The Jungle Marathon – the ultimate challenge

Last month, Geoff and Sue Hardy set out on an epic adventure – their first attempt at the grueling Jungle Marathon in Brazil’s Amazon Jungle. This notoriously difficult race is a test of both mental and physical endurance, and pushes competitors to their absolute limits as they race across extremely difficult jungle terrain, battling intense humidity, mud and water crossings, wild animals and swathes of insects.

Geoff and Sue knew it would be difficult – they spent months training and preparing themselves for what would likely be the most challenging race either of them would face.

Having returned to New Zealand, they’re now able to share the race from their perspective with the Macpac Blog.

12 rio tapajos sunset“It was epic,” says Geoff, summing up the race in just a few words.

The race is divided into three distance options – you can either cover the single marathon stage (42km), four stages making up 126km over four days, or 260km over six stages over seven days – all exceedingly difficult. Geoff opted for the four day option, with Sue keen enough to compete in the full race.

The pair dedicated months to a challenging training schedule – taking every opportunity they could to get out and put in some hours.

“We put together a very comprehensive training regime which consisted of several smallish runs during the week, including barefoot and speed work, leaving the weekends for the big hikes and trail runs. Although we don’t always train together, Geoff and I covered a lot of the Hillary Trails in the Waitakeres with our packs over the months, always putting in two full days over each weekend. Similarity to the Amazon was achieved on several of these trips where the rain water through the Waitakeres matched that of the swamps in the Amazon,” says Sue.

Geoff and Sue trained for months for the Jungle Marathon

Geoff and Sue trained for months for the Jungle Marathon

The training paid off – Geoff managed to complete his four day event as planned, and Sue made it through five days of the full race – an incredible achievement for someone competing in the full Jungle Marathon for the first time.

“It was the sleep deprivation that got to me in the end – I am a light sleeper at the best of times and love my bed, so having to hang in a hammock, I was only able to manage 1-2 hours of sleep each night if I was lucky,” she explains.

The pair arrived in Brazil four days before the race kicked off, giving them time to take connecting flights to the heart of the Amazon Jungle and once there, get to know some of their fellow competitors. The little riverside resort town of Alter do Chao was a hub of excitement in the days leading up to the start of the race. After two days’ acclimatisation there, the boat left the wharf at midnight, and arrived at the start village of Prainha by 10am the next day –a deceptively pleasant start to their trip.

“Fighting for hammock space on the boat was fierce, but we all managed to settle in for the long journey up the Tapajos River,” recalls Sue. They arrived at home base the next morning and were greeted by the local kids and villagers as they dragged all their gear up to the back of the village to the “camping ground”. Hammocks were hung, gear checks were completed, interviews were given to the documentary film crews, and after several hours it was then time to enjoy the beach and the first of their freeze-dried dinners.

The first campsite

The first campsite

“There was a warning at the beach about stingrays. When in the river we had to shuffle in our shoes to ensure that, if you did disturb a ray, you only touched its wing instead of standing directly on the barb. So shuffle we did.  Unfortunately one village child and one German competitor were stung the day before the start, but the German was out on the start line the next morning, and he eventually won the race. A tough nut,” says Geoff.

The first two days at Prainha were full of briefings, including an intense lesson 1.01 on snake identification, and an “up close and personal” encounter with a boa constrictor.

“Their advice was, if you get bitten by a snake, try to identify it and head for the nearest checkpoint to advise the medical staff,” says Sue.

They were also shown how to make fire – just in case, what they had to do if they got seriously lost (yes, there is a difference), how to get fresh water, and then more interestingly, flora and fauna – what you could and could not touch.

©Fabio Andrade

©Fabio Andrade

“We also had a medical briefing, mostly on the topics of drinking too much, not drinking enough, peeing, foot care, snake bite procedure and general hazards in the jungle. There were the medics – all volunteers from the UK plus an experienced doctor from New York. Fabulous people, and identifiable by their bright red shirts. Overall, the first two days were an education but the race briefing was what we were all waiting for.  Day one would comprise a full onslaught of everything the jungle had to offer and we couldn’t wait to start,” says Sue.

The night routine after the second day brought home the full reality of what was in store for the competitors. They repacked their packs for the next day’s race, ate their freeze-dried mush and hung their packs up on trees to stop creepy crawlies from making their way in.

“Total hours sleep for that first night – zero. Not a good start to the next day,” says Sue.

The days that followed only got more difficult. Geoff paced himself with a steady power-walk the whole way, avoiding running and using up valuable energy reserves.

