By Cliff White, USARA Board Member
Over and over, we’ve heard Bear Grylls breathlessly shout the words, “Team down! A team is down!” So much so that it has become its own meme.
As the tenth and final episode of The World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji opens, we know a team is likely going to be out of the race. But which one? Is it Iron Cowboy? The indomitable Khukuri Warriors? The energetic Costa Ricans? One of the two hometown favorite Fijian squads? Or carefree Team Curl?
We’ve gotten to know and even love these teams and their kooky, spirited characters over the past nine episodes of World’s Toughest Race. With episode nine ending on the cliffhanger of a bloody bike crash, we’re left hoping it wasn’t as bad as it looks. We don’t want to see any of these teams eliminated after so many miles and hours of brutal suffering.
Day nine dawns on Bear circling overhead, and a 72-hour “Final Race Cutoff” countdown timer ticking away on the bottom half of the screen.
“For the teams still out there, these days become exponentially harder,” Bear says. “They’re sleep-deprived, they’re dehydrated, they’re hurting. They’re so deep into muscle and mental fatigue that really, they are running on empty.”
With dramatic slow-motion action shots of our favorite teams flashing across the screen, Bear continues. “This is where you separate yourself. Can you dig deep? Can you draw on reservoirs of determination and resilience that most normal people just don’t have? And most of all, can you draw on each other?”
And that’s when we see Fijian Team Tabu Soro emerging from the mist around CP22, right after the frigid pool swim. Captain Uri Kurop (who saved famous surfer Aaron Gold’s life at Fiji’s feared Cloudbreak four years ago) is hurt, having bruised his ribs in a fall on the slippery rocks of the river.
In a cutaway shot, Kurop’s teammate William Simpson said he was certain the team would drop out.
But Kurop won’t have any of it.
“It’s hard, there’s a lot of pressure being the home team. People want you to do well in a sport you haven’t really done before, and there’s expectation that you’re going to do more than ‘just well,’” he says. “So, you can’t let yourself down and you can’t let your other people down, no matter how much pain you’re feeling.”
That dramatic scene is undercut somewhat by close-up shots of Kurop and his teammates intensely pumping up their SUPs for the lake paddle. [Helpful tip for the show’s editors: These shots of the furious SUP-pumping are a little awkward…] But we’re really happy that these local heroes are continuing on.
Up ahead on the course, in 27th place, are the chill bros from Cali, Team Curl. Steven Lenhart is sitting around while his teammates work on a bike broken by the ceaseless mud and hills of Fiji.
“I’m glad this is approaching the end,” he says. “I’m just ready to sit in a hot tub.”
For Lenhart, Eco-Challenge seems much more about personal growth than it is about the competition. “The World’s Toughest Race is kind of like an external symbol for me to face things as they come. I want to develop a part of me that, like, trusts other people and is sensitive to that authentic part of myself,” he says. “I don’t know how the World’s Toughest Race is gonna change me, but that’s why I’m doing it.”
Approaching the End
At the penultimate transition area, Team Costa Rica is arriving, and they’re a mess. Veronica’s legs aren’t bending and she’s in tears.
“I suffered so much to get here,” she says. “I couldn’t take it anymore.”
Veronica says this race is harder than any other she’s done before – including races where she’s suffered from frostbite, a detached cornea, and yes, even the one where she drowned.
“I think the challenge is how we do things, and I have to learn to express that fear, to trust others, because I won’t be able to overcome this myself. It’s something very, very difficult,” she reflects.
The Conga Line
Trusting others is exactly what Teams Iron Cowboys and Khukuri Warriors are doing, along with the Dutch Team Checkpoint Hunters and what seems like every other adventure race team in the Southern Hemisphere. They’re all walking behind Alex Mann of Team True North, an Eco-Challenge veteran and ace navigator.
“The whole race is here,” quips Team Iron Cowboy’s Sonja Wieck.
Though we’re only just meeting them – seemingly out of coincidence as more high-profile teams have bumped into them – Team True North is a pretty great story, with Mann racing with his teenage daughter, Becca.
“I think this will be a really good bonding experience for us to have before I move out and become an actual adult instead of just being eighteen years old,” she laughs.
Along the way, this freight train of adventure racers is picking up even more teams, including Team Super Fighters. All will struggle to make the Camp Four cut-off if they don’t hurry – and if Alex Mann’s nav isn’t spot-on. And the sun is setting…
Fast-forward to the middle of the night. A long trail of headlights stretches into the distance, advancing slowly. The freight train is still moving, though we hear that the lead teams covered this ground at twice the pace. Mann says his team has been moving for 22 hours nonstop. Then, in the distance, the spirit-lifting sight of camp torches appear and the racers begin to break out in smiles. They have made it, with time enough to spare that everyone will get a good night’s sleep. As the teams straggle into Camp Four, Mann gets mobbed by his gang of new friends.
“Give me a hug – you’re an animal!” James Lawrence, the Iron Cowboy himself, congratulates the navigator. “We could never have made it here without you, man.”
Racing Smart, Racing Safe
The next morning, further back on the course, the sun is rising on Team Flying J, a group of no-nonsense military types who are stuck in a half-completed hut in a rural village, with a teammate who can’t stand up, much less walk. Guy Larocque’s knee is, he says, “really screwed up.” When we get a look at it, it doesn’t take a medical degree to know he’s drastically understating the matter. If a piñata could be made out of a human leg, it would look a lot like Larocque’s right now.
“You need to talk,” Captain Dianette Wells says. “You need to be honest. You’ve been walking funny for days and you’ve never said a word.”
The fact that Larocque hasn’t complained about his leg, which looks like the world’s biggest sweet potato, is pretty remarkable. This thing looks like it has been inflated up to 60 psi.
“It hurts,” he says. “There’s something really screwed up with it.”
A deep gash has become badly infected, we learn from Wells. Once again, it appears it isn’t Fiji’s visible threats, but rather its invisible ones, that might claim another team as its victims.
Watching Larocque try to stand up, you can’t help but wince. To everyone but him, it’s abundantly clear that someone needs to get on the radio and call for the first available helicopter to get Larocque to the nearest accredited medical facility. But to Larocque, the shame of quitting is too much.
“I wanted him to say, ‘I can’t go on.’ But he’s so stubborn and he wouldn’t do it,” says Wells, who dedicated her race to Johnny Strange, a remarkable person who was the youngest person to climb the Seven Summits and who died in a BASE-jumping accident in 2015.)"
Team Flying J is smacking head-on into one of the most interesting moral issues raised by Eco-Challenge – when does bravery cross the line into dangerous stubbornness? These Eco warriors have given so much to get as far as they’ve gotten. When does the internal drive that helped them achieve that need to be switched off for safety reasons? Just how much, exactly, is an Eco-Challenge finish worth? To the casual viewer, Larocque’ hardheadnesses may seem imbecilic. It’s just a race, after all. But to Team Flying J, as with most adventure racers, his behavior is totally understandable, even admirable. The mantras we live and race by are: never let the team down. Never say die. Never quit. And yet, there’s also the mantra about “racing smart” – which, as Wells implies, requires effective and ample communication.
“Some people are like that. They’re so macho they won’t say, ‘Something hurts, or something’s not right. Let’s fix it.’ And that obviously can end up bringing down the whole team,” she says.
As Bear swoops in to help with the extraction, Wells says what’s on every viewer’s mind, no matter which side of the philosophical debate they fall.
“Thank God we’re not going further and he’s going to get the medical help he needs,” she concludes.
With the sun rising, attention turns to the back-of-the-pack stragglers limping into Camp Four. Those include the two Fijian teams, who are welcomed with cheers by the residents of the beautiful, thatched-roof houses that make up the village.
Anna Cowley of Team Tabu Soro, who has one of those totally authentic smiles that makes you just automatically love her, is greeted with a flower wreath.
“We dragged ourselves through, but we made it through,” she says, choking back tears. “It was just… really hard.”
Instagram stars Team Mad Mayrs and Team Eagle Scouts run into camp with a jump in their step. If you look closely, you can see 22-year-old Matt Moniz shouldering two very full backpacks… hard core! Until you realize this dude holds a ton of impressive climbing records, including being the fastest person to climb the fifty U.S. high points (a record since broken), the youngest person to summit Makalu, and recipient of the Honor Medal with Crossed Palms from the Boy Scouts of America for his work in Nepal in the aftermath of the horrific earthquake there in 2015 (and you can throw in an Everest summit and some other impressive peaks for fun).
There are now 55 hours until the racecourse closes. Team Iron Cowboy isn’t wasting one second of that, heading out with their “business” sunglasses on. Sonja Wieck, who has recovered from a breakdown early on in the race to become a leader of the team, explains why the group remains so upbeat, even as they’ve so beaten down by the course.
“I know when I’m out here that I’m living my best, truest self,” she says.
The team stops for a break in what little shade is available on this dry, highland landscape, on what looks to be another 1,000-degree day in Fiji. Iron Cowboy sheds some tears thinking about his family, then his teammate calls him to continue.
“Summon your Eco powers!” he yells, one of the best lines uttered in the entire show.
A bit further ahead, Team True North is rappelling down the stunning Qalivuda waterfall. This team is somehow making Eco-Challenge look pretty easy. Incredibly poised and clearly tough, Becca Mann talks about how much of a bonding experience with her father the race has been. Alex Mann feels the same way.
“Having your daughter reach out and hold your hand when she’s little, you kind of take that for granted. Then it stops,” he says. “But Eco-Challenge basically gave that back to me.”
In last place, the Mad Mayrs are struggling to bike up what racers later called one of the toughest climbs of the race, during the hottest part of the day. Greeted by Bear near the top, the team flashes their famous smiles, has a quick chat, and then moves on.
“There’s a lot of teams pulling out behind us, which now has put us at the back of the pack,” Tyson Mayr says. “But we’re still kicking along with the same attitude and the same energy we’ve had since day one. Probably a little less energy now, but it’s still that same spirit of, ‘We’re here to finish.’”
At the top of that climb, that finish is probably in sight. If the Mayrs had a telescope, they could likely see Team UK Adventurers crossing the line with their assistant crewperson Gill “Gillinator” Watson cheering them in to Mana Island. Team Aussie Rescue finishes next, followed by an impressive showing from the Hombres D’Maiz, a Guatemalan team that is frequently seen at races around the U.S.
It's hard not to bask in the triumphs of these teams, but even the hardest of hearts would melt with the ebullient celebrations of Team Costa Rica, and especially the private moment Veronica Bravo seems to have after their outrigger hits the beach. Veronica has just crossed forty kilometers of open ocean, overcoming deeply held fears of the water after nearly drowning in a race years earlier. For those of you who don’t know her, Veronica is tough. In an adventure race in Patagonia, she got frostbite up to her ankles. After normal skin grafts failed to help, Veronica was patched up with shark skin, and eventually recovered. But even after leaving adventure racing for a time to become one of the best ultrarunners in the world, Veronica still lives that AR maxim, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
“We were made to live and share with one another,” she says. “We can attain many things individually, but teamwork is super important. That’s true ‘Pura Vida.’”
Nearing the end of their own journey, Team Curl is enjoying a fast bike descent. Why does this look so familiar? The action speeds up, but attentive viewers will remember the scene from the beginning of the episode, which featured an accident. Your inner monologue starts screaming, “Slow down!” as the fun-loving surfer bros start hot-dogging it down the steepening slope.
You scream again, “Slow down, Steven!” But then the camera reverts to a first-person GoPro shot of a set of bike handlebars going inverted. Blackout. Painful sighs.
The camera turns back on and pans from a loose gravel road up to Steven Lenhart, in his signature Robin Hood green tights, with a rivulet of blood leaking from his face down his bare chest. A race volunteer with medical experience begins tending to him. Lenhart has some facial lacerations, but the big concern is that he hit his head. Helicopters can’t fly because it’s after dark, so he needs to talk with a doctor over a cell phone held by the volunteer. It seems like he won’t be medically pulled, but after consulting with his team, Lenhart seems to think it’s best to withdraw himself from the race.
Speaking through a loose tooth and a bloody mouth, he says, “I probably could finish it, but I’m not out here trying to prove myself in that way.”
Finding his own answer to the moral question of when it’s right to quit, Lenhart says, “Obviously, I want to stay in the game for my teammates, but I think we have a general understanding that we want to take care of ourselves and our relationships are much more lasting than this race.”
Teammate Brett Gravlin echoes those sentiments. “We were close, but it’s more important to have a friend,” he says.
The Final Crossing
A little closer, at CP30, dawn breaks on the eight teams that have been stuck at the dark zone before the final leg of the race, the outrigger paddle to Mana Island. Included in that grupetto are Team Iron Cowboy, Team AR Georgia, and Team Khukuri Warriors. Barring a jinx as strong as Team New Zealand’s, it looks like these fan favorites are going to make it.
At CP29, the two Fijian teams have reunited once again for the final two paddle sections. More egregious SUP-pumping scenes are drowned out by the uproarious cheering of a boisterous, flag-waving crowd of locals.
Alivate Logavatu, captain of Team Namako, explains the unique experience of being the local favorites: “The pressure was there to finish the race because of how people were reacting to us and how they cheered us on and made us feel proud of what we were doing,” he says. “There was no way we were going to quit.”
