I got interviewed!

A huge, huge thank you to Katie Campbell Spyrka, owner of the blog “Lessons in Badassery” for putting together this interview with me. Katie’s blog showcases “badass women in sport, fitness, and adventure”. To read more amazing interviews and articles and to follow this awesome blog, go to Lessons in Badassery

Carolin Botterill: Accidental Ultra Runner

Download PDF

51-year-old ultra-runner and multi-day stage race specialist, Carolin Botterill, wasn’t always into running. It wasn’t until she was 36, and a mum of three, that she began the journey which would ultimately lead to her becoming an ultra-runner – accidentally – via a bid to get fit and lose weight. At first she walked, then she ran, and just kept running. Now, 17 years later, Carolin has completed some of the toughest multi-day ultras on the planet, taking her from the Arctic Circle to the Peruvian jungle.

In one of the most insightful interviews I’ve posted, Carolin shares her experiences with me, including the lengths she goes to in order to acclimatise to extreme heat and cold ahead of her ultra-events.

It wasn’t until your late thirties that you began running. How did your journey to ultra-runner come about?
Really what started the journey was a desire to lose weight. I had 3 kids under the age of 5, I was obese, and I was ready for change. I had been a chubby kid and teenager, and as an adult had rollercoaster dieted. With each baby I had gained more and more weight, and I came to the realisation that this wasn’t the person I wanted to be. I also wanted something different for my three daughters, for them not to have the same struggles I had with weight and food, and I knew I needed to make changes within myself for that to happen.

I began just by walking. I had always liked walking and it seemed a good place to start. Then the idea of running got into my head and wouldn’t go away. So, one day I set out for a run. I managed to run an entire 2 minutes before I had to stop. I persevered however, and my running journey began.

Was running and getting fit a struggle when you first started?
Yes, it was. As I mentioned, I had 3 kids under the age of 5 when I first started, so just physically getting out the door was a struggle on many days. Luckily I had (and still have!) a supportive husband, which made that struggle a bit easier. The fitness part was really less of a struggle, it just came progressively. As I began running, I was gradually able to go further and further without needing to stop and walk. There is a big hill about 2km from my house, and I still remember my moment of triumph when I was able to run all the way from my house to the top of that hill without stopping. It was a real milestone for me and was when my fitness really started to take off. The real struggle was, and always has been, the eating part of it. We are surrounded by all kinds of food and messages about food, and eating the right things consistently is hard! It is something I still struggle with today.

Did you ever envisage you’d be capable of such incredible feats of endurance?
Never! My blog is called Accidental Ultra Runner because I never in my life thought I would or planned on being an ultra runner. In fact, when I first started running I wasn’t even aware that such things even existed. The longest race I had ever heard of then was a marathon, and I even thought that was very far outside my abilities.

What was the first ultra you entered and how did you find it?
The first ultra I entered was a 50k in amongst the giant redwoods in California called Big Trees. It was so hard! I came in dead last, they kept the course open an extra ½ hour for me, and the sweeper ran me in. I also loved every minute of it, well, except for the part where I got poison oak.

Earlier this year you did the notoriously hard 230km-long Ice Ultra – how was this experience?
The Ice Ultra is a 5-day multi-stage race covering 230km above the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland. The event takes place in February of each year and is put on by Beyond the Ultimate race series. This race was very different from any I’ve ever done before because of both the temperature and the terrain, and the fact that the majority of it was done wearing snow-shoes. Not to mention sleeping outside in teepees with only a reindeer skin between me and the snow.

The below zero temperatures definitely made for a different kind of race, really with no room for error. For example, in a warm weather race, if you get tired or need to stop, it’s no problem, you just stop and rest or whatever you need to do. In the cold, however, you really cannot do this. Even if you feel warm while you’re moving, the second you stop you begin to cool down and it can become dangerous very quickly. There were a number of competitors who found this out on the very first day, getting frostbite on faces and fingers, who were unable to start on the second day. So this is a challenge, you have to keep moving basically at all times, and the proper gear is essential.