“We quickly learned that the event lived up to its billing and was incredibly tough. Even the elite runners said it was the “absolute limit” of what they could endure, and many in the middle of the pack who had done events like the Marathon des Sables before, were disenchanted with the event as they felt it was unnecessarily hard,” says Geoff.

The first full day of the race was all hills, swamps, more hills, jungle trails, water crossings and a few more hills thrown in for good measure. The trip hazards were serious – not so much in the fall, but in what competitors were falling into. They couldn’t see the jungle floor as it was covered in leaf litter meaning the competitors had to be really vigilant, watching their every step as poisonous insects inhabit holes which have been concealed by leaves, and there were fallen trees of varying sizes littering the trail.

Geoff in Brazil at the Jungle Marathon

Geoff in Brazil at the Jungle Marathon

Sue was already struggling with sleep deprivation at the end of this first day of the official race. She was only able to manage two hours sleep that night, even after a long and exhausting day in the jungle. Geoff was a little more comfortable in his hammock and managed to get several more hours of sleep each night, despite the anticipation of what lay ahead, the nocturnal temperatures (about 30 degrees at nightfall), and the constant noise from the jungle wildlife, including local dogs and roosters and the howler monkeys who produced a ghoulish wail far off in the distance shortly after dusk and shortly before dawn. Even ear plus couldn’t drown out that noise.

Day two was an easier leg which offered a brief respite from the difficult terrain, but day three was extraordinarily tough and long, with each checkpoint being spaced further and further apart. The day started with a 300m river crossing where Sue came out in the top half of the field. She then followed the leading woman through to the first check point.

Sue's feet were incredibly blistered

Sue’s feet were incredibly blistered

“By checkpoint two, I was beginning to feel the lack of sleep catching up on me. It was very hot, my feet were blistered, and my pace was slowing. There was very little shade, and I knew I was dehydrating. I ran as much as I could to get out of the sun and had a fabulous 3km downhill section where I managed to pass a couple of runners to their surprise,” says Sue.

For Geoff, it was also challenging. Although he was careful not to over-exert himself, his fast-walking pace meant that he was always near the rear of the pack, and therefore out in the searing heat longer than everyone else, with less recovery time than the others. There were a couple of extreme hills on this leg, and the combination of the longer distance (37.9kms), the temperature (39 degrees and 100% humidity) and the 12-15kg loads they were carrying on their backs, meant that he did not arrive at the deep jungle campsite until after nightfall.

“Day three took its toll on all the competitors, which we never really recovered from. It was intended to be a brutal reality check, and it sure was” he says.

The Kiwi and Aussie contingent

The Kiwi and Aussie contingent

By the end of day three, Sue was really struggling with extreme tiredness, when she arrived at camp, all she wanted to do was eat and crawl into her hammock. Geoff followed two hours later, exhausted and grateful for Sue’s help in finding a hammock site and preparing his freeze-dried meal.

“Usual routine by now – 1.5 hours’ sleep. Resting was good, but actual sleeping would have been better,” recalls Sue.

Day four arrived and Geoff knew he only had to put in one more supreme effort before his leg of the race was over. He was feeling a little more rested than Sue, and was worried about her draining energy.

15 wildlife briefingGeoff says: “Sue was still putting in a gutsy performance, but the medics at the checkpoints had started to report to me that she was looking a little drawn. It didn’t stop her, however, from waiting up to greet me at the finish line each night, and I began to think that she would be better off retiring to bed earlier and looking after herself a bit more.”

Before setting out on day four, Sue saw to her four blisters, draining and taping them before taking some Panadol and easing into her shoes. The camp from the previous night was at a higher elevation in the depths of the jungle, and they were expecting a 3km run to that day’s stream crossing, which ended up being more like 5km. This was more or less a downhill run which was great, but every hill was now becoming an issue for Sue.

“My legs were only functioning in a walking state going up hills, so I continued like this until the stream. Once I got there, one of the Brazilian women competitors passed me, and I knew it would be hard to keep up with her as I watched her swim down the river like she was on steroids. For me, it was slow going, being bashed by submerged logs and a little scary not knowing if you were going to come across an anaconda or not. Fortunately, I didn’t see one, although I heard of one person who did,” recalls Sue.

For Geoff, the day was also exhausting – this day doubles as the 42km marathon event, and involves a mixture of jungle trails, a descent down a jungle stream where your legs are constantly battered by submerged logs, followed by a slog through the swamps, a stretch on white sandy riverside beaches, and finally some long, dusty red dirt roads that seem to go on interminably. Geoff calculated that he would be out there in the “blast furnace” (as he calls it) for more than 13 hours, but he was comforted by the fact that by the end of that day, it would all be over.

