The Jungle Marathon 2010, Flona Tapajos, Northern Brazil. 220kms, 6 stages, 82 competitors, 1 Amazon Jungle. Welcome to the jungle We got fun 'n' games We got everything you want…. In the jungle Welcome to the jungle Watch it bring you to your knees…. Welcome to the jungle It gets worse here everyday Ya learn ta live like an animal In the jungle where we play. Gun N Roses, Welcome to the Jungle (slightly abridged version…)
Tales from the Jungle Trail After 38 hours of planes, taxis, buses & boats our motley crew arrived at JM base camp. A little weary after the Conrad-esque journey up the Rio Tapajos, (especially Barney after he was forced to sleep on the hot
metal deck, under a sink, next to the engine room) but very excited about the beginning of our Amazon adventure!
After months of anticipation, nail biting, sheer panic and some training we had just but 2 days of final preparation for the race. It soon became clear there were some serious athletes amongst us. Andrew Bock, an American who was attempting to break the course record, a British Army team on Operation Jungle Running, Yoskiaki Ishihara, who at a sprightly 65 years of age and a veteran of 70 ultra marathons and over 200 marathons and is regarded as a God of Runners in Japan & Jonathan (Jay) Goss, who is 1 of only 7 people ever to complete the Arch to Arc triathlon. Then there was Barney & Iâ€Ś.. Enthusiastic as ever, but a touch less organized and not exactly in peak physical condition. We spent a lot of time convincing ourselves that 95% of the race was about grit, of which we had plenty, somewhere; well it had been there the last time we checkedâ€Ś. The first day was all about kit checks, medical check ups and escaping the brutal heat of the day in the local stream. The compulsory kit list included
hammocks, food, plasters, needles, knives, compasses and Vaseline.
It took several tries but eventually it all squeezed into my backpack ! The backpack that I was later to discover was actually designed for use by skiers. No wonder I was getting a few funny looks. Luckily for Barney & I we were made to look slightly less amateurish by one of fellow Japanese competitors who turned up with a bag of refined sugar as his food supply for the week. Admittedly he was a very slight chap in the first place, but a spoon full of sugar a day was not going to keep the doctor away. Next came the medical check up. Appropriately it was held in a shack with a tin roof during the midday heat. Great preparation for the hot conditions we were due to encounter out on the trail. Fortunately the Docs gave Barney & his â€˜athletesâ€™ heart the all clear. We were then left to settle
down into our hammocks to wile away the rest of the afternoon. The final pre race day was supposed to consist of Jungle Survival Training, the medical briefing and the pre race briefing. The less said about the former the better. It was a farce as the race organiser, Shirley, had disappeared for the day and the translation was left to a gentleman who’s command of the Queen’s English was somewhat limited and he clearly decided to edit out some of the advice being given by the local guides. The most confusing commentary was about the wild pigs, if you hear then coming you would have to climb at least a metre off the jungle floor or they would eat you. Marvellous be eaten by Babe’s Brazilian cousins or try to climb one of the thorn covered, snake and spider infested trees. I agreed with Barney that hoping for the best was the way forward. The medical briefing was simple ‘Drink (water) or Die’ ! Simple, but effective. The previous year 2 competitors had ignored this advice, cooked their brains and been evacuated to hospital. Following Doctors’ orders was even more important this year as it was the hottest and driest winter for 40 plus years.
There was nothing more to do except break into our supplies of freeze dried
dinners (yummy) and head to the hammocks. An eerie silence settled over the camp as each of us wondered what on earth had we got ourselves into. DAY 1 â€“ 15kms. 13 hill climbs, 1 river crossing & a swamp.
