The Maya Mountain Adventure Challenge
Maya Mountain Adventure Challenge
Belize was more than just an adventure!
Bush whacking in the jungle for over 20 hours, bikes sinking with the canoe, stranded on a deserted island, rescued by the Belize military, making camp fires with maps, serious bike collusions, cave swimming, abseiling down cliffs, bike swimming down rivers, eaten alive by bugs, up close and personal with snakes, scorpions and a lot more!
The Powerbar Swiss Explorers Expedition Racing team needed a fourth team mate to take on the Belize Maya Mountain Challenge Adventure Race and offered me the opportunity to join them. I had planned to go to Thailand for a month of Thai boxing and yoga but this sounded like even more fun so I quickly booked the flight and signed up for the adventure. They are an experienced adventure racing team that have been doing exhibition racing for the past 5 years as a team so I knew it would be an interesting challenge for me to adapt to their logistics and racing atmosphere. They told me on several occasions that they are not there to get on the podium, their goal is to enjoy exploring new territory, keep safe and most importantly all cross the finish line together as a team. This makes it sound easy but I can reassure you that there is nothing easy about exhibition racing, it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted or those that need their comforts and just crossing the finish line as a team is a hard-core and extremely rewarding challenge. So, to give you some background on what is adventure racing and the Belize Maya Mountain Challenge. Expedition adventure racing is a non-stop adventure race for 36 hours or more. This is with full navigation and is a combination of many disciplines, most commonly mountain biking, trekking/trail running, kayaking and some special tasks, e.g. caving, abseiling, climbing, shooting etc. The Belize Mountain Challenge was the first event on the 2018 adventure racing world series, one of 11 that will take place throughout the year. The very nature of these events are aimed at testing the limits of the world’s top endurance athletes and also getting them into areas and situations certainly far beyond what one would do on a regular holiday! The minimum distance to cover for the Belize AR was 450km and the principle disciplines were mountain biking, canoeing, pack rafting, trekking, running, orienteering, caving, spelunking, ropes and rappelling. Participants had 96 hours/4 days to complete the course and arrive back at San Ignacio.
As I only had 2 months to train before the event, it was not very specific and I was relying on my past experiences and mental strength to get me through. This is not an ideal strategy but seems to be quite a common one with me. I had not been in a kayak since last summer and did very little cycling over the winter. My training over the winter was mainly core-strength endurance and trail running, trying to increase my lactate threshold with the help of Matt Bidwell, as I had not been running regularly for almost 2 years. I did a lot of sessions with a loaded bag so I wasn’t moving anywhere too fast but it was interesting learning about my heart rate and understanding more about the elements that effect it. All the same, I have no idea about all these stats and have no interest in my watch becoming my best friend, I rather just go exploring with no constraints.
For me, the Maya Mountain Adventure Race was a great opportunity to discover the culture and explore untapped territory in a country that I knew nothing about and to share it with likeminded nutters. As the flight was pricey, about €1200 return when you include the bike and transfers, I decided to have an extended holiday and went for 4 weeks. Oh, how it’s great to be self-employed and be spontaneous to adventure! Rachel’s Irish Adventures is on the move! I arrived in Belize with no guide book, music, books but I had a transfer for my bike to go to San Ignacio where the race would start from. I then strolled down the street, jumped on a passing bus to Belize city and hopped on a boat, it took me to Caye Caulker.
When you feel free and have no set plans, it was all so easy, I quickly met amazing likeminded people at the port and joined forces to do activities and spending hours reflecting on life and solving the world’s problems. One of my favourite things about travelling is the freedom and total lack of responsibility, where your only occupation is wondering where you will have dinner and which direction will you go next to explore. The pre-race holiday was really relaxing but I did go swimming with sharks, spear fishing, hiking, sunrise runs, lots of yoga and rented a single speed bike togged as far as the jungle for a day hiking- this was certainly an adventure! After Caye Caulker, myself and my new friends went along the coast to Hopkins, a small hippy area, then over to Guatemala to El Remate which is a quiet area beside a lake. The people in Belize and Guatemala are just exceptionally friendly and it was such a pleasure to get to know their culture. I was pumped that I got to spend a week speaking Spanish in Guatemala where we also visited the Tikal National Park and discover the Mayan ruins before staying a few nights in the picturesque town of Les Flores. It was then time to say see you later to my new friends and take the bus back to Belize where the adventure would continue!
