I wanted to run the Jungle Marathon the moment I was told of it. I had at that point made my way solo all the way to our Bivouac in the Sahara Desert to run the Marathon des Sables (MDS). Even before I had made my way to the Day 1 starting shoot, even before I had even been through my mandatory gear check, I knew that pushing boundaries in remote regions around the planet was the world I wanted to be in, stay in, live in, get lost in and disappear into. Simply arriving in Morocco signified to me that this was doable, and this was the world for me.
The magic of your first multi-stage race lies in the beautiful of your naivety. There are no expectations and there is total trepidation. It is beautiful. Every moment you are experiencing something new and that in itself is exciting and rewarding and addictive. Well, certainly addictive for people who feel alive when they are scared, uncomfortable and exhausted.
I was flying to South America via Sydney where I would meet my MDS buddy Pooley and together we would make our way to New Zealand and then on to Santiago, Chile to meet up with our MDS buddy Nat and together we would make our way to Sao Paulo, northbound to Brasilia then to Santarem where we would catch a cab to Alto de Chao and meet up with our MDS buddy Steve from New Zealand. Together the 4 of us had come together with the same, almost desperate need, to find our freedom within our sacred scared place.
Nat and I had been in the same open-sided tent in the Sahara and had therefore formed a strong bond. Pooley and I had got to know each other more so at the MDS after-parties in Quarzazate. Steve, I had not known that well at the MDS, but we caught up with each other in New Zealand for the Tarawera Ultra earlier that year. By the end of this adventure Pooley would see me more broken than anyone ever has, and Steve and I would share a deep hard understanding of each other.
Unfortunately, my travels didn’t start off terribly great. Our Latam plane that was to take us from Sydney to New Zealand was struck by lightning on its way to us. One option was to wait for our rescheduled flight, but we wondered how this would impact on all of our connecting flights. It would take me 6 flights, 1 taxi ride and a boat cruise to get to the race start. We were also really keen to get on our way and fluffing about in Sydney didn’t excite us terribly much. After much negotiation with airline staff we scored a couple of seats on a Qantas plane heading to Auckland to catch our connecting flight to Santiago. We scored the 2 middle seats in the middle row at the back of the plane and I sat next to an extremely large man that happily leaned into me as he slept all the way to Chile.
My luggage did not make its way to Sao Paulo and I had a sneaking suspicion that this was going to be the case. On my way to Morocco I carried most of my essential gear with me on the plane, but then complacency started to creep in. Invariably there is always at least 1 person that loses their luggage on their way to a multi-stage and this was my turn. I had my shoes, my run clothes, my food and my hammock but I didn’t have my spare clothes, my socks, my gaiters, my running poles, my personal medical gear or my malaria tablets.
This sucked!!! And I knew this was going to happen. Fortunately for me my buddies had a bunch of spare gear; Nat had some Injinji socks that she had brought over for me, Steve had some spare malaria tablets and Pooley pretty much made up for the rest except for spare undies.
I spent the following few days in our beach side town of Alto de Chao trying to locate my luggage which was eventually located in Sydney exactly where I had left it.
After a couple of days in this gorgeous seaside town we set off for our last “civilised” dinner and then made our way to our magnificent boat that would take us along a major Amazon tributary to our beach-side jungle basecamp. Once aboard we hung our hammocks in whatever spots we could find which were bugger all and then after much chatter climbed into our hammocks, soaking in the night breeze and dreaming of what lay ahead. We were almost in dreamland when the British medics arrived back on board and were seriously pissed that their spacious hammock area now looked like a tin of sardines. They huffed and they puffed, and they did their best to slam and bump into us as they climbed into their hammocks. I thought they were daft. They were newbies at multi-stages and a bit maggot from their night out and were yet to understand that the days to come were going to be intense and that bonds would be formed that would not be broken and to start the days with a pissy fit was pretty poor form. Sure, we were all squashed in, but we were in all other respects, clean, fed and happy.
The sun came up and our magnificent boat anchored on a sand bed where we jumped off, swam and then jumped back on board. We arrived at our base camp and sitting there beautifully in the white sand was my luggage.
This was the first time I had seen my pack since leaving Adelaide. One of the race crew had collected my backpack from the Santarem airport and brought it to the beach base camp where everyone back home had already seen it on Facebook even before we had arrived. That was kind of magic.
My crew set up camp together but with no trees left for me I set up my hammock on the other side of the camp and next door to Carl from Quebec. Carl was a fire fighter and a father of 4 and extremely lovely. As we set up our hammocks many of us scanned around to see how others had tied their hammocks to the trees. I had practised at home with my Hennessey Hammock and was pretty good now at setting up my hammock. We had the ultralight hammocks, but I was feeling bummed that we couldn’t get the hyperlight in Australia as others here had.
