Brazil 135 – Race Report Part 1 (Pre-race and Race)

I need to start doing shorter races.  Just think about how much easier it would be to write a race report…

There is so much for me to write about the amazing experience I had in Brazil.  I don’t even think I can pretend that I’ll keep this brief, but, as usual, I’ll try to include a lot of pictures. Also, I’m going to split this report into two parts. This first post is about our travel to Brazil, the last-minute preparations and the race itself. The second part will be about the fun we had after the race.

On the Monday evening before the race, Aaron flew down to LAX from San Francisco and then we flew to São Paulo together. It’s about a 12 hour direct flight from LAX to São Paulo. (The night before I left, Elizabeth gave me some going away presents, including the kick-ass hat I’m wearing below. It’s pink and it has my name in HUGE letters. How could it not rock?!?)

Thankfully, we both slept most the flight. We arrived at the airport in São Paulo late afternoon on Tuesday, collected our bags and made our way to the rental car location.

(photo: Aaron; nearly all of these photos were taken by Aaron or Natan)

There, we picked up our trusty Fiat Doblo and, with the help of a crappy GPS systems (circa 2001), made our way into São Paulo to the Transamerica Prime International Plaza Hotel, near Paulista Avenue in the middle of the city. We got there just before a pretty good rain storm hit the city that lasted a good chunk of the night. We walked around a bit looking for a place to eat and finally settled on a crowded restaurant right on Paulista with outdoor covered seating.

Wednesday morning, we walked around São Paulo for a while, including walking through Ibirapuera Park, a huge park right in the middle of the city with a run/bike path, multiple museums, a few cool statues, little lakes, concessions, etc. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm, but not too hot or humid.

At 2pm, we met up with Natan, a local with whom we’d been hooked up to translate for us during the trip and the three of us made our way out to São João da Boa Vista, the city where the race would start on Friday morning. It was a 4-ish hour drive and went mostly well (except for the one detour I accidentally took took us through a bus depot…).

During these pre-race days, I was freaking out a little bit. Ok, more than a little bit. I wasn’t even that nervous about the race or the distance. I had confidence in my ability to do the race. It was all of the logistics that had me spinning. The race organization does a good job setting things up, but I felt lost in terms of how Aaron and Natan would be crewing me and was terrified by all the talk of driving “detours” and the lack of maps. Some people we talked to made it sound so easy and straightforward, but others made it sound like we could end up lost in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. I was trying to keep it together…

We got to São João, checked into our hotel and I sent a message on Facebook to the Brazil 135 group to see if anyone wanted to meet up for dinner. The first response was from a Brazilian named Magda Andrade who said that she and two others were meeting at a pizza place in town in a little bit. Aaron, Natan and I met them – it was Magda, Junior and Flavio from Rio – and that ended up being one of the best things that could have happened to us on the trip. The food itself was good, but Magda, Junior and Flavio were great friends to have for the rest of the trip. Magda was participating in a two person relay (she’d done a three person relay the year before) and her son Junior and their friend Flavio were there to crew and pace. We had a fun dinner getting to know them and they helped ease my mind about the logistics and the race.

Thursday morning was the check-in, lunch and pre-race meeting. The meeting was a mix of good and bad. It was great, because I got a chance to meet and talk to a bunch of people, both Brazilians and Americans, some of whom had done the race before and some who were newbies like me. At one point, Aaron and Natan left the meeting to get some supplies for the race and they were gone for what seemed like forever. After a bit, my mind started reeling and I was getting all kinds of nervous about what might have happened to them. Of course, it was all fine.

There were lots of opportunities for photos.

The meeting itself wasn’t particularly instructive, but it gave me a chance to sit down and relax and maybe even fall asleep for a few seconds. The green and white thing on my wrist is the GPS tracker that all racers had to wear. I think that it has a transponder inside it and the race officials could pick up the signal by driving near athletes on the course to upload their location during the race. I’m actually not even sure how the live tracking worked out.

