Sunday, March 6, 2011

Running the Caminho da Fé: An Interview with Jarom Thurston

On January 18, 2011, Jarom Thurston, Chris Roman, and Tony Portera embarked on a journey to run the entire length of the Caminho da Fé in the heart of Brazil. The Path of Faith is used as a pilgrimage route to the city of Aparecida, where the National Basilica houses the holy figure of Our Lady of Aparecida. The group of friends finished the 340 mile journey in 7 days and 14 hours.

How long have you been running?

Ten years.

What got you into it?

I grew up as a swimmer; me and my brother and two sisters, that’s all we did growing up. We swam. I’ve always liked the individual sport, where you’re just worried about your own performance, your own workout and training. Not depending on others, like you do in team sports to win a game. I hated running, though. I did like soccer. I remember trying out for soccer. We had to run laps. I didn’t like it that much. But, I’ve always looked up to my dad. He’s always been into running and triathlons for as long as I can remember. I really started getting into running when I was twenty-six years old. I ran my first marathon. My younger brother decided to see if he could run a marathon with my dad. My dad had run several when we were little. For whatever reason, my brother wanted to see if he could do it. I thought he was crazy. He trained for a year and ran the St. George Marathon. I thought, If my little brother can do it, I wonder if I can 26.2 miles. That’s how it started. I just wanted to do a marathon like my little brother and my dad did. I remember trying to get into shape and running a mile or two. It was hard. I could barely do it. At that time, I was over 220 pounds. I wasn’t fat, but I was heavier than I am now. I would try to run two or three miles at least a couple times a week. It took a good five months to get to the point where I actually enjoyed running. That year, when my little brother was getting close to running his first marathon, he signed up to do a half marathon as a training run with my dad. At the last minute, there was a change of plans and he had to travel somewhere with some friends. A few days before the race, he told me as a joke, “I already signed up for this race. Just take my number and go run it with dad.” I’m thinking, Yeah right – a half marathon! I can’t even run three miles. But, I thought about it for a while and I decided to go for it. I thought, Maybe I’ll just walk the whole thing. I ran the Hobble Creek Half Marathon in Springville with my dad.

How did it go?

The first mile or so went by pretty easy. Then, by the third mile, I thought, I better slow down and walk or I’m going to kill myself. But, nobody else was walking. I didn’t want to be the first one to start walking! So, I just kept running, hoping other people would start walking and then I could just join them. I got to mile six and I could still see my dad about a hundred yards ahead of me. I thought, I’ll run up to him and let him know I’ve made it this far. When I caught up to him at the water stop, he was surprised to see me. My legs hurt so badly at that point, but I thought, If I walk, they are still going to hurt, so I might as well run and get this thing over with. So, I kept running with my dad and finished the whole thing in about two hours. All I really remember is crossing the finish line and wanting to die. I got tunnel vision; I had this head rush, a light-headed feeling, and I couldn’t see for about three minutes. That scared me. I laid down and waited for all my senses to come back. After that, I was sore like I’d never been in my whole life. I couldn’t walk for almost a month. But, I promised myself that if my legs got better and if I could start running again, I was going to continue training and eventually do the marathon. And that’s what I did. I trained for a year, incorporating more mileage into my training. Finally, I ran the St. George Marathon in 4:07. I saw for the first time what the marathon really was. I knew my dad had done them when I was little, but it never really meant that much to me until I did it myself. It was grueling. After St. George, I swore that I was done. I told myself, never again. But, a few weeks went by and I forgot about all the pain and misery; I found myself signed up for the marathon again, with a goal of shaving seven minutes off my time to break the four hour mark.

Tell me about your first ultra.

