I know that I have gotten horribly behind with my blog (and mainly life in general). I got back from Brazil about 3 weeks ago now. It was seriously one of the best trips that I have ever been on. Ever. It was absolutely incredible. The experience of being in the jungle, along with the good fortune of being able to make so many amazing new friends was without compare. So without further ado, I will finally publish the first installment of the Jungle Marathon 2016.
Pre-race day 1:
I made uneventful flights from Orlando to Miami, and then Miami to Brasilia. I had a few hours in Brasilia, so I sat outside for awhile in the nice cool weather. I then braved security – which was interesting since I speak no Portuguese and apparently most people in Brasilia speak no English. I had no clue what the Brazilian version of a TSA lady was trying to tell me, but eventually after getting wanded down and then walking through the metal detector several times, I had my carry-on baggage and hadn’t been violated too badly. I had a similar excursion into hilarity and misunderstanding when I tried to get a coffee and breakfast. I finally ended up with a espresso-sized cup of coffee and no breakfast. Hmmmm, apparently talking slower and louder in English does not mean that I am better understood….. I eventually got boarded on my next flight. My plane stopped in Manaus, but then finally I was touching down in Santarem. First stage of the journey over, but the adventure is just beginning.
I was met at the airport by Shirley, the race director, and a few of her local staff. I was thankfully taken directly to the boat in Santarem rather than having to find a taxi to take me to Alto de Chao. After my experience in Brasilia, I’m not sure how well it would have gone…. On the drive to the dock, I realized that unfortunately it seems like slums or poor areas tend to look pretty similar no matter where in the world you are. And Brazil is no exception. Soon we were pulling up to a bustling dock where our noble river chariot was awaiting. There were river boats wedged in along each side of the dock. They looked like a throw-back to the 1920’s in the American South. They were grand two or three level affairs with white wrap-around railings. People walked back and forth with every manner of foodstuff or general equipment balanced precariously on their heads. It was hot and humid and chaotic and awesome!
We boarded the boat and I was overwhelmed by meeting the medical team. Vicky, the medical/logistic lead, had already commandeered the top floor of the boat and the medics were sitting in a circle under the hammocks playing Uno. We have a huge crew of paramedics from the UK. They are a great group who seem to be having a great time and are really friendly. I got a bit of the rundown for the race (I knew next to nothing before showing up), and tried my first round of introductions. We hung out at the dock for awhile and then set sail for Alto de Chao. It was so lovely to be standing on the deck of the boat, the hot breeze caressing your face, and watching the wide river slowly roll along with you. I loved it!
We were greeted with a lightning storm as we pulled into Alto de Chao. The crew disembarked and walked into town for dinner. We found a tiny place outdoors with white plastic chairs and plenty of locals dining. I don’t think any of us were quite sure what we were ordering but the beers were cold and delicious. The meat came on sword skewers just like the fancy Brazilian steakhouses at home. The fish were fried whole and just incredible. It was a really nice meal.
After strolling back to our river queen, I stood along the railing of the boat until the weariness of the past 2 travel days overcame me. The moon shimmered over the river. The soft roar of nervous runners was on the breeze. Time for sleep in my hammock on the river. Perfect!
Pre-race day 2:
Of course, everyone was awake and moving and noisy before the sun had even rose. I was a little grumpy but was rewarded for the early hour by a beautiful sunrise over the tributary of the Amazon. Our group went for an early morning swim. It seems our boat had docked on a private sandy beach with jungle as a dramatic backdrop. The water was warm as we bobbed along. I think everyone probably had piranhas and sting rays on the brain – well at least I did. Hot water was waiting in the aft kitchen of the boat and I had my rations of oatmeal and green tea. It tasted good this morning, but ask me again in a week how I feel about it…
Time to set sail again. We floated lazily down to a small town perched on the beach. Hammocks were strung in a shady yard, and a small hanging village was formed. I spent an hour finally going through all of my bags and getting organized. An obligatory swim in the river was made before it was time to settle in and get ready to check racer’s medical forms.