Blimey ! What an introduction to the Jungle. Near vertical climbs, followed equally steep descents, fierce heat and sapping humidity, vines, roots, tree stumps all waiting to trip you the moment your concentration lapsed. The biggest surprise for me was how sandy the jungle floor was. Great for getting into your shoes and sand papering your wet feet. The
second biggest surprise was that Barney actually looked like he was in pain. After nearly 20 years of hanging out together this was the first time he looked mildly ruffled, let alone admitted he was struggling. Luckily a rest stop in a river and a combo of nuts and rehydration salts saw him through. After just over 5 hours out on the trail we came into camp. It is worth nothing that 2 of the local runners completed the first day barefoot. Seems us Westerners are a bit soft.
Once in camp we learned a valuable lesson. Watch where the locals hung their hammocks. Sadly we had to learn the hard way as we hung ours over a nest of fire ants which then took every opportunity to attack our feet. It was also at this point that we realised that we had seriously undercatered. We were carrying barely enough food to provide 1,500 calories a day (the Docs reckoned we needed anywhere between 3,000 and 6,000) and that the prospect of a cuppa soup for breakfast was quite
depressing. Operation Crash Diet was set to begin, we were going to have to live off the fat we proudly stored in our beer bellies. Our thoughts of empty tummies were soon interrupted as one of the competitors collapsed at our feet and the medics sprang into action. 4 IV drips later he was still not in the clear and had to be evacuated to the medical boat to be stabilised. A worrying and sobering sight. I think we both went and got some extra water before heading to bed. DAY 2 – 25kms, 17 climbs, 5 river crossings & 4 swamps. Swamp day! We had a mixed morning. The good news was that last night’s patient had been successfully revived. What was a little more disconcerting was the run in with the deadly spider at breakfast…. Barney & I were just sitting there trying to enjoy our cuppa soups when the deadly spider came scampering towards us. We must have been tired as neither of us flinched until Youssef, a runner representing Palestine, intervened by squashing it. It certainly must have got my adrenaline pumping as I struck out on the trail at a furious pace, only stopping when a German runner spotted a sloth in the trees.
It proved to be equally as tough as the first day and the swamps were particularly large, deep and smelly. Never in a month of Sundays would I have thought I would be willing jump into a jungle swamp, but there I was, chest deep in swamp muck. Gross ! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2E0qJ5Lc1E&feature=player_embedded It was during this stage I began to realise the sinister ways of the race organiser. Whenever there was something good such as a river we could cool down in, was always followed by something bad like a swamp. The race is self styled as one of the toughest foot races in the world and boy she was determined to make sure it lived up its reputation. Unfortunately yet another competitor went down with heat exhaustion and had to be carried out of the jungle.
This was also the day amid the swamps that disaster almost struck for me twice. Firstly a very angry jungle wasp attacked and only missed the crown
jewels by an inch or so. There also followed a moment or 2 of paranoia that it could have been a spider bite…. Secondly whilst plunging into the first swamp, my foot slipped, and my knee twisted. Short, sharp pain quickly followed. Luckily a mild sprain, but then I still had almost 200kms to go ! At the next checkpoint the medical advice came in the form of ‘how about you try some Man Up’. Suitably admonished I pushed onto the end in just under 6 hours. Barney cruised in about an hour later looking remarkably fresh. At camp I made my first visit to the Docs to have one of my big toe nails cleaned up and strapped. I was going to lose it for sure. DAY 3 – 35kms, 24 climbs, 3 river crossings & 3 swamps. This was the day for me and a lot of my fellow competitors that the gravity of our task really set in. It was damn hot, even at 6.30am on the start line and although we were promised an easier day, there was the extra distance. The day got a lot tougher after some of the locals removed the trail markers in a couple of places. Consequently everyone got lost for varying degrees. Personally I took a 45 minute detour up & down a hill, which crushed my morale as the knee pain began to set in with avengence. Morale was further dampened by some unhelpful advice from one of the volunteers, ‘only 20 minutes to the next checkpoint lads’. What he neglected to mention was it was only 20 minutes if one had jet boots on and a following wind. Almost an hour later we fell upon the checkpoint in less than good humour. Once we came out of the canopy the course took us through some villages, but without the tree cover the sun beat down on me remorselessly, making for a very lonely 15kms to the day’s finish line. It took over 8 hours to complete the stage and Barney another an hour to follow me in. Once cleaned up, well relatively, it was time to have the Docs look at my growing collection of blisters. I was offered some treatment options, lance & dress or use Friars’ Balsam to seal the blister. The Docs warned it would sting, but apparently the SAS use it. Not wanting to lose face I went for the Friars. What an error. I believe Friars should be added to the UN’s list of WMDs. It felt like someone injected red-hot chilli acid into my foot. Dumb as I am I let them do it twice more, whilst swearing under my breath never again.