When I went back for my second marathon, I finished five seconds slower than the year before. That drove me crazy! But, I refused to quit. I went back again the next year and ran a 3:42. By then, I realized I was really addicted to running. I enjoyed it. I knew I wasn’t the best. I knew I wasn’t going to win any races, but I just fell in love with the sport. I worked with my younger sister for the fire department, and I met an ultrarunner, Mike Sanderson. He had done Badwater. When he heard I ran marathons, he told me, “Why don’t you come run the Squaw Peak 50 Miler?” It’s know to be the third hardest 50 miler in the country. But, I just told myself: “It’s only two marathons. I can do that!” All my training up to that point had been on road. I had never once set foot on trails. By mile seven of the race, I just wanted to die. I was sweating like crazy; my heart felt like it was going to jump out of my chest. And I wasn’t even running. I was hiking! I thought to myself, What is going on here? I’ve still got forty-something miles left and I don’t think I can even go a mile farther. But, I shrugged it off and eventually got to a downhill and felt better. By the time I hit mile 20, I realized I had not urinated yet. All day long, I was seeing everyone else jumping off the trail now and then to go into the bushes, and here I hadn’t gone once. My pacer got a little concerned. He asked me if I was drinking enough and I told him I was drinking all I could. He asked if I hydro-loaded the day before. I told him I hadn’t. Right before I hit the 25 mile mark, I finally felt like I had to pee. When I tried, it was red. Literally, I was urinating blood! It scared me to death. I thought, Well, maybe I’m bleeding internally. But, aside from being dehydrated, I felt okay. At the next aid station, there was a nurse volunteer. I asked her what was going on. She told me that I was so dehydrated that my bladder was empty and that the walls of my bladder were rubbing together to the point that they were bleeding. They made me sit there for half an hour to drink water. Eventually I got up and set out for the next aid station, carrying as much water as I could with me. By mile 33, I still had not urinated. That was a tough call. At the Squaw Peak 50, the aid station at mile 33 is really a critical point. It is about a 9 mile stretch between it and the next aid station. It’s also the hottest part of the afternoon and it has the highest, hardest climb at 9,300 feet. Most people get dehydrated in this stretch. The people at the aid station did not want to let me go. So I was forced to withdraw from the race. When I got to the finish line, I was really bummed. But, I knew I had probably done the safest thing. That was my first experience at an ultramarathon – a DNF at mile 33 and urinating blood.

It’s interesting that that was your first experience with ultras because, where something like that would happen and most people would never think to try something like it again, that was really your launching pad. What is it that pushes you to put your body through those kinds of experiences?

I get asked that a lot. I really don’t know the answer. I know it can be done. I know the mind and the body are powerful and I’ve seen others do it. That’s kind of what motivates me: seeing someone else I know who has done something. I get to thinking, Why can’t I do that, too? I’ve never been a quitter. Even when I fail at something, I keep trying. After that first attempt at the Squaw Peak 50, I went and trained for a year, came back, and finished it.

How many times have you run the Brazil 135?

This year was my fourth time running the race – 2008, 2009, 2010, and this year.

What is it about Brazil that holds your fascination?

I lived in Brazil a number of years ago as a missionary. I fell in love with the culture, the people, and the language. I’ve always felt a connection with the country. A few years ago, Mario Lacerda, director of the Brazil 135, put me in contact with a Brazilian woman who was going to run Badwater - a 51 year-old cancer survivor named Monica Otero. Monica needed another person on her support crew. Before the race, I got to fly to Brazil to meet Monica to discuss the plans for Badwater. The year she ran it was the same year [Valmir] Nunes broke the Scott Jurek’s course record, and Nunes’ record still stands to this day. That was a cool experience, to be able to be there for that. It got me thinking, I wonder if I can do this race?

What was your first 100 miler experience?

Well, my first two attempts at the 100 miler, I DNF’d. Then, I did a training run out on the old Pony Express route in Utah. A group of people go every year and they get some friends to crew for them. It’s kind of becoming a race now, but years ago it was just a few people doing it. I thought, If I’m going to try a 100 miles, I’d rather do it in this kind of circumstance where it’s not a real race and there’s not a whole lot of pressure. I ran 93 miles in 21 hours and then I just stopped. I sat down on a rock and said, “I can’t go on anymore.” Later that day, I found out my liver was starting to fail, so it’s a good thing I stopped. Six months later, I tried the same course and I got to 72 miles. I got so sick. I was throwing up. My nutrition was just completely off. I walked for six hours that night and I never got better. So I DNF’d again. My next attempt at a 100 was the Brazil 135 in January of 2008.

You’re kidding me.

(Laughs). No joke. I had been friends with Mario [Lacerda] since Badwater with Monica. He accepted me into the race even though he knew I hadn’t finished a 100 miler yet. I had a lot of friends telling me, “You’re crazy! You’re going to attempt 135 miles in a foreign country and you haven’t even finished 100 miles?” I just told them, “Yeah.” I didn’t even take a support crew with me. I ran it solo. Mario set up the course on the Caminho da Fé. There are enough little towns – approximately every 12 or 13 miles – along the way so that you can restock your backpack if you speak the language and have some money. I felt comfortable doing that. And the reason I felt okay doing it was that I changed my whole mindset about racing. I thought of the run as an expedition, a journey, rather than as a race. I just wanted to finish it. I took my camera; I took videos and pictures. And I suffered a lot. It rained a lot. My feet were really bad. I got like 45 minutes of sleep. In the end, I ended up finishing in about 45 hours, placing seventh overall out of 41 that started that year. I had such a great experience that I’ve been back every year. Mario has kind of dubbed me as the U.S. Ambassador for the Brazil 135 race. Now I help other Americans and other foreigners outside of Brazil who want to get information on getting accepted into the race, getting hotel accommodations or translators.

