the darkness. I ran through the dark camp with a huge smile on my face. The first stop was at the top of the hill where we left our logs. I picked up my log and put in on my already bruised and torn up shoulder from carrying it up there the day before. I carefully made my way down the steep rocky slope toward the river.
At the river we were instructed to tie a life jacket to the log and swim down the river with the log. Since it was dark we were required to put a glow stick on so that people could see us swimming down the river. I threw my log into the water and started wading down the river. Swimming in the dark, in the wilderness, with a log and glow stick felt surreal and kind of freaky. There was a lot of duckweed catching my legs and holding me back. The river had two dams to go over. At both dams I lifted my log and tossed it over the other side. Swimming is something I am not very strong at. I was relieved with the nature of this swim, though it was over a mile, it wasn’t very deep in some places, the shore was never too far away, and I had a log to hold onto. The swim was awesome. It felt really cool to do.
I’m in the background trying to lift my log onto the dam.
There was no aid stations at this race. You were expected to filter your own water. I have been drinking unfiltered water for years, but mostly from mountain streams and desert springs. So I was hesitant about risking it in Texas. But when I heard that the river pops right out of the ground only about a quarter mile up stream I was sold on taking the risk. While I was swimming I would just open my mouth and drink. That felt really strange to do and I kind of liked it. It was so simple, just open your mouth and drink. By the time I was done with the swim we were just starting to get some pre-dawn light.
Carrying my log out of the water after the swim.
I was back on the trail running in the morning light. Much of the course turned out to be off-trail bushwacking. Going up and down steep rocky hills pushing through juniper and oak and trying not to kick a prickly pear. The prickly pear were land mines waiting to ruin someones day. I got to the next challenge, which was a 2 foot wide hole in the ground leading down into a cave. In the cave was 6 petroglyph symbols in 3 caverns we had to find and memorize. Most of the cave was belly crawling and squirming over rocks and through cracks. It was more tiring than I was expecting. In the cave I saw bats, bugs and even a snake. After finding what I thought was all the symbols I came out and took the test where I had to point them out on a paper. But somehow I was missing one. I only knew five. So back into the darkness i went. During my second trip into the cave my legs started cramping a little prompting me to take my time. I found my last symbol, got out of there, and passed the test. For passing this challenge I received the first medal which simply read “FAIL”.
Cave entrance. Photo by Zac Wessler.
It felt good to be back on the trail. Now after having stopped at several points I was realizing that though my pack was super comfortable and didn’t bounce while I was running, it was taking way too long to unpack and pack up. I felt like I was wasting a lot of time just packing up my pack. After several miles was the next challenge station. A quick medicinal plants quiz, aced it. Make a water container out of a prickly pear cactus, no problem. Carve a throwing stick and hit a target 3 out of 7 tries, piece of cake. Ok, that was an exaggeration, it wasn’t a piece of cake, it was challenging and I was super excited to hit them.
Back on the trail (or not a trail at all) it was starting to get hot. I was trying to stay hydrated and to eat plenty of food. The next challenge station was at mile 15. It was midday now and you could tell people were feeling the brutality already. This challenge station was to start a bow drill friction fire (fire with sticks). This was one thing I felt super confident at. I used to teach bow drill fire at a wilderness therapy company I had worked at in the past. I love doing bow drill. I used to be good at hand drill too but i was out of practice with that. I gathered the materials for my set and got down and busted a fire. It still feels so cool to start a fire with sticks. It is so satisfying. It takes planning, preparation, patience, skill, and a good physical effort.
Tyler busting his first fire ever!
It felt great to bust a fire and get my second medal; “I”. Now my medals read “I FAIL”. But before leaving this station I had to do another throwing stick challenge. Which was to knock two rocks off a stump. I just needed to get 2 out of 7. I did a few practice throws then went at it. After a couple misses I knocked one down. Then I hit the other one and it wobbled and was so close to falling down but stayed standing. I failed that one. I didn’t get the bead for it. I had no idea what failing that challenge meant but I didn’t worry about it too much and headed down the trail.
More bushwacking, cactus dodging, and feeling like a wild animal running through the woods.
I was instructed to collect some juniper and algerita before the next challenge station.
I arrived at the next station with my plants. At this station we had to take another medicinal plants quiz and make cordage out of yucca. I did both of those without a problem. Before we left we were instructed to make a bow. So I went out into the brush, found a good juniper and cut me down a nice piece for my bow and started carving. I probably spent too much time carving my bow but it was so much fun.
