However, our minds will definitely not go easily to the thick and searing nature that decorates the jungles of Brazil! In the tropical forests of the Amazon, and particularly in the protected National Tapajos Forest. There where the sky’s light is hard to reach after the sun sets, there where the humidity seems to be unconventional to the human lungs. However, it is in these forests that the famous Jungle Marathon takes place, a race that has been voted by the CNN channel as one of the most difficult endurance races.
The race is organized by Shirley Thompson, a pioneer in organizing extreme races in the jungle. She manages to coordinate over 200 people during the days that the Jungle Marathon takes place.
In temperatures that reach 40ο C, humidity up to 99%, and with the company of anacondas in the swamps and piranhas in the rivers, it is definitely a race that requires courage and the mood to touch their limits in order to sign up.
According to the race’s website, which is indeed wonderfully designed, it is the most wild eco race, giving the runners the opportunity to combine sports with ecological tourism, plus the experience of simply visiting this magnificent part of the planet.
The organization includes three races. A marathon, a 127km race in 4 stages, and a 254km race in 6 stages. The course includes swamps, river crossings, steep climbs and descents, village trails and river beaches. The humidity and sizzling temperatures compose a scary but fascinating race, nevertheless always among the athletes who have a strong mental status. Definitely good physical fitness is an important element, but athletes also require mental strength in order to challenge the kilometers and reach the finish line.
The race cooperates with many small villages that are along the course. The villagers help prepare and mark the trails and are the volunteers’ guides to the checkpoints. They know the short- cuts out of the jungle in case of an emergency evacuation. The race is a huge event for them and they are happy to assist in this big festival. As for the weather, the race in not held during the rainy season, so the athletes will only experience 1-2 downpours.
Participants must be at least 18years old. Registration is open to both men and women, either individuals or in teams of at least 3 athletes. In order to be ranked all team members must have completed the race or stage.
Each stage has a closing time. Any athlete who doesnt manage to reach the finish line on time at the allocated time may be eliminated from the race. This decision is taken by the Race Director and depends on the reasons for not succeeding on time, on the stage, and on the physical and mental status of the athlete. This is an element that we do not meet often in races and shows how important of role the unpredictable factors are in the ongoing effort of the athlete.
These are every 5-10 km during the normal stages, while in the larger (5th) they are at a longer distance between each other. Athletes are obligated to pass by all check points. At each check point water is offered, and emptied into the individual water bottles of the athletes. In no circumstances may any runners leave the check points with the plastic water bottles.
The marathon runners may leave a drop bag at the check points with food and energy drinks. Failure to pass a check point may lead to elimination from the race or time penalties, while they are also obligated to leave the check points with their water bottles full.
At the end of each stage athletes are offered water. Once runners have hung their hammock they can visit the medical team. At the end of each day, every athlete and team is ranked according to their time and they are offered warm water for the preparation of their meals.
Every athlete will receive two copies of their participation number, which must be visible throughout the whole race. The race director has the right to impose restrictions concerning the logos of sponsors and companies on the number plates.
All athletes are required to bring sufficient food for before and during the race. All athletes, including those running the marathon and the 127 km race must be self sufficient until the finish of the 255km race. They leave drop bags for the end of each race day. Some of the fruit and plants found in the jungle may not be eaten. The only exception is in an emergency situation, i.e. if an athlete is lost. However, it is up to the runner to know what is safe and what is not safe to eat.
Before the race, the organizers distribute water to each participant. Every morning, at each check point, and at the end of each stage. At each one of these points, the athletes must fill their water bottles with the 2, 5 liters of water. It is the athletes’ responsibility to manage their water intake and prevent dehydration. Furthermore, it is not the organizers responsibility if the athletes drink water which is not provided by the race officials.
Training for the race
For those who don’t live in a tropical climate, it is very difficult to find similar conditions to train, so that they are more prepared for the race conditions. For this reason, most runners usually train in normal conditions and acclimatize when they reach Brazil. Some proposals are to run with heavy layers of clothing and to not lose the opportunity to run in extremely hot weather. Some more creative runners have invented bold methods to simulate the race conditions, such as placing a treadmill in a greenhouse or sauna!
During the Jungle Marathon, athletes spend a lot of time on their feet. This time is not a bit like the time they spend during other races or training. A marathon distance in the jungle will need 2-3 times longer, since the terrain is so different and challenging.
The runners must adjust to running with a backpack with all the weight they will be carrying during the race (9-15kg). The backpack must apply well to the back so it doesn’t get caught in the branches or the sides of the trails. Also, water bottles are suggested instead of camelback, so the drinking tube doesn’t get caught in the trees.
