Before we get started on the Panama leg, a word on being “tired and trying to get your shit together”. We arrived at Heathrow from Cape Town at around 7am, picked up our disgusting, sweaty, sandy bags, and headed to the car park where Jim had parked his car. The challenge was to dump all the Namibia kit, and repack the bags with our Panama kit. I had (I thought) diligently packed 2 bags, so all I would need to do was swap the stuff in my rucksack out for the stuff in my suitcase (which was the car, obvs). But I was very tired, jet lagged, stressed and a bit confused, so this task was akin to doing a rubiks cube after 5 pints of lager.
Once at the car, we emptied our bags onto the floor and began to play a fun game of kit jenga. I couldn’t get my head around what it was that I needed to take. Would it be hot or cold? How wet would it be? Should I take the old food and the new food or just the new food? How many days kit would I need? Just one or everything? Should I take 2 pairs of trainers or one? What day was it? ARGH! Bear in mind I had this all sorted in my head before I left for Namibia, it was just now it all seemed so impossible. Around me, Darren and Jim were doing the same thing so the floor of the car park looked like the worlds shittest jumble sale. I did my best, separated bits into dry bags and thought that I had done a good job. That was until I got to Panama - more on that later.
After hiding the BA lounge and wondering if it was OK to have a glass of wine at 9am (it was), we got on the plane to Miami, where we had a stopover, before arriving in Panama City for our transfer to the Melia Hotel - AKA the words WEIRDEST hotel. Everything was late. We were waiting to meet the rest of our team, and they were there alright. Their luggage, however, was not. We waited about 6 hours in the airport to get hold of the luggage. Panama City airport has very little in the way on entertainment or places to lay down. No rest day for us. Bye bye swimming pool time.
Having lost Dani and Handsome Pete (both way too sensible to come to the jungle) our new team consisted of the lovely Rob Atikin (Rat Race Event Director and all round legend), Merlin Duff (OCR king and funniest man on earth) and James Appleton (Super fast fell runner and photographer of all things wonderful). Merlin was going to attempt both traverses with myself, Jim and Darren, Rob was going to do the second crossing and crew us for the first, and James was going to film the whole thing and show us what real runners are capable of in the process. We also met Rick who was going to be our guy on the ground for both events. Rick often takes trips (DAY TRIPS) into the jungle - he’s like the Ray Mears of Panama - but he had never done anything like this before.
Once we finally had the luggage, we got in the van and drove to the hotel, stopping off at a supermarket for supplies for the first crossing. This was a bit like letting a bunch of ravenous school children run around a sweet shop. It was here that James bought a jar of Nutella. That jar of Nutella is very important. Do not forget about that jar of Nutella. We arrived at the hotel in the dark. This was to become a theme in Panama. We only ever saw the places we slept in the dark. The Melia Hotel on the Panama Canal was formerly known as the ‘School of the Americas’, and was a US-funded institution that trained some of Latin America's infamous dictators. It was so massive, so creepy and so empty. We were the only people in there and it must have had 200 huuuuge rooms. It was too late for dinner, so we ate snacks and were then informed that we would have to be up at 4.45am to attempt the first traverse. This was one of the first times that I felt like punching Jim in the face. There would be plenty more times in the coming week. We had 4 hours to get some sleep.
As an aside, this traverse is NOT part of the Bucket List event - we just wanted to see if it was possible. The planned route goes like this. Starting at the Atlantic Ocean, near Colon (quiet at the back) we were to run 6 miles to the Gatun Lake (a major part of the Panama canal), jump in a kayak, row 9 miles to the edge of the jungle, get out and run/hike/hack 13 miles (spoiler - it was a lot further than 13 miles) through jungle, along the Panama pipeline, until we popped out at Gamboa, then run 13 miles to the end of the Panama pipeline near the City of Knowledge/Panama City and the Pacific Ocean. So all in, about 41 miles ish in a day, crossing a country. Seems easy right? Seems doable? Please note, Jim has attempted this twice and failed. That is what was supposed to happen. Here is what actually happened.