Photo Credit: Mikkel Beisner

I’m lucky because I did my training in the Rocky Mountains in winter, so I had ample opportunity to test out all of my gear in cold, snowy conditions. Most competitors did not have this luxury. My longest training run was 8 hours on a day when the high was -28C! On a day like that you quickly find out what is working for you and what is not. Just keeping your water from freezing up becomes a challenge. Because of this training I felt quite confident going in, at least that my gear was not going to let me down.

What were the highs and lows of the Ice Ultra?
The high for me at this race was seeing the stunning beauty of this part of the world, and meeting so many amazing, like-minded people from across the globe – the things I always love best at these kinds of events.

The only low point for me came at the end of the long stage… I was out for over 15 hours, and the last km or so of the stage involved slogging over a lake that had a layer of surface water, essentially knee-deep slush. Needless to say I got quite wet during that time. When I came across the finish line for the stage, I felt just fine, not cold, just glad to be done. I made my way into the semi-heated building they had available for us, started making myself some food, etc when very quickly I got very cold and became hypothermic. I’m still not sure why this happened, something about the warm blood leaving my core to help warm up my extremities, which had become very cold as a result of being in the wet slush or something. Anyway, the medics were on it right away, helping me to get into warm, dry clothes, ensconcing me in a giant down coat and pants, then inside a big plastic bag while bringing me warm things to drink. Even with all of that it took several hours before I was able to stop shivering. I’m used to becoming cold after a long day of running – it happens even when it’s not cold outside – but this was a pretty extreme and a little frightening. Once I finally got warmed up however, I was fine and was quite able to finish up the last day with no problem.

On the opposite spectrum you’ve done the super-hot Jungle Ultra in Peru 3 times
Well, I absolutely love this race. There is just something about it that makes me want to come back again and again. Yes, it can be very hot, very humid, very wet, very muddy, but all of these things add to the experience. This year I had both a high and low point on the same stage – stage 5, the Long One. This stage has both a long and a short course and after a 5:00 am start you must reach a certain point in the stage by 3:00 pm. The first two times I ran this race I didn’t make the time cut-off and had to run the short course. This year I made that time cut-off with just 2 minutes to spare, but I made it! That was definitely a high for me!

The low came a little bit later… while the short course of stage 5 takes you around a mountain to the finish line, the long course takes you over that same mountain. Going up the mountain, while difficult, was fine for me. I, along with my friend Jeff Lau, reached the top of the mountain just before darkness fell, therefore we were forced to make the treacherous journey down the other side of the mountain in the dark.

The trail is like nothing you’ve probably ever seen before – near vertical downhill sections of slick, greasy mud that went on seemingly forever. I honestly almost reached my breaking point on this section of the trail. It was pretty scary and dangerous and I can tell you that I fell more than once! At the time when I felt almost broken, instead of giving in to tears and despair though, I got really angry! I’m not sure what exactly I was angry at, but I was filled with it and the thought that this was not going to be my breaking point. The anger really helped fuel me and I picked up so much speed that Jeff had to ask me to slow down so as not to leave him behind in the dark. At that point I stopped and took a breath and let the anger drain away, but I not longer felt on the edge of breaking anymore either. I was able to take control of myself and my emotions and continue getting myself down the mountain. I can’t say I didn’t shed a few tears of relief once we got to the bottom though, because I most certainly did!

What kind of heat training did you do to prepare for the jungle?
I start heat training about 4-6 weeks before the race. My research tells me that it takes about 90 minutes a day for at least 4 weeks for the body to make the actual physiological changes to perform better in the heat. Because the jungle also has extremely high humidity, I try and prepare for that as well. So, I do 2 things: I set up a makeshift steam sauna, basically a tent with a kettle, where the temperature and humidity gets very high. I also have a home-made treadmill sauna….a treadmill enclosed by tarps with heaters and humidifiers, where the temperature gets up to the high 30’s Celsius. My routine becomes doing my workout, then sitting in the steam tent for 30-40 minutes, then spending an hour doing brisk walking on my treadmill with the heat on.  It may be a bit excessive, but I like to be as prepared as possible and I do think it makes a difference as I am really never bothered by the heat or humidity in the jungle.