Arriving back in San Ignacio before all the teams arrived, I was feeling ready to get to the start-line. After getting my bike box, I see that the guy working in the hotel has it on a trolley and it’s now bouncing down the steps to our cabin. I chased him down but it was too late, the derailer was now broken. Luckily, 2 weeks previous, my super organised Swiss team mate Susan said I had to have a spare derailed, something I never have but I took her advice and while in Belize, I ordered it from Cycle Super Stores in Dublin who kindly posted it to Switzerland so they could bring it for me. Wow, so lucky as there is no bike shop in Belize with this piece, in fact there is no bike shop within in a 3 hour drive. All the teams started to arrive and I was delighted to finally join forces with Susan, Frank and Francky.
I could tell from the start that we were going to get on great and the team atmosphere would be positive and lots of fun. I had crossed paths with Francky at the Beast of Ballyhoura adventure race 6 years ago and 4 years ago joined them in Switzerland for a winter training weekend which was top class. Yes, we were a gender balanced team and that was nice as I’m usually on a team with 3 guys. The rules state that each team of 4 must have at least one male and one female but teams are very often made up of 3 men and 1 woman.
After checking into the rooms, we all started getting our gear together and fixing my bike. All the bikes and gear had been aggressively inspected by the US customs and Frank was now missing the part that holds in his front wheel. This was a serious issue as it is specific to his bike. The derailer also did not exactly fit my bike and the wheel would not turn correctly so I thought I would have to do the race in single speed, not ideal but it would not be the first time! Anyway, over the next 24 hours, we managed to find a guy who got a spacer for my bike but I was told not to remove the back wheel or we were in trouble and he somehow made a piece to hold Franks bike together. Woppee, we were saved and would get to the start line which is often the trickiest part.
The evening before the race, we got the race maps and while loading up on food like camels, we plotted the route we would take. Frank and Francky would take charge of the navigation but myself and Susan were eager to always know where we were.
There was lots of funny situations before we got to the start line. One time, I went to the toilet in the storage building, turned on the light and walked towards the toilet. There was a delay in the light coming on and I was just following the shadow towards the toilet door. Next thing the light comes on that there are at least 30 bats bouncing off the wall and flying in every direction. I let out a high-pitched scream and ran out as fast as lightning. The guys all thought I had been attacked by snakes or something, they went in and couldn’t believe it, the place was absolutely infested by bats.
Similarly, a few days previous, I was in the shower, got out and there was a mouse running around and banging from wall to wall trying to get out. I almost stepped on him as he tried to escape and he whacked off my leg. There were also a couple of incidents with big lizards that casually roamed around like dogs.
Anyway, back to the race before I keep getting side tracked.
The Race begins..
It all kicked off at 12 mid-day, all teams got together and carried their canoe gear down town until we hit the bridge that joins San Ignacio and Santa Elena. I warned the team that I would be the least experienced in the canoe but should be strong enough to hold a consistent pace. Kayaking is their strongest discipline, they kayak most days at their lunch break and go on longer sessions too. I teamed up with Frank and Francky and Susan took another canoe.
3,2,1, GO.. We had a 150-metre sprint to grab a canoe, it was like musical chairs. Frank had rented a PFD so he had to get that and put it on which meant that we were one of the last canoes to leave the shore. Adrenaline pumping, we quickly caught up with Susan and Frank and continued and before we knew it, we were leading the race and setting the pace for the teams behind. I felt surprisingly comfortable with the speed but after another kilometre, we could still not see our team mates and there was no point on continuing at this pace without them. We stopped, had a picnic, let the teams pass us out and then Susan and Francky caught up. This was the first mental challenge for me, I wanted to push on, I knew we could be comfortably up with the top 2 teams but I said nothing, it was not about me and that is why you must think of your 3 team mates, their ability and logistics to be able to sustain a certain pace for 4 days. We continued alongside each other for the 36km paddle, I sang songs and chatted to Frank about life, objectives, sports and anything else that came into my head. This is one of the great things about endurance racing, you can ask anything and say anything and within a short space of time, you have a deep bond with your team mates that will last a lifetime- there are no secrets!
