Written by Peter Wright - http://peterwrightblog.tumblr.com/
Back in 2007, around the time of the birth of my first child Joshua, I completed my first ever road marathon. It had been one hell of a journey to get there, littered with constant aborts (not even getting to start line) due to injury. Fortunately, and with the aid of an amazing physio called Lisa Mann, I was able to get it done.
Fast forward to 2011, around the time of the birth of my second child Leila, and I had piled on the baby weight. It came to a head one day at work when I was forced to carve a new notch in my belt. In reaction, I needed a target, so I entered the London marathon again. I completed it, and had a shocker of a day, but was able to draw on sufficient mental strength and doggedness to get it done.
What came next was interesting, when I was persuaded to enter the 2013 Marathon des Sables.
Initially, I had plenty of doubt as to whether I was capable of doing it, but set about the task with dedication to training and smashing out PBs for various distances during the build up. I also entered the land of the Ultra, completing events such as Druids, Pilgrims and Country to Capital. By this time I was hooked on such events, due to the sheer challenge and the amazing people I met during them.
During the beginning of MDS I probably didn’t believe in myself enough, and held back a little too much, being very much risk adverse to the heat. However, this changed as the event progressed, and I was very happy with an eventual top half finish and a great performance on the long day. It was an epic experience, shared with amazing people, and one I would wholly recommend.
Towards the end of 2013 I reflected on what had been a life-changing year, and decided I definitely needed more of the same. More targets were needed, and they had to be tougher, capable of testing the mind to its limits. 100-mile events were somewhat iconic and appealed to me, so from late 2013 to August 2014, I completed the Winter 100, Lakeland 100 and Ultra trail du Mont Blanc. I should probably add that I wouldn’t recommend doing the latter two so close together!
Picking the Jungle Marathon
In 2014, a good friend planted the idea of the 2015 Jungle marathon, a six-stage multi-day event taking place in the Amazon rainforest - think MDS, only in the jungle. I had a lifelong ambition to visit the Amazon, so figured why not combine it with running. So, that was 2015′s target well and truly fixed.
In terms of events, the end of 2014 became a bit of a write-off when I suffered tendonitis, which kept me out of action until March 2015. I had probably overdone it in 2014, so the rest was much-needed. It also meant I had to withdraw from the Spine race 2015, which was annoying. However, I was persuaded by Steve on New Years Day to enter the Dragons Back, which was in June 2015. This was perfect timing for me, as it would give me time to recover from injury and get ready for the event. It would also, in theory, put me in great shape for the Jungle event.
Unfortunately, in May I went through a very difficult time and found myself out of work for the first time since leaving school. I decided Dragons Back was still a good idea, and would be the solution in rebuilding my self-esteem. What better that a glorious multi-day ( and bloody tough, at that) ultra event.
How wrong I was, when I decided to DNF at the end of day 1.
Outwardly, I blamed the recurrence of the injury for the DNF, which was causing some discomfort. In truth, it was a convenient excuse. The real issue was that my head simply wasn’t in the game, and in my experience such events are probably more about mental strength than physical. The one day I did complete was very tough, and I am looking to going back one day.
Time always heals though, and with the support of my amazing wife we refocused on the Jungle marathon. I say ‘we’ at this point because she knows what makes me tick, and she helped me get back in the game for this event.
The next few months were dedicated to getting as ready as I could, and with a month to go I had a good confidence-building run with Steve at the Snowdonia 50 event, which again I would wholly recommend.
I was now ready for the Jungle.
After a long journey from Jersey - which involved six different flights - we finally arrived in Santarem, Brazil. From there, we took a taxi to the small town of Alter de Chao, which was where we would be boarding the boat to the Jungle. We spent the day chilling in the town, enjoying a few beers, eating, swimming and anticipating the forthcoming event. We also met fellow competitors Simon and Joel, who were from the UK and Spain respectively.
At around 9pm we were allowed to board the boat (on a very unsteady plank) and join the hustle and bustle in finding a suitable spot to hang our hammocks. We would be on this boat for the next 11-12 hours, so a few hours sleep in the would be necessary. Sensibly, we positioned ourselves right near the noisy engine, so that evening’s sleep was not the best!
The boat eventually left at around midnight, so there was a bit of time for a couple more beers. Also, we made our way back into the town centre of Alter de Chao, where we indulged in a bit of people-watching in what looked like a very tight-knit community.
We woke up at around 6am, and we had a small planned stop at a sand split in the middle of the Tapajos river, where we were told that there was an opportunity to see pink dolphins. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any, but we took the opportunity to stretch our legs and have a swim.
At around 8am we boarded the boat and continued on with the journey, and by 10am we arrived in our base camp destination, which would be our home for today and Saturday.
Upon arriving we were warmly greeted by the local villagers, including many school children who sang songs and held ‘Welcome’ banners.
We were then shown to a wooded enclosure near the village, and found a suitable location to tie our hammocks. Steve and I initially targeted a very dead-looking tree, before deciding that it would probably be a good idea to switch location, lest we plummet to the ground in the early hours!
Despite our considered preparation, I had a minor bed-related disaster when one rope pretty much snapped at one end of my hammock. Luckily, and with the help of Steve, gaffer tape (borrowed from Mark) and spare rope (provided by Shirley), we were able to come up with a solution which would prove strong enough for the rest of event.