How many Americans went this year?

We had more last year than there were this year. We had about 9 or 10 Americans last year, including Brian Krogmann, Tom Sperduto, and Brian Recore. This year, we had Cheryl Zwarkowski, Marty, Razy Sanchez, Tony Portera, Chris Roman, Lynne Hewett and myself. Lynne was set to support Tony, Chris, and I for the first three days and then run the whole 135 with us, and then support us the last two days of our Caminho da Fé journey.

How did Lynne do in her race? I crewed with her at Badwater and she is a hell of a runner.

Yeah, she’s awesome. Lynne got a little past 50 miles and then she had to drop out. Her knee went out after the first two or three hours of the race. She had a really hard time on the downhills. She was limping, gutting it out, but decided to drop before she caused too much damage. After dropping, she continued to crew for us. She was incredible.

Now, explain the project you embarked on with Tony and Chris. What was your goal?

It was Tony Portera’s idea. I ran the Brazil 135 with him last year along with Ken Posner. Tony enjoyed the whole thing so much that he decided he wanted to go back to Brazil and run the entire Path of Faith. The Brazil 135 runs along this pilgrimage path that Brazilians have developed over the past eight or nine years. There are different starting points, but they all meet up in one town called Águas da Prata and then its becomes a single trail system leading all the way to Aparecida church in São Paulo. Tony decided he wanted to do the longest possible course of the whole Path of Faith, which is 530 km. The Brazil 135 takes place almost in the middle of the whole Path of Faith, but it is the hardest 217 km of the 530. That’s where the biggest mountain climbs are. Eventually, we coordinated with Mario to do the project during the week of the Brazil 135, starting a few days before the official race, planning how far we would go each day, and making our way to São João da Boa Vista, which is where the race starts. We would then start the race with everybody else who was running it, finish the Brazil 135 in the 60 hour cutoff, like everyone else, and then continue for another two or three days to Aparecida. So, Tony got me involved. We got a tour guide who spoke the language and made a lot of contacts. We then got Chris involved, who was a good friend. Charlie Engle was going to run the whole thing with us, too, but he couldn’t come.

How long have you three been friends?

I met Tony a few months before last year’s Brazil 135. He e-mailed me, saying that he wanted to run the race and asking for more information. Prior to running with him in Brazil, we had only communicated via e-mail. It was kind of the same thing with Chris Roman. I had heard of him. I knew he ran the Erie Canal 363 Mile Run. We e-mailed back and forth, but the first time I met him was in São Paulo, the day before we started. Tony has known Lynne for a while; he’s run several races with her. He brought her along for support.

How did you train for the run?

(Laughs). Honestly – and I told this to Tony and Chris – I didn’t really train for this any differently than I do for a 100 mile race or a 135 mile race. You just get in a lot of mileage and then taper off. When you get to the start of a multi-day event, you have to know that the first few days are going to be about getting yourself into shape for the second half of however many miles you have left.

How was the weather?

Hot! The first three days were tough for me because I got behind in hydration. The first day I got sick and vomited after just six hours of running because it was just so hot. Summertime in that region of Brazil means a lot of rain. There had been a lot of flooding going on in different parts of Brazil. And when it wasn’t raining, it was hot.

How did the heat affect the field?

It caught a lot of people off guard. There’s a guy who has won the Brazil 135 twice. I think both years he’s won were cooler, rainy years. This year, he took third place, and he had bad stomach issues twice during the race and almost had to drop out. Ray Sanchez also had a tough time with the heat. On the mountains, it just gets so humid. You are always wet. You never have a chance to dry off. When the sun comes out and the clouds dissipate, you feel like you’re baking. Some days, it was in the high 90’s with high humidity. There were times when I felt like I was running across Death Valley, it was so hot. We couldn’t wait for the sun to go down. My bottom lip got sunburned really bad. Some of the blisters still haven’t healed. The backs of legs got fried. Tony and I got a lot of water blisters on the backs of our calves.

What is a water blister?

