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

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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.

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

  1. That’s incredible.

    I understand the difference between being physically matured and mentally matured.

    Tim, is this something you’re likely to consider doing? Not the “Amazon Swim”, but something of this monumental aspiration? You always say that when you dream big and aim high, there isn’t much in the way of competition.

    Like

  2. Awesome! Interesting to note how highly he values his mental powers alongside his physical ones. I like the bit about how he talks to his wife while he swims even though she is thousands of miles away.

    So, Tim, will we see you single-handedly circumnavigating the globe as your next project? ;-)

    Like

  3. What an amazing story. I find it inspiring for a person to do something so physically and mentally challenging.

    Last week I blogged about taking a 30 day challenge to not watch TV. I think most people that read blogs like mine and 4HWW are doing so because they set out to accomplish something… Because they want to use their willpower to get something done. My blog simply carried the message “What significant task can you accomplish if you can’t even keep your TV off for a month?” I obviously didn’t invent this type of test. My mentor handed it to me years ago, and Tim you write about a “media fast” in your book. I think it’s a great exercise/test of willpower. (It’s slightly off topic… but this type of challenge can exercise a person’s willpower “muscle” to prepare them to move on to bigger challenges)

    The especially interesting part of this post about the Amazon swimmer is how he visualized and imagined making the swim… and then even visualized other interesting things during the swim. This should speak volumes about the power of intention and visualization.

    Like

  4. Another Great Post Tim.

    Such an inspiring person. It’s important to plan ‘Big Ticket’ events in your life: achievements that you will always look back on in pride and awe. Obviously, Martin is someone for whom big ticket events are events that are beyond the reach of many of us. However, his example is inspiring in that it really helps us to see how doing amazing things can really enliven your life (not to mention making kick-ass memories when your 90 and looking back over the years!).

    Awesome.

    Steve.

    Like

  5. Fascinating read, and that book goes immediately on the old wish list. Puts my current challenge to run every day for an entire year somewhat to shame, but, you know, one thing at a time…! :)

    Kudos to the guy for having beer and wine every day – even in this extremes, it’s nice to see a bit of moderation and balance in there, too.

    Also, aren’t there large crocodiles in the Amazon? He doesn’t mention them in his least-wanted list. I’d have thought they’d have been the biggest concern by far. Piranha attacks on humans are the stuff of myth, and while bull sharks can and do attack people, they’re nowhere near as prevalent as crocs.

    Be grateful this all didn’t take place a few years ago when monsters like this were in your slipstream… ;)

    Like

  6. The last part is critical. Leaving the “cozy existence” to pursue a fulfilling and action packed life is one that makes life worth living. If we look through history those whom went against the grain seem to have found some deeper meanings in life.

    Pura Vida

    Jose Castro-Frenzel

    PS. I am going to Corn Island in Nicaragua, I will send a video I am making over there : )

    Like

  7. tim,

    he seems almost unhinged living in a different reality altogether, not only in his swims but often in his day-to-day routines, training etc.

    did you get that impression when you spoke with him?

    great post.
    w

    Like

  8. Great post Tim. It didn’t mention in the post how old he was, do you know? An awesome accomplishment for a twenty something, but me thinks he is no where near that young. I will definitely be getting the book.

    Sean

    Like

  9. Great read. He and Dean Karnazes have a lot in common. One swims ridiculous distances and the other one runs ridiculous distances.

    They both say they are not the best in their field but they can keep going longer.

    Like

  10. What an amazing guy! While I was reading this I had the image in my mind of being one of the support crew.
    I love what he said about the hypnotic state. I think I have managed to get into this state before when writing or sitting exams; a state of complete focus but relaxed focus, where you have a mind like water.
    Great post!

    Like

  11. Tim, do you know more about Martin’s self-hypnosis methdos?

    The feat itself is not as fascinating as the mental powers Martin summoned to achieve it.

    The Tibetan (and many other spiritual practitioners) spend almost 100% of their time honing this power of mind to perform similar less public feats. Meditation is a kind of self-hypnosis. I would be intrigued to know of Martin’s methods.

    As we all know, Einstein said we only use 10% of our brains.

    Like

  12. Hey Tim,

    If you would like to swim some awsome rivers in Australia just let me know! Travel accomodation included!!

    You are inspriring mate!

    jas.

    Like

  13. Strel is truly an inspiration, but kudos to Mohlke not only for documenting the swim, but for understanding and so gracefully describing the transformation that occurs from normal –> lonely –> reinvented during a long trip, particularly one where you are completely out of your element, your country, your language. And particularly the suffocating feeling that occurs when you return back to what normal used to be.

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  14. Learn more about Martin Strel at his website, and here is the official website for his Amazon swim.

    @ Thelma, that 10 per cent of brains thing is pseudo-science. Einstein was, in fact, making a joke that the press took as a factual statement.

    We all use 100 per cent of our brains. People like the idea that there’s this great untapped reserve because it gives you hope, but unfortunately it’s simply not true.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_brain#Common_misconceptions

    Like

  15. Hey, Tim. The last excerpt is very interesting. It reminds me of how your “About” page lists Kenzaburo Oe as a major influence. I was wondering if you would consider posting on that topic, though it’s not exactly recent.

    (Haven’t read 4HWW, so I don’t know if you mention him there.)

    Great blog.

    Like

  16. Hi All,

    To be honest, it’s not clear to me how Martin enters his hypnotic state. It seems, based on the book and other feedback, that it’s more of a trance he enters after some period of the repetitive swimming. Distance runners often cite a similar experience.

    Jose, put the video up on YouTube and tag it “4hww jose” so we can find it! Would love to visit Nicaragua some time.

    Pura vida,

    Tim

    Like

  17. To make things clear:
    1. He swims with flippers
    2. He swims down with the stream of the river

    So it was checked and confirmed that in without the stream, he swims an average of 20 miles a day, which is also nice.

    Like