The Jungle Ultra: From The Andes To The Amazon
The Jungle Ultra by Beyond the Ultimate is a relatively new event: 2014 was the third edition. The organizer, Wes Crutcher, ran in the Brazil Jungle Ultra in 2009 and wanted to create his own event that would expose runners to similar jungle challenges and yet improve on areas he thought could be done better. The result is the Jungle Ultra: a 230k, five-stage, self-sufficiency race through Manu National Park in Peru.
Manu National Park is a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve, an approximately four-hour’s drive from Cusco. It is known for its great biodiversity as the park covers part of the Andes and part of the Amazon Basin. There is a range of different forests from the cloud forest on the slopes of the Andes, which is a catchment area for the Amazon River, to the Amazon rainforest, which reaches to Bolivia, Columbia, and Brazil. It is estimated that the park may support more than 500,000 species of living organisms!
I competed in the race as my fourth multi-stage event. I had raced in the desert in my previous three races and was looking for a new adventure, to challenge myself in different terrain, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit the Amazon. As the format of the race was similar to the previous races I had done, my general preparation followed a similar approach to past race training. The key differences I needed to prepare for were the humidity and heat, which I did by going to Bikram Yoga classes, and sleeping in a hammock, which I did by taking naps in my hammock in the local park. With the exceptions of the hammock and putting all my gear inside a dry bag in my pack, all of my food and kit were the same as I used in the desert.
Stage 1: Cloud 9
The camp for the night before the first stage was in the cloud forest. We were given a pre-race briefing explaining what to do if we were bitten by snakes, spiders, or any other insects and carefully warned that “everything in the jungle can hurt you!” We also received our numbers, a Spot GPS device, and had the gear check. Required gear was similar to other multi-stage races: 1,500 kilocalories per day of food, a medical kit and blister-repair kit, overnight clothing, a sleeping bag, 2.5 liters of water capacity, and a hammock to sleep in.
The start of the race was at an altitude of 10,100 feet in the cloud forest and the stage quickly descended as we headed into the rainforest. When the gun went off I set off at a steady pace and quickly found myself ahead of all the international competitors and amongst the local Peruvians who were laughing and joking about the hard breathing of those not acclimatized to the altitude. (There are two categories in the race: international competitors who are self-sufficient and carry everything and locals who are encouraged to take part, but who don’t have to be self-sufficient and can sleep in their homes if the race passes by their village.)
Fortunately, the route quickly descended into the forest and toward a river which made the breathing a little easier as we were losing altitude. The first checkpoint was on the banks of the river. I arrived in a good time and had started to get a feel for the conditions. The first obstacles of the race were crossing the river and a steep climb out of the river valley. I paced myself and slowly caught a few of the Peruvian runners.
Once out of the river valley, the route followed a narrow dirt road that hugged the steep Andean slopes and descended all the way to the finish. The view was spectacular and the purpose of the route was to show off the cloud forest and the descent into the jungle–a perfect first stage. On this section it started to rain, and as we were getting closer to the rain forest with each step, the route turned into a slippery and mushy mud path. As I was at the front, I pushed the pace and made the most of the opportunity to try and put myself ahead of the other competitors. It worked and I arrived at camp happy with the day’s effort and blown away by the scenery of the cloud forest.
Stage 2: Amazonia
A comfortable first night in the hammock meant that I was ready for the second stage even though my quads hurt a little from all the downhill on the first stage. Most people felt the same sore legs, but we were all pleased that the descent on the first stage meant easier breathing and a less-demanding start to the second stage. The route wound down further into the valley toward the village of San Pedro. The pace started off fast as some runners hoped to make as much of an advantage as possible before turning directly into the jungle.
In San Pedro we turned onto a narrow path that took us out of the open and direct sunlight into the Amazon rainforest for the first time. It was a huge contrast! Inside the forest it was dark and shadowed from the tall trees, hot and humid, and the trail was a mess. Every step was treacherous as the path wound into the forest over wet moss-covered rocks that never felt stable underfoot and to make it even more difficult there was always a few inches of water on the ground obscuring any view of the trail. ‘Slow and steady’ was my motto and I tried my best to maintain a reasonable yet safe pace.
