At 3:20am the alarm went off, it was raining outside. It was time to get up and get going. The final final bit of gear preparation was completed, we checked out of our rooms and it was time to jump on the bus. Just after 4am the bus rolled out of the parking lot next to the hotel and we were on our way down to the Amazon Basin and the start of the race, and as we did the majority of us on the bus went to sleep.
The rain did not let up the whole bus ride down the valley, at least as far as I was aware in the darkness interspersed between fits of sleep. The road got a whole lot bumpier as it got light and it was clear we were now in the Jungle and not far from the start. With 10 minutes to go before start time I made a quick dash to the toilets. As I made my way back to the shelter from the rain with 3 minutes until the 7:30am the scheduled start time, we got word that the start of the race was delayed and it may be that the paddle was going to be shortened or cancelled due to high rivers. So after being all hyped up and ready to go, once again we all hunkered down and caught some more sleep until a final decision was made.
As the officials deliberated the rain continued to fall heavily with no let up, so it was all but expected that we would not be paddling. Sure enough the news came and brought with it some relief and some disappointment. We thought we might have had a good chance to get a leg up in the paddle section but I was pretty glad I didn’t have to steer those sit on top kayaks through some treacherous waters. The removal of the kayak section meant that we were going to have a short 200m run to the colosseum where our bikes were moved to, build them up and head out on the Course from this point on.
It was going to be hectic, eventually the start gun went and we were underway. Our team was right up the front when we entered the colosseum and we began our first test as a team together in transition. We were not the fastest but we still had a good transition and got out onto the bikes in the top 5. Because of the change to the course, it was all a little bit confusing on the map to figure out where to go first. Once across the bridge I was very careful, but still almost stuffed it up. Then as we rode along a straight bit of road I had a chance to figure it all out. A split happened with the team in front of us quickly, I however kept us to the main road which turned out to be the right call and then made another second good call on our direction before finally turning us right onto a big bridge across the river we were supposed to be paddling down. There was a huge volume of water moving down that river, and I can’t believe at any point that morning could there have made the call for us to paddle on that river. It would have been insane and we totally would have swam on the stopper wave under the bridge!
Across the bridge we found ourselves pretty much alone, and as it turned out we had done a good job of negotiating the confusing roads well and were now in the lead. Soon we were joined by the French team Kiwani, then the team Movistar Ecuador. Although the map looked pretty flat there was a good amount of climbing we had to overcome through the jungle along this route. It was pretty cool to be riding up through the jungle seeing the clouds rising out of the trees like something out of a national geographic magazine. I counted myself privileged to be able to experience it all first hand and as part of a race what’s more. The ride continued up hill but Brent’s chain was grinding and was not liking the wet weather… a little bit of poor preparation perhaps coming in with a stretched chain! None the less we worked through it and as we reached the main sealed road we were meet by Movistar Terra Aventura team.
The pace was hot along the road, and Meg, Brent and Quinn put the hammer down as I fiddled with the maps change over. Our bigger wheels had a slight advantage over the now two teams behind us and we pulled ahead. Our lead did not last very long as Brent quickly pulled us over to a petrol station so he could use the toilet! Beyond the toilet was a reasonably major intersection and as we rode past I didn’t hesitate in ignoring it and continuing onwards. I had the map folded and could not see the entire place name, but it started with an M and we were headed in the direction of Macas. About 2km past the turn off I checked my compass and was now starting to have doubts. We had not caught sight of those in front of us and had seen no one behind, and then a little further down the road we arrived at a sign welcoming us to Yamata which was the town beyond the turn off. I was annoyed with myself, very annoyed and I hauled the ship around and we headed back around 4km to the turn off.