Your legs look like they are wet, like drops of water are running down them. And then you go to wipe it off and you realize it’s just a really thin layer of skin. It’s got a puss in it that’s really clear. You can just touch it and it will burst. Then the skin dries and peels off.

How did you handle the heat?

We got our driver to get ice whenever he could and put it in the cooler, keep all the drinks cold. We used ice handkerchiefs around our necks and in our hats.

Aside from the heat sickness, did everything go as planned? Did you hit your daily mileage goals?

Yes. The first day we ran 90 km. The second day we ran 75 km. The third day, we only did about a marathon, but that’s when we hit the mountains. It rained the entire third day. We ran the mountain in the mud. We made it a shorter day because we wanted to get to the start city of the pre-race meeting and have enough time to rest. Each night, we stayed in a little posada like the other pilgrims who run the Path of Faith. What most people do is they plan for 15 or 20 days to complete the whole 530 km course to Aparecida. Tony wanted to do it in 8 or 9 days. We ended up finishing the whole thing in 7 days and 14 hours, a little ahead of schedule.

What was the lowest you ever felt during this journey?

By day three, I was so out of it. Mentally and physically, I felt that there was no way I could finish the 135 miles, let alone the two or three days after that. It just hit me so hard. I sat down with the guys and Lynne at dinner the night before the Brazil 135. I wanted to find an excuse to stop but not give up on the team. I knew it was Tony’s dream to do this thing, and I wanted to be there for him, but I really didn’t think I was going to be able to finish. So, I said “What if I just drop out now and help our driver and crew?” Tony and Chris said, “It’s your decision, but we came here to do this together and we want to do anything to help get you there. We know you’re having a hard time because you got behind on your nutrition and hydration.” I had lost about 12 or 13 pounds since the start of the journey. I could feel it.

What motivated you to keep going?

Tony said, “Eat and drink all you can tonight; get all the sleep you can get. Let’s show up to the starting line tomorrow and we can just decide what we’re going to do.” He talked me into making it to the starting line and just going as far as I could. I said, “Okay.” Well, I don’t know what happened, but I think I ate all ten pounds that I lost in one evening! I ate rice and beans and potatoes. I got up in the morning and I felt so fresh. I felt great. I was resurrected. I felt better than Tony and Chris!

What things did you eat during the run?

We ate rice, beans, steak, and spaghetti. I ate a lot of Brazilian pizza.

What is Brazilian pizza?

Usually, it comes with ham and green olives, which are really salty. It’s made with a kind of cream cheese, a really moist, warm cheese.

It sounds wonderful.

Oh! It was so good! We all fell in love with it. We ate it with hard-boiled eggs. We also had these little sandwiches made of cheese, ham, and tomato. They would warm them up for us at the posada. We ate fruit, too.

Were you keeping track of your caloric intake?

No, not really. We just kind of went by how we felt. We tried to help each other. For example, I would know if Tony hadn’t eaten enough if we had a whole pizza and Chris and I ate half of it and Tony only had one piece. We would tell him, “You got to eat something.” Lynne was really good about keeping track of who ate what. She was always on top of it. She and Glauber would have all kinds of food options ready for us at the truck.

Lynne is so great at planning ahead for things to come. I know she is also a great medical expert to have on a crew. Talk about how important it was to have someone there with you guys who was familiar with the medical aspects of distance running.

It was so important. Lynne was such a tremendous part of this project. Chris Roman is a doctor, too. Anyone in the medical field is absolutely instrumental in these kinds of runs. If something goes wrong, whether it’s your feet or your stomach, you need to have someone to go to for answers. Lynne had all kinds of medication and equipment. Maybe half the time they were feeding me a bunch of bull so that I wouldn’t worry, telling me that I was fine when I really wasn’t. I don’t know. But, it was just nice to know that if they weren’t worried then I didn’t have to worry.

Did you ever have to stop for first aid?

Yes. Lynne bandaged up my feet several times. At one point, the second night into the Brazil 135, which was day five of our entire journey, I got a really bad blister on the ball of my foot. It developed within just half a mile. It brought me to a halt. I told Chris and Tony, “Something is wrong. My foot hurts really bad.” We stopped and I sat on the back of the truck. Lynne got her flashlight out and just started jabbing at it, poking at it, trying to puncture it somehow. It hurt. She had me biting down on stuff. She called me a “big boy.” (Laughs). That’s about all I remember from that episode. But, whatever she did, it relieved the pressure, and by the time she bandaged me up and got my socks and shoes back on, I was able to run again.

One of the purposes for this run was to raise money for the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Tell me a bit about the Foundation and what got you interested in running for that particular cause.

