Explorers Connect

The most dangerous jungle ultra marathon in the world

Adventure RevolutionJames Hipkiss
"I was aware that I was surrounded by some very seasoned ultra distance runners, and shall we say that with my three specific training runs, I am not one of them"

Well what can I say, it feels a lot longer than three weeks since I was running through the Amazon rainforest in what has been pitted as the most dangerous ultra marathon in the world! A race that would see me run self sufficient (the only thing that was supplied was water) for seven days and cover 258km (160miles) of deep jungle, logging roads, stunning beaches, mangroves, swamps and creeks. So, how did I come to be out in northern Brazil in an average temperature of 35℃ and 85-100% humidity, running a race that would normally be saved for watching on Trans World Sport on a Saturday morning, thinking that the competitors must be the elite in ultra distance running and even just a little bit, ok, very crazy?

It all started when UVU (www.uvu-performance.com) a new running performance clothing brand approached The Third Space (www.thethirdspace.com) and asked if they would be interested in running specific UVU Jungle Marathon (www.junglemarathon.com) classes, with a view that at the end of a twelve week period we would organise a competition that would see the winner and the class trainer going out to compete in the jungle that October. The question was brought up in the gyms fitness meeting as to who would like to run these classes, which resulted in everyone turning their heads and looking at me! Volunteered unanimously, charming! Anyway, I couldn't wait to get started and also was so excited to take part in an extraordinary race and visit a part of the world that was still on my tick off list. The classes ran a minimum of twice a week, with a few additional sessions thrown in on some weekends. I left the majority of the road and trail pounding to participants own time armed with a minimum running programme that was both progressive in weight to be carried and also weekly mileage.

The sessions were mainly based around stamina (muscular endurance, not to be confused with cardiovascular endurance) training so involved low to medium intensity resistance for a high repetition range of between 25-100 of big movements, designed to stabilise joints and increase resilience to muscular fatigue (an area of training that is normally overlooked by many distance, let alone ultra distance runners). I combined this type of training with pool sessions to work on different techniques for swimming with a float (waterproofed day sack during the race) and significant amounts of wading, skills that would be used considerably along with hill sprint sessions on Primrose Hill. I added some clothing, equipment, navigation, hydration and nutrition training to both inform and also to give choice when it came to deciding on which approach would work best.

The competition took place at the end of August so that whoever won would have a month to prepare themselves and also have time to gain permission from work and most importantly significant others! My competition involved five tests, four physical and one mental, with those who placed first to fourth earning points and with the person winning the most points overall, winning. The competition saw thirteen competitors giving their all with Soho fireman, Stuart, coming out on top. Three more competitors, Flo (my girlfriend), Liz and Sabine, had already decided that regardless whether they won or not that they would join us, so then there was five. September saw the five of us buying and testing kit, trainers and sock systems and trialling different electrolytes during runs to see what would work and also where we could save weight, as being self sufficient means that everything has to be scrutinised as there really is no room for luxuries. I will list and comment about everything that I raced with at the end of this blog, but including the compulsory 2.5 litres of water that we had to start with each day and leave each checkpoint with, my starting weight on day one was approximately 12 kilograms and it all fitted into a 25 litre day sack without using a front pack. It could only go down right? Not nearly as much as some, but by no means the lightest.

After four flights we landed in Santerem, in the Para region of northern Brazil, and were met by Shirley Thompson who has organised the Jungle Marathon for the last ten years. A fifteen hour boat ride with a brief stop in Alter de Chao to have dinner and pick up some more competitors, saw us arrive at the small community of Prainha on the Tapajos river, which would be our home for the next day and a half. Here we had our kit and medicals checked and received talks on the flora and fauna that we would come across and what to do if we got bitten by anything, from the local Bomberos (firemen) and also presentations from the medical team on the signs and symptoms of dehydration and heat illness and foot care and blister treatment. Stage one started bright, but not too early and was, in the whole big scheme of things, a very short day of only 24 kilometres, which was much needed as we hadn't been able to come out earlier to allow ourselves to acclimatise, which quite a few of the other competitors had done.

