I've always said my blog is a ‘light-hearted and honest account of my adventures', and while this is true, until now, they have been merely words that make me feel better about what I write. Until now. I had about 200 kilometres through the Amazon Jungle to decide if I wanted this blog to be an ‘honest' account of those five days. And you know, what the heck. 99% of what I do I love, but there is a small portion where I question my sanity. So, at my expense, the events from the five days in the Jungle make for a bloody good story (but not so great for my dating life!).
So here it is – The Jungle Ultra 2016. Warning: this is the uncensored version.
Jacqs and I had been based in Cusco for an amazing week leading up to the race. We had done everything in our power to get ourselves in the best possible condition heading into the race, which included daily yoga and runs in the surrounding hills, healthy eating, minimal amounts of alcohol (not easy!) and plenty of sleep. Unfortunately, a few days before we had gone on a day mission to Rainbow Mountain, the new ‘must do' tourist experience in Peru (another blog). And while it surely didn't disappoint, the horrific altitude sickness I got (we were at 5,050 metres) on my way down was less than ideal. But with a few days up my sleeve to recover, Saturday morning arrived, and I felt fighting fit and ready for the Jungle.
Dragging our suitcases along the cobbled Cusco streets just before 5am, we met the rest of the Running for Ranger's crew, as well as the other 40 competitors who had decided that 230 kilometres through the Amazon was an adventure they wanted to partake in. Minivans were loaded with all our gear, and just after 5.30am, we set off for the Cloud Forest Base Camp, a seven-hour drive to our first night's stop, occasionally stopping along the way for food and photos.
We arrived at mid-afternoon after a rather hectic car drive, where our driver must have had his weekly wage on him being the first vehicle to arrive (which also included a stop to pump up the tyre). We located our tents for the night and spent the next couple of hours getting our compulsory gear checked, a race briefing which covered the next five days, medical checks, re-pack the bags again (mostly Sam) and then have a look around. I was feeling very average, but as our journey had climbed to almost 5,000 metres, I figured it was just altitude sickness back to bite again as the symptoms were the same. Looking back, the only sign that was the same was a pounding headache, but now nothing was staying inside me for very long! I forced down some dinner and was in my bed before it had even got dark at 5.30pm, wrapped up in every item of clothing to keep warm. A solid 11 hours of sleep later I woke the next morning feeling slightly better but still visiting the bathroom more times than I have fingers.
The race started at 9am and was mostly all downhill for the 35 kilometres of the day. Lining up on the road we experienced our first taste of the Peruvian band, a real treat. Unfortunately, they only knew one tune, but still managed to get the competitors a little hyped before the hooter went off. The first section was on a gravel road before we turned and headed down through the forest to the river far below. It was quite easy really, but I was battling, so I took it slowly and walked almost all of it. Sam and Jacqs we were waiting for me at the first checkpoint at the stream below, which was so great of them, but I told them just to go, I knew I would get to the end it would only take me slightly longer than expected! We then climbed out of the valley and appeared back on the road for the last 20 or so kilometres to the finish.
I was struggling and not enjoying life. I was feeling nauseous, but I didn't want to be sick as becoming dehydrated was one thing I did not want to happen, so I ended up doing mega burps instead. I can only imagine what the other competitors thought when a five-foot-nothing female in a running skirt suddenly did an enormous belch and then carried on as if nothing happened. Care factor was at zero as to what others thought of me by this stage!
And then my worst nightmare – a fart became more than just a fart! I don't know how it happened, but it just happened. All I could think of was laughing far too hard at a friend who told me a story of when it had happened to him. I always thought it seemed like an impossible thing to do. Karma, it’s a bitch. So there I was, less than 20 kilometres into a 230km five-day ultra-race in the Amazon and I had already shat my pants. Horrific. I will admit I did wonder what the hell I was doing here, and how I could think these events are any type of fun. Thank goodness I was wearing a black skirt and not the grey bike shorts that I wore last year at MdS! I shudder at the thought.
Luckily I had just passed a checkpoint and filled up my water, so using one whole bottle I cleaned myself up there and then (staying hydrated was straight out the window). Standing smack bang in the middle of the road, because one side was a 500+ metre drop and the other was a cliff face, I had nowhere to hide. All fingers and toes were crossed that another competitor didn't come around the corner! Thankfully at least one angel was looking out for me that day.
I knew as long as I was moving forward I would eventually get there, so I just forced myself to put one foot in front of the other. Going through the checkpoints I made sure I smiled and looked like I was having a whale of a time, I could look like death at the end, but if you were put on a drip at a checkpoint, you were out. And pulling out before I'd even finished Day One was definitely not an option! After many more bathroom stops (there was no more tempting fate) I finally came around the corner to be greeted by a group of very friendly faces. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry; I think I may have done both.