Back on the trail with my bow in hand the carnage was apparent. Many were dropping out or skipping obstacles. It was still pretty hot and had been a long tough day. I was definitely feeling it. On the trail I stumbled upon a rattle snake with its head and rattle cut off. Its body and head were still moving and squirming around. Written in blood on the rock next to it was “HG”. It was a hardcore scene. I built a little cairn next to the head so people would see it.
The next challenge was at mile 24 or 25. First we had to climb a big oak tree to retrieve 2 arrows.
Then the archery test. We only got 5 practice shots with our bow then had to hit 3 out of 7. Getting the feel for it, I missed all five of my practice shots. But I could tell my bow was good enough. I hit 3 out of 4 during the test. I was so excited. I was literally jumping up and down with a huge grin on my face when I made each hit of the target. Next we had to do a distance shooting test and shoot 3 out of 7 arrows into this range about 50 yards away. That one went great and I received my third medal which read “DID”.
By this point it was well into the evening and the idea of doing another 50k loop seemed more and more insane. Time cutoffs were becoming a real concern. And word was getting around wondering if anyone would start on the second 50k loop. But as ultras have taught me, you just have to take it one step at a time. You can’t worry about later until you get there. The next task was to build a travois, load it with 120 lbs. worth of rocks in bags, and drag it 2.5 miles. I got working on my travois.
As I was building it I saw several other people finish theirs and give up on pulling it before getting 20 yards. I was determined though. I finished it as it was getting dark and started pulling that thing down the dirt road. I could pull it 50-100 feet then I would have to stop to rest. I turned on my headlamp and started to dig deep but with each pulling session my spirits sank more and more. I was realizing it was impossible. And I felt that if I didn’t complete the challenge there would be no way I would technically ‘complete’ the race. I pulled onward and only made it maybe 1/3 mile. I ran into Zach the photographer and he recommended ditching it and trying to make the approaching time cut off. Giving up on it felt so wrong. The momentum I had built all day by completing so many of the other obstacles felt like it was crashing down along with my emotional state. I finally accepted that I would have to abandon the challenge after spending a long time building and pulling that thing.
Free of the travois I was determined to make up some ground quickly. The cool night air was refreshing and my disappointment turned into a determination to run fast. As I was running I was following a set of tracks of a travois. The trail turned into a narrow winding rocky single track going up a hill. I was amazed that anyone got their travois that far. I thought maybe it was Shane. I knew he was in the lead. I kept following it and eventually came upon Corrine still pulling her travois. I was blown away. I couldn’t believe it. What a badass. She pulled that thing so far. I kept my pace up running in the night. Seeing the trail I would have had to pull my travois through I was so glad I gave up when I did. It would have taken hours or been impossible. Maybe there is a more efficient travois technique but I didn’t know it.
After several miles in the dark I could tell the finish was near. I ran faster and ran into the finish line at the pavilion to cheering people. I was glad to be done. No one had started on the second loop and only Shane had made it before the 17 hour cutoff to head out on the second loop but decided not to go out. Josue dropped everyone in the 100k to the 50k. I learned that I needed 6 out of 7 beads to get the final “NOT” medal. I only had 5 beads. If that wobbling rock I hit with the stick would have fallen over I would have gotten my 6th bead… But what-ifs and hind site don’t change the past. I was beat and satisfied. My medals read “I DID FAIL” One of the slogans for the race was ‘you will not finish’. And Josue was right. No one finished the 100k. Though it felt good to technically have finished the 50k, and in 6th place. Though, I didn’t ‘complete’ the race. It took me 17 hours and 53 minutes.
That sealed it. I am addicted. Josues Survival Runs are taking things into a whole new realm. I’m so excited to see where it goes. At this point I don’t think I can miss the next Survival Run which is the Fuego y Agua Survival Run in Nicaragua in February.
There is so much more story to tell but I’ve already told you way more than you probably wanted to read anyway. I didn’t even get into how amazing and great all the other participants were. I feel like I’m part of a unique new tribe of people just as crazy as I am. I am honored to have gotten the chance to run with you all. Congrats to Shane McKay on being the winner and only one to ‘complete’ the Survival Run, to Steff for 3rd place overall in the ultra event, to Shawn for placing 3rd in the Survival Run, to Tom of Luna Sandals for placing 2nd in the Men’s division in the ultra, to Tyler and Gabi on getting their first bow drill fires, to Corinne for being a badass, to Christian for finishing the Survival Run in possibly the most unique Luna sandals ever made, and to all the other runners! There are too many great accomplishments to name them all. Thanks to Josue, Zac, Brad, Amanda, Sam Coffman, and all the volunteers for rocking it and putting on a great event. Well done!
See you in Nica,