It was fun to have all kinds of people get called on stage.  This was the gringos.

At the meeting, we hung out again with Magda, Junior and Flavio and we met a bunch of the Americans participating in the race, including Chris, Brad, Maggie and her crew, Terry, Andy, Amy, Grant (Aussie, actually), and Jarom and Heath Thurston who were down there to crew and pace Grant. After the meeting, Aaron helped me organize all my stuff and we met up with Magda, Junior and Flavio for dinner again.

(Holy crap, I haven’t even gotten started on the race…)

Race morning started on Friday at 5am. I actually slept fairly well Thursday night, waking up a few times thinking that it must be time to get up, but quickly falling back asleep each time. The morning was much less stressful than I thought it would be and we were parked and at the starting area by 7:10, with 50 minutes to spare before the race started. It was a really nice morning – temps in the low 60s (I think), a little drizzle here and there, and nice cloud coverage. The starting line area was busy with runners and crew and a live band that played the Brazilian national anthem while flags were raised.

Here’s Aaron and I with Monica Otero (who was a huge help with getting us hotels and other organizational stuff; any bib other than white means the person was doing a relay):

And here I am with our new friend, Magda:

This is the starting line just moments before the race began:

At that point I was really calm. Much calmer than I’d been for a week. I was comfortable that Aaron and Natan would work out the driving and crewing and I knew that there was really nothing left for me to do other than run.

I started the race with my Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 pack with the bladder full of water and some nutrition in the pockets and a Nathan Quick-Draw Plus handheld with two scoops of Naked/Unflavored Tailwind and water. I ended up wearing the pack for most of the first 12-14 hours of the race and then doing the rest without it. But I carried a handheld for the entire race. I was wearing my favorite pink hat, Salomon Exo S-Lab Short Tights, a Pearl Izumi sleeveless shirt, DryMax Maximum Protection Trail Socks, La Sportiva Helios shoes, my Garmin 910xt and a GoPro camera that my friends at BuzzFeed loaned me for the race.

At exactly 8am, we were off.

And then I just ran and ate and drank and sat (a little) and walked (probably too much) and pushed on and on and on until I got to the finish line at Paraisópolis. I bet you wish the race report was that easy… In truth though, I don’t remember too much about the race itself. For the most part, it went really smoothly. In a race that lasts over 32 hours – or anywhere even nearly that long – unless something really bad or really great happens, to some degree it all becomes a blur. But that would be a cop out. So, here’s what I do remember:

Although most of the race is on dirt, the race starts on the road and there are road sections throughout the course. The Caminho da Fé is a pilgrimage path that stretches about 497 kilometers (about 308 miles) through southeastern Brazil. It leads toward and ends at the Nossa Senhora Aparecide Basilica in the city of Aparecida. The Brazil 135 takes place on a section of the Caminho sort of in the middle of the path. It goes up and down over mountains and most of it is on dirt roads (think fire roads or rocky jeep roads). However, it does go through a small or medium-sized town about every 15-20 kilometers and when you get to the towns, there is a paved section into and out of town. In the middle of each town is a big church, which is part of the pilgrimage. There are also a couple slightly more extended road sections along the way. We were warned that if we got sustained heavy rain during the race, parts of the course could get washed out and the support vehicles would have to find detours to get around. Thankfully, we got very lucky with the weather and there was only one small section that Aaron and Natan had to avoid.

The Caminho (and the race course) is marked by yellow arrows painted all along the way. The arrows are painted on signs (like the one below), on trees, on fence posts and building walls through the towns. There were some official race arrows (the brighter yellow one below), but those were pretty rare. Following the yellow arrows was actually much easier than trying to follow regular race course ribbons and I can’t remember barely any places where we went more than a few minutes without an arrow.

