The morning after the traverse before was spent discussing what we had achieved over breakfast. Despite a good nights sleep, everyone was totally knackered, caught in a kind of daze. We couldn’t really take in what we had achieved the day before. Where most runners would be spending the day in front of Netflix with Just Eat on speed dial, we hurriedly packed out bags and headed to Panama City to catch a flight to Las Olas, where the ext day we would attempt the second traverse of the country.
This traverse was the inaugural Panama Coast to Coast. This is the event that Rat Race will be putting on in 2020. This is the real deal, and nobody knew if it was possible. The itinerary was as follows:
Day 1: Start running from Las Olas on the Pacific Coast. 50km on roads and trails. Vehicle supported. Accommodation in jungle lodge.
Day 2: Continue running from where we stopped. Another 50km on roads and trails. Vehicle supported. Accommodation in jungle lodge.
Days 3-5: Jungle stage. 3 days totally self sufficient in the jungle. No crew. No support. Sleeping in hammocks. Approximately 25km per day
Day 5: Emerge at edge of jungle, jump on pacrrafts and paddle to the coast. Boat to Bocas Del Torro (Carribean Island of dreams)
Day 6: Full day of R&R on Bocas Del Torro. White beaches, food and yes, the drinks are free.
All looks pretty do-able. On paper. The point is this. Myself, Darren and Jim had been travelling and running now for almost 2 weeks. We had already covered over 200km on foot through some extremely tough environments. There were no rest days. Our bodies were shot, but our minds were sharp. We were all 100% focused on getting to that island. We were all 100% in it for the long haul. Our fresh new buddies, Merlin, Rob and James would spur us on and bring new energy. We would all make it to that island and we would all get very drunk. That was the plan. But sometimes, things don’t go to plan. And sometimes, they REALLY don’t go to plan.
Day 11 - 50km run from Las Olas to Chiriqui
Having arrived at our amazing hotel in the dark (AGAIN), we had yet another 5am alarm call. We wanted to start running at 7 and James had to get his epic starting shots. We meet on the beach as the sun is rising. I am aching all over but excited to get a bit of road running done. Merlin is the most excited man on earth - I love him. His excitement lifts me and Darren up more that I though possible. The sunrise is beautiful and, at 7am, we turn away from the Atlantic and start the journey across Panama.
Merlin and Darren are boys. We all know this. Off they go together, way ahead of me, grabbing their 9 min miles while they could. I stayed behind, trotting along the road at ultra (slow) pace, taking in the beauty of the Panamanian countryside. I was tired and achey, but pretty content. It was hot and, although I was happy to have some tarmac under my feet, it served only to bounce the heat up, making it feel hotter than it was. I had learnt a lot from Namibia, so was drinking a lot of water and taking a shit tonne of salt. I had snacks and tunes. I was happy. There was a lot to look at. Huge birds flew overhead and huge rivers flowed under the bridges. There were cows and horses in the fields, and some of the streets were lined with amazing houses, brightly coloured with children on the porches and dogs EVERYWHERE.
Everyone I passed was friendly, with the cars honking their horns and the kids waving at me. As the hours went by it got hotter and hotter. My suntan lotion was being sweated off faster than I could put it on, and I could feel myself burning. I was on my own, but looking after myself. Water, salt, water, salt, snack. Every so often, Rob would swing by in the support vehicle and James would shout some abuse at me, but I was taking it easy and making sure I could function.
Jim had set off an hour ahead of us that morning. He had a set 4kmph pace and he was sticking with it. Eventually, after a few hours, I caught up with him and then, soon after, Merlin. Merlin is a monster with a massive pedigree. He’s won OCR’s and ultras. He’s got a super fast marathon time and he is the loveliest man I have ever met. But he has one thing that will always fuck him over on these events. Merlin is ginger. The heat was getting to him and short of putting a hazmat suit on, it was impossible for him not to burn. He had slowed right down, but seemed to be coping, so I didn’t have to shout abuse at him, and I kept trotting on. At about 25km, the support vehicle came into view and I could see Darren. He had shot off and seemed to be having a really good day. I was loving everything. I was still tired, but with no time pressure and a huge amount of self care, I felt like I was doing really well. I ate a massive amount of food at the car, and waited for Jim and Merlin and then we all set off together, with Darren out front.
