Tough going

Stage 3 was a much longer stretch than Stages 1 and 2. I determined that I would have to move much faster in order to keep pace and complete the stage. My race pack remained extremely heavy, and I knew that the load would slow me down, so I ditched what I didn’t deem absolutely necessary and gave some of my gear to Ivan – a support crew medic – to return to the boat. Gone were my extra two pairs of socks and pair of underwear (this left me with only the socks and underwear I was wearing), gloves, camera; bag of protein powder; and even my bug spray (although it was quite light, it wasn’t essential for running). This trimmed 5 pounds off my pack.

judah6-trail.jpgNow I could move faster than before and developed a “jungle run/jog” as I tried to imagine myself moving smoothly like a jaguar. Although the terrain remained amazingly tough, the trail opened up in some parts and the course ceased to be the neverending, constant array of steep hills. Of course, many steep hills remained, but at times it “flattened.” However, these so-called “flat sections” were as steep as the toughest hill that Dallas had ever offered me for training.

To my dismay, near the end of the stage, the steep hills returned. A few were so downwardly steep (and I was so tired) that I sat and slid down them, although I risked sliding into or on top of any creature that lived on the jungle floor. In spite of all this, somehow I completed the stage shortly after dark, which gave me an idea of the time. My watch had broken earlier, during a torrential jungle rain, so I rarely knew the exact hour. It was difficult to gauge time visually, since the thick canopy blotted out the sun even at noon, immersing me in a green darkness. (I should have mentioned that this part of the Amazon is known as “the rain forest.”)

Now that I was at camp and began preparing for a night’s rest, I realized that not only had I lost my watch, but the waistband on my pack had rubbed my skin raw. I worried that this might keep me from carrying my pack and completing the race, but the medics taped my waist, and I was OK after that.

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Beware Jaguars

After a full night’s rest, Stage 2 began very early in the morning. The distance was much longer, but I kept my hiking pace because the terrain was too rough for running.

judah4-finish.jpg The hills remained very steep, and by the time I reached the final checkpoint, I was told that another racer -Derek from Hong Kong – and I were not allowed to continue to the finish line for the day. Why not? Because many racers had encountered several jaguars! A couple of Brazilians had crossed the finish line knives in hand, prepared in case of an attack. A racer just in front of me had heard a jaguar in the bushes just feet away, and then saw the jaguar as it gave a loud warning purr.

When a jaguar strikes
Normally, jaguars leave an area that has many people as they are quite elusive and extremely rare to see in the jungle. But these jaguars remained in the territory and were undeterred by our presence. Instead, it seemed that they might have been tracking and stalking us! If Derek and I had gone on, we would have been trekking through this section at dusk and perhaps dark, which would have greatly increased my chances of using my favorite stick in an attempt to fend off an attacking jaguar. It should be noted that humans cannot outrun jaguars, neither can we out-climb them. Our only option for survival is to be loud and raise our bag over our head to appear larger and possibly intimidate the jaguar. But if attacked, the only chance for survival is to protect one’s neck and throat and fight back by attacking vulnerable points such as the jaguar’s eyes.

There is a downside to this last strategy. Even if a racer were to successfully fight off a jaguar, which would be insanely difficult, the racer would nevertheless have been ripped to shreds by the jaguar’s powerful teeth and claws.

Snake encounter
Therefore, the race organizers took Derek and me on an alternate route out of the jungle by taking us on a small boat to hike through a less hazardous part of the jungle … where ironically we encountered a venomous snake. We arrived at the base camp late in the evening. By the end of Day 2, my body was completely exhausted. For the remaining five days, I would need to rely solely on willpower and determination to complete the adventure I had began.

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The Starting Line

judah2.jpg As the race started, I found the terrain to be extremely treacherous. The day began with a creek crossing that drenched us all up to our chests. Then came the ground that was so covered with exposed roots that one could easily trip and fall, or what’s worse, sprain or break an ankle or leg, or tear a knee ligament (ACL). There was another ever-present danger as well – impaling oneself on the many protruding spikes, roots, thorns, and other unknown dangerous jungle objects.

judah3.jpg Therefore I took great caution, since falling with my heavy backpack could very likely injure me. Another danger was the deep, leaf-covered holes in the ground. If I caught my foot in one while running, I could easily break or at least sprain my leg or ankle.

To increase the physical demands, we spent the entire day hiking up and down extremely steep and slippery hills. The ascents and descents were so near-vertical that I had to grab onto trees and roots to pull myself up; otherwise, I would have slipped down the hill. We have no such hills near my home in Texas. Nor did running in the Dallas parks include finding large obstructions along with small hidden traps.

In the jungle, I had to climb over and under fallen trees and logs, and sometimes over and under at the same time! This constant negotiation of hazards was so tiring that I had to sit and rest wherever I was, even on the jungle ground covered with insects and perhaps venomous snakes.

When the support crew sweep team caught up with me, Dos Reis from the Brazilian Military Jungle Special Forces used his machete to cut a walking stick for me. Little did I know then how invaluable this stick would become. With my stick, I continued the course and finished the day before dark – to a cheering crowd on the beach campsite, adjacent to the jungle.

They cheered because I had been in the jungle the longest of all competitors. They cheered because it was my first ultra-marathon. They cheered because even though I was green, I finished the stage, a stage in which two other racers had already pulled out of the competition.

By the end of Stage 2, nine others would also fail to continue because of weather, humidity, heat, exhaustion, dehydration, or injuries.