“If you ever want to do an unforgettable marathon” says Geoff, “then this is the one to do, because it sure beats pounding the streets. The laborious river and swamp section was a nice change of scenery and it lifted my spirits, but then the long jungle trails followed by hours and hours on the hot dusty roads really test your resolve. Ironically, when I finally crossed the finish line it was a bit of an anticlimax, because hardly anyone noticed me finishing, and even Sue was too trashed to see me in.”

Sue’s condition was deteriorating, she desperately needed to eat, and to rest, and her emotions were starting to get the better of her.

“Although I needed food, every time I looked at my snacks, I just about gagged. I took a 15 minute rest at checkpoint 2 before heading out into the jungle again. We climbed and climbed, and I became sadder and sadder, I was running out of energy and still had 24km to go. I literally trudged my way to the third checkpoint, arriving a little worse for wear, but still moving. I kept pulling myself along the road on my own, feeling sad, hot and hungry. I found a competitor on the side of the road who, ironically looked in a worse state than me, at least I was walking, completely wasted. I picked him up and we continued to the finish line together.”

Crawling through the mud ©Fabio Andrade

Crawling through the mud ©Fabio Andrade

Geoff was nearing the last checkpoint, promising himself a rest every half hour and a gel every hour, and trying to keep ahead of the sweepers who were getting under his feet. One of the challenges of this event is that it isn’t prudent to sit down in the jungle, for fear that a bullet ant might bite you and cause you intense suffering for the next 24 hours, so rests are generally taken standing up. When Geoff got to that final checkpoint, it was a welcome relief to see the friendly faces of the medicos, but at the same time deflating to be told that he still had another 12kms of red dirt roads to cover before the finish line.

“I told myself that I was on the home strait and I only had to endure another three hours max” says Geoff. “Putting it into perspective like that made it much easier, and in fact I finished 30 minutes earlier than expected. Once there, it was simply a matter of collapsing on the ground for a while as a fellow competitor sorted out my hammock and evening meal for me, and then gradually reflecting on my accomplishment.”

For Sue, though, there were serious doubts about whether she could physically carry on. She had given the race her all, and was completely spent.

“Someone put up my hammock, I could only eat half a meal, I was severely sleep deprived, and anxious about the next day. At race briefing that night, I sat and hung my head, thinking of what lay ahead. It was a 2:30am get up for a 4:30am start – I felt sick just thinking about it. Preparations for the next day felt like they were in slow motion, I had a film crew in my face, but I couldn’t talk to anyone. Geoff arrived a few hours later and I couldn’t even talk to him and congratulate him on his massive achievement. I felt bad. I needed to rest, but it just didn’t happen.”

Geoff was stoked to have completed the race, and felt very relieved as he crossed the finish line, but his happiness was tinged with worry as he wondered about Sue’s condition and whether she would be able to complete the race.

Geoff's medal

Geoff’s medal

He says: “From that point onwards my feelings of elation were tempered with guilt that I could now enjoy this tropical paradise for the remaining three days while competitors like Sue were about to embark on the toughest stage of the event. I have come to realise that the race only really starts on day five. The fact that Sue was sitting by her hammock looking disconsolate rather than greeting me at the finish line really brought home to me how she was feeling. I had asked the medics to radio ahead and persuade her to go to bed early, but of course that’s easier said than done when you have to erect your hammock, prepare and eat your meal, get medical attention, attend the nightly briefing, pack for tomorrow, and somehow shut out the noise and the heat in order to fall asleep.”

Geoff's bag - representing his Kiwi home!

Geoff’s bag – representing his Kiwi home!

Sue woke the next morning from a very light sleep in a panic that she had slept in and everyone had left without her, but in fact she had enough time, and was feeling a little more refreshed. That feeling didn’t last long, however. With blisters taped once again, she painfully squeezed into her shoes. The race started with an open road of about 3km and then they hit the beach. As the sun rose, the day became hot, and Sue made it via a river crossing and wasp sting, to checkpoint one.

“By this stage I was not looking good, my heart was racing, everything hurt, I couldn’t stomach my food, but forced down some nuts and water. I tried to pee, but only managed a dribble, and it was the colour of Guinness. That got me worried about what was happening to my body and my kidneys, but I continued to drink as much as I could,” says Sue.