Frank is 45 years old and like Susan and Francky, lives in Switzerland and works for Nestle. He’s an engineer for Nespresso and promised to send me the new top of the range machine so let’s see if I get a surprise parcel (This is a subtle hint if you are reading this Frank!). Frank has a great attitude to life and as an ex-judo warrior is now a regular on the exhibition racing scene. He’s build like a muscle tank, with a perfectly sculpted body that he likes so show off when he can and sure why not, I don’t see anyone complaining”,)
We cruised into transition, dragged the canoes up the shore line and across where we got our bike box. After quickly changing and putting the bikes together, we were off. I decided not to change and had triathlon shorts on. I thought to myself, sure it’s only 65km on the mountain bike, that’s a short spin. Little did I know, we were bouncing in and out of potholes for hours. It didn’t bother me too much but wearing tri shorts over good padded shorts is like comparing riding around in a new BMW or in the back of Fred Flinstones car. We started off like bullets on the bike and we quickly passed out 2 teams. I knew this was too fast, I thought I would be the strongest on the bike and I was now even wondering how long I would be able to hold this pace. I said to Francky, “I think we are going too fast, it’s not realistic that we can maintain this for long”. He replied, “yes but we need to make the most of the light”, which was certainly understandable. As we were flying down a hill, about 50/60km per hour, Frank came speeding in the inside of Susan to pass her out and they had a serious collision. Her bike immediately went out of control and she couldn’t release from the pedals fast enough which resulted in her skidding down along the road into the ditch. Frank’s leg got tied up in her pedal and it left a deep indent and injured his calf muscle. However, Susan certainly came out the worst of it, she was in complete sock as we all were. She had open wounds all down her leg and arm on her right side but what concerned me was the impact her head got with the bang.
I told Francky to give me the first aid kit quick and Francky told Frank to get the bikes off the road and check Susan’s bike. She didn’t want to take the helmet off but I insisted. The helmet literally saved her life, there was big impact dent on the helmet and a stone had managed to get stuck in the air holes of the helmet. I checked her head for lumps and bleeding but luckily it seemed OK. If this was in ‘normal’ circumstances, both Frank and Susan would be rushed to A&E to get checked out. However, today, this was not even an option that would come to mind. Within minutes, Susan was cleaned up, the handlebars twisted back straight and we were all back on the bike and now moving at a slow pace until the confidence came back. Susan and Frank were in shock and there was a little tension as Frank should not have come in the inside to overtake and there was zero communication to inform her he was overtaking. Ten minutes later and all is back to normal and we are on track for finding the first check point (CP) before dark. We caught up with Team AdeoRun Adventure and stayed with them until the check point.
For the next CP, the guys decided to take a short cut through fields, quick sand, mud and forestry, we got to it after some time but by the time we got back to transition, it was obvious that this may have been a short cut in distance but not in time. Here we put back on our PDF, head lights, tied the bikes onto the canoes and jumped on for a second 36km paddle by moonlight before getting back on the bike again. There were 2 bikes on each of the 2 canoes and our bags so space was tight and the canoes were heavy. I had the back on the wheel wedged into my back and Frank had very limited foot space but this was the best we could do with the confined space. We took our time and kept together cruising down the river, singing and listening to the howling monkeys, they were so loud and sounded so vicious that we avoided hugging the shoreline in case they jumped out on top of us and we also didn’t fancy any snakes being tempted to hop on to give us a hug! There were a few rapids and the fog was setting in but nothing too serious or so we thought. After about 18km, we could all hear another rapid and although visibility was very poor, we didn’t take much notice. Myself and Frank choose the route on the right and Susan and Francky went left. Next thing I look back to see them in the water. My initial reaction was a nervous laugh thinking it was kind of funny that they were getting wet and would just jump back in and we’d continue the last hour before arriving at the next section. But we quickly realised that this was serious, Susan’s PDF was trapped to the boat and it was pulling her down. Francky was roaring for the knife but it was in her backpack that was on the boat. Susan managed to release herself from the boat and somehow had enough strength to hold herself upright grabbing onto a rock with a strong current coming against her. Francky loosened the boat trying to get the bikes and the boat then filled with water, turned upside down and the current swept it away downstream. About 50 metres on, it got stuck by an underwater rock and we could now only see the top few inches of the boat as it was positioned vertically against the rock, possibly stuck as the bikes were tangled in a branch or something. We all knew we were in trouble but safety was now the most important and material objects had no significance. Myself and Frank felt helpless as we looked onto the scene, it was impossible for us to paddle upstream with the weight on the boat and what could we have done, the risk was that we could have gone down too and then we were seriously in bother. We gathered up water bottles and anything else floating in the water and got Susan attached to the back of the boat to get her to shore. Francky was at the boat and trying with all his force to turn it to get it back in action. He was roaring, “I can’t do it, the current is too strong, it must be jammed at the bottom”, it was just impossible and the force of the current was pulling him around the place. He had to let go and we all got over to shore.
