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Stumble in the Jungle

When does the pain start? Norwegian runner Bernt Arne Tvedt (34) starts to feel it 3 km into gruelling 254 km Amazon Jungle Marathon in Brazil. It starts with a cramp in one leg, then cramps in the other. By the time he is able to stop and stretch, ants start crawling up his legs. This brings first embarrassment, then fear.
On the ground there are scorpions and poisonous snakes in the trees while the many rivers the runners have to cross are infested with piranhas. The pain is making Bernt Arnes body shake. 'I think I will have to retire' he says and starts crying. CNN has dubbed this marathon 'the world's toughest endurance race.' Why do more and more men push themselves to these extremes? Why do they participate in ever longer, harder and more exhausting races? 'It's a simple, but painful way to find the inner you. Less talking and more action. It's basic masculinity' says Erling Dokk Holm at the Market College in Oslo. 'Throughout civilisation humans have tried to avoid pain and discomfort. Now we've started to worship them.' When Bernt Arne fights his way through the jungle, step by step with a 15 kg backpack, he doesn't feel like that much like idea of a man, he just feels tired. In front of him, his friend Petter Vallestad (32) tries to keep himself going by thinking 'I am a machine'. Bernt Arne, meanwhile, is thinking about his cramps.

Where does the pain end? The pain can reach levels where you almost stop feeling human and start turning into an animal. Bernt Arne is a veteran of extreme runs. He has done the Sahara Marathon and the North Pole Marathon. He and his friend have prepared for this run for 11 months. But he has never felt pain as extreme as here, in the middle of the all encompassing jungle. Three days later, Bernt Arne still feels the pain in his legs. There are another four days of running in front of him and his friends - through swamps, up muddy hills, across rivers, with a constant 99 % humidity and temperatures of 40C. Everything they need for the seven day run is carried on their backs and they sleep in hammocks in the middle of the jungle or on the riverbanks.

Some of the athletes experience something called 'runners high', a state of euphoria that occurs after lengthy periods of strenuous exercise and intense release of endorphins. 'If you manage to ignore the danger signals from your body long enough to not feel them anymore, you start to feel fatigue disappear while gaining increased bodily capacity' says Jonny Hisdal, physiologist at Oslo University Hospital. 'Not many people experience this since it takes a lot to get there', he says. On the last day of the marathon the finish line is on a white, sandy beach along the riverbank. Petter and Bernt Arne cross the line as number 24. They are full of emotion and totally exhausted. They receive ice-cream and beer. The driving force for people to push their bodies and minds to the extreme can be different kinds of reward. 'One reason to complete a run is to gain status in society. The other is that you feel great after managing to complete a hard run!'
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