No surprises with the medical check-in. Most everyone confessed to no medical issues or medications. It usually isn’t until day 3 or 4 that you find out if people really have medical problems because they start coming to you when things aren’t going that well. In one race, a runner kept getting dizzy and orthostatic. It turns out that they had on a clonidine patch (a blood pressure medication) but of course had never confessed to having hypertension, and had “none” listed under their med list. I guess people are worried that we won’t allow them to run if they admit to their high cholesterol…
I took a bath in the river, even busting out my shampoo and conditioner. It was quite nice. I brought fancy conditioner so that I could actually comb through my hair. I sweated my ass off while eating my first backpacker meal. And just waited for the sun to come down in the hopes that the air would cool a bit. There was a gorgeous sunset. I made it about 30 minutes after it got dark before I scrambled up into my hammock. I read my book about the Amazon for a bit before drifting blissfully to sleep.
Pre-race day 3:
I slept so well! Have I mentioned that I love sleeping in a hammock!?! There was the typical dog fights and rooster crows overnight. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are – the dogs are quiet and sleeping during the day and cause a ruckus all night. And the internal clock of roosters is bullocks. They crow and doodle-do all night.
Today is the briefing day. The morning started off with our jungle survival guys telling us about everything that could kill you in the jungle. Which is pretty much everything. They had a slideshow and brought in a tiny boa constrictor. It was pretty neat. The Bombeiro painted an impressive picture with his jungle hat, his survival vests, his tall black boots, and his machete strapped to his waist.
I gave my usual talk about heat, hydration, and hygiene as well as my “mean Mommy” speech about how the runners needed to take care of their own feet. I received a spontaneous round of applause when I was able to remember all of the names of our large medical team.
From left to right, top row first: Shirley, Ryan, Andy, Emily, Vicky, Nicole, Gary, Reuben, Helen, Bill; Katie, Ash, Sam, Debbie, Rhon, me
It was really difficult to hear anything about the first day’s course/race because it was pissing down rain and we were in an open building with a tin roof. After the race briefing, there was nothing to do but wait. The rain continued so I scurried out into the rain to get my hammock down and bring it inside. No sense starting off with everything being soggy. I’m sure that I will have plenty of wet, muddy, sogginess throughout the rest of the week.
The rain continued as dusk settled in, so I set up my hammock inside. I figured that I was going to have a nice quiet night in there. Oh no. One of the dogs kept wanting to get inside. Then she started rifling through the trash. Then all of the boy dogs wanted to come in after her since she was in heat. Well I guess that it’s always something about these races. I fortunately was finally able to get a bit of sleep after everything calmed down.
Race day 1
Finally it’s time for folks to start running! I’m glad that it’s race day. It must be hard for the runners to just wait around for days, nervous for the race to start, restless. Everyone looked happy at the start. We waited around base camp for about an hour and half. I wanted to ensure that most runners were to CP1, aka the point of no return, before taking off in my ambulance. Oh yeah, I get an ambulance this race. I have a driver, a Brazilian EMT, a British medic, and a teeny tiny Fiat ambulance. I can choose where I want to go and just kind of cruise around from place to place. I feel like medical royalty.
Our medical team in the back of a truck with all of our luggage. We were very safety conscious while in Brazil….
We first headed off for Checkpoint 2. They had quite a few runners through already. It seemed like a really neat place to have stayed overnight. Our medics seemed like they were having a good time. After hanging out for an hour, we then cruised over to CP3. At a few hills, the local EMT with us had to get out to offload some weight. We fishtailed all the way up, and luckily made them all. At CP3, there was a little black monkey cruising around. He was maybe a foot and a half tall and was wandering around our checkpoint with his little arms up, waving about. He would want to be friendly, but inevitably would get scared, and then run up one of the villagers legs and hug them around the neck. It was really neat. There were also giant tarantulas in the rafters of the little palm thatched shelter that the medics had slept in the night before. Yikes. My first big spider….
We finally headed back to camp. It’s a big open area with plenty of trees to hang hammocks from in the middle of a village. We are close to the river and while we were down there, we saw a huge empty turtle shell and a meter long iguana. It’s pretty cool getting to see so much of the wildlife and we are only one day in. I don’t want to jinx anything, but this has been sooooo cool so far.
One of the last runners was struggling and Shirley asked me to go out and check on him. I threw on my cuben fiber pack and headed that way. He was doing okay, just moving slow, and mentally totally done. I have a feeling that he may still want to continue on tomorrow but we will see. It’s always amazing how shitty people can feel and look when they come into camp, and then look like a new person in the morning. Otherwise, we had an easy night medically. Only a few people strolled into our medical area and it was mainly just social visits.