Things stared to get a little more rural - lots more dogs (yay) and loads of streams and waterfalls. Today had been pretty flat. There were some slow inclines, but it was a good first day. I eventually caught up with Darren whose phone battery had run out (it’ll do that if you keep taking selfies, Dazzler) and he was a bit lost. We ran along together having a chat and generally enjoying ourselves. At one point we decided we were thirsty for sports drink, so stopped for a beer in one of the local shops. Nobody spoke any english, so I ended up googling a picture of Panama lager on my phone. It worked. The international language of beer photos.
We trotted on together, not fast but having a nice time,. We stopped in a river for a swim and before we knew it, we had reached the bus stop that marked the end of the first day. That was lovely. We had a lovely time, plus we had managed to do 27 miles in just over 6 hours, which I was proper chuffed with. Our feet looked like this.
After about an hour, Merlin and Jim arrived in really good spirits. We all got in the car to the jungle lodge, which was about 90 mins away. Tomorrow, the car would bring us back here to continue where we had left off. We’d all had a great day. If this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. This is the start of a horror film.
Turns out the jungle lodge is one of the most spectacular places on earth. It is 10km up a dirt track that takes an hour to drive up in a 4x4 - it’s that rocky and steep. It was on the drive up that James decided to get out of the car and run up it, top off, like a human springbok. I have never seen anything like it. That man is an animal, and even though I was proud of what I had achieved that day, watching him sprint up that hill effortlessly, at 7 min miles, brought me firmly back down to earth. He is a true athlete. At the top of the hill, in the clouds, was the lodge. At 6,300ft, Mount Totumas Cloud Forest is the highest eco lodge in Panama. It is beyond prose. I’ve put a link to it here so you can judge for yourselves. This was our home for two nights.
Outside the glass walls, the clouds passed by, as hummingbirds buzzed around like bees. We were all dumbstruck by it’s beauty. This place is a labour of love, and one of the best places in the to see some of the rarest birds in the world. I could have sat on the balcony forever. The fridge was stocked with beer and wine, and the showers were basically outside. That night we ate dinner and laughed and relaxed. The next day would be hard, but with amazing food in our stomachs and a few beers in our bellies we were happy. We’ve got this, I thought. We can do this.
Day 12 - 50km run from Chiriqui to Mount Totumas
Another 4.45 wake up call for the 90 min journey back to where we finished yesterday. Another day of creaking limbs and slow stretching. It was at this point that I started taking notice of my massive kit fail at Heathrow. Half the stuff that I had thought I brought with me, I had not. I had hardly any running kit. The lodge had very kindly done a kit wash for us, but looking at what I had, I realised that I was short a lot of leggings and long tops. I needed these for the jungle stage. I wanted full body cover. I decided not to worry about it. But I can’t not worry. The worry was there, and tomorrow we had to go into the jungle.
Todays run was all uphill (almost 6000ft uphill it seems), on roads. I was worried and mega tired. I was not mentally there, and that is my own fault. I started the day in a mood. I started the day not believing I could do it. I also just wanted to stay at the lodge. It was so beautiful there. I just wanted a day resting, watching the clouds. Fuck you, wonder lodge.
The car dropped us off at the bus stop and drove off. Here we go again. 27 miles of road. To cut a long story short, I didn’t have a great day. I was alone for a lot of it, and much slower than the day before. There were rickety bridges. The hills were MENTAL and swirled upwards forever and, having 50km of roads in my legs already (AND THE REST, BAILEY!), I had totally gone off them. Although I had tried to look after myself the day before, on reflection, I had gone too fast.
It was, however, beautiful. It was like being in one of those car ads, where they whizz down roads on the edge of mountains. The houses were still there, the wonderful villages and people. At one point I found this tiny puppy outside a house and gave him a cuddle.
There were goats, baby cows, and lots of dead snakes on the road. I was trying to take it in - trying to convince myself I was living, because I was. But I was lonely, and really far behind Darren and Merlin. I felt a bit shit about myself. Eventually I reached the town that we had driven through on the way to the lodge. Not far now, I thought. But it is far when you’re not in a car. It is very far indeed. It’s all up winding roads, up hills. And this leg demanded that the last 10km was up the rocky hill to the lodge.
Darren and Merlin had left notes on the road, scratched in white chalky stones. I loved them. They made me realise that we were a team, and nobody was judging anyone else. They made me smile and spurred me on.