After crossing another river the path turned into a muddy–but fortunately rock-free–singletrack. It was easier running when the gradient was level, which seemed to be only a small proportion in the final section to the finish. It was stunning in the jungle and the views and excitement of being in the rainforest motivated me to keep on pushing. I saw a line of leaf-cutter ants which looked exactly like what I’ve seen on TV. Unfortunately, there was no time to stop as I forged on to the finish aiming to extend my lead from the previous stage by a few minutes.
The camp after Stage 2 was much warmer, more remote, and a lot less comfortable than the previous nights. Setting up my hammock I was bitten by two bullet ants which felt like I was being stabbed by a scalpel! I quickly moved my hammock to a slightly better spot and spent an unhappy night hoping I wouldn’t get too wet as thunderstorms poured rain onto the camp. I wasn’t so lucky and the next morning I got up much earlier than I had hoped to try and dry myself and my gear so I wouldn’t be carrying too much extra weight in my pack.
Stage 3: Logging
This stage would take us through an area of the Amazon that is not controlled and logging is allowed–hence the stage name. Two Spaniards, Xavi Marina and Tony Andrades, started hard and fast to arrive first at the zip wire to cross a huge river at five kilometers. I settled down into a group with these two and would remain with them most of the stage.
The zip wire was awesome fun. Crossing such a raging torrent on foot was out of the question and I’m glad we could glide above it. On the other side Xavi, Tony, and I set off together into the half-wild, half-tamed jungle. The farmers have tried and failed for generations to log and tame the wildlands so we passed from relatively open areas growing coca to thick jungle and shadows. It was a little unsettling and difficult to find a pace as the route changed so frequently and offered mud and inconsistent footing all the way.
I was really enjoying being in a group and experiencing the route together with some friends. It made the upcoming challenge of an old logging track much easier to endure. The track twisted its way through jungle that was so dense that it blocked out any sunlight, leaving the track wet and muddy. It looked like the width of a normal truck and had an almost smooth surface; however, this was completely untrue. There were effectively three sections to the track: the two tire tracks and a raised section in the middle. The problem was that the tire tracks were deep ruts filled with water and almost impossible to see. The middle section was mud ranging from a few inches to a foot deep. Any misstep led to sliding into a tire track and muddy water which sometimes came up to my waist!
Xavi and I pushed ahead in this section, but it was slow going and drained my energy. The thick mud, frequent slips into deep water, and then battling back onto the right path took its toll. It seemed that we were moving faster than anyone else, though, so we kept pushing each other to stay out in front. The finish at Santa Rosa was a just reward for a hard day out: a small village with some of the only 300 indigenous people who are allowed to live in the park (apart from the un-contacted tribes deeper into the jungle). We were given handmade jewelry, shown how to shoot a bow, and promised a forecast of no rain for that night. I couldn’t have been happier.
Stage 4: The Lull
At first glance it would appear that the stage name, ‘The Lull,’ was hinting at an easier day before the final long stage. Nothing could be further from the truth. The name is a warning not to let the short 36k distance lull you into a sense of security since this stage is supposed to be the toughest single stage in any of Beyond the Ultimate’s events. It includes tough jungle trails, rocky creeks, fallen trees, steep inclines, thorns, and spikes two inches long as well as bullet ants, which love to bite any hand put down on any surface.
I started cautiously with a plan to maintain an overall lead by running with the leaders of the day. My Spanish friends, encouraged by their progression up the ranking the previous day, set the pace in front. It was even slower going than I expected. Every path was slippery, muddy, and mixed up with roots and rocks. The route was never level with small inclines and declines and curving trails that threaded through the trees. The uncertain footing, camber, and multiple curves made every step a potential fall and even though there were plenty of branches and trees to grab onto they were no help. I quickly realized that the warning in the course briefing that anything could hurt us in the jungle was true. Within the first hour I had already cut my fingers and hands on sharp bamboo and spikes and had been bitten my multiple ants. I quickly adopted a hands-off approach!