Finally when we were back on track I could relax a little bit, still a bit annoyed, but at least we had contained the damage. The others, Meg especially were all pretty quick downhill so hopefully we made up some ground down to the river and the checkpoint. At the bridge we were met with a huge swollen river that was pretty scary and intimidating. In the river were several log’s charging down at high speed, the thought that we may become stranded by one of these river crossings further along the trail did enter into mind. After the bridge we rode into a small town and I started to feel like I was fading a bit, so I handed the map over to Quinn, and tried to get some food in. I sort of came back to life a little bit but the pace was still hot. As we encountered rougher terrain we started to gain on teams in front of us. Then all of a sudden in quick succession we passed around 3 teams and forged on ahead. I was still struggling to keep it together with my team and desperately needed to eat a lot more food.
At a checkpoint mid way through this section we were able to catch sight of another 2 teams and the pace went back on, we passed one of these teams not long after pushing their bikes up a hill. As we blasted down the other side of the hill, we reached the next bridge…. and a whole lot of teams stranded. The river was swollen, and the bridge was incomplete, so essentially no way to cross. The first placed team had been there for around 20 minutes and when we arrived in fourth position it was clear that the race had been put on hold for a few minutes.
The first team had tried the radio to see if they could get a hold of race organisation with no luck. So it was up to us to solve the problem. There were a bunch of cut boards stacked up nearby so a few of us had a go at moving them closer to the bridge. Unfortunately closer inspection of the suspender cables raised doubt about how the deck wires were attached. It appeared that they were just looped and not crimped so loading them up with extra weight would possibly see the boards just fall through and into the river below. As it turns out they were probably spliced and may have been ok after all.
Our only option now was to form a human chain to get the bikes across one by one, and to do this we needed everyone’s help. I started to get pretty cold so as I got more clothes on as people were already in the river moving bikes. My role along with a bunch of the smaller people was then to hand the bikes on to the start of the chain. Once all the bikes had gone across, now it was time for the smaller people. About three or four women went through, then when it was my turn, one guy refused to allow me to go any further. This one guy was looking pretty unstable and a bit uncomfortable in probably the swiftest part of the river so I didn’t press the issue. The new plan was to move together all at once providing a strong anchorage either side of the river.
Just as we started to move another team turned up. There was a short discussion about whether we help them or not, and the easy answer was of course, so another set of bikes were passed down the chain. As the bikes had all been passed through the rest of us standing in the water gradually made our way across the river linked up. As the final person reached the bank on the other side there was a bit of a cheer. Just enough to put a bit of a feel good shiver down my spine. As a collective group we had all come together to overcome the obstacle, making some new friends in the process. Now we were all across the river we had to figure out a fair way for everyone to get going again, so collectively we all agreed to depart at 2 minute intervals based on the position we were in when we arrived on the other side of the river. All very civilised really!
It was all a bit surreal as we rode away from the river we had just crossed. We had just gone over half way on the ride so it was a long hill traverse along the edges of the river Pastaza. The last big river crossing luckily involved a Bridge that we just rode straight across and the lights came on. The next section to the transition was basically all on smooth roads and slightly uphill. It was Quinn’s turn now to struggle for a bit so I got the maps handed back to me after a short roadside stop. Somewhere around here we had a police escort turn up and follow us very slowly with the lights flashing which was great and made us feel quite safe.
Disaster struck for Brent’s chain not far from the end of this ride, just too much power into the drive chain on a steep-ish hill and “ping” it went… We had a pretty smooth pitstop as Brent fixed it quite quickly, not really losing too much ground at all. Back on the road we had a couple of tunnels to negotiate, which unfortunately for us, we had to go around. It was easy enough to take the side road, but there were a couple of fresh looking slips that we needed to climb around. It didn’t bear to think too much about how long ago these slips happened because there was a lot of steep ground around and it was just a matter of time until another one came down!
Transition was upon us now and we passed one team going backwards looking confused, luckily I knew where we were and where we needed to go, it wasn’t too far at all. After crossing another slip and some downed power lines (potentially live??) and we arrived safely in transition in about 4th or 5th place.
