John Moorhouse – Ultra marathon man

John Moorhouse, a well respected implantologist in Lymm who qualified in 1978, has climbed Everest, skied to both North and South Pole and has of late been in search of fresh challenges, as a result of which he has successfully completed both the Marathon Des Sables in the Sahara and the Jungle Marathon in The Amazon. This is his story of the Amazonian Marathon in his own words.

I started trail running in Malawi, Africa in 1987 and by 1996, back in England, had progressed to formal 10K and half marathon races. When the sad realisation dawned that PBs were gradually slipping away, I turned to ever longer runs and the world of ultra running. A run has to be over 50K to qualify as an ultra and there are two main disciplines – single stages or multi day self sufficient events. From 2003 I had been doing longer and harder fell runs and met people talking about the Marathon des Sables.

This is a six day, 155 mile race across the Sahara in Morocco taking in extremely difficult terrain comprising dunes and mountains, whose passes can be 1800 ft high and which has been described as the toughest foot race in the world. In 2006, while sitting in our tent skiing to the North Pole, my good friend Guy Munnoch and I resolved to do the MdS in 2008. It takes about 2 years to be accepted for entry, which gave us plenty of time to prepare.

Training involved entering 45 and 50 mile ultras and running with increasingly heavier packs up to the 12-15kg we would be carrying. The races were usually along towpaths or rivers and were sometimes back to back on a weekend. Forest Gump never had it so good. 28 March 2008 saw us at the start of the MdS having whittled down our packs to a respectable 12 kg. This contained all our food, cooking materials, sleeping bag and clothes for the week. We were provided with water, a mat and a tent cover for 8 people.

We were fit, but nothing can prepare you for the heat – 51 degrees at midday – or the effort of forcing yourself up steep dunes of fine sand. Every day was tough and saw each runner collapse into the welcome shade of the tent at the finish before having to get on with essential cleaning, cooking and re-fuelling for the next days onslaught. The long day (Day 4) was 51 miles and the reward of doing it in under 18hrs was a good nights sleep and a day off. There was a sizeable British contingent in the 1000 or so runners and we shared a tent with some squaddies who taught me several new words as we all repaired and re-taped broken feet.

The fastest Brit to have completed MdS is James Cracknell, who I had the pleasure of meeting in 2009 at the South Pole with his buddy Ben Fogle. The evening craic, under a star filled night sky, more than made up for the day’s pain and there was some regret when it was over, mixed with not inconsiderable relief, when we hit the finish line.

In my yearning for a new ultra challenge, I found myself 6 months later on a paddle boat heading down the Amazon to the start of the Jungle Marathon. This had the same format as the MdS except there was no tent or mat – I had instead to carry my own hammock. They provided only hot and “cold” water and basic medical support. The next week was to make the MdS look like a family outing to the beach! The first 4 days were through dense jungle and swamps, clambering up and down steep muddy slopes with occasional stretches where it was possible to run. The humidity was close to 100% and it was impossible to cool down if you overexerted yourself. This caused severe problems for some runners, one of whom was ferried off up the river in a coma. If that was not enough, you could be forgiven for thinking that everything was out to get you.

Even the plants were razor sharp or had stinging barbs so we had to run with gloves on. The undergrowth was teeming with ants and leaf filled depressions on the track were the favoured home for a variety of large spiders and snakes. On top of that, this area held the greatest concentration
of Jaguars in Brazil, several of which were seen by runners during the race.

The start of the long day saw a 200m river crossing with pack, which was not so much trouble as you were soaking wet after only a few paces. What made me swim faster were the presence of piranha in the water and caiman (South American crocodiles) basking on the river banks. The swamps on this day were the deepest yet and I was constantly on the alert for Anaconda. After 30 or so miles the deep jungle is left behind, but so was the light and it was off into the forest with the overwhelming noise of insects and howler monkeys screeching to keep you on your toes.

The next morning the camp was full of runners operating on their feet to cut into deep blisters and patch raw surfaces. It is an unwritten rule not to cry out and I will never forget the pain of screaming in agony in silence. The final days are run on the beach next to the river, which is so wideit could be a sea – the sand yet again providing an unwelcome abrasive to our tortured feet.

This time I was so glad to finish and am not immediately looking for another multi day event. Since then I have been concentrating on longer distance ultras culminating in the 100 mile UTLD around the Lake district and, last year, the world famous Ultra Trail of Mont Blanc, UTMB, 100 miles and 9,500m of ascent around the Mont Blanc massif.

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