We spent the next day swimming, undertaking a Jungle safety course with the Army and generally getting our gear ready to leave the following day.
Our toilet was a hole in the ground. Our toilet would always be a hole in the ground.
I am unsure as to what it was exactly about the 260km Jungle Marathon that made such an impression on me. Clearly, we enter running events because the finisher’s high is so contagious, however this race was different. This was the hardest race that I have participated in. It was not so much that we had to move through the course carrying a pack that contained all that we would need for 6 days of racing, save the ongoing issue of cold and hot water, and included our food, our hammock, our medicals, a change of undies, a couple pairs of socks and our incidentals. I came to the jungle with a pre-existing shoulder injury and I only had myself to blame for the grief it caused me as I ran with my pack that weighed maybe 8kg to 10kg with water.
The Jungle marathon had been dubbed the “hardest footrace on earth”. Previously it was the MDS. Realistically, any-one can put together a race for the purpose of attracting the title of “the hardest”. To do so is rarely impressive and some-times just a bit lame. However, to put together an extremely tough race that makes logistical sense and executed really well will always make an impression on me.
We were quite clueless as to the course description and looked to the volunteer medics at each check point for clues as to what the terrain was like in front of us. The medics were unfortunately just as uninformed as we were but were nevertheless spectacularly supportive as they could be. We received a couple of pieces of paper that gave us the distance for each day and a one liner about the terrain. Each evening the race director would appear and give as a flippant verbal run down of the course for the next day. The verbal briefing was presented in an equally un-detailed manner.
Many of us lived on no sleep. Surprisingly snoring was not so bad. Hammock life was sweet and a joy to have our feet elevated each night.
Some camps we were woken to roosters crowing from about 4am, others to locals sitting around the water-heating fire talking throughout the night and at another camp we went to bed with music. The loud favela funk tunes were actually really cool to bather in as we gentle swung in our hammocks and most definitely my preference over roosters and talking. In any event, little sleep is part and parcel of a multi-stage for the majority of us.
Our first day out was relentless jungle and the acclimation was hard as it always is in humid climates. We were instructed to hold out at each check point for 10 minutes before moving on so that medics knew we were ok. At one check point we had a bucket of water and sponges to cool off with. I am sure at one stage my mouth was open as if I was in a shower and not only did I swallow a mouthful of Amazon river water but also a fair bit of sweat of any-one that had used the sponge before me. Yum.
The first day I came in with Steve and we were flogged. Then we had some luxury. We had a small cup of tropical juice as we entered our camp, a river in which to bath in and hot water for rehydrating our food. This was luxury!! At the MDS we had sweet green tea but no river to cool off in and no hot water other than that which we heated ourselves on tablet stoves that we carried with us each day.
Steve and I lay in our hammocks after we had sent off our daily short email to a loved one. We were then handed our incoming emails for the day. Steve had a few, I had loads. Steve said, “read me your emails Becks”, and so I did until I came to my emails from Keith. There were a few and they were personal and intimate. Do I read them out? I took a deep breath and continued.
The following day started with a swim across the river. I had put my bag in a dry sack, as did most others, and used it as a flotation aid as I made my way across the river. My gear was dry and off I went on this fast-short flat day of 22kms. Again, tropical juice, a river and hot water greeted us at our next camp.
The following day was another hard-climbing day and we were headed into the deep jungle to our next camp where there would be no water to swim in. We were exhausted when we arrived at camp and it sucked to have no river to cool off in. Oh, how we had grown accustomed to our river camps. We could have climbed down to the river about a kilometer below, but we were too tired. At this camp we had a small cup of tropical juice, hot water and pythons. The army had arrived and protected us from the Jaguars which we heard howling throughout the night. The race director did not arrive at this camp and her second person in charge on the ground had left the event.
I had developed a pretty tasty toe blister which I had always managed to deal with myself but on this occasion, I decided to show the medic. I develop a blister under my toe that fills with blood or fluid and lifts the base of my nail off my skin. It throbs like hell. The medic went to work to drill a hole through the top of the nail. I knew this would not work as the nail was lifted from the skin and drilling from the top would only make the nail lift further away from the skin under the base of the nail. When the drilling failed the medic decided he would put a needle into the blister to drain it. Not wanting to put me in any further pain he said he would numb the area by anesthetising it with a needle. I could tell the medic was a bit spooked about doing this and I could also feel the needle not actually piercing the skin enough to get the numbing agent into my toe. The medic asked if I could feel the toe which I could and then I told him I would look after the toe myself and relieve him from a pretty gross job. Back at my hammock I pulled out my needle, pierced the skin with it and pushed the blood and liquid out from the blister. The toenail then settled back to the toe, I taped it down and then all was fixed.
