Forty miles into the Brazil 135, I was sitting on the side of the trail, in the dark, vomiting water and banana into a messy pile between my feet. The race had barely started and I was already tapping out.
That was how my race ended in 2015.
When Chris Roman asked me to return with him in 2017, and to join him on the entire 350 mile length of the Caminho da Fe, including the brutal BR 135 somewhere in the middle of the run, I pretty much had to go.
Leaving behind single digit temperatures in the Utah mountains, Jo and I boarded a plane for Sao Paulo, Brazil. I had no idea what we were in for, but I was pretty sure it'd make for a good story no matter how it turned out. After all, it's ALL about the story.
Landing in Sao Paulo
The planning portion was simple, because I had nothing to do with it. This would be the second CDF trek for Chris, so he understood the logistics and he laid out the entire run. Meanwhile, I blissfully ignored all the details until we had actually landed in Brazil. Then curiosity finally forced me to ask.
The run would begin in Sao Carlos and we'd cover the first 130 miles in stages, taking three days to cover the distance, ending up in Sao Joao da Boa Vista, where the Brazil 135 would start. If things went according to plan, we'd have a rest day, collect our race packets, attend medical check in, then start the race the following day. We'd then run the entire BR 135, then knock out the final 80 miles right after finishing the race.
Seems simple enough!
Chris and I were joined by my wife, and professional Crew Chief, Jo, and we had recruited a local driver/interpreter/selfie taker, Pedro Costa, to keep us out of trouble.
We decided early on that our crew would meet us every 5k to resupply us, feed us, and make sure we were still alive. This is a routine that would last the entire run.
The Sign That Marks the Start of Our CDF Journey
We slept in the first of many shady places the night before the run started. As our run progressed, our accommodations would become more and more frightening along the way, forcing us to burn time searching for places to stay that seemed less stabby.
On January 8th, at 6:00 AM, Chris and I gathered at the starting point of the Caminho da Fe, found the first yellow arrow, and headed out for our first long day of running.
Ready to Go
We ran through the streets of Sao Carlos for a few miles before the yellow arrows led us away from town and out into the surrounding farm country along rolling dirt roads.
Chris and I were both keenly aware of the magnitude of what we were attempting, but we didn't discuss it. Instead, we focused on small talk and kept the deeper commentary to ourselves for now.
The early miles felt great and went by effortlessly. We were mindful of maintaining a responsible pace and we were walking the ascents early on.
After a few hours, the sky cleared, giving way to a beautiful shade of blue, only interrupted by a glaring sun. The temperature was rising rapidly, which is always a significant problem for me. I can perform well in a lot of conditions, but heat and humidity are crippling to me.
By the first marathon mark, I was struggling with the heat pretty badly, so we slowed our pace. My body was already coated in salt and I was hyper focused on hydration and electrolyte replacement. I put myself on a strict regimen of Hammer Nutrition Endurolytes and Fizz tabs, constantly monitoring my body for the right balance. The electrolyte program was working, but I was struggling to get enough cold water into my system.
Chris, living in Florida, is far better acclimated for the heat and he showed incredible patience with me as I began to wilt. He slowed when I needed it, allowed for longer crew stops, and provided me enough positive reinforcement to fill an entire self help book.
Shade and a Hat Filled With Ice...Sorta Helped.
By the 50k mark, I had began to realize what a ridiculous idea this whole thing was. Who does this stuff? Seriously?! It's summer in Brazil! I could literally throw a rock to the equator! Assuming I could pick up a rock that wouldn't scorch my hands, which isn't even remotely likely.
It's Like....BRAZIL HOT Outside!!!
At 65k, we rolled into the village of Porto Ferreira, I found a patch of grass, some shade and I took full advantage of it.
Every Brazilian village is functionally identical. Somewhere near the exact center of the village, you'll find a Catholic church. Adjacent to that church, you'll find a square, which usually looks exactly like all the others. The village will have two main streets that will run parallel to each other, passing by the church and square. As near as I can tell, a few hundred years ago, somebody designed a village, everybody liked it, and now they're all the same. It makes it easy for getting around, but it also makes it impossible to remember one village from another.
As would become the daily routine, the skies began to cloud up late in the afternoon and the monsoon would build and dump obscene quantities of rain on us. These storms would last from 20 minutes to 4 hours, depending on how much the rain gods wanted to screw with us.
