Deep into the Amazon rainforest, every footstep lay a challenge for Jeff Lau Jun Tean, the first Malaysian ultra runner to race at the Jungle Ultra marathon starting from Peru.
At the steep elevation atop an altitude of 4000m (equivalent to the height of Mount Kinabalu), the thin air slowed down every single step he took in the jungle, while crossing the swift flowing Amazon river multiple times challenged his mental and physical strength. That is, if he hadn’t freaked out with the hundreds of insects crawling up his hands and legs as his challenged the steep incline of King’s Hill.
Sanctband Brand Ambassador and Red Ribbon Icon for the Malaysian Aids Foundation (MAF), Jeff runs races around the world for a good cause and raises awareness about AIDS. The 27 year old graphic designer by profession, started extremely long distance running known as ‘ultra running’ in 2014 and has been training at PFC Studio in Kuala Lumpur and running 21km twice weekly in preparation for the race.
Not usually accessible to the general public, Jeff and his fellow participants from around the globe were privileged to race in this pristine jungle during the Jungle Ultra. Base camp was set up some five hours drive from Cusco, where the Jungle Ultra marathon would take five days spanning 230km. The small and narrow route was created by local Peruvians just two weeks prior.
On the first day, the race flagged off taking Jeff 1000m in elevation downhill along 30km into the Amazon, the distance of the day. On some days, the route ventured onto uncovered, searing hot tarmac for 10-15km on end, and that’s when you start to appreciate the canopy of the cooling rainforest.
“The real challenge lies on Day 4 and 5, which determines if you qualify to attempt the long course of 230km if you can reach Checkpoint 3 (CP3) by 3pm. This is to avoid having particpants in the treacherous jungle at night,” said Jeff.
Participants are expected to be self-sufficient, carrying their own gear consisting of a personal items, sleeping bag, hammock, food and electrolytes besides compulsory items like first aid, insect repellant in a 9-10 kilogram knapsack. Jeff packed his favourite Malaysian Maggi cup noodles as his daily sustenance, Amazing Graze’s granola as snacks on the go, while Hammer supplied the electrolytes.
When everyone was trying to reduce their load, Jeff was easily recognisable touting a teddy bear with a red ribbon on his chest to spread awareness on AIDS throughout the race.
“My bear kept getting wet when I kept falling into the water, so along the way, I kept squeezing the water out of the bear. Not every teddy bear can say he’s been to the Amazon rainforest, the Sahara desert and the Arctic Circle!”
“On Day 4, I had arrived early and decided to embraced the challenge. We had to climb King’s Hill, 1000m in elevation. It was really tough due to the steep inclines for many kilometers, and it was so slippery, especially when I was carrying a heavy backpack. I had to crawl, using all fours as I was climbing without hiking poles.”
“I also couldn’t slow down, as hundreds of insects were crawling all over my hands all the time. Just when you think you’ve reached the end of the climb, another one appears right before you, it was endless.”
“On Day 5, I was really tired due to lack of rest and appetite, but I was determined to finish the remaining 92km to earn a ranking in this race. I walked with a Canadian lady, Caroline who was racing her third time at this Jungle Ultra.”
“Compared to the previous days where I was running throughout the day, I couldn’t run much and succumbed to brisk walking with Caroline keeping pace. I really appreciated having a buddy, and I tried to keep up with her throughout the entire route.
“We had to cross the river bends fifty times, soaking in the water for 4 hours, and two toe nails of mine had already dropped off, so it was torturing for me.”
“We were also getting nervous, and only reached CP3 in the last 5 minutes before the cut-off time. Without hesitating, we decided to finish the race with the long course which had us running up 800m in elevation with another 20km to go.”
“This time, we took 2 hours to finish 5km of steep incline. After which, we had to go downhill, but it was so steep, I had to sit down and crawl my way down as I was not using hiking poles.”
As the sun set beyond the forest canopy, the clock ticked on Jeff and other participants who were also lost as they could not find the route markers when darkness loomed.
“We failed to find the marker and had to call the organisers for assistance through our satellite phone. Someone came to help us and we had to climb up a bridge and cross a river to continue on.”
“Into the last 10km, I was getting slower from fatigue, but Caroline and the others were nice enough to slow down, keep me alert and insisted that we finish the race together. It was a sweet and emotional moment when we crossed the finish line together.”
From the searing heat of the Sahara to the frigid bone chilling Arctic and now the extremities of the Amazon rainforest, Jeff sums up each ultra marathon race.
“This Jungle Ultra in the Amazon was more challenging than the Sahara race, although the distance is almost the same. The altitude and elevation made it tougher, and the route in the Amazon was really technical and unpredictable, you need to be more alert and really look where you’re going.”
To help him recover from the daily strain on the footrace, Sanctband brand ambassador Jeff packed the Sanctband Resistive Bands & Comprefloss (Flossband) to use the floss band to wrap and compress his muscles. This helped to refresh and relief the pain. Prior to the race, he used the Sanctband Active Loop to train his lower body, core and glutes to tackle the 1000m elevation climb in the jungle.
Out of the 33 participants, 2 withdrew mid-way and only 20 participants completed the 230km long course including Jeff, while the rest completed 200km.
“The camaraderie on this race was really good, participants struck a balance between being competitive yet were friendly with each other. Overall, it was a good experience and I would recommend it to others.”
Photos provided by Jeff Lau and Beyond Ultimate.