Captain Uri Kurop seems a bit improved health-wise – and certainly he has to be, if he’s made it through the long highland trek and bike.
Bear gives them kudos from his lurking perch above them in a circling chopper.
“Go for it, guys!” he yells.
Arriving next at the finish, with less than 24 hours left in the race, is Team Iron Cowboy, with family awaiting them on the beach.
“If you were to take ten consecutive Ironmans…and compare it against this, this is way harder,” says the Iron Cowboy – or should we call him the AR Cowboy now?
As much as Lawrence is their namesake, by the time they reach the podium to receive their finishers’ medals, it’s clear that Sonja Wieck has become the heart and soul of this team.
“If you believe in yourself, it doesn’t matter who loves you, who hates you,” she says. “If you’re living your truth, and you have a deep belief in yourself, that’s all that you need.”
Next in is AR Georgia, greeted by family and fun signs! If you look closely, you can see Katie Ferrington’s two kids wearing Wonder Woman costumes. Like all the women in this race, Ferrington – a USARA race director – is tough. It’s clear her girls have an amazing role model to look up to, and no doubt will store away this memory of running to greet their mom as she finished the World’s Toughest Race when they have times in their own lives that they need to be strong.
Teammate Jeff Leininger – another USARA race director – should get major credit for getting this team to the finish line. But the good dad that he is, Jeff hands over the limelight to his son, Hunter, who with his finish becomes the youngest-ever finisher of an Eco-Challenge (unless Becca Mann is younger? The show doesn’t say). The younger Leininger is an up-and-coming racer in the U.S. and is poised for greatness. Let’s just hope he keeps his passion for the sport and doesn’t get distracted by ultrarunning, his new hobby during coronavirus times.
Team Checkpoint Hunters finishes next in a total time of 243 hours, 19 minutes (Does any other sport have such ridiculous finishing times?), then Tierra Viva, though their time is 230 hours, 46 minutes.
Then a sight we weren’t so sure we would see when we started this journey back on day one – the Khukuri Warriors touching on Mana Beach at sunset. With no adventure race experience on the team, these athletes faced the additional challenge of having no idea of what they were getting into when they signed on the dotted line. But they’ve conquered the World’s Toughest Race, and in the process, proved what they set out to: that Indian women are powerful and worthy of respect.
“Through this experience, we are hoping that girls are going to feel so much more inspired seeing that we made it to the finish line, and use that in their own lives as a metaphor to get through the challenges every single time they ever doubt their path, ” Nungshi Malik says.
The slow-motion shots of the twins receiving their medals is enough to swell anyone’s heart with pride, but the Maliks’ dad looks like he’s going to burst.
“This was tougher than Everest, hands down,” Nungshi acknowledges, after her dad tells her that they have just made history as the first Indian team to complete an Eco-Challenge. “And to do it with my sister was even more special, because having her is such a blessing. She’s like my safety pin – if I need her, she’ll be there.”
The Mad Mayrs get in next, under the cover of darkness and lit by the glowing torches lining the finish, making their finish all the more dramatic. These guys somehow appear freshly showered and manicured as they cross the line! How did they manage that? Perhaps that’s what it takes to be social media celebrities – do badass things and look good while doing them.
Early in the morning on the last day of the race, Team Regulators comes in with a time of 263 hours and 51 minutes, followed by Team True North, in 40th place, an hour later.
Finally, Fijian flag flying high, the lanterne rouges of Tabu Soro and Namako line their outriggers up with the finishing chute and are all smiles as they paddle in.
“It’s a proud moment for all of us to represent Fiji,” Tabu Soro’s William Simpson says with a million-dollar smile. “That will resonate in the hearts of Fijians as the first team in Fiji to ever finish an Eco-Challenge.”
Alivate Logavatu of Namako expresses a more introspective takeaway from his time in the race.
“Now we have experienced this place in a whole different way. We saw it in a whole different light,” he reflects. “It’s a really special place. It’s a really beautiful place. And I got to share it with some special people.”
Kurop, who is quickly becoming a Yoda-like figure as he dispenses equal doses of wisdom and humor, lets people in on what he’s learned from his Eco-Challenge adventure.
“Sometimes you’ve got to just got to push on, and on the other side of that pain is reward,” he says. “I think that’s a life value. This is a ten-day training camp for life in general because you just learn so much from it.”
Singing the Fijian anthem, both teams link arms and cross the line together.
For what seems like the first time in ten episodes, Bear Grylls appears unable to attach a superlative to this performance. He stands silently, beaming, looking like he’s near tears. Sometimes silence speaks louder than words, and this is one of those cases.
Eventually, Anna Cowley of Tabu Soro helps him out.
“The message I hope people take out of this is to try, because if you think that you can’t do something, you won’t do it, but if you give it a shot, you never know,” she says. “Just like we did.”
As the closing montage flips through images of some of the teams we’ve come to know and love, we begin to recognize the show’s biggest star: the beautiful island nation of Fiji and its equally beautiful inhabitants.
“It was the people, we just loved them… and you realize we’re all one big family,” Tashi Malik summarizes. “And to feel the pulse of this place was just so powerful.”
And the race’s chief takeaway is perfectly summarized by – who else? – Fijian Anna Cowley.
“This race,” she says, “has really shown me that we can do so much more than we think, if we just try.”
Season Two of the World’s Toughest Race will take place in Patagonia, and applications close on Friday, August 29. Will you try?
By Emily Korsch, USARA Interim Social Media Captain
The previous eight episodes have seen their fair share of teams struggle and triumph as they inch closer to the finish line on Mana Island. Now with the podium decided, mid- and back-of-pack teams are still very much in the throes of battle with this Bear-Grylls-Brutal (™) course. When we encounter Team Iron Cowboy, they're tackling the physically demanding 1000’ ascent of Vuwa Falls at night. Sonja Wieck’s positive mental attitude emanates through the screen as she works up the falls, and we hope that just a fraction of it can seep into her teammates as they struggle themselves. All four members reunite at the Medallion bowl, in a mix of excitement, pride, exhaustion, loneliness, and togetherness that defines expedition adventure racing.
Narrating the final Island Leg of the race from - where else? - a helicopter, Bear Grylls reaches into his backpack of adjectives for a replacement to “brutal” and comes up with… HARROWING!...to describe the outrigger paddling section to the finish. Teams Summit, Estonia ACE, and Thunderbolt AR are paddling in the signature turquoise Fijian waters, in canoes that looked big on the beach but are now tiny toothpicks in the ocean swell. These teams are in the top ten, and they're fighting against sleepmonsters and the frustratingly slow progress of paddling against ocean winds and currents as they focus in on the finish line.
In the frigid waters of the jungle pools, we get our first introduction to Team Flying J, who like all teams are struggling with the cold temperatures and slow going of this section. Team captain Dianette Wells works with her teammates as they reach the end of the swim and take stock of their injuries. The team pulls together in an encouraging hug as they reach the gravel road for the final kilometers into CP22 and the much-needed warming station.
Team Khukuri Warriors are stoked to be in their element - climbing - as they start the roped ascent up Vuwa Falls. They are moving through this section near Teams Mad Mayrs, Tabu Soro, and Namako. The native Fijians on the latter teams are especially touching to watch - succeeding in reaching the top of their country’s most famous waterfall and taking the moment to look back on the vast expanse of Fijian wilderness. Soak it all up - your country is incredible.
Twenty kilometers ahead, Team AR Georgia is SUPing along their way to Camp Four. The waterway looks low. According to teams, it was mapped as a lake. But water levels on race day were down roughly 50% from when those maps were made, leading to many exploratory excursions down channels that ultimately dried up. Surrounding what little water there is are cow pastures, fully featured with mud and cow poop. Team navigator Jeff Leininger tries to balance the need for travel in the correct direction with the feasibility of actually paddling in these low water conditions. Hunter gets to climb up the channel’s banks to try and scout, a task that is exceedingly difficult without the map that’s in Jeff’s possession. Teammate Katie Ferrington explains to the cameraperson what’s going on in a way that's practiced from many years of managing intra-team... differences. She's a pro.
Team Flying J has reached the medical tent at CP 22 and Harald Zundel goes in for treatment on a deep gash in his leg. I need to confess something, I “watched” this whole section with hands over my eyes because I don’t do wounds very well, and the editing spared no detail (visual or audible). So, if you are a medical person, you probably enjoyed the in-depth coverage of cleaning and stitching the wound. I did not, and I was relieved to see the team back on their feet. Except, now teammate Guy Laroque is struggling and explaining what so many expedition adventure racers feel in these late stages of a course: “It’s designed to turn you inside out. You just never know when your day is coming. What day is it going to be? For me? Yesterday.” As Team Flying J hobbles off to start the SUP, we can only hope that the paddling will give them a bit of time to rest, recover, and heal.
Above Vuwa Falls, Team Iron Cowboy is “enjoying” a brief overlap between adventure racing and triathlon... swimming! Except, it’s in ridiculously cold water, and they have to haul their packs, clothing, and shoes with them, effectively negating the group’s swimming skills. However, Sonja has leveraged the positive mojo she built climbing the Falls and continues to push ahead, modifying her pack’s shoulder straps and hip belt to help her swim. “Game-changer,” she chirps. She helps her teammates make the same modifications and they are able to take more advantage of their many hours of triathlon swimming training.
Meanwhile, ahead on the SUPs, Team AR Georgia is still fighting their way to CP24. Ferrington (a skilled navigator herself), is diplomatically frustrated as the team inches their way along. The elder Leininger has developed some more confidence in the route, giving into an adventure racing truth, “Just because you’re on a SUP board, doesn’t mean that you’re paddling!” The team hauls their boards out of the narrow channel and proceeds overland towards the CP, now navigating bogs of mud and poop. They finally make it to CP24, dropping their SUPs and proceeding to carefully clean themselves before heading out on the bike.
In a sharp contrast to the muddy Fijian interior, we are whisked away to the sparkling waters of the Island Leg, where a top ten finish is up for grabs. Former two-time ARWS World Champ (with Team New Zealand, ironically) Jo Williams leads Team Tiki Tour into fourth place with a killer paddle face. Team Vidaraid Adventure follows in fifth, France Expenature in sixth, Thunderbolt AR (who are incredibly “impressed with [them]selves” and we are too!) in seventh, and the embattled Team Summit in tenth. Emma Roca has led this team through an extremely challenging course, and while there were moments when it looked like Summit was facing elimination, they rallied around the team and fought to a well-deserved Top Ten.
Team Curl is trekking through the 50k highlands leg and, brimming with navigational confidence, decides to take an unusual route. I wasn’t sure what to think of Curl when they were introduced in an earlier episode, but I’m loving their team here. They are embracing the full spirit of adventure racing while visiting remote parts of Fiji, taking in the vast expanse of the landscape and acknowledging how small humans really are. I’ve thought these same thoughts on adventure race courses and I’m honored to be mind-melding with Team Curl. Team navigator Justin is wrestling with his compass (never a good sign), taking them up a steep hillside that tests his teammates' patience with unusual routes. Will this route choice pay off for Team Curl, or will they reach a breaking point in the Fijian highlands?
Meanwhile, in the cold pools, Team Iron Cowboy is still swimming. Just when you think adventure racing is tough, who else but Bear Grylls swoops overhead with a pep talk from a helicopter. To any adventure racing newbie - don’t expect this in any other race besides Eco-Challenge. But the visit clearly perks up the members of Team Iron Cowboy, who wave and smile. Having used the Bear-Boost to make it out to the gravel road, the team treks into the warming tent and takes some time off their feet to warm themselves around the camp stove. As they reminisce about race stages from just days ago, James Lawrence and Wieck each offer excellent, articulate reasons for adventure racing:
“I think a race like this really allows you to really have conversations with yourself," Lawrence reflects. There’s a lot of slug-festing out there where it’s just you, your mind, and your thoughts. You’re going to find out real quick if you like you, or if you don’t like you.”
Wieck adds, “Like many endurance athletes, I have demons that I’m trying to slay. We do really hard things, because it helps us feel like we’re maybe in control of the things that maybe we aren’t.”
Both of these rookie adventure racers, who some may say bit off more than they could chew with an Eco-Challenge: Fiji entry, have each found the center of their inner grit and are using it to propel themselves and their team forward on the unrelenting course. And this is why so many adventure racers around the globe do this sport - especially races outside the Eco-Challenge bubble - the opportunity to look inside yourself, see what you’re made of, and prove it to yourself, your team, and the world.
Also in the water but on their SUP boards, Team OutThere and Team Bend Racing are edited to be very near each other in their approach to CP30, the start of the final outrigger canoe section. However, there isn’t actually a shot with both teams at the CP at the same time. Nevertheless, when teams are close by at the end of a multi-day race, things get tough. Racers are exhausted but so competitive that they lock into an especially grueling pace in the final kilometers. Our international friends on Attackpoint (an adventure race training log) call this “dicing to the finish,” and it’s a special kind of pain. Bend Racing and OutThere each want to be the top American team, and each dig deep to find one more gear of paddling speed to get them across the line first.