Coming Into Santa Rita Do Passa Quatro
Day one ended in Santa Rita Do Passa Quatro, 53 miles into the Caminho da Fe. We were exhausted, sun burned and starving.
We found a cafe, some food, beer and comraderie, then headed to our Pousada (hotel/hostel).
We stayed at the Hotel Viajante, which loosely translates to "Hotel of iminent disease and probably death". Something like that anyway.
Ready for Day TWO!
We flirted with the idea of starting earlier in the morning to avoid some of the heat of the day, but we relented in favor of sleep. So on day two, we started at 6:00 AM and hoped for more favorable weather.
We didn't get it.
Day two was a less optimistic, and more solemn beginning. Chris knew I was going to have another day of struggle, which meant he was going to be a captive audience to my incessant whining about the heat.
The deeper we got into the Caminho, the hillier it became. We were heading into the mountains, which is the home of the Brazil 135, and all the really hard miles were still well in front of us.
This would prove to be my worst day on the trail. Chris was pulling away from me on the climbs, which is where I should naturally be stronger than him. I was catching him on the flats and downhills, but he may have been helping me with that.
We were hoping to bag 45 miles today so we could have a relatively easy day on our last section coming into Sao Joao Da Boa Vista, which is where the race would start. We were hoping for a short day and plenty of rest before tackling the BR 135, so today needed to come together to allow that to happen.
I wasn't making it easy for us to hit our goal.
After an unnecessarily long day, we finally reached Itobi and secured rooms in the only Pousada in town. This one definitely had that stabby vibe, but the options were limited, so we crossed our fingers and hoped the stabby people would find somebody else to stab.
We'd hit 100 miles over the first two days and only needed a modest 50k before taking a day to rest and prepare for the 135. As I went to sleep, I was feeling optimistic. Cautiously...optimistic.
Knowing we had a short day ahead, we began our run in a better mood and we fell into lighthearted conversation as we made our way out of town. I was looking forward to our rest day, but I was also beginning to think about the daunting miles that we still had to cover as we entered the mountains. I was no stranger to the 135 and it's brutal course, and I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little concerned.
Maybe even scared.
Not scared for my health or safety, but scared to fail another attempt to tame this course. Only time would tell...
This might be a good time to talk about dogs.
Brazil has an enormous population of dogs. Everybody has a few in their home. Every village has a large welcoming committee of pups that don't really belong to anybody, and then there are the random trail dogs that must live off the corpses of runners that stumble at the wrong time on the Caminho.
Early on in the run, I remarked that I would be shocked if we weren't attacked by ferral dogs at least once, if not more, during this trip.
Village dogs are cool. They mostly lay around in the town square, just chilling. But the trail dogs are unpredictable and every time I saw one skulking around in the distance, I was immediately on the hunt for a hefty stick.
While we did have a lot of aggresive encounters, I'm pleased to say that we never did get bit. Possibly thanks to learning how dogs hated to get a shocking blast of water to the eye from my handheld bottle.
My defense system adapted to it's surroundings by day three.
Day three barely reached 100 degrees, but I only know this because the crew told us. It still felt obscenely hot outside. I stuck to my fueling and hydration ritual, while refining it along the way, and I was managing a rudementary form of survival.
Day three took us though four villages, where the crew stocked up on supplies. Chris and I motored through them all unless they happened to fall on our 5k mark where we'd stop for fuel and refreshment.
By day three, the novelty had worn off when it came to villages. Unless it's a village where we plan to stop. I was still enamored by THOSE villages.
Nearing the end of the day, I was sorta getting tired of cows, sugar cane, banana plantations and cows. Jo on the other hand had begun to amass a very respectable photo album of cows. Every time we rolled up on her, she was standing in a field snapping pictures of a particularly photogenic cow. Kinda weird.
We ended day three as we rolled into Sao Joao Boa da Vista. Sore feet, sun burned bodies and bellies aching for a real meal and copious quantities of beer.
The following day was a rest day, but it wasn't very restful. We tried to sleep in, but our aching bodies needed to be moving around so we were up early.
We went to the race start to pick our race packets and perform the BR 135 rigamarole. It's definitely the most complicated packet pickup I've ever been a part of. They have the process broken into multiple steps requiring a signature from each "station" before you can move on to the next. The whole thing takes about an hour.