But somehow, Sue managed to pull herself back into the game, dancing her way into checkpoint two to the surprise of the medics. 20 minutes later and running out of the checkpoint, they had just 9km to checkpoint three and after 1km of beach, Sue headed back into the jungle.

“At least we were under shade, but that came with a price – lack of oxygen and very stuffy. At this point it suddenly just turned to custard for me. I just hit the wall big time. I had an emergency toilet stop, I was seeing black spots, my blood pressure had dropped, I couldn’t focus and was down to walking about 4km an hour. I just couldn’t muster enough energy to get out of this hole”

She found a Brazilian competitor just walking around in circles, obviously lost, so he stayed with her for a while before heading off ahead. After getting lost a few times, she quickly retraced her steps to find the right markings. In doing so, she came across a French-Canadian competitor who stayed with her.

“This jungle section was not very well marked and with several other competitors getting lost, it was a complete surprise just who you would bump into around the corner,” says Sue.

“To stay cool, I would take water out of my bladder and spit it over me, but I was running short of water. I knew I needed to drink it, instead of wasting it to keep cool. I knew at this point that something just wasn’t right. I was going through the dark patches you read about. By checkpoint three, I was the colour of putty, grey and very much sucked dry. My eyes were pin pricks, I vomited up all the water I was given, my heart was racing, my blisters were giving me grief. I sat down and started crying – I don’t mind admitting that. I had gone past the point of caring,” explains Sue.

Just the thought of what was ahead was causing Sue to hyperventilate. The medics told her the temperature had reached 45C. The next checkpoint was 19km away, with another 9.4 to reach checkpoint five, all on open road in the full heat of the day. She knew that Geoff was waiting for her at checkpoint five, oblivious to the drama that was unfolding.
Gear checks
“I knew deep down that it wasn’t a pretty time, but I didn’t want to accept failure. The medics recommended I stop which is not what you want to hear – so after an hour of considering my options and not feeling any better, I conceded defeat.  I just wanted to sleep. So endeth my run.”

Sue has managed to make a great recovery, and the pair have returned to work at their Auckland law firm. She is disappointed she had to withdraw, but accepts that the decision was prudent – in the end, 20% of the competitors did withdraw, and the organisers have invited her to return next year at no cost – something she is seriously considering.

I have been given the option of returning to run the race again and at the finish of this year’s race, there was only one answer – YES of course – unfinished business is unfinished business.   Days or weeks later most runners would probably change their minds and look forward to other adventures.  I have to say – I can’t wait to go back and finish it.  Multi-day racing is so different to one day events with all the outside considerations that need to be taken into account to ensure the race goes smoothly.  I have learnt so much and am ready for the challenge again.”

Geoff says he’s extremely proud of Sue for her incredible effort – withdrawal notwithstanding. He received his T-Shirt and medal for completing the four day event. He ended up coming in at the tail end of the pack but that was inevitable given his decision to power-walk it. However the question remains – would he do it again?

“I have shown that a 61 year old weekend warrior can pull something like this off if he/she has sufficient fitness, sufficient bloody-mindedness, and sufficient management skills. Overall, I just loved it, although there were many hours on the course when I was counting down the minutes and desperately willing that finish line to loom up. I would go back at the drop of a hat,” he smiles.

"The Walking Wounded"

“The Walking Wounded”

Macpac was proud to get behind Sue and Geoff for the Jungle Marathon, providing them with the gear they needed to keep them comfortable in what was an extremely uncomfortable environment.

“The Macpac gear measured up extremely well against the clothing and equipment the other competitors brought with them, and we were proud to be using it. While Sue wore the Macpac clothing, I wore compression leggings and a top in the belief that it would help me shed heat, but next time around I would simply wear a Macpac top and shorts. I found the walking poles were invaluable for the swamps and jungle trails, and the 40 litre pack was always comfortable. No-one was in any doubt where the gear came from, as we did the whole event with All Blacks flags attached, to mark the Rugby World Cup which was going on at the same time,” says Geoff

Sue adds: “I loved the Macpac gear were supplied with.  It certainly lived up to the test and not one hole in my tights despite all my efforts to the contrary.  The shorts dried quickly and the tops kept the sun out which was so important.  I used both the tights and the shorts for running depending on the terrain.  The pack was excellent to carry and easy to pack with plenty of room for everything we needed.  I used my poles every day, despite leaving them behind at a couple of checkpoints, they always made their way home.  Plenty of comments about our flag and, with the rugby world cup looming, we even found a Brazilian All Black supporter. Go figure!“.