A few weeks ago I did this thing called the Jungle Ultra. 230 self supported km spread over 5 stages in the Amazon jungle of Peru. Not only did I do it, I did it for the second time. The race is put on by Kris King and the folks at Beyond the Ultimate, and let me tell you, if you are looking for a fantastic adventure that involves running long distances in an exotic place, this is the race for you!
So, I ran this race last year as well, and I really, really loved it. How I came about doing it the first time is another story for another day. Second time around, it was kind of an accident. You see, it was the deep dark days of a long Canadian winter. I had my usual case of the winter blues, and was looking for something to keep me motivated to get out the door. I was dreaming of warm, tropical places, craving adventure, and just plain old needed something to look forward to. I casually said to David “what if I do the jungle again?” He replied, “Do it if you want to do it, it doesn’t matter to me”. So, I sent a message to Kris asking if there were still spots, thought about it for about 5 minutes, then did the thing and pushed send. Oops, I did it again, accidentally signed up for a race without totally thinking it through.
In the ensuing weeks, I dusted off my backpack and dug my crappy little steam sauna out of storage, and set about training for the jungle yet again. Lots of backpack runs and walks, heat training in the sauna and on my treadmill, dressed for the arctic with heaters blowing hot air at me. When the time finally came, I felt really ready and strangely calm. I knew what was in store for me, yet I wasn’t afraid. I was just ready. So, off I went to Peru.
I arrived in Cusco and spent a couple of days enjoying the city and meeting up with some fellow runners, friends old and new. I enjoyed it, but I was relieved when it was finally time to board the vans and get going. The drive to basecamp was an adventure in itself. Narrow, rough mountain roads in a dodgy van with a driver who seemed to neither know, nor care, about passing rules. Blind hairpin curve? Perfect place to pass. We had a couple of stops along to the way to take in some views and buy snacks in a market, but 5 or so hours later, we arrived at basecamp in the cloud forest.
The cloud forest is a beautiful place, a stunning valley filled with sunlight one minute, clouds the next. Kris was on hand to greet us, and our tents for the night awaited. This was to be the only night we had the luxury of tents…all other nights were spent swinging in our hammocks, which were to be carried on our backs along with all of our other gear. We had a briefing and registration in a nearby lodge, and our gear was checked. The rest of the time at basecamp was spent getting to know our fellow competitors. There was much comparing of gear and talk about how much everything weighed, laughter and banter, but as darkness settled in, so did we, trying to get some sleep before the adventure really began in the morning.
The morning dawned warm and sunny, and there was a lot of nervous excitement . Bags were packed for a final time, breakfasts were choked down, and a band was on hand to add to the excitement. Finally, it was time to go. The route started with a little jaunt down the road, before taking a turn into the forest for a long single track descent through the forest. At times the trail was very steep and technical, but it felt great just to be going! After reaching the bottom of the valley and getting our feet wet for the first time crossing the river, we came to the first checkpoint. Just a quick stop to refill the water, then keep on going. Only now, we were going up. First a very steep section requiring a rope, then up, up, up on big switchbacks, finally coming out at the road. The rest of the leg was a downhill run on those same rough mountain roads we had driven on the day before, a sheer living wall going up on one side, and dropping off on the other. Dozens on waterfalls cascaded across the road at fairly regular intervals, ensuring wet feet for the remainder of the day. I knew the road was coming, and I had a strategy for it. Run 1000 steps, then walk and take water and occasionally food. Repeat. Counting steps is not for everyone, but it works for me. It keeps my mind off everything else, I don’t think about if my feet hurt, or I’m tired, or whatever else. I just count and enjoy the rhythm of it, and it keeps me going. Before I knew it (really! I was surprised by it) I arrived at Cock of the Rock, the camp for the night. Cock of the Rock has two hammock stations…one up a short steep hill that is covered over, and the other at the bottom of the hill, out in the open. As it was starting to rain, I was happy to be able to secure a spot in the covered over place. Cold showers were available, and hot water for making food, so after I got my hammock set up, I braved the cold shower, then made my ramen noodles and chatted with other runners while eating and relaxing, all huddled under cover out of the rain. Darkness comes early in the jungle, and with the darkness, its time to climb into the hammocks and drift off to sleep to the sound of the nearby river, and the rain on the roof.
Funny thing about stage 2. After completing the jungle last year, I really had no recollection of stage 2. I remembered starting, and finishing, but really nothing in between. So, stage 2 was going to be a surprise for me this year. The funny thing is, even after just doing it a mere 3 weeks ago, I really still only have the vaguest memory of this stage. Weird, right? What I do know, is that after leaving Cock of the Rock on the road, we made our way into the jungle, travelling first on a slippery, rocky trail that was a little bit treacherous and had a lot of water. After that we moved onto single track trails, I think. It was a lot of fun ups and downs, and a nice hike up the middle of a rocky stream. Along this stage is where we saw the enormous, beautiful iridescent Blue Morpho butterflies which inspired the tattoo I have on my leg. My tattoo is pretty, but nothing compared to the real thing. There was mud and water and trails, and it was hot. Really hot. I had done my heat training though, so the heat was not really an issue for me. I knew at the finish line for the stage was a beautiful bathing spot in the nice, cool river. Though my memory of the stage is vague, I do know that as I crossed the finish line I said “that was so fun”, which for some reason made everyone around me laugh. Maybe everybody did not find it as fun as I did? I was asked if I wanted shade first, or to go directly to the river. I opted for the river, as I had been anticipating it the entire day, and it was as lovely and cool as I had been hoping for. After cooling off and rinsing off in the river, it was off to the hammock stations to set up camp for the night. The sun was still shining hot and bright, so I hung up my clothes with the hope that they could dry a little bit before dark. One of the worst things is putting on those cold, wet clothes in the morning because nothing really ever dries in the jungle. I skipped the cold shower since I had rinsed off in the river, so it was on to getting some food and rehashing the day’s events. Some people had feet that were in pretty bad shape by now, but thankfully mine were fine. I did have a little chafing starting on my lower back from a seam in my shorts, but one of the fine folks from Exile Medics taped it up for me to keep it getting any worse. As I climbed into my hammock, the sun was still shining and it was sweltering hot, but before long, the sun when down and the air became cooler, so I wriggled into my sleeping bag and off to sleep I went.
Stay tuned for Part 2….
All photos taken by the talented Mikkel Beisner