A group of us had been motoring along at a comfortable pace when the tall Brazilian runner ahead of me suddenly held up his hand to signal us to stop and pointed urgently at the ground. Slithering in the grass right across the trail was a distinctive coloured band bearing the red, yellow and black markings of a highly venomous Coral snake. Had we trodden on it carelessly, it would likely have subjected us to an intense bite full of neuro-toxins that could have been potentially fatal. This was just another reminder of the beauty and danger inherent in the sea of green teeming with life that we had chosen to immerse ourselves in.
Death threats to the racers, elusive jungle trails, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, stingrays, caimans, tarantulas, jaguars, highly venomous coral snakes, legions of stinging and biting insects, debilitating heat and humidity, razor-sharp plants, multiple swamp crossings daily and endless hills – all these and more were ostensibly the reason why CNN billed the 250km UVU Amazon Jungle Marathon as “The World’s Toughest Endurance Race”!
Racing in the UVU Amazon Jungle Marathon had always been high on the list of things I had wanted to do. In 2005, after completing the 250km Gobi desert ultra-marathon, I was inspired to follow that up by taking a trip to the Amazon rain-forest to experience the opposite extreme – going from very dry to very very wet. However, work and life conspired to necessitate an 8-year interval between those two races.
The insult of injury
An Achilles tendon ‘tweak’ sustained in 2009 during a simple trail run with friends became full-blown tendonitis after I forsook much-needed rest for the intense training required to climb Mount Everest. Though I summited successfully, a 4-year odyssey of frustration ensued as I was unable to string together more than a few short runs before re-injury. For one who loves sport and running, this 4-year hiatus was one of the most challenging periods of my life. I did, however, manage to sneak in other trips during that “lull period”, such as a ski-expedition to the North Pole, and training in the Arctic circle in winter. But the joy of lacing on my trainers, hefting my pack and running that same ill-fated trail almost four years to the day of that wretched injury, was incomparable. I was finally able to run on a trail again, and not a moment too soon – as the Amazon was only a month away.
Before we begin…
Set deep in the Amazon forest of NW Brazil, the race had a deceptively simple format: 6 stages, 7 days. The kicker was that besides a marked trail, water, medical resources and a nightly camp-site, all of which was provided by the petite but incredibly formidable race director, Shirley Thompson, and her team, everything else.– food, clothing (for racing and sleeping), medical kits, hammocks, jungle knives and other survival items – had to be brought along by the racers themselves.
Ensuring the optimal race gear trade-off meant endless rounds of packing and re-packing during the first two days in the jungle before setting off. We agonized over the number of power gels and salt tablets to bring along, jettisoned unimportant and important equipment and conducted interminable exchanges of “Does anyone have spare safety pins/ anti-malaria tablets/ head-lamps/ batteries/ wet-wipes…”. In such an extreme environment, a missing piece of gear could have disastrous consequences, but carrying too much could also overburden one (literally). In the end, most of us had packs that weighed between 6 – 10kg. Not light by any means, especially when you factored in the weight of the packs when completely soaked, and the many hills we had to climb, but not overly daunting..
Besides receiving training to familiarize us with the jungle flora and fauna, those two packing days also gave us the opportunity to acclimatize. I had once read an account about a desert race where the heat had been described as being a passive killer. (I’m not sure if I completely agree with that description as the 50+ degree Celsius heat I had to endure in the Gobi desert was certainly significant.) In contrast, here in the Amazon, everything seemed to be actively trying to put me at the bottom of the food-chain. The humidity and heat took an intense toll on my body. Thankfully, I was quite well-adapted to the environment, and found it strangely familiar and comforting, reminiscent of the climate back home in Singapore as well as the other tropical jungles of Borneo (Brunei) and West Malaysia where I had spent a significant amount of time.
By the second night, we were all rather anxious to get racing, for we knew that once we got started, there would be no more second-guessing, and our nervous energy could finally be put to good use.
Let the games begin!
On the first day of the race, I woke up at 5am to add boiling water to my meal of freeze-dried food – my hearty breakfast. The camp-site was a hive of activity with headlamps dotting the darkness as racers started packing away their hammocks, applying unguents and lotions to their nether bits which were likely to blister, putting on their racing gear and refilling water-bottles. The tension was palpable.
Day 1 – The hills are alive…with the sound of blistered footsteps
The first stage began on the beach with a mad dash for pole position and then up a steep hill out of the village we had been staying at. Having been through this kind of melee previously, I was a little more measured; after all, this was only the first 23km of a 250km race.
The first 10 minutes brought us all to our first check-point, where there was a mandatory 15 minute rest (required for all check-points in the first two days to reduce heat injury) followed by our first river-crossing. This would be the first of many river and swamp crossings for the race, often the very first thing we would do at the start of each day, and our feet would rarely be dry for the following 7 days.
In the jungle, we waded through deep muddy swamps. I’m not sure what comes to mind as you read these words – perhaps a bit of dirt, or mud up to your shins, shoes need washing – but here, we’re talking about mud akin to the Florida swamps that I once had the pleasure of traipsing through for several weeks – swamps that suck you in and never spit you out; a competitor in a previous edition of this race DNFed simply by losing his shoe to the extreme grip of the swamp!