Confirming My Ideal Fighting Weight
The Team! Pedro, Chris, Me and Jo
After days of running in relative solitude, it felt awkward lining up with so many other runners. Part of me was happy for the company, but part of me felt like all these strangers were imposing on OUR run. In the end, I knew it wouldn't matter either way, because it wouldn't take long for the field to become pretty fractured and we'd have no company and no intruders.
Ready to Roll!
The race started and we were heading out of town and into the mountains. I was in familiar territory now, as I had run this course, and vomited on quite a bit of it back in 2015. I knew what to expect and I knew it was going to be brutal.
The Brazil 135 is deliberately staged in the toughest section of the Caminho da Fe. It's all mountainous and designed to bring a runner to his knees.
Giant Lizard, or Small Dinosaur?
The first several miles are mostly uphill, which meant a lot of walking. Ultra runners like to call it "Power Hiking" because it sounds more badass, but we were definitely just walking.
After a leg crushing climb, we entered a section of single track, lovingly referred to as the "jungle section". This is probably my favorite part of the entire race course, but unfortunately, it doesn't last very long. After a couple of kilometers, we were back on the rutted jeep roads.
Like a lot of maniacal Race Directors, Mario Lacerda found an opportunity to add some unnecessary difficulty to the race by diverting us off the Caminho so we could do an out and back section that takes us to the highest point in the Mantiqueira Mountains. It's a 5k run UP, then right back down again to rejoin the Caminho.
Chis and I had been anticipating this section and we knew what to expect. It was going to be a hands-on-knees grunt to the top.
At this point in the race, I was feeling better than I had at any other point in the run. The Pico do Gaviao climb could probably snap me out of that.
Getting Ready to Ascend
Chris and I made it to the top, passing a lot of runners along the way. Despite the number of miles on our legs, we were moving a lot better than most of the other runners.
The descent is so steep, we actually walked quite a bit if it, hoping to avoid blowing out our quads. Despite the amount of walking, we never got passed on the way back down.
The weather had turned in our favor and we had heavy cloud cover and much cooler temperatures. It was an absolute blessing for me, because the early days of our run had been so brutally hot and had taken a lot out of me. But I also knew we'd probably get hammered with a monsoon at some point during the day.
We were sticking with our 5k crew schedule, meeting Pedro and Jo every few miles to top off our water, get nutrition and provide them with updates on how we felt. It became such a predictable routine, that we were becoming experts on exactly how far a 5k felt on tired legs and a busted up body.
Coming into the Village of Tagua
By the 50 mile mark, the field was broken up and we stopped seeing other runners. Even from the top of large climbs, when we had a huge field of view, we couldn't see anybody. We were on our own again. And I was OK with that.
Somewhere before sunset, I noticed we had completed 200 miles of our 350 mile journey. I casually mentioned it to Chris, but I think all I did was remind both of us how far we still had remaining. I tried to shake those thoughts out of my mind and stay focused on finishing the race.
As predicted, we did get hit with a powerful monsoon that drove us into the crew vehicle while we waited it out. Stopping, while being wet and cold, proved to be a real problem when it was time to get going again. Our bodies had locked up and our legs were unresponsive. After a few miles of moving, things began to loosen up and we were moving along at a pretty good pace again.
I had been looking forward to nightfall, thinking the cooler temperatures and lack of scenic distractions would propel us down the course a little faster.
In reality, we both began to really struggle during the night. We were moving pretty slowly and we'd pretty much stopped talking unless it was to bitch about something. Our feet were pretty battered, our legs were sore and I was REALLY struggling with chafing.
For me, the fun was over.
An hour before sunrise, Chris and I were walking like zombies and we'd lost contact with each other. I knew Chris was behind me somewhere because I was catching glimpses of his headlamp, but we weren't staying close like we had in the earlier miles.
My body was overwhelmed with exhaustion and I started to nod off while I was still on my feet. I was struggling to keep my eyes open, but even when they were wide open, my vision would blur and my head would nod before catching myself as I literally fell asleep on my feet.
When we reached the crew car, I waited for Chris and told him I needed to sleep for 10 or 15 minutes because I was falling asleep. He said he was suffering from the same thing and he loved the idea of a quick nap. We crawled into the front seats and instantly fell asleep.
45 minutes later, I snapped out of my sleep, worried about the time we lost, and got ready to head out.