The following day was the marathon day. We were headed for a long river swim which would have been heavenly if it was not for the massive logs that lay hidden under the surface of the water which we would smack in to as we swam down the river. It was beautiful to get clean and the leg bruises we all acquired were eventually covered with more dirt and grit.
On the marathon day I hooked up with Kevin from Denmark and Steve from the UK and we spent the day keeping each other company, laughing a lot, cussing regularly and throwing ourselves into as many waterholes as possible. We came to a long jungle fire trail and decided to run in the shady parts and walk in the scorching sun parts. One of the German runners with extremely long legs was now hiking the course. When we started to run in the shade, we would catch him but when we walked, we lost him, then we would run and catch him and then walk and lose him. He didn’t say a lot, but he must have thought we were hilarious. Whilst I am a pretty strong hiker, I just couldn’t keep up with this giant when we were walking.
The end of the marathon day saw us on a sandy beach and beautiful enormous sea-like river and again we were able to clean ourselves up. Our hammocks spread out along the beach with views of the beautiful river coastline. Word had spread that Steve, Kevin and I had hooked up for the marathon day and plans were set for many of us to run together on the following day, the long day.
Multi-stage races are life-changing experiences for so many of us and no doubt in-part due to the simplicity of the hardship. With dogged determination to do our best, we carry a pack with all of our belongings for the week except for water to refill. We are in remote areas and have access to no one except through a short email each day. We rarely know where we are going or what we are facing. We are not permitted to mule another or be mulled, and we seek out medical attention only when desperately needed. The remoteness is what makes the multi-stage so formidable. Away from civilization and responsibilities and every day we gett up hurting and pushing on. No one complains as the pain is shared by all of us. In the Sahara the temperatures reached over 50 degrees Celsius and in the Jungle the heat and humidity were suffocating. Amongst all of these elements, it is the long stage, the long day, that makes the multi-stage what it is. The life changing experience happens through the long day.
We started the long day waking at 2.30am for a start time of 4.30am. It is quite amazing to think it takes 2 hours to wake and get ready to start. I get out of my hammock and pull my shorts on. Before stepping out of the hammock I have my socks and shoes on. This is in part to ensure there is no sand in my feet but to also make sure I don’t step on to any nasty Amazon Jungle critters. We have snake skins on our hammocks which makes pulling them down and packed a simple process. The snake skins are a genius idea; a long sleeve that sits at each hanging knot and is pulled down towards the middle of the hammock, sucking in the hammock and fly as it meets the other snake skin in the middle of the hammock. The result is a snake looking tube that you then strategically put into your pack.
I was pleased with the 4.30am start time and glad we could get some distance behind us before the heat of the day set in. We spent much of the first leg chasing a dude on a motor bike still putting out glow stick markers for us to follow. The long day was 108km. This came after the previous day, being the marathon day, the prior day 37km and the 2 days before that totaling approximately 46km. We were therefore pretty knackered by the start of the humongous 108km long day. As with all long days, you have 2 days to complete the stage. You either run it in one go and score a rest day, or alternatively, you complete the leg over the allocated 2 days and forego a rest day. What made this race so different was that we needed to be out of Check Point (CP) 5 before 3.30pm in order to continue on. The reason for this was that we needed to get out of the jungle to CP6 before night fall so that we were away from the jaguars. 57km in 11 hours is huge in jungle heavy pack terms. We were exposed to the pelting sun, overheating and so many people got lost in the jungle before CP5.
I was running, moving, with about 6 guys and we were in stifling heat for so much of the day. We entered a section of the Jungle and started scooting down a hill when we realised we had followed the front runner in the wrong direction and so back up the climb we trudged. This sucked but we were lucky as so many others were lost for hours in the Jungle. We had no GPS, no trackers and no maps. We had to simply find markers.
One of the guys said he had hit his head on something and moments later we all started yelping as we were getting stung on our necks, ears and faces. He had hit a wasp nest and we were under attack. RUUUNNNNNN we all yelled and that we did as fast as we could until we were long away from the disturbed and ferocious wasps.
The jungle floor was littered with leaf debris and it was difficult to ascertain what we were running on. I hit something and the weight of my pack pushed me to the ground head-first into a tarantula nest hole in the ground. Someone from behind me grabbed my pack and hoisted me to my feet. The jungle was covered with spiders.
