Swimming the Amazon: 3,274 Miles on the World's Deadliest River

69 Comments

martin strel amazon

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 1, 2008.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

69 comments on “Swimming the Amazon: 3,274 Miles on the World's Deadliest River

  1. Thanks for this reminder Tim.

    To pay you back, I’ll offer this– Solo ocean rower and environmentalist Roz Savage, after rowing the Atlantic, is on a Voyage to be the first woman ever to row the Pacific. (a quick goog will find her blog/podcast)

    Both people are entirely inspirational.

    Again, thanks!

    Like

  2. That is absolutely amazing, I would be willing to do just about anything to master a level of determination and extreme concentration that this man has been able to master.

    Once again he has proven that nothing is impossible and everything is always

    Mind Over Matter.

    Like

  3. DId you post this as motivation to others, or is this foreshadowing a great task that you are aiming at accomplishing in the near future? Or both.

    I do enjoy your choice of inspirational icons. People who live trying to fulfill their dreams and get the most out of life rather than those who know how to make money, but in less than admirable ways. Money is nice, but living life on your own terms is far more satisfying.

    But for how many people is such a lifestyle possible? I suppose without trying we’d never know and without knowing we’d never truly live without regret.

    Cheers.

    Like

  4. I didnt even know this was possible! Which I guess it wasn’t until now. What happened about sleep though, did he manage to sleep while floating, or not sleep at all, smth else?

    Like

  5. Hi Brian,

    Though not religious myself, I think faith in something larger than oneself is a tremendous aid in sports performance. If you think God is on your side, as some fighters do, it’s a tremendous confidence boost, to say the least.

    Best,

    Tim

    Like

  6. I enjoyed the article here––especially because I’d been prepped by reading the day-by-day, blow-by-blow, blog entries that appeared on BBC Mundo, in español. I did that reading because it was interesting to me, and because it helped me read things in Spanish. I learned some things about endurance by reading those entries––about doing what was intended even though it turned out to be harder than it was visualized to be. I’m about to embark on a trip, of sorts––the allopathic cure (attempt) for hepatitis C. The strong chemicals make some people feel pretty bad, and many just cack out. I want to make it to the end, do the whole thing. You gotta do what you gotta do,…or quit and never know how the trip would’ve gone, but know for sure that you quit.

    Like

  7. Hi everybody!

    First I would like to say thanks to Tim for a great book. It can really change your life.

    Second I come from Slovenia and I am very happy to see my fellow citizen appear on such a great blog. I am proud that a 2 million country has many great people like Martin:
    – Jure Robi? – first human to win RAAM 4 times (http://www.jurerobic.net/index.php?id=71)
    – Dušan Mravlje – won TRANSAMERICA ’95 – 4800 km and about 100 other ultra-marathons (http://www.dusanmravlje.si/rezultati.html)
    – Tomaž Humar – The World’s Best All-Around Climber (http://www.humar.com/pdf/whosthegreatest.pdf)

    Tim, Martin and others alike should be referred to as role models for young people to fight depressions, laziness, boredom and MTV-like values

    All Best,

    Štefan

    Like

  8. great story and just shows that we are all capable of doing exceptional things if we remove ourselves from the our everyday ruts. The only problem is the depression that comes when you return home and find the same old boring things taking place.

    thanks for the write up.

    Like

  9. In April 2010 I swam for only about 10 minutes in the Amazon River, at the confluence with the Rio Negro, during a one-day boat trip from Manaus. Swimming between the relatively cool waters of the Solimoes (the main, westerly branch of the Amazon) and the warmer, clearer water of the Rio Negro felt great. A combination of reading Martin’s report, reading about tourists swimming to feed dolphins and realizing that populations living along the Amazonas and its tributaries routinely swim and bathe in this river system influenced my decision to dive in without much trepidation. But my main motivation was to make a statement, namely that the Amazon River is not the deadly river it is made to be in popular discourse but a hugely diverse ecosytem that is a huge carbon sink and with its immense oxygen production the “lungs of the world” that we need to protect. This is all the more important now that more than 150 dams are being planned in the Amazon system, more than 70 in Brazil alone. They will change the ecology of this system forever, most likely for the worse, because the more than 2000 species of fish and many other other aquatic life forms are adapted to the seasonal flow fluctuations in river flow and are unlikly to adapt to lake-like and more stagnant water conditions behind dams. Increasing human populations around those dams and in rapidly sprouting towns and the industries the hydro-dams are planned to power, together with ongoing deforestation will all contribute to degrade the Amazon river system. Brazil’s environmental movement is becoming stronger and environmental legislation is gradually being enforced. Nevertheless, some practices, especially dam building without adequate environmental impact assessment, illegal logging and forest burning, all of which impoverish local people and destroy nature will remain a major concern of all persons and organizations fighting to manage the immense natural resources of the Amazon Basin in a responsible manner that ensures their sustainability for future generations.
    I but plan to write more on rivers as I revisit Brazil and Africa during my retirement years. I am 71 years old and have crossed the half-mile wide Jequitinhonha River in southeastern Brazil swimming, as well as the Nile in Egypt and the Awash River in Ethiopia. My goal is not to set long-distance swimming records but to enjoy rivers (also lakes and oceans) and help manage them wisely.

    Like

  10. I hope I did not bore anyone with that long piece with an environmental bent above but it describes experiences and ideas I wanted to present to the younger generation for some time. Today I want to add a note of caution to all newcomers to the Amazon who are thinking about swimming there. Although the Amazon may not be the “deadliest river” (the Nile south of Aswan Dam has larger and more aggressive crocodiles) it does claim the lives of people unfamiliar with the local aquatic life or who do not have a back-up team in a boat nearby as Martin did. I have not had a chance yet to read the book about Martin’s swim, which undoubtedly contains useful information for swimmers, but strongly recommend that anybody interested in swimming in the Amazon talk to the locals first and, ideally, go swimming with them, or swim when going on small boat tours with knowledgable tour guides on board.
    All the best,
    Helmut

    Like

  11. Thank you very much for sharing your experience with us, Helmut!!
    It was very interesting to read about your environmental standpoint and I really appreciate that you took the time to write all this down down for us to understand.
    Viele liebe Grüße aus Hessen.

    Like