The rest of the day was spent hanging out and getting to know our fellow competitors. It was easy to strike up conversation, and I found everyone very relaxed and sociable. Steve and I were camping close to Mark, Will and Sarah, and we also got to know fellow UK competitors Brook and Andy. Once the hammocks were up, we had the mandatory kit checks, medical checks, and went down to the beach to collect our race numbers.
As would prove normal throughout the event, bedtime was at sunset, which was around 7pm. There was little point staying up beyond this point, since you would invariably get bitten by something. The Hennessy hammocks were very comfortable, the trick being to lie diagonally across the hammock. I found that I was waking up frequently during the night, but easily drifted off again. As thought, a silk liner was more than sufficient in terms of warmth, and most of the time I didn’t even need that!
The following morning started with the race briefing, which included a detailed presentation, safety information and practical demonstrations by the Bombeiros (Army).
The practical demos mainly consisted of survival techniques, but I also had the opportunity to hold a boa constrictor, which had been captured by the Bombeiros a couple of days before. I’d never held a snake before, but the correct technique was demonstrated, and it proved to be easy enough.
Earlier that day, Mike (from Canada) had enraged this same boa when he was invited to pick it up during the initial presentation. Having not been informed about the correct way to pick it up, he did so a tad too aggressively, resulting in the boa going absolutely nuts. Mike did very well to control that situation, and fortunately by now the boa was slightly more docile.
After lunch, Steve and I explored the local area surrounding the village, and located the beginning of the race course. We decided to do a 30-minute out-and-back exploration, which included a nice 10-minute lung-buster of a hill at the beginning. That would be fun the next day with a 14kg pack in tow!
Also, we had our first exposure to the dangers of this new environment. While we were enjoying cooling off in the river, one competitor was stung by a sting-ray. It looked bad initially, but he was fine after good treatment from both the medics and the locals. The same guy went on to win the race, so there must be something in these stings!
Later that day, we had the final medical briefing, were given the opportunity for Q&A, and then dropped our luggage bags on the boat. From this point onwards it would be all about self sufficiency, and we would need to survive with what we had decided to pack in our race packs.
The rest of the day was spent chilling, socialising and anticipating. I couldn’t wait for tomorrow to start - this adventure had been two years in the making!
The Race Begins
Sunday – Stage 1, Distance 23km
The race notes described this as ‘A short, sharp shock to the system. This stage gives you a taste of everything the jungle can throw at you’.
Shirley mentioned at the previous night’s briefing that this would be a very difficult stage, and the day did not disappoint in this respect.
As planned, I started the race with Steve. We’re good pals, and generally run at a similar pace, so we figured that it would be good to try and do this event together. That said, we were both here to run our own races, and since we were facing so many unknowns we knew this may not be the case.
To CP1 we were looking at 5km, and it started with a steep jungle climb over trail, followed by some very runner-friendly jungle trails. Steve and I were soon turning our ankles inside and out, Steve probably more than me, so we cut out the excitable chatter and focused on getting to CP1 ankles intact. It was unforgiving terrain, with vines, roots and pot holes everywhere. In addition, there were sharp branches and razor sharp plants. You needed your wits about you, and concentration was key.
At CP1 there was a creek which we were encouraged to get in and cool off. For the first two days, a mandatory 15-minute rest had been enforced at all checkpoints, with the aim of helping competitors and ensuring they looked after themselves. So at this CP I just jumped in the creek and cooled down with many others.
Then it was on to CP2, where we encountered our first swamp and I quickly lost my left leg thigh-high in swamp. Steve then targeted a good route through, so I just followed his lead. After careful negotiation we passed through it. So far, so good.
CP2 to CP4 was mostly jungle trails with a few brutal climbs thrown in. Upon leaving CP2 we soon encountered a particularly brutal steep climb. As we reached the summit Steve asked where my water bottles were. Shit. I had one of those flashback moments, and realised I had left them at CP3. What a prize tit.
My first thought would be that I would have to descend back to CP2 and repeat the ascent. Race rules state you need 2.5 litres of capacity on you, but as luck would have it I had my bladder in my pack, along with side soft flasks, so I had more than enough water and capacity to get to CP3, which was the village of Takura. All I would need to do here is switch to a different water strategy for today. The race organisers were concerned on my arrival at CP3, but I was able to assure them I was suitably hydrated and okay for the rest of the day. Fortunately, at the end of the day’s stage I was able to retrieve my bottles.
Having front bottles was key for me so that the race pack weight would be more evenly distributed. In addition, I found the benefit of front bottles was that you always knew how much capacity you had left, so it made water management a whole lot easier.
Upon reaching CP4 I was certainly feeling the effects of the combined heat and humidity. I was very appreciative of the 15-minute mandatory stop, and inside I knew it was time to calm things down slightly until the finish. I knew I had not been getting enough water in, so this was something I would need to pay more attention to moving forward. Salt-wise, the trusty S caps were going in every 30 minutes, and given that I sweat a lot this was entirely necessary. At around CP4 I had a chat with Steve, and we decided to do our own things. I was struggling to keep up with him, and he certainly looked like he was acclimatising better than me.
I found the final push to the end of this day’s stage difficult. I was starting to struggle, and even when trying to hold back I was going slower than I wanted. It was like hitting the 18-20 mile wall of a road marathon. To me, it felt like a tight blanket of pure heat, and quite claustrophobic. On the plus side, my feet felt good, and everything physically was in working order. It was going to be a simple case of allowing my body to acclimatise to this new and very alien environment. In addition, this was only stage 1 and for multi-day events I knew from previous experience that consistency would be key.