As we started another hard climb, following each other up the single trail, Kevin stepped to one side before moving right on to a switchback. As I went to move past him, I looked up at Kevin but said nothing. Whilst no-one had the energy to speak the look in his eyes told me everything. He was broken and he was done. I wouldn’t see him on the trail again and I knew this simply by the way he looked at me.
A few of us sought out water holes whenever we could. This was not time efficient, but we needed to cool our bodies down. By the time we climbed the hill to CP5 we were no doubt suffering from heat stress.
We walked into CP5 at about 3.15pm, 15 minutes before cut-off and we were shattered. The medics had bags of ice and we fell to the tarp on the ground and the ice was laid across our backs. It felt incredible. Yuki leant in towards me and I sobbed to her “this is so hard”. Yuki, one of the film crew with the Japanese team filming a famous Japanese wrestler in our event, turned from filmmaker to support crew and along with the medics I felt her amazing support in getting us through CP5. Yuki asked me if I thought we would make the cut off. I replied, “but I am already here” and yet of course I knew what she meant, we needed to get out of the checkpoint by 3.30pm not be in it by 3.30pm. Four of us brought ourselves to our feet and put our heavy packs onto our aching backs. We filled our water bottles and walked out of CP5 into the Jungle. We were wasted. The following 4 or so hours we walked through 19kms of Jungle and not only did it take us through to CP6 it took me into a deep place that I had never visited before. We had passed through exhaustion and frustration; we had cussed and cried, and we had let go of any trace of self-criticism or doubt. I was merely moving through the motions and I had become somewhat detached from my thoughts. People I had barely known, I saw deep into their characters: despair, grief and exhaustion. Two Brazilian runners just behind us disappeared from sight and became lost in the Jungle for hours.
CP5 to CP6 is where everything changed. Arriving at CP5 was brutal but CP6 was something else entirely. It had taken hours to arrive at CP6 and in that time my feet had deteriorated significantly. Pooley was in a tinny with others and I couldn’t work out what he was doing there until I realised he had pulled out of the race. He got out of the boat and came towards me and held me in his arms. I cried and told him the same words that I had spoken to Yuki hours before “this is so hard”. I was broken. He held my face in his hands and told me I was the toughest woman he knew. These simple words gave me strength, knowing that he knew I could do this even if I had my fears. He told me to sit by the fire and have the medics look at my feet. I told him my head torch was waterlogged and the only one that worked was my Petzl e-lite which was only 50 lumens. He gave me his headlamp.
He then left me and jumped back in the tinny and they motored away into the darkness. I dropped my pack and took off my shoes and socks. I went down to the water and sat down to clean up my feet. I then felt something attack my feet. The sting was excruciating, and I screamed with pain. But nothing had attacked me. I had developed trench feet and I had tropical open wounds on my feet. When my feet got wet, they stung like hell and I was soon to realise that when they dried out, they burnt like fire.
I sat down with the medics near the fire and near fellow front chick runner, Alma. Her feet were just as bad as mine. One of the medics said he was going to get a hot drink and that he would put it down next to me and if I could look after it for him. It was a latte instant drink and it was to die for. I was unsure as to whether to take it, but Alma had done the same and said it was wonderful.
A three person Belgium film crew had arrived fully dressed in matching safari outfits. One asked the medics for some hot water that was warming up on the small fire next to me. The medic told him it was for the athletes and that he would need to wait. The water pot that had been put on the fire to heat was then knocked over on to the fire and we started the water boiling process again. The same Belgian reporter came over again enquiring for more hot water. I suggested that he grab some dry twigs to stoke the fire to which he replied “No, I am here to work”. What!! How odd!!
It was great to have my feet worked on but in all honesty, I knew that I would be back in the water before long and all that wonderful work would be for nothing. I had developed an awful red raw rash that was covering the thighs of both of my legs, the result of cheap malaria medication. The medic injected me with something for the rash and then used my arm as a chart and wrote, with black permanent marker, details of my injection to show the other medics ahead of me.
Eric, another Belgium athlete came up to me and asked if I was ready to go. I figured he didn’t want to go alone into the night. The medics finished with me and I moved into the night with Eric. My feet were awful and by this late into the long day we only managed a sad determined walk. Within moments we were back in water and all the beautiful work and care that had been done on my feet disappeared with the current.
The following 12 hours were hard. We moved through river crossings with not another soul in sight. Piranhas, Caiman and god knows what else was on our minds, but we crossed. At each check point I would start by stocking the fire and I would take off my socks and shoes and dry my feet out. Our packs would get soaked in the water crossings, so I also used this opportunity to drain the contents of my back. At CP8 I was greeted with a big hug from paramedic Dan and told that Pooley had been past in the tinny and asked Dan to hug me and to give me some loving when I came in. News from my friend was so heartwarming. Dan helped to hang my gear and dry things out. Eric waited patiently and hopefully also enjoyed the recharge time that CPs allowed us.