Did you know bull-fighting was a discipline at Eco-Challenge: Fiji? It’s true, and Team Costa Rica has found it on their approach to Camp Four. While they are running (running!) along a rocky river bed, an especially aggressive but deceivingly cute baby bull tries to run them over. I’m sure they had a moment of “Is this real life or an AR?" hallucination? before scampering out of the (luckily tethered) bovine’s way. #onlyinadventureracing
The encounter seems to energize them on the approach to Camp Four, where Eduardo Baldioceda even finds a moment to play a joke on the team when searching his backpack for their medallion. This Costa Rican team has the perfect encapsulation of their home country and host country: "Bula Vida!"
Still on the trek to Camp Four, Team Curl seems to be getting back on track in the highlands after their “shortcut.” Steven Lenhart, a former professional soccer player, explains that part of his goal here at Eco-Challenge: Fiji is to “metabolize” his grief from his father’s suicide eight years ago. I haven’t heard grief explained in caloric terms before, but when Lehnart does, it makes so much sense to me. Grief can be a tangible, physical thing that needs to be processed in a similar way. Lenhart commits to doing that, and also to “fully show[ing] up and get[ting his] ass kicked” on the Fijian adventure racing course. The team shares a resting moment to take in the beautiful sunset on the ridge. It’s so special to see this team evolve through the course, from rookie racers into full-fledged adventurers.
Back in the cold pools, Teams Tabu Soro, Namako, and Khukuri Warriors are facing down the threat of hypothermia and steadfastly advancing through the chilling water. Nungshi (Nash) Malik draws on her significant mountaineering experience, realizing that the cold water “is temporary, you know? Fear is in our mind. So if you can move that away, and tell your mind to just keep moving past these obstacles, fear just is not-existent.” Could these teams have these revelations anywhere else besides the cold jungle pools of an adventure racing course? As they exit the water and trek into the CP22 warming station, the team seems to have steeled its resolve to make it across the finish line. It’s the little things in life, and adventure racing, that so often bring the most joy. Malik glows with the latest gift, “I can’t believe I’m holding a cup of hot chocolate.”
Team Curl, hours behind their original plan due to their route choice error, finally makes it to Camp Four! An exhausted Lenhart explains to us the unconventional allure of adventure racing, “The way this thing is set up... it’s not only physically beating us down, but it’s making us have to rely on some deep parts of ourselves. Why the hell am I doing something like this? Why do I care about facing suffering over and over and over? What is it about the unknown that’s enticing? Relying on ourselves, and on each other... it’s developing something pretty nice inside.” Welcome to adventure racing, Team Curl. This is the feeling so many others get; it goes beyond finisher medals, t-shirts, or podium finishes. “Something pretty nice inside” is what we are all looking for and finding out there. That, and a quesadilla with a side of hugs from your crew, can’t get any better.
Ahead, on the finish line at Mana Island, race director Kevin Hodder is waiting on the first US team to finish, which turns out to be the ever gritty, surprising, and charismatic Team Bend Racing. What a hard-earned finish for this crew, battling back from last place on day one to fourteenth place at the end. In adventure racing, it is truly never over until it’s over, and this team never gave in or gave up, embodying the spirit of Eco-Challenge: Fiji. Jason Magness, Dan Staudigel, Melissa Coombes, and Stephen Thompson walk away knowing that “the earned victory makes the better story” as Staudigel explains, satisfied with their efforts here in Fiji.
With only one episode left of this epic series, there are so many stories left to savor. And it looks like there are still some unexpected twists coming our way, as well. We’ve enjoyed the ride so far, and are looking forward to congratulating all teams!
By Brent Freedland
While there may be two episodes left, in many respects, this one feels like the climax of the season. In a series full of emotional moments and rich story-telling of the human spirit, teamwork, and perseverance, here the World’s Toughest Race plumbs even deeper emotional depths, rewarding loyal viewers with what might be the best episode of Eco-Challenge ever produced.
The Ocean Crossing
We begin with New Zealand’s dramatic mayday as they paddle across the open fathoms of the Fijian sea, the finish line and victory on the horizon. While cold and shaken, the team is safely transported to a nearby island where they reflect on the harrowing experience as they wait for a new outrigger. As some viewers will wonder, providing a new boat for New Zealand to continue would not necessarily be the outcome in another race. In many events, such misfortune could possibly end a team's race. This said, it seems clear that the problem was with the boat itself, which was provided and vetted by the race producers. This isn’t a case of a poorly maintained bike, and it would have been a shame for the Kiwis to lose the race due to a boat that may have been damaged prior to its launch. Regardless, Team New Zealand has lost hours, potentially opening the door to a late-race comeback for Teams Canada Adventure and Gippsland Adventure.
(Note: for a full account of how this incident unfolded, have a listen to Nathan Fa’avae’s interview on TA1. While they were certainly assisted, they did lose a significant amount of time, to say the least, effectively incurring a large time penalty in addition to their harrowing open-water swim.)
The Canadians and Australians have separated themselves from the rest and are now battling it out for second, not knowing that the Kiwis are floundering at sea. As Team Canada Adventure hits the water, Bob Miller notes that anything can happen. Whether the Canadians or Australians can catch the Kiwis as they await their new boat remains a compelling storyline, though the experienced adventure racer is left wondering if Team New Zealand might benefit from a time credit for their lost time (spoiler: they were not given any credits). Again, their issue is really the responsibility of the race directors, and in many races, such a credit would be issued, likely making the drama unfolding at sea irrelevant. Regardless, it looks like we are in for an exciting finish to the race!
While our leaders are closing in on the finish line, the end is starting to seem nigh for some of the fan-favorite teams in the middle and back of the pack. Team Endure is struggling to make the cutoff at Camp 3. Up against the clock, the team has convinced Mark Macey to contend with the jostling gait of a pack horse, but his bad back is flaring up due to the uneven terrain and he is forced to dismount. Knowing that their only chance to reach the camp in time depends on Mark’s ability to make steady forward progress, the team elects to take a break in a local village, giving him time to rest. As they settle in, Mace makes it clear that he has "no intention of quitting this race.”
Meanwhile, Team Atenah Brasil has conquered Vuwa Falls, and Nora Audre reflects on her déjà vu. In 2002, Nora succumbed to an infection stemming from a knife wound while building the bilibilis. Now she notes that her legs are swelling, and clearly she is concerned about the team’s chances to make the finish line. As they navigate their way through the now notoriously slick boulders, Jose Caputo slips and falls, potentially injuring his head. Knowing how hard Atenah worked in 2002 and how badly they want to exorcise their Eco demons, we have to wonder if they might suffer a similar fate in 2020.
Back on the ocean, Team Canada Adventure is reeling in New Zealand. By Sophie’s estimate, they have lost three hours or so (again, check out Nathan’s account; it’s not that simple!), and then there is the simple matter that they are preparing to head back out onto the open ocean, in the dark, after a near-catastrophic incident left them floating in the dark. On the water, Bob sees lights on the horizon; the Canadians seem to have closed the gap to first place. As the race narrows, the competition intensifying, Nathan reminds us of what is truly important out in the wilderness and why racers keep coming back to this brutal but incredible sport: “Modern life has just got so comfortable. We actually want to get out there, and suffer, and feel like we are being tested, and feel alive.”
Just before sunrise, Bear is waiting at the finish line on Mana Island, complete with an international array of flags, flaming torches, and looming totems. While Bear and the camera angles build the suspense, it’s the Kiwis who edge their outrigger up onto the beach first. There are many reasons this team has been unbeaten for as long as they have been. The team has won six out of the last seven Adventure Racing World Championships, the last five in a row. With the ARWC unfortunately being canceled in 2019, we might as well give them credit for six world championships, back to back. This team is relentless: they are masters at strategy, navigation, technical skills, and team dynamics, and even when their outrigger sinks…in the open ocean…at night…they hold onto their lead.
Finishing in 141 hours and 23 minutes, they completed the eleven-day course in just under six days. Before heading off for some well deserved rest, the amazing people of Team New Zealand leave us with their words of wisdom, reminding us that doing well for your team should be a top priority: AR is not an individual sport. If those watching haven’t been inspired by all of the amazing women highlighted in this year’s Eco-Challenge, Sophie reminds us what is possible, having given birth nine months prior to the event. And ultimately, for all those in awe of these incredible athletes, just get out there. You don’t need to race in Eco to get involved in adventure races. You don’t need to be superhuman. You don’t need to win. You just need a few friends. Find a local race to get your feet wet. What New Zealand knows as well as any adventure racing team out there, is that once you give it a go, you will be amazed at what you learn. About yourself. Your teammates. And the world around you.
Vuwa Falls Swim
While the race is over at the front of the pack, the rest of the field is stretched out over hundreds of miles. As Atenah closes in on the ropes, they are in bad shape. Not only is Jose feeling the effects from hitting his head on a boulder, Nora is now struggling with an injured leg, and Karina also may be dealing with lower body injuries. As they forge ahead up the river, Nora tries to will the team onto the finish stating: “Let’s go. Guys, we have to get to the end.”
Behind them, Teams Khukuri Warriors and the Mad Mayrs have beaten the clock, reaching Camp Three in time to continue on. Courtney Home reflects on how proud she feels of her team for staying in the race, and as has happened to thousands of adventure racers before her, she succumbs to the emotions as the team rests in their camp. Realizing they might finish, bursting with joyous pride, her teammates hug her as she cries. “I swear it’s a happy cry!” she laughs. “It was just a cry of happiness and a cry of relief. A cry of excitement.”
As teams continue to struggle in the jungles, mountains, and frigid rivers of the Fijian highlands, Team Canada Adventure comes ashore, holding off Team Gippsland Adventure and finishing their journey in second place, just over 90 minutes behind the winners. Half an hour behind them are Gippsland, rounding out the podium. While neither team was able to run down New Zealand, these are impressive finishes in a field loaded with strong competition. For Team Canada Adventure’s Bob Miller, it's an incredible story, nearly twenty years in the making. As noted earlier in the series, Bob’s team came up short in 2002, bowing out of the race at Vuwa Falls. In addition, he has not raced a big race in six years. To come back in 2020 with a different, younger team and not only finish what he started all those years ago but finish in second place is an incredible accomplishment.
For Team Stray Dogs, who also competed in 2002, their fortunes are not looking as bright. Despite having more experience than any other team in the race and despite taking care of one another, they are falling further behind, and reaching the Camp Three cutoff is becoming less and less likely. Unfortunately, Bob Haugh has not recovered. Sometimes it’s not your race, and Bob has been suffering for days at this point. Heat, water-borne illness, mental demons, bad feet. He is getting the full Eco experience. Despite their struggles, Adrian Crane demonstrates why the Stray Dogs have been so successful for so long. “Let’s just continue together” he says, “until somebody comes over, taps us on the shoulder, and tells us, ‘too late, you’re out’” Marshall Ulrich also stands by the struggling Dr. Bob, reminding him: “You’re a Stray Dog, buddy. Like it or not.” Many, many teams have fallen apart from far less than what the Stray Dogs are enduring, but this team once again teaches racers, new and old, the golden tenant of adventure racing: stand by your teammates, support each other, work together, and you will succeed.
The other Stray Dog, Mark Macey, wakes up with his Endure teammates, ready to push on for Camp Three. Despite a back that is “killing” him, Mace finds the focus to bid a warm, graceful adieu to the local villagers who hosted them overnight. Overcoming his trepidation, he jumps back up on a horse, and this time the terrain is more forgiving, allowing the team to make better progress, relieving Mace’s back from some of the strain. Resting and working together - coupled with Mace's willingness to put aside his own concerns and use the horse - pays off, and Endure rides into camp ahead of the cutoff. As the viewer knows, what comes next is no picnic, and we have to wonder if this heroic team will be able to overcome the challenges the jungle trek, Vuwa Falls, and the icy swim have in store for them. Together with the Khukuri Warriors and the Mad Mayrs, Endure sets off on Stage Four, hoping to utilize the daylight to their advantage.
Ahead of them, in 22nd place, Atenah Brasil is continuing on despite their collection of ailments. Having conquered Vuwa Falls, they hit the icy waters above. As Bear watches these “Superhuman ladies” start the swim, we learn that Karina too has issues, stemming from the toll of time and miles on their feet. Karina reflects on some arthritis and missing ligaments in her knee, which combined with the physical strain of the course is starting to impact her as well. It’s beginning to seem that unless Shubi Guimares can find a way to relieve her teammates of their various injuries, Atenah’s story might not end in the same way as Bob Miller’s.
Behind Atenah, episode eight takes an even more ominous turn. While the Stray Dogs and Mark Macey have received well-deserved attention for being the elder statesmen of the sport, Team Strong Machine has its own amazing story, even if it’s not as well known. The White family have been adventure racing together as a unit for almost a decade with married couple Kate and Cliff often racing with Cliff’s father, Starker. Thus far, the threesome - along with teammate Mike Garrison - have been silently making their way through the course, and when they finally get their moment on film it’s due to a serious injury. Starker has fallen victim to the slippery boulders on the trek up to Vuwa Falls, the same ones that have frustrated all the teams ahead of them. His leg broken, the Whites are unable to continue, requiring a helicopter evacuation for Starker.
