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Jungle Marathon – the other side of the story

Posted on 09 December 2010

So I was out… Lying in the stretcher, carried by six local firemen, and a seventh that held my IV-drip, I was thinking about what had happened. The jungle had hit me hard, already when we arrived I was feeling that I was about to faint.

But now I had to make a new decision. How should I handle the fact that I was not in the race any longer? I remembered how supportive John had been to me at the Namibia 24h Ultra marathon, and I now wanted to do the same. Already on the medical boat (where I received a further two bags of IV-fluid) I decided that I was going to go back to camp and as soon as possible try to support the others that were still in the race.

I told myself to remember Miles Hilton-Barber’s comment: “you cannot control the circumstances, but you can always control your response”. It was now clear what that meant for me. I couldn’t change the fact that I was out of the race, but I could control how I let that fact impact me. I was going to be positive and see what cards I would be dealt over the coming days and try to play them the best I could.

The first two days after pulling out I was at different checkpoints trying to cheer on as much as I could. When I was at the finish line I helped the runners to string up their hammocks, fetch warm water, and fill up their water bottles. Having done these events in the past I know how much that means when you come in and are about to collapse from exhaustion.

However it was on the long day that my experience from this race changed. I was at checkpoint five together with two of the doctors, Mez and Anna. The night before we had arrived in the village where the checkpoint was at eleven o’clock at night. Whilst wading ashore from the boat the local boatsman suddenly pulled me back and a sting ray about half a meter from me quickly moved away. It was only later that I understood that one of the runners had been stung by one when he trod on the sting ray during a water crossing, I had never even considered this a real risk, I thought it was something that the locals talked up without any real high risk of happening. I remember thinking I have much to learn about the jungle!

The next day turned out to be a very busy one. The front runners came through at about 12 and from then the runners started to trickle in slowly. We arranged shade, water and seating for them. As they came in we took their backpacks, and filled their food bags with hot water. The smile on their worn-down faces told the story how much they appreciated our help. The local community were gathered around and watched with big eyes as the doctors started to tape up feet to try to keep the participants going. On the picture below is Anna sorting out Nick’s feet.

We had a situation that worried me a while when David came to the checkpoint in a poor state. He was seriously dehydrated and had not been able to eat the food he carried with him for the past days. After the IV-drip was in he quickly deteriorated and started to drift in and out of consciousness. We made the call to evacuate him and after a few reminders the military comms guy seemed to get the urgency to get a car here. 45 minutes later was the end of David’s race and he was taken to the medical boat for further attention. Luckily they managed to turn his condition and he looked ok, although frail, the next day I saw him. I was very worried for a while, and equally relieved when I saw that he was ok!.

Our checkpoint, no5, was more or less half-way through the day. Having said that, there was still another 48km to go, so the participants were not fooled that they had a quick finish at all. About ten people had to sleep at checkpoint 4, and came through early in the morning on the second day at our checkpoint. At about 12 we were all done and packed up the checkpoint. One of the local firemen asked me if I wanted to join him walking to checkpoint 6, it was about an 8km walk. I was in doubt, I only had flip flops on my feet since I had lost my shoes when I was carried out on the stretcher. But the offer of walking with the locals through the jungle was too tempting so I left the camp with my backpack and 1 litre of water (I had given away two of my water bottles, because two people had not enough and they were still in the race).

We had the most amazing time walking in the jungle. I spoke a simplified Spanish and they did the same in Portuguese. We laughed and spoke about everything and anything as we were sweeping at the back, staying about a kilometer behind the last competitors. We were soon at CP6 where we picked up another local fireman and quickly left for CP7. We said that we would do one more section and then see what was going on. 15Km through the jungle (albeit it was easier underfoot, we had local community paths to follow most of the way) in flip flops still seemed to be a big ask of my body, but I was feeling good so far. We made the most of the day and stopped to cool down whenever we found a spring or a little river.

When we saw houses we went in to say hi, and without asking they always served us water and coffee. To start with I tried to stay with drinking only from my bottled water, but soon I realised that I would be dehydrated if I didnt take on any more than 1 liter per section and it was a bit difficult to explain to the locals why I didnt want their hospitality. It moved me to see how simple these fishermen / hunters lived and still without any questions asked they shared what little they had with us when we walked through.

At CP7 the guys said that they would walk the full length of the course… 48km in flip flops? There is only one thing to say to that – Hell yes!

