230KM's through Peruvian Amazon Jungle
An unexpected element of the Marathon Des Sables was the degree to which the desert landscape affected me, I found the environment mesmeric, singularly dramatic yet at the same time calm, so much so I knew that were I lucky enough to run an overseas event in 2015 it would be somewhere sandy and obscenely hot.
That I entered a Jungle rather than desert event was the result of Austin Jarrett's enthusiasm and persuasion. If I was surprised to find I was heading to Peru then MRS Stewart was more so, the 'no big ticket races this year' fib coming unstuck when Sicilia discovered a Beyond the Ultimate invoice in the middle of a pile of work papers thus invoking a version of that well used ultra running confession:
"Oh the Jungle, well you knew about that, didn't you, Austin and I spoke about it at his party ... ...?"
Event blogs seem to have been labelled, at least by a small cabal of elitist members of the ultra running scene, as a somewhat saccharine and conceited undertaking of the new ultra runner; this same cabal are somewhat prone to scoff at multi-day overseas races and be utterly derisive of any event that costs more than a pound a mile; throw in a 'toughest' label and their scorn, may just or so they might wish, reach a veritable apotheosis of contemptuousness, such that it could be measured on the Richter scale.
This is a great shame, previous entrants' blogs have for me been, a rich resource to gain a sense of an event and uncover incredibly valuable tips. The Jungle Ultra, as yet at least, does not have a Jungle Rory, It is therefore a two-fold undertaking, my writing of this blog, firstly to direct an overseas multi-day, considerably more than a pound a mile, toughest, scorn inducing hat trick of a two figured gestured blog at the aforementioned, self appointed ultra running aficionado's, my very own, get over yourselves message, much more importantly albeit secondly, read no inference in order here, hopefully also, to provide future entrants with at least one useful piece of information for their own Jungle adventure.
Far from ideal, a deeply frustrating build up I am labelling a game, which were it an actual game I would call 'Whack-A-Mole-Tendonitis' whereby each tendon between my left knee and ankle took its turn to impinge any sort of consistent or indeed sensible build-up; begging your patience and a degree of clemency at my continuation of an already weak metaphor this 'Whack-A-Mole-Tendonitis' that had troubled me so for a year, disappeared quicker than cash at an arcade just a few weeks before the Jungle; which of course was good news, it would be wrong, churlish indeed not to be grateful however it would have been very nice had it happened just a few weeks earlier. Perhaps though to be a little sunnier in outlook, I healed at just the right time as I was a day from contacting Beyond The Ultimate to move my entry from runner to volunteer; the email was written and in the drafts folder.
With seven weeks available to me, I focused on training specificity and concentrated on long slow runs with a pack, taking in the South Downs Way, North Yorks Moors, Lake District and Peak District, plus a slightly quicker run out at my local ultra The Dukeries 40.
Happily I managed to string all of the last seven weeks together into a continuos training block, without further injury, averaging around 60 miles per week, the focus though more on the number of hours on feet as this training was very low intensity which is another, perhaps more self-effacing way of saying dead slow.
Any self-sufficient, carry all you need for the week ultra, brings with it a veritable Rubiks Cube of a running puzzle that is carrying just enough kit and food to survive whilst meeting race minimum requirements and not burdening yourself with too much.
I adopt an almost pathological aversion to weight in my pursuit of the lightest possible race pack, my aim in doing so is simple and whilst it's perhaps lacks the alliteration for a truly outstanding mantra it is mine nonetheless, 'make this race not one gramme harder than it needs to be'.
In truth this focus on pack weight also helps mask the reality I find it harder to shed the weight around my body than trim my pack weight.
I carried all of the mandatory list and almost none of the advisory kit. For this article i'll try to focus on the areas that I believe set me apart.
I achieved a pack weight of 6.8KG, this included my water bottles but not water. This was pretty close to 3KG lighter than anyone else I spoke to and close to half that of the heavier packs.
What made the difference?
I think it important to borrow a phrase, a friend of mine Simon, uses often by way of a disclaimer:
"We are all an experiment of one"
This is to say what works for me may well not work for you, therefore please don't rely on my advice alone, test your kit choices.
Firstly, it's what I didn't take:
GPS watch They don't work in the Jungle, distance and pace will be out and even the best watch will require you to carry some sort of charging pack be that solar or power bank.
Flip flops 'Hotel' slippers etc, I take good care of my feet and am happy to use my trainers even when damp; just as well they were wet from start to finish
Camera and or GoPro I hear the 'once in a lifetime adventure' case for this equipment however, rarely see those carrying these use them anywhere as much as they expect; GoPro really will pack out the weight with extra batteries and charging solutions - Beyond the Ultimate commission a photographer and videographer, their work is far superior to mine.