It was now midnight and the four of us were on the shoreline looking onto a few inches of what we could see of our second canoe. Susan said goodbye to her bike and bag and Francky said bye to his bike but that was not an issue, we were just all delighted they were both safe as it could have been a different outcome. In these events, you must bring one phone per team and it is sealed with tape and only to be opened in extreme emergencies like this one but the phone was now underwater in Susan’s bag. Frank had the tracker which also has a button to press for evacuation. Once you press this, it’s game over, you are now not on the competitive ranking, a bit like if you jump into the rescue jeep during the Marathon des Sables. However,we had no choice, in any case we only had two bikes and we had to get out of there somehow. After 2 hours there was still no reply from the organisers which to be honest was an absolute disgrace. If this was a life or death situation, this would be a serious issue. Finally, we heard another team arriving, it was Team Thisability, a two-person team, one male and one female which makes them non-competitive but they had an amazing sense of adventure and this was their first long exhibition race. There positive energy and love for adventure was infectious from the first time I spoke to them at the kit check. We were delighted to see them and they kindly used their phone to call Julie the race director. We were told someone would be there in one hour but we were rescued at some point before 7am. During that time, I never once left the boat, I looked up at the stars, tried to accept in my head that this would no longer be a race but I was determined to do as much of the course as possible and continue with the adventure and my team mates felt the same. Frank decided he would light a fire and as we had nothing to get it going, he used the maps we had already used but he needed more paper so we started pulling off the edges of the maps we were to use on the next stage. The ground was damp and the heavy fog meant that the air was wet so the fire did not last too long. I pulled out the survival blanket and wrapped it around my legs and somehow convinced myself that it was comfortable to rest my head on the chain of the bike, the helmet locked into it and it was actually a position that I then did not move out of for almost 7 hours as we discussed together the situation and there was a also a few long silent gaps where were all lost in our own thoughts.
Daylight broke through and we finally heard some voices shouting to get our attention. We yelled back, ‘hello, we’re here’. I blew the whistle while myself and Frank paddled around to see who was there and find out how we could get back to a transition point. Little did we know, we were on an island for the night, here we were greeted with the race referee and 2 guys from the Belize military that were armed with loaded guns and looked like they needed a hug, even more than us! Francky had kept his feet in the water for the 7 hours as it was warmer and Susan was dancing for a few hours to keep warm, I also gave her my Columbia outdry jacket which kept her warm. After getting us all back to shore, we loaded up a jeep with the 2 bikes, stopped in a garage for a coffee, I knocked back a few like shots of tequila. They left us back at the next transition point, we were all devastated to be out of the race but we were focused to get changed and continue the adventure. The race director Julie met us and said we could continue on with the trek/abseiling section and then onto the caving. We would have to miss the long bike section but we were hopeful that they would retrieve the bikes at some point.
Here, I had a quick cold outdoor shower as there was accommodation at the back of the open transition area. I fuelled up like I was going out to war and off we set for the next stage in the blistering heat. It started off with a 15km trek, a lot of which was along the road until we hit the hills. Normally I would have liked to jog the flat and downhill but this was not the team plan and Frank started to feel very sick and vomiting. He slowed up and took a few breaks. This was tough on him but also on the team as we were all feeling great and wanted to push on but this is yet again one of the mental challenges of adventure racing, you are only as fast as the slowest person and you must do all you can to pull each other through the challenging moments as things do get better. We ended up taking the long route up to the abseiling area which didn’t help the situation. I took Frank’s bag and tried to encourage him to just keep moving. It was an uphill trek, the sweat was pumping, as was my adrenaline. I got into a nice rhythm with my bag on my back and Frank’s 33 litre Osprey bag tied on the front. The weight didn’t bother me, I just wanted to get everyone to the top so we could do the rope section. We got there! Finally, we arrived at the top and they said,” who’s going first? “ I jumped at the opportunity and within seconds had the harness on and fired the body over the edge to free rope down a 150 feet open gorge. I pulled my arm out as far as possible to release the rope so I could ascend fast and get some adrenaline. It was not like the bungee jump I did a few years ago in Queenstown, NZ but it was fun!
By the time we all got down, the climbing guides had called Julie to inform her of Frank’s state and she drove by. At this point, the motivation was low as he was feeling bad and not sure he could continue. I felt sorry for him but also felt like firing a few tablets into him and telling him to just move his ass. But, I restrained myself and went with the flow, we were all moving and lucky to still be on the course. Francky and Susan were also feeling strong at this point so we all decided that we wanted to do the caving section which was a one hour walk and then 10km of swimming through caves.