Local children greeted me before the end of the stage, and I was able to run over the line with them, which was uplifting and a great way to finish.
Upon arriving at the end of the stage it was the usual drill, assuming you finished in daylight and actually had time to tick all the boxes, which were as follows:
· Get complementary juice from Shirley
· Find camp and hang up hammock
· Take off race kit and switch to shorts/t-shirt
· Locate river and cool off while washing clothes
· Dry clothes by hanging on hammock
· Eat, socialise and send e-mails
· Get bag and kit ready for the following day
· Attend race briefing for following day
What was evident at this camp in particular was the amount of bullet ants that inhabited it. Nasty-looking things, I’d heard all about the effect of their stings, which rather aptly is meant to feel like being shot. Great care was definitely needed when walking around, and my trusty crocs were very necessary.
Hopefully, the sheer ugliness of them would scare the bullet ants away, but I feared not.
I managed to find Steve once I’d sorted myself out, and we explored camp and the local village. Back at the finish, we witnessed Will having a ‘hot shot’ on one of his blisters (more about hot shots later). Steve and I were hoping for man screams and good GoPro footage, but Will turned out to be hard as nails. I also managed to get my water bottles back - I would not be repeating that mistake again in a hurry!
At the end of the day, and during the race brief, Shirley assured us that the following day would be easier, but that it would start with a river crossing. I’d been looking forward to the river crossings, so went to bed eagerly anticipating this.
Monday – Stage 2, Distance 24km
Today was billed as ‘Starting with a deep river crossing, and then entering the jungle for a mainly flat course. Care would be needed, since there were plenty of plants that stings and leaves that tear, and a huge amount of snakes’.
Fortunately, by the end of today I had seen none of the latter. However, the plants and leaves comment was bang on, relevant to all parts of the jungle.
Before the river swim, I decided to get my pack within a strong bin liner and attempt to swim across that way. Within my pack I had everything stored away in dry bags, so was confident that all contents would remain dry should the bin liner leak.
The race started, and It was all hustle and bustle getting in the water. I hadn’t done much in the way of swim training before the event, but figured it would be quicker to swim than use the rope. I was hopelessly wrong, and by two thirds of the way across I felt the energy I was expending on swimming wasn’t quite reaping the rewards in distance covered.
I then switched to using the rope provided. I was catching my breath big time the other side, and the crossing was tougher on the lungs than I thought it would be. I was with Steve, so we de-bagged and headed off into the jungle. However, I felt quite sick and fatigued from the start, and wanted to play today safe, so I encouraged Steve to push on ahead and run his own race.
With this particular event and terrain, you’ve got enough to concentrate on without any added pressure of playing catch-up or feeling bad about holding someone back. It was the right call, and we both knew it.
The day itself ended up being one of the easier days of the event. To the final checkpoint it was mostly jungle trail, but there were not many ascents, so it was relatively straightforward in keeping a consistent pace. That said, I did start to feel very tired again when the heat rose at around 10:30, so was once again feeling heavy-legged for the final hour of the stage.
Along the long and winding road to the finish I got chatting to a nice Belgian chap called Eric, and we were talking tactically about how we were both easing into the event. In truth, I didn’t feel like I was coping at all well, but the conversation put a positive spin on how I was feeling.
I made the finish round at 12-ish, which was a psychological boost and left plenty of time for the usual post-race routine and plenty of R&R. My feet were still in good shape, and once my body temperature cooled down I felt very good physically as well. Today, on recommendation from Jon in Guernsey (a previous competitor of the Jungle Marathon), I dug out a tomato cup a soup as a pre-dinner snack. It was absolute heaven in a cup.
I also found a trusty bag of biltong in my food sack, which I’d forgotten about, so I would be gnawing on that for the remainder of the race. Biltong proved a good alternative to some of the other snacks I had, so that was also a welcome boost.
I spent quite a bit of time with Steve and other competitors chilling in the river, and we also checked out the start of day 3, which would begin with another, slightly longer river crossing.
At sunset I retired to my hammock, knowing from Shirley’s briefing that we would be facing a tough day tomorrow with the toughest of the climbs during that stage. I felt positive in my mind and physically good as well. The only issue was getting used to the combined heat and humidity, and I really hoped I would feel more consistent tomorrow.
Tuesday – Stage 3, Distance 38km
The briefing notes stated that ‘You will have some killer climbs and descents, and you will be crossing a community with the highest population of jaguars, so be vigilant. Be ready for stream crossings, relentless hills and a nighttime to remember in our deep jungle campsite, where armed guards will try to keep the jaguars away. In this stage you will find the highest hills of the race.’
I liked the statement about being vigilant, and assumed my small penknife and newly acquired jungle sticks would be sufficient for this purpose. I also hoped the armed guards would try their hardest in terms of keeping things out of camp.
Today was the longest day so far, and for those who were recording distances some had it down as longer. The day turned out to be brutal, and very eventful.
The stage started with a river crossing, which for some reason I attempted in similar style to the previous day. This time the bin bag leaked, so I had the added weight of a soggy bag to contend with. Also, I couldn’t seem to swim in a straight line, and eventually one fellow competitor just shouted over “Why don’t you grab the bloody rope?” That was a good idea, and from that point on I would be using the ropes since it was far quicker and easier.