As Strong Machine’s race ends, Team Endure is confronting the hard reality that their race too may be winding down. They are realizing how difficult this river trek, climb, and swim will be. “We don’t know if we as a team can make it through this together,” Travis reflects. Their pace is so slow that the team can’t get warm, suggesting the threat of hypothermia even before they reach the deadly cold of the swim. As they debate whether to continue on, the helicopter bearing Starker White flies overhead, a troublesome portent that clearly gives Endure further pause.
Ahead of them, Team Atenah has completed the swim, but as they hobble into the manned checkpoint and warming tent, things look bleak. While Shubi seems ready to continue, it’s clear she isn’t sure that her teammates will be able to follow. Jose and Karina continue to struggle. Then, the medical team announces that Nora is dealing with infections. It isn’t clear whether she is suffering the same systemic issues she did in 2002, but as the team notes, they have to take care of themselves, their lives, their children. Anyone that knows what it is like to be forced out of a race or who has watched the 2002 Eco series knows how brutal this moment is for them. And even for the casual viewer without that deeper understanding, watching Atenah accept that their race is over once again highlights how emotionally devastating these moments can be.
Still making their way to the ropes, Teams Iron Cowboy and the Khukuri Warriors are struggling with the boulders that have slowed, concussed, broken, and worn down all the racers that have gone before. The Khukuri Warriors become the next victims of this grueling leg as Tashi Malik slips, lacerating her chin. Considering Atenah’s infection-induced fate, one can’t help but worry that the Warriors might also succumb to the jungle’s microscopic invaders.
This leg increasingly appears to be too much for Team Endure, Mace bowed and hampered by his bad back. Despite the hardship, he still pushes on, struggling (yes, this seems to be the word of the episode - and this recap) as he contends with the fear that he will let his team down. “If I stopped adventure racing, or ultra-running, or all that other stuff that I do, my life would be gone,” Mace reflects, noting how much his racing means to him. Still, they continue, Mark supported by two local Fijians who help him traverse the technical terrain. Shane pulls Travis aside: “He’s not going to stop, he says.” Travis agrees: “I truly have had one of the best weeks of my life.”
At the top of the falls, we finally have our Team East Wind moment. For those well-versed in Eco-Challenge history and lore, East Wind captain Masato Tanaka is an absolute legend, racing for a quarter century and competing in five Eco-Challenges. Back in 1997, as East Wind sought to become the first Japanese and Asian team to complete an Eco-Challenge, the penultimate stage almost took them down. During the long trek to the coast, East Wind was confronted with the biggest obstacle of all: a teammate that is unable to continue under her own power. Undaunted, the team literally carried their teammate over the final mountain of the course and all the way to the final transition area, effectively becoming immortalized in all things Eco. Despite their heroism, East Wind failed to reach the finish line; as was the case for many teams, making it to the final stage that year was not enough as big seas forced teams like East Wind to call for evacuation.
And so, the symbolism and symmetry of East Wind’s journey is ironically laid bare. While Tanaka failed to win the fortune and glory of his contemporary, Nathan Fa’avae, few if any racers have had a career as long as Tanaka's. He raced with countless teammates over the years in just about every race imaginable. His teams were always revered for their tenacity, grit, smiling faces, and unwillingness to stop until they literally had no other option. While AR is, at best, an afterthought in many parts of the world, East Wind captured the imagination of their entire country. Now, we see them breaking out the radio, calling for assistance. Two teammates are unable to continue, one literally dragging herself across the rocks. Tanaka sits and stands stoically, a mythical adventure racing icon, the curtain perhaps falling on a long and prestigious career. His teammates, all younger, are the new generation, and Akira Yonemoto calls for evacuation, the radio like a torch, passed from one Japanese racer to another.
Comfortably ahead of the cutoff, the Iron Cowboys have reached the climb site at Vuwa Falls. Darkness is approaching, and the race staff tell them that it has been taking teams five hours to complete the ropes in the dark. Some of early-race banter and playfulness is gone, replaced by a more serious, no doubt exhausted, focus on what is ahead. But there has been another shift in the team as well, as Sonja Wieck seems to be rising to the occasion, setting the tone and guiding the team forward. As they push on for the ropes, she captures the essence of what it takes to be a successful adventure racer, noting that she “was put on this planet to do hard things. It’s in my core, it’s in my bones, it’s in my blood. I know when I’m out here there is no reason to believe I’m not capable.” While the Cowboys climb, the Khukuri Warriors and Mad Mayrs elect to rest and take on the ropes after some sleep and with daylight. For rookie teams now focused on simply making it to the finish line, this seems like a wise decision.
The emotions of the World’s Toughest Race soar as we return to Team Endure. Mace’s balance is gone, a victim of age and the ravages of Alzheimer’s. The moment has come and Mark and Travis reflect on how the race has unfolded, all the things they have had to endure. Experience tells Mace that “For every athlete the time comes” but that “it’s hard for me to quit something because I have never quit before.” Travis responds: “This is not quitting. This is going on with living fully.” Despite the decision to call it, the team remains positive and optimistic, and it’s clear that there is so much more for this team than the finish line.
Behind them, the cutoff comes and goes. Stray Dogs are paused, examining their maps as a helicopter comes to assist them on to Camp Three. As their race concludes, Bob notes that this will likely be their final race, and Adrian explains: “My wife likes to say the only sane ones are the crazy ones…. You experience life to a much greater degree” when you are out in the wilderness, surrounded by friends, testing the boundaries of body, mind, and spirit.
And so it is that the Stray Dogs are waiting at Camp Three when their old teammate Mace hobbles back into camp. Despite the disappointment of not completing the race, the joy upon all their faces as they reunite, the beaming smiles, the warm embraces, and the knowledge that they have shared one more adventure with each other trumps the hardships they have confronted. Back together again, Mace and the Stray Dogs represent the absolute best in the sport of adventure racing, demonstrating to all that winning, losing, even finishing are secondary to the journey. When teams come together for each other in the way that these two teams have, every moment of pain, suffering, and disappointment is worth it. These teams are living their lives to the fullest. They inspire everyone who watches, and they are immortalized to their friends and families in ways that are impossible to articulate. In the words of the old Ecos: “This is Eco-Challenge”.
By Cliff White, USARA Board Member
At the end of episode six, viewers were left in suspense as Fran Costoya from Team Summit collapsed into the warming hut after the swimming section on leg four. Episode seven opens up on a hypothermic Fran being stuffed into enough blankets that if they pushed him over Vuwa Falls, he might not notice the impact.
After a few hours of care from the crack Eco medical staff, Fran makes a miraculous revival, and is up and spooning freeze-dried risotto into his mouth. Asked how he’s doing, Fran deadpans, “Perfect.” This veteran AR warrior is not about to let a little bout of hypothermia stop him from gunning for a top five finish at the World’s Toughest Race.
“Ours to lose”
Meanwhile, race leaders Team New Zealand arrive at the end of the highlands trek and the welcoming torch-line of Camp Four at 3 a.m. TAC Mark Rayward has a spread of tropical fruit waiting for the team, and it appears they elect to take one of their mandatory three-hour rest stops here. At sunrise of day six of the race, the team emerges from its tent and starts to pack up their bikes. Stu Lynch loads a Red Bull into his saddlebag, Sophie Hart seems excited to reach the ocean, and Mark seems relieved to see the team leave camp, knowing his TAC duties are completed. Captain Nathan Fa’avae estimates Leg Five will take them 10 to 12 hours, but says in adventure racing, that still leaves plenty of time for disaster to strike.
“Accidents happen,” he says. “We just have to be really sensible out there. But I think it’s probably our race to lose, as opposed to our race to win.”
The fifth and final leg is the “island” leg, consisting of 135 kilometers total and five checkpoints, beginning with a 77-kilometer sun-scorched bike ride interspersed with a short hike to a 60-meter rappel beside Qalivuda Falls and then a swim through the pool below to obtain the final medallion. At the end of the bike, teams get one more SUP section – an 11-kilometer jaunt from the village of Natalau to the ocean. Then they get to choose an outrigger and head out for a 45-kilometer open-ocean paddle, ticking off one final island-hopping checkpoint before turning south for the finish on Mana Island.
Team Canada Adventure arrives into Camp Four mid-morning, followed by the Aussies of Team Gippsland Adventure. Further back, Team Bend Racing is all smiles as they have “un-lost” themselves on the way up to Vuwa Falls. Stephen Thompson said he’s rediscovered his faith in the team, and captain Jason Magness is excited to see if they can catch back up after their second huge setback of the race.
“An adventure racing team is a lot like a family,” Bend Racing’s Melissa Coombes says. “We kind of went through this emotional roller coaster of, ’We’re going to make it! We’re going to make it! We’re not going to make it.’ But we race our game and do what we do then we let the chips fall as they may.”
As the team makes its way through the pools above the falls, smiles start to emerge as the team realizes it is in its element.
“I think we’re finally getting into our groove,” Thompson says. “Feels like we could just be out here forever.”
Thompson jokes that there are claw-marks on the banks of the river from all the teams ahead who were desperate to get out of the freezing water. It’s obvious from Bend Racing’s maniacal laughter that they thrive when the going gets really tough.
“Adventures like these show us what we’re made of,” Thompson says.
Magness has a quick retort. “Don’t you think that’s a pretty extreme way to do that?” he asks, not looking for an answer.
Machines of Truth
Further back, the Khukuri Warriors are paddling down the spectacular whitewater section, and Team Able Abels are prepping for their own run down the rapids. Both teams are going to need to hustle to beat the Camp Four cutoff of 12 p.m. on day seven of the race.
Team Stray Dogs have a more immediate cutoff to worry about: the whitewater dark zone. Stuck in the Sarlacc mud pits of the Leg Three “bike ride,” it’s going to be tough for this team of grizzled Eco vets to make the 4 p.m. deadline to start their river descent. With Dr. Bob struggling, it appears the team is struggling to make even minimal gains against the wall of mud they’re facing off against.
“Bicycles are machines of truth,” Stray Dog Ados Crane sermonizes. “If you don’t have the strength, you don’t get very good progress.”
Fellow Stray Dog Mark Macy, now racing with Team Endure, has finished the whitewater and claimed the medallion in Namuamua Village, only to find they face a daunting, 50-kilometer trek waiting for them. Wasting no time, the team hires a couple of local porters and starts clicking off the miles, passing the Mad Mayrs on the way. Mace is really moving, passing the young, fit Mayrs like they’re standing still. And he’s all business – when his son Travis tries to stop him to appreciate a stunning waterfall, Mace nearly runs him over. This guy will not be stopped.
Back at Namuamua Village, Team Able Abels has finished the paddle, but after having only banked two hours of sleep the night before, the team decides to rest for an hour in a local villager’s hut. They are feted with food and coffee, then the sisters and Dan Abel bed down for a bit while their suddenly visible and apparently unruffled navigator, Fletcher Hamel (#ThereIsFletcher!), pours over the map that will see them hike fifteen hours through the jungle to Camp Three. One wonders whether Fletcher is screaming inside his head, “We need to go NOW!”
Up further on the course, Fran Costoya of Team Summit seems pretty happy to be facing the heat of the day after his bout with hypothermia. He’s got his shirt off on the long lake SUP section and the team is making good time, trying to regain the two spots they lost during his rest. They’re now in tenth place but at CP24, the end of the SUP, they’re only six hours behind fourth place. They start off on a run down the gravel path out of the CP, showing exactly what it takes to earn a top-ten placing at Eco-Challenge.
It appears increasingly unlikely that they – or any other team – are going to catch Team New Zealand, who arrive at CP 27 and the transition to the hiking loop to the Qalivuda Falls rappel. They look cool, calm, and collected as they secure the final medallion and return to their bikes to find no other teams.
“That tells us we have a couple hours’ lead, at least,” Fa’avae tells the camera. “Other than that, I have no idea what’s going on behind us. But the finish line’s in front of us, and we’re looking that way.”
Shifting back to Team Bend Racing (lovingly referred to as the Yogis by those in AR circles), Vuwa Falls looms, but it shouldn’t be too tough of a challenge for this ropes-loving team. Still, it’s an emotional moment for all four members as they reflect on their young ones at home, and especially for Jason, who, with teammate and wife, Chelsey Magness, lost one of his sons at birth, an ordeal captured in the film “With Spirit.” Jason takes a moment to spread some of his son’s ashes at the base of the falls, and in a touching moment, pledges to bring back his family to the spot to visit. Nary a dry eye…
Team Summit is also shedding a tear after trying a shortcut and losing more than two hours to the merciless Fijian jungle, where “impenetrable” isn’t just a figure of speech. While refilling water at a bucolic stream, Emma Roca reminisces about her own family and gives a glimpse into the reason she has been absent from the global racing scene recently.
“I need to be with them more before they leave and they say, ‘Mom, let me go,’” Roca says of her three kids.
While New Zealand is well ahead on the final thirty-kilometer bike to the ocean, the battle for second is close, with just a fifteen-minute gap between Canada and Gippsland. Team Canada’s story doesn’t get told in great detail during the show, but even in the adventure racing community, many are probably surprised to see them battling it out up front. While Bob Miller and Scott Ford are old hands at elite-level AR, their two teammates, Ryan Atkins and Rea Kolbl are total AR rookies, though both are well-known in the obstacle course racing (OCR) community. According to an interview Miller did with Sleepmonsters, Kolbl was a last-minute choice and “the biggest wild card in our team.” But on day six of her first expedition race, Kolbl looks completely comfortable, smiling and happy and obviously in her element. For a sport that rewards experience above all else, that’s pretty incredible.
