In an awe-inspiring tale of friendship and determination, two adventurers, John Belton and his long-time friend, Spencer Matthews, set out to conquer the unimaginable – the 2023 Jungle Ultra Marathon. Spencer’s idea led them to raise funds for the Michael Matthews Foundation while pushing their endurance limits. The self-sufficient race demanded intense training in the Algarve to acclimatize to the extreme conditions. Throughout the gruelling 230 km course, they supported each other but ran individual races, finishing 2nd and 3rd out of a select few competitors. The experience taught them invaluable lessons in goal-setting, intuition, and perseverance. Now, they look to new horizons, forever bitten by the allure of extreme challenges.
“A serious test of body, mind and soul” – Spencer Matthews
So how did the pairing of you and Spencer begin and whose idea was it to challenge yourselves to the utter limit to compete in the 2023 Jungle Ultra Marathon?
Spencer and I have been friends for quite some time. Spencer‘s wife Vogue is a longtime client and friend of mine. Spencer and I have completed extreme endurance events in the past. Spencer was the one who came up with the idea of taking on one of the toughest stage races in the world, the jungle ultra. We raised lots of money for the Michael Matthews Foundation, and yes, it definitely helped drive us forward in the race knowing that there was a bigger picture cause that we were competing for.
Did you help one another throughout the challenge, or were there times when the competitive nature within the pair of you took hold? You finished an amazing 2nd and 3rd out of how many competitors?
An ultramarathon is a difficult race to compete alongside someone because you will be at different paces at different times. I believe that to get the most out of a race like this you need to spend time on your own, focusing on your own pace, your own nutrition, your own recovery, and your own survival. We did help each other in the middle of the race for a couple of days, but in general, we ran our own races. However, knowing that there was someone there on the course with you gives a nice level of confidence when you’re in such an extreme environment, of course, we both have a competitive side so I was never gonna let Spencer beat me. In the last nine years, only 50 people have completed the full course in this race. It is referred to as the toughest multi-stage race in the world.
You’re based in the Algarve now with your wife, Adrienne. How did you mentally and physically train for the hostility and gruelling humid temperatures of the jungle?
The Algarve is actually a fantastic place to train for an event like this where you can experience all of the environmental challenges, i.e. extreme heat and hills, running in soft sand, undulating hills, or fast road sections. I was able to create some great training sessions for myself that definitely helped me acclimatise to the extreme conditions of the Amazon training with a ruck and hiking through the hills was a staple part of my week.
How do you maintain your motivation and focus during the long stages of the race when fatigue and discomfort set in?
When running a race like this, you only ever run to the next checkpoint you never think any further past that. I break the race down into micro goals of getting to the next marker, which could be only 100 m away. If you were to look at the full distance of 230 km in a straight line it would be extremely overwhelming, so like any big task in life it’s very important that you break it down into micro goals and have a clear plan to get you from one goal to the next. Fatigue and discomfort are just all parts of races like this, so it’s not a shock when they set in. What is important is that you have a strategy in place for when things do go wrong and you don’t allow your mind to take over.
What role does nutrition play in your training and during the race itself? Do you have any specific dietary strategies which enabled you to gain maximum performance and recovery?
This was a self-sufficient race so we had to carry our own food for each day. We were burning approximately 9000 cal per day, but carrying about 3500 cal, so I was in a pretty extreme calorie deficit for the entire race. As part of my training, I did train in a fasted state quite a lot to get my body used to utilising fat as a source of energy and not being dependent on large meals to get me through. I also used a product called Tailwind which you can get in Portugal, which is a really good powdered carbohydrate and electrolytes source. I found this extremely beneficial when I did the ice ultra last year and again for the extreme amount of water that was lost during the jungle ultra most days. I was consuming approximately 9 to 12 L of water so you need more than simply water in this case, you need good quality electrolytes as well, to prevent dehydration and cramping.
How do you manage your energy and ace throughout the race to ensure you can sustain your effort over multiple days?
My belief is that these races are not just about being asked to get from A to B. They are 24 seven so it’s extremely important to manage your recovery. As soon as the race is over each day most people want to lie down and rest and get out of the sun. I made a point of getting food in, getting my water in and attending to any cuts and bruises I might have. I make a point of getting as much sleep as I can and focusing on recovery as it is where the magic happens. So getting to bed early, getting good quality sleep, switching your mind off using meditation and breathwork and nourishing your body is extremely important for a multiple-day event
Did you make any specific adjustments or adaptations to your training or equipment for the unique demands of the Jungle Ultra Marathon?
Yes, I got used to training in consecutive days with a large volume so my training would have three days of intensity, then three days off, the goal being to really load up on volume in the intensity days and on the days off relax and recover and adapt quickly. I only had nine weeks to train for the event so this had to be the approach. I also did quite a lot of rucking and backpack work in Vale Judeu and the hills in that area. Working out in the high sun to get used to working out under extreme heat was extremely beneficial
Can you share any tips or advice for individuals considering participating in their first ultra-endurance event, particularly in extreme environments like the Amazon?
I would advise doing something a little shorter to start. I would say complete a marathon before you complete an ultramarathon, but I would say that most people don’t realise their true potential in life. Everyone has the capacity to achieve a lot more than you realise so if anyone is on the fence, I would say take it on. Enjoy the experience and you can learn a huge amount about yourself.
What personal lessons or insights have you gained from competing in the Jungle Ultra Marathon that has translated into other areas of your life or athletic endeavours?
I’ve learned that the strategies I used to get through multi-stage events, with micro Goals, a structured plan and non-negotiables are extremely important for me to take into my own life. I’ve also learnt to trust in my own ability and trust in my own intuition that I know what’s needed. I also learned that when I don’t run my own race if I try to follow somebody else or let someone else set the pace my mind can wander. I can switch to autopilot and I don’t perform at the best of my capacity. I work better when I have set goals and have a plan. This directly applies to life, how I work and how I get through my day-to-day things
What other challenges are there on the horizon for you?
Would that also include Spencer or have you had enough of him? Spencer is actually a great guy to do these events with. We know how to give each other enough space yet we both know that we’ve got each other there if needed. We don’t have any events on the horizon yet as I’m about to become a dad and that’s possibly the most important endurance event I’ll ever take on, however, we have been bitten by this extreme challenge bug so I have no doubt that there will be something crazy in the near future.