The contents of my bag on the other side were fine since they were in good dry bags. I threw away my split bin bag, and moved onto CP1 feeling decent enough. Today was the first day of non-enforced checkpoint stops, but I decided to take 10 minutes at CP1 for good order. I was glad, I did because the slog to CP2 was absolutely horrendous. It was up and down through the jungle all the way, and there really were some killer ascents and descents. The descents were equally tough because you really did have to grab hold of something to steady you, and that left you open to grabbing something you shouldn’t.
I felt stronger today and made it into CP2, certainly feeling the effort of the previous leg but coping very well. I left CP2 with a spring in my step, running and marching purposely in equal measure. Then, I encountered a slight problem.
Throughout the jungle trails there were often fallen trees to step over, climb under and climb over. Some were too high to climb over while being too low to effectively crouch under. In such situations it was hands and knees quickly again increasing the risk of bites of cuts. The particular tree approaching was a simple step over, but I decided to step on it and jump off. On landing my right ankle went straight into a pothole and my full body weight twisted right.
The agony was instant and extreme, and I had to grab a nearby branch to prevent myself toppling over. Luis, my Argentinian friend, was just behind me and was very concerned with what he had seen. Our communication methods were basic, but I assured him I needed to carry on and walk it off.
Inside I felt sick, since I could feel the fattening around the whole ankle. Thoughts of ‘DNF’ flashed through my mind, but I tried to cut out the negative thoughts and just focus on getting to the next checkpoint and speaking with the medics. That said, I didn’t want a decision to be taken out of my own hands, so would need to put a positive spin on that conversation when it happened.
The journey to CP3 was depressing since in my head I knew this wasn’t a routine twist. At this moment in time, I realised just how much this event meant to me, and how badly I wanted - and needed - to finish it. The eventual arrival into CP3 was through a village called Braganca, and it couldn’t come soon enough. Medics advice (after a tiny lie about the pain being a bit less than it was) was to keep my trainer on, take painkillers, push on and elevate at finish. Ice would not be an option at the jungle camp, so the plan was to get in and assess it from there. However, there was still a good 20km to go today so needed to get my head in the game for that.
At the CP, I was gutted to see Sarah there with her ankle elevated. She had turned it very badly early on Day 1, and she had shown amazing grit to push herself this far, but the pain had become too much, forcing her to withdraw.
I left CP3 faking positivity with an equally fake spring in my step, and then went back to limping when I was out of sight. CP3 to CP4 was very tough, and proved to be one of my toughest experiences in the entire event. The heat was rising, and there were gaps in the canopy, which resulted in a searing heat and oppressive humidity. It was also all jungle trail, with climb after climb and descent after descent, each slightly more challenging than the previous.
I’d taken plenty of water from CP3, and was feeling the need to stop regularly and soak my buff. Often I would stop where there was any hint of shade and just try and regulate my body temp. My ankle was very weak, and I was turning it outwards every time I lost concentration, which was becoming more and more frequent.
For what seemed like an age I continued, and eventually came into CP4. Jack, one of the medics, saw me into CP4 and looked concerned. I think he’d heard a few stories of a few of us looking pretty fucked!
I took a good 20 minutes at CP4, and the medics were on hand to pour water over us in an effort to get our body temperatures down slightly. I ate and drank plenty, and then pushed on to the end of this stage.
There was still another 7km to go, but I was assured there was only one beast of a climb remaining. The heat and humidity was very intense, and it was the trusty game of ‘one foot in front of the other, then repeat’. Weirdly I started singing to myself at this stage also - even more weirdly it was a Lionel Ritchie song that came into my head. I still don’t understand that one - best put it down to jungle madness.
Eventually, I came across a stream, so carefully negotiated myself across a very slippery log (fun with the ankle), and then took a steep jungle climb and began the final 1km push into camp. Before camp, I had the rather quirky Japanese cameraman asking me questions, filming me and following me. Its safe to say I wasn’t really in the mood, but consoled myself with visions of him getting devoured by a huge jaguar or a giant snake.
Reaching camp was a total relief, and a victory in itself given the events 20km back. It was a huge lift to see familiar faces at camp, and from memory Steve was in his pants oiling himself up. This would be a familiar sight throughout the event. I decided to try and get my hammock up and admin sorted before taking a look at my ankle.
It was tricky finding a spot given that I was at the back end of the pack today, but Mike was fortunately at hand, and put my hammock up for me while I sorted my ankle. Sure enough it was very swollen all round, so elevation and anti-inflammatory was all I could do today. Cody offered me some tablets, which I gratefully accepted. It was extremely painful, but as far as I was concerned if it was no worse in the morning I would be good to go.
The main thing is that I could put weight on it, even if it did hurt a lot when doing so. The medics took a look, but once again I told a little white lie with regard to where it hurt specifically and how much. All I needed was a short-term solution, which equated to a combination of strapping and painkillers. I figured I’d worry about everything else once the event was done.
Sleep actually came very easy, but what was great about tonight was that we were in the deep jungle, and the sounds of the jungle were simply amazing. Once I was in my hammock I was frequently disturbed by commotion around me as giant spiders were seen or jaguars and even pumas sighted. It was all very exciting, and certainly a different way to spend an evening!
It was one of the highlights for me, drifting in and out of sleep listening to the sounds of the deep jungle. At around 3am I needed the toilet, so took myself to the ‘hole’, which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, looking very nervously over my shoulder as routine business was performed. On the plus side, and during the short walk to ‘the hole’ I discovered that my ankle was not any worse, so I knew I would be good to go for stage 4.