What is it about these incredibly tough multi-day ultras that keeps you coming back for more?
I think it’s really a combination of things. I really do enjoy the mental and physical challenge, not just of the events themselves, but also of the training and planning that goes into it. I love travelling to far-flung places for an adventure. I love meeting like-minded people and hearing their stories. There is really so much about it that I love that it’s easy to overlook the hardship part of it.

You live in Calgary, Canada with the Canadian Rocky Mountains on your doorstep. It must make for a great training ground!
Calgary is a really great outdoor city. Not only do we have the Rocky Mountains as a backyard playground, but we also have the longest urban pathway system in North America. I try to get out to the mountain trails at least once or twice a week. No matter which trail I choose, I can always be guaranteed of a good hill workout!

Which do you find more difficult with ultra-distance running – is it the physical endurance or the mental test?
I think most of the time it is the mental test. The body just kind of gets on auto-pilot a lot of the time, one foot in front of the other. Don’t get me wrong, it is physically hard as well, but sometimes it takes a lot of work to keep the brain in the game. If you give up mentally, it doesn’t even matter how your body is feeling.

Have you got any strategies for when things get tough? I read that you count your steps?
Yes, I have been known on many occasions to count steps. I find that doing something as simple as this allows my mind to focus on something other than how tired I am or how I am feeling physically. I make deals with myself that I will run for a certain number of steps, and then I will allow myself to walk or rest for a minute. It’s really just a re-focusing technique. I also like to listen to music, though I don’t like to wear headphones on the trail, so I play it on a speaker. I usually reserve the music for the night-time hours when it can get a little lonely out there. I think anything you can do that just focuses your mind elsewhere is helpful for getting through the tough times.

Have you had any hairy moments during your ultra-running?
Not too many… there was one time when I came face-to-face with a fully grown moose on the trail. Those things are huge and you really don’t want to mess with them. I just backed away and waited for it to leave!


Photo Credit: Raven Eye Photography

Also, my first time out at the Jungle Ultra I had an issue with my headlamp. On the last stage I was running down a rough mountain road in the dark when my headlamp just completely died. It was very dark, and the road had a sheer drop-off on one side. I was exhausted, and it was actually quite scary because I simply could not see where I was going. I kept moving myself forward even though I was crying and afraid. After what felt like a really long time, a truck drove up the road towards me with a bunch of local people in the back.  When they saw me crying in the darkness, one of the men very kindly gave me a little flashlight. I don’t think I have ever been so relieved and thankful! Funnily enough, the same thing happened with my headlamp at this year’s Jungle Ultra. Thankfully though I was with other runners at the time, so I was able to navigate by the light of their headlamps.

What do you eat for breakfast before an ultra? And how do you fuel your events?
It depends. If it’s a multi-stage race where I’m carrying everything I need for a week on my back, I will bring oatmeal and peanut butter. And coffee, I can’t do without my coffee. I carry Starbucks Via singles and Nescafe 3-in1 singles. For a single day event, I will usually have a bagel or toast with peanut butter and jam.  And coffee, of course.

During the events themselves, I mainly do ‘real’ food, though I do always carry a few gels for when I need some quick energy. The ‘real’ food can be anything from nuts to bars, to cookies and candy. When I’m in the middle of a 100km or longer single-day event where I have a crew, I like for them to bring me a cheeseburger in the middle of the night!

Do you take anything or do anything to help your body recover after a multi-stage event?
Not really, other than a period of rest. When I travel to events I usually hang around for a time afterwards, sight-seeing or whatever, and this serves as a good active recovery period for me. After the Ice Ultra I took a full 2 weeks off from running, after which time I was ready to start ramping up for the Jungle again.

What kit do you swear by for your ultra runs and multi-day events?
Well, I do have a few favourites for sure. For shoes, I am an Asics girl through and through. I love the nice wide toe box that they have, while still hugging the heel enough. My favourites are the Asics Gel Fujitrabuco trail shoes. They are a good all-round trail shoe.