Runners should train wit wet feet, due to the fact that they will indeed be wet all day long, both from the humid climate and from the many water passings as well. So, the more the training is done with wet feet, the less will be the problems during the race. Race organizers suggest that the runners get their clothes and shoes totally wet in the shower before going out to train! It is apparent that the particularities of the race need the appropriate preparation, which is totally unusual to anything that we are familiar with from other ultra trail races, however difficult they are!
- Hammock with mosquito net and rain sheet
- Food for before the race
- Food supplies for 4-7 days (depending on the race)
- Water carrying capacity of 2,5 liters
- Insect repellent
- Safety pins
- 2 cyclaume sticks
- Torch and extra batteries
- Salt sticks
- Water purifying tablets
- Emergency whistle
- Luggage label
- Small padlock for your backpack
- Medical certificate and travel insurance
- Medical kit (the list of the mandatory contents is given with the athlete’s enrollment)
Cost of the race and competitor limit
The entry fee is 2,500 UKL. The race has a field limit of 75 participants since it takes place in a protected area of the jungle; hence race officials want to ensure that there is no impact on the environment.
Runners must book a flight for the airport of Santarem in North Brazil. From there they can take a taxi to the village of Alter de Chao, which is about 30 km from the airport. From there, they will aboard the river boat that is described further down.
Runners must visit the general practitioner for advice. However, preventive vaccination for yellow fever is recommended, along with anti- malaria medication. During the race there is a team of 12-15 medical officials. At each check point there are 2 doctors, likely to each starting line and finish as well. Lastly, there are two ambulances stand by with their teams for emergency situations.
Athletes must visit the embassy of Brazil in their countries. Jungle Marathon will provide them with a letter stating that they are to participate in the race.
Snakes, wild animals and insects
The jungle has all of them! Especially if it has rained, runners will see snakes. As to wild animals, they usually run away from fear or are camouflage in the jungle. Every year 2-3 athletes see jaguars and many hear them during night. They may see monkeys among the trees, caiman and piranha in the rivers, and anacondas in the swamps. But they will also hear beautiful birds and see huge butterflies as well. Last but not least, at the Tapajos and especially during the sail to base camp they will see river dolphins.
There are thousands of species of insects, but during the day they do not disturb. A good insect repellent is needed during the day and at night, which is the most popular time for mosquitoes. In the swamps there are ticks and thousands of ants, some of which sting bad! Runners must never sit in the ground without something beneath them.
It includes continuous climbs and descents which are not high but are steep. Especially if they are muddy, they are extremely slippery and this makes climbing tricky. There are many streams and river passings. Two stages start with a river passing where athletes will have to swim, while one stage has a one kilometer river descent in fast flowing water. Two stages go through swamps, in which runners might get up to their necks in mud and muck.
This year’s 12th organization will be held between October 6 and 15.
At the village Alter do Chao, athletes aboard the river boats which will transport them to base camp, with departure right before midnight. They will hang their hammocks and relax for the journey to the start line. They are self efficient from the moment they aboard the river boats, so they must have assured that they have enough food for the days before the race and during the race as well. During the journey they will be offered drinking water and hot water to prepare their meals.The journey lasts 10-12 hours and ends at a river bank where athletes can swim in day light in the crystal water along with the river dolphins.
Arrival at base camp late in the morning and runners get off with their entire luggage, since the river boats leave immediately. At base camp they are again offered drinking water and hot water. Villagers often sell fresh coconut water, exotic fruit juices and local treats usually from fresh fish and rice.
After the meal, the race officials check the mandatory equipment. Once this is done, medical certificates are handed in to the medical team and runners are given their race numbers and road books. Last of all, there is the ability from the IT team to have emails printed and sent to family and friends.
This day is filled with briefings.
-Briefing for safety in the jungle. The “bombeiros” (military firemen) talk about jungle safety. Which plants must be avoided, which animals runners may see, and how to act if they get lost or meet a snake.
- Medical briefing: the medical director informs the runners for various medical issues that may come up and ways to prevent the two most usual problems, dehydration and heat exhaustion.
- Foot care: the foot specialist gives information and advice on foot care for minimization of problems.
Once the briefings are concluded, in the evening athletes will prepare their belongings and will return what they will not need with them to the support river boat, where they will be protected throughout the whole race. Then, the race director will give a full briefing for stage one of the race.