Wednesday – Stage 4, Marathon Day (Distance 42km)
The briefing notes today had this down as the toughest marathon on the planet.
The tactic today was to get some light strapping on, which Vicky (one of the medics) helpfully sorted for me. Second was to find some sticks from the jungle floor from the start for added support, which were easily sourced.
By now, the morning drill was easier and the bag was getting slightly lighter. Generally, I was sorting everything before bed, so it was just a case of getting up, eating breakfast, getting dressed and sorting out water. Everything else was where I needed it to be.
Before the start I saw Sarah, who had withdrawn injured the previous day. She had this determined look on her face, and said she was here to do a marathon and that’s exactly what she would do. Her ankle was in a very bad way, and I had nothing but admiration for her. This particularly inspired me at the time, and as it turned out I would spend a large part of this day with her.
The day started with a very long jungle trail, so my newly acquired walking poles were helping me with much-needed support. What struck me today was that the field quickly spread out, and before long I was on my own, moving at a decent enough pace. I quite liked the moments of being solo and just listening to the sounds of the jungle.
Yesterday was particularly hot and humid, but today there seemed to be a good blanket of cloud cover. This was particularly welcoming, allowing a good, strong pace early on.
The jungle floor was the usual minefield of hazards, so focus and concentration were definitely needed for this initial part.
After a couple of hours I arrived at a water station, where I quickly topped up and moved on. Others were cooling off in the stream, but I found it cooler today so there was no need for that. Just after this point I met Sarah and we moved along together well, chatting and approaching the long combined 2km river and swamp crossings. Now this was great fun.
The 1km river stretch came first, and by now I had given up on the bin liner approach. The river was lovely and cooling, the only issue being the constant battering of my shins on hidden logs and twisted roots below. Sometimes you could make them out, and sometimes you couldn’t. Along the river we would have to climb over fallen trees or swim under them.
Apart from my bag momentarily getting stuck as I tried to swim under, it all went fairly well, and Sarah and I were actually overtaking a few other competitors. I particularly loved this part, and it was just what I had imagined the jungle event to be like.
After the 1km river came the swamp. At the end of the river there was a slight respite from the water, and I noticed some people de-bagging from the dry sacks. I don’t think they realised that the swamp was coming up. Getting through it was slower and took a lot longer. It was relentless and smelly, and also a lot tougher on the shins and ankles, because you could not see what you were about to walk on. This was not good for my ankle, but the pain on my shins and knees as they took a relentless battering kind of took my mind off that.
After a while I just accepted the unpredictable battering that would await each ankle, shin or knee as I waded through. Upon (eventually) exiting the swamp, we disturbed a wild pig, who fortunately seemed more scared of us and just glared at us from the jungle. We’d heard that these things can charge at you, and that escape is best sourced by climbing a tree. I was in no mood for tree climbing, and didn’t feel at my most agile, so was happy to leave the pig in peace and move on.
We soon arrived at the checkpoint, so I took the usual time to fuel up and get ready for the next part. The next section was one of beauty, along stunning beaches and views of the river. It was still relatively cool, so I just absorbed the sights, felt happy in the moment and kept moving on.
I was with Sue for a small part after leaving the checkpoint, and before long we ran through a village, where loads of school children were there to greet and high-five us. That was great fun, and one little lad even gave Sue and I a flower each, which was very touching.
After the village I was moving at a good pace, and soon caught up with Sarah. I spend most of the day with her from this point, and it was good just chatting. The rest of the day was to be a mixture of track and jungle trail. Given the time of day, the heat was now rising, and during the latter parts of the day I got in the habit of carrying extra water so that I could at times cool off by soaking my buff.
At one point during this stage I came across fellow UK competitor Will, who looked like he needed cooling down, so I was able to baptise him at the side of the road. Will had a good tactic of covering distance early on before the heat rose, and he would then slow it down and manage his body temperature accordingly.
From this point it was a case of following a dusty track with a few modest climbs. I saw the day out with Sarah, and we were both very happy to make it to the finish at around 4pm.
We would be staying on a stunning beach, so I found a suitably scenic place to hang my hammock, and then had a much-needed wash. I hadn’t had a wash the previous day, so this was extremely welcoming. Steve was already in the water, and was at hand to take the piss out of my builder’s tan. Love that guy!
After the day before, when I finished close to darkness, it was nice to have the time to catch up with everyone and have a good wash. It was funny to see Takashi Okada, a crazy professional Japanese wrestler, come in. He was carrying a massive backpack (must have been 20kg+). He was very popular with the bombeiros, and shortly after getting in he had his Spider-Man mask on, striking a pose and getting involved in pictures with them all.
Geoff, Sue’s husband, also came in late on, and this was the last day for him since he had entered the 4-day event. The guy was an absolute athlete since he had been out there for an awful long time during those 4 days, and had limited time for rest between the stages. He’d carved it out, and I was chuffed to bits for him. I made an effort to stay up for a bit so I could help him put up his hammock. Geoff and Sue would more than repay that favour at the end of the long stage.
Tomorrow was the long day at 108km, and we had to get started at 04:30, so it would mean rise and shine at around 3am. Andrew (one of the medics) had heavily strapped my ankle, and it now felt very supported. I certainly needed this for the huge distance that was coming up. I felt pretty confident of getting a good pace going, doing my own thing and trying to make the afternoon cut-off. It would be a big ask, but certainly worth a go.
Thursday – Stage 5, Distance 108km (58km covered to CP5)
As per the briefing notes, this was ‘The long one’.