Speaking of experience, the Stray Dogs are leaning on theirs as they skirt each race cutoff, squeaking under the 4 p.m. whitewater rafting cutoff by less than 45 minutes. They’re going to have to camp out on the river, but at least they’ll be two hours ahead of where they would have been if they hadn’t reached their boat in time.
In a cutaway shot, we get to hear from the unheralded female Stray Dog, Nancy Bristow, who waxes poetic about her passion for adventure. Marshall Ulrich, a legend in adventure circles, follows up with a gem about his own reasons for taking one Eco-Challenge.
“The reason I keep doing these races is being able to see places that other people would normally never go,” he says. “Being able to do it with people that you love – challenges like this – allow you to experience that, and that’s just experience life. And I want to continue to experience life to the fullest as long as I’m alive.”
Mace, one of those people Ulrich loves, is just ahead, on the fifty-kilometer jungle trek to Camp Three. With his back giving out, Team Endure rents a horse and a porter and discuss putting Mace on horseback.
“I’m not riding on a horse,” Mace counters. “You get thrown off a horse.”
After following a strategy of sleeping every night, Shane Sigle acknowledges that the looming cutoff will force the whole team – and especially Mace – to dig deeper and “go until we probably start falling apart a little bit.”
“We will have to deal with the challenges of dealing with Mace’s cognitive abilities as he gets more and more and more tired,” Sigle says. “Tonight, it could be an issue, so it’s something we’re being really cognizant of as a team and it’s going to be a challenge.”
Or, as he tells Mace later, “Just another day in the World’s Toughest Race.”
Pick your poison
Up at the front of the pack, Team New Zealand arrives at Loma Loma Beach and “must choose an outrigger from one of the race management’s selection.” (Bear’s narration seems a little too carefully worded…) As a Fijian forklift (a group of muscly locals) brings their chosen watercraft to the beach, Hart gives away a bit more of her superteam’s strategy.
“Races are not won on the first day, they’re won at the end of the race. And so it’s about looking after yourselves and keeping the team healthy so that in those final days of racing you are able to race at your capacity,” she says.
Nathan follows up, “To win an Eco-Challenge, you need a great team, you need to be very determined, you need to be able to suffer a lot,” he says, adding ominously, “And I think you just need a little bit of luck – you need the gods to go, ‘Hey these guys are nice guys, let’s give them the first prize.’”
The gods are certainly not smiling on the Able Abels back in Namuamua Village, as a torrential downpour has opened up on the team while they take shelter in a villager’s house. The exhausted sisters Lauren and Ashley look like they’ve burned all the matches in their books, and while Fletcher (#ThereIsFletcherAgain!) gets a call-out for being “ready to keep going,” the team pulls the radio out and prepares to call for an evacuation.
“Yeah, it sucks, but what you girls did in the last six days is… You’ve turned yourselves inside out, so it’s pretty cool, too,” proud dad Dan Abel tells his daughters. Once again, the producers of Eco-Challenge flip the script on the way the show used to be done, giving this team a cinematographic pat-on-the-back for pushing themselves to their limits.
Less daunted by the rain, the Khukuri Warriors and the Mad Mayrs have teamed up to tackle the final thirty kilometers of the trek, linking arms to cross some scary-looking wavy water. Travis Macy, spotted traveling through one of the odd dirt tunnels that racers encountered in the middle of the trek, also seems rather jubilant, given the rain and the stress of trying to make the Camp Three cutoff.
“I’m good. This night has been kind of a spiritual experience,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed being present with my friends and my dad. Honestly, doing this has allowed me to embrace the shift in roles and the circle of life. It’s OK for me to hold his hand. Even if I am the one showing the way, I am still getting a lot of comfort from holding his hand.”
Cue several shots of the Macys holding hands and pushing forward together. Cue tears … from Travis, and from everyone watching.
But Mace’s back is not in on the love-fest. He’s starting to look like a human accordion, hobbled by debilitating back pain. Then he’s keeled over in the mud, and AR superstar Danelle Ballengee (her story is worthy of its own television show) expresses some doubt about whether this might be the end of the road. Out of the buggy mist, a saddled horse emerges (likely returning from ferrying another team to Camp Three) and the team turns its gaze on Mace.
“Mace, will you try it?” Sigle asks.
After some hesitation, Mace – setting aside his equine fears out of sheer determination to make it further on the course – mounts up and rides into the inky Fijian night.
Further ahead in that dark night, and just hours away from a decisive victory, the four members of Team New Zealand suddenly face their own potentially race-ending moment. The camera pans to a very busted outrigger canoe floating in the dark in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In the water, captain Nathan Fa’avae is giving orders and encouragement to his teammates. Then you hear him on the radio.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday.”
The four all-star members of the best adventure racing team in the world are now fighting for their lives.
By Emily Korsch, USARA Interim Social Media Captain
Out of the 66 teams that started the World’s Toughest Race, 58 are still racing. However, that number may decrease as we check in with Team Onyx. Bear Grylls left us with his signature “A TEAM IS DOWN” cliff-hanger last episode, and we finally see who it is in the opening minutes. Team captain Clifton Lyles has suffered a crash on a gravel road, his bike careening into a ditch and leaving him pretty banged up. His teammates, out of sight when the crash occurred, come racing back to find Lyles emerging from the ditch pretty banged up. Sam Scipio starts asking the right questions right away, “Are you OK? No, are YOU ok? Where’s your helmet?” Her extensive bike racing experience helps guide her team in assessing the damage: the bike seems ok, Lyles’ flesh wounds seem ok, but they are worried about his head. His bike helmet is crunched and he’s having some trouble focusing. To further evaluate Lyles’ situation, Team Onyx decides to back-track to Camp Two and get an official assessment from race medical staff. It’s such a blow to retrace your steps, but in the grand scheme of things, a potential head injury isn’t worth risking race progress. It may be Eco-Challenge: Fiji, but it’s still just one race.
The main focus for the chase and mid-pack teams in this episode is the approach to and ascent over Vuwa Falls. In the previous episode, even Team New Zealand struggled with this section. Fran Lopez Costoya, teammate of Emma Roca on Team Summit, echoes a familiar refrain for Eco-Challenge: Fiji, “We used to be four people with no commitments whatsoever, and now we are four people on a team with twelve kids.” Costoya emphasizes that adventure racing is so hard that complaining to your teammates will only make things worse, a theme that we’re happy to see embraced by the this reincarnation of Eco-Challenge. To illustrate, his team is having their share of navigational problems in the approach to Vuwa Falls, and while things are tense, they are working through the map with dedicated teamwork.
Team Iron Cowboy is still on the path to Camp Three and fully immersed in the muddy muddy mountain bike. The three boys swap their last remaining drops of water on a hilltop while they wait for Sonja Wieck to make the final steps. I’ve been in this situation before (though never with a cameraperson next to me), and it is so frustrating. Seeing your teammates ahead, resting, while you struggle to catch up can be demoralizing even on good days, and worse on day five (or is it six?) of an expedition race. To remedy this, usually I ask teammates to take weight out of my pack (or just take the whole dang pack), or give me a tow. It’s unclear if Team Iron Cowboy is adopting those strategies, but Wieck is giving it her best effort.
Approaching Camp Three is Team Bend Racing, having made up a myriad of places from DFL (dead _______ last) up to fifteenth. Grylls admires their grit, team member Melissa Coombes admires their grit, and WE admire their grit! Some teams race better off the front and some teams race better while chasing down the leaders. I’m not sure which Team Bend Racing prefers, but they are sure making the best of their chasing role.
We are treated to a Bear Grylls demonstration on how to ascend with a Bear Grylls™ machete in your backpack. We also get a quick shot of the CP20 check-in sheet, showing Team New Zealand had roughly a five-hour lead on the chase back of Gippsland, Canada Adventure, and Tiki Tour, with Team Summit arriving in 5th place later in the morning. Costoya emphasizes the team motto, a Chinese proverb: “If your problem has a solution, why get angry? If it does not, why get angry?” Again, I love this new Eco-Challenge emphasis on no drama and all teamwork. Team Summit is full-body tackling Vuwa Falls as more teams are reaching the base of the climb. Teams Vidaraid (sixth), Thunderbolt AR (seventh), Swedeforce (eighth), Estonian ACE (tenth), OutThere (fourteenth), Atlas (fifteenth) are all chomping at the bit to get on the ropes after Summit. To close out Team Summit’s climb, Bear Grylls is perched atop the falls, ready to give Emma Roca a pep talk that she doesn’t really need but accepts graciously.
Gryll’s positivity extends up to Team New Zealand, checking in on the team like a doting mom - “Are you feeling okay? Did you get a good rest?” - as they trek into a SUP section. Sophie Hart recounts how “physically taxing” the Vuwa Falls section was as the team inflates SUPs and Nathan Fa’avae underscores that top teams require commitment both to personal health and pushing hard. They have a 20km SUP and a 40km highlands trek ahead of them before getting to Camp Four, the final camp of the race.
Team Onyx has retraced their steps back to Camp Two to get medical attention for Lyles’ potential head injury. It seems that by backtracking, they may have sealed their fate even if Lyles gets a medical clearance. The team has a deep, honest, tough conversation on a hilltop outside of the camp, preparing themselves for a potential withdrawal. It’s such a complicated situation, both on a personal and team level. Scipio gives us the perspective on the balance of racing and life, “We want him to be okay, we want [race medical staff] to say he’s okay, but at the end of the day, it’s human life, and it matters a lot.” Boom. We’re with you, Sam and Team Onyx.
As if climbing nearly 1000 feet up Vuwa Falls isn’t hard enough, once teams make the top, they are treated to an 8km river trek/swim through bone-chillingly cold water. It’s a huge challenge to balance the need for movement to generate body heat with the need for slow progress to avoid slipping on river rocks. Throw in some full-body immersion on 58 degree Fahrenheit water, and this is nearly an Arctic challenge. Team Canada made it to the end of the section and the race-sanctioned warming hut to look after teams. Having made it past his nemesis Vuwa Falls, team captain Bob Miller has a visible spark in his eye to chase down the leaders.
Team Summit, however, is not so sparky. Emma is struggling to put on extra layers. This is a huge challenge with shivering appendages, combined with the loss of body heat that any stop in movement causes. Her teammates are also stopped while waiting for her, causing them to become further chilled as well.
Back at Camp Two, Team Onyx finds a visibly shaken TAC Mikayla (also Lyles’ daughter). Her concern for her dad’s potential head injury is evident. The entire team waits anxiously as Lyles is evaluated by the race’s medical team. The staff ultimately recommend a hospital evaluation, which would pull the team out of Eco-Challenge: Fiji. It comes down to a personal choice, and Lyles makes the call to drop out, not wanting to further endanger himself or his team by continuing their forward progress. It’s heartbreaking to see the end of Team Onyx’s race, knowing how many stereotypes they pushed through to be on the starting line of the World’s Toughest Race.
Scipio reflects on their journey. “Just being the person you are is always enough,” she says through tears. Are they my tears or hers? Answer… they are our tears. “You’re enough,” she continues. “Each one of us is enough.” We are with you, Team Onyx. You belong in adventure racing, and we couldn’t be happier or more grateful for your presence.
We get to spend a few minutes with Team Tabu Soro from Fiji near Checkpoint 15 as they wait for the other home team, Team Namako, to cross the river. Adventure racing isn’t a typical Fijian sport, but to have not one but two local teams in the field is a huge accomplishment. I’ve heard from other racers that the Fijian teams would actually lose several minutes each time they went through a village due to enthusiastic locals cheering for their home teams. And the Fijian teams were so accommodating that they chatted with everyone who wanted a few minutes. Go, Fiji, go!
On the dark riverbanks below Vuwa Falls, Team Bend Racing captain Jason Magness is still working through tough team dynamics to resolve his navigation error and restore team stoke. These are tense moments for the team, but it’s what top teams do: vocalize concerns, advocate for what each team member needs, and work together to address issues. This is what constructive conflict resolution looks like, which is such a departure from what Eco-Challenge has shown us in the past with the temper-tantrums, shouting matches, and pouting. Thank you, producers, for showing us these moments! And good luck Team Bend Racing!
Team Summit has finally emerged from the cold pool swim. As they make their way down the gravel road to the warming tent, the teammates work to outfit Costoyo in typical adventure racing high fashion: the emergency blanket cloak. (Side note, the emergency blanket can also be used to create a skirt, muu-muu, scarf, turban, shirt, vest -- really any number of fashionable and functional pieces.) The team gets to the tent and it’s clear we have a serious situation on our hands. Race medical staff hurriedly remove Fran’s wet and chilled clothing and cocoon him in dry fleece blankets to start the warming process. They encourage him to drink warm liquids as he is experiencing a double whammy: hypothermia AND muscle cramps. It’s painful for him, and painful for his teammates to watch.