We took off for the section, Frank got a new lease of energy and was not leading the pack and we were all more than happy to let him out in front to keep him motivated and moving forward. Once we reached the water, we blew up our lylo floats, put on out PFD’s and neoprene claw gloves and off we went. The others were all wearing a long top and bottoms but I decided to go in my sports bra to keep my clothes dry for after. It took a few minutes to figure out how to balance on the inflatable bed and swim down with the current and light rapids. It was certainly not very attractive but we spread out our legs and arms over it for balance and used our arms to swim forward. This section was just spectacular, we passed through lots of underground caves where there were bats, monkeys and I’m sure lots of snakes in the water which we decided not to talk about. At one point, we were walking on loose rocks to get to the next rapid and Susan told me she couldn’t see as she lost a contact lens. I couldn’t help but to bust out laughing, one of those awkward moments where you shouldn’t laugh but you just can’t hold it in. I told her to look out of the other eye and she said in a serious and nervous voice, I can’t because there are two flies in it, will you take them out? I went into hysterics laughing, possibly due to a mix of emotions and tiredness. I managed to get the two flies out and told her to follow me with her one eye and I’d shout if there was a wall on her left side. I don’t think I stopped laughing for the entire 10km and she even ended up laughing too.
Susan is an inspirational lady, she’s 48 years old and used to be a competitive triathlete before falling in love with exhibition racing. For Susan, it’s all about exploring and not so much the competition but all the same, she is extremely strong both physically and mentally and has a consistent pace and fantastic attitude. It’s clear that she’s a high achiever in both work and play and a true perfectionist. She is for me a typical ‘Swiss’, very punctual, loyal and does everything by the book. I found her hugely entertaining and I think after a few days she also enjoyed my sarcastic Irish sense of humour and we had a great bond. From my experience in endurance racing, females are perhaps not the strongest or fastest at the start but the most consistent and seem to hold things together more than the lads, so, overall I like the 2 females, 2 males mix.
We finally found the exit to the caving section at dusk after doing a ‘hairy’ crossing across the rapids. I linked onto Susan and we did a side step over so our legs wouldn’t be swept from under us. Julie had informed our navigator Francky where we would meet her so we could be collected and hopefully re-join the next section if our bikes were retrieved or we could find two more bikes. We walked for possibly 2 hours or more and could not find the meeting point, it just was not clear. Now whether that was Francky’s fault for not understanding the location or there was a communication issue, I’m not sure. We decided to stop and sit down as it was pointless going around in circles in a big forested area that seemed to be an island. We sat down by the water, Frank managed to light a fire, yes this boy seems to like fires, and all we were missing was the marshmallows and guitar. We all lay down on our inflatable beds and once again gazed up at the stars reflecting on life and how we were really getting value for money with all these side adventures. As we had no phone to contact Julia, she said to signal her from the brick and the only corresponding option was yet again ‘evacuation’. They did not seem to realise we could not send messages from this device. After a couple of hours, we got a spin back to the next transition where we were told the bikes had been retrieved. It apparently took 7 men, ropes and some machinery to get the boat and bikes out of the water. It cost 200 dollars which is a small price to pay considering the value of the items. We could not believe it; the bikes were perfect and Susan even got her bag back with her IPhone and all the other gear. It was explained to us that we could not continue until the first team arrived at this transition so we showered and checked into a room. It was only the second night without sleep so we had not hit sleep deprivation state but we didn’t say no to the 6 hours sleep. I set an alarm for 6am to get us all up. I woke up just before the alarm as I always do and woke everyone. Frank said I belong in the army and he was right, I possibly would enjoy that lifestyle. We got up, got ready, ate a massive breakfast but still no sight of the first team. Apparently, this bike stage was taking a lot longer than expected. We proceeded to eat for the day, I got massages from Susan and Frank and a lady even brought a massage table and plug in massage machine, I felt super relaxed and certainly not like I was in the middle of race but there was no choice, we had to go with the flow and I was making the best of the moment. Our team communicated in French, they all speak English but Francky’s first language is French, Frank’s and Susan’s is German but they speak fluent French. I got some German lessons from Susan and I’m now motivated to be able to speak German by next year. ‘Ich werde Deutsch lernen in diesem jahr’. Being able to communicate in more languages opens up even more doors to adventure, culture and travel.
