The first time I did the Jungle, stage 3 was the “hard one” for me, the only one that reduced me to tears and made me have doubts, so as the day began for stage 3 I was nervous. I had built it up in my mind, but because I knew what to expect, I also came into it with a plan. Stage 3 begins with a little jaunt down the road, and then straight onto a zip-line. In order to shorten the wait time for the zip-line, the start was staggered, with the faster runners beginning 15 minutes before the rest of us. As it was, that still meant a 15 or so minute wait at the zip-line, which nobody really seemed to mind. It was fun watching others go across while chatting with friends and anxiously waiting my turn. Finally it came my time, and I was kitted up with a harness and a helmet. Three of us piled onto the zip-line platform and were pulled across the river by some very hard-working members of the Peruvian team. It was fun and exciting, but over all too quickly, and away we went running into the jungle
This stage is called “Logging” for the logging roads that we spent most of the day running on. The first roads were maybe what would come to mind when you think of a logging road. A rough road, in this case carved out of the bright red shale of the area. After that though, “road” is a term that is used very loosely. Kilometer after kilometer of track, thick, slippery mud down the middle with deep mud filled trenches on either side. One wrong step would find you knee deep or more in the grooves on either side of the narrow track. It was exhausting and seemed to go on forever. After finally finishing up this grueling section, the course moves back out onto the regular rough track that passes for a road in this part of the world. It is a relief to finish with the mud, but once on the road, there is scarce cover from the beating sun and it gets really, really hot. However, once again thanks to my heat training, I registered that it was really hot, but it didn’t really bother me. I enjoyed the first flat stretch of road, seeing first a troop on spider monkeys crashing through the canopy, then later one of tiny squirrel monkeys. One more check point, then came the part I had been dreading. The hill.
This hill, first time ‘round, was where I fell apart. I had worked so hard in the muddy section, then came to this long, hot hill, several kilometers in length. This time though, I was ready for it. I had held back a bit all day getting ready to climb this hill. And guess what? It wasn’t nearly as bad as I had been anticipating! I did a ton of hill work in my training, plus the heat training, and this time I was ready for it. Up, up, up I went, no problem. I was at the top before I knew it, and from the top I could see the village of Santa Rosa, our camp for the night. Last year, I cried all the way down that hill. I was so tired, and it just felt like I would never get there. That’s why when another runner passed me on the way down and asked me if it was far, I said yes. In my memory, it was so far. In reality, it was not really that far at all and I was able to run the whole way down and into the village. I came to the finish line for the stage with my arms raised, whooping in triumph because I slayed my personal dragon that day. Kris, who knew my struggles with this leg the first time, shouted something about me making stage 3 my bitch. It just felt really good.
As I was sitting, drinking my recovery drink, some of the village ladies were hefting my pack and giggling about how heavy it was. I just sat and took it in, enjoying them and enjoying seeing a couple of kids playing with soccer balls I had collected, and just trying to relish where I was and what I had done that day. It felt pretty great.
Soon though, it was time to head over to the hammock stations and set up my camp, rinse off the mud in the showers, get my food, and prepare for the night. As I was doing all of this, the rain started, and boy did it rain. And rain. I kept my fingers crossed that I had done a good enough job with my hammock and rain fly to keep me dry through the night…something else I had practiced for, but not really been able to try out properly. Thankfully, my set-up worked and I was able to stay dry, a good thing because the rain did not let up all night.
The morning of stage 4 started where the night left off…we awoke early, in the darkness, to the still pouring rain. We were to have a 5:30 start that day, but because it was raining so hard that was delayed so the trails could be checked to ensure they were still safe and passable. We got the word that the trails were good to go, and we would be setting off at 7:00. After packing up wet hammocks and gear and huddling inside a building waiting for word, we were all anxious to get going.
7:00 finally came, and off we went, into the wet jungle. The first part of the stage was not too bad, kind of fun even, the trails were in decent shape, and even though it was still pouring, nobody seemed to mind too much. Then we hit the mud. Endless steep ups and downs in the slickest mud you can imagine. It was impossible to keep on my feet at times. I would take a tiny little step and think I was ok, and next thing I knew I would be on my butt, sliding unstoppably down a hill. Or I would be ok, but then the person behind me would go down into a slide and take me out with them. At times, I just sat down and slid on purpose because it was the only way I could see to get down. It was treacherous, to say the least, and because I was near the back of the pack, the trail was totally churned up by the time I got there. It poured rain for probably half the day…at one point there was a reprieve in the mud as a boat took us across the river, and looking out from the boat, the rain was just a sheet of water over the jungle. After running up a beautiful black sand beach, it was back into the mud.
The rain finally let up, though the slick mud was there to stay. Beautiful waterfalls and little river crossings marked the way, and when I wasn’t trying to stay alive and on my feet, I remembered to stop and take in the beauty of where I was. Leg 4 has a short course and a long course. After one of the check points, I was told it was 5 km until the next check point, and to do the long course I needed to be there by 3:00. I really wanted to do the long course, so at this point I kicked it into a higher gear to try and make the cut off. I slip-slided through the mud, up hills and down, until I finally reached the river and yet another zip-line crossing. I had made the cut-off with 15 minutes to spare. I was given the option of taking the short course from there, which would take me almost immediately to camp, or the long course, a further 8 or 10 km, up a steep, grueling, muddy hill before descending down into the camp at Villa Carmen. I, of course, opted for the long course and began my trek up the long, long hill. After what seemed a lifetime, I made it to the top of the hill and the final check point before running down through the jungle to the camp. The descending trail was not nearly as treacherous as those we had been travelling on all day, and I was able to actually run my way down. It began getting dark under the canopy of trees, so I pulled out my headlamp to light my way. Finally, I arrived at Villa Carmen.
