*blows the cobwebs off* Hi friends! Yes, I know its been an awfully long time since I last wrote here, but I’m here now so that’s what counts, right? So many things have happened since I last wrote…I ran a bunch of races, I finally completed a 100 miler, I had a big adventure in Belize, and lets not forget the global pandemic where we all have had to radically adjust our lifestyles and learn a whole new language…COVID-19, social distancing, shelter in place, etc etc etc. But I’m not here today to talk pandemic, I’m here to tell you about my big adventure in Belize that took place earlier this year.
After I finished my 100 miler in late October, I was getting antsy because I did not have anything else lined up after that. As I was browsing facebook one day I saw that a racing friend of mine was signed up for a jungle adventure in Belize called Escape From the Jungle. I was immediately intrigued. This was a race format I had never seen before….part ultramarathon, part adventure race, all self sufficient, like really self sufficient….sourcing your own food and water for the duration of the race and setting up your own camps all while navigating with map and compass. While the €5000 price tag did give me some pause, I justified it by telling myself I would have a week of special forces training before the actual race, so it would totally be worth it.
In the weeks leading up to the race, there was very little information forthcoming from the race director Shirley Thompson, who had previously been at the helm of the Jungle Marathon race in Brazil. The race pack on the website was scant and had obviously been cobbled together from the Jungle Marathon race info, and not written anew for the new Escape race. Oh well, I told myself, I have done jungle races before, not a problem. The only other information the racers were provided came from a couple of newsletters, also providing very scant information. There was a kit list on the website, and a totally different kit list in one on the newsletters, and a lot of confusion in the facebook group page that had been set up for the competitors. Oh well I told myself, I have done other jungle races before, not a problem.
As the race started getting closer, I started getting more and more nervous simply because of all the confusion and the lack of information, and conflicting information. Nobody seemed to have the same information regarding kit, and some people even had the wrong information regarding dates! I kept telling myself it would be fine, and off I went to Belize.
On the morning of the pick-up, the 14 competitors and several of the medics all met at the airport in Placencia to board a school bus for the drive to the training camp. There was a lot of nervous energy and a lot of talk about all the confusion and lack if information leading up to that moment. After several hours on the bus we pulled up to a farm in the jungle and were told we were here! But wait….where was the training facility? Where were the special forces members waiting to whip us into shape? Where was the race director and the race team? Turns out everything we were promised about the training week had been false…there was no training facility, there was just this farm on the edge of the jungle. There were no special forces members, there was just a guy called Marcus, who yes did know a lot about the jungle and how to survive in it, but was no special forces member. There was not even a race director….we got off the bus and were told by the medics that Shirley had taken ill and was not to be joining us. Where then was the assistant race director and the race team? Turns out there wasn’t any of that either. There was Marcus and his assistant, there was the group of medics, and there were the competitors, all wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.
I won’t go into a ton of details about the training we received, but let’s just say it was severely lacking. I know Marcus did the best he could and he does know his stuff, but he’s not special forces. He was also never given the training schedule that we had been given, so he was making it up on the fly. He also expected us to have a different skill set than the bunch of lycra-clad runners who showed up at his farm. But there was nobody in charge. The training we were getting was not the training we needed. There was a lot of confusion and tension. The competitors were feeling nervous, frustrated, and unprepared. Marcus was feeling frustrated because we were not what he expected. The medics were feeling frustrated because we expected them to know what was going and and they didn’t know any more than anyone else. Plans kept changing, nothing was as was promised to us, and Marcus was having to make adjustments on the fly when it became clear that we were not the highly skilled adventurers he was expecting.