After hours of waiting, the first team arrived, Naturex. This French team is one of the top teams in the adventure exhibition racing scene. It’s made up of the leader Sebastain who is an amazing athlete with a very cool head, Romu, a hot tarzan and all rounder from Marseille, Coloco who never stopped and when you saw his feet at the end, you knew what he suffered and then there was Sonia who I really admired throughout the race. When I saw her are the kit check, I wondered how she would get on. She’s a very petite French lady that on first impression you would not put her as an adventure racer. It goes to show, you should never judge a book by the cover, she was an animal and still so delicate in her approach. She kept in behind Seb their team leader and that seemed to be her focus which was no easy task. So, we all set off together from the transition for what we had thought would be a 6 hour trek/jog with a bit of jungle. Little did we know, we would arrive at the next transition some 26 hours later. It was just dark when we set off and we got to the first CP fairly handy, spirits were high and we were all enjoying each other’s company and getting to know each other as we fast walked and shuffled along. This section was not on the official map and it was a GPS map that we were given, however we did not have a GPS so we were relying on the co-ordinates to pin point the CP’s. This trail suddenly started to get very wet and then we hit a water crossing. Within seconds we were up to our waist waddling through. I thought it was kind of fun and excited to get really off the track and see what the jungle would be like at night. There was a bit of a sing song, ‘Welcome to the jungle’ and we were moving along at a nice steady pace. The jungle was super wet and we were continually jumping over branches, getting whacked by wild plants and sharp edged branches. I was wondering to myself, how many snakes and other unfamiliar species were beside me and how many did I step on, fall on, wake up and piss off. I quickly stopped thinking about that and decided not to discuss the topic, as the expression goes, where the mind goes, energy flows and in these situations, it’s best to be positive and focus on the winning outcome.
We were in the jungle, head lights on and in full cover. The mosquitos were in force. I had already gotten attacked in the previous weeks and they seemed to just love the Irish blood as did all the other bugs. There were very few tracks to follow and we were in and out of swamps, crossing over fallen trees, trying not to grasp onto the spikey barks. There were lots of yelps of shit, merde, scheisse, as someone fell over head first, grabbed onto something to send electric pulses through their battered body or very often getting a belt of a branch in the face. It was fun for the first couple of hours but the jungle novelty wore off and the navigators were now bringing us on a circuit where we were retracing our steps. They could not understand why the CP was not easier to find or in the location as indicated on the map. After a few hours of slogging through the jungle, both teams decided to get back out of the jungle and retrace to the entrance as maybe there was a clear path we missed. They had told us we did not need a machete and we had explored all options in this area. After retracing our steps out to a dry path, Naturex decided they would continue the path and perhaps there would be another route choice. We decided it was good to stick together and we had nothing to lose so followed them. They started running and the lads continued to fast walk. I broke into a little jog/shuffle and they followed. We were now both teams side by side shuffling along for a couple of kilometres but it was just a waste of time and took us in the wrong direction. Romu, AKA tarzan from Marseille continued on a bit and said he saw a crossroads in the distance but he was just illuminating and it took a while for his team mates to convince him to come back. So, we all jogged back once again to the trail head point and Naturex decided to explore another route that looked wild and covered in deep forest. Francky our navigator was determined to go back into the jungle and insisted that we just needed to go further, that according to the maps we were in the right area. So, off we went and back into the jungle. This time, we went deeper in, knocking down branches, squeezing though narrow gaps to explore, to make our own trails until it was not longer possible. At this point, I was in head mosquito gear and I was so thankful I had it on. The little feicers were biting me through my Columbia top and skins leggings. I held off going to the toilet for about 6 hours to avoid exposure but just couldn’t hold any longer. It resulted in a massacre and they attacked my white ass. Well on a plus, my ass was red hot for days! Although these conditions were certainly not very comfortable and at this point the conversations were limited as our full concentration was focused on battling through this jungle, all the same nobody ever complained and our team atmosphere was good. After hours of slogging up and down and in circles in this battle field, we heard more voices and traced them. It was our buddies from Naturex and another French team, AGDE. They had also spent the night hopelessly trying to find this checkpoint. We all decided to stay together, it was actually fun to see how their team dynamic and atmosphere was in such a situation and nice to chat to other people. AGDE team were very strong too and it was great to see that none of us 4 ladies out there were in any way physically or mentally behind the lads, we were all equal. Up down, over and back, we retraced all steps and the check point was just not where the map showed. As I mentioned earlier this part of the map was handmade GPS co-ordinates given by the organiser. Little did we know, they had miscalculated the distances and the map was incorrect. At one point, we all stopped, ate our food and discussed the best option. This was one of my highlights of the event. Here we were, 3 teams in the middle of the jungle after battling to this point, getting eaten alive by bugs and we just now wanted to get out of here. We all had a laugh at the situation and decided to just go in the direction of the exit toward the following CP.