It didn’t feel that wet or muddy out there, but when it came to putting my bike back in my box I was thinking it wasn’t going to be much fun unpacking this bike again tomorrow! Transition went by quickly, the course had changed as the waterfall that we were supposed to climb behind was impassable with the huge amount of rain that had fallen. We were all in good spirits as we left transition for the first of the treks and the chance to give our backsides a bit of a rest! We reached La Merced as required and I managed to spot the little side track to cross the river almost by luck rather than my good attention.
Things looked good as we crossed the bridge, then immediately I was confused, there was a locked gate in the direction we needed to head. We climbed around it, then almost as soon as we crossed it we turned around and went back as it was clear that this was not the way. Plus it was very wet from a waterfall pounding down into the river below! The other way turned out to be the right way, even though initially it didn’t go in the right direction according to the map. Things should have been simple from this point forward as there was only one track on the map… however there was a lot more trails on the ground than we expected. At an apparent junction we paused briefly when we spotted a team in the bushes but we continued up the valley for about 200m more and a dead end at a raging stream. On closer inspection the trail appeared to continue across the river. Perhaps we were a little too keen and jumped right in for a rather dodgy river crossing, which in hindsight was a little foolish…. because it was not heading in the right direction at all, so it was back across the river.
Crossing back was probably even scarier, but as we reached the end about 3-4 teams arrived at the same junction point. We knew that we needed to go back to that first junction, where we had seen the lights of the other team! Sure enough about 20m down that track and there was a bridge across the dangerous river. Whoops! The momentum was now heading in the right direction.
I was out the front now, and any slowness I had during the bike had all but gone. I was pretty excited that we had seemed to have opened a gap to the teams behind, so I was in full on huntaway mode, perhaps a little too quick for the others. At one point where it was quite steep, there were some safety guys warning us of a section where there had been a recent slip. Just as I was about to move I heard something from above so I hesitated, then moved again and as I did a boulder came rolling down right in front of me. After it passed I kept moving across through the deep, thick mud and reached the other side quite relieved that I had made it!
The rest of the trail was reasonably straightforward with a few little quirks, bends and intersections to negotiate. We got through with minimal trouble and even spotted a snake which I later identified as an Elegant Snail Eater Snake. The next checkpoint wasn’t too hard to find, especially as we had a guide in the form of a bored looking security guard, who led us to the manned checkpoint. The trail leading out of here was a little more elusive. Eventually we found the start of it and began to climb. The first part of the trail was easy to find and not too far ahead of us was a team of lights so we headed in that direction. Things changed pretty quickly and somewhere we lost the track. There were many fences in that area so I thought maybe the trail followed these. This turned out to not be true, and we found ourselves in a relatively shitty position. The only option was to go uphill until we hit the track. When we hit the track it was so obvious I was surprised we hadn’t seen it at all.
In all the confusion we passed the team that was just ahead of us, they were obviously confused too, as we spotted them on the other side of the valley where they shouldn’t have been, a little while later. The climb was a bit of a grind, but I was feeling pretty good now so I grabbed some extra weight out of the guys packs. It was a pretty impressive climb by the sounds of things, just unfortunate that we had to do it in the dark. Eventually we made it to the point where we had to turn and come back down. There were two options from this point onwards, we could have climbed a little bit more and come down the road, or we could take a track pretty much straight down the hill.
The general consensus was for the straight down track, so we headed on down, coming across a donkey tied up next to the track and then we almost walked into someone’s house. It appeared that there had been an ultra marathon run in this area recently and the reflective markers that had been put up were very useful. These markers guided us nicely onto the next climb.
The next climb began right on dawn, the higher we climbed the lighter it became. I started to run out of food here and it was now my turn to struggle for a bit. After some borrowed food from Quinn and some plodding along putting one foot in front of the other we reached the highpoint, this time, the last one on this trek. Downhill was also pretty much straight, but it felt like it went on forever and ever. Eventually the path wound its way down and we hit the road for just a short 500m or so jog to the Ropes section!