Once away from the swamp, there was a series of steep hills to ascend – leg-burning, lung-busting hills. It was interesting to see who was relatively stronger on the downs, the ups and the flats as we would constantly swap places with other competitors. Coming from the table-flat terrain of Shanghai, where the nearest hill is more than an hour away, this was a serious stumbling block for me – literally and metaphorically. Along with the ups came the downs – steep descents often meant sliding and slipping, with the nascent emergence of hot-spots within the shoes, that were also full of grit. The conditions for blister formation – heat, moisture and friction (the unholy trinity) – were all present in copious amounts, and later on, we would see the toll that it took on the racers. With the heat, hills and pace, the first day was very punishing and took me over four hours to complete, about an hour behind the race leaders. I later overheard that someone had told Shirley that a racer from the previous year had scoffed at how easy the first day was – I guess this was our pay-back. We had our first heat-injury case that day, with one of the competitors from UK, Lee, being pulled-out and given IV at the medical tent. We were treated to a comfortable camp-site next to the river that night, but that just meant that the next day would start with a swim across the river.
Day 2 – Can you take the heat?
And so the day began, as anticipated, with a river sojourn. Unfortunately, my big dry bag became completely non-functional and de-laminated, so I ended up carrying lots of water IN my dry-bag, along with my pack. The second day was also scorching hot, with more segments of open road, and occasionally, one would see competitors crash out at check-points. The second night’s campsite was in an open area near a cemetery – appropriate, for a few people were already starting to feel like they were dying. One of the good friends I had made so far, Theimos, had 5 huge blisters on each foot drained and refilled with friar’s balsam – it was meant to act as a hardening agent to hold the dead skin in place, like super-glue, but the down-side was that it felt like someone was taking a red-hot poker to raw skin. His screams as they plunged the needle in were of decibels unheard of outside of medieval torture chambers. (His daughters were quite impressed with their dad when they viewed this on video; his ex-wife was pretty pleased too).
Day 3 – Creature (dis)comforts
The third day was another 34km, this time deep in the heart of the jungle, which we shared with many creatures. I also found out the hard way what interval training in the jungle was like; when the bees and hornets come swarming at you, you are pretty incentivised to kick things into gear and sprint like your life depended on it (which it did, in a sense). We came across these angry bees several times and had to make a mad dash for it. What made this even more perplexing was that I had soaked my clothes in Permethrin – a strong insect repellent that is supposedly especially toxic to bees – but I guess they did not receive the memo.
Day 4 – Easy does it
Day 4 was the marathon stage. The first leg began with a swim down a fast-flowing stream that had numerous fallen trees in the way. The extremely exhausting and painful challenge lay in clambering over these obstacles without chafing or scraping our skin that was already in states of agonizing rawness. Speed, or any attempt at it, was practically impossible. We did a kilometre or two of this slowly, then the fresh fast-flowing water petered out into a swamp, and then it was just swamp, swamp and more swamp. The second half of Day 4, however, was a more forgiving, but still long and hot, slog on the road, before finally arriving at a beautiful beach.
That night, as we were getting settled in and were preparing for the next morning’s 2am start, a town-hall meeting was suddenly called. One of the local competitors, who had been in first place, had been caught cheating via motorbike, and had been disqualified. Irate and humiliated, he had made threats against the race and the new first placed racer, Given that our route went past his village, there were concerns about the racers’ safety as well as much discussion about what to do next: Proceed as planned, retrace our steps or …?
The tension was high, especially for the organizing committee. For the rest of us, the main worry was about getting as much rest as possible before the 108km stage; essentially, we were only halfway through the race.
Day 5 – The race must go on
On Day 5, the decision was made: we would carry on, with a modified route entailing a boat ride around the affected area. However, this meant that what was usually a time cut-off (60km in 10 hours) to prevent people from ending up deep in the jungle at night was now a cut-off by place – the first 10 to reach the 38km mark would push off first, with a 3 hour round-trip between the launch and drop-off point. I was determined to make that cut-off, but I knew it would be really tough. By this point in the race, I had consistently been around 15th in the pack and would have to dig deep to make it. During the first leg, I got lost in the jungle, and thought I was out of contention. I found out at the first check-point, however, that I was in 10th position, but the 11th and 12th guys were right behind me with another 20km to go. We had a long spell of running along the beach, jungle and road. I summoned all the reserves I had, pounding a few power gels along the way and I arrived at the check-point within 15-20 minutes of the front pack. In 10th place! It felt like catching the last chopper out of Saigon. The rest of the night was spent on the beach, pushing, running and walking. Part of the beach trail was not marked, but we were now a team of 4 – JP, a super fit Dutch soldier; Krystof, a polish engineer who had studied in Singapore; Jason, a former trader from the US who had just finished B-school; and me.
