Ryan Sandes’ jungle adventure

Trail Blazer, by Ryan Sandes

in partnership with Steve Smith

Redemption in the Jungle

The following year, in 2010, I’d earmarked the Atacama Crossing and The Last Desert race in Antarctica as the 4 Deserts events in which I wanted to compete. The Antarctica race happens only every two years, and I also needed to try to find a bigger sponsor to fund the steep $10,000 entry fee. But there was still time for another race in 2009, and, after Namibia’s disappointments, I was looking for a little running redemption.

ryan sandes Trail Blazer book Cover 500pxIt came in the form of the Jungle Marathon. Held in the Brazilian rainforest, the 242-kilometre race is a six-day, five-stage event that wasn’t part of the 4 Deserts Series, but I’d heard the odd story about it. These whispered tales were usually accompanied by wide eyes and the shaking of heads by all who told and heard them. I couldn’t glean much info from the runners I’d met during the 4 Deserts races – all I’d get was a nervous laugh and a ‘just go and do it and you’ll find out’. The race had gained a degree of notoriety and press attention after the BBC had run a three-part documentary on it. The second episode had ended with one of the competitors nearly dying from heat exhaustion. You see the guy being stretchered off-camera and then suddenly someone shouts, ‘Oh no, I think we’ve lost him!! I think he’s dead!!’ And then, smart film-makers that they are, they ended the episode at that point and everyone had to wait another week to see if the poor bloke had made it or not. Apparently, after that, interest in the race really took off, and the organisers now have people all over the world wanting to enter.

And one of them was me.

Seriously, how tough could it be after what I’d done? ‘Voted by CNN as “The World’s Toughest Endurance Race”…Temperatures of 40 °C … Humidity of 99% … Primary jungle with a dense canopy covering and not a chink of daylight … Swamp crossings where anacondas lurk … River crossings with caiman and piranhas as companions’ – these were the warnings plastered on the front page of their website. Right. Whatever. Things are always being hyped up. Besides, I had heard Salvador was entering the race as well. Revenge? What, me? Never!

I clicked on the ‘Enter’ button.

I’d been reading Lance Armstrong’s book about his recovery from cancer, and it helped motivate me to take on the jungle after my Namibian setback. I realise that you can’t compare fighting back from cancer with being miserable about a second place in a desert race, but his description of those first post-chemo rides he took on a stationary bike inspired me. In the wake of the big doping scandal and Lance becoming something of a pariah with a – justifiably – tough punishment dished out, I couldn’t help but admire his determination to overcome a massive challenge like cancer. Reading about how, in his prep for the Tour de France, he would ride a route three times to pinpoint every little bump in the road really resonated with me; it made me want to become far more specific in my training too.

I started doing a lot more quality work that was more race-specific. After a little research on the Jungle Marathon, I worked out that the race had lots of small climbs and some huge river crossings. In a couple of stages, they start you on the one side of a river and you have to swim a few hundred metres across before the actual running can even begin. To get used to swimming with a fully laden backpack, I went to the Silvermine dam above Tokai, in Cape Town, to make sure I didn’t completely sink, and I also did a little bit of swimming at the gym. Running-wise, I did a lot more hill repeats and shorter, sharper stuff – like really short 50- or 100-metre climbs up and down. I was deter- mined to do well in this race, which, in my head, at that point, meant first place.

As I mentioned in Chapter 1, the race takes place in the Floresta Nacional do Tapajós in northern Brazil. Getting there was a bit of a trek – a flight from South Africa to São Paulo, a connecting flight to Manaus, and then another to the town of Santarém. From there, it was a boat trip up the Amazon to the start.