Recovery powders I suspect Kris King the Race Director and I differ on this topic and calories as a whole. I eat on completion of a stage and am comfortable with the nutrition in my food, I see recovery powders as duplication.
Traditional Gels Sweet, sickly sports gels will over the course of a week repulse you however much you like the brand you choose, I find they pay a heavy toll on my stomach also; I use a Gel however it's the awesome 33Shake Chia Gel which is made of nothing but good stuff; that they are a dry product you add water to thus saving weight as well.
Expedition Or other brand breakfasts or main meals used for breakfast, if you focus purely on calorie density then these are an attractive option, however few if any runners are able to eat a whole breakfast which are generally wretched also the very good main meals are unlikely to be consumed in full for breakfast - essentially this means wasted weight, you have carried something you will not eat. I opt for Noodles for breakfast, admittedly a calorie dense version but tasty and I eat them all, the weight saved allows for one or two Nut Butter sachets I can eat over the course of the morning.
Bladder For me these are an inefficient method of water containment, they will take up too much of your packs internal capacity pushing up your pack size or force you to hang items outside likely to destabilise your pack and irritate you whilst running; I don't like not knowing how much water i have left; having to unpack your pack to top up a bladder would certainly waste a good deal of CP time also; beyond that if this is your primary water reservoir and as you see on most ultra's your bladder chooses you and the jungle as the stage on which to spring a leak you are in for a tough week.
Anything And I mean anything that I merely think I might need, borrowing Rory Coleman's (celebrity MdS coach and thirteen time MdS finisher) mantra here if you think you might need it you don't
That's what I didn't take, what were the other choices that kept me light?
Pack Whilst the event suggests a 30 litre pack it is perfectly possible to get all you need, inside, a 20 litre pack. I took my veteran of the desert, a very humble and simple OMM Adventure Light 20, this pack will perform much better than you think, it's comfy, stable with very little bounce and has few if any chafe points. I combine this with Raidlight Olmo Bottle Holders and Bottles.
Bottles I carried two Raidlight Olmo 750ML up front and initially one 500ML empty Coca-cola bottle and one 500ML OMM bottle, although I swapped the OMM bottle out for another Coca-cola bottle part way through I would adopt this approach from the start as the extra bottles went unused, 500ML soft drink bottles are super light and will compress nicely, helpful early in the week when your pack is full.
Sleeping bag I stuck to the race minimum here, a bag rated to 15 degrees, this was an expensive purchase at £220 but delivered a rules compliant sack at just 220g, PHD Designs K Series. The rating was sufficient for all but one night which was the first race night; I recalled Mimi Anderson's Jungle Ultra blog in which she tells of the coldest night she has ever spent being at the Cock of The Rock camp and copied her improvisation of wrapping myself in my rainfly as this station is covered. It was a cold night and would challenge my low weight ethos should I run the event again; I suspect I would take a large foil blanket to combine with my rainfly for this night and dispense of it for the rest of the week.
Camp clothes Figuratively and literally, I bought a Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer jacket 59 grammes, used my MDS Finisher technical t-shirt, the only unweighed piece of kit now I think about it, a last minute sop to decency, the jacket is pretty much see through inflicting my chest on the rest of the camp may have been a step too far and bought Lowe Super Dry Long Johns at 109 grammes thereby providing full body cover at the lowest possible weight, a win as this meant I required very little DEET (more weight saved), had very few bites and thus avoided lots of discomfort albeit i'm pretty certain my fellow 'Junglers' on first sight of my garb were minded to assume a village was missing it's idiot.
Removed packaging I trimmed everything I could, expedition meals come in heavy foil and as they are vacuum packed resemble bricks that are hard to pack efficiently, I placed these in ziplock bags, I have found you can hydrate your food in all but the very flimsiest of these. I decanted fluids, creams, liquids and anything else I could into the lightest possible container.
Food I ran the MdS happily on their minimum 2000 cals per day, in fact gave food away, I therefore decided, as you are in the Jungle self-sufficient for a shorter period, to trim back a touch and estimate I had 1700 cals per day, made up of:
1 x Mie Goreng - Indonesian packet noodle (breakfast) 1 x Justin's Nut Butter - Almond and Maple nut butters (morning snacks) 4 x 33Shake Chia Gels (race gels) 1 x Peperami mini (race treat) 1 x Real Turmat Drytech dehydrated meal (evening meal) 1 x A handful of Haribo type sweets (evening treats) 1 x A giant cola bottle (evening treats) 4 x Pontefract cakes, liquorice sweets (evening treats)
Extras: 2 x Mie Goreng (emergency rations if hungry), Indonesian ground coffee for a morning brew.
I took two extra nut butters and four extra 33Shake Chia Gels for the long day.
Beyond the ground coffee I also took my Podcast microphone to capture some in race audio.
End of Part 1