We walked through mangroves that were torture on our feet, my trench feet got further waterlogged and the pain intensified. The last thing imaginable was to get your feet wet and yet we had no other option but to walk through more water. The ground was littered with spiders.
As we left CP9 Alma came back towards us. She had caught up with the guys I had been running with earlier in the day and they had lost track of the markers. In turned out there were no markers. The RD was in a boat at CP9 and told us to just stick to the coastline and that would bring us in to CP10 and then to the finish line for that day.
Further up the coastline the guys I had been running with earlier in the day woke from a nap in an abandoned beach hut. Together we all made the long walk to CP10 and then into our camp site. It was just before 9.00am when we arrived at the end of the long day. Our feet were bad and many of us found it hard to walk, many with horribly blistered feet, many with waterlogged feet and many with rashes between our legs.
We were greeted by a quiet camp, consisting of those that had pulled out and the scarce few that were in front of us. Most were still out on the course. I dropped my bag and Pooley put up my hammock with a 5-star beach view in front of his hammock. The rest of the day I dozed, I tended to my rashes, the medics tended to my feet, we swopped food, I read my beautiful emails and I tried to gain some resemblance to a normal person. We didn’t go to bed that night until the last of our crew were in and as was done for me earlier that day, hammocks were erected on their behalf, and we did whatever we could for those that stumbled broken into the camp.
Due to the lateness of many people arriving at camp, most especially the Japanese professional wrestler that spent much of the course filming his “Amazon Man” antics forcing him to arrive especially late each day, we were unable to start the last day until 9.30am. The sun was up and blazing and we had 25km of beach run with 4 water crossings.
I cut up a pair of socks and put them in my shoes for padding. Whilst the extra padding would get soaked and cause a stinging pain in my feet, I went for the extra layer of protection. When I entered the water, my feet would sting awfully and then the pain would subside. Coming out of the water I would be hunched over my body trying to absorb the pain from my feet and with every step I would punch out the pain and stand more and more upright until I was able to run properly again until the next water crossing.
Everyone was spread out and we just wanted to finish, and I ran as fast as I could to the finish line. I regularly stopped to dunk my hat and my buff in the water to cool my body down. My friends who had pulled out would be waiting for me and I wanted to enjoy a nice cold beer with them.
The beer that Pooley got for me was amazing as was the fresh succulent food that Sue gathered for me from the lunch spread. We spent the afternoon watching everyone come over the finish line. It was incredible. The joy was overwhelming. Whilst we were at a beautiful beach none of us entered the water as the pain of our sores prevented it. We waited for so long and still Carl from Quebec had not come in. I knew he would be at the back of the pack. I bent down and grabbed my shoes and slid my awful feet inside of them. I then hobbled down the beach wondering what the feck I was doing. I climbed over the building that people passed through and wondered back down the course. Runners came past but still no Carl. I wondered if he was still in the race. Eventually he came into view. He had been moving slowly and had even had a nap out there. I asked him if he had missed his children. He said that it was actually his partner that he missed the most.
We wondered on and Kevin came into view. He too had come to find Carl. He held in his hands, a bottle of beer and a bottle of coke and glasses and asked which Carl would prefer. The 3 of us stood looking over the Brazilian Amazon tributary, glasses in hand, celebrating our adventure together until one of said “Um, we’d better get Carl to the finish line as he hasn’t actually finished yet” and with that we wondered on. Carl then asked me if I would get him a pen and paper. What the hell I thought, I am pretty busted up and this dude wants me to go find shit for him!! Then I twigged. Junior, our beautiful aid, had wondered out to us by that point and I asked him if he would mind getting Carl pen and paper. Junior scooted off.
When Carl crossed the finished line, he held the piece of paper up to the cameras with a note to his girlfriend, the mother of his children, asking her to marry him. Thanks to the powers of Facebook the affirmative answer came back pretty speedy.
I saw humanity in great light at the Jungle Marathon. The athletes this year were really strong and the camaraderie that was formed was incredibly impressive and humble. We often were clueless as to what we were doing, where we were going, and the RD was often out of site and instructions were always scarce. But the athletes, the British medics, the Japanese film crew and most especially Yuki all came together as competitors and life-long friends. It was the hardness, the harshness and the lack of support that made the Jungle Marathon the race that had the biggest hardest impact on me. Would I do it again – hell no!!! Am I glad I did? Absolutely.