The race starts with a road section going out of São João and then you turn off the road and onto the only part of the course that is single track and where the support vehicles absolutely cannot go. It’s about a 10-12 km stretch of pretty scenery with some short but steep climbs. There’s also a one-ish mile “jungle” section of the trail that in prior years, when it’s rained, has been a huge mess, but it was mostly dry, fun and sorta runnable for us. I ran most of that section with Maggie and her pacers. After that we got to the first support point in the town of Aguas da Prata. Aaron and Natan were waiting for me there. We filled up my bottle with Tailwind and I switched into my “Train Race Beer” hat from the Ginger Runner and took off.

My plan from the beginning was to be conservative at aid stops and to not rush getting what I needed from Aaron and Natan. I still have the memory of San Diego 100 burned into my brain and I think that one of my biggest mistakes there was hurrying through aid stations. At Brazil, I didn’t lollygag too much, but I did make sure that every time I took what I needed and what I would need between then and the next stop. I tried not to sit down for the first half or so of the race, but after that, I did sit for at least a couple seconds pretty much every time I came up to Aaron and Natan. There were a few times when I sat for longer; in order to eat something more substantial or to change clothes or go to the bathroom. In the end, I’m sure I spent at least 90-120 minutes at aid stops. That seems like a lot and probably was too much, but, on the other hand, I finished faster than I’d ever hoped and in better shape than I’d ever imagined. If I do the race again, I can push more.

Aaron and Natan were never too far away.

The next most memorable part of the race is the support point at the base of Pico Do Gavião. This comes at 32 km (20 miles) into the race and is the first major climb of the race. At the top of this 2.5 mile climb, you hit the highest point of the race (about 5,224 feet). It’s an out-and-back so after Aaron and Natan helped me refill my bottle and the bladder in my pack, Aaron did the climb and descent back to the car with me. It was a challenging climb- with some ridiculously steep sections – but I took it relatively easy and it didn’t seem too bad. The views up top were pretty amazing.

In fact, throughout the course, we had amazing views. The Caminho is surrounded by farmland and because of the amount of rain they get (I assume), it’s all very green. Which is so different from what I’m used to running through in LA. There were also tons and tons and tons of cows. All shapes, sizes and colors. In general, the cows didn’t pay me any attention, but every so often one would pick up it’s head and follow along with it’s eyes as I passed.

For the next 110 miles (!) after the climb up and descent down from Pico Do Gavião, the race was just about continuing to push forward, up a hill, down a hill, meeting up with Aaron and Natan every 3-8 kilometers to refill my bottle, have a little bit to eat and evaluate whether I needed to change any clothes or do anything else. There are very few sections of the course that are flat. You really are either climbing or descending the entire race. Some of those climbs and descents are mellow and some are really, really steep. One thing that I came to realize – and fear – was that any time the path was paved or, even worse, covered with cobblestones, it meant that it was time for something particularly steep and punishing. Some of those steep climbs really sucked, but thankfully, they all seemed to pass relatively quickly.

I ran mostly by myself, but I was almost never “alone”. Aaron and Natan were never too far away. Natan doesn’t drive and he also couldn’t run with me. So, it was up to Aaron to do all the driving and any pacing that he could. He didn’t sleep a wink during the race and kept me going the entire time. He also paced me for a fair number of miles of the race. Because of the car situation, he would drive ahead a bit and then jump out and run back to me, then turn around and pace me back to the car. Or a few times, he parked at the bottom of a big hill, climbed up with me and then ran back down to the car before driving to catch up. It was a bummer that he had to run two miles for every one mile that he paced me, but he was a trooper and kept at it with a great attitude. It’s no exaggeration to say that I can’t imagine what the race would have been like without him.

In addition to Aaron and Natan, there was usually another runner’s crew around me, even if their runner was a little ahead or a little behind. And nearly every crew who drove by me cheered me on and asked if I needed anything. There were a couple sections when I ran with Raphael Bonatto, who’d run Brazil a few times and also has finishes at Badwater and Arrowhead 135. He has lived in the US and his English was great. He and I actually ran together during one of my lowest points of the race (miles 55-60) and talking to him helped keep me going.