This meant we had to whack down branches and slide though the gaps to get through. It was an effort to not keep falling or to touch the prickly trees and avoid a branch slapping you in the face. This went on for a couple of hours and we finally made it out. We were now gone about 20 hours. We had thought this section would last 6 hours so most of us were low on food and out of water. My camelback leaked at the start so I just had the two 500ml bottles for entire section. I’m really not a fan of doing events with a camelback and now it’s confirmed. Our feet were submerged in muddy water for what seemed like an eternity and we still had over 20km to go. This was not ideal and peoples feet started to really suffer from webbed feet and blisters which were already getting infected. Luckily, I don’t usually suffer too much with my feet. I prepare them well in the weeks before and during the event, I clean them with baby wipes and change socks as much as possible. It’s also very important to get trail runners that suit your feet and that give you room when your feet swell. I’m very grateful to be supported by Columbia and use their Montrail Colorado trail shoe, it suits me as it has a wide toe cage and it’s ideal if there is a mixture of hard trail and wet terrain.
So, we wasted 24 hours in the jungle and never even got the check point. Most of the other teams did not even attempt to go into the jungle and so were already on ahead. In face the organiser had seen us on the tracker and that we were going round in circles so somehow communicated to the other teams not to do this section, this was not very fair but it was not our choice.
According to the maps, we were less than a kilometre to this next check point. It was about 11am and we were now on a very muddy dirt track, with the sun belting down on our worn out filthy bodies. As it was raining in Belize a lot over the previous weeks, it was like doing a Run a Muck challenge but much longer a lot more extreme.
Finally, we found the check point, not at all in the right spot but it was just a pleasure to see that orange material. We then continued on and following the map directions, we all took a right turn. After 4km, we crossed a river and a team were on their way back and just disgusted that they had spent 2 hours battling though bushes and said there was just no way through.
Were the maps once again incorrect? We were now 4 teams all stuck and taking the opportunity to cool down in the river and wash ourselves. After a quick test seeing if it was possible to get through this forest, all teams decided that it was best to retrace our steps and take the highway back. This was a restricted area but the organisers now communicated with people at the previous transition that it was an option. This added on a lot of kilometres and it was certainly no fun on the busy highway. At this point we were the fastest and freshest team, obviously as we missed out on that big biking section they all completed 2 days earlier. We passed by a hut which was a restaurant and we went in. We needed food and drink. I downed two big glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice and we all ordered steak, rice and black beans. It was ready in minutes and it was like a piece of heaven. All other teams passing did exactly the same. One of the main reasons I love endurance events is that it really retrains the brain not to take things for granted and appreciate the little things, also to live in the moment and experience the highs and lows with your teammates while exploring beautiful natural surroundings. We continued plodding along for another 15km, passing out 2 more teams until we arrived at dusk at a river crossing. Here we were crossed by Canadian canoes and it was onto the bike. There was no shelter so we all just whipped off, did a bit of a cleaning job and on with the bike gear. Doing these events, you really can’t be precious about the body, there is no time to waste and nobody gives a shit, they are too busy trying to patch up their own bodily parts.
We were all delighted to get on the bike, feeling motivated and fresh. This night section was a 70km mountain bike with 4 check points. We were flying it and there was lots of sing songs. Well to be honest, I was the only one singing throughout the event, I think they were shy and were not of the same standard”,) I sang everything from the Green and Red of Mayo, any Eurovision tune I knew a few words to and I even got into the Christmas carols, that was before I started creating my own hits! It might have been painful but it kept us all awake and they are still talking to me. After a couple of hours there were a few river crossings where we were in over waist deep carrying the bikes overhead, it was really fun and I enjoyed the challenge of keeping stable while walking over the rocks with my bike shoes. A few more hours on and there were a couple of technical bits. This was the first time, I felt tired and my eyes started closing when we were on the down hills. I found it hard to stay on the bike going over the technical rocky parts and was getting mad at myself for not being able to cycle without falling off to the side. I asked the lads if they had some caffeine, Frank gave me some toffee sweets that he said had caffeine in them. I’m not sure if they did but that topped with all the sugary sweets I had were in my stomach within minutes. It was like giving me drugs, I was wired and like some mad joke left out of the nut house. I was powering up the hills singing away, waiting for the others to arrive, powering on again and repeating this until we got back to the next transition. It was now about 2am in the morning and our next task was to jump back into a canoe and do a small orientation task in a cave to pick up some check points. It was interesting for Francky and Susan to get back into a canoe after their adventure 2 days previous.
