The Jungle Ultra, Men’s Fitness, Dec ’12
Ultra Maraton des los Andes y La Amazonia
It must end soon. How high can this hill be? My heart’s beating like a hunted deer. I hear a rustle behind me. I look round to see one of the local Peruvian runners speed past me, grinning. ‘It’s OK for him,’ I mutter, ‘he bloody well lives here’. I hate being overtaken, but if I go any faster, my chest will explode. Wiping the sweat from my eyes, I plough on, thinking that just maybe, this might be the toughest day of my life.
Numerous planes, trains and automobiles have got me to the ancient and beautiful city of Cusco (and potentially Machu Picchu). I am joined by 16 other international runners (over half of them British) that are here to tackle the inaugural Jungle Ultra, a 230km, six-stage, seven day ultra marathon. It’s not only the first ultra marathon in Peru, but also the first in a series of four Ultimate Ultras, each in different terrains and climates: mountain, ice, desert and jungle. You must also be self-sufficient, carrying enough food for 7 days, medical supplies and in this particular instance, a dodgy looking hammock that I would personally come to hate.
After being weighed, measured and questioned on our sanity by the helpful medical staff from Exile Medics (who’s job it was to make sure we finish the race), we make our way to the start line. The first 36km stage begins at 10,000ft in the stunning but chilly Andean Cloud Forest of Manu National Park. Below us, hidden by a blanket of candy floss like clouds, we would descend a crippling 7,000ft into the Amazon Basin, where we hoped it would be a bit warmer. We are on ‘holiday’, after all and no one expects to see condensation on their breath in the jungle.
We set off, but within minutes, I could barely breathe, let alone put one foot in front of the other. The altitude effect was crippling. It was as if someone had cruelly tied my laces together – then decided to put a plastic bag over my head.
By the time I reach the first checkpoint, only 6kms later, I am exhausted. Looking to see where I need to go next, I could have swallowed my tongue when I realised I was about to go up the other side of the valley I had just come down. ‘Iss good, yess?’ a local says to me in broken English, as I stare gormlessly at the vertical, 3,000ft climb ahead of me. ‘No, it bloody well isn’t good!’ What have I let myself in for? I’m soon to find out!
With one stage behind me and exhausted from a first night’s vain attempt to sleep in a hammock, I walk stiffer than John Wayne across to the start of the 34km Stage 2. I was apprehensive, because today we’d not only experience our first of many river crossings, but as we exit the mountain range that dominates the Cloud Forest, we’re heading right into the epicentre of a hot and humid Amazon rain forest.
The temperature starts to rise, the fierce sun occasionally hitting us through gaps in the dense foliage. Within the depths of the forest, we hear macaws screeching above us, probably warning the inhabitants of the jungle that we’re coming. Whilst making my way down a wet and treacherous rocky path, I’m brought out of my reverie by another runner, South African Guy Jennings. Relieved to have each other’s company for a while, we continue on together to the finish (and the rest of the race).
After each stage, we all quickly establish a routine of immediately eating, looking with envy at each other’s food, before tending to our feet. Foot care is crucial. Luckily I had no blisters to worry about, whereas a couple of the runners would be contorted in pain as the medics repaired their feet.
We head off on the 34km third stage, our packs two days of food the lighter. We’ve not run more than 5kms before hitting a river. Because of last night’s downpour, what would normally be a calm river has become ferocious, so for safety’s sake we’re zip lined across. With Guy and I clinging on, we watch with glee and some alarm as we’re pulled across by two locals, old enough to be our grandparents. That night I sleep better and prepare for Stage 4.
At 26kms, this was supposed to be one of the shortest stages, designed to allow us ‘rest’ for the following 90k day. ‘Four hours’, we reckon and make good speed at first, running along twisting trails and past majestic Avatar-esque waterfalls, worthy of stopping for a photo. All good!
But suddenly, the path disappears without warning becoming a ledge no wider than a child’s foot. With a hundred foot drop below, I do what Bear Grylls would do and gingerly grab hold of a tree root and edge myself across, trying not to look down.
Worse yet, where was checkpoint two? We find it at last, only to hit a hill
that would be better described as a mountain. With no choice but to zip up the anorak of courage we start to climb. And climb. And climb. It was like trying to run up an escalator in the wrong direction. After three more very emotional hours and tempers beginning to fray, we finally reach the top and finish after a gruelling 7 hrs 15. It turned out that there’d been a slight error with the signs and we’d done 36 km and not 26!
Everyone dreads the long day, but after Stage 4’s adventure, we didn’t feel it could get any harder. Thankfully, Stage 5 is shortened from 90kms to 63kms to make up for yesterday’s mishap. We are all quietly relieved, to say the least.
We leave at sunrise, taking it relatively easy, aware that we’ve a long day ahead. Nevertheless we make good time and reach the river we’re to follow for the next 30kms. The river banks are made up of energy sapping shingle making it exceptionally difficult to run on. We cross it back and forth, sometimes holding on to each other for support if the current is strong. Passing through deep and magnificent chasms, we are often forced to sopt in awe and appreciate our lucky we are. We’re the first people to run along this river, but we must push on as we need to finish before nightfall.
At the final checkpoint, we know we’ve only got 17kms left – not even a half marathon to go. After all, once we’ve completed this stage, we’ve as good as finished the race and tomorrow is Rest Day!
This really was ‘rest’, with no book, pen, paper or iPad to distract me. All I could do was sleep and relax, casually swatting mosquitos whilst reaching for more deet spray. And what’s more, I finally get to grips with my hammock, ready for the 5 am start of the sixth and final stage.
Still dark, we take it relatively easy, letting our head torches guide us. We’re not sure how long today’s stage will be, but with only one checkpoint, it can’t be far. An hour later, Guy and I can see the finish. It’s 6 am and we’re astonished to see the whole town are up to welcome us as we cross the finish. I come in second place overall with a time of 28hrs 22mins, Guy in third. Locals gather around us asking for a photo. Having received such generous hospitality all week, we can’t but agree.
I’ve made some wonderful friends and we’ve been the first to share in a journey that’s had us running along virgin jungle trails, wading across streams and rivers, clambering up cliffs, zip-lining across gorges, fighting insects, crawling under and over fallen bamboo trees and trudging through bogs. The jungle isn’t so scary after all, but potentially the most beautiful place on earth. We’ve had such an amazing experience. What’s next I wonder? A mountain ultra, anyone?
Thanks to Tribesports.com for their support