After running together for a little bit, Raphael stopped for food, but caught up with me a few hours later as I was running into the town of Ourofino, about half-way through the race:

At Ourofino, he stopped at a checkpoint to eat again and I didn’t see him again until after we’d both finished. Near sunrise on the second day, Magda and her relay partner caught up to me. Then, for most of the rest of the race, I got to see at least Flavio and Junior drive by in the crew vehicle. Those particularly friendly faces were very welcome. It was fun seeing them so regularly throughout the race.

We had generally great weather throughout the race. It never hit the extremes that I’d been warned about. It was warm and slightly humid throughout both days, instead of hot and dripping humid. For most of the race, we had cloud coverage, which was nice. During stretches of both afternoons it got pretty hot and when there was no cloud protection, the sun beating down got very hot. It rained a few times, but never very much or for very long. I did hear about some people up ahead of me who got caught in a heavy rain and hail storm, but I guess I was far enough back to miss it. The night cooled down nicely, but I never even considered putting on a long-sleeve shirt.

Running through the night went great. I saw Aaron and Natan all the time. There was one climb in the middle of the night when we hit a thick fog. My headlamp just reflected back into my eyes so I couldn’t see much of anything. I got a little nervous during that climb that I might miss a turn, but I was extra careful and it went fine. There was some lingering fog at sunrise on day two.

At around 6am on Saturday (hour 22), I took the below video:

As you can see from the above video, around sunrise on Saturday, I started getting a little tired. I had slowed down, but I was still pushing along. I didn’t know what to expect from the second day or the distance after 100 miles. But I passed 100 miles sometime around 24:30 and then passed through 26:30 (the longest time I’d ever run) without thinking too much about it. I was in the mode of just keeping moving forward.

It was around then that I decided it was time for caffeine. I switched to taking one scoop of the Raspberry Buzz (caffeinated) Tailwind with one scoop of the Naked flavor and also took one 5 Hour Energy and some caffeinated Clif and Honey Stinger chews. The first time I took caffeine, I made the mistake of waiting too long before taking it again and started to crash really hard. At one point I seriously considered just stopping to take a nap. But once I took some more caffeine and kept taking it for the rest of the race, I was doing great. 

I didn’t have any major problems during the race. As I mentioned, I had a low point somewhere around the middle of the race (distance-wise that is) but I bounced back from that decently well. I have a pretty strong stomach usually and that was the case at Brazil. I actually never had any stomach issues. I had a good appetite throughout the race and there wasn’t any point where I felt like I couldn’t eat anything. In fact, throughout the race, I generally felt like I could eat anything – I was taking in a bottle of Tailwind (200 calories) every 60-90 minutes and I supplemented with whatever was handy – gels, chews, almond butter sandwiches, waffles, dried seaweed, cookies, dried fruit, a bowl of soup. It all seemed to work. Stopping for soup at around mile 60 was HUGE though.

Getting those calories in was a big pick-up after a lowpoint in the race.  My hydration was also spot on – I drank Tailwind and plain water throughout and supplemented with S-Caps whenever it got hot or I started feeling a little dehydrated. I never had even the beginnings of a cramp.

I didn’t have any chafing issues either. I mostly used 2Toms Sportshield Roll-On and had great success with it. This was the first race I’d used it in and was really pleased.

My feet did pretty well, too. Or at least I didn’t notice how bad they were until I’d finished. Around mile 80ish, I started to develop a hot spot on the bottom of my left foot. At around mile 90, I took of my shoe, realized it was becoming a blister and decided to try to do something about it. I worked at it with a needle and threw on a bandaid and some duct tape. That worked OK. Then, later in the race, probably somewhere around mile 110 or 115, my feet started to feel much worse. I didn’t want to deal with taking off my shoes and socks and anyway, I figured it was too late to do much of anything about it, so I just pushed on. I was OK on the climbs and even the flat-ish areas, but descents were killer. Every step on each descent sent pain all through my feet. In a couple of the towns, the roads were paved with uneven, rectangle cobblestones. Those were by far the worst. There was a mental aspect to it as well – when I could put the pain out of my mind, running was OK. That mental toughness to push through pain is something I need to work on for the future. When I finished the race and took my shoes and socks off, I had some huge, nasty blisters on both feet – around each heel, on my toes and on the balls of my feet.  (I took pictures, but I don’t think I should post them here!) My feet had been hurting for a while, but honestly I had no idea they were that bad. This was the first time I’d ever gotten blisters like that. I don’t know if it was the Hokas I wore for the last 85 miles of the race or the Injinji socks or the humidity and damp conditions or the fact that I’d just run 135 miles. Most likely, it was a combination of all of those things. It’s something for me to think about if I ever decide to run over 100 miles again.