As the morning of the race dawned, everyone was feeling nervous and unsure. With the disorganization continuing, we finally got away several hours after the expected departure time to drive to the start of the race atop the highest mountain in the region, where we would spend the night. The drive was an adventure in itself, leaving the highway for steep dirt roads that turned to mud as rain began to fall. When the trucks had gone as far as possible, the rest of the way was on foot to our home for the night atop the mountain. Here the teams were paired up with our local guides who were to accompany us along the race route….great guys who know the jungle well, but also not the special forces instructors we were promised. My team consisted of myself, Robin, the only other woman in the race, and Jason, a man I was already acquainted with from the Jungle Ultra in Peru last year. Our guide was to be a young local guy called Osmin. The guides were being sent with us not to help us in any way, but just to make sure we were safe and not doing anything super stupid and risky. We also finally got a look at the map and the co-ordinates for the first check point, which we were to reach by the end of the second day. It looked like the navigation from the start to the first check point would be pretty straight forward…simply follow the trail down to the river and then follow the river until the bridge, where we would find the check point. No problem.
After a cold, windy night in our hammocks, we were up in the dark to get ready for the first day. There were 6 teams with a staggered start so we wouldn’t all be jammed together at the first big obstacle, a 200 foot waterfall rappel. The first part of the route was actually marked, the only part of the entire race that would be. Off we went down, down, down the mountain on a steep, technical, muddy trail through the jungle. After several hours we came to the waterfall. Originally we were to set the ropes ourselves and maneuver our own way down, but with the lack of experience from the majority of the racers, Marcus decided it would be in everybody’s best interest to get to the waterfall first and set the ropes to make sure everybody got down safely. One team was still at the waterfall when we got there, so we had a bit of a wait before it was our turn. I have to say I was terrified! Not only did we have to rappel down the fall, but we had to fashion our own seat harnesses out of a webbing strap. This was one of the few useful things we had learned in our training week, and I made sure I had practiced it and knew it well! As I sat there waiting for my turn, my panic began mounting. I was so scared. Finally, at long last, it was my turn. I made my harness, got hooked up to the ropes, took a big breath, and stepped over the edge. Without a doubt the scariest thing I have ever done! However, I did it, and once I got started, I immediately started laughing because it was so fun!!! Once that hurdle was over, came the horror of the river.
I knew it was going to be a really long day when I took my first step onto the rocks along the side of the river and immediately went down, the first fall of about a million billion. I have never in my life walked on something so slippery! For the rest of that day, and all of the next day, and even half of the third day the options for following the river were walking on the super slick rocks, bushwhacking through the super thick jungle alongside the river, or swimming. In many places the river was shallow and the cliffs were steep, so the only option was walking on the rocks. I can’t even begin to describe this nightmare…every single step had to be carefully planned and plotted, the rocks so slick that even when you thought you had a solid place to step, down you’d go. By the end of the first day my legs were a solid mass of bruises from smashing down upon the rocks again and again. The option of hacking through the jungle was no better…it was hot and the jungle was super thick, and the cliffs were steep. Most of the time, this was no option at all. Finally we decided that whenever we could, the best option would be swimming. Luckily we could all swim, because after all the sketchy race pack had said that no swimming would be necessary, that all water would be shallow enough to wade through. How wrong was that!! On the second day we spent a solid 10 hours in the river…wading, falling, swimming, going through rapids and over waterfalls, hauling ourselves in and out of the water dozens of times. It was exhausting. We were cold, we were tired, we were hungry.
The only food we were allowed to bring with us was a small quantity of rice, which was our main source of food. Yes, we did manage to catch a few fish after we stopped to camp for the night, and we did cook up a pot of river snails, but compared to the amount of energy we were expending, it was not near enough, so we were hungry. Add this lack of calories to being immersed in a river all day, a sure recipe for hypothermia. There was more than one time when Robin and I, both being a bit on the small side, found ourselves shivering and needing to lay out in the sun for a bit while eating a few bites of rice that was soaked in river water to try and get our body temperatures up. Not exactly what you’d expect from a jungle race! All of this being submerged in the water also made for a lot of wet gear! Because I am such an over planner and over thinker, my own gear was actually fine and for the most part stayed dry….I had everything in individual dry bags, which were all inside a larger dry bag, all wrapped up in a plastic trash bag. The others in my group were not so fortunate, and ended up with sopping wet sleeping gear and no dry clothes for night time. Jason’s sleeping bag was a lost cause and he ended up sleeping on the ground by the fire for all the remaining nights….not ideal for sure!