The CAF raises money for challenged athletes, athletes that have a hard time competing in any sport because they use prosthetic limbs; they are missing a leg or an arm. I wasn’t really that involved in it. Tony is really involved in it. Chris is on the board for the CAF branch in Florida. They are the ones that brought that aspect into the whole scheme of this expedition. We set up a page for donations and we set our goal at $40,000. I haven’t looked at it recently, but before we started the run, we had raised over $25,000. We are hoping to still promote that, now that we’ve done our part, other people can do theirs by making a donation to the cause.

How did it feel to finish the Brazil 135 leg?

Well, we finished in about 55 hours and 24 minutes. By the end of the second night, we knew we were going to make 60 hours. We wanted to finish officially, get our medal, and continue on to Aparecida. We finished in the afternoon. By the time we got to the finish line, most of the other runners were gone. There weren’t a whole lot of people behind us. Everyone knew what we looked like when we went to the pre-race meeting. We had already been running for two days and we looked like death. And we still had the Brazil 135 to run! It was so emotional when we got to the finish line. When Mario stood in front of us all and handed us our medals, I just broke down. I said, “Mario, this is my fourth Brazil 135, and it has been the hardest one to finish because I was ready to give up after day three, right before I started.”

What did you do when you finished?

I took a two hour nap. Then, we had to go to the post-race party and awards ceremony. We stayed there for a little while and then went back to the hotel and got a full night’s sleep. We got up in the morning, while most of the other runners were getting up for breakfast, and walked over to the town square, where the finish was, put on our sunscreen, and set out for the next leg of the Path of Faith.

How did your family support you throughout this journey?

My dad and my brother wanted to come with me. They both crewed me at Badwater. My brother does Ironman, and whenever I can, I go support him. My family was always waiting to hear from me, hoping to catch updates online. We had the GPS SPOT tracker that Tony brought, so we were constantly putting up links so people could follow us. I know my family was following everyday to see how far we had gone and where we had stopped. It was just so cool to be able finish and talk to my family, tell them “I’m still alive and I finished.” It’s a really good feeling when you know they are worried about you and they know what’s going on all the time and are waiting for pictures and updates. You really feel loved.

Describe coming into Aparecida, the final destination on the Caminho da Fé.

After we left for the final leg of the journey, we traveled another 60 km to a place called Campos do Jordão, one of the premier cities along the Path of Faith. The city is full of German influences and beautiful architecture. We made it there and stayed at another posada. We got to bed late. Every night, Tony and Chris got on Skype to talk to their families. We tried to make as much contact with family and friends. We updated our statuses on Facebook and kept up with our e-mail. So we were always getting to bed late. We got four hours of sleep that night, and that was a lot. The next day we set out again. The trail of the Path of Faith has its own markings and signs so you don’t get lost, little yellow arrows painted everywhere – on trees and mailboxes and walls. Almost every two kilometers, they have little kilometer signs, so you know how far you’ve gone. We started at the 530 marker and slowly made our way to 528, 526, 524 and so on. Everyday, we were counting down those kilometers. When we got to the 10k mark, the weather changed. This freak hurricane storm came out of nowhere and hit us. The winds reached about 60 miles per hours. The rain was coming down like buckets of water. It was blowing us off the road. Cars that were on the road we were running on were pulling over and stopping. We put our rain ponchos on, but it was pointless. We were trying to find a little bit of cover somewhere but we couldn’t find much. Tony said, “Let’s just keep marching through. It will blow over eventually.” It kept coming down for a good half hour. Finally, it cleared up. And we got a phone call from Mario. He and his brother were at the church in Aparecida, waiting for us. Glauber, our driver, went and picked them up and brought them to us. Mario did the last two kilometers with us. We took a picture at the last two kilometers sign and then walked up to the Basilica. It was around 8:30 pm when we finished. The church itself is massive. It’s just huge. We walked all the way inside. There was a mass session going on. Inside, there is a little office with a walk-up window. You go there and show your credentials. We had little pamphlets that we got stamped along the whole Path of Faith, in various towns that we passed. You turn that pamphlet in at the window inside the Basilica and you get a certificate. The whole process was very quite and emotional. It was all kind of surreal. We were all lost in our own thoughts, thinking back on what we had accomplished. The certificate has your name on it. It has the date. Basically, what it signifies is that you are a true pilgrim.

Jarom, thank you so much for sharing with me your incredible journey. I look forward to hearing more great things about you in the future.

Click here to read the feature story about Jarom's pilgrimage.

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