My watch is a good old fashioned Timex digital watch. It doesn’t do anything fancy and that’s how I like it.

As for clothes, I’m still looking for the perfect pair of shorts, but in the meantime my current faves are Brooks Greenlight 7” short. They are long enough for good coverage, and are soft and chafe-free. I’ve put these shorts through the wringer and they have held up very well.

For outerwear, I’m a big fan of Mountain Hardwear. I always carry a Mountain Hardwear Ghost Light Rain Jacket. It folds up extremely small, and only weighs 85 grams, so I can easily stash it in my backpack to have if the weather changes. I also love my Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket. Very warm and cosy with little weight and size.

The one thing I can never run without are Injinji Toe Socks. They are super comfortable and durable and are the best for preventing blisters.

You must be blister pro! Have you any tips on preventing blisters and chafing?
Actually, I rarely get blisters. When I do a multi-stage event, my big luxury is bringing a fresh pair of socks for each day, and I think this really helps with blister prevention. The accumulated grit in dirty socks can cause a lot of friction. That, and properly fitting shoes makes a big difference in blister prevention. A lot of people like to size up with their shoes for multi-stage events in case their feet swell, but I think at times that can cause more problems than it prevents. When your feet are not swollen and you have sized up your shoes, you can get a lot of movement inside your shoes, and that almost always leads to blisters.

Now chafing, however, I have a lot of experience with! The backpacks that are designed for multi-day running events are not made for women, especially women with a small stature. I have to have the straps of my pack as short as they will go, and I still get quite a lot of movement in my pack, which inevitably leads to chafing on my back. I do tape my back in areas I know are prone to chafing, but in very hot, wet events like the Jungle Ultra, even this is usually not enough and I end up with some degree of lost skin. I wish one of the companies would come up with a women’s specific pack that addresses this problem.

What’s the most challenging endurance event you’ve done?
I have a feeling that my upcoming 100 mile race at Sinister7 is going to be my biggest challenge ever – 100 miles in the Canadian Rocky Mountains with 6400 m of elevation gain in 30 hours will be hugely challenging.

Other than that though, it is hard for me to say because each race has its own super-challenging parts, and then parts that are a bit less so.

Have there been any events that you started but didn’t finish?
Yes, there have been a few DNFs in my racing history. One time I was pulled from a race because I did not make a time cut-off. This felt devastating because I still have no doubt that I could have completed the distance. A couple of other times I pulled myself out… once because I was having severe stomach issues, once because I simply wasn’t feeling it that day, and one time when my brain gave up. That one is probably the worst because I look back on it with regret. I got myself into a bad place mentally and I just wasn’t able to pull myself out of it. I do really try and use all of them as a learning experience however. I look at what I did, and what led up to the DNF, and figure out ways to do things differently next time.

Do you think you’ve found your body’s limit yet when it comes to endurance?
No, I really don’t think so. The human body is capable of so much more than we give it credit for!!

Are all your runs outside or do you ever run on a treadmill?
I try to avoid running on the treadmill at all costs (with the exception of when I’m heat training, then it is a necessary evil). I am pretty hardy and train outside in most kinds of weather. The only thing that might keep me inside would be if everything is just too icy, as sometimes happens with the kind of freeze/thaw cycles we get around here. It would have to be very bad though.

Which has been your favourite event so far and why?
The Jungle Ultra is my favourite race by far. It has all the elements I love in a place that is near and dear to me.  A beautiful setting, challenging course, an element of adventure, great people…what more could I ask for?

Where are your favourite places in the world to run?
Well, I am of course particularly fond of my Rocky Mountain backyard playground, but really I love going to any far-flung place for a running adventure. I am up for almost anything, almost anywhere!

What do your friends and family think about your endurance challenges?
I am super lucky to have a very supportive family who are whole-heartedly behind me, no matter what crazy thing I sign up for next. Ultra running can be a very selfish endeavour because the training and travelling do take up a lot of time, but my family never complains and always encourages me. I always say my husband David is my number 1 fan. He also runs and we sometimes do events together. Other family members come out and crew for me at more local races, and I always appreciates their unconditional support.