I was well and truly back in the field, and the rest of the Running for Rangers team were all in when I got there. They were legends and took my bag and put up my hammock (along with 16 or so other competitor’s hammocks!) while I went to the medics and was given a dose of antibiotics and made to drink dioralyte plus three bottles of water. Finally, I admitted it wasn't anything to do with altitude and was a bug or food poisoning. I changed into my evening clothes, gave my running clothes another wash, forced a dinner down (I will never eat dehydrated Butter Chicken again) before visiting the medics to dress the blister on my back which had developed from my bag and bra rubbing. It just wasn't my day and to make matters worse it was pouring with rain, so I called it quits and went to bed. I never thought I’d look forward to sleeping in a hammock.
The rain had stopped during the night, but it was still overcast and damp and started raining again as we set off. I was feeling marginally better; the hardest part was making myself eat and drink, but I knew I had to if I was going to get through the day and enjoy it. We started on the road for about 15 kilometres before turning off and heading down a rough 4WD track, and our real first experience of the jungle. Jacq and I ran together for the whole day, which was great. At one stage we were so alone that we thought we had gone the wrong way, continually checking the ground for footprints from people before us. I spotted a snake which crossed the path in front of me, and the butterflies were incredible. At one stage we stopped for so long that one even landed on my arm (hardcore racing wasn't our strategy today!). Some were bigger than my hands and the most brilliant colours. We were mesmerised, (imagining we were in a scene from Heavenly Creatures) considering the largest butterfly in New Zealand is the Monarch. I'm sure there are bigger, but you get my drift.
Stage 2 was about 35 kilometres and beautiful. We cruised in and out of the forest, through farmland and up gentle streams. At times it was quite steep in places, and both of us had decided not to take poles (not the best decision), so there was a lot of slipping and sliding going on! But we made it to the end in good spirits, and the sun was out too.
The camp was next to a river, so after we put our hammocks up (again, thanks Pete), we went down and washed, letting our clothes dry on the rocks while we soaked up a bit of sun in the 35-degree heat. It was so lovely to be clean!! By now people were starting to get blisters but thank goodness this was not me. In fact, Sam and I were the only two from our team not to get any on our feet for the entire race. The North Face sneakers, NZ Sock Company socks and Gurney Goo – thank you, thank you, thank you. Looking back, the fact that I was sick probably helped me a lot as I didn't go too hard on those first few days.
All through the night, the resident roosters kept us awake, so by the time 5am rolled around I was more than ready to get up. The race started at 7am, and after four kilometres we experienced our first zip line river crossing. I ran with six other Running for Ranger's teammates for the day, an excellent way to get to know the new team members. I felt good for the first ten kilometres, but then my bug came back with a vengeance and for the rest of the race felt like death again. Sam was a legend and just pulled me along the whole way, with the team patiently waiting for me while I stopped to go to the bathroom.
We were cruising along in a line through the forest; I was second from the back when Jaime, who was leading the train, accidentally (so he says anyway!) knocked a hornet's nest to the ground. The first three managed to escape unscathed, but Sam, Ryan, Keith and I quickly became their targets. That was the fastest 500 metres I would run throughout the race (cue in the scene from My Girl, RIP Thomas J.). They just kept stinging us as we were sprinting along. I hate to admit it, but in true female fashion, I screamed each time they stung me (they bloody hurt!) and counted eight in total – down my top, up my top, on my neck, hands, arms and legs, these blighters were vicious! Once we escaped and hit the ‘safe zone' we stopped to put cream on them, as they swelled instantly (thank you compulsory items). Welcome to the jungle.
The last 12 kilometres of the day was back on a gravel road (what the heck, I thought this was a Jungle race?), with a slog up a hill before finally descending into the campsite. I was feeling terrible still, so after putting up the hammock and washing in the stream, I went back to the medics where they gave me another dose of antibiotics. The blister on my back had all but disappeared now, thanks to constant redressing at checkpoints and excellent care from the medics.
After forcing dinner down me, we milled around for a while before heading to bed. During the night the heavens opened so when we got up at 4am the next morning we took all our gear into a building close by and sorted everything out in there. Stage 4 had a lot of river crossings, so instead of starting at 6am like we were supposed to, we began at 7.30am, giving the race organisers enough time to check the course and make sure it was safe. Everything was still going straight through me, but at least I was feeling better.