As I was aware that I was surrounded by some very seasoned ultra distance runners and shall we say that with my three specific training runs I am not one of them, I thought the start of the race would be my only opportunity to be in the lead, so I sprinted from the start line and remained first for all of about 200 metres! I knew my limits so slowed and sat into a rhythm of just listening to my body, which I kept going for the majority of the race, and ran when I felt cool enough and walked when I could feel my core body temperature rising. This routine and pace seemed to be very similar to Stuarts so we ended up running together until stage five. After some jungle, one small water crossing a bit of swamp and some cheeky little ascents and equally cheeky descents we ended up at the village of Pini. Stage two brought much of the same, but started with a significant river crossing that saw several different approaches from competitors. Some went barefoot with their socks, trainers and whole day sack put into a large dry sack which they then used as a float, which meant a lot of time sorting themselves out on the other side, but also meant that they would have dry feet for at least the first few kilometres of that day.

I went straight in with my day sack, but I did have a four foot sling that I cows tailed around the shoulder straps and then slung the sling across my body and over one shoulder, which allowed me to swim totally unimpaired as my day sack bobbed behind me (this was my preferred method when the rivers were big enough to swim properly), which meant I was not just kicking as most people were and so saved my legs a little. Stuart managed to get a spike from a particularly aggressive looking tree through his foot, which over the next couple of days with lots of dirty muddy swamps and water would turn septic. Another 25 kilometres of mixed and varied terrain saw us at the finish at Tauari, where, as with everyday the important routine of not stopping to relax, but find that all important place to hang our hammocks, not too close that you can smell the toilets and not too close that you get bothered by everyone making their way to top up on water or to fill their dehydrated food with hot water, was just, if not more important than how fast to run on each stage.

Once the hammock was up my ritual of my kit before myself, drilled into me from 14 years in the Royal Marines, meant it was straight into the river to wash the sweat, dirt and sand out of our clothes, socks and shoes to try and keep any chaffing and subsequent infections at bay, then we were able to sit back in the hammocks and finish off any snacks that we had remaining that we had not eaten during that days stage before having our hot meals in the evening before bed. Stage three saw us swimming, running, walking and clawing our way across rivers, through dense jungle and up and down some of the steepest ascents and descents that we had come across up until this stage for approximately 40 kilometres, whilst constantly being vigilant for anything that could be lurking in the water and for the jaguars, whose habit we were now well in, and who like to live in the trees and look down on their prey.

I was always aware of how steep a hill was as the steeper they would get, the less myself and Stuart would chat (normally putting the world to rights or taking the piss out of each other). Another strong, but sensible day from Stuart and I saw us finish in Piquiatuba for a night in the deep jungle, much to the disbelief of the serious ultra distance runners, in ninth place and with an eighth the day before, both feeling relatively fresh and with very little issues, if any, with our feet. Much to Stuarts amusement I had a trip, which turned into a fall, which then turned into what I thought was an uneventful roll, but on washing myself in the river after the stage I found three spikes sticking out of my arm. These were extracted fairly simply and were surprisingly long, but it was quite evident that there were several others that were still embedded in my arm, so with the help of Flo and the medics they managed to extract most of the remaining spikes (I still think that I have at least one still in my forearm that is trying to work its way out).

This was now spikes 2, Jon and Stuart 0! Stage four from Piquiatuba to Jaguarari, which in our route book had been described as an easy day before the long stage, proved to feel a lot longer than it actually was with long sections along compact sandy roads, which would normally have been a dream to run a long, but due to being in the extreme heat of direct sunlight was extremely energy sapping and also meant that I was going through my water and electrolytes very quickly, whilst trying to keep dehydration at bay. This stage was very similar in distance to stage three with just shy of 40 kilometres being covered, but it definitely did not feel like the supposed easy day that it had been sold to us as being, but a fifth place was a welcome result.

This was also the end of the 120 kilometre point and the end for Sabine, as she, along with five other competitors had signed up for this distance, but upon reaching this point nearly five times that many people decided to call it a day, due to wear and tear on the body, trashed feet, and I think just the realisation that we still had not completed half the race. Stage five saw us start the long stage (108 kilometres), which started at 4:30am, requiring us to reach checkpoint five (48 kilometres) by 2:30pm if we wanted to carry on through the night to the end of the stage. Those that did not reach checkpoint five by this time would be held until 6:00 am in a deep jungle camp until the next morning, as they did not want anyone moving through the highly jaguar populated area of dense jungle during the night, but without the clock stopping. This was the first time that we had a specific time and distance goal and we set off relatively strongly and pretty confident that if we just did what we had been doing throughout the other stages of being sensible with our pace, that we should have no issues reaching this cut off.