The route was the most difficult I have ever run and at the same time one of the most incredible experiences I have had in a race. There were many moments where I felt almost overwhelmed by my surroundings and just looked up into the dense canopy, awed to be running for fun in the middle of the Amazon jungle. One of my best memories is coming out of a sliding, out-of-control, muddy descent onto the edge of a river that I had to cross by jumping onto an inflated truck inner tube and pulling myself across by grabbing a wet and limp rope. It was surreal.
The final challenge of the stage was a massive 1,000-meter climb through thick jungle trails. If I thought there was no way that the stage could get more difficult than it had been then I was wrong. The terrible footing, curving trails, spiky trees, and off-camber trails continued and now they were at a steep gradient. Xavi and I marched up the route in what felt like a procession. For me, having company at this point helped me the most in the race. When we arrived at the finish, I was completely spent after battling for six hours over only 36k through the jungle. ‘The Lull’ lived up to its name.
Stage 5: The Long One
The final stage was intended to be 92k with approximately 50 river crossings, starting in the village of Pillcopata and looping through the jungle to arrive back in Pillcopata for the finish. The route would include features of every other stage of the jungle we had already experienced: a 12k climb to overlook the Carbon River, weaving in and out of a river road for 14k, a jungle section known as ‘Viper Alley,’ and some open exposed areas with the sun beating down during the hottest part of the day. The stage also included a cutoff for competitors who didn’t make it to a certain point by the evening, as later sections of the jungle are too dangerous with black caiman and jaguar active at night!
My strategy was the same as the previous three days, which was to maintain an overall lead. As I had run hard during the first two stages I had a decent cushion over Xavi in second and Tony in third. It also meant I could run with company for part of the day. We started strongly, but also with the knowledge that 92k is never easy, especially in the jungle with packs and after four hard stages. The first few hours in the morning were really fun running. We ran a manageable pace, the terrain was spectacular, and some of the checkpoints even had some fresh pawpaw and mango that the villagers had cut for us. (All other checkpoints during this self-sufficient race provide only water at checkpoints.) Compared to the tough six hours of the previous day, the first half of this stage ticked by quickly.
At the halfway point, we were informed that the route had been changed. The rain that we had been running in all morning had flooded some of the rivers in the later part of the stage. In the first half we had run in a wide river that the logging trucks use as a road. It was a strange experience of crossing from bank to bank in water that varied from ankle deep to almost waist deep. A similar section was supposed to be run in the later half of the race but the flooding meant the water was shoulder deep and too dangerous to cross. The route was shortened by about 10k and the last sections were very runnable compared to the original jungle and river route.
Xavi and I pulled ahead of Tony and cruised along at an even pace. The route wasn’t thick jungle, but it did curve along the side of hills that provided great views over the Madre de Dios River and the jungle basin. It wasn’t as tough as planned and yet in many ways it was a fitting end to the race as it mirrored the starting stage where we looked down into the jungle wondering what was coming. This time we could look back on an unbelievable journey and remember all the jungle experiences we had been through.
I could feel a deep fatigue setting in and I was happy to count down each kilometer as I approached the finish. It felt like the whole village of Pillcopata was waiting as I ran along the main street into the plaza. Some little children ran alongside me to the finish line, the regional radio presenter was calling out over the microphone, and there were throngs of people in the plaza. I loved it! I had completed a tremendously difficult race, seen a part of the world that fascinated me, and achieved my race goal of winning in a time of 27 hours.
Running in the jungle is tough. Every day offers character-building challenges and a chance to see a remote part of the planet. If you’re not scared of snakes, or ants, or spiders, or jaguars, or caiman, if you don’t mind being wet for a week, and if you do enjoy sleeping out in a hammock, then I would highly recommend racing in the jungle. It’s like no other place I’ve ever run.