Nobody had passed us while we were sleeping.
I started to wonder if we were in last place...
This is a Brazilian Cow
The towns and villages became highlights along the course again. As beautiful as the Caminho da Fe is, the scenery still got tiring. The villages broke things up and gave us something to look forward to. They became benchmarks in my mind.
I Made Chris Stop so I Could Pet This Dog
We hit the 100 mile mark in about 30 hours, which we were both pleased with, considering the tough terrain and the bonus miles on our legs. For the first time since we started, I began to have faith in my ability to finish the 135.
The second day was much like the first, as far as the weather went. It was cooler, cloudy and promising a torrential downpour before the day was over. I'll take that over 105 degrees, any day!
As we got deeper into the mountains, it became more remote and more rural. The people that live in these areas are fully self sustaining, raising their own food and selling milk and butter for what little money they need. It was like stepping back in time. It was peaceful.
Pedro Sourcing Our Water
Late into the second day, the hills seemed to come at us like a steady stream of waves. They became more frequent, steeper and much longer. The descents provided no reprieve because they were too steep to run, even at a walking pace, they were crushing our legs.
Chris and I were hoping for a 40 hour finish because this would allow us to get 5 or 6 solid hours of sleep before having to get back out on the trail for the final 80+ miles of the Caminho. A 40 hour finish time at the BR 135 is actually a very good time, and it started to become apparent that we weren't going to hit it.
And it rained! This time we were stuck in the rain with nowhere to take cover. Our sun burned bodies were sensitive to the sudden cold and we began to shiver, despite the 75 degree temperature. The worst part of the storm passed after about 20 minutes, but a relentless drizzle stuck around for a couple more hours.
As the sun began to set on our second night of the 135, we were confronted with some of the longest climbs on the course. Chris continued to reassure me that we had the worst of the climbs behind us, then we'd hit the base of another monster climb.
I began to question the accuracy of his recollection of exact course details.
As night fell, and we donned our headlamps, we were surrounded by a dense fog that made the headlamps almost useless. We couldn't see the shoulder of the Caminho and we were weaving all over the course trying to stay on track. Hunting for yellow arrows became almost impossible unless it was within 4 or 5 feet of us. The fog would haunt us the entire way.
Coming into Estiva was a major milestone for us because it meant we had less than 40k to go. After all the miles we'd covered, 40k seemed like a little bit of nothing. The end was within reach, so our moods turned for the better and we had some renewed energy.
But it didn't last long.
Heading Back Into the Mountains
Our energy faded quickly, but we were hyper focused on wrapping up the remaining miles so we could crawl into a bed somewhere and finally get some sleep. We were moving slowly, but we were moving.
For me, the hallucinations started to kick it into overdrive. Nothing seemed real and I was too tired to combat the unreality that surrounded me.
Once again, Chris and I became separated. I could hear him behind me. His feet were hurting terribly and every few minutes he'd let a few swear words fly from his mouth.
At the base of the final climb, we stopped at the crew vehicle and prepared for the ascent. Chris wanted us to stay together the rest of the way because he recognized we were too mentally depleted to try this alone and he was afraid one of us would get hopelessly lost in the mountains. So we stayed together.
After an eternity of climbing and wrapping around a mountaintop, Paraisopolis came into view below us. Somewhere in that town, we would find the finish line.
We came out of the woods and into the city, with 2k left to go. Jo and Pedro were waiting for us, and after a few sips of water, I gave them my pack, eager to loose whatever burden I could for the final stretch.
Coming to the Finish!
Chris and I finished in 42:57, 1st International Runners and shockingly, 6th overall!!
The race staff were very gracious and presented Chris and I with our finishers medals while reciting a personalized speech for each of us. They referenced our history with the race, with Brazil and it's people. I was surprised by the effort they put into this, and I was more than a little moved by it.
It was 3:00 AM and we needed some food and a bed. We were offered a place to stay by Filipe, a friend of Chris's. He was waiting for us at the finish and led us to his home near the finish line. Filipe had an entire meal prepared, including a large quantity of beer, and our beds were set up and ready to go.
Filipe was an amazing host and we can't thank him enough for making us as comfortable as he did in his home. Evidence that the Brazilian people treat you like family. Thanks Filipe!
We ate a large meal while swapping a few stories, then hit the sack.
