How one couple ran over 6,000 miles through South America

Katharine Lowrie can’t be the only woman who dreamed as a young girl of trekking through the Amazon. But the ecologist from Devon is one of the few who made her dream a reality – becoming the first woman to run not only the length of the Amazon but the entire continent of South America, along with her husband, David. 

‘We’ve always had a passion for running, wildlife and wild places,’ says the 39-year old. ‘So when it came to planning our dream expedition, South America was top of the list.’ The journey would take them through extreme environments, from steaming rainforests to snowcapped mountain peaks and the searing heat of the desert. ‘We wanted to test our bodies to the limit – to see whether two everyday runners could tackle a continent and, while doing so, inspire other people to put on their running shoes,’ adds David.

To achieve a world’s first was one of the couple’s aims, but they also wanted to draw attention to the incredible biodiversity of the region and raise awareness and funds for environmental conservation.

When they sat down to plan the route – heading north from Chile to Venezuela – they calculated the distance to be 5,000 miles and named their challenge ‘The 5000-Mile Project’. But these two keen sailors – who had spent much of the four previous years monitoring Caribbean seabirds from their boat – mistakenly made their measurements using nautical miles instead of land miles. ‘It was a real shocker when we realised the true distance was closer to 6,500 miles,’ laughs Katharine.

The couple wanted to be fully self-sufficient, carrying all their belongings in a homemade trailer that, depending on provisions, could weigh 40-100kg. ‘Push or pull became the great debate,’ says David. ‘We opted for a pulling setup – a bit like a glorified rickshaw, but with the ability to run hands-free with a waistband harness.’

They averaged 20 miles a day during their 15-month trip, one pulling the trailer for five miles while the other person ran unencumbered. ‘There’s obviously the issue of extra weight when you’re pulling the trailer, but it also affects your running style, tipping the whole body forward,’ explains David. Some pre-trip Skype lessons on running technique had helped them master a barefoot-style running form: ‘We believe this helped us stay injury-free to some extent,’ says David. ‘But from sheer necessity we ran through niggles that we would have sought treatment for, or at least rested, had we been at home.’

Downhill stretches were especially tough on the knees. ‘I’d decided against putting brakes on the trailer, for weight purposes,’ says David. ‘But in retrospect, it’s the one thing I would change.’ At one point, he had such serious trouble with his hip that the pair feared the trip might be in jeopardy. But, thankfully, it settled. ‘Our bodies were remarkably resilient.’

Their days began before dawn. ‘We’d be on the move by 5am,’ says Katharine. ‘It was so tough getting up and out in the dark, but it was worthwhile to get some respite from the oven-like heat. Some places were so hot and so dry that we were each drinking 10 litres of water a day.’

But the pre-dawn coolness wasn’t the only reason for rising early. Their trip took them through some of the most dangerous regions on the continent. ‘In Venezuela, we spent a month living in fear,’ David admits. ‘People were so concerned for our safety they would plead with us not to carry on. They saw a couple of gringos with a bright orange trailer and imagined we were naive to the dangers.’

The gold-mining areas were particularly notorious, with gang-run towns and sky-high rates of violent crime and drug trafficking. ‘We would get moving as early as possible and run until midday – then we’d get off the road, into the undergrowth and out of sight, avoiding settlements where the drunks and druggies hung out,’ says David. ‘We often heard gunshots at night.’

While humans might have posed the biggest threat, the jungle wasn’t without its hazards. One night, not far from the alarmingly nicknamed ‘jaguar road’ that spans the Amazon rainforest, they heard something thrashing around outside the tent. Having lain awake listening to a cacophony of extraordinary shrieks and calls, David could no longer stand the suspense and looked out – to find a tapir, a nocturnal hoofed mammal. ‘We had a top-of-the-range featherweight tent, but after that I made a new tent with mosquito net panels we could see out of,’ he laughs.

Another time, villagers in a remote settlement looked on with interest as David and Katharine strung up their hammocks in a nearby tree. Within minutes of climbing in, they were being eaten alive by tiny vicious ants. ‘They were in hysterics!’ says Katharine.

On that occasion, the villagers had the edge when it came to local knowledge, but highlighting the unique ecological diversity of the area was an important aspect of the trip for Katharine and David. They visited schools and villages along the way to share their knowledge and passion, and to emphasise the importance – and fragility – of the region.

With flights home already booked, and media duties to attend to at the finish, the last nine days of the trip became a race against time – with the exhausted pair covering the distance of a marathon a day – with more than 6,000 miles already on the clock. ‘We played games to keep going,’ says Katharine. ‘We’d do our top 10s – favourite foods, books or animals, and why we liked them.’

David and Katharine arrived at the shores of the Caribbean Sea in Carύpano, Venezuela, on October 20, 2013 – 15 months after they’d set off from Cabo Froward, on the southern tip of Chile. They’d swum through glacial rivers, run through snow and desert, endured temperatures ranging from freezing to 45 degrees centigrade, fled from a swarm of bees, pulled the trailer uphill for an entire week in the Andes and survived the often-fatal Hanta virus. Did such a monumental adventure bring them closer?

Ultimately, yes, believes Katharine. ‘We’ve been through so much together. But there were times, especially at the beginning, when we wondered whether we’d be still be married by the finish. It was tough. We were constantly tired, hungry and in some degree of pain – and we had very different ideas about how to do things, be it pack the tent or cook a meal. But right in the middle of bickering over something, a macaw would fly overhead and you’d suddenly remember what it was all about and feel so happy and privileged.’

The four years since the couple’s return from South America have been far from idle – they now have two children (Theo, 2, and Beth, 1) and are working on setting up an ecological field centre and barefoot running camp in Devon. ‘Writing the book was an amazing experience,’ says Katharine. ‘Going over our diary entries was like reliving the expedition – the feelings, observations and thoughts felt so raw and real. And yet in some ways, when we look back on the feat we achieved, it all seems like a dream.’

Katharine’s book about the epic journey Running South America with my Husband and Other Animals is out now.