This section saw us in more deep jungle, open roads and with some significantly long sections of shin bashing creeks and with a section of swamp that took us about 50 minutes to travel one kilometre, it was going to be a long day! It was during this stage that my niggling ankle from stage two just started to become extremely uncomfortable due to the repeated inversion and aversion of my ankle on the unstable ground, so at one of the checkpoints I quickly strapped it up with the hope that this would reduce the issue. Unfortunately, it had little if no effect and I was starting to realise that if we stayed together, I was not only going to start slowing Stuart down, but would also possibly ruin his chances of making the cut off, so I sent him off (much to his reluctance) to go on at his own pace.

As expected he made it to checkpoint five comfortably within the cut off, however, unfortunately with my pace now considerably reduced I came in approximately 40 minutes (3:10pm) past the cut off and so was subsequently held there until the next morning with the clock still running, much to my frustration, as apart from my ankle I felt relatively fresh and combined with some good results on the previous stages and the feeling that I felt a huge change with my acclimatisation as I was remaining hydrated with significantly less fluids, I was not happy to say the least. Twelve people managed to make the cut off and continued through the remaining afternoon and well into the night, with some deciding to hang their hammocks on route to get a few hours sleep, whilst a handful of people pushed through and completed the 108 kilometres in one fantastic step.

Feeling very sorry for myself, I then received news that Flo had pulled out due to an achilles problem, so was desperate to find out where she was and how she felt as up until this time, both her and Liz, who had stayed together, had finished each stage very comfortably and always looking completely fresh (much to the disbelief of most and I am sure a little jealousy). With very little news coming in, it was of great relief when she appeared after being dropped off by one of the support vehicles so at least we were able to spend the evening together in the deep jungle camp, even if neither of us were completely happy with our situations. This first part of stage five had caught quite a few people out with many coming in after dark and with one person needing a considerable amount of immediate care from the ever superb medical team after being found in the dark almost 17 hours after starting the stage sat at the side of the road totally unaware of who he was.

The second half of stage five recommenced at 6:00am and covered more deep jungle, one the of the biggest river crossings to date and some serious anger management issues whilst trying to negotiate some mangroves and swamp, whilst not being completely convinced that I was going the right way due to a lack of markers, but as I ran on the beach past Alter de Chao, knew that not only was the end of this stage fairly imminent, but also the end of the race. The end of this stage seemed almost surreal as I knew that I only had one easy, so to speak, stage to do. The final stage started with a very similar air amongst the remaining competitors as the start of the race, with mixed feelings of excitement about finishing, which if you had completed this much of the race it is almost a given that you are going to finish this last little stint, which follows the coastline along the most amazing and beautiful beaches, but also feelings of is this it, purely through the bodies or more specifically the brains amazing ability, even after this short period, to already have forgotten the pain and extreme fatigue from previous days.

Everyone seemed to have a good day with some fantastic times, considering the mileage already achieved during the week and I finished in seventh place during the final stage and tenth overall, with Stuart finishing in fourth for the final stage and fifth overall and Liz finishing as the fourth girl. Considering where we were and the fact that we were in essence running or swimming through a considerable amounts of insects, animals, fish and reptiles homes we actually saw very little. One iguana sunbathing on a beach, one boa constrictor, which didnt really count as it was shown to us by the Bomberos prior to the start, Dan from the UK had a close shave with a stingray, which decided to spike the side of his foot the day before we started, Flo slid down a steep slope only to find a scorpion on her arm, one of the checkpoints apparently had a jaguar run past them, Flo and Liz had a sloth crash through the trees and land right in front of them, two caiman that I saw not even ten feet away from me as I moved very slowly through knee deep mud (I moved considerably quicker once I saw them!) in the dark, several tarantulas and lots of frogs around some of our camp sites, bats every night, which was fine as they ate any flies that were about and reports of a extremely long anaconda that was pulled out weeks before we swum down one of the creeks, but by far the biggest issue were the ants and not necessarily the ridiculously large bullet ants, but the tiny fire ants that would just seem to find their way onto your ankles, hands or wrists as you climbed over tree trunks and where their bites were by no means life threatening they were very annoying and irritating.