I arrived with a smile on my face and I was happy to be in camp, however, when it came time to put up my hammock, my mental and physical exhaustion finally set in and all I could do was stand there with my hammock in my hands, tears streaming down my face, as it began to rain again. One of my fellow racers saw me standing there, took the hammock out of my hands and told me to go and get myself sorted while he put my hammock up for me. I have never appreciated something so much in my life. It was an awesome gesture and meant so much. So, I handed over the hammock and went to the building that housed the showers. All I could do at that point was to sit down on some steps and drink my Recoverite, tears still streaming. I’m not even sure why I was crying, because it’s not like I hadn’t enjoyed the day. I had enjoyed it, enjoyed the challenge of it, had some fun slipping and sliding around in the mud, loved seeing the changing faces of the jungle. I guess the day had just taken a mental toll on me. I needed to have laser sharp focus the entire day in order to maneuver through the mud while trying to stay on my feet and not go over the edge of the trail, and once it was over the crying was just kind of a release. Kris and other racers stopped by and gave me hugs and pats on the back, everyone completely understanding what a difficult day it had been. Scott, a member of the support crew, even came and took my shoes and socks off for me, and took them to clean the accumulated mud off of them. Everyone was so kind.
Soon though, I collected myself enough to brave the cold shower. I had so much mud on me you couldn’t tell where my shorts ended off and my legs began. I rinsed and scrubbed and got as much off as I could, then made my way to the area where the hot water was available to make and eat my soup. I had no energy left for any kind of chatting, so after eating my dinner I went and found my hammock, put up better than I ever could have done it. I was told that some of the hammock posts were rotten, but not to worry because the ones mine were hung on were sound. I could hear others getting into their hammocks then crashing to the ground as the rotten posts collapsed under the weight. I was so thankful to have finished this day and be warm and snug in my hammock, and fell asleep listening to the rain falling once again.
We had already been told the previous day that due to unsafe trail conditions, stage 5 would be shortened to 70k, and everyone would complete it in one day. There was also to be a short-course option, the actual distance heavily debated after the event was over. My feeling is it was around 50k, but really it didn’t matter.
We started early, in the dark, running down the road and through the town where we would eventually finish. People were out in the dark cheering for us as we ran past, which was really amazing. Soon we came to our final zip-line crossing, after which we took a turn into the jungle. This was all new territory for me because in the previous year there had been a bit of vandalism, and trail markers had been removed. I, along with 9 or so others had taken the wrong route and ended up lost for a time, after which the course we rerouted due to unsafe river conditions. Because of this, I had no idea what to expect for the rest of the stage. I did know that in the description it said there were 50 river crossings on this stage so when I got to the river and saw the marker on the other side, I was not too surprised. What did surprise me though, was how deep the river was! That first crossing was nearly neck deep for me. Since I didn’t realize how deep it would be, I did not take off my backpack or remove any of my day’s food from the pockets. I did have my snacks in zip-lock bags, but I guess the week’s worth of jostling around had made little holes in the bags, so my snacks ended up full of river water. Nothing I could do about this, I would deal with it later.
After I got across the river and to a trail marker a little further down, the bank suddenly got very steep and unpassable, so the route crossed back over the river to the other side again. And again. And again. All 50 river crossings took place zig-zagging over the same stretch of river. Back and forth, back and forth. The depth of the river varied from knee deep rapids to places where swimming was necessary. Afterwards, my friend Dale told me his favourite line from the day was me saying “When they said 50 river crossings, they didn’t say we’d just going back and forth over the same f***ing river!” Finally the river crossings came to an end. I was cold, soaked, and my shoes and socks were filled with sand. At the next check-point I stopped and emptied my shoes and changed my socks so as not to get a blister from having all that grit in my shoes. When the medics at the check-point saw what had become of my nutrition for the day, they gathered up some of their own snacks and gave them to me so that I would be able to finish the stage. I was so appreciative.
After leaving the river, the course wound its way through jungle single track, creek crossings, and roads wandering through beautiful farmland. There was a cut-off of 3:00 for the long course, and while part of me really wanted to make the cut-off, another part of me was saying it was ok if I didn’t make it. As it turns out, I did not make it, missing it by less than 30 minutes, and of course in hind sight I think I could have pushed it and made it and done the long course. However, I did not. By all accounts, the long course was extremely hilly and difficult and people at the end were telling me I should be glad I didn’t do it, but I can’t help but feel disappointed that I didn’t get the chance. Oh well…next time?
When I finally got to the cut-off checkpoint and heard there were only 5 km to go, I suddenly got a big burst of energy and ran most of the way in. Crossing the bridge and coming into the town of Pilcopata, there were people cheering and showing me the way. Finally I could see the banners and Kris was waiting at the line, giving me a big hug before someone handed me the biggest bottle of beer I had ever seen. I had done it, finished the Jungle Ultra for the second time. So far, I am the only person who has completed it twice, which makes me immensely proud. This race is hard…really hard, but also wonderful and beautiful and the whole experience was so much fun.
This has turned epic length, so if you have read all the way to the end, congratulations, and thank you! Also thank you to all my friends and family for your unflagging support, because without that I could never have made it to the finish line. Just keep moving forward.
Beautiful photos all by Mikkel Beisner