For days, I’d been hearing that the final marathon of the race is the toughest. And from looking at the profile that seems correct. There are a few really tough (steep and long) climbs near the end and with the cumulative tiredness and pounding any hills would seem rough. Also, it was getting hot again. But I mostly just put my head down and powered up and over them (the descents were slower than I would have liked…).  At one point in the last 10 miles we started to get a little rain, but it felt nice and I wouldn’t have minded some more of it. With about five or six miles to go, I sent Aaron and Natan ahead to the finish. Aaron said he’d work his way back to me on foot once they’d parked there. I knew that I was getting close and I felt pretty good. After some climbs between miles 125-130, I expected the course to be generally downhill to the end.

Before I left the US, I’d been telling people that I thought 38-40 hours was a realistic goal for me. Once I got to São João and starting talking to people and thinking more about the race, I began to realize that if all went decent during the race, I could finish in more like 36 hours. Then, once the race started and I was checking out my splits, I decided that I really wanted to finish in daylight. To me, that meant 7pm (35 hours). But as I approached the end of the race, I knew that I was way ahead of any of those goals.

With less than two miles to go, I saw Magda, Junior and Flavio up ahead. I caught up to them and ran past cheering and shouting. Then there was one final surprise. At first, all I saw was a very steep cobblestone descent, which seemed bad enough, but part-way down that descent, I saw that right up ahead was an equally steep (and thankfully fairly short) final climb. I was a little angry at first, but with no choice, I powered up it, passing one last runner near the top. From the top, I could see Paraisópolis and the church I was headed to. With about a half mile to go, Aaron met me and he and I ran it in to the finish. I was so happy to have him with me when we crossed the finish line. He was a huge part of that race and a gigantic reason why I’d made it through so successfully.

My official finishing time was 32:49:20, good enough for 14th overall (out of 85 finishers and 102 total starters). Needless to say, I was – and still am – very very proud of, and pleased, with my time.

After finishing, I got to sit down and finally take the handheld off my hand.

It was great to see a lot of friendly faces and get my medal and finisher’s shirt from Mario and Eliana and to get official pictures with Aaron and Natan.

In Part 2 of the report, I’ll write about some of the fun post-race activities we did. That post will be mostly pictures, I swear!

6 thoughts on “Brazil 135 – Race Report Part 1 (Pre-race and Race)”

  1. Lauren says:

    Josh!!!!! You are incredible!!!! Congratulations!! Loved reading your report. Thank you!

  2. Hell yeah dude!! EPIC report and am incredibly proud to call you a friend! Now I KNOW A GUY THAT DID THE IMPOSSIBLE!

  3. Billy says:

    Whew. Wow. Congrats again buddy. What a HUGE feat and accomplishment, especially considering the cultural/landscape differences of running ONE HUNDRED THIRTY FIVE miles in a totally different COUNTRY! (I sounded like Jimmy there didn’t I)

    Serious kudos to you but an even bigger kudos to Aaron considering the driving/pacing. Brother of the decade.

    Congrats again!

  4. Boom….I know this experience added great value to your life! I’m so glad you could come run the BR135 this year for the special 10th year anniversary of the event!!! Jarom

  5. johnt says:

    Good work out there brother.

  6. afuntanilla says:

    i am thrilled for you, josh! you freaking did it!! what an amazing adventure. go josh go!

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