Race day 2:
I fell asleep hard but unfortunately had a much too early awaking. The Brazilian contingency woke up at 4am. Yes, that’s right, 4am. They started calling across the camp to each other and then singing. Again, I guess it’s always something at a race.
All runners started the race this morning. The race began with a river crossing. It was a fair way to swim, especially when you consider that they were wearing packs and shoes and clothes as well. Everyone made it across safely, some needing more assistance and some with more fear than others. We all packed up camp once the runners were gone and Debbie and I loaded up into the ambulance.
We leap-frogged our way from one checkpoint to the other – hanging out for an hour and two and then moving on. In order to get to CP 2, we had to bushwhack for a bit. Unfortunately Debbie and I had shorts and flip flops on. It was going okay until our local guide looked back at us and warned us to watch for snakes. My legs were already eaten up by ants and now they got tore up with all of the grabby grasses. It has been interesting to see the sites where the Bombeiros have created a camp out of nothing. They will hack down the thick jungle into a clearing and then stay up all night on the perimeter to protect our medics. Pretty cool.
Once we arrived at CP3, I’m pretty sure that Debbie got engaged and married to a local. He kept making animals out of palm fronds and handing them to her. We figured after the third gift acceptance that they were officially betrothed. We got called back to CP2. Unfortunately the two guys in the ambulance with me speak no English, so all I knew is that someone was “bad” at CP2. I figured that it would be the runner from last night, but I had no idea what to expect. I thought about different worst case scenarios on the way there, and then was pleasantly surprised when we pulled up and saw our runner sitting up on the back of the pick-up truck, looking just fine. He had just gotten dizzy in the jungle and then subsequently given up mentally. So our first runner was out…..
We escorted him back to camp and regrouped with the team. Our little village was already set up upon my return. The rest of the medics were so sweet, and had saved spots for our hammocks so that we could all be close to each other. Our dropped runner laid on the tarp for awhile and then picked himself up and sauntered off looking quite well.
I had an actual real shower on the boat! It was amazing! I washed and conditioned my hair. And even plucked my eyebrows! Which I’m almost embarrassed to admit, but whatever – Luxury in the jungle. The rest of my afternoon consisted of wandering around camp, checking in on folks. Then sitting on the tarp with the medics and bullshitting. I laid in my hammock for awhile reading. I walked down to the river with some of the runners. All in all, quite relaxing. Our “clinic” picked up a little in the evening with foot care issues. (Of course, what else would we possibly do at a race????). But the medics were happy to help and take care of feet. And if they’re happy, I’m happy. I got my hair french-braided by Emily. While I was sitting there, one of the medics handed me a cup of one of the local drinks. I felt like a proper princess!
I could only stomach ramen noodles for dinner. I got the dinner sweats bad! I just can’t eat in this heat. I could barely wait for bed. I went through the process of digging through my bags numerous times to find toothbrush and toothpaste, then my jammies, then my vitamins, then my kindle, and on and on. Hammock time! Two stages down! Six to go!
Race Day 3:
Once again, there were some early risers in the group. Luckily I was able to get another half hour of sleep after the madness began. It was another river start for the racers. This time an even further swim. No mishaps once again. It was a beautiful view down the river with the sun just rising. The local villagers turned out to watch these crazy people who have decided to undertake this epic foot voyage through their jungle.
I’m not sure what happened this morning but I’m pretty sure that no one knew where the checkpoints were or what was going on. They told us CP1 had closed only an hour after the start of the race. Given the timing from yesterday – I didn’t see how this was possible. And then they told us it was a 5 km walk to CP2 where earlier someone who spoke good English told me it was a 500 meter walk. So who knows… But I didn’t think it was good for me to be roughly an hour walk from the ambulance so onward we went to CP3.
CP3 is amazing! It’s in the shade within an indigenous village. The chief sat proudly with his feather headdress and his beautiful children running around him. The children are gorgeous. They have their bodies painted and feather halos on their heads. They smile shyly for the cameras and giggle when you show them their photo. The chief walked me through his village and showed off where they have their formal dances, their church, and their bee population for making honey.
The runners look surprisingly well for the distance and the heat. CP3 is roughly the halfway point. The front runners came in in a group of 3 – 2 Brazilians and 1 Australian. They looked like they were really pushing it. I’m pleasantly surprised at how great people are doing. Ash and I spent a lovely 30 minutes down by a cold river on a rickety bench with our feet in the water. It was a much needed break and re-set. Apparently camp tonight is in the “deep jungle”…… don don doooooonnnnnnnnn.