We set off again in the rain, crossing a river up to my chest in the first 800 metres. I cruised along with Harry and Holly (aka Agent Badger) for the first ten or so kilometres. I was feeling great; it was all off-road and very similar to Mt Somers track with ups and downs, very much like what I was used to, just add 100% humidity! I loved it; finally, this is what I had signed up for. Single-track in the Jungle and not a bloody road in sight!
Cruising along in the zone, it took me a while to realise the other two weren't with me, so I kept going and after 20 minutes caught Keith and Jaime. We ran together for a while until it was just Keith and I. Gloves were a necessity as it was slippery and you had to be careful what you grabbed. Trunks were either super spiky or covered in biting bull ants. I chose not to look at anything as it freaked me out too much. I managed to get only one bite on my bottom (Lord knows how!), so I considered this to be a lucky day.
We caught up with Sam, who was coming back down a creek after going the wrong way, and the three of us spent the rest of the day together. We were all feeling good and ran when we could, slid often, fell over occasionally and powered up the hills. One of the weaker aspects of the race were the distances between checkpoints. We were told they would be every 10 kilometres or so, give or take a couple, but sometimes there wouldn't be a checkpoint for 16 or so kilometres. Not ideal when you're trying to keep hydrated but ration your water. I know this is an ultra, and you should be prepared for the worst, but I think this is one area that could be managed a little better (the poor innocent medics crewing the stations!)
Stage 4 also had a section called 'King and Queen of the Hill' which was timed. We were told it was about two kilometres to the top, but it most definitely wasn't, with Sam measuring five and a half kilometres on his watch. For those based around Mid-Canterbury, it was as steep, if not steeper than Little Mt Peel, and about the same distance, with many false tops! I was pushing myself quite hard (competitive) and started to go dizzy, so was forcing food down me. Finally, we reached the top (again, poor medics!) and had three or four kilometres downhill to the finish line.
Stage 4 was by far the most enjoyable day for me and the highlight of the entire race. It felt so good to be finally able to race properly and feel good too. We were in the top 1/3 back to the camp that night to put up our hammocks and had time to get everything sorted before the long stage the following day. Because of the rain, the course route had changed slightly, meaning it was only 75 kilometres instead of the original 90 kilometres, and everyone would finish the following day regardless. Because we were starting and ending in almost the same place, we were allowed to leave (only) our hammocks behind – finally, the pack felt noticeably lighter! I still had a funny tummy, so I asked the medics for another dose of antibiotics too, just in case, and Pete also gave me something from his magic bag of tricks. I did not want to feel average during the long day!
We set off just after 5am with head torches on and spent the first 15 kilometres on the road, running through villages where it seemed like the whole town was lining the street, taking photos and cheering us on. At the first checkpoint, we had spread out, and I was with Jacqs, Sam, Jaime and Ryan, and would end up spending the whole day with them. From checkpoint 2 to 3 we were told was about ten kilometres, but again it ended up being about 16 kilometres and taking us almost three hours. It wasn't as dense through the forest as the day before, but we cruised in and out of plantations, over paddocks, down roads and encountered endless river crossings. At one stage we spent about an hour and a half travelling down a river, mostly wading through the water (Coast to Coast training helped a lot!). Most crossings were below my waist, but there was the occasional one where I had the pack held above my head, and the water was above the nipples! Thankfully it wasn't swift. Jacqs and I were in front at one point, and both straddled a log, only to have Jaime come behind us and point out the massive spider on the underside. It took off running over the water (wtf), while we both sprinted over the water in the opposite direction!
Finally, we made it to the checkpoint at 1.30pm, out of drinking water and cursing Kris, the race director. Checkpoint 3 was the cut-off for the long course, which was 3pm, so we were praying the rest of the Running for Rangers crew that were behind us would make it in time. After a brief stop addressing blisters and refuelling, we headed up the road for a kilometre before turning back into the bush and up a hill. We knew we had a climb and 20 kilometres on the road left to the finish. It sounded do-able. Once again, the hill was brutal and took us about two hours to finally reach the top. We asked the medics if the rest of the team had made it to Checkpoint 3 in time, and were told the last four people to head up the hill were Holly, Harry, Keith and Matt. Stoked, the entire team would make it. We later found out they got to the checkpoint with two minutes to spare, only to be told they weren't allowed to complete the long course. But they were having none of that and went anyway, even if all the markers had already been taken down! Legends.