So now I was in it for the long ride and we started walking. By now we were five or six of us. The firemen were great and we had such a good time. They were singing, laughing and I think that I was tricked into singing a few ABBA songs too! *smile*

It was the best of times, without any worries in the world. We took a photo of us all smiling and they said that I should look at the photo and remember how good times we had together in the jungle.

Not a worry in the world. We all shared all we had (even though they were not too keen to share the freeze dried food I had with me!) and it felt that we bonded very quickly!

We came to a few huts and across the dirt track there were to guys playing football. We borrowed the ball and had a little Sweden vs Brazil moment in a penalty shoot out. I think if you look at the photo you can see what I thought about the fact that my penalty licked the outside of the post… Well, they are five times world champions after all!

When we came to CP8 we were all tired and I believe a bit dehydrated too. They were given cooked food, a stew of beed and potatoes with rice, and when I sat outside they quickly came to get me and I had a plate in my hand filled with proper food. The first cooked food I had had for more than a week now and it tasted so so good! The best meal ever!

The participants were struggling now. It was still a long way for them to go, and from now on it was all in deep sand on the river bank, which was actually more like a beach than anything else. We set off and soon it was sunset. I will never forget that sunset. We were a few guys, sat down on the beach, shared our food and watched the sun set into the water and took some great photos.

Over the radio we heard that a participant was missing so we started to jog and shout out. All of a sudden we were all pushing on and at this point we had already covered 30km that day (and I was still in my flip flops!) and we carried 10-12kg (the food had gone down considerable since day 1, but there were still hammocks and all other equipment in my backpack). After about 30min running the message that the guy was found came through. We had all enjoyed to move a bit fast though so we decided to carry on our jog to the next, and final, checkpoint. At 9pm we came into the checkpoint. There were a few participants catching their breath and filling up on water and food.

Here my firemen friends said that they would leave me. There was about 10km to go, but they were going to be up working the next day, and they were aching all over. I was in two minds what to do, I had set out to do the 48km, but on the other hand I was aching in my feet from the 38km in flip flops…

I looked at saw Karen and Debbie and they asked me if I would continue and sensed that they needed moral support so it was then an easy decision to make. I would push on and do the last 10km with the two girls. At this time of the night Debbie was struggling and Karen and I did our best to keep the moral up. We started singing and I think that over the next few hours we covered everything from ABBA (of course), the Swedish national anthem, the Canadian national anthem, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, various Swedish drinking songs, Whitney, Michael Jackson etc etc.

At one point we had an interesting discussion with the head-doctor how much pain killer I could give Debbie, but with an enormous determination they both made it to the finish line at about 23.30 in the evening. That means that they started the long stage at 6.30 in the morning of the day before, walked until 15.30, slept in the thick jungle that night (from 15.30 they couldnt go beyond checkpoint 4). The next morning they got going at 6.30 and came in at 23.30. It was emotional to see them crossing the finishing line, knowing that they now had only one stage to go to complete the race. That is what I call hard going! I was so inspired…

For myself I was totally knackered. I had only set out to do a single stage, 7km between checkpoint 5 and 6; and now I had managed to push through 48km, with a 10-12kg pack and done this in flip flops. I think it might have been the longest distance anyone has ever travelled in a pair of Havanna flip flops! My feet were absolutely knackered, but having just seen what Debbie and Karen did I could not complain at all. I downed a liter of water, filled up my bottle; strung my hammock up and it was lights out of what had been a brilliant day with so many surprises. My feet looked worse for wear, but in my mind I was very content with what I had experienced that day!

When I summarised this second stage of the Jungle Marathon I was really surprised. My experiences with the local firemen, singing and dancing in the jungle tracks, meeting locals in their houses who had little but offered all they had to us I was very touched. I had set out to finish the jungle marathon but already on day two the race was over for my part. Looking back at the choices I did and the experiences I had I must say that I got to experience something very very special. These photos of the smiling firemen I will always carry with me.

You cannot always decide what cards that you are dealt, but do make sure you control HOW you play the cards you get.

2 Responses to “Jungle Marathon – the other side of the story”

  1. Dazza Roberts says:

    Royal Flush next time chap!

  2. Wes says:

    Joakim – I can’t believe that I hadn’t read this until now! You know my opinion on this my friend, hence me starting the new race series. But on another note, you made the right decision and made the race a possibility for many runners in the process. I know first hand that not all of us would have done the same in your situation. I really must put pen to paper and write something about the mental aspects of the Ultra Race – I think this receives very little attention from race organisers or competitors alike, perhaps its just not as sexy as running a marathon a day in training? Your final line is very true, and you my friend played a beaut! Thanks. w