DAY 4 â€“ 24kms & 1 river swim. After the lows of yesterday we were glad to get going. A mere 24kms on a fairly flat course, but only once we had swam the river. It appears the only advantage of the heat this year was that the river was very low, so the swim was a lot shorter than usual. Another day largely out of the jungle canopy and under the brutal sun. Luckily we came upon the finish a lot sooner than expected after 4 and half hours, with Barney very close behind.
With the stage complete and post a cooling dip in the river all that was left was to contemplate the â€˜Long Dayâ€™. It was very much the quiet before the storm. We wondered around camp, laughing nervously, swapping food and trying to catch some rest. It was amazing how morale boosting a bag of wine gums can be.
DAY 5 â€“ The Long Day. 89kms, 31 climbs, 1 river swim, 5 river crossings & the fabled Dark Zone ! 6.15am and all the competitors were raring to jump into the river. We had to get to checkpoint 4 before 3.30pm to have to avoid camping in the jungle overnight under armed guard. The high concentration of jaguars meant it would simply be too dangerous to be out on the trail in the dark. It was only 31kms, but the course was littered with the toughest climbs yet, nigh on vertical with few foot holds. Youssef, our Palestinian hero, broke his ankle; meanwhile David from Israel collapsed from heat exhaustion all within those few kms. Steve, the totally barmy Irishman, twisted his ankle badly, but ran on regardless.
Not only was the course tough, but my knee had deteriorated to the point where at checkpoint 3 I was forced to take start taking a cocktail of painkillers to just keep walking. My task was made easier when I came across
Davey, a sports physio, at checkpoint 4 who kindly strapped my knee. In the company of Wes we forced a good pace regardless and got through the cut off with 90 minutes to spare. There were indeed 2 jaguar spottings later, including one by Phil, a young English runner, actually on the trail. Once through checkpoint 4 we emerged from the jungle onto sandy jungle roads.
It was always pleasant when one of the enormous logging trucks passed by and coated us in a layer of warm sandy grit ! Checkpoint 5 was a massive morale booster. We were almost halfway and the crew were fantastic, helping us cook up some food, filling our water bottles, and constantly smiling. Wes & I left in good spirits and trudged onwards. As dark closed in the more wildlife came out, with plenty of spider sightings on the road alongside other creepy crawlies.
As the night dragged on so the blisters grew worse requiring running repairs at several checkpoints. Indeed at checkpoint 7 we were joined by a French runner whose foot was more blister than actual foot, with what looked like blood & gunk oozing from it. I assume he had the same painkillers I did as he kept pace with us almost until the finish. Morale was flagging until we fell upon checkpoint 8 where the angels present offered us a cup of hot coffee. Did it count as outside assistance ? Did I care ? Not really. It was fabulous ! Again I have to tip my hat to the race organiser, Shirley. She sat their grinning, full of encouragement, â€˜only 25kms to go and itâ€™s flat with a nice beach run. What a pack of lies. As soon as we left the checkpoint we had to swim a river and wade through another, then hike across soft sand. Take sore, swollen feet, soak thoroughly, then add fine sand, the perfect combination for blisters.. My feet were being cheesegrated. So much for the course being easy, the last 25kms were
brutal, the soft sand sapping the little energy had left and the course so poorly marked it took all your concentration just to find the way. Wes & I were in firm agreement that Shirley was indeed a devious woman, amongst other things. Finally, after just over 20 hours, we crossed the stage finish line and staggered into our hammocks, with a barely a word between us such was our exhaustion.
