11 Jun 2018

Meet the couple who ran the length of South America for birds

We interview Katharine Lowrie: part of a record-breaking couple who sailed the Atlantic to begin an ultra-marathon through South America, all to raise money and awareness for wildlife and wild places.

The couple ran 6,504 miles (10,467km) in 15 months © Katharine & David Lowrie
The couple ran 6,504 miles (10,467km) in 15 months © Katharine & David Lowrie
By Shaun Hurrell

Imagine how it would feel to run into the Caribbean Sea... Now imagine running into the Caribbean Sea after having run a marathon whilst pulling a trailer weighing up to 140 kg... Now imagine running into the Caribbean Sea after having run a marathon whilst pulling this trailer almost every day for 15 months...

This is the feeling 35-year-old Katharine and David Lowrie experienced when, in October 2013, they became the first people in the world to run the entire length of South America, unsupported, to raise money for BirdLife and Asociación Armonía (BirdLife in Bolivia). We spoke to Katharine, who has written a book “Running South America with my Husband and other animals” about their experiences.


Katharine, we’re blown away by what you and David have achieved, and what the human body can deal with. What motivated you to start this epic adventure? Was it being confined to a boat for three years, including crossing the Atlantic?

Sailing the Atlantic and Pacific is not the ideal preparation for running marathons...! We had to do squats and jumps on the spot like the Masai. Running is such a natural thing, we evolved to do it, and I love the exhilaration of it. But for me the crucial piece of the jigsaw is running wild – as lovers of wildlife and wilderness we knew we wanted to combine the two.


You work for the RSPB and en route to South America you surveyed the Caribbean for the “Seabird Breeding Atlas of the Lesser Antilles”, which supports BirdLife’s work. Is it the ecologist in you that wanted something more?

Yes, the reason for committing to this challenge was giving a voice to the biodiversity and unspoilt ecosystems we love, connecting people around the world to wildlife. Showing how we depend on the natural world and reminding everyone how incredible and worthy of conserving South America’s wildernesses we are. That it’s not too late to protect them, but time is running out.


I imagine you had sore feet... in what other ways did the journey affect your body?

Prickly heat, piercing cold, 100% humidity, countless blisters, tropical ulcers, biting ants, swarms of insects, a chronic lack of toenails, screaming joints and muscles, malnutrition. You just get on with it though.


Sleeping in a roadside forest in Southern Chile © Katharine & David Lowrie


And explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes says you have “extraordinary courage and determination”. What was your route?

We thought it would be 5,000 miles, but later realised we’d made the calculations in nautical miles. From South to North, our route was defined by wanting to experience the temperate rainforests of the Carretera Austral (Southern highway of Chile), OF COURSE the Amazon (which I’ve been obsessed with since I was a child), and by visiting the charities that we were supporting.


You were the first woman ever to run the entire length of South America – many congratulations. Sort of like a bird migration: a long, demanding route across a continent...

Yes, seeing swallows everywhere reminded me of that. We felt connected to the landscape through this basic way of living: find a camp for the night, cook food, sleep (maybe!), survive. Simple times are the best. And when we felt down or stressed, wildlife really helped lift our spirits: an Andean Condor [Vultur gryphus] watching us, fireflies pulsing over our hammock under a galaxy of stars, a river dolphin. One moment I will never forget was when a Yellow-crowned Amazon [Amazona ochrocephala] landed on my shoulder as I bent down to fix my shoe in Brazil.


Did you get a chance to see the Blue-throated Macaw [Ara glaucogularis] in Bolivia on the way?

Yes! We wanted to tell the story of Armonía’s conservation work first hand, so took a flight into Barba Azul [the Nature Reserve where Armonía have been protecting key roosting and feeding grounds since 2008]. On the way we saw habitat obliterated by cattle-grazing – it looked like woodworm from above. But we also saw beautiful gallery forest and wetlands. In the Reserve, macaws flew over our heads, cackling. We were standing in their territory. Seeing the bird we were running to support was spine-tingling.


Funds raised by the run supported Armonia's work with the Blue-throated Macaw © Myles Lamont


I bet that was pretty invigorating...

It was incredible. Their work is so inspiring. Such as meeting their wardens who are tirelessly guarding the macaws’ nest sites night and day, to stop poachers from taking their eggs and chicks. We were on national TV with Armonía and a traditional headdress made from artificial feathers, which Armonía are using to demonstrate that macaws don’t need to be killed for their feathers. We had a common message: that with small steps we can tackle seemingly insurmountable hurdles – it’s the same for saving a Critically Endangered species. We saw it as a way to reach people.