The night brought the animals, well the noise of them, which was like a full on riot in stereo sound, led mainly by the howler monkeys who just seemed to be riling everything up, until someone decided to pull the plug at about 3am, when it would fall almost silent until the sun rose. Several people didnt sleep for the first couple of nights! When it came to food and hydration choices there seemed to be a couple schools of thought from those who would try and save weight and literally live of a liquid diet during the day made up of energy powders, which they mixed with water and energy gels to those whose bulk of their day food was crushed up crisps! I decided to go with what I knew worked for me and as I am certainly not built like a long ultra distance runner and as I am happy to carry a bit more weight I decided to have slightly more day snacks than most, and also as I wanted to stop my body from breaking down too much lean muscle.

Each day during the run I carried three different types of energy and protein bars (for texture and taste variety), a small packet of sport beans (energy jelly beans) that I topped up with normal jelly beans and Tooty Frooties (I would always have a few pieces of beef jerky after eating these to slow down the energy release as I didnt want to have a any energy spikes or dips), an energy drink (to be mixed with water) a packet of peppered beef jerky (for the protein and electrolyte replacement) and electrolyte tablets that I added to the water bottle on my left shoulder (reserving the right one for water only) to which I sipped regularly and simply used how they tasted to gauge my replacements needs. If it tasted ok, I needed it, tasted awful it was too concentrated so would sip more from my water bottle. We had the opportunity to have hot water in the mornings and evenings so I opted for expedition (high calorific (800+kCal) versions of normal camping food) dehydrated meals and apart from the few packets of porridge with strawberries that I would have for breakfast I mainly had normal meals for breakfast and dinner, be that pasta bolognese or chicken korma and where some people had issues stomaching some of there food Im used to seeing food purely as fuel and therefore a necessity.

One of the biggest problems in this environment is foot care. We would start most days with a river crossing and each day would also have several water elements to them from mud to swamp to streams and rivers; so our feet were constantly wet as the humidity would not allow trainers and socks to dry out, the heat meant they would get even more saturated in sweat and then throw in trainers and socks filled with sand and dirt it was the perfect recipe for some seriously trashed feet. 

Compeed and other blister patches simply do not stick so the preventive measure for most was wide strips of zinc oxide tape placed over potential rub points, however, when a rub occurs peeling the tape off normally results in big patches of swollen skin being torn off. When there were blisters that needed popping and treating by the medical staff they would prescribe what is affectionately known as a hot shot - this is where the fluid is syringed out of a blister and then to ensure that it does not get infected the medic would then inject tinc benz (tincture of benzoin) into it, which for the first 20 seconds is excruciatingly painful. I finished the whole race with one tiny blister on the end of one toe, which did not need any treatment (I did not even notice it until one of the last days).

My approach was to ensure that I had the most comfortable (as in least rubbing) trainers that I could find and then to wear a two sock system (mid weight Injinji socks as an inner with a Compressport outer) with a small ankle gaiter to keep as much dirt out of my trainers as possible. I then wore these same two pairs of socks for the first five days, before giving in and changing them, ensuring that I washed them out every evening. I then used lots of talcum powder on my feet after each day to help dry them out and also used lots in my toe socks as I put them on. I did not train with wet feet as suggested, clearly had not put the mileage in and I did not tape my feet at all. Stuart, who apart from the incident with spike, completed the whole race wearing Vibram Five Fingers, a race first, with very few issues. So, would I consider it to be one of the most dangerous races in the world?

As this is my first ultra distance marathon I dont really have any other ultras to compare it to, but looking at it as a Royal Marine who has trained and operated down to -60℃ within the Arctic Circle through to the dry heat of the Sahara and Middle East and the heat and humidity of the Far East, I can safely say that the potential for a serious incident, be that animal, injury or climate inflicted is extremely high and combine this with the huge variety of terrain is significantly high, but this is what makes this an extremely interesting, fun and a serious challenge to anyone of any ability. I say this as I firmly believe that any regular gym goer has the ability to finish this, granted it will take a while, but finish none the less, however, what is required is a huge amount of mental strength to be able to keep it together when it is hot and your feet are blistered to the point that the medical team have to intervene to sort them out. I also say this as even the most seasoned ultra distance runners had at least one bad day as it only takes one day of pushing too hard and not being able to keep on top of their hydration for them to quickly deteriorate.

The people who I think found this race the biggest challenge were not the elite ultra distance runners or even the novice entrants who had come with the simple aim of just finishing, but the elite standard athletes in other disciplines such as half or full marathons and the Ironman triathletes as it seemed that some of them tried to approach the race as a one or even a part day race, expecting to be able to run the same pace that they would do in either training or ideal circumstances and put simply, not being able to as the need to be able to pace oneself and also work extremely hard to remain hydrated, including being extremely anal about electrolytes and eating on the go was so paramount to success and not something that you could get by with by simply ignoring it. This race is a simple test of patience and mental resilience with the ability to block out the fact that it is a 258 kilometre race and to not even see it as 8-12 kilometres to the next checkpoint, but to literally break it down as the next bend in the track or the other side of the river. My recommendation to ALL is once you have finished reading this to then go and look at the race website as this is definitely one to be remembered for all of the right reasons!

A huge thank you to UVU for sponsoring this fantastic event, Shirley Thompson for organising and laying down the challenge that is the Jungle Marathon and of course to The Third Space for agreeing to run these classes.

Race Kit: INOV-8 Race Pac 25 litre without front pack 2 x 750ml Raidlight bottles with drinking tubes (left one for electrolytes and energy sachets and the right for water only) which lived permanently on the shoulder straps in INOV8 bottle holders 2 x INOV-8 500ml bottles carried in mesh side pockets of day sack with the elastic around the neck Oakley Jawbone sunglasses The North Face long sleeved ultra lightweight half zip base layer - for relaxing in 2XU calf compression (worn once) Under Armour compression tights (worn once) 2 pairs of Injinji mid weight mini crew as a liner sock 2 pairs of Compressport Pro Racing Sock as an outer sock INOV-8 Debris gaiter 32 (essential) INOV-8 Roclite 309 shoes (fantastic shoes with a great toe bumper to protect toes) Lifeventure EX3 (anti mosquito treated) silk liner Lifesystems Expedition Endurance Cream insect repellent Lifesystems light and dry first aid kit (supplemented with pain killers, dioralyte, 21g needles, scalpel blades and wide zinc oxide tape as stipulated on the compulsory kit list) Lifesystems tic tweezers (put to good use!) Lifesystems waterproof matches (not used, but compulsory kit - added some cotton wool to top to stop rattling and to use as fire starter if necessary) Lifesystems chlorine dioxide tablets - water purification (not used, but compulsory kit) Lifeventure assorted sizes Dri-Store bags - to keep all kit sensibly separated for ease of admin and also to ensure that everything was waterproofed Lifeventure pocket sized soft fibre towel (a little bit of a luxury) Lifeventure Aloksacs assorted sizes to keep media/batteries dry GoPro Hero 2 with spare battery, head mount, ultra compact and lightweight telescopic pole and SD cards (luxury) Powermonkey Extreme solar charger (luxury) Garmin Fenix GPS watch Buff Fingerless gloves (useful on steep ascents/descents when grabbing trees) Sea to Summit AlphaLight long handled spoon (essential to get to the bottom of the meals!) Hennessy Hammock Ultralight Backpacker with snakeskins (truly awesome!!) Silva starter 1-2-3 (could have gone for smaller keychain type as no maps/map books issued and also had digital compass on watch) Leatherman Style CS multi tool Rab Aeon t-shirt (silk weight and extremely comfortable throughout the whole race) Nike 2 in 1 camo running short Bam sports trunks Talcum powder (essential) Mammut headtorch Cheap flip flops for around the camps Hydration Energy: Maxifuel Electro Tabs (electrolyte and mineral tablets) - as required Maxifuel Viper Active sachet (1 per day) Maxifuel Viper Active bars (apple and cinnamon) (1 per day) Powerbar Natural Energy Cereal Bar (cacao crunch) (1 per day) Clif Energy Bar (crunchy peanut butter and white chocolate with macadamia nut) (1 per day) Sport Beans (1 packet per day - I mixed lots of flavours and then topped up each packet with a few normal jelly beans and a few Tooty Frooties!)(1 packet per day) Recovery: Maxifuel Recovermax (took both orange and strawberry - one drink on completion of each stage) Food (one hot meal in the morning and one in the evening): Mainly REAL Turmat dinners (800+kCal), which I would have for both breakfast and dinner (spaghetti bolognese my favourite!) A few Be Well Expedition breakfasts (porridge with strawberries (844kCal))