Jungle Ultra - Andes to the Amazon
“Welcome to the jungle, we’ve got fun and games” Axl Rose warbled 24 years ago. I find out that the jungle does indeed have fun and games. By "fun" I mean “ridiculous muddy hills” and "games," “biting ants everywhere” …
Beyond the Ultimate have been running the 230k Jungle Ultra for a few years. Now under a new Race Director, I headed out to Peru to see what it was like compared to running through a desert.
The premise is very similar to a lot of multistage ultras; participants are required to carry everything they need to survive the week apart from water. This means all food, sleeping bag, hammock, and quite a large medical kit. If the Marathon des Sables taught me anything, it was to pack light. I was extremely strict with my packing, and pretty pleased when it weighed in at 6.7kg (without water). Little did I know the weight of my pack would be the least of my worries in the next few days…
Cusco, Peru. We are required to meet outside a hotel at 6am joining our fellow runners to be transported deep into the jungle. The jungle here would be the expansive Manu National Park. Cusco is around 11,200ft up and I had been worried about how the altitude would affect me. So far, nothing.
As we bumped and jolted our way over the Andes we gained another 1000ft enjoying a minibus ride that you only get on holidays. The ones that go perilously close to cliff edges and overtake lorries on blind corners. 6 hours later we arrive at “Cloud Forest” camp for the night, so high, it’s above the clouds. Here we get a race briefing benefiting from a glorious view of the landscape that awaits us.
Day 1 Cloud 9 – Today involves lots of downhill from our 12,000ft elevation. You can jump out of a plane, deploy a parachute, and land safely at 10,000ft. Shaun and I decided to take the day relatively conservatively. It's a good multistage strategy, and it will also preserve our quads. With water my pack felt too heavy. The second I started running I felt immediately, breathlessly, knackered. The altitude hurt. Within 3K we were in jungle. It wasn’t so bad! Little did I know that, unlike any multistage ultras done previously, this one gets harder and harder with each day. This is not purely the fatigue, each stage is technically more difficult than the previous one. I fell over really hard about 2K from the end of the race and was quite badly cut and bruised. Later as I lay in my hammock hearing the rain hammering and weird jungle sounds all around us (we tethered our rucksacks down to stop monkeys making off with our stuff) I was knackered with just one day done. I pondered my sanity, what lay ahead and indulged myself in the fantasy that I had in fact broken my arm when I fell, and thus would not have to run the next day.
The next day… Day 2 - Amazonia. I was genuinely worried about the day ahead. It was 33K of a lot of jungle. If the previous day had a lot of road and not much jungle this one would surely wipe me out. It was this day that we really learnt the extent of what we had let ourselves in for. Thick jungle needed to be ducked, climbed and weaved through. Rivers got a little deeper to cross. Hills became a little steeper. Mud got a little more slippery. Ants, more bitey. For a 4K stretch it was pretty much just controlled falling over and the descents got harder to negotiate underfoot. Today the mercury and humidity rose as we came closer to the amazon basin. By the end of the stage we were exposed to direct sun in fields. Here Shaun began to feel extremely unwell. Unbeknown to us, it was a terrible sign of what lay ahead.
Day 3 – The day my race changed. The hammock was (still) surprisingly comfortable. Despite a nearby cock crowing ALL NIGHT, and the daily dread, I woke up feeling quite good. Today we would be tackling many paths that have been made by logging vehicles. These leave a slippery middle ridge, and deep, smelly water filled trenches either side. We were warned if you fell into the trenches it wouldn’t be very pleasant. Today was the first zip-wire across the river, which was bloated from the rain. Shaun had received some treatment the previous evening, but as we set off it became clear he was in trouble. He was extremely hot, then extremely cold, and sweating profusely. This was a sign his body had stopped being able to regulate his core temperature and can escalate dangerously if untreated. The check points in this race are manned by doctors, but far apart. He decided to stop at CP1 and was immediately attended to by the brilliant Exile Medic team.
I went on alone.
Smelly bogs and mud were followed up by a road climb to the finish. “5k! up a hill!” I was told. 7K and couple of thousand foot later, sad about Shaun, I had had enough. I wanted to quit. Feeling feeble, I just didn’t want to go on. Unfortunately the next place I would be able to hand my number in was the finish line. I focused on seeing Shaun clapping me over the line and pulled myself together enough to make it. Shaun was not there. He arrived an hour later in the company of the doctors and was immediately put on 2 large drips and treated for several more hours. Seeing him like this, knowing this race had been a real goal of his, that he was in a much worse place than me, I knew there was only one thing to do. To finish it for us.