As Team New Zealand closes in on the final Camp Four, it seems their lead may be in the most jeopardy yet with Teams Gippsland Adventure and Canada Adventure very close in pursuit. Will these teams get close enough tonight to see each other’s headlamps? How will mid-pack teams fare in the frigid waters above Vuwa Falls? Will Team Summit help Costoya recover enough to continue racing? Give us episode seven!
By Abby Perkiss, USARA Board Chairwoman
Episode five opens in the early minutes of day five, with Team New Zealand staring at the 1,000-foot ascent up the face of Vuwa Falls as the chase teams are snoozing in TA. Captain Nathan Fa'avae describes the strategy in their decision; they can set their own pace, without having to worry about teams around them. But the plan comes at a cost. While Gippsland, Canada, and Tiki Tour bank sleep, the Kiwis push on, gambling on their ability to rest at the top before daylight. “If we want to continue to be a champion team,” says Fa'avae, “we have to suck it up and push on.”
But the ropes are slow going, says navigator Chris Forne. And the team is now likely too wet and cold to stop. It doesn’t look like sleep will be in the cards that night. Ahead of them is an 8km swim, a 16km paddleboard, and a 50km highlands trek en route to Camp Four.
A Family Affair
Days behind, the back-of-pack teams are pulling into Camp Two off the jungle leg. Team Able Abels arrive in 53rd place, well ahead of the 12:30pm cutoff. Still, their spirits are low. They just spent 12.5 hours sitting in water, Lauren tells her mom, TAC Allison.
As Allison comforts her daughter, I’m left wondering: are there vulnerabilities in having a family member as your support person? Just as they walk the careful tightrope of parent and crew, so do the racers balance their roles as child and competitor. Is Lauren at risk of throwing off her equilibrium with her mom there, making her more susceptible to dips in motivation and drive?
After a quick montage of teams arriving at TA – Teams Khukuri Warriors, Onyx, and Stray Dogs – we see the sun rise on day five and the dark zone lift at the whitewater put-in.
There, Team Atenah Brazil, now in 24th place, prepares their boats and makes plans for a local guide at the takeout. As they set off, we hear a now-familiar (though no less compelling) refrain – the women of the team have gone from daughters to mothers in the time between Fiji 2002 and 2019. An interviewer asks Karina what she wants her children to say about her. “That I was a life-eater,” she laughs. “That I live my life very intensely.”
Then the conversation takes a powerful turn. We learn that Jose, the team’s fourth member, is filling in for his late wife, Kris. Kris was Shubi, Karina, and Nora’s teammate and coach. Five years earlier, she died of cancer. It has been many years since they all raced. Eco is the first opportunity to bring the team back together. They are racing to honor their teammate and friend.
Back at Camp Two…
Teams Able Abels, Endure, Eagle Scouts, US Military, and Costa Rica are all setting off on the 59km mountain bike to the rafting section. Team Onyx, in 58th place now, is the last team remaining. Until the previous night, they had slept only four hours over four days. The five hours they got in Camp Two were restorative, says Clifton, magical. The team is rejuvenated and ready to rock the next section.
Coree is particularly excited for the upcoming highland trek. A professional trail and mountain ultrarunner, the “ground game” is where Coree thrives. Suited up in a Speedo, Coree is someone we want to hear more from. He came out as gay at 25 years old and now he uses his platform to advocate for the LGBTQ community and communities of color in the outdoors.
Just ahead, the Abels are crossing the first of several river crossings on the mountain bike route. It’s a good reminder that just because you’re on a bike leg doesn’t mean you’ll be riding your bike. Dan Abel describes his role as captain and father as a razor’s edge. It’s almost a conflict of interest, he says, looking out for the safety of his daughters while worrying about team strategy. Seeing the narrative arc of this team – this family – you have to wonder if the relationships, clearly so strong, may ultimately be the team’s undoing in terms of finishing the course.
130km to the northwest, New Zealand has finally finished the ropes course after eight hours negotiating the climb. For Sophie, in particular, the section was a challenge. She hasn’t raced in four years, and she struggles with the shifting identities between mother and competitor. There is, on one hand, the loss of independence that comes with having kids, and the guilt she feels being away for training efforts. And then there are her own doubts about her ability to race with her three strong teammates, who have won three world championships in her absence.
Talk about that razor’s edge.
Nathan, meanwhile, seems to be having his own low moment. He’s tired, and the section has taken longer than they hoped and expected. But he doesn’t have time to dwell on it. The team is getting ready for a quick 8km dip in the Nisavulevu Creek, where water temperatures hover around 58 degrees Fahrenheit.
Bear Grylls tells us that they’re expecting many teams to drop here due to a combination of low morale and physical issues.
Less than 10 kilometers behind, second-place Team Gippsland is ascending the Vuwa climb – nicknamed the Widowmaker, according to Bear. The team is led by Rob Preston, but their secret weapon seems to be Rob’s wife, Katherine. “A real hidden talent,” he tells us. Katherine does look strong as the team surges up the falls.
Team Canada, in third place, is also on the falls. Captain Bob Miller recounts how his race ended here seventeen years ago, when jungle rot ate up his team’s feet and made walking impossible. Keep going, Bob and team! With no Americans in the lead pack, we’re rooting for our neighbors to the north!
Team Tiki Tour, having made a couple of wrong turns, is now in fourth place, and eager to catch up to their Kiwi rivals. Of note here, team member Joanna Williams raced with the New Zealand crew (then Team Seagate) to victories in the 2016 and 2017 Adventure Racing World Championship. A reminder of how small the AR world is; often, competitors become teammates, and then become competitors again. This likely also means that Jo knows some of New Zealand’s trade secrets. Will it help Tiki Tour in their bid for a podium spot?
A hundred kilometers behind, Team Costa Rica is getting ready for the whitewater rafting. Veronica Bravo is particularly nervous for this leg; several years ago, she drowned during the rafting leg of an adventure race and needed to be resuscitated. I get chills watching the team help each other through the section. Veronica says it perfectly: “The moment [of fear] passes, and then you realize, maybe that’s why you’re there – to be resilient.” Wow…
Meanwhile, Team Onyx is ready to make its way out of Camp Two. It seems that the whole team is eager for the upcoming leg. With more land travel than water, this crew of ace bikers and runners is excited to capitalize on their strengths and see what they can do. Riding up one of the many Fijian rollers, Chriss notes, “Some you walk, some you ride, and some you scream downhill.”
Further along on the bike route, rain has transformed the clay road into muddy red muck. While the Mad Mayrs seems a bit caught off guard by it, for Team Endure it’s just another day at the office. “This is the Eco-Challenge way,” Mace tells us as he pushes his bike through the slop, the metal ding of his spokes ringing with every rotation. This is most likely his last race, Bear reminds us. It sounds like Eco is giving him just the send-off he expected.
An emotional Travis reflects on growing up with this Eco legend as a dad. When he was a kid, he tells us, the two would walk the dogs together in the woods every night. And each time Travis would wonder: how is he not afraid, walking around in the dark in the woods? “And I would reach into his pocket,” he remembers, “and grab his hand, and I’d get that feeling that it’s going to be okay. I’m here with my dad and it’s going to be okay.”
Whew… What a journey this team is on.
Further back, the Abels have just reached CP15, the start of the mud slick – or as race personnel tells the team, “bili-bili squared.” You can see the conditions starting to wear on them, particularly for Ashley and Lauren, the two younger Abels. This scene also gives us what might be the first mention of their intrepid fourth team member – maps-whisperer Fletcher Hamel (#ThereisFletcher!)
The Warming Hut
After the eight-kilometer swim, New Zealand has finally reached dry land, and they’re making their way to CP22. There, they encounter a makeshift camp, including a warming hut and a team of medical staff. With water temps below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, race personnel want to ensure everyone’s safety before allowing them to continue on. The Kiwis are grateful for the reprieve – especially, says Sophie, for the warm coffee. Clearly, the team is depleted. This section took its toll. Will they be able to maintain their lead?
Just a few kilometers behind, Gippsland is taking on the cold creek with expert efficiency. They’re chilled, of course, but they’re looking strong and focused; they seem to be better-positioned right now than the Kiwis ahead. When they reach dry land, Bear finds them running down the road. It’s clear the team is racing; they’ve got no time for a chat. They offer the host a quick high five, and then it’s down to business.
Fourteen kilometers past Camp Two, Team Onyx is enjoying the ride. Or at least Chriss, Coree, and Sam are. The three have stopped on the road, chatting with locals as they await the arrival of Clifton. Chriss tells us that this isn’t atypical for them; often their captain is slower on climbs and then catches them on the descents.
When Clifton hasn’t arrived 10 minutes later, the rest of his team turns back to look for him. Cut to action-camera footage of a rider – presumably Clifton – crashing on the side the road, he and his bike tangled up with each other. As the team comes into view, we hear the helicopter overhead, and Bear yelling in alarm: “Team is down, a team is down.”
We’re all hoping this is just a dramatic Bear moment. But we’re all worried that this could be the end of Team Onyx’s race.
By Brent Freedland, USARA Board Member
Day three is winding down and the lead teams are trying to run down Team New Zealand who reaches checkpoint 16 and the start of the white water rafting leg with only two hours of sleep in the bank. The mandatory dark zone has fallen, and teams are forced to wait for the 6AM restart. While New Zealand’s Nathan Fa’avae reflects on the fact that several chase teams will be able to catch up and join them for the restart on day four, there is a major bonus for those caught in the dark zone: sleep. Team New Zealand has been the best of the best for a decade, and while their team dynamics, skill set, and navigational abilities elevate them above the competition, their understanding and grasp of strategy always gives them a further edge. We have heard Nathan note that the team hasn’t started to push yet, it seems that their understanding of time management and course logistics have come into play once more: while other teams race on behind them, at unsustainable paces, one wonders if New Zealand conserved some energy, recognizing that they wouldn’t make the dark zone in time. And now they will be able to bank 3-4 hours of extra sleep trailing teams likely won’t take.
“We are going to help you!” shout the village children as Team Endure approaches the raft launch; Endure gets to work, the team working with the local villagers to build the bili-bili while Travis gets some hot food going. When they complete their raft, Team Endure shows their experience; instead of setting off in the dead of night, they elect to seek shelter in the nearby village. Warm, dry beds will help Mark Macey, who needs extra sleep to forge ahead. While the team is sacrificing valuable race time, they are modeling the first rule of adventure racing: take care of your team’s needs. If they approached the race like most teams, driving themselves beyond the norms of exhaustion, it’s unfathomable that they would be able to reach the finish line. A decent sleep in the warmth and comfort of the village - instead of cold and shivering on a river bank - seems like the right call for Endure, and they will surely move more efficiently on Day 4 as a result.
For the Khukuri Warriors, the bili-bili are a surprise; they were expecting inflatable rafts, not bamboo. In many adventure races, race directors provide teams with detailed guides including mileage and time estimates, elevation profiles, and discipline schematics; thus far, it is clear that The World’s Toughest Race is not playing by such AR norms, reserving maps and course information for transition areas, surprising racers as they progress through the course. Raid in France famously follows a similar model, and it adds an element of strategy to the event, requiring teams to be even more adaptable than they already are. The Warriors seem a bit unsure about the bamboo rafts, and they also note that they have heard rumor of sharks in the river. Upon first thought, this seems like an unnecessary concern, but after a bit of time with The Google, we learned the infamous bull shark does indeed inhabit Fiji’s freshwater estuaries!
At the back of the pack, 24 hours behind the lead teams, night has fallen, and AR legends Team Stray Dogs are lost as they search for CP 12. Upon its inception, Eco-Challenge captured the nighttime adventures of its participants with grainy, green-lit night-vision video. Being able to film such nighttime action in full HD glory only further enriches the story of teams like Stray Dogs, lost in the darkness, undoubtedly fighting “sleepmonsters” as they seek to get back on track and stay ahead of the cut offs. Thankfully, wisdom and experience persevere, and the Stray Dogs make it to the bili-bilis. Marshall Ulrich notes that they are on the edge; at their current pace, they will not be able to keep up with the cutoffs. In some ways, being the Lanterne Rouge in a major expedition race is the hardest job of all: such teams endure the most time on the course; their pain lasts for days longer than the front runners; they encounter the same bad weather (and sometimes more of it), or tricky navigation, or technical terrain as everyone else; but they also have to contend with the mental strain and anxiety of knowing that they face elimination with every wasted minute, every wrong turn, every minute stopped. The Stray Dogs are too experienced to fall apart as a team, but the strain of knowing they might not be fast enough is apparent.
A day ahead, Team New Zealand launches their rafts. As expected, several other teams have made it to the dark zone overnight; for them, the race starts anew. Some, like New Zealand, have slept a considerable amount in transition, but others are launching without the benefit of that added rest. As we get our first glimpse of the rafting, it is breath-taking. Spectacular gorges hewn out of jungle-clad cliffs, cascading waterfalls, narrow crevices full of broiling white-water. The teams are taking this section on without guides, which is a good indicator that there is no big-time white-water. Still, the run looks spicy enough and it is set in an absolutely magical setting. Not a bad way to start day four. Canadian all-star Bob Miller, captaining Team Canada Adventure, notes that “To beat…the Kiwis, we definitely have to sharpen our [paddling skills], but we are also quite worried about the other teams around us.” While anything can happen in an adventure race, it does look like the race for the podium has narrowed down to five or six teams.