So on our way to the starting off point for the deep jungle, we got a call that someone was “bad”. Once again, that’s the only information that I had. So we headed back out over the extremely bumpy roads in our Fiat ambulance to see what was up. We stopped to ask villagers several times where the different access points to the course was from the road and from my limited knowledge of Portuguese, it seemed like we were getting differing opinions. But we finally found a jungle access point, and just as we were hiking uphill, we saw the Bombeiros along with the communication team with our runner. He was walking with some minor assistance and one of the locals was carrying his pack for him. He had some dizziness and numbness while hiking, but it quickly resolved after he made the decision to pull himself out of the race.
We had our first patient laid out on the stretcher. Ash was especially excited since this was his first ambulance ride after becoming a certified paramedic. Hopefully it was memorable for him. We had a long car ride and then ended up in a parking lot for a national forest. There were loads of loggers getting off of buses and filing into their bunks. We were told that we now needed a different truck to take us 20km into the jungle where we could reach a point where it was a short walk to the campsite. But then we didn’t know where the trucks were or when they would be coming for us. I rushed to pack my overnight bag. And then…. we waited.
And waited. Welcome to Brazil.
They finally invited us in for dinner after we were told that no one could get a hold of the trucks that were supposed to pick us up. On the plus side, we had a delicious dinner of fish stew and rice alone with fresh juice and coffee. And there were fans in the dining room. And sit down toilets. Luxury! But after dinner, things got weird when 15 of the loggers came in to watch a football game. One guy was making kissy fish (that’s what my niece calls kissy face) at me. And everywhere I turned, I was getting seriously eye-f$%!ed. I was really uncomfortable. Probably the most I have ever been at a race. I would have rather taken my chances out in the jungle alone with the jaguars rather than slept in that building with those el creepos.
So right when I’m about to blow my top, we get the announcement that the truck is now here. Yahoo! But then we are told that the radiator is out. Boo! They told us that they can’t get us into the jungle. I was starting to get a bit frustrated about the delays and started giving the local guys the business. Well lo and behold, they lifted the hood of the truck, banged a wrench around a little bit, and surprise, the truck was fixed. Finally, we were headed to the deep jungle camp! I’m excited!
The trail was pitch black with jungle close on either side. The truck rocketed through the night into ever deepening darkness. Each bump and jolt heightened my excitement. It’s hard to describe, but it was all just really intense and exciting. I kept hoping to see some form of exotic wildlife but all I saw was more jungle illuminated in the truck’s headlights.
Finally we stopped. As the doors swung open, the closeness of the jungle was deafening. Time to hike in the dark for 15 minutes. Of course, the first wildlife that I encountered was a ginormous tarantula. Bleh! Ash wanted me to tell him where it was so he could get a picture and I told him – “Well I’m not f-ing coming back to show you!”. The path wound through the vegetation, barely able to claim a small space for itself. My headlight kept illuminating green eyes on the forest floor – more spiders. I probably saw over 10 huge spiders. We walked along downed trees and crawled underneath a heavy trunk. I was surprised by how fearful I felt. And it was stupid, because it was just of the spiders. Silly me. We saw lights bobbing in the distance – camp!
It was a cluster finding a place to hang a hammock given how small this little man-made gap in the jungle was, and we ended up waking up the entire medical team in the process. We met the runners as they came in. Everyone was held back at the last checkpoint so a larger group could come through the jungle together. Everyone looked battered but overall no worse for the wear. I don’t think that I have ever climbed into my hammock in such a disgusting state. I could smell myself just marinating in my own special blend of B.O., dried sweat, sunscreen, bug spray, and spider fear. Not even good. I think that this was one of the first times that I went to bed that dirty. Even worse was when I had to get up in the middle of the night to pee and the entire perimeter was little green eyes.
We all made it safely through the night. No jaguar maulings. This was such a freaking cool experience. And I hope that I don’t forget it anytime soon.
So as an aside, I have bunch more photos to go with this first half of the trip. But unfortunately when I uploaded photos from my camera, they for some reason aren’t available to post onto the blog site. So after I finish the race coverage, I will post a bunch more photos. Sorry! I am pretty much the least tech savvy person ever.