One of the most frustrating parts of the second day was not knowing when or if we were going to make it to the check point. We knew that was the goal, and even though we had a map we had no references to tell us where we were, how far we had gone, or how far we had to go to reach the bridge. We knew we had to leave the cliffs and the hills behind, so every time we came around another bend in the river, we were expecting and hoping to see the end of the hills, but every time we came around another bed in the river, all we saw was more of the same. More river, more hills, more cliffs. When we finally decided to stop for the night I don’t think I have ever been more exhausted, but even though we were stopped we still did not get to rest. Jungle had to be hacked out on the cliffs to make room for hammocks to be hung, fire had to be started, wood collected, things hung out to dry, attempts to catch fish or forage for food, cooking the food, and filling and purifying water bottles all had to be done before finally collapsing into the hammock for the night, then up at first light to start it all over again.
Day three started much the same as the day before, wake up, eat a bit of rice, break camp, then back to the river, on and on down the endless river. By about mid-day Osmin suggested that we leave the river and try and take a short cut through the jungle to reach the check point. We all agreed that this would be a good idea, mainly because we were all desperate to get out of the water. By this point it was also clear that we were not going to be able to finish without Osmin helping us a great deal more than was originally intended, but we were fine with this. So, with Osmin leading the way, off we set through the jungle, hacking our way through, occasionally finding a bit of trail, occasionally finding a few bites of edible plants. After a few hours we came to an old abandoned logging road and Osmin knew exactly where we were. We were all feeling pretty low but his point…hot, tired, hungry, frustrated, and a little bit defeated because we were a full day late making it to the checkpoint. Just when we were at our very lowest, Osmin had us take a turn…right into the most beautiful citrus orchard I had ever seen in my life. Oranges!! Beautiful ripe, juicy oranges hanging on trees all around us. I have never tasted anything so delicious in all my life….we sat there on the ground in that orchard and stuffed ourselves with oranges, juice streaming down our chins and hands, and suddenly the whole mood changed. We had food in our bellies, and right at the bottom of this orchard was the checkpoint! As we walked down through the orchard, a truck pulled up behind us with a very irate orchard owner in it. He was none too pleased about us trespassing on his land, and was threatening to make us go back the way we came to leave. We managed to talk him around to letting us just continue the short way to the gate, and as we were leaving and beginning the short walk on the road to get to the bridge, he pulled up to us again, only this time he was full of apologies for his previous behaviour and offered us up a big bag of oranges and a ride in his truck the short rest of the way to the bridge, all of which we happily accepted!
As we got to the checkpoint, we learned that only 2 teams had made it there by the second day, and they had only done so by having 18 hour days, without really stopping to get food or sleep. The most amazing thing though, was the the remaining 4 teams, all taking a different route, arrived at the checkpoint literally within 30 minutes of one another. One of the teams opted to leave right away and make their way to the much closer second check point and camp there that night, while the other 3 teams, including ours, opted to camp near the river and the first checkpoint and head for the second one in the morning. We walked a short way so we would be away from the highway, and set up a nice little camp. It was still early, so we spent some time getting the hammocks slung nicely and tried to get some fish, though with no luck. Osmin had gone off to charge his phone at the nearby home of a friend, and when he came back he had the best of all things….an iguana that he had sling-shotted out of a tree for us to eat for dinner!! We quickly got a good fire going while Robin took the iguana to the river to gut it for us. I got to work with my machete and cut some sticks to use as a spit, and then got Mr. Iguana dressed and spitted, which left Jason in charge of the cooking. We had a virtual feast that night…who knew an iguana could taste so good!