The day started with the mandatory force-feeding of porridge. I made the mistake of porridge everyday at MDS in 2013, and I’d done it again. At least I’d left the macadamia nuts behind this time.
We were off at 4:30, and the head torch had been dusted down for this first part. The first section through CP1 and CP2 were straightforward by all accounts, and the terrain was quite manageable, being mostly dust track. During the darkness I saw plenty of creatures, mostly in the form of spiders and snakes. You could see eyes of spiders everywhere. Since I felt good, and it was cooler by jungle standards, I was not taking too long at the early checkpoints and pretty much sailed through both of those.
The fun for me started after leaving CP2. After passing through a very picturesque beach, I entered the jungle, where I started following the yellow tape. This was proving hard since following pale yellow tape in a jungle of many shades of green can be quite tricky. Also, the marking seemed slightly more casual than previous days, and I kept missing turnings and having to backtrack and pick up the trail. I figured the fault was probably with myself on account of being very tired, plus I do have previous form for getting lost in really obvious situations.
Anyhow, I pushed on through what was an endless maze of jungle. Eventually, I took a 5-minute sit down to get some food and high-5 powder on board, and that was when Luis arrived on the scene. It was good to have some company since I had been on my own most of the day so far, so I carried on with him.
Before long, there was an almighty smell of cat’s piss, and a very clear long growling sound close to my left-hand side. A jaguar. Although I wanted to see one, I was not about to part the branches and peer in. I looked behind slightly nervously, and Luis said “Jaguar”, and indicated that we should move on swiftly. Sounded like a pretty good idea. About half an hour later I had the same thing happen again, but this time on my right hand side. Weird!
After another 30 minutes, that part started to make sense when we bumped into HenriqueandMarlon walking towards us. There was significant confusion between all of us, and after much debate Luis and I realised we must have somehow turned back on ourselves during one of our many corrections on missing tape markings. I was gutted, and figured this was probably going to cost me at least 2 hours and that pretty much ruined any chance of making the cut off. Also, it was getting very hot and humid, and I was using up my water very quickly.
We needed to crack on and get to the next stage, but because of these errors there was now a long way to go. Luis was slower than me on the descents, which were very steep and treacherous, but I waited for him. I felt a strong sense of camaraderie towards him, and could see he was pleased to see I would be sticking with him until we got out of this jungle maze. Eventually, we made the checkpoint and Luis and I hugged it out. That part had been an adventure.
The heat was very extreme today, and this was becoming a greater concern to me. At this checkpoint the medics told us that many people were getting lost and were having heat-related problems. This was becoming an issue for everyone involved.
Also, the distance to the next stage was an incredible 19km, which was a huge distance given the heat, not to mention half of it being very difficult jungle terrain. I was assured that there would be a mid-way water stop, but I still took 4-5 litres out with me. What followed was a very steep ascent along a track, and then more ascent and descent through the jungle for two hours.
Upon leaving the jungle, Luis and I turned left onto a road for the final 10km to CP4. I saw Will sat at the side of the road in the shade and decided to join him. I was not feeling good at all. Luis pushed on, and I wished him well. Will told me there was a truck moving up and down the road delivering water, but unfortunately it never showed up. I was not out of water, but I was consuming it quickly and becoming concerned.
Temperatures were up to 45c, and my body temperature was rising. I was sticking with Will, who was encouraging me to stop regularly. I was elevating my feet and lifting my top up, and basically trying anything to release body heat. It was ridiculous, and I was having to stop every 15 minutes. Eventually, after another enforced stop I tried to get up, and saw black spots and felt very dizzy. Will took one look at me, and told me to stay down. He could hear some music not far down the road, and went to investigate, seeking water to cool me down.
Shortly after he returned, and I was relieved to hear that he had found a stream further up to the left. This, bizarrely, was near CP4, but the race route dictated that we had to a right-hand turn and a 5km loop before we could check into CP4. Regardless, we decided to cool off in the stream before the loop, and Will pretty much ordered to get in the stream. I remained there with Will for a good hour, and allowed my body to cool those vital degrees.
Before entering the stream, I was basically talking bollocks, and in strong denial of just how bad things had got. Will was an absolute legend, and made sure I stayed put for long enough to get my body temperature down and re-hydrate. After this, we pushed on together and completed the 5km loop to CP4. By this time, I could talk sensibly again, and I kind of sensed that Will was keeping a careful eye on me in that respect!
During this loop, I was gutted to see a truck go past with Sue and Richard sat in the back. This meant they had withdrawn from the race, and I really felt for them. They’d both put so much into the event, and I know it was not a decision that either would have taken lightly. Today had been brutal, and I had just had a very lucky escape myself.
By now, making the cut off was an impossibility, so when we finished the stage really did not matter. I now made sense to make sure we finished the stage in good shape and high spirits. We both decided to have our dinner at CP4, and as luck would have it I had two cup-a-soups left, which I was happy to share with Will. This CP was located at a lovely Brazilian lady’s house, and she was at hand to provide us with boiling water for our food.
After this, Will and I pushed on in the dark for the final 9km to CP5. Along this route there were plenty of spiders and snakes to step over. We made it to camp at around 9pm, and it was a case of getting the hammock up asap and to get some rest. Today, I been a 60km day, which had tested me to my limits and put me in a situation I had never been before.