Eventually, I turned another impossible corner and Darren was running towards me. He had been there for ages, but he was running up to meet me so we could do the last 10km together. I wanted to punch him and cuddle him at the same time - a common theme in my ultra relationship with Darren. Merlin was on top form too. So James, Merlin, Darren and I “ran” the last 10km together, up that fucker of a hill to the lodge. I walked when I had to, ran when I could. It was brilliant to be back with the boys. My sense of hope was coming back. But the jungle was there at the back of my mind. Tonight I had to pack everything I would need for 3 days self sufficient. All the food, clothes, hammock, sleeping bag, first aid, water, everything I would need. What would we be facing in there? I was scared. I was exhausted. I had no clue what was coming up. The boys were funny and made me laugh. On the way to the lodge, James kept making us run through a river to do the same shot over and over again. But I was with my team, and I felt so much better. If you’re wondering, he got his shot.
Back at the lodge, I had work to do. I had to pack the jungle bag. I had naively chosen the Ultimate Direction Fastback 35 as my jungle bag. I was sure 35 litres would be enough. Rick was there for a hammock lesson, so between learning how to put one up and feeling like I could sleep for a thousand years, I tried to sort out kit. Sorting kit on a tired brain is very fucking hard, as we proved in the Heathrow episode. I kept making piles and then changing the piles and then making another pile. I didn’t have the right kit. I would need full body coverage in the jungle, and only had one pair of leggings and one long sleeved top. I had stupidly left the others in Jims car. In addition to that, on the flight from Panama City to Las Olas, one of the jars of isotonic powder had exploded on the food packets, so I had to wash them all (all 60 of them) to prevent them turning into sticky monstrosities in the jungle, thus attracting ant friends. Heres what the tuck shop looked like on the floor of my bathroom.
I couldn’t concentrate on one task, so I tried to do 7 at once, and did none of them properly. I eventually managed to pack my bag, but it was almost bursting. I tried it on, and it hurt to wear. I realised that it wasn’t big enough, and I was going to need to re-pack, using my 60 litre Karrimor backpack in order to fit my bladder in. My UD bag, however amazing it was, just wasn’t going to cut it. I needed a lot of support on my hips and so was going to have to take the bigger one. Once I had packed it, it weighed in at around 20kg. It was at this point that I realised I had never attempted to carry this kind of weight for any distance, other than the distance from my flat to the tube station. I just hadn’t thought about how heavy it would be. Our two local guides had arrived to meet us. Tiny, super fit humans who live and work in the jungle every day. Their names were Moises and Elvin. They spoke no english and looked hard as fucking nails. They were there to help navigate and attempt to keep us safe. They took one look at my bag, pointed at me and laughed. I will never forget that. Fuck you, I thought. I WILL carry that bag. (Side note - this was an over reaction my part - I fucking love those guys now). That night we sat down for dinner with Rick and looked at the map. This is the map.
It made literally NO sense to me. It was all green. Turns out it made no sense to anyone. Everyone was nervous. We packed and repacked and packed and repacked again. We chose our meals. The boys sharpened their machetes (not a euphamism). We would be in the jungle for “3 days” so took 4.5 days worth of rations in individual wet pouches. Just in case. Thank fuck we did that. We took a breakfast, a lunch and a dinner plus a pudding for every night. That’s 18-19 pouches of wet food in such delicious flavours as ‘Beans ’n’ Burgers’ and ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’. It’s a lot of weight. Then factor in everything else you need to bring. And the 3 litres of water you should be carrying. James and I decided against puddings - it was extra weight and we had the ultimate - THE JAR OF NUTEELLA - REMEMBER HIM???. That would be our pudding. One spoon a night. The other item I decided not to take was my sandals. I woudn’t need them in the jungle. It was extra weight. They were a luxury. This was to become one of my biggest regrets. The only shoes I had were my Salomon Jungle Ultra boots.
James had to carry not only his pack, but also his cameras - making his weight 10kg more than anyone else. He’s tiny. He’s fit, but he is tiny. He also runs on sugar. I had a bit of room in my big bag, so took 2 cans of red bull for him. This small gesture would pay dividends later on in the saga. It pays to be kind, people. Remember that.
In all the packing and brain hurtyness, I had forgotten I had a hotspot on my foot that, as I walked round the lodge, was getting worse. When I looked there was a huge fluid filled blister on the ball on my right foot. FUCK. I never, ever get blisters. This was my fault. I knew I had grit in my shoe, I knew my feet were wet but I didn’t clear my trainers out. In my mentalness, I decided to compeed it, and see how it was in the morning. This was totally stupid. Compeed is prevention, not cure. I wasn’t thinking straight. Even with the compeed on, I was limping. How was I supposed to wear jungle boots for 3 days with my foot feeling like this? I convinced myself it would be better in the morning using mainly a beer.
So we had dinner, a last shower and went to bed. Tomorrow would be the start of our total immersion in the jungle. But it’s only three days. Only. Three. Days.