We had an hour and a half of stopped time here in which complete the ropes in. The idea here was to allow us to be able to take our time through the ropes and not rush. However, anytime there is dead time like this in a race, it actually encourages you to move through as fast as you can so you can get some rest or sleep! We were not super fast getting geared up, but we knew we were in 3rd with a bit of a lead, so every second counted. The section started with a 50m abseil over a pretty exposed ledge. We went in pairs, on separate ropes but attached together for extra safety. At the bottom of the abseil there was a three wire bridge for us to get across the gorge. There was a lot of water rushing down the gorge, so this made it pretty daunting! From the three wire bridge it was onto another bridge, and then a via ferrata climb up the edge of the gorge. The last and final bit was an easy zipline crossing back across the river to the start, then it was time for a sleep. I wasn’t able to sleep very easily so I maybe got 5 or 10min’s while the others got a good sleep in.
The sleep was obviously a tiny bit much for some as turns out we accidently left the tracker behind coming out of the checkpoint….so back we had to go and a good 20 mins was wasted. A little bit flustered we got back on track and into the transition still with 3rd place intact. This transition was a bit slow and lethargic, maybe we were worried about the big climb ahead, maybe we didn’t have much of a feeling on how much time we were taking, I’m not sure. Eventually we got out of there and began the long climb on the bikes.
Riding our bikes did not last long, the ride soon became a push. The climb kept going and going and eventually doubts started to sink in about whether or not this was a good route. We were now no longer following tracks, further feeding the doubts and making us a bit more frustrated and uncomfortable. Too late to change now! we pressed on, a little less confidently especially with plenty of difficult fences to negotiate. As we got higher we started to enter into the high altitude zone (for us anyway) at around 3000m which made breathing start to become a little difficult. In addition to this I went in to a bit of a daze for a while so I was quite glad Quinn was onto it with the map.
We topped out and finally had some fleeting views before we headed downhill yet again. It felt like we might have slowed up a little bit here and our flaffing rate increased a bit, getting out jackets and then more stops to confirm the way to go and then some battling through the rain just for some good measure. We picked up the checkpoint, boosted it downhill, got a little confused when the tracks didn’t quite line up with reality but eventually crawled out onto the road for yet again a short uphill to the transition.
In transition we found we had slipped only one place, so it wasn’t as bad as we thought it might have been. Often the case in Adventure racing, so it pays not to worry too much sometimes. There was one team that eclipsed us in transition, but we were not too worried heading out with the last few hours of daylight. The first bit of the trek involved walking up a road to gain 200m then promptly we went off track and dropped that 200m down a steep hill. Along the road I made some friends with the locals in my very broken Spanish and their very broken English, but they were pretty interested in seeing what we were up to! The visit to the waterfall did make the descent and the following climb somewhat worthwhile. It was a shame we didn’t have much time to absorb the atmosphere a little, but I was pretty keen that we climb back up to the road before nightfall as there was a maze of tracks in there.
On the way back up the hill discussion kicked off on our plans for sleep. We needed to sleep at some point during this night, and it was best we did it as soon as possible as we were about to spend the next 8-10 hours at 3600-3800m. We decided that down by the waterfall was not an option as it was still light and midway up was going to be in the middle of what we thought could be high traffic so in the end we climbed up to the road and camped where there was a nice flat spot and plenty of water. As well as it been a good spot to camp we had a crowd of race officials to have a nice old chat to, while we pitched the tent. We also managed to score some hot tea!
Waking up was (as always…) a bit of a nightmare. I was a little bit apprehensive as to what lay ahead in the dark. We had already established the track network was not quite as well mapped as what was shown, so this added to the nerves. Once warmed up a little bit things started to get real. There was a series of trails that looked pretty distinct wandering off up and down from the track. It was almost a bit of a gamble as to which one we took. At each decision point we weighed up each option, and gingerly went for it. Eventually we arrived at a big open area, then the track appeared to duck back into the trees. We continued following for a while then the trail diverged, turned up a creek and there were pipes coming out of it. I did not like the look of this, and established we had probably overshot. Just as we made the decision to turn back, the French team caught us and we had a bit of a discussion, before they agreed that it seemed logical that the hut was in the open area.
