Welcome to the Jungle
Test your mettle in the Chapman’s Challenge, an adventure race that salutes an epic survival tale BY BEN JHOTY
In the early 1940s, British
Colonel Freddie Spencer
Welcome to the Jungle. Chapman survived three years behind enemy lines in the wilds of Malaysia. Enduring punishing treks though dense, leech-infested rainforest and debilitating bouts of pneumonia and malaria that at one point left him unconscious for over two weeks, he came to live by Shakespeare’s immortal line: “There is nothing either good or bad, thinking makes it so.” A useful collection of words that. You can see how it might resonate with a man fleeing for his life. Unfortunately, as I haul my weary body up a steep jungle trail on the island of Pangkor Laut as part of the Chapman’s Challenge, an adventure race named in the Colonel’s honor, I’m starting to fear my mind is feeble. Because make no mistake, I think this experience is brutal. And so it is. Perhaps that’s because I gravely underestimated the physical demands of the race, a 6.2km run followed by a 1km open water swim at Emerald Bay, where 72 years earlier, Spencer Chapman was finally rescued by a submarine. On paper, the distances sound manageable. In preparation I focused on the swim, logging a couple of sessions in the pool each week leading in.
The run, I reasoned, would take care of itself. You know who didn’t underestimate the race, even though he had every right? Ironman champion Matt Poole. Eyeing the race record of 47 minutes, Poole scoped out the course the day before the race while I was lounging by one of the resort’s tranquil pools. At the race briefing, Poole asked questions, keen to see off any surprises. “I’m a very competitive guy,” Poole says. “It’s that stubborn athlete mindset. You train to do your best.” Indeed you do. An athlete doesn’t just let things take care of themselves. If I needed further reason to take the race seriously, it came the night before when I spoke to Spencer Chapman’s grandson, Stephen, who’d run the inaugural race the previous year. As a member of the elite British paratroop regiment, P Company, Stephen regaled me over dinner with a tale of its infamous selection test known as “milling”. This involves enduring a minute in which two candidates of equal size batter each other without employing any defence or evasive action. You duck or weave you lose points. You fall, you get back up and resume the battering. Wide-eyed, I agreed it sounded barbaric. Perhaps I should have raised an eyebrow, then, when he described the course terrain as merely “undulating”. Because it turns out Stephen Spencer Chapman is just like his grandfather: hard.
PANGKOR LAUT is a luxury island resort, a 15-minute high-speed ferry ride from Malaysia’s west coast in the Strait of Malacca. Part of the YTL hotel chain, its unique selling point is that the resort occupies the entire island. In many ways, it’s a great setting for an adventure race: beautiful clear waters, a ready-made jungle trail and concrete access roads. In many ways, it’s not. To get from one side of the island to the other means going up and over. And by up I mean 25°С – plus gradients that are hundreds of metes long. It all starts pleasantly enough, with heavy metal and hip-hop pumping out of speakers to psych up competitors, a mix of ex-pats, local fitness enthusiasts and Cross-fitters. After a few words of encouragement from Christopher Spencer Chapman, the Colonel’s son, we set off across the jetty. It’s 7.30am and the mercury is already above 30 degrees with humidity you wear like chain mail.
AFTER THE RACKET of the start line, there’s relative peace, broken only by the medley of footfalls on the concrete road. The sun peeks through gaps in the rain forest canopy, bathing us in a golden light but I’m too alarmed by the gradient to take much notice. Sharp peaks and tumbling troughs spread the field before we hit the ominously named “Steroid Hill”. At least 200m at an incline of 26°С, I’m forced to walk as my calves begin to radiate under a deep burn. At the top is the first drink station before an equally precipitous descent. From there we skirt the island’s eastern side overlooking the resort’s shoreline network of well-appointed cabins on stilts.
It’s relatively flat until we hit the jungle trail, a 2km section that resembles a dry creek bed with gnarly tree roots that aren’t a good match for bone-weary legs. The sounds of the jungle are welcoming, although I’ve been warned about wild boars, monkeys and tree snakes. Soon I hit the steepest part of the course with roughly-hewn stairs that are up to two-feet high. I pull myself up on timber supports only to find my hand covered in ants. Going down is no better, my lactate-heavy legs laboring on each step. I hear cheering in the distance as I approach
Emerald Bay and assume (correctly as it turns out) that Poole has already finished. I emerge from the jungle onto the beach in about 15th place. The swim, which I’ve been dreading, now looms as sweet relief. I plunge into warm waters, relieved to get off my legs. The only problem is I’m so exhausted I can barely turn my arms over. The fluid stroke. I’ve honed in the pool these last few months evaporates.
By halfway I’ve found some semblance of a rhythm and I end up in a sprint to the shore with a KL local. We hit the sand together and I manage to outsprint him to the line, crossing in 79 minutes. I later learn that Poole has broken the record, finishing in 46 minutes. Astonishingly he finished the run in 36 mins, slower than last year’s winner and then blitzed the swim in 10 mins. Afterwards, I immediately tell anyone who’ll listen that the race is quite easily the hardest short course I’ve ever encountered. But such is the relief on finishing, the horrors quickly fade. Already my mind has reframed those monstrous hills into gentle crests. In fact, I’d go as far to describe the terrain as undulating. It’s illusory, of course, but thinking makes it so.
TRAIN LIKE AN IRONMAN
PREPARE FOR YOUR NEXT RACE WITH THESE STRATEGIES FROM
IRONMAN CHAMPION AND RED BULL ATHLETE MATT POOLE
Monitor your progress
Give yourself a three-month block of cross training, scheduling progress reports on the way. “Benchmark your resting heart rate, your weight and your 1-k time trial times and watch the improvement as you get closer to the event,” Poole says. Nail your transitions “That transition from running to swimming is the biggest shock to the body,” Poole says. “You need to get in and lower your heart rate by finding a settling pace. Then you’ll find it gets easier.” Prepare for the hills
If a gradient is too steep don’t be too proud to walk, says Poole. If you don’t, you risk “blowing out your legs” with lactate that’ll make it difficult to run back down. “You need to fast-walk up the hill and keep your heart rate and breathing controlled.”