Barney joined us just over 2 hours later, pretty much collapsing where he dropped his pack having walked the last 10kms in his Crocs due to the cheesegrating his feet were taking from the sand.
DAY 6 – Rest Day. Camp was more like a scene from M.A.S.H. Bodies lying everywhere, people groaning in pain and a 3 hour wait to see the Docs (that’s if they weren’t called way to deal with an emergency). After a fitful sleep I was enjoying a hot chocolate when cries of ‘Medico, Medico’ rang out. I hobbled over as quickly as I could to find Barney face down in the sand. Apparently he had collapsed and then started convulsing. Although the Docs said this was classic heat exhaustion I am not sure it wasn’t related to the fact that he had worn his shorts 24 hours a day for a week. Surely they were cutting off the blood supply to the torso. Thankfully he managed to avoid an IV drip, although there were 4 others that did need them. The Docs did trick Barney into trying out the Friars Balsam knowing that he was weak. The all too familiar swearing through gritted teeth followed… Nick, a fellow English runner, was surely the unluckiest man. Having completed the Long Day in a respectable time, it seemed he was suffering from heat exhaustion, but after IV drips, a bath in the local river he was still overheating. The Docs
evacuated him to the medical boat and later found that his blisters had gotten so badly infected he was racked with a raging fever. Impromptu feet operations followed and sadly his race was over. It was also that night I had my sense of humour failure, lying in my hammock, covered in sand and dirt, slowly cooking in the sticky heat of the night, my knee and feet throbbing and some noisy locals chattering at full volume just yards away at 1am it was almost too much to bear. The last of the runners did not get into camp till 11pm that night. Massive kudos to them to keep going for all that time.
DAY 7 â€“ 33kms, soft sand & 3 river crossings. It was hard to believe it, but almost all the competitors had made it to the last day. Some had required almost 3 hours of blister care the previous day, some IVâ€™s, some were running on just sheer will. Several needed to improvise to get their feet back into their shoes. It looked more like it was going to be a sponsored hobble than a foot race.
But there were still plenty of smiles at the start line. Barney even managed a sprint start to briefly take the lead.
It might have been another 33kms under the baking sun to the finish, but they flew by (relatively). In typical JM fashion the finish line was preceded by some deep soft sand and 2 sets of stairs to totally drain the exhausted runners. But we had made it !!!!!
I completed the 220kms in 48 & a half hours in 21st place, a mere 17 hours behind the winner, & Barney in 55 & a half hours in 30th place.
What an incredible Adventure.
All that remained after some well earned cold beverages was to catch the various planes, trains and automobiles back to Hong Kong. I think my feet have filed for divorce, my toe nail is a lovely purple green colour and my knee is a tad swollen, but otherwise everything seems in working order. It sure did make for a tough first day at the new office next morning.
Honourable mentions. Barney for his constant good humour and for his great friendship. The medical team. All complete heroes ! Totally un PC, extremely entertaining, always smiling and the always willing to treat our blister & dirt covered smelly feet. Hats off to a job incredibly well done.
Cosmo Cardozo for his camera work, his virtuoso piano playing in the MOMA in SP and his constant encouragement/enthusiasm. The Amazon for being just as magnificent as I had hoped for. I hope others will be able to appreciate its true beauty and its ruthless efficiency in trying to eat us. Worst outfit – Barney’s micro perma shorts. I believe they have been donated to medical science once they were surgically removed. Race highlight (aside from crossing the finish line) seeing a baby monkey on day 3. Best quote – Danish Bryan, tree surgeon extrordinaire with the chainsaw scars to prove it, about the Long Day “I couldn’t feet my feet for the last 10kms, so I just went for it.” Thanks to you all (well those you have managed to read this far) for all your support and encouragement. Looking forward to next year’s challenge. Maybe after some laurel resting and a massive steak. Hasta luego. Robbie