Kiwi Trail Running Article
Written By: Andy Kenworthy
What possesses a 54-year-old Auckland woman to cover 254km on foot through the Amazon in six days, carrying everything she needs on her back?
Sue Hardy reaches a wide, deep river during another day of running in the steam room of the Brazilian jungle. She can see the next checkpoint on the other side.
Through her fatigue she dimly recalls there was supposed to be some sort of assistance. Never mind. This is an adventure race after all. She slings her pack into a dry-bag and climbs into the water, wading and swimming across.
There was supposed to be a boat. It's crew had got bored waiting for the next runner and gone fishing.
This is the Jungle Marathon.
Five days later in Auckland’s Shaky Isles Cafe you would be hard pressed to pick the ultra runner out from the stylish lunchtime crowd. Until you looked at her feet. Inside Sue’s jandles are a fearsome collection of seething yellow welts. They look like the Inquisition got to her with a red-hot dessert spoon.
“They give your blisters a ‘hot shot’,” she says matter of factly. “The blister is drained, then a tincture of benzoin is injected into it. It seals the top and bottom layers of skin together and stops it blistering again. It feels like putting alcohol into an open cut. The pain is excruciating.”
Sue says she was into running from a young age. She started going long distance when a work colleague suggested she attempt a marathon.
“I said, ‘don’t be silly’, and then went home and quietly started training for it,” she says. “When you say to people you ran a marathon everybody asks what time did you do. I was keen to get a good time for my age and was aiming for 3 hours 45. I got darn close on more than one occasion, but after seven marathons I realised I just wasn’t going to crack it without proper coaching.”
In 2008 she overheard runners talking about the 60km Kepler Challenge.
“I thought ‘I could do that’. It’s off road and you don’t have to go so fast and just finishing would be a challenge.”
Next stop was the Tarawera Ultra-Marathon in 2010. It was then in its second year with only about 60 participants. She ran 67kms.
Sue’s husband, Geoff is also an endurance sport enthusiast. So when Sue set her sights on the jungle marathon, he was happy to join her.
Competitors must cover daily distances varying from 28km to 108km a day for six days. They must carry all the food, clothing and equipment with them. They are supplied with water. Temperatures can reach 45 degrees C and humidity often hits 99%.
It’s like putting a backpack on and running through the steam room of your local gym for six hours, with added hills, tree roots, mud, rivers and dangerous animals. At the end of each day the runners sleep in a hammock in the forest.
Sue’s first attempt was in 2015. That’s when she began training with James Kuegler Coaching.
“I was looking for guidance as to how to train for finishing the race,” she says. “His training programme was excellent. It was exactly what we needed to do. I didn’t have any concerns that I could do the running day to day.”
The programme involved a lot of weekends out in the Waitakeres with packs on, then short training during the week. There was also a real focus on technique, to equip Sue with the efficiency she would need to keep going day after day.
That year her training group had been experimenting with avoiding carbohydrates or sugars. If successful this would trigger the body to rely more on slow burning fat stores for endurance. Unfortunately, Sue found this approach meant she didn’t pack enough race food to get her through long days in the jungle. Combined with an inability to sleep in such unfamiliar conditions, Sue was left vomiting, dizzy and exhausted. She pulled out of the event on Day Five, the longest day the race.
Sue began planning a second attempt just a few days later. With more food and more sleep she had more success overcoming the Day Five hurdle this year.
“On that day I started at 4am and come running into checkpoint 5 at 6.30pm - half way there. With 80% of the competitors having missed the cut off, we all camped overnight in the Jungle on the side of the road. We woke up next morning and left at 6.00am continuing on the next 50k or so finally, finishing the long stage at 7.30pm that night. Then there was one more day to go, which was 24km, on sand. I hate sand.”
Geoff, meanwhile, had pushed himself to his limits in the searing heat. He lay down on the road in a last ditch effort to recover some composure. Time was against him. Maybe he could find his feet and stagger to the next check point. But it would only be a few hours before he would have to leave again for the next stage. After an hour and a half he still felt destroyed. His race was over.
Sue says the finish was ‘very emotional’.
“So many people waiting your arrival at the finish all pumping for you, you are tired, hungry, your body hurts but you made it.”
Sue admits that you have to be mad to want to do something like this, so why does she do it?
“I love the runners’ high,” she explains. “It’s beautiful to run the trails. As a kid I thought tramping through the bush was boring, but then I started running through them. I love the challenge that tests where your mental and physical boundaries lie and see how far you can push them. It’s the buzz of achieving something you never thought you could do.”
With that it’s time to go.
“I think I will go and lie down now and read my magazine,” says Sue.
I say that sounds like the most sensible thing she has said so far. She holds the magazine up with a grin. Of course, it’s a running magazine.
“I think we will do a run in Iceland next year…” She says.