We set off early the next morning to check point two…this section was easy mode, first a jaunt down the Hummingbird Highway, then walking on some side roads, and finally an old dirt track. By late morning we had already reached the checkpoint. After collecting the coordinates for the next checkpoint and a short stop to study the map and decide upon a route, we were on the move again. The route finding looked easy on the map…go around the lake and then follow the creek out to the Manatee river. In reality though, we were in for another nightmare because what the map failed to show us was first of all, a massive cave system, and second of all, the steep, sharp limestone cliffs along the creek that made simply following it impossible. It very soon became clear that it would be much more difficult than we thought. We did manage to get around the lagoon, but then in trying to locate the creek, and a way to follow the creek we ended up going around and around in circles in the cave system. In caves, out of caves, backtracking, circling around for hours. The only good thing about this time was the troupe of spider monkeys who seemed jus as excited to see us as we were to see them. During this time we were joined by one of the other teams, a duo from Japan, both of whom I had met and raced with at the Peru Jungle Ultra. Even with both of our guides helping, it still took a tremendously long time to find our way. The jungle was thick and dense, it was extremely hot, humid, and buggy, and everything kept jumping out to try and trip me. I do have to say after tripping for what felt like the millionth time, I did have a little tantrum. Not my finest moment for sure, but certainly everyone else understood and they just let me have my little angry cry.
By now the afternoon was wearing on and we were not much closer to finding our way out. Hiro, one of the Japanese men, was starting to feel the heat, exhaustion, and dehydration. His partner took his pack for him, and I went ahead to the guides to tell them we needed to stop for the night very soon. They soon located a lovely little spot beside the creek where we made camp for the night. After a little rest and some food, Hiro thankfully started feeling much better. After a nice little bath in the creek and a chance to catch up on fluids, I started feeling more like myself again too, and we actually had a very nice evening there by the creek. We started out again early the next morning, with more of the same, hacking through thick jungle, wading in the creek when we could, just moving forward as best as we could. Soon though, we found the trail to take us away from the creek, back into some farmland and roads that wold take us to the Manatee River. We cut through another orchard on someone’s farm that was teeming with fruit, but after our encounter with the previous orchard owner we were a bit more careful. The guides went ahead to talk to the farm owners, and we were given the all clear to pass, even given as many bananas as we could eat as we passed through the farm yard. We were also told that all of the other teams had passed by that way, so we knew we were on the right track, even though we were dead last. After we left the farm we were back on the dirt roads, and after a bit of navigating we found ourselves at checkpoint 3 by mid afternoon.
Because we were so far behind and had no hope of doing the entire course in the 5 day limit, the last four teams were all driven from checkpoint 3 to a place where we would be able to reach the end in the time allotted. The other two teams had already been taken, and so, after being filled up with snacks by the wonderful medics, my team along with team Japan and our guides were loaded up into a truck and taken to a spot along a different river and dropped off….but not without first stopping at a local tamale stand to fill our bellies! As we were being dropped off, the skies opened up with the kind of downpour where you are instantly soaked through. Luckily for us, our guides knew of a little short cut, however the short cut just happened to be through the land of a known local drug king pin. The road we were walking on was paved so that planes full of contraband from Columbia can land there! The first people we came to, the guides stopped to have a chat with them to make sure we could safely pass. Also luckily for us, the man they stopped to talk to was a childhood friend of Osmin! He told us he would have to speak to the boss to make sure he would allow it, but for us to carry on for now, so off we went. Before long we came to the edge of the property and out onto a dock jutting into the lagoon where there was a big palapa to shelter us from the rain. Now we had a big decision to make because the next part of the course was a 2km lagoon crossing.
What we had to decide was if we wanted to cross the lagoon now, with darkness about to fall, or to find a place to camp for the night and cross in the morning. After a long debate, we decided to cross right then rather than wait for the morning for a couple of reasons…one reason was the rain…though it wasn’t raining right then, the sky was heavy and without a doubt rain would surely fall during the night. Secondly, there weren’t exactly many good places to hang a hammock there on the drug lord’s beach. We could have hung them in the palapa, but then we would be over the water and it would likely be cold. Thirdly, at the moment we set off, the lagoon was very calm and we worried that if we waited until morning the water would be rough and make the crossing more difficult. As it turns out, this third point did not matter because very soon after we set off, the wind picked up and the water became very rough.