I bet in some of the poorer communities you visited conservation is quite low down on their list of priorities...

Our home-made bamboo and recycled bicycle trailer helped make our expedition more tangible. People were fascinated. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, and yet nearly every day people gave us something: drinks, a grapefruit from a sack carried on a family motorbike. When we went to schools, people could see that we thought nature important enough to run an entire continent. It was amazing to see how far Armonía’s message had permeated – about the need to protect the Blue-throated Macaw – into some of the most remote communities we visited.


Hang on... after running more than a marathon, you had enough energy to give people an ecology lesson in Spanish?

Yes... just. We were exhausted after making camp, or fixing the trailer, researching, blogging. We printed photos of local wildlife, handed around feathers, drew games on our tarp, with quizzes about the roles and functions of the animals that communities co-existed with. One girl pulled us aside and asked what our macaws and parrots were like in our own country! And their eyes widened to saucers when we talked about how much we liked spiders and ‘creepy crawlies’, and how even they were important. Talking to schools was one of the best parts of the expedition – we learnt so much.


The Lowries gave nature classes to children in Chile © Katharine & David Lowrie


You can’t take the ecologist out of the ultra-runner... and you did wildlife surveys as well?

In the freezing wind, and when we squabbled in the tent over the laptop, I did ask myself “why are we doing these point counts?”... But when we did we saw so many special species. We saw ourselves as on a ‘mega transect’, and in total we counted nearly one bird for every mile ran.


Any particularly frightening moments?

In Venezuela in an area run by the Mafia, we heard gun shots at night and hid in the rainforest. We had a strategy: run in the early hours, look terrible (that came naturally), hide all our dollars in the tyres of our trailer, and run marathons back-to-back to flee the hostile areas as quickly as possible. Also, hearing a jaguar hunting a tapir outside our tent one night.

Once in the Amazon when desperate for food we inadvertently stepped into an illegal logger’s camp. It was heart-breaking to see the size of the trees they were harvesting. But at least through the run, we can raise awareness about these extraordinary wildernesses.


Pretty saddening... it’s hard to imagine that there is still wilderness out there?

Running on roads was harrowing in terms of how much roadkill we found. We saw two giant anteaters dead at the roadside, including one with her baby on her back; we thought we’d never see one alive. Finally, in northern Bolivia we did and I will never forget it. The effect of roads was sobering. When you look at satellite images you can see a herringbone pattern of roads, as the rainforest is carved for logging, ranching and settlements. But on the abandoned Rua de Onças “Jaguar Road” in the Brazilian Amazon we saw how forest can claim things back: we ran alone for three weeks.


An armadillo was spotted in Patagonia © Katharine & David Lowrie


You ran one third of the route barefoot...

Yes, running tall, with quick steps, light and flexible; it’s more natural and minimises injury. Though not whilst pulling the trailer – that killed our Achilles tendons. I became so fit I felt like I was flying, running on clouds. In Northern Argentina, it was so hot we left footprints in the tarmac! Then we ran along the white lines.


Your best running fuel?

Brazil nuts! When you munch them next time, imagine you’re in a pristine rainforest because that’s where almost all of them are from. Only undisturbed forest has the right bee pollinators.


Any memories that stand out?

Hearing a jaguar hunting a tapir outside our tent one night. Locals in hysterics after watching David being attacked by ants while putting up our hammocks! And one boy who chased us down the road nearly passed out from the effort. He had a breathing condition, so we stopped and chatted to him for a while and he just grinned bashfully. Children give us hope.


Is there anything you’ve changed in your life since your run?

It’s cemented our quest to live simply. David has made us a log cabin with locally sourced wood. And we’re back in South America now, but this time on bicycles with our three-year-old son sitting behind me and our 17-month-old daughter snoring behind him in a trailer. David is pedalling through the red rainforest mud in front, accompanied by a cloud of plate-sized butterflies, pulling another homemade trailer with all our kit. It seems our addiction to South America and human-powered adventure is going to be difficult to shake.

Katharine has countless more stories, tips and experiences to share. You can read more about the Lowries’ adventure in Katharine’s book: Running South America with my Husband and other animals.

Are you inspired to fundraise for BirdLife? Go to: www.birdlife.org/fundraise

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