The Beyond the Ultimate (BTU) Jungle Ultra is a five-day stage race and one of the toughest ultramarathons in the world–so tough that only 50 people have ever completed it. This year, Norwegian runner Gabriella Mathisen was the first woman to cross the finish line, and was one of only six runners to make it to the end. Her time was
The BTU Jungle Ultra covers 230 km of jungle terrain through Manu National Park in Peru. Set deep in the rainforest, runners battle mud, thick undergrowth, river crossings and altitude to make it to the finish line. Despite 300 attempts in the last eight years, very few manage to complete the entire course.
From addiction to ultras
Mathisen’s accomplishment in the Peruvian jungle is impressive in its own right, but her story of how she got there makes it all the more inspiring. Growing up in a violent and dysfunctional home, she had a difficult childhood that led her down a very dark path.
“My father was an alcoholic and my mother was also a drug abuser, so I grew up really, really tough,” says Mathisen. “I got into a lot of bad stuff–drugs, prostitution, everything that you can imagine.”
At 18, Mathisen got an infection in her right arm and ended up in a coma for six weeks. Against all odds, she survived, but her arm had to be amputated.
A few years later, Mathisen had a wake-up call that led her to change her life. Her 27-year-old cousin, with whom she was very close, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Mathisen was regularly using heroin at this time, and her aunt (who had been her only caregiver her entire life) confronted her about it.
“She said to me, ‘I’m going to lose my daughter and her children are going to lose their mother. You must promise me that you will stop with heroin, because you don’t have to die,’” says Mathisen.
Five days after her cousin died, Mathisen’s aunt took her own life. “So then it became a life mission,” she says. “Stop with drugs, even though I didn’t know any other way, because of my upbringing with my parents.”
Mathisen moved to the mountains for a year and began running as a way to replace her trauma with more positive memories. She ran as a tribute to her aunt, whom she credits with giving her a moral compass.
One of Mathisen’s greatest heroes is Terry Fox. She learned about the Canadian running icon for the first time right before her first marathon, and his story helped her believe she could accomplish anything. One of her dreams is to come to Canada to do the Marathon of Hope in his honor.
Many runners understand the transformative power the sport can have in their life, but for Mathisen, running truly saved her. Her passion for running is infectious, and she is driven to inspire others to achieve extraordinary things.
“I started running when everything in my life was out of control, and running was a way to regain some of that control,” she says. “I think when you do something so challenging, you also get to feel what it really means to be human.”
James Izzard of the UK won the race; the other finishers were John Belton (also from the UK), Julian Eley of South Africa, Spencer Matthews and Matthew Knight. For full results, click here.