I think most of my friends think I have a few screws loose sometimes, but they are all encouraging and supportive too.

How many miles do you typically run each week, and do you do any other sport?
I don’t really have a “typical” number of training kilometres each week because it varies wildly depending on what I’m training for and where I am in my training cycle.  It can vary from maybe 40km/week on the low side all the way up to 120 or more right before a big event.

I don’t really do too much other than running, but I have been known to go hiking or pull out the mountain bike at times.

What’s a typical week’s training look like for you at the moment, Monday-Sunday?
Right now I am in the final stages of tapering for my upcoming 100-miler so my training is not typical of what I normally do. In the weeks leading up to a multi-stage event, my training might look something like this:

Sunday – 10km run or walk with fully loaded backpack, 5km hot treadmill
Monday – Long mountain run with fully loaded backpack (Up to 45 km)
Tuesday – Hill repeats with backpack (1-3 hours of repeats on a 1km long hill)
OR Shorter mountain run, up to 20km with backpack, 5km hot treadmill
Wednesday – 10km mixed run/walk with backpack, 5km hot treadmill
Thursday – Sprint intervals, 5km hot treadmill
Friday – 10 easy run, 5km hot treadmill
Saturday – Rest

Do you ever get nervous before an event?
I do get nervous, but it is more in the couple of weeks leading up to a big event than right before. Once I get in the car or on the plane to go to an event, the nerves seem to vanish.

I deal with my nerves by becoming hyper-organised. I make lists, organise gear, make more lists, re-organise the gear, double-check everything, pack and repack my backpack, and just generally drive everyone crazy.

Are there ever times when you can’t face running or it feels like a chore?
Oh for sure. I am a master at procrastinating. I think it’s really important to be able to look at the reasons I’m feeling unmotivated. Often the lack of motivation comes just because I’ve been working super-hard and I’m simply tired. If this is the case, I will often change the run to a walk, shorten my planned distance, or even skip it altogether. I think it’s really important to listen to our bodies, and not be afraid to change the training plan accordingly.

Other times I may just be feeling lazy about getting out, but I find that if I can get my gear on and get out the door, that’s all it takes.

Do you record your runs with a watch or on Strava?
Nope, I am old-school. I pull out a map to plan my runs, and I use a plain old Timex digital watch.

Have you got any goals and upcoming events for the rest of 2017?
Yes, I do have a few things planned. In early September, a 100-km race in Lethbridge, Alberta called the Lost Soul Ultra (http://lostsoulultra.com)

Then, in November I’m going to tackle the Namib Desert with another multi-stage race, the 250km Desert Ultraby Beyond the Ultimate Race Series (http://beyondtheultimate.co.uk/ultra/the-desert-ultra-marathon/#!/2017/11/20)

Do you have any sponsors that support your challenges?
None yet.

Jungle Ultra Race Report, part 2

A few weeks ago I completed Beyond the Ultimate’s  Jungle Ultra in Peru for the second time. Check out part 1 of my report here.

Stage 3

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

.BtU Jungle - Stage 3 - Mikkel Beisner (140 of 253)

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.

Stage 4

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.

BtU Jungle - Stage 4 - Mikkel Beisner (151 of 191)

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.

BtU Jungle - Stage 4 - Mikkel Beisner (146 of 191)

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.

BtU Jungle - Stage 4 - Mikkel Beisner (177 of 191)

Stage 5

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.

BtU Jungle - Stage 5 - Mikkel Beisner (29 of 67)

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

 

Jungle Ultra Race Report, Part 1

 

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.

BtU Jungle - Arrival - Mikkel Beisner (14 of 248)

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.

BtU Jungle - Arrival - Mikkel Beisner (113 of 248)

Stage 1

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.

BtU Jungle - Stage 1 - Mikkel Beisner (261 of 431)

Stage 2

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.

BtU Jungle - Stage 1 - Mikkel Beisner (386 of 431)

Stay tuned for Part 2….

All photos taken by the talented Mikkel Beisner