As suspected, second time around the hut was actually right there in the open and we had just wandered on by without seeing it first time…. maybe had it been daylight we would not have made the same mistake, not sure? Getting away from the hut was also a challenge, the French opted to sleep and we carried on and figured out the complex entry to the forest for the next bit of climb.
We emerged into the open and the wind was up, it was misty and we couldn’t see much at all. Progressively we each had to put more clothes on and keep our focus on catching the indistinct trail. It reminded me of the training we did a couple of weeks beforehand in Twizel so I felt perfectly in tune with following the ridge line in the dark and low vis. The checkpoint was located on one of two lakes along the ridgeline, the second lake off the track a considerable amount, so it was a relief when we hit the first lake and were able to identify it correctly. From here I will admit I “freestyled” the navigation a little bit, perhaps a little reckless, so just as I started to have that deep seated fear rise in my stomach we wandered into a basin and a lake rose in front of us! Finding the lake was easy enough, but finding the actual checkpoint was another mission, we circled the entire lake then only a the point of wondering what to do next I spotted movement and a reflective vest and the checkpoint.
Now it was about 2am and it was cold, wet and misty, a miserable time to be out and about at over 3800m I can tell you. The instructions from the checkpoint staff were to find the trail and stick to it like glue all the way down to the next checkpoint. Fourth place had checked in here about 5 hours before us so we were pretty resigned to 5th at that point. My main objective now was to get down as fast as we could to get some cover from the trees – it was cold! The trail seemed easy enough to follow and I followed along the contours at the same time to ensure we stuck to the correct line. It was some pretty intense navigating but I was now feeling pretty comfortable and on track. Speaking of the track, it was super muddy, deep thick mud and no escaping it.
After what felt like hours of plodding away through the mud we reached a clearing which was not marked on the map. This clearing proved to be a little confusing, but after scoping all the options there was only one way out so we followed it. Immediately as I started to follow it I started to have a bad feeling as all the footprints I was seeing were going in the opposite direction…but the map and compass seemed to fit with where we were heading. Just before dawn I panicked a bit tried to take us back, but then was convinced otherwise as it quickly became light enough to see the hills around us. Just then Quinn spotted a fence and we knew we must be on to something. Crossing it initially unconvinced, we started to descend downwards and themap started to fit again. Then, “Bingo!” we emerged at the river and hit the control straight on. I was pretty relieved!
After punching in we headed to the river and rinsed the mud out of our socks. As we did another team emerged, initially we thought it was the French team that had caught us up, then realised it was 4th place! They came down and also rinsed their feet, having spent a rough night not quite sure where they were for a while. We started to make tracks and as we did another team, this time 3rd place arrived at the checkpoint after having similar troubles as well. So turned out we had walked all night and made our way into 3rd place. Excited, we started to move a bit faster down the riverbed.
Our 3rd spot didn’t last long and just before the bridge checkpoint above a small town we found ourselves back in 5th… or so we thought. There was a huge amount of leapfrogging going on now. The climb was a big one, so we took our time, got some food in and steadily climbed. Surprisingly another team caught us just before we entered back into the single track. This time it turned out to be the team that was in 2nd position, so at the bottom of the creek checkpoint we had actually worked our way from 5 hours behind 4th to 2nd place! These guys had had a bit of a mare and wandered off down the wrong spur ending up pretty lost. Somehow they made it back on track and were working their way back to redemption.
Back to our race and now sitting in 5th again, it felt like we were struggling a bit with the altitude. Then to make it even worse we were dealt some more mud to negotiate. Described by someone as the worse and best part of the race all lumped together. There was not much option here but to just walk straight up the middle. This section went on and and on and on. Finally we got to some respite from the ditch of mud and were back into the open. We basically fell upon the checkpoint and now it was relatively simple to get back to transition. The trail here was a great big ditch that had worn to about 3m deep from water, humans and animals from wearing down all the loose soil and mud – fairly impressive in its own right. We stumbled at one point into a paddock with a bull in it. Luckily it was tied up, but I was still within range, wearing a red jacket which caused me to move fast as it attracted his attention!