We reluctantly got up at 4.45am to start the first 6 mile run. It was dark and hot and humid and we were all already VERY tired and hungry - breakfast was a yogurt bought from the shop the day before and a small muffin. We just about managed to get some coffee out of the hotel. I was suddenly aware I was running with 3 very fit blokes. As my 3 regular readers know, I’m not very fast at all, I was tired and ratty and I now felt like I was under quite a lot of pressure. I let the boys get on with it and run ahead, and to be honest we all took it relatively easy in the end - a nice little warm up along Panamas roads, to the edge of Lake Gatun, where the kayaks were waiting. I’ve never been in a kayak, which is a fun fact. Lucky Darren got me as a kayak partner. He was thrilled. They put me at the front and Darren at the back, so I was in charge of setting the pace - I THOUGHT he would have to do all the work - I was very wrong.
The lake was beautiful and still. It’s man made, and so has the tops of trees poking out of the water, where birds sit and occasionally dive for fish. As I said, it’s a major part of the Panama canal, created between 1907 and 1913 to enable ships to pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific. At the time it was built (is that the right word?) it was the largest man made lake in the world. As we set off, we could hear Howler monkeys everywhere. We were flanked on either side by thick jungle and it looked amazing. It was serene, stunning and calm. But we all knew what else lived in that water. Crocodiles. Lots of them.
After 6 miles of kayaking (which, it turns out, is quite tiring) we pulled up to the shore and changed from our running shoes into our jungle boots and kit. I pulled on some waterproof trousers over my leggings, put my boots and gators on and was immediately boil-in-the bag Bailey. We got back in the kayaks, and made our way to a tiny clearing off the lake - as we pulled in, a huge crocodile wacked it’s tail out of the water and swam off. He was not happy to see us. I was pretty excited to see him, but he was having none of it. He was the second crocodile we had seen on the way to the jungle, but I was weirdly not scared. The kayaks seemed pretty sturdy and I’m not sure we would have provided much of a snack for them. We’d not really had any breakfast.
The second I set foot in the jungle, I knew it was going to be really fucking hard. The damp, deep leaf litter gave way under our boots. The trees were covered with ants and spiders and there was no path that anyone could make out. We had a local guy with us who had run this route before. Not, it turned out, very recently, Everything was overgrown, wet and decaying and within 30 minutes we all silently acknowledged that this was going to be a very long day.
Here’s me doing an explain before I realised how horrendous my life choices were.
It’s so hard to explain what it’s like in there. The first thing I will say is it’s hot, humid and everything is wet. Everything including your feet. They will now be wet forever. There is mud - a lot of it. It is not flat, it goes up and down all the time - the downs being very, very difficult to navigate. You slip and slide down, and there is nothing to hold onto. All the trees are covered in either insects or long spikes, so you can’t grab them. We fell over a lot. There are lots of very high bridges, that are rotten, partially fallen down. You have to guess where to put your feet to avoid going through them. We had big packs on, filled with litres of water and snacks. In my head, 13 miles was nothing. In the jungle, it may as well have been 50 miles. It’s very, very slow going.
We were “following” the pipeline, but finding it was difficult. We were all on the verge of dehydrating, and had to keep topping our bladders up in streams and rivers, plus we were eating snacks way too fast. I was taking salt tabs every two hours, but still felt totally drained. We kept having to stop and check the GPS co-ordinates, we were tired and ratty, and didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. There were fallen trees everywhere, and getting over them was a gamble - the huge trunks would either hold, or you would fall through rotten bark, and be covered in ants and termites, up to your waist in insects. Then you would have to get out. At one point, we were all so hot we made our way down to a river and just got in it - it didn’t matter that we were now 100% soaking wet, it was just too hot to function. The few minutes cool gave us all a second wind. For about five minutes.
There were moments of wonder and glory. Like watching the ants going about their business, and having discussions about how they could actually take over the world. These moments were few and far between. And most of these conversations I THINK I actually had with myself. Like this…..
We trekked on and on, dripping in sweat, and eventually it started to become VERY obvious that this was not a 13 mile section. It was a lot longer than that. We had started to run out of food - there was no way crew could get in to help us. Rob was meeting us on the other side of the jungle with the van. And the food was in the van. I started to worry about the second traverse. How could anyone survive in here for more than a few hours? How would we survive for four days?
It was relentless. We trekked on and on, staying together as a group, sometimes breaking off for the “runable” bits. It started to get dark. My watch ran out of battery. I didn’t know how far I had come, or how far we had left to go. As it got darker, the bats and monkeys came out. I could hear them but not see them. My mind started to go, and I started to hallucinate big black cats and things flying at my face. At this point I was on my own - Jim was behind me and Merlin, Darren and James ahead. It was horrible. Not knowing where the end of this leg and the van were was horrible. I was so hungry and thirsty. See below for my sense of humour failure.