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Arrived – Sick

Two and a half days before the race began, race participants and volunteers boarded a boat for an 11-hour journey down the Tapajos River, headed for the small village that would serve as the jungle base camp. I had planned to meet more of the competitors, but to my dismay I’d caught a bug and developed a cough with a 102F fever. Suddenly, my immediate goal turned into improving my health before the start of the race by resting in my hammock as much as possible. Tired and weakened by the fever, I felt as though I’d already completed a jungle marathon; but this proved that I knew nothing about this race’s extreme toughness.

As the boat approached land at the jungle base camp, my only concern was whether the race doctor would let me run, since the sickness combined with extreme physical exertion could potentially cause permanent internal damage. Fortunately, the following two days were allotted for race preparation and jungle survival training. The training was very short, but we were warned of the numerous venomous snakes (if bitten, stay calm, perform first aid, and wait for assistance), taught how to lessen the chance of a rare jaguar attack, and cautioned about the many insects, as well as plants with devilish spikes and thorns. The jungle trainer – an experienced Brazilian soldier – showed us a normal-looking piece of grass and then proceeded to use this single blade to quickly cut through a 2-inch thick piece of raw piranha meat without much trouble!

In the remaining time, we prepared our race equipment to make our packs as light and efficient as possible. Racers spent the time packing and unpacking, again and again. Due to my inexperience, I had brought along too much food and gear, so much so that I couldn’t fit it all inside my pack, even though I’d tied much gear to the outside.

A couple of experienced racers, Mark and Becky, took pity and helped lighten my load, taking out much of my food and some gear. They also lightened some of my necessary gear by reducing the amount. For example, I had a small package of waterproof matches, but after the overhaul I was left with only 3. Even after all the reductions, my pack still weighed well over 30 pounds, while the average competitor’s bag weighed only 20 pounds. My food was mostly trail mix, protein bars, and MREs. These were substantial nourishment, but much heavier than the backpacker dehydrated food that most racers carried. Fortunately, Mark and Becky let me keep my 2 packets of ice cream (dehydrated!), since they only weighed 3/4 ounce each.

Fortunately, my fever subsided the day before the race, but my cough worsened. Nevertheless, I felt much healthier and was strong enough to race. After hearing from the race organizer that Stage 1 was the toughest – though shortest – of the 6 stages, I planned to take it easy and simply complete the stage without injury.

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Amazon Jungle Marathon: the trail ahead

ALTER DO CHAO, PARA, BRAZIL – My lifelong dream had been to travel through the Amazon, a jungle alive with flora that holds the key to so many scientific discoveries and fauna and terrain to astonish any adventure seeker. Having experienced several adventures throughout the world, I sought to compete in an extreme challenge that would be my Amazon adventure. The Jungle Marathon, advertised as a 200 km extreme, ultra-marathon, unsupported foot race deep in the Amazon Jungle of Brazil, fit the bill.

judah8-landscape.jpg In this race, every participant needed to carry all his equipment for the 7-day duration, including food and gear. The nights would be spent sleeping in hammocks in the jungle or along the Tapajos River (in photo). Additionally, the difficulty lies not so much with the 200 km distance, as with the intensity of the treacherous terrain and slopes spawned by the harsh jungle conditions.

Upon arriving at the departure point, in the small beachfront town of Alter do Chao (in the State of Para), I met other competitors from all over the world who had come for this extreme ultra-marathon. All told, there were 45 of us. Some adventurers told stories of surviving gun battles with poachers while photographing wild mountain gorillas, or embarking upon a canoe trip down a river in the Congo in the midst of a civil war. Nearly all of them had previously run other ultra-marathons elsewhere, including at the South Pole, the Sahara Desert, Mongolia, the North Pole, the jungle of Borneo, and more. They had come to the Amazon to challenge the event known by all extreme ultra-marathoners as the toughest race on the planet (in 2006, with no American competitors, only 59 percent completed the race).

Not until arriving in Brazil had I dreamed that in a single leap I would go from the tame 8-mile “Turkey Trot” Thanksgiving road race I’d run on the flat terrain of Dallas, Texas to the hardest race in the world. Perhaps I should have trained better by first entering other ultra-marathons in tough terrains abroad – or at least in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Or I could have competed in simple marathons at home, or even a half-marathon or two. But none of these races peaked my interest. I bore easily and don’t like to run unless there is something interesting to catch my attention. So the thought of running through the largest and most diverse jungle in the world appealed to me, unaware of the immense struggle that would lay ahead for me, should I enter it.

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I am studying English at University College London for a year, and I plan to take advantage of England’s proximity to continental Europe and travel as much as possible.

Stay tuned for more updates.

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From Katherine:
Megan and I will be in Athens, Greece for one week, Istanbul for 4 days, and then at a geology field camp in Turkey (approx. 170 km east of Istanbul). We will spend three weeks at the Taskesti field research station of the Turkish General Directorate of Disaster Affairs (Earthquake Research Department). We will spend one week at the Cayirhan coal mine faciities. Then we will spend one week at the facilities of the Hirfanli Hydroelectric Dam in Kaman, Kirsehir.

We will be studying the geology of the Tethys realm of Turkey across the North Anatolian fault. We will be with students from universities all over the U.S.A. We will have 2 instructors from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and one instructor from the Istanbul Technical Institute.

Course Content
The course includes preparation of stratigraphic columns, structural cross sections, and geologic maps, and completion of formal reports. Successive projects involve greater geologic complexity, and some may emphasize geologic hazard or mineral resource assessment. Practical applications to environment-related problems, earthquake hazards, landslides, and hydrogeology may be included.

I am looking forward to studying the amazing geology and culture of Turkey. I hear the food is delicious, the beaches are beautiful, and the oceans are very warm.

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Coming Soon

Andres hasn’t started posting yet.

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