As it turned out, my feet would desperately need the help, as Stage 5 was by far the longest, covering 44 km of jungle and 43 km of village trails. Throughout the race I hadn’t believed that the distances were actually as advertised. The stages had been so arduous that the mileage felt significantly greater! Other racers agreed, and one of them actually tracked part of the course with his GPS and determined that we’d been right!
The Dark Zone
Apparently, the distances that the race organizers provided were in “Brazilian Jungle Kilometers,” and the equivalent value in miles or kilometers is unknown. Because of Stage 5′s great length, it would take us two days to complete it. Any racer who didn’t leave checkpoint 4 by 4 p.m. on this day would have to sleep deep in the jungle until dawn before he would be allowed to continue. Of course, this was necessary because the area between checkpoints 4 and 5, “The Dark Zone,” was thick jungle often inhabited by jaguars, and it was unsafe for racers to traverse it in the dark.
In the early afternoon, after realizing I wouldn’t make the cutoff, I took my time and enjoyed my hike. I found a feather from a very large bird and affixed it to my bag. I stopped and chatted in a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese and English and shared some of my trail mix – that I’d been carrying for 5 days – with the Brazilian military sweep team that followed me. Although I felt much more comfortable in the jungle on this fifth day and moved more fluidly, I was the only racer to arrive at checkpoint 4 after the cut-off time. Therefore, I was the only competitor to sleep deep in the jungle along with a few support crew members and a few Brazilian soldiers.
Before reaching checkpoint 4, I found it exhilarating to traverse through the thick jungle darkness with only my small flashlight. I felt like a true adventurer as the jungle and its nocturnal life awakened at the fall of darkness. The plethora of mysterious sounds from unseen creatures engaged me into an unknown world where around every tree and under any plant might lurk creatures large or small, poisonous or non-poisonous, but foreboding nevertheless.
Throughout the race, when I tired, I would rest on the living jungle ground. I ignored the dangers from my apathy born out of absolute exhaustion. Fortunately I didn’t get insect or snake bites while sliding or resting on the jungle ground, even when I rested on or near ant piles. I theorize that I had become so dirty and spent so much time in the jungle, that I had become “one with the jungle.” It seemed as if insects crawled onto me and then off without biting, as though I were simply part of the jungle floor.
During our jungle training we’d been told that everyone was guaranteed to be stung by large wasps and bees, and indeed, everyone else was stung multiple times and bitten by mosquitoes, ticks, and perhaps leeches. To prove the jungle insects’ size and aggressiveness, one support crew member had shown me a picture he’d taken of a gigantic wasp eating a tarantula. Throughout the competition, I had spent by far the longest time in the jungle and was certainly the most exposed to insects, wasps, and bees. However, since I had “merged” with the jungle, I got no bites or stings.