To put it simply – the downhill was hell on earth. It was steep, muddy and very slippery. There were parts where there was no other option but to sit on your ass and slide. New yoga moves were created, and walking poles were left far behind if they were still in one piece at all. The mood was incredibly sombre, with the occasional 'You OK?' being spoken each time someone fell. Basically, we were just checking no bones were broken, as no one was OK. Finally, just as it was getting dark and almost two hours later, we emerged from the hillside covered in mud and onto a wide braided river. I've decided that the Amazon Jungle is the same as the West Coast of NZ, but on steroids. Very similar, but everything is just so much grander in scale. We stopped for a regroup to go to the bathroom and each consumed another round of whatever drugs were being pulled from people's pockets. Sore and fragile feet meant a few DF118's were consumed too (taken off the market in the UK for being too strong).
Heading off we were presented with a new problem; we had no idea what way to go. We couldn't spot any of the pink marker flags or any footprints to follow either. After about ten minutes of walking in circles, we spotted a light downstream and started heading towards it. It turned out to be a Peruvian who was part of the organising team, who was putting out glow sticks to mark the trail. Crossing the river for the next kilometre or so, all linking arms so as not to be swept away, we finally hit the bridge and walked up to the road. We didn't hang around too long though as two very dodgy old pickups were parked under the bridge unloading products from one to the other. I immediately decided it was a drug deal because of course, it had to be, we were in South America after all, but most likely it was completely innocent. Heading up the road we came across Checkpoint 5, the second to last checkpoint of the day, only stopping long enough to refill the water bottles and have some food before heading on our way.
We were all feeling pretty tired and sore, but Ryan's feet were starting to swell, making it painful and slow going for him. We cruised along at a steady pace, knowing we were on the last section of the day. Many tales were told throughout the day; the typical 'Shoot, Shag and Marry', the odd ridiculous riddle and a new favourite 'Come Dine with Me'. We all scored each other on their meal, and I'd just like to add that stuffed peppers with blue cheese are delicious! Yes, I got last.
The mix of Kiwi and Kenyan accents also provided many laughs and had us eating ‘Tiny Titties’ instead of 'Tiny Teddies'. We spotted eyes in the bushes more than once and were even offered a ride from some friendly locals. We did seriously consider this, but brain fuzz from 15 hours of exercise meant we couldn't quite figure out how to tell the driver to go slow enough so the race organisers wouldn't become suspicious of five trackers going from an average speed of four kilometres an hour to 20!
After almost three hours of walking, we came around the corner to the final checkpoint. From our calculations, we still had ten kilometres to go, so there were hoots and hugs when we were told we only had one and a half kilometres left to the finish. At first, we didn't believe them until two of the medics said they would walk with us. Unbelievable, we were so close.
Those last few kilometres were awesome and even slightly emotional as we rounded the corner and spotted the lights of Pilcopata ahead of us, it was hard to believe it was almost over. The five of us had spent 16 hours and approximately 75 kilometres together to make it to the finish line, not to mention the previous four days. There were a handful of hardy people left to see us in; the band and photographers had well and truly gone home, but we had made it. Hugs, high fives and the odd tear managed to escape down a dirty and salty face. I knew I would get there, but the relief of having made it; it's that moment that made it all worth it.
We sat down and had a few well-earned beers and hot chips, recounting the stories of the day as we waited for the remaining four of our team to roll on in. Two hours later Holly and Harry appeared and an incredible two hours after that, Keith and Matt. Matt's feet were an absolute mess, how he managed to get to that finish line, I'll never know. So at 1am the whole Running for Rangers team stood on the finish line, finally completing what we set out to achieve five days earlier. We later found out that just over half of the 50 people who started finished the full course, and the entire Running for Rangers team made up ten of those.
I will look back on the Jungle Ultra and believe I pushed myself further than I have ever done before in a race. If you told me I was to run almost 100 kilometres with a 10kg bag on my back, with a tummy bug, I would have said I couldn't do it. But put in a situation where it's more than just you, knowing people are watching and willing you to succeed and for a fantastic cause, it's more than enough to keep you going. I didn't love those first three days, but I did the last two, and it was great to finish on such a high. I think I was possibly the only person to come out of that race in better physical shape than what I went into it!
It was an experience of a lifetime. I knew when I signed up it was going to be something epic, but what I got was far more than I ever expected. Hopefully, what we did as a team is enough to set a solid base for the Running for Rangers charity going forward. And for other’s who want to join the team, we’d love to have you on board, but I do think we’ve set the benchmark pretty high!
I've since discovered there is a secret club out there who have encountered interesting gastro experiences while racing. And from the few stories I’ve been told, I think I got off pretty lightly!
I was extremely fortunate to have sponsors who helped me get to the Jungle, so I just want to say a big thank you to The NZ Sock Company (their socks are awesome, highly recommend!), The North Face, Suunto, Skins NZ, Salomon and Gurney Goo. You guys rock.
Note: All Beyond the Ultimate images were taken by Mikkel Beisner.