Swimming the Amazon: 3,274 Miles on the World’s Deadliest River 69 Comments
February 8–Inahuaya, Peru
The more dangerous the trip gets, the more momentary we all become. Songs sound better, foods taste better, and seventy-cent-a-bottle cane whiskey is fun to drink.
Last year on April 8th, Slovenian marathon swimmer Martin Strel became the first man to swim the entire length of the Amazon River from headwaters in Peru to the Brazilian port city of Belém: 3,274 miles. It took him 66 days with a support crew of near twenty people following him in a boat for protection.
He’d already conquered the Danube, the Mississippi, and the Yangtze. In 1997, he became the first to swim non-stop from Africa to Europe, and he did it in 29 hours, 36 minutes, and 57 seconds… without a wetsuit. WTF? Seven swimmers had attempted it before and all had failed.
The Amazon was different. As the “Fish Man,” as the locals called him, reached the finish line at Belém, he had to be helped to his feet and ushered into a wheelchair amidst a cheering crowd. His blood pressure was at heart-attack levels and his entire body was full of subcutaneous larvae. But he lived to tell the tale.
I recently caught up with Martin about how he trained for and accomplished this feat… Don’t miss the excerpt at the end, which I included specifically for those of you — like me — who don’t quite fit in with the masses.
1) What were the biggest challenges you faced on the Amazon swim?
The biggest challenges were:
–Dealing with pirates; trying to not come into their hands.
We tried to go through their territories unnoticed, and use local people and their knowledge to help us.
–Piranhas, snakes, spiders, candirú, bull shark or other animals which make unpredictable attack; you have to be ready all the time if any piranha attack you. We had some buckets of blood ready in case of emergency, to distract the piranha and get them away from me if necessary. We saw a deadly bushmaster snake, but luckily I didn’t step on it. If I had stepped on it I would have been dead in less than an hour.
–Malaria, dengue and other unknown infections I could easily get in such a water/jungle environment. It looks like I have an “iron” body and very good immune system.
–Floating debris; I tried not to touch any of the debris floating downstream as it might carry a snake, spider, red ants or any other poisonous animals
–Peeing; I didn’t pee into the water straight as this attracts a very dangerous fish called the candirú, which lodges up human orifices with a razor-like spike and then sucks your blood. I was peeing all the time through the wetsuit.
2) How do you train for preparation?
Yearly I do 400 training sessions in the pool, ocean and rivers, 100 cross country ski sessions, 75 hiking and 75 gymnastic sessions. I train from 3 to 5 hours a day. Beside physical training I also do mental training in the forest around the fire or along the river banks. I try to get the energy from river flow and then turn it into my desire. It works pretty well if you are able to make it happen.
3) What’s more important: physical or mental power?
On my swims I’d say mental power. It is true it does not work with great physical training but I do strongly believe that there are many other good swimmers who could swim as I do, but they do not have their mind ready. And this is mental strength where I am really good. I could not do such great swim 20 years ago when I was much younger, now I can do it. And the reason is I am now mentally matured.
4) What do you eat and drink while swimming and recovering?
I eat regular food from soups, pastas, carbohydrates, fruit, vegetables to meat. I do not eat much meat because it is too heavy for me to swim afterward. Besides this I also consume a lot of liquid. Mainly I drink energy drink from Gatorade, Enervit and Spring Of Life. I do not drink “energetic bombs” like Red Bull. And I do drink wine and/or beer every day, even while swimming. This gives me a special power and relaxation I could not live without.
5) Did you ever come close to giving up on the Amazon swim?
Yes, there were moments I was thinking of going home. First one was right at the beginning when our main escort boat got stuck into the mud and I was far away on the river alone with the small navigating boat. A logistical problem.
There were also hundreds of daily organizational/logistical problems from the beginning and lots dangerous places on the river that I could drown. And i was afraid to continue. I was asking myself if I chose too big challenge this time, and if I might never make it and lose my life.
But at the same time, I got the positive, bright answer: NO. I want to conquer all these obstacles and stay alive. I wanted to show the world how important is to keep this place of the world clean and undestroyed, and at the same time achive the my mission that has never been done.
6) What goes through your mind when you are on a long swim?
While I am swimming long distances I am rolling very interesting different films and stories in my head in order to forget about swimming and pains that I have in my body. Basically I am like a robot and if someone suddenly “wakes me up,” I usually get angry, because I fall out of my concentration. This “robot stage” is an ability of high-level concentration, which works like hypnosis. So I could say that if you want to forget your pains and action you have to know how to put yourself into hypnotism.
This hypnotized stage could last up to one hour on my swims and I can repeat several times a day. I needed many years to train/teach myself how to do it. I could not do this when I was younger.
Otherwise, I think about everything. It’s difficult to just swim. I talk with myself and animals around me for many hours, play guitar in my mind, talk to God, talk with my wife. I believe when I was talking to my wife in the middle of the Amazon, she knew, thousands of miles away in Slovenia.
7) What is life like after completing a big swim? How do you get motivated to do it again?
My feelings are dreamlike. I worked hard, trained hard, and dreamed that someday, I would swim in the great Amazon river. Now my dream has come true. I feel that my mission in life is fulfilled, and should I pass away tomorrow, I am satisfied.
If there is another project I am going to take on, it will have to be an absolute new challenge for me. I have done the greatest rivers on earth. The only way you can devote yourself completely is to challenge yourself to do something unbeaten.
Excerpt from The Man Who Swam the Amazon, written by Matthew Mohlke, who was a river guide on the Amazon trip:
So, why do we follow Martin down the Mississippi, the Danube, the Amazon, or the Yangtze? The answer is simple:
An expedition is 95 percent misery and 5 percent ecstasy. After three weeks of constant motion in a land far way from home, something strange occurs in the sould of a man. He gets broken. The first symptom is a tired or sick feeling, maybe even some fear and a little helplessness. Loneliness. Then something slowly changes within. The old attachments start to fade and he becomes completely present. He forgets about all the crap that keeps him up at night back home. None of it matters anymore.
The same man who may be the shy, passive, no-balls type back home in the office or factory can evolve into a [person] who can share a table with the toughest of hombres and throw back beers with unswerving eyes, enjoying every minute of it.
After going home and dealing with all the meaningless details of electricity bills, lawn mowing, mortgage payments, and an unfulfilling job, a period of depression inevitably occurs. Those people back home can’t understand why he’d leave his cozy existence behind again for three more months to jump at the next opportunity to subject himself to such misery and danger.
But they just don’t get it.
Posted on July 1st, 2008