After what seemed like forever, I could hear voices. It was getting really dark now - we had been in the jungle for around 10 hours. I came round the corner and then saw Merlin, James and Darren sitting on the ground. We were out of the jungle, but there was no van. There was, however, a shit load of mosquitos. And they were all over us. The van had apparently been waiting for us for hours, and Rob had decided to go and grab some food. We called him back, and after 30 minutes he was there. We were all hungry and very, very tired and we still had a 13 mile road section to complete the traverse. It was at this stage that people started to talk about if they could actually go on. It was all I could think about. I could just get in the van. I could just get in, and go to sleep. I was so, so empty. I felt like crying. In fact I may have even had a cry. I was irrational and angry we’d had to wait, and I couldn’t see how I would be able to run another 13 miles with an empty tank and an empty mind. I so nearly pulled the plug. So nearly. But I didn’t. I silently took my boots off, changed my socks, ate a massive bag of pretzels, drank a litre of water and a coke, changed my top and got my head torch out. Fuck this. I have never DNF’d and I wasn’t going to do it now. My feet were white and wrinkled. They looked like the feet you see poking out of the end of gurneys in Silent Witness. I poured alcohol on them, let them dry and hoped for the best. I would deal with them after I had done this 13 mile section. And I would do this section.
Everyone was silent as we set off in the dark. It was that kind of party. Darren, James and Merlin went off ahead of me. Again, I was on my own as I started running. It was so nice to be back on roads. I say that, it wasn’t so great when my head torch batteries decided to run out. My spares were in the support van. I spent at least 4 miles running down unlit Panamanian dual carriageways, using my iPhone as a light. My backup torch was also in the van. Ultra brain. It’ll fuck you right up. After about 5 miles, I spotted the support vehicle at the side of the road - GREAT - I could change my batteries!. I was actually starting to feel better. It was good to get the legs going again, and the salt from the pretzels was kicking in. I was sort of enjoying myself again (although I felt drunk with tiredness). It was the classic thing - I wasn’t letting my body stop - I had told it that this was how it was going to be, so my body had to get on with it, and my mind was following. My ultra strop was over and the end was in sight. At the side of the vehicle, I spotted Merlin sitting down, head in his hands. He did not look good. Darren was talking to him and Rob was trying to get him to drink water. Merlin was done. He was saying he was going to get in the car. I wasn’t having any of this. I’d just taken two caffeine bullets and was high as a fucking kite on caffeine. I offered Merlin a cuddle (no), some sweets (no), my last caffeine bullet (yes), some drugs (no) and then I offered to tell him he was a fucking pussy and needed to get on with it. That seemed to work. He started to get up.
I changed my batteries and trotted off like a shetland pony. James came with me. I was now very aware that I was running with one of the UK’s best fell runners, and that put a rocket up me. We ran along (well I ran, James jogged) chatting about stuff and rubbish and it was brilliant. The route was horrible - along roads and busy dual carriageways, but I had got into my stride now. It was almost the end.
Turning off the dual carriageway to see the Pacific shining in the dark was amazing. It was about 9pm. We had been going for almost 17 hours and we had done it. We had crossed Panama. We were the first people to have traversed the pipeline in a day. Merlin and Darren came in about 35 minutes later and I was so happy to see them. We were all so elated. We were like ghosts of our former selves. We looked pale, thin and done in. Covered in mud, blood and sweat. But we were overjoyed. Rob joined us in the van and told us Jim was still going about an hour behind us - of course he was - he never gives up.
Here’s a little video to show how mashed up I was. I sound like I’m drunk, and forgot to turn my phone round. But you get the idea.
We got in the van, and Rob drive us to out hotel for the night - once again we go there in the dark. Ace. The poor woman at reception looked at us like we had just appeared out of a bog. It was at that point we realised how muddy and disgusting we actually were. And we needed to get our shit together, because we had a flight the next day, taking us to Los Olas and the start of our second traverse.
We washed our kit in the showers (sorry again to the hotel…..) and managed to get the receptionist to order us a pizza from the local takeaway. It took AGES for the smallest pizza in the world to arrive, but with that, a hot shower and a couple of beers, all was almost forgotten. Almost.
Jim arrived, and we were all together again. I swear that was one of the best nights sleep I ever had. One days rest (I say that, it was one day’s flying) and we would have to start the whole thing again.