We arrived at transition at around 3pm, and proceeded to muck around for about an hour an a half! In hindsight this was a bad decision, we had bikes already made up so we probably should have just made it quick and gone with it. Anyway, we took the opportunity to recharge a bit get some food down us and it felt like we had broken the back of the race. Finally we left on our bikes and I was pretty glad as I was getting a bit restless and I think we had condemned ourselves to 5th place for sure now.
The climb out of the valley was basically right back to where we had come from the day before. It was a steep climb, but we were all in good spirits as we reached the top checkpoint. The goal now was to get down the hill before dark, we got most of the way, but had to put lights on for the final bit. I’m not quite sure what happened at the bottom but it could only be described as a bit of a mess. Again we had to negotiate through a “hidden” trail to get across the river. It all looked straight forward but the road to cross the river didn’t appear as it should have and we spend a good deal of time going backwards and forwards trying to find the entrance to the road for us to cross. I sort of half expected it might be sign posted but it wasn’t and it was the second local that we talked to who managed to help us out. The first one was spot on too, but we were a bit too dumb in following her advice, and she was walking a bit slow for us in our panicked state to follow her….
Suddenly we had gone from being able to knock this race out in another few hours to we are really going to be pushing to make the full course cut off. Finally after a little bit of panicking we crossed the bridge and we were back on track… but not for long. Soon we came to a washed out bridge. There was a sketchy looking path through the gulley but we deemed it unsafe for bikes so had to find another option. I was stressing out a bit more now and had to just hand the map over to Quinn, I was making bad decisions and it was not helping things. Luckily Quinn was onto it and devised a new plan that we were all happy with. The clock really was ticking and we had a steep steep hill to climb on the bikes.
Luckily we made it to the transition area with plenty of time, obviously it would have been nicer to have more time but things were as they were. We had some more decisions to make about sleep, I was totally not in my right mind now, which was emphasised by me trying to pack up my bike. Eventually we made it out of transition with about 30mins before the cut off and right next door to a verandah attached to some toilets. I am not a huge fan of defeating the cut off just to camp up as soon as you are out on the course but we did really need to sleep.
Surprisingly sleep was good to me and although very cold when we woke up, I was really feeling refreshed and raring to knock this course off! The general mood in camp was not high at all, it seemed that getting up and going at 1:45am was not everyone’s strong suit. Things were tough for a while, I carried more and more gear, and then finally we figured out that some conversation was needed and this seemed to work a treat. The trail was much more straightforward to negotiate this time around, but the mud conditions were again bad. It was pretty much 2 steps forward and 1 back for a while, well actually for a lot of the way.
Just as sun rise came we reached the refuge, well actually it was just an abandoned building… turns out we had to go a little higher again to the actual refuge. It was pretty cold up there at 3800m so we ducked inside and hung out with the checkpoint staff for a while. We also managed to get some hot drinks while we were at it too! After some pleasant conversation it was now time to head to the finish. Going downhill was much faster and what took us 4 hours to go up was about an hour and a half down through the slippery mud. We had a cameraman following us for a bit too which probably helped us move a bit faster.
The lower down we got the warmer it got, it was a very steep final descent before we arrived in town about mid morning. Just a gentle stroll to the finish and we were there, all a little bit surreal really. Crossing the finish line was both a relief and satisfying knowing we had completed the full course and knocked out a top 5 result too! There was not much time to absorb it though, it was straight through to the hot seat for an interview. We managed then to weasel our way into the breakfast room for a post race feed. Even more surreal was sitting there covered in mud, the only ones in there with elevator music in the background. A little different to the world we had just come from out in the bush and mud, climbing volcanoes, wading through streams and mud, negotiating our way through the jungle!