As the lead teams depart, Bear wonders if the Kiwis are concerned about their old rivals and Mike Kloser. For the first two days of the race, it seemed that Kloser and Team Out There might make it interesting. But a navigation blunder set them back, and racing from behind is always a difficult task. Closing the gap requires a massive output of energy, sharper strategy and navigation, and a bit of luck. Back in the jungle, Out There is trudging up the mud-sodden roads of the Fijian backcountry. As usual, Team New Zealand seemed to hit the timing just right: roads that were hard enough for steadier riding by the leading teams have dissolved into mud slicks and trenches for the mid-pack, and the Americans know that they are losing even more time, not just to the Kiwis but to the other lead teams. Still, they have clawed back to 8th place, and as Kloser keeps noting, anything can happen!
Back at Camp 2, Team Hombres de Maiz have been struggling with a broken bike. As is common in adventure racing, Andres Duante lost his rear derailleur, rendering his bike unrideable. Unable to accept help from the race organizers and volunteers, they are at the mercy of other teams. Would you let another team take your bike out in the muddy, bike-destroying Fijian jungle? Team Peak Traverse did, and such selflessness, helping another team who you probably don’t even know, defines the AR community. Duante is not only relieved; he becomes emotional, noting that “when you’re the one who [has] the problem, you carry that…I have three other peoples’ dreams of finishing this…on my shoulders.” Thankfully, the pressure is off, and the Hombres de Maiz will continue on!
Also in Camp 2, Bear stops in to talk to Hunter Leininger. Eighteen years old, Hunter is the youngest competitor in the race, and he is racing with his father, Jeff, on Team AR Georgia. As Jeff and Bear discuss, this is such an amazing opportunity for the two to race and bond together, and Hunter reflects on his participation in the event, noting that “the reason I’m here is to inspire kids to do this race [because] you can do anything no matter what your age is.”
The River Medallion
While team Onyx confronts leaky and sinking bili-bilis, Teams New Zealand, Tiki Tour, and Gippsland Adventure complete the raft and ford the river to locate the third medallion, this one representing the rivers of Fiji. “Bula!” the locals call to the racers as they navigate their way through the village, some clearly stopping for some fresh food or drink as evidenced by containers, bags, and wrappers in their hands. For those who have not raced in a country like Fiji, it’s such an amazing opportunity to explore local villages, well off the tourist track. The joy in the racers’ faces is evident as they shake hands with the village chief before claiming the third medallion, and the villagers are equally exuberant as they come out to cheer the racers on, supporting these modern explorers as they pass through on their way back into the mountains.
Ahead of the leaders is a 45-km trek, and it’s here that we see a unique wrinkle in the race. Typically, any outside assistance is prohibited during an adventure race, but the race directors allow teams to hire porters for this next leg of the event. The leaders quickly hire guides and porters to lead them through a complex web of jungle trails, and they offload their packs for several hours of unweighted travel, a rare moment of reprieve in such a grueling race. Team Canada has firmly established itself in the top five, but it’s veteran adventure racer Emma Roca on Team Summit who decides to use the locals in a more novel way: she hires horses. It’s not clear whether this helps them as they end up separating from the horses and then having to wait for them (and their packs) later on, but it’s always exciting seeing what a wily AR veteran comes up with!
Behind the leaders, it seems like all the Americans are on the water: six hours behind the leaders, Team Bend Racing is whitewater rafting through the same spectacular scenery the lead teams took on that morning. They are in good spirits and seem to have recovered from their rough start, climbing all the way back to fifteenth place. It was clear that this team had prepared well for the paddling based on their performance at the start of the race, and they look strong in the raft as well. Onyx, meanwhile, is not doing as well, struggling to fix their bili-bilis. That said, after some mending and teamwork, they get the bamboo rafts back on the water and are able to push on. Awake after a good sleep, Team Endure is forging ahead, too, somewhere on the river behind Onyx. Shane Sigle notes that they “all came here for Mace.” Despite the nightly breaks for Mark to sleep, they continue to be well positioned in the field to make the cutoffs and keep moving toward the finish. From HQ, Bear analyzes the tracking map, noting that Stray Dogs are a long way out from the next cutoff. They, too, are floating along in the bili-bilis, and while Bear knows it isn’t looking great for them, he also affirms: “It’s doable… They’re legends.” Bear’s positivity is clearly contagious, and hopefully his good vibes reach them as they bring up the rear.
As Day 4 concludes, the leaders march into Camp 3. The Kiwis from Teams New Zealand and Tiki Tour can be seen traveling together for part of the trek, but it appears that New Zealand has pulled ahead at some point to reach the transition first. Nathan notes that the team may have pushed a bit too much on the trek, getting caught up in the race with Tiki rather than focusing on their own race. If true, they may pay a price for it in the end, and it would be an uncharacteristic mistake for the most dominant AR team in the world. The rest of the top teams stream into Camp 4, and Day 4 concludes on a high note with Emma Roca reflecting on the amazing performance by their fifteen-year-old guide, Rebonee. “It was a beautiful experience,” she muses, and it’s clear that Day 4, filled with verdant jungle gorges, vibrant village life, and model teamwork and determination was a beautiful experience for all of the teams.
By Abby Perkiss, USARA Board Chairwoman
When we last left off, a major tropical storm had overtaken the racecourse, and race personnel had made the decision to stop the clock and hold teams at staffed checkpoints until they could continue safely. Teams are now spread over 230 kilometers, Bear tells us. We’ve left racing behind and entered “survival mode.”
You can imagine the headache this is causing for HQ, as they try to keep tabs on everyone. Thank goodness for the advanced tracking technology that allows them to have metaphorical eyes on every team. I’m having a flashback to Eco-Challenge Borneo, where Sarah Bordman and her Outrageous Adventures teammate went six hours off-course on the opening leg of the race – an ocean swim – and all anyone could do was hope they weren’t lost at sea…
But back to Fiji 2020.
In the opening moments of Episode 3, we see seventh place Team Estonia, trying to match wits with the raging Waiga Canyon. I love the moment when they reach the far bank, pull out their machete – because everyone travels with that handy machete in their back pocket – and start to cut their way through the jungle, cameraman following behind. This embedded media is incredible. So much of non-Amazon Prime adventure racing gets covered in transition areas. With the resources behind Eco, viewers are getting a visceral sense of what it feels like to be in the thick of it – literally.
As the sun comes up on Camp One, where most of the teams were stopped overnight, everyone is busy sorting gear and plotting maps in preparation for the mass restart. This is an interesting decision from race personnel. Does it give these teams an undue advantage, having that extended access to their kit when teams who were pulled at individual checkpoints are stuck with whatever food and clothes they have in their packs, unable to get warm or plan for the next stage? We also learn here that the first cutoff remains at 4PM, despite the course stoppage. I have to wonder whether any back-of-pack teams would benefit from those extra hours in their push to Camp One.
Speaking of, we return to our friends on Team Unbroken, who have camped overnight on the island and are readying gear and boats for the sea crossing to the mainland. The team maintains their strategy of adhering to a military chain of command, with Hal noting that he made the executive decision not to get on the water at night. You get the sense that he holds the weight of the responsibility that comes with being team captain. “You get to a point in life,” he reflects in recapping the call to spend the night on the island, “where you have to decide whether the things that set you back will be the things that define you.”
On the mainland but still 55km from camp, we see the so-called back-of-pack teams waking up in the Sote Village school house. Teams Stray Dogs, Khukuri Warriors, Onyx, and Able Abels are about to get on their bikes for the long ride to their support crews. As they set off, one of the twins from Khukuri calls out, “Make sure you don’t leave anything behind.” Even in this massive production, which has clearly taken over the entire island of Fiji (in amazing ways and, I imagine, disruptive ones as well) we still get that “leave no trace” ethos of adventure racing coming through. I love this sport.
The schoolhouse is also the backdrop for a glimpse into the inner workings of the Able Abels. As Ashley assembles her bike – for only the fourth time ever, she tells us – we hear how the team came together. Younger sister Lauren was away at college when Ashley reached out. It had been a lifelong dream of hers to compete in an adventure race, ever since the sisters watched their dad cross the line at Eco Fiji in 2002. It’s unclear how much coercion Lauren required, but given that the team is now getting ready to embark on the final section of Stage One, it’s clear she relented. “I’m blown away by Lauren’s selflessness,” Ashley reflects. The exchange is touching; this is a team you’re rooting for to make it to the finish. Side note: still no sighting of the team’s intrepid navigator, Fletcher Hamel. It’s a callback to the fourth member of Team Kodak, racing alongside Luke Skywalker – I mean Hayden Christiansen – and his siblings eighteen years ago. Who was that guy? #WhereIsFletcher
Back at Camp One and racers are gathered for the mass restart. Here, we get a rare glimpse of some of the less-featured American teams in the event, including our friends on Team Bones and Team Strong Machine. Love seeing these familiar faces in high def. Team Bend Racing is there, too, itching to get moving. Hopefully the downtime has helped Dan recover from his early bout of heat exhaustion, and they’ll be able to push onward at full strength.
As Bear counts down, we see teams spread out across the course – 230km separates first from last, remember – New Zealand in their bili-bilis, Unbroken on the island shores. And then they’re off. “Into the jungle we go!” someone yells, as teams head for the canyon.
Near Camp One, we find Bear greeting Team Estonia as they make their way out of the jungle canyon. “That was a long, wet night,” he says, offering kudos and good cheer. Actually, one team member corrects him. “We broke through during the night. We came to the checkpoint and then we slept.”
Sometimes experienced racers aren’t as good for TV drama.
After a brief return to Team Unbroken, who has now reached the Ocean Medallion, and an interlude with local favorites Teams Tabu Soro and Namako – the two Fijian teams in the race – we jump ahead to the end of the bilibili leg. As they pull off the water, Nathan Fa’avae remarks that the team benefited from rising water levels during the storm. Doesn’t it always seem like New Zealand gets that extra boost? A team that knows how to put themselves in the position to take advantage of a little bit of luck.
Following close behind are Teams Tiki Tour, Gippsland, Canada Adventure, Summit, and Thunderbolt – noteworthy that four of the top six teams are from the South Pacific. So far, we haven’t seen much in the way of interviews with these pointy-end racers, outside of New Zealand and Summit. It makes me wonder if the producers didn’t expect this group at the front. With Camp Two in sight, maybe they’ll start to get more attention.
Back in 57th place, the Stray Dogs are struggling. With eight hours to the cutoff and 40km to ride, we find Bob Haugh deep in a heat-related hole. Face caked in sunscreen, he’s trudging up a dirt road, clearly trying to right the proverbial ship. When Marshall Ulrich comes up and suggests that he unbutton his shirt – “show a little skin here” – Bob returns a quick punchline. Give the public what they want. It’s an easy rapport, built over years of racing together. The two are the elder statesmen of the team (and the sport), their decades of experience clearly pulling them along in ways their physical strength no longer can. Bob is grateful for his old friend’s presence. “Almost like having the Buddha with you,” he quips.
An hour ahead, the members of Team Endure are lugging their bikes through peanut butter-thick mud. Despite the challenge, Travis Macy remains upbeat. His energy leaps off the screen. What in Episode 1 might have felt like a performance now feels genuine. It’s who he is, and it’s how he and his teammates are going to help his dad through the race.
Family dynamics are on display across the course, from the Able Abels sorting through sweet tarts (#WhereisFletcher) to the nervous TACs in Camp One, anxiously watching the clock as the cutoff approaches. For the young women of the Abels and Khukuri Warriors, their crews are also their parents. It’s a hard balance, reflects the elder Malik, to at once help them compete and be their father. “The girls are very young still,” he notes, “and they don’t rationalize the dangers as much as I do.” Despite his parental concern, his support is clear. Don’t just dream at night, he recounts telling his two daughters, whose goal it is to open up adventure sports to more women and young girls in their home country of India. Pursue your dreams by day.
Another group breaking down barriers, Team Onyx, has stopped in a small village to regroup for their final push to Camp One. There, the local community takes note of their team makeup. “All black people?” someone asks. “The whole team,” Chriss Smith responds. “First team ever, from all across the United States.” The locals offer their approval, chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
Cut to an interview with Sam Scipio: “It means a lot to represent black females, in particular. You don’t see much of it in adventure racing. So, I’m happy to show people that there are black superheroes.” And then we get the first best line ever to come out of a race: “This is the closest we ever get to being superheroes.” Tell me you saw Sam in the trailer and didn’t get goose bumps.
Meanwhile, the lead pack has made it to Camp Two, where they’ll take their mandatory ninety-minute break and ready themselves for the River Leg: 63km of biking, 30km of whitewater rafting, and 50km of jungle trekking. All in a day’s work, right?
Aussie Rob Preston of Team Gippsland isn’t coy about his team’s ambition (for students of US racing, you’ll recognize Rob’s name from the now-dormant Team Tecnu/Adventure Medical Kits) . Their motivation, he says plainly, is to beat the Kiwis. Nathan Fa’avae – a thirty-year AR veteran – and his New Zealand teammates are the best in the sport, Rob continues. “But hopefully we can be the team that can knock them off the podium.”