After two hours of sleep, we were awake and heading back to the Caminho da Fe to finish this thing up. The race was over, but we still had a long way to go.
Despite Chris's assurances, the Caminho didn't get any easier.
We needed to cover about 45 miles, on almost no sleep, and very tired legs. After a couple days of ideal weather, the sun returned to scorch us and do whatever it could to break our spirit.
Fresh Water? Seems Legit!
Pedro Collecting Some Fresh Potassium
The miles between Paraisopolis and Campos Do Jordao are mountainous, but they lead us out and away from the mountains. But not before the longest, nastiest climb on the Caminho.
The Hill of The Broken Leg is aptly named, as a 10k vertical ascent. The footing is terrible and it has enough false summits to drive a man crazy. But after it's finished, the serious climbing will be done.
We finished the day just as the sun was setting and we got settled into a Pousada after getting some food in our bellies.
We'd been running for nearly a week and it was beginning to take a serious toll on our bodies. Our feet were getting trashed and everything else just ached. Each night was an exercise in reassembling ourselves as best we could while preparing for another day on the trail.
Dr. Jo Performing Blister Remediation
After a restless night of sleep, we crawled out of bed and headed back to the trail one last time. We needed to cover just over 50k to get to the end of the Caminho in Aparecida. It didn't sound like much, but it was going to be a rough day.
Last Day on the Trail
Our day started on a rail bed, which was really kind of annoying. Footing was difficult because the railroad ties were wet and slimy. The stone was just brutal on the bottoms of our feet. There was no way around it, we just kept moving forward.
After the rail bed ended, we had a long descent through the jungle on some single track. The jungle was dense and the trail was rocky and muddy, making for a difficult and slow descent, but I was really enjoying it. Chris? Not so much.
The trail deposited us onto a paved road, which I enjoyed as much as Chris had enjoyed the jungle single track. Traffic was pretty heavy and it was hot.
After several miles of road, we were diverted back onto some Jeep road, which made us both a little happier.
Jo Knows How to Keep a Runner Motivated!!
We had time, so we enjoyed a beer together at a bar on the side of the trail. The end was near and we felt like some celebration may be in order.
More of the Same, But Nearly Done
As we came into Aparecida, I was overwhelmed by what a miserable place it was. We had seen a lot of towns and villages along the way, but Aparecida was by far the nastiest, most depressing place we'd seen. It looked like a movie set for Lord of War. It also didn't look safe. At our final crew stop, I told Pedro to keep a very close eye on my wife. Her safety was his biggest responsibility.
Still following yellow arrows, we could see our destination looming in the distance. The end point of the Caminho da Fe is the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, and it's the most dominating structure in town. Even though we could see it, it seemed like a long way off.
We entered the Basilica property and began to make our way into the cathedral. The true pilgrimage demands that we finish our journey at the feet of the statue of Our Lady of Aparecida. Up we went!
Entering the Cathedral
The Final Yellow Arrow of the Caminho da Fe
We made our way into the Cathedral and found the statue we were looking for. We stood beneath it, done with our journey. At that moment, I didn't know what to do, or what to say. I had no words. I was just in awe of where we were and how we got there.
Our Lady of Aparecida
With our pilgrimage complete, we found food, beer and beds. All of them well deserved.
We returned to the Basilica the following morning to have our credentials verified. As Chris and I made our way down the Caminho, our crew collected stamps on our credentials that verified that we had passed through the various villages along the way to Aparecida. The basilica staff reviewed our travel documents, and certified our run.
It's nearly impossible to put the journey into words. Not in a way that really describes the wide range of emotions, the physical demand, and all the highs and lows that accompany you through a trip like this. I don't think I need to express it to the world so completely. It was a shared experience between four people, but it was a different experience for each of us.
I'm grateful that Chris invited me along and I'm thankful that I was able to go, bringing my wife with me. I'm equally grateful to have met Pedro, who is one of the finest young men I have ever met. An experience like this works to forge a bond between people and I know our shared experience on the Caminho will prove to be a meaningful event that will bind us all together through the suffering and the exhilaration we shared.
I can't imagine sharing this experience with better people. We started the Caminho as friends and finished as family.
Thanks for taking the time to read about this trip. And thanks to my sponsors and all my supporters. And a special thanks to Mario Lacerda, the craziest Race Director in the business. I hope to see you soon my friend!