Ryan Sandes Jungle Marathon by Greg Fell
Ryan Sandes on a brief sandy section at the Jungle Marathon.
Photo Greg Fell

Before the race started, we were given a brief survival course by the local Brazilian military, who pointed out all the dangerous elements of the jungle – which turned out to be most of it. Even the trees. Touch the wrong tree, and it can kill you. At least that’s what they said. I remember lying in my hammock that night and not being able to sleep. You can’t sleep on the ground because there are too many insects – the ground’s like a highway of termites. I was too scared to go to the toilet because there were just eyes – red eyes – all around… just looking at me. I ended up taking a bottle to pee in at night because it was just too gnarly to go to the toilet.

And remember all that hype on their website about piranhas and caiman crocs at the river crossings? Well, they showed some underwater video footage from previous races, and there they were, swimming among the competitors. ‘Don’t worry,’ said the military guy, ‘they’re actually more scared of you than you need to be of them.’ Sure.

There were a few more things I had to worry about too. A few weeks before the start, my right hamstring started to play up. I rarely picked up much in the way of niggles, but the hammie started to get quite sore and then, on top of everything, I sprained both my ankles on Day 1 of the race.

The problem was that, although the route was marked with bio-degradable orange tape, things biodegrade so quickly in the jungle that half the time the tape would turn greeny-brown and just fade into the foliage. And the actual jungle itself is incredibly dense. You can vaguely make out the trail, but the floor is covered with leaves, so you can’t really make out where the roots or holes are. You just plant your foot and hope for the best. Unfortunately, luck wasn’t with me that first day and I went over on both ankles. In fact, my right ankle was so swollen that it couldn’t flex sideways any more, even if I went over on it again. It’s like the body protected itself through the swell- ing. I would still stand in holes or slip, but it never got any worse. The drugs helped too. I had Myprodol painkillers with me and was having to take a couple every few hours. The natural endorphins helped too, and I found that the more swollen the ankle got, the less painful it was. I’ve learnt now that if I tweak my ankle and it doesn’t swell up, then I need to start worrying. Still, through the whole race I was run- ning with this fear in the back of my mind that I would injure my ankles further. The terrain was so sketchy.

The fear in the front of my mind was what the jungle’s resident wildlife might do to me. I remember running a few metres behind Salvador, with US runner Mike Wolfe just ahead of both of us, when suddenly Mike started screaming and shouting. He’d been attacked by some or other vindictive swarm of insects, and I’d get that sick feeling in my stomach, knowing that we were up next on the menu. A couple of times I ran under fallen trees and my backpack knocked the rotting bark as I ducked underneath, which dislodged all these fire ants that would fall on my back and start biting me. It’s like getting stung … very painful!

I also saw at least two or three snakes every day, as well as a couple of these massive rodents called capybaras. They look like seals with legs and they can run bloody fast. If you see one of them sprinting out of the dense foliage in your direction, you shit yourself. At least I wasn’t still out there running after sundown, as I had finished the stages by then, but some of the slower guys reported seeing jaguars too.

One totally unexpected ‘snake’ belonged to a French competitor who, as it turned out, was also a male stripper. Apparently he had a show booked in Paris soon after the race and had decided to keep his tool-in-trade well maintained during the race. That involved a thorough shave, which unfortunately backfired, as it caused him such bad bollock chafe that he had to withdraw or risk compromising his entire livelihood.

The other snakes to watch out for were some of the local runners. Up until then, in its four-year history, the Jungle Marathon had only been won by local athletes. They were obviously very familiar with both the terrain, the route and the short cuts. Poor Shirley, the founder, had her hands full with them. By 2009, Shirley had separated the race into two categories – one for locals and one for foreigners. The foreign guys would get really annoyed when one of the locals would come running over the finish line, drinking an ice-cold Coke. They would be like, ‘Where the hell did you get that from?!’, and the runner would claim he’d carried it with him, which was total nonsense. Clearly, they were being seconded somewhere along the route, but that kind of stuff was really difficult to regulate. Shirley had my sympathies, and I never made a big deal about it.

