Survival racer faces ultimate island challenge

Local man braves 75-kilometre endurance race on volcanic island in Nicaragua

Invermere's Shane McKay

Invermere's Shane McKay

An Invermere man who challenged fate in one of the most rugged and daunting adventure races on Earth has returned home with a story of courage, determination and perseverance.

Shane McKay, who is currently ranked 16th out of close to 8,000 athletes in the sport of Spartan obstacle course racing, signed up for Nicaragua’s 75-kilometre Fuego Y Agua Survival Run after learning about the event through friends in October 2012.

“I started thinking about it at that point, but 75 kilometres is a huge jump for me,” Shane said. “I wasn’t sure if I would be ready.”

The race was held on the island of Ometepe, which is located in the centre of Lake Nicaragua — known for being one of the only locations of freshwater sharks on earth and the largest lake in Central America.

Shane signed up for the race and had 30 days to back out. When the 30 days had expired and Shane’s race plans were solidified, the next challenge became training. The athlete practiced his endurance by snowshoeing to the summits of both Panorama and Mount Norquay, but the steamy jungles of Ometepe would sink the athlete deeper into dehydration and fatigue than any snowdrift faced in the backcountry.

“For a race like this you should be preparing for it six months out and tapering as you get close to the race,” he said. “I knew I didn’t have enough time to prepare properly, so I decided I should just try it out and see what happens.”

With the looming challenge of Ometepe dominating his mind like the two volcanoes that rose from Lake Nicaragua to form the island, Shane left for Nicaragua on February 7th and landed in its capital city, Managua, 13 hours later. With a week to acclimatize to the 30 C heat and sweltering humidity, the local man learned that many of the obstacles and challenges he would face during the race were inspired by local life on Ometepe.

When race day approached on February 16th, Shane found himself sharing a start line with 50 other competitors at 4 a.m. The competitors were comprised of ultra-marathon racers and obstacle course veterans.

“I was totally relaxed at the start gate,” he said. “I had no idea what was coming up, but I had 20 hours to cover 75 kilometres.”

Just before the race began, a truck pulled up to the starting line loaded with chickens. The organizers instructed each participant that they were required to carry the animal to the next checkpoint unharmed, or face disqualification.

“I had read somewhere that if you cover a chicken’s head it will relax because it can’t see what is going on,” Shane explained. “I had a handkerchief and put it over my chicken’s head and she relaxed.”

The racer had to negotiate culverts, ditches and fences in the dark while carrying a chicken to the next checkpoint. Despite the daunting challenge of hen-tending, racers were also forced to remember a sequence of colours over 12 kilometres in order to receive aid at their next station.

“The first one I remembered, because you are just running the numbers through your mind the whole time, which kind of takes your mind off everything else.”

Although he received aid and was making good progress, the athlete would find a less than welcoming reception at the chicken drop-off station.

“You come out on one of the main roads and there are a dozen police officers accusing you of stealing the chicken, so they put you in handcuffs,” Shane said laughing. “We had to run 10-12 kilometres through obstacles wearing handcuffs.”

Although labeled a jungle jailbird, Shane was able to fly over obstacles with the help of his partner Bev Watson, who used her experience as a 15-year triathlon veteran to mix up the perfect potion of carbohydrates, calories and electrolytes for the competitor during the race.

“We had packages of Carbo-Pro and we determined I would probably have to have 200 calories every hour and a certain amount of electrolytes and salt packages that I would carry in my pack.”

No amount of pre-mixed drink pouches were going to get Shane up the next obstacle: a 25-foot climb up a tree without branches and any grip on its bark.

“I thought it would be a showstopper for a lot of people in the run, but as it turned out more than 50 per cent of people completed the climb.”

With scars on his feet from the exertion, Shane still had to summit Maderas, a 1,394-metre volcano with a lake in its crater and a frightening challenge waiting. An attendant met each racer and instructed them that on a raft in the middle of the lake, which was invisible from the station, there would be an egg that racers would have to return to the station unbroken.

“It is at night and it is dark in the crater of a volcano,” he said. “I asked how far it was and they responded, “When you are halfway there, you will see the glow sticks on the raft.”

Although the water of the lake was less than a metre deep, the muddy bottom could easily sink a swimmer over their head, Shane added.

“Anything could happen out there and they didn’t seem to have enough support to watch for stuff like that,” he said. “I wasn’t concerned about the swim; I was more worried about something grabbing me.”

After having completed 65 kilometres of the race and all but one of the challenges, Shane and a group of competitors were told to stand down and wait for a group of runners experiencing health problems. The racer later learned that there was a communication error between attendants.

“What the organizers had actually said was, ‘Let the people that finish the obstacle go and then wait for the other people and then all go down together,’”he said. “We were disappointed that we didn’t get a chance to finish the race, but at that point I thought I was pretty lucky to be where I was.”

In the end, only two competitors were able to complete the Fuego Y Agua Survival Run. Shane and his group received free admission to next year’s event, which the endurance racer already has plans to attend.


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