That night was unforgettable; we fought fatigue and exhaustion as we moved along the beach, climbing rocks and trying to find a path. Near daybreak, we were making up time on the front team, when we suddenly found ourselves in a deep swamp in the dark, with no trail to follow, and no more water. All our attempts to skirts around the swamp or follow the road were to no avail. In the end, we had to take a school-bus to the nearest town (the kids smelled so clean and fresh, we were really embarrassed), catch a cab and hitch a ride back to the end-point so we could run back to the finish line. That night was epic, and made fast friends of the four of us. In the end we must have covered an extra 30km and what would have been a super-fast time had us arriving only near the mid-pack – the challenges of not speaking Portuguese.
Day 7 – The end is in sight!
The final day saw us run the last 10km along the scorching beach and take a final swim before reaching the finish line, where we started the first of many good meals!
The race in review
Behind the blisters – training and preparation
Whenever describing the race to others the response is often one of shock or incredulity – “Why would any sane person want to do something like that?”
And it is true that the race is challenging, but ask any racer what was really tough, and they’ll tell you about the hours they put in training. One of the coolest guys on the trip was a huge, tough New Zealand-based Brazilian called Marcelo, whom we nicknamed “Big Daddy” because of his amazingly caring disposition. He shared that he would run to and from work 20km a day on Mondays to Wednesdays, then bike on Thursdays and Fridays with even more training on the weekends. This was pretty typical of the group.
As for me, living in flat and smoggy Shanghai meant that my only option was to pound the pavement along the Bund wearing a face-mask at 2am after work with a 10kg pack of rice. Clocking training time was really tough, so I had to make do with some stair-climbing before work at 7am, or hit the gym for half an hour at 3am after I finished my Powerpoint presentation.
Similarly, sourcing for gear and equipment was a nightmare. The irony was that despite the fact that the gear I needed were all made in China, they weren’t sold here, at least not in sizes larger than US11! In the end, I had to order my shoes from the US, ship them to UK, pick them up while transiting through London, and clock a mere 10km on them in Regent’s Park before the race started. Thankfully, they worked really well for me.
Sights and sounds on the trail
The sounds! The cacophony of sounds – from “Big Daddy’s” incessant snoring, and the crackling Brazilian military radio, to misinformed roosters that thought day-break was at 3am, and the distant howling of the monkeys at dawn – all audible from the comfort of my hammock made me forget all about the urban madness that was Shanghai, and my staid corporate life back there.
Blood, sweat and tears…literally
There were a multitude of injuries, from a huge gash that split open the calf of one racer (mind you, he still finished, the swamp and swims notwithstanding), to heat-related debilitations and massive monster blisters engulfing the whole foot. I recall one night the Japanese runner came dragging in past midnight completely trashed, and the other runners were helping to treat him by headlamp as he lay on the table – it was a scene from out of a war movie. Massive full-body heat rash, abrasions from the backpack were pretty much par for the course. As for me, I escaped pretty unscathed, by which I mean that my whole body was speckled with blood spots from the heat rash, and was completely sunburnt and cut-up by the plants and the insect bites. But my feet remained completely blister-free throughout the race. In fact, the most severe damage was to my laptop, which suffered a completely shattered screen during its journey in the cargo hold of the ship
What makes events like this really special for me are the amazing people I get to share it with. The group that I hung out with the most were the people who, like myself, arrived on the last possible flight in. There was Dr. Sebastian Haag from Germany, a compact super-cool racer who was a top-notch ski-mountaineer and worked for UVU, the race sponsor. There was the aforementioned Marcelo who exemplified the depth and breadth of care and concern for others one can have, even in such a challenging environment. Super tough and determined Mariana was the French ‘ghost’, nicknamed as such because she slept in a ultra-light one-piece white outfit. Vegetarian for health reasons, she never ever quit, despite getting lost a few times on the trail. Greek Theimos had planned to do just the 42km race till we convinced him to do the 122km segment. Together, we laughed, and swam and raced and ran and ate together for the full 10 days, and it was simply magical. There were some really crazy guys, like the Japanese runner in the full Cow outfit (Don’t ask me what it was for, nobody really understood whether it was an environmental message or he really liked to eat beef). There were so many others that I struck up great conversations and friendships with – the volunteers and medics, many from the US or UK, as well as the photographers and many other racers from Brazil and abroad. All of us shared the same passion for adventure and a respectful appreciation of the jungle we were facing and that created a common language between us.
Back to life, back to reality
Within 12 hours of finishing the race, I was on board a plane to begin the 40 hour journey back to Shanghai. One regret I had was that I had flown so far without getting a chance to eve see Rio or Sao Paulo. My lower legs were so severely swollen with fluid by the time I landed that it took four days for the bones in my feet to become visible again. I arrived in Shanghai at 830am on a Tuesday and headed straight to a conference that I was organizing; back to the corporate life that couldn’t have been further from my surreal life barely 2 days before. That evening, as I stood in black tie attire at an office event, I found myself missing my hammock in the middle of the Amazonian jungle. Sometimes you find ‘home’ in the least likely of places.