However, I’d made it, and psychologically tomorrow was only 50km, so this was a massive positive. Surely it couldn’t be as bad as today…
Friday – Stage 5, Distance 108km (50km covered to finish)
Sleep came very easy the previous night, which was not at all surprising given that the limits had been well and truly pushed. I had packed my bag the previous night, so got up at 5:30am in anticipation of a 6:30 start.
It was slightly strange-looking around camp, since it was only partially full. Those not there had either withdrawn or made the cut off and pushed on. I was glad not to see Steve, since that meant he had made the cut off. I knew he had a good chance of that, because I asked after him at CP4, and it certainly sounded like he had a good chance of making CP5.
Since the previous day had taken me so long, any thoughts of a highly placed finish had firmly left my head, and it was all about getting this 50km done and hopefully making it to camp as soon as possible. In my mind, once we reached the end of stage 5, the finishers medal was in the bag and the chances of me not completing the event non-existent. This was because the final stage was a 24km flat course along a beach, so the ‘easiest’ stage of all.
That said, there was a massive task ahead, and I was taking nothing for granted, based on the worsening state of the ankle and the previous day’s issues with the heat.
I started the stage with Luis, Joel and Steve, and tried to match their pace through the jungle trail. Again, it seemed very hot , even at this early hour, so my initial focus was to get some good mileage cleared early on. The jungle trail was the usual affair of hostile terrain and some vicious climbs and ascents just when you need them least.
By the end of the trail and 2 hours in, I decided to take 5 minutes rest so as to get some fuel in, as well as some High 5 powder. I then continued on my own, and subsequently joined a road which took me to a beach, where I found CP6. Just before this CP, I passed a coach and there I saw Enrique and Andy, who must have withdrawn the previous day. They were pleased for me, and I could see no hint of self pity in their eyes. Top guys, but that was the mark of every single competitor who had made it out to this event. Everyone knew it wouldn’t be a walk in the park, and accepted many of the risks and potential DNF reasons were out of their hands.
I took 10 minutes at CP6, and pushed on. At Alto Chao a Brazilian lady came running down and with a sign and showered me with confetti. That was such a nice gesture, and it really filled me with positive energy. I was well on the way to CP7, and feeling very good. Soon enough, I came across the first of many river crossings. It was all slightly strange, and it all seemed to be a merry-go-round of competitors going one way or another.
At one stage I saw Brook (who must have been a good hour ahead of me) going the other way, so assumed I had to follow some kind of loop before doubling back on myself. Onwards, I pushed and caught up with Christoph and Aussie Steve as I crossed another river. I left the shore with both of them, and before long we came across Mike. He knew he should have been significantly ahead of us, and helpfully pointed out that we may have missed CP7. We certainly had, but all looked baffled as to how.
We had to double back for half an hour until we located CP7 and then reverse and continue to CP8. These types of things absolutely destroy you when you are tired and you have to factor in extra mileage. That said, it could have been worse, and soon enough we were back on track, and being very careful following the route.
After some time, we reached what looked like another huge river crossing, but this time there was no rope. A boat was midway across, and the guys on board were waving their arms. The crossing was huge and deep, and there was no way I was swimming across that with no rope. We then remembered that this was the part where a boat was supposed to take us across. That was the boat, but in true comedy fashion it had broken down. Fortunately, the small media boat offered to take us across the river to CP8.
At CP8 we came across Dan, one of the medics and a great bloke. The poor guy had been stranded at this CP for well over a day, and looked like he needed some company. My feet needed drying out as well as sorting the odd blister, so Dan offered to sort this, and administered a hot shot to my blister. I had some dry clean socks in my bag, so put them on in an effort to keep as dry as possible.
I then left the CP with Christoph and pushed onto CP9. There was now only 20km to go, and the end of this stage was in sight. The march onto CP9 and CP10 were comfortable and mostly flat. CP9 to CP10 had its challenges when we had to clamber across quite a few boulders along the beach. However, after all the monotony of the flat beach before, this it was a good bit of fun to do some climbing. On route to CP10 it was clear that we were going to make that at sunset, but would probably have to do CP10 to the finish in darkness.
The head torch came out, and Jack, another medic, said the distance was 4km and a case of following the coast. Sounded simple enough!
We left, but everything became very tricky in the dark. It was hard to follow the tape and/or footprints, and there were no glow sticks out highlighting the route. During this stage, a huge blister that had formed on my right sole burst, leaving me in absolute agony. I needed the use of Christoph’s poles to move forward for a short while.
After 2 hours of this nonsense - and remember it was only 4k - we were lost in the dark. Christoph and I were bickering a little by this point, and had different theories on which direction we should head in. The only thing we really agreed on was that we should stick together. Eventually, we were able to pick up the trail, and knew we were on our way to the end of this stage. I arrived at the finish, and saw Sarah, Sue and Geoff - a a sight for sore eyes. The previous 48 hours had been so very hard physically and mentally, but I had made it.
Geoff and Sue were absolute legends, and sorted out my hammock for me while I had my feet seen to by Amy. The poor girl had the unfortunate task of washing my feet and smelling my toxic odor. Next, I wanted to get an e-mail to Rachel just to let her know I was OK, so I took care of that.
I then had my dinner, and just sat up chilling around camp. I was absolutely buzzing and full of adrenaline. There was no way I was ready for sleep, and I spent a few hours seeing in other competitors and just reflecting on everything.
There was an element of sadness since I knew this was the last night, and I was getting very used to this way of life. I stayed up with Sarah until just after midnight hoping to see Carl come over the line, but admitted defeat at 12:30 and retired to my hammock.