Back at checkpoint twelve and the bili-bili put-in, midpack teams are busy building their rafts. As Bear tells us, these bamboo boats have been a mode of travel for local Fijians for thousands of years. The rafts also made an appearance in the 2002 Eco-Challenge Fiji. Then, Atenah Brazil’s Nora sliced her finger while cutting line for the raft. Two days later, she was pulled from the race, infection coursing through her body. This time around, she’s wearing gloves for protection.
Cut to Brett Gravlin of Team Curl, who has just nicked his own hand. As he cleans it out, hoping to avoid infection, I can’t help but wonder if this is ominous foreshadowing. This team of AR rookies includes Gravlin, described by teammate Steven Lenhart as a “stoner from Santa Cruz who surfs and raises kids,” plus science teacher Justin Smith, ultramarathon runner Jennifer Hemmen, and Lenhart, a former professional soccer player.
All we learn about the team here is that they all have curly hair – hence their team name. They’re likable enough, but it’s not clear yet why they’re being featured in the show. I get the sense that they must play a significant role in a later episode. Foreshadowing, indeed.
Further downriver, Team AR Georgia is plodding along on their bilibilis. As they struggle, they come across a local who has set up a cottage industry, carving out bamboo paddles at $4 a pop. Just as Stray Dogs set the record for the oldest team on the course, Hunter Leininger of AR Georgia gets the award for the youngest. Hunter did his first adventure race at seven years old and hasn’t stopped since. Now eighteen, Hunter is a seasoned racer, experienced enough to know that the $16 investment is well worth it.
As Hunter and his teammates continue down the river, back at Camp One the course cutoff looms. Team Endure arrives with two hours to spare. Not long after, the Abels arrive, to the delight of their waiting TAC Allison, AKA “mama bear.” When Ashley rolls in and sees her mom waiting, she melts into her arms. As I watch the scene play out, I can viscerally feel that emotional release. Sometimes in adventure racing, you just need a good cry.
Ashley collects herself and the team makes their way through camp to their station, eager to get off their feet and recover before heading off on Leg 2. As they walk, we see others TACs cheering on their arrival – a subtle indication of the tight-knit community forming in the camps. (still asking: #WhereisFletcher)
Here I find myself wanting more on the role of the TACs. What are they allowed to do? Can they resolve mechanical issues? Can they plot maps? Are their restrictions on the help they can give the teams?
As the Abels transition, Bear pops over for a quick hello, and the two sisters squeal in star-struck delight. It’s a sweet moment, and one of the few times where we see a chink in that fourth wall, a reminder that this is as much a reality TV show – with a reality TV star – as a race.
With forty minutes to spare, Team Onyx rolls in. Immediately, captain Clifton Lyles drops his bike and embraces their TAC – his daughter, Mikayla – in a huge bear hug. Clifton has played support for Mikayla her entire life; she’s proud to have the opportunity to turn the tables. As the team heads to their own camp – adorned with a Pride flag hung alongside the stars and stripes– Mikayla works on bikes as Clifton leads a discussion on sleep strategy. Father and daughter make a great pair, leading Eco’s first all-African American team into Leg Two.
At this point, Unbroken and Stray Dogs are the only teams who haven’t arrived at Camp One. Stray Dogs are still working their way through the 40km bike course, and Bob’s heat issues persist. We get a glimpse into how the most experienced AR teams operate: pushing each other’s bikes, offering pep talks, doing everything they can to keep all four team members moving. Adrian Crane reflects this when he notes, “back in the day, we were on competitive teams. Because of the ravages of a few extra years, we are really trying to get each other through this.”
Many kilometers behind, we see Unbroken finally reaching the mainland. They’re met by Race Director Kevin Hodder, who breaks the news that their race is over. It is impossible for you to make it to camp by the time cutoff, he tells them. I have no choice but to pull you from the course. The change in tone is palpable; in just seconds, you watch the team shift from elation to deflation. But then just as quickly, they start to recover.
“We said we’d go until they told us we couldn’t go any further, and we have done that,” says Gretchen. “What happened... was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done, and I’ve relied on you guys just like I would my own troops. And that meant the world to me. You are my guys. We are still unbroken. This will not break us.”
This is one of those archetypical Eco moments. On paper, the team has failed. They won’t make it to the next checkpoint; they won’t be able to continue on the course. But in profound ways, the Eco production team departs from previous seasons here. Rather than playing up the conflict among team members, rather than turning them into caricatures of inexperienced racers, Eco made a production decision to lead with compassion.
As someone who’s watched each of the previous editions of Eco-Challenge several times, I’m so moved by this decision. I’ve always felt that the later seasons – New Zealand, in particular, but Fiji-2002 as well – were propelled forward by intra-team drama and inter-team rivalries. While it makes for good TV, it’s far less compelling than the true nature of adventure racing: the grit, the perseverance, and the teamwork. I can’t tell you how much I love that the producers here have chosen to highlight humanity. And they do so at almost every turn. It’s what makes these early episodes of The World's Toughest Race: Eco Challenge Fiji some of the most compelling television I’ve ever seen.
Cut back to Stray Dogs, who have pulled into Camp One just as the cutoff hits. “It’s now four o’clock,” Bear tells them with a pregnant pause. “You’ve made it. You guys are through.” For a moment the team seems caught off-guard. They weren’t expecting to continue on. But then their whole bodies relax in relief.
“You are still on the world’s toughest race, says Bear. “Now go and smash it.”
Stay tuned for more from USARA! Visit www.usara.com for more information on adventure racing in the United States.
By Emily Korsch, USARA Interim Social Media Captain
Welcome back to the World’s Toughest Race Eco-Challenge: Fiji Episode Recaps! Episode 2 wastes no time in reuniting us with Team Bend Racing at CP 4 on Ovalau Island, trying to manage Dan’s heatstroke. It’s a potential blow to the team’s morale, sitting stationary while watching over 50 teams pass them by. Imagine being in the lead of the World’s Toughest Race, and watching 90% of teams pass you. An inexperienced team may have turned on each other. How will Jason, Melissa, Dan, and Stephen weather the storm?
The leaders are paddling their camakaus back to the main island of Fiji after trekking on Ovalau and free diving for the Ocean Medallion. Team New Zealand leads the pack, with Out There, Thunderbolt AR, Canada Adventure, Summit, and Estonian ACE each offering their quick pieces of advice on the opening legs of the race. In general, it’s hard to temper the excitement of the start with the knowledge that your team is only beginning a battle that will last for days. But the successful team must do just that - managing emotional as well as physical energy so when your reserves are needed in the most trying moments (of which there will be several), you and your team can find the strength to move forward. (Blog foreshadowing for Team Iron Cowboy in a few paragraphs)
The Americans on Team Iron Cowboy have made it to the Ocean Medallion station and elect teammate James to free dive to the ocean floor and retrieve the shiny trinket. As we mentioned in the Episode 1 recap, these medallions are certainly a production feature that you wouldn’t necessarily find in a traditional adventure race, but then again no adventure race is exactly the same. Sonja explains that the Eco-Challenge promotional video specifically challenged Ironman athletes, and their team was created to answer the challenge. It’s terrific to see people who have specialized in swim-bike-run take on new disciplines such as camakau paddling and free diving. Their adventurousness is rewarded when James succeeds in the medallion retrieval.
Meanwhile, back on Ovalau Island,
Team Stray Dogs avoided the camera in the first episode, but we get to know them and their history intertwined with Team Endure a little bit better while they are trekking on Ovalau Island. Team Stray Dogs have the unique distinction of being the oldest team in Eco-Challenge, with all team members over 60 years old. They have significant prior Eco-Challenge experience and are excited to be back in Fiji. They showcase many of the important pieces of adventure racing culture:
All I can say is GIVE ME MORE TEAM ENDURE AND TEAM STRAY DOGS. THE WORLD NEEDS MORE TEAM ENDURE AND TEAM STRAY DOGS.
Lead teams hit CP7 and are anxious to have more of the course revealed to them. This is another characteristic unique to adventure racing; teams often start races with only a partial set of maps, and the course is revealed stage by stage as they progress. This underscores the expedition aspect, and it also rewards teams who are able to quickly interpret maps and adapt their strategy on the fly - so different from other single-sport events where the course is often published months in advance, and/or repeated year after year, so athletes can hone their training specifically to the demands of a certain location. By contrast, adventure racing rewards the teams and athletes who have a higher level of general fitness and the mental strategy to adapt their skills to whatever the course demands on a moment’s notice.
An interview with Team Canada’s Bob Miller describes what Team Sundance Kids nicknamed “Fool’s Christmas” ...when teams receive a new set of maps, it felt like a gift - at least until they opened the maps and saw what brutal terrain the next sections of the course would entail. I love the brief shot of Chris Forne and Stu Lynch of Team New Zealand packing up for the SUP leg. Chris is packing Stu’s pack while Stu is wearing it. Another great strategy of top teams - often teammates get into each other’s packs more than their own, and have to know what each pocket, zipper, or clip will do to efficiently access whatever their teammate needs without stopping.
Meanwhile, back on Ovalau Island,
Team Unbroken is executing their lengthy but safer route between CP3 and CP4. They are discussing a Night One sleep, which is questionable given the hours they are knowingly adding to their race with their route choice. I’m not sure I would have advocated for a sleep, but it’s unclear how long they actually do spend stationary. And this is the fun of Eco-Challenge… armchair adventure racing!
At Race HQ (all adventure race directors everywhere are drooling at all of the team tracking maps and huge touch-screen displays), Bear reviews the navigation choices of Team Unbroken and Team OutThere, and we get a quick glimpse of OutThere’s nav error on the SUP. Evidently OutThere didn’t follow Mark Lattanzi’s adventure race navigation rule of “at night, you move way more slowly than you think. Repeat that,” and turned inland too early.
TEAM ENDURE ALERT!! They are on Ovalau Island waking up from a restorative five-hour sleep (#onlyinadventureracing) and preparing to paddle their camakaus back to the main island. Teammate Shane explains the difficulty in coping with a teammate with Alzheimer’s - Mace is not able to fully contribute his lengthy skill set to the team, and Team Endure instead is focused on caring for him. “The reality is, we can make a difference by supporting people like Mace, and Travis, the path that those two are are on...it’s an honor, bottom line.” I’m not crying, you’re crying. Give us a ten-episode series on Team Endure.
Still on their extended trek, it seems like Team Unbroken is struggling to make forward progress. Keith details his serious injuries from Iraq and what he had to overcome to even start training for Eco-Challenge: Fiji. This group is surely overwhelmed by the enormously challenging course and the looming time cut-offs, but their team spirit is pushing them through despite increasingly bad odds.
Ahead, Team New Zealand crushes the 56km mountain bike section and is first to reach Camp 1/CP12, followed by Canada Adventure, Thunderbolt AR, TIki Tour, Summit and Estonia ACE. I love hearing more about Emma Roca, who is an old-school, extremely talented adventure racer who has made a comeback for Eco-Challenge: Fiji to encourage more women and girls to be Team Captains for adventure racing. As teams spend their mandatory ninety minutes in Camp 1 to prepare for the next leg, we are treated to fun shots of the racers rinsing off in the freshwater creek, which is surely a relief after spending about 24 hours padding in the saltwater of the ocean.
Meanwhile, back on the water,
Team Iron Cowboy is having a tough moment at the end of the camakau paddle. Sonja, a top amateur Ironman triathlete from 2009-2014, dealt with a severe mental health crisis in 2017 and has used Eco-Challenge: Fiji to fuel her comeback to competitive sport. She and her team have experienced huge highs and lows in just the first 24 hours of racing, and there are several more days to go if they are planning to attempt the full course. Surely the difficulty she experienced taking in enough nutrition while steering the heavy camakau has negatively affected her emotional state. Her teammates are doing their best to even out the emotional roller coaster, and provide a steadier emotional stoke to lend consistency to their progress.
Incoming! Incoming! A tropical storm is looming on the horizon. Teams Nika and Peak Traverse are officially so over paddling their camakau against the strong headwind and pushing tide. Race staff offer assistance with the caveat that it will end both teams’ participation in Eco-Challenge: Fiji. It’s a crushing realization to the teams who have spent months preparing, only to have their race end just after 24 hours. But if they have been unable to make forward progress paddling, what other option do they have? Let’s hope they can find a ride back to the race hotel, or even better, turn into super-volunteers at Camps to help out other teams.
Meanwhile, back on Ovalau Island,
Team Unbroken is becoming quite familiar with this tiny Fijian island. Completing the trek but facing a long paddle back to the main island with impending storm conditions, they decide to sleep again. I’m sure it’s frustrating to spend their second overnight of the race still on the second section. It makes me wonder if Teams Nika and Peak Traverse could have made the same decision to wait out the storm with Unbroken and all three tackle the paddle/SUP/bike after the storm passes.
Up again with the lead teams, we get fun shots of Team Summit enlisting local help to build their bili-bili rafts. Emma is a wonder to watch in these interactions - so encouraging and excited that even I want to get a plane ticket and help her build a bili-bili raft. Where can I sign up? Just don’t ask me to paddle it! As Team Summit tries out their new bili-bilis, the incoming tropical storm starts unleashing a huge downpour. For the teams starting to raