Ruth’s Panama coast to coast adventure

STAC’s Ruth Muir undertook an epic challenge of doing the Pacific to the Atlantic coast of Panama. This was a total of 137miles and 24,500ft of elevation over 9 days! Ruth describes her adventure:

Days 1&2: road and trail running, a total of 56miles and ~8000ft of elevation

Days 3-7: trekking through primary jungle fully self-sufficient, a total of 53miles and ~16,500ft elevation and descent

Days 8&9: pack rafting, including Grades 1-3 white water rapids, still self sufficient

34 of us started, 21 finished (3 women)

– 2 were stopped after the run stage as deemed not strong enough to continue.

– 9 were turned around after the “easy” 1st day in the jungle and trekked back out on day 2 due to a combination of injury, infected blisters from the road stage or deemed to have insufficient physical/mental aptitude to continue.

– 2 were evacuated by military med-helicopter on day 6 due to exhaustion/dehydration – deemed too risky to themselves or to us for them to continue.

Key points:

Road stage – relentless, 32degrees and 80% humidity from 08.30am. A challenge to balance salt/sugar/fluids, I did day 1 on 3 litres of coca cola! Great camraderie and pitstops though. Day 2 more fun as “undulating”, day 1 started with 15miles of pretty relentless flat tarmac along some relatively busy roads.

Jungle stage – think Hardmoors elevation, mud and camraderie, but double it. Then add in a 20kg backpack carrying everything for 5 days, Tough Mudder type obstacles (over/under trees), remove any signage and force navigation, remove the path and instead ask 4 locals to cut the way as best they can with machetes, add hanging a hammock (often on a 45deg mudslope 400m uphill from water) and cooking expedition meals in the dark and wet when you got in each day, getting up at 4am to tape macerated feet before putting back on your filthy wet clothes and take down camp/make breakfast, and cumulative dehydration/exhaustion.

  • it’s hard to explain the terrain, hopefully the pictures help a bit. Average pace is 1-1.5mph, sometimes it took over an hour to do 1km with people falling frequently and trying to get back up with their packs on

  • in reality this was tougher than it was meant to be, the water sources we were meant to have on days 5, 6 and 7 weren’t where they were meant to be or had dried up and the state of the 2 competitors who were med-evac’ed meant we didn’t make the distance on days 5 or 6 and had to construct makeshift camps short these days

  • that meant a 18.5mile trek on day 7 … up at 3.30am and starting at 5am by headtorch. It took the fastest 4 of us 16hours and 9mins, we did the last 3+ hours in the dark again: exhausted, rock climbing on tiny ledges with our packs on, up and down massive mud or rock banks, with 6 deep river crossings and we all went beyond in terms of mental and physical ability. Everyone lost it at some point!

  • the mental challenge of little sleep (you try sleeping in a hammock in primary jungle with the associated noises and exhausted legs that cramp up!), not washing, no creature comforts at all and the reality of blisters/chafing/bites, no contact with home etc definitely added to how hard it was. Strange what bothered me and didn’t – I craved clean water out of clean glass with clean hands by the end!

Pack rafting stage – a joyous laugh and chance to enjoy the stunning scenery after being head down focussed on getting it done for the last couple of days! I’ve never rafted let alone rapids, but the water was so warm capsizing was no hardship and it seemed so tame after the jungle it was all great fun.

Would I recommend it? If you want to really test yourself yes, but if you want an adventure holiday probably not. It’s the toughest of their events, and I think most allow for more of the experience we had on the run and rafting stages – physical challenge but balanced by relaxed evenings and good food. I think there will be changes for next year in reality, I’m not sure they can sustain that % of people failing to complete an event you pay a lot of money for … but you can’t change the jungle so we’ll see, maybe they’ll change the information/selection/preparation so more people are physically better prepared for it.

Would I do it again? In reality, yes but I’d train properly for it next time, and I’m more keen to seek out another adventure in a different part of the world I’m yet to explore. They have asked if I’ll go back next year as the medical support though, so we’ll see …

Why did I do it? It took me a while to process this, we all had our reasons. Other than a midCovid crisis (my words!) or midlife crisis (my husband’s words!) I realised I’d lived the highs, lows, laughter, tears and challenge of this 100% as me “Ruth” – not as a wife/mum/GP/Medical Director. I’m back to being all of those again now with a refreshed and renewed sense of self underneath which I needed after the last few years. Hopefully I’ve inspired my kids to seek out adventure and push their limits as they grow up, and it did all of them good to be without me for 2 weeks!