For the marathon runners, the technical briefing will begin as soon as the stage one briefing has ended. Their race package and program includes guided trekking, acclimatization and eco tourism before their race.
October 9- 1st stage
October 10- 2nd stage
October 11- 3rd stage
October 12- 4th stage, the marathon race and the last stage of the 127 km race
October 13& 14- the long stage
October 15- the last stage. Lunch at the finish line, transport to the hotel and the party in the evening at 5pm.
October 16- departure from Santarem
In the context of the presentation of the Jungle Marathon, Advendure contacted the race organization and the race director Shirley Thompson was especially cooperative in responding to our interview. Therefore, some very interesting words from the pioneer of this extreme race in the Brazilian jungle.
[Advendure]: Would you tell us a few things about the inspiration and philosophy behind the Jungle Marathon? What is your primary vision for organizing such an event? Why do you choose the specific place on the Globe and time of the year?
[Shirley Thompson ]: Jungle marathon was born out of my passion for running mixed with my sense of adventure and desire to discover the Amazon rainforest. I wanted to providea race that combined Eco tourism with sport in a remote and fascinating environment. If you think of Jungle, you think of the Amazon Jungle in Brazil. It HAD to be there J. The timing is due to the rainy season, I wanted to avoid it. We do get rain sometimes during the race, but just the odd heavy shower. Logistics would be almost impossible during the rainy season.
[Advendure]: Give us some details about the structure and the technical characteristics / difficulties of the race. What are the most important issues that an athlete must take into consideration if he/she decides to travel to Brazil and run the race?
[Shirley Thompson ]: The race is about much more than just running. Running is almost secondary. It is about being able to listen to your body and know your own limits. The two main difficulties are heat and feet. Heat because the core body temperature can overheat and this can be a potential dangerous situation that could result in a runner ending up in a coma. Feet, because a runner’s feet will be wet all the time, so much of the course has water elements so the runners must know how to care for their feet in these circumstances.
There are a lot of steep climbs and descents so hill training is imperative. Runners must also focus on their nutrition, their hydration, the weight of their pack, their footwear, their choice of clothing… each detail must be carefully planned. We recommend that runners arrive in the region a few days prior to the race to ensure that they are acclimatized. The race is in stages so it’s necessary to pace yourself for the whole week.
[Advendure]: For a mountain or ultra-trail race, the beauties of the nature and of the surroundings and sometimes the historical background are very important elements for choosing to run the race. What about the Jungle Marathon?
[Shirley Thompson ]: Of course. Competitors have the privilege of running in a protected part of the Amazon jungle , few non locals will ever get the opportunity to experience this region.
[Advendure]: Is the Jungle Marathon mainly a local event or do you have a significant number of international athletes?
[Shirley Thompson ]: We have 75% International competitors. This is our 12th year and only in the last 3-4 years have we had entrants from local runners.
[Advendure]: Along with the marathon distance, you have two other races simultaneously. A 4- stage 127km race and a 6- stage 254 km race. Why do you choose the “stages structure” for the race and not a single 127& 254 kms continuous ultra-trail race, leaving the athletes to decide if and when to stop for recovery and aid (food, liquids, rest, sleep etc…)?
[Shirley Thompson ]: The environment lends itself to stage races. A nonstop race would be highly dangerous in this environment it would be impossible to run in the jungle after dark. The animals hunt and feed at night so the risk would be too great .Also the jungle is pitch black once darkness falls, even with a torch it would takes hours to cover 1-2 kms as the terrain is so uneven.
[Advendure]: From your experience, what are the athletes’ biggest fears before running in the jungle?
[Shirley Thompson ]: Jaguars and snakes, especially anaconda.
[Advendure]: Can you describe to us a situation or incidence from a previous race that is well remembered among the organizers, such as something funny, or scary that happened?
[Shirley Thompson ]: We planned a new part of the course which the locals call “Jaguar Alley” as there is such a high population of jaguars in that particular part of jungle, and many of them sleep in hollow tree trunks. We got lost there in the dark with no torch when we were planning that stage……..a scary couple of hours with sounds and smells of the jaguars and the thumping of our own heartbeats with the fear until we finally found our way out of the jungle!!
Jungle Marathon is a race in an extremely difficult terrain, scary and challenging. With a relevantly high (for the Greek data) cost, someone must be definitely determined to live in such uncomfortable conditions of hardship and danger that the Brazilian forest offers. However, it surely will be a life experience, in an environment much different from what whe are used to, since athletes spend many hours in unique and rare nature and among animals that are completely strange to us.
Photo©: Fabio Andrade