I lay back, content, and looking forward to the final day - and a beer!
Saturday – Stage 6, Distance 25km
I was up and about quite early, still wired from the previous day, so decided to get my feet sorted by the medic, Amy, early on. I then had a look for Steve, and we sat for 30 minutes exchanging harrowing tales of the previous 48 hours. It was good to see him, and the fact he’d made the long stage in around 24 hours meant he should be assured of a very deserved top 10 finish.
We found out that the race start was pushed back to around 10-ish, so there was plenty of time to chill out and get ready for the final push. I viewed today as a bit of a fun run. I decided to run as much as I could, since prolonged injury post-race didn’t really matter to me, and I had a plan to eat and drink solid throughout October and into November if necessary. By now, the pack was as light as it was going to get, and after taking a teary farewell picture of my crocs (the wife would be pleased), I was ready to get started. It was a great atmosphere at the start, and after the usual countdown we began.
I got off to a hobble-like start, but before long was in a good running routine. Today was all beach, it was flat, and we had a few water crossings thrown in. I spent most of the run doing my own thing and thinking over the whole event. I had numerous conversations along the way with fellow competitors I was either passing or being overtaken by.
Given that we were on the beach we were exposed to the heat, which again seemed to be in the 40s. That part was tough going, but today the finish was the finish, and a cool beer awaited me. The finish into Santarem came sooner than I thought, and after clambering over a beach wall I suddenly saw the finish line. After a very unexpected wobbly-lip moment, I composed myself and ran for the finishing line.
It was truly amazing to cross the line, and Shirley was on hand to place my clay medal around my neck. Sue and Geoff were there also, and to my right was a packed bar with some very ecstatic competitors who had finished before me. Steve was quickly on hand to congratulate me, and remove my pack for me. It was then time to have a beer with the rest of the jungle family, with who I had shared the most amazing, tough and uplifting experience.
Post-Mortem - what I would have done more/less of
In my opinion, the way to train for this event is to do plenty of off-road, uneven terrain, and the majority of my training was done this way. I also ventured out into the local woods and found plenty of steep climbs to get stuck into.
I found such climbing to best replicate the type of climbs we would be facing in the jungle. Building in circuits and repeats of these climbing sessions came in very useful.
Getting loads of road-based mileage in does not really do anything to replicate the type of surface you will be running on, so it’s best to get your ankles used to unpredictable terrain.
In the last couple of months, I introduced either longer back to back runs, or running morning and night. Given that I work full time, I didn’t really get to do as much as I wanted, but it was the most efficient use of time to do it this way.
With regards to the pack, I only really started ramping up the pack weight with a month or so to go. Its obviously very important to train with full pack weight, so you can get used to the feel of your pack, test your hydration strategy and be confident you can access everything you need to whilst on the move.
Finally, factoring in building up your core strength is vital since the terrain, ascent and descent will test the limits. I had a very good PT, Ryan Hodgson, leading up to this, and I put a lot of effort into core stability work in the months leading up to it. When I suffered my ankle injury, this core strength definitely saved the day.
With regards to heat I live in Jersey, and we have no heat or humidity chambers of anything like that, So I simply hoped for the best and planned to adopt the tactic of easing myself in.
So, in summary I wouldn’t do less of anything.
With regards to more, I would have started trained with the heavier pack at an earlier stage of the training, and at least 2 months before.
Of course, I would have trained more, but I have work and family commitments, and given that this running gig is a hobby I was pretty happy with how I prepared.
Kit choices – What worked for me
Below is a summary of my kit list:
I used a tried and tested combination of a SS top (X-Bionic), compression shorts (2XU), pants (X-Bionic)m x-socks, calf guards (Compressport), buff, cycling gloves and Inov8 Mudclaws.
The kit was great, and the only relatively unused kit I had were my debris gaiters and sunglasses.
The OMM32 pack and front pack were tried and tested, and worked for me. I went with front bottles so I could distribute the weight. I also found having front water bottles useful, and more beneficial in managing my fluid intake. I also used soft flasks, and stashed these in the OMM side pockets.
There is a lot of mandatory medical kit. Foot care is essential, so talc and vaseline is necessary in my opinion. Hand sanitiser gel and a strong suncream is also a must.
You cannot go wrong with the Hennessy Hammock. A great piece of kit. A silk liner is all that is required to keep you warm at night.
You also need something for your feet, so lift flop flops are fine.
Not much is really needed in the way of spare clothes, but a light pair of shorts and a short sleeved top are useful to have.
I had a variety of Expedition meals for breakfast and dinner, bringing one of each per day.
The dinners worked, and I went for a variety of curry-based or pasta-based ones.
Porridge didn’t really work for me, although I forced it down. In hindsight I’d probably have taken a couple of porridge options, and added a few more dinners (to have as breakfast) instead.
With regards to in-race nutrition, the best policy for me is variety whilst being comfortable that the snacks you have selected work for you and have been tested.
For me, this is why training with full pack weight and performing long back to back runs is very important. This way you really get to know roughly how many snacks you need to consume, say per hour, and roughly how much distance you cover per hour.
By keeping a training log of these simple stats, you can do a much better job in planning your race nutrition strategy.
Would I recommend the event?
I wanted a challenge and I certainly got one. The event is very tough.
However, the whole experience was second to none, the jungle environment fascinating and the camaraderie among the competitors and medics amazing.
Would I do it again?
I think so, yes!