We all joked about it and said we promised to return with the boat and if we wanted to get wet, we’d just swim beside it. This section was not challenging but it was absolutely stunning as we paddled along the smooth water surface under the moonlight until we entered into the dramatic caves. We didn’t even talk, just soaked in the peaceful atmosphere and all that could be heard was the gentle noise of the paddles as they glided through the water. Off the water and it was back to the bike. Here we were due to bike to do the packrat section and paddle into San Ignacio, which I was really looking forward to but Julie the organiser told us to cycle back to the finish line. It was really disappointing but this was not a surprise! Although during the event, a lot of people were not impressed by the director Julie, the organisation, the poor mapping, the atmosphere and the overall setup, and yes it was all a bit chaotic, but I actually had a lot of admiration for Julie. It takes a serious amount of courage, motivation and passion to even decide to attempt to organise an event of this scale and in a country that was not exactly on her back-door step. Thanks to Julie and her team, we had the opportunity so discover some of the most spectacular off the beaten track parts of Belize and most importantly the event brought together 12 top class teams of likeminded people to all share this experience together.
This final section was a straight 65km cycle back to our hotel, the Cahal Pech Village resort which was the finish line to this edition of the Maya Mountain Challenge. We all packed up on food and I took a couple more of those toffee caffeine sweets from Frank and off I was once again like a wild woman. I’m not sure if I was in overdrive from exhaustion or it was the caffeine or perhaps a mixture. The rest the team seemed to be sleepy and I’d say thought I had completely lost the plot. I was once again catapulting up the hills, waiting for them to come up and getting into race position down the hills. I just love night riding, it’s a different sensation with the head lights and all the night noises. I keep singing away and for some reason I could get that song, ‘the heat of summer sunshine’ out of my head and it was painful as I had to make up the rest of the words! Francky, Frank and Susan were in leggings, long sleeve tops and jackets, I was in shorts and a t-shirt, I guess us Irish are just hot stuff”,)
I spent a lot of the cycle chatting to Francky as it was obvious he was sleepy with his lack of talking. Francky is 42 years old and is the person that created the Powerbar Swiss explorers team 5 years ago. He’s an all-rounder and consistently experienced and skilled across all disciplines. It was an absolute pleasure to race with Francky, he’s always positive, calm, smiling and telling jokes and on top of this, he is a true gentleman!
I was the only one that knew this route as I had done it a few times before they arrived on my pre-race adventure. We arrived at the suburbs of San Ignacio and I knew the way to go was through San Elena and up the hill but I was a sign for San Ignacio and for some reason decided this must be a more direct way. It was 5am and nobody wanted to think so the others naturally followed me and were then cursing me as it took us on a ring road around the town and added in a couple of extra fun hills. They kept saying, ‘Rachel, you just don’t want to finish, do you?’ The last hill up to the finish line is pretty much vertical and we all went up at our own pace and joined at the top. As a team, we all crossed the finish line together and congratulated each other for our achievement of keeping together and sticking with it to the end. It was very disappointing that there was not even one person there from the race organisation there to welcome us. This was not surprising as the atmosphere of this event from the start was not the most welcoming. All the same, we were delighted with ourselves and the bond we had at this point was unbreakable and for me these friendships make will last a lifetime.
After a couple of hours’ sleep, we were all up to refuel and go to the finish line to greet and congratulate all the other teams as they crossed the line
Looking at the shattered bodies of the others and the look of pure joy and relief to have arrived at the finish line made me feel in some ways envious. My body was perfect, I didn’t hit any physical or mental limits and didn’t get to test that side of myself on this occasion. With the lads I race with in Ireland, I’m fairly often touching red and it’s interesting to deal with this and overcome the struggle although I might not be thinking that on the moment of madness! However, during this event, I learned how to go with the flow, really enjoy the moment and I was happy with how I was able to deal with and take control of certain situations. This event was an amazing experience and I feel so privileged to have shared it with such top class team mates.
We spent the day chatting with all the other teams, sharing stories and eating as much food as possible. That night, there was a celebratory meal where they announced the winners and we all had a few drinks and shared more of the stories and future adventures we would like to experience. An experienced American team called Bones won the event, their navigation seemed to be really good, some suggested they had a GPS or used a phone but either way they are a super team and deserved the win. I got chatting to them a bit after and they seemed really cool and had lots of stories and past adventure experiences. I hope our paths cross again so I can get to know them better! Naturex came second and ADGE came third after a debate with the organiser and referee.
In all, the Maya Mountain Challenge was a fantastic event and topped of my four week holiday nicely. I’m now ready to take on the next adventure race and experience and explore more countries..