Day 4 – Company in the mud. A delayed start due to a deluge. RD Kris had to check the safety of the route; if it was too dangerous we would get a shortened route. I prayed for the shortened route. A couple of hours later we had the all clear for the full route. But were warned to be extremely careful on a large landslip. A cut off time would operate. Those who missed it would have do the short route. Today I decided to let the race begin. It helped give me a positive focus. I had been hovering around 3rd lady, and if I was to continue, it needed to be worth it, knowing my performance was my best. I lost sight of the leading lady, but fell into step with Jacks Manson, a brilliant New Zealand runner. Together we tackled the relentless terrain. Today was a tough one to run in pouring rain. It was great to have company. A lot of water crossings and slip-sliding around in the mud ensued. We kept each other chipper as we could in the increasingly tricky conditions. The finale was a “King/Queen of the Hill” segment race. Here Jacks wanted to have a go, I cheered and hollered as she sped off ahead of me. My legs were just about managing to keep going. What followed was the worse 4K climb of my life. Up and up and up and up. Each time it seemed like the top, it was instead a sharp turn left or right, and more of a climb. The mud was so slippery it was like trying to climb directly up on ice. Once again the point came where I just didn’t care anymore and wanted to DNF. Once again there was no one to take my number from me as the next stop was the finish line.
Upon arrival at camp I fell asleep on the floor feeling dreadful. Food had been an issue for me for last few days and this was crunch time. If I didn’t eat there was no way tomorrow’s long stage would happen. Medics gave me anti-sickness pills and told me to eat. Between Jacks and myself we had both come in 3rd lady on 2 days each. If I wanted a result, tomorrow had to count.
Day 5 – 70k journey to my limit. I cried quietly to myself standing in the dark of the start line. Not a crier, this is the first time in all my running that a race had made me cry, either out of either joy or frustration, or in this case, dread. 5am start and again a cut off time for CP4 (shorter course option for those who did not make it). We were in a tiny, very remote town called Pilcopata and despite the early start, what looked like the entire population was out cheering and clapping us. This was the first time we had seen people along the route and coupled with miles of flattish terrain it warmed my heart and lifted my spirits enormously. At 8 miles began the river crossing section. For the next 8 miles the course took us back and forth over a river, which was at times up to my neck. Wet rocks underfoot and a current which tugged me and my rucksack. At one point I got swept upriver. “Watch out for the Caiman!” ringing in my ears I freaked out. Swimming back to the route I waited until a fellow runner caught up and stuck with them for several miles. It had taken me 4 hours to cover 15 miles. More flat saw me into the foot of the last big climb. The cut off had been made. One climb came between me and 10K of road to the finish line. No way it could be as bad as the previous day? It was. What followed was 4,000ft straight up in 5k of mud. After 4000ft of climb - a 4000ft descent so steep and perilous I fell over over 30 times. You end up grabbing plants that have biting insects on them, or thorns, or just snap as they are rotten. The second you hit the deck you get covered in biting ants. They get into your clothes, your hair, stick to you. After a 29 minute mile the DNF Demons returned in full force and I just wanted it all to end. It did. Of course it did. If you keep going the finish line only gets nearer. Once, finally, on the road I knew the end was at last in sight.
The road wound on until finally I saw someone clapping me, it was Shaun “Only 500m!”
I was almost delirious crossing the line. Hugged by RD Kris and immediately handed a beer. It was done. The toughest race of my life so far.
It took me a few days to figure out why this hurt so much. My performance was ok (I did manage 3rd lady and was 5 minutes outside of the top 10), but I found it so terribly hard. The terrain was tough, no doubt about it. But never before have I been so tortured by the urge to stop from so very early in a race. It pushed me mentally beyond anything. Beyond the pain of the 100 miler, beyond the dry fatigue of the Marathon des Sables, the mental monotony of 12 hours on a treadmill. Never have I been tormented by DNF demons for so long. They never left me alone. I was alone with them for so many hours. The scenery was staggering, the fellow runners a sublime, wondrous, funny, group bonded by this extreme race, the race well organised, the race director fantastic, the medics reassuring.
I came to realise it hurt so much as I was so very afraid the whole time. Before I even packed for it, the race terrified me. When Shaun had to stop, the thought of going it alone was so frightening, I had no faith in myself that it could be done alone. It constantly felt like the race was tougher than me.
The lesson learnt is one of the fundamental lessons of running. It turns out that above everything, all you need is to believe that you can do it. Believe and it can be done.
And when it's done, it is of course worth it all.
Thank you to Beyond the Ultimate, true to your tag line, Nothing is Tougher. Exile Medics for looking after Shaun and being all round jolly good eggs, Kris King, (sorry for the histrionics) and of course Shaun – I’ll do anything to impress you.
Photos by Mikkel Beisner. More photos can be seen here