After the first two days I had built up a 10-minute lead, but that wasn’t any guarantee of a win. The nasties could always get you. The previous year, some poor guy had grabbed onto a branch that was unfortunately also home to a particularly venomous spider, which promptly bit him. That was his race done right there. What could end more than your race was a local species of rattlesnake that’s known to kill around 100 people each year in Brazil. Remember, it’s a long boat trip to the nearest town, so getting bitten means there is a good chance you won’t make it. How someone hasn’t died in that race yet is a miracle, to be perfectly honest.

After I’d finished the second day, I was lying in my hammock as most of the field began to come in, including a big group of UK soldiers. They were high-fiving each other at the finish line, only for them to start having fits a couple of hours later. They’d contracted severe heatstroke and had to be evacuated that night. Apparently, some of them were properly messed up. One guy, I later heard, ended up with some form of brain damage.

The Drakensberg Grand Traverse with Ryno Griesel and cooling down at Racing the Planet Madagascar.
The Drakensberg Grand Traverse with Ryno Griesel and cooling down at Racing the Planet Madagascar.

Like with all these multistage races, it all came down to Day 5’s long stage. It began with a 250-metre swim before we headed into the jungle. Despite my niggling hammie and swollen ankles, I was having a very good race. Going into the long stage, I had built up a comfortable two-hour lead on the foreign guys and 45 minutes on the top local athlete.

This stage was 89 kilometres long but fairly flat, and the second half of the stage saw us in open terrain along the coast. I spent most of the long stage running with Mike Wolfe, until the heat saw him back off a little. It was as hot as the desert races I’d done, but the big difference here was the humidity. Unlike the dry heat of the Gobi or Sahara, which evaporated sweat quickly and helped cool you down a little, here the humidity was like a blanket.

It didn’t help that, while running on my own up front, I managed to ‘miss’ a water point. Either I was so far ahead that the organisers hadn’t set it up yet, or there was a little local subterfuge going on. Whatever the case, I ended up becoming spectacularly dehydrated. About a kilometre out from the next water point, I couldn’t take it any more and came across this little creek full of green water. I dropped to my knees and started drinking the water. I knew it was the worst thing I could possibly do and the potential of contracting 10 kinds of rare tropical diseases was very high, but I didn’t care.

But, whether it was luck or my strong constitution, I didn’t get ill and actually crossed the finish line so far ahead of everyone else that it caught Shirley and her crew off guard. They hadn’t even got there yet, and it was up to my mate, Greg Fell from film production company The African Attachment, who was shooting a documentary about me, to film me crossing the line and zoom in on my watch to record the time.

The final stage was 32 kilometres, and by now no one had the energy to make up the time gap I had built up. My hamstring was still bothering me and had got a lot more painful towards the end of the race – like someone had kneed me in the side of the leg and given me ‘dead leg’ – but my race mode had well and truly taken over. I wanted this win badly. Still, there was a lot going through my mind. Manage your ankle and hamstring, don’t get lost and, of course, don’t get bitten by a snake.

There was quite a steep climb on the final 10-kay stretch, and as I was hauling my tired body over yet another tree, I got half stuck, fell over and face-planted. As I extricated my head from the mud, I found myself looking into this massive dark hole right in front of me … and these two red eyes were staring straight back. Another snake. That obviously got me going again pretty quickly, and with the adrenaline pumping through my veins, I crossed the finish line. I ended up winning comfortably, having beaten the locals and, more importantly, my Namibian nemesis, Salvador Redondo.

I think I was in the right space mentally and sufficiently motivated to not let the conditions get the better of me. It was a very, very tough race – technical and energy sapping. For example, Day 2 was only 24 kilometres, but not only was it hilly, there were times when I was wading chest deep through a swamp or falling face down in thick, black mud. One minute I was running on hard-packed ground, the next I was somersaulting into a mud pit. I lost my Oakleys in that pit and had to spend the rest of the race without any eye protection.

Not an ideal situation for my new eyewear sponsor.


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