We had been told that the water was only chest deep and we would be able to wade the entire way across. It certainly started out shallow enough, but because neither Robin nor I are very tall, the water was soon over our heads. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to swim with a fully loaded backpack on your back, but let me tell you it is very difficult. Once the water got too deep for Robin and I to touch bottom, I clung onto Hiro’s pack and Robin hung onto Jason’s and together we made our way across the lagoon, with them just barely touching bottom and us kicking as best we could with shoes and packs on. As it got darker and darker we lost sight of the peninsula we were heading for. Thankfully there was a blinking light at the end of it, so we just kept heading for the light with super slow but steady forward progress. Finally, after well more than 2 hours of this slow and steady progress, we reached the other side!! We were done! We had finished the race! We pulled ourselves out of the water and found….nothing. No finish line. No onlookers. No medals. No nothing. No cell service to call someone and tell them we were done. No place to make a camp because it was all private land with private homes. Just a huge, anticlimactic nothing. Super, super disappointing.
After getting past the fact that we were actually finished and nobody was there for us, we needed to act and make a plan. We had been in the water for over 2 hours, we were soaked and exhausted and the wind was howling, making us feel very, very cold. We decided to head to a house that had some lights on and see if we could borrow a phone to call the medics for a pick up. Turns out the home was owned by a lovely woman named Nancy who just so happened to own a little hotel right there on the point. As fate would have it, we were able to book ourselves some rooms and spend the night inside her lovely little hotel. In the morning the medics caught up with us and we waited for the last team to cross the lagoon and make it to the finish before being driven back to what turned out to be a very luxurious hotel for our after party.
The upshot of the whole event is this. Yes, the concept of the race is very good….take a bunch of inexperienced people, give them some intense survival training, then set them loose in the jungle with very limited supplies to find their own way to the finish line. Was it a really great adventure? Yes, it sure was. Was it what any of us signed up for? Not really. Where were the special forces instructors? Where was the special forces training we were promised? Where, in fact, did all our money go? That part is a mystery for sure, because most definitely this race cost a ton of money to enter, yet was done on what felt like a shoestring budget, right from camping in Marcos’ yard, to him being the one trainer, to being crammed with 9 people in a small pick-up truck for the 6 hour drive to the start and back from the finish to the hotel, right to putting 4 people into a hotel room with 3 beds and not even buying us a drink at the afterparty. And so many other things that went wrong or were not as promised when we all signed up. I did have a really great time to be sure, but honestly, had I known what was actually going to happen I would not have signed up for this race. The limited amount of training meant that the race was very dangerous. There was more than one time when I thought to myself just how much peril I was in. Proper pre-race information, and proper training at a real training facility with real survival trainers could have mitigated so much of the danger. I mean, if someone was a non-swimmer and read the race information and saw that one did not need to know how to swim for the race, then showed up and was expected to not only spend 3 days navigating a deep and at times dangerous river, and end by swimming 2 k across a lagoon? Well, their race would have been over before it even started. Would I recommend this race to anyone else? Absolutely not. Not unless a lot of things change, but I can see from the website that she is still advertising it exactly the same, same promises of special forces instructors, same promise of being able to wade through any water encountered, same misinformation, same exorbitant price.
One final note, the two teams who finished the entire route, doing 18 hour days on minimal food and sleep have my utmost respect. There is no way I could have navigated that river in the darkness, as they had. These 4 men came into the race with much, much more survival knowledge and experience than the rest of us, and showed that it actually can be completed, so to these gents I say again, well done. For the average person with limited survival knowledge however, it was just downright dangerous, and I actually resent being put into that position.
If you have managed to read this far, I thank you! This ended up being much longer than I intended, and to be honest I left out a heck ton of details. So many more things happened that if I had of included them all, this would be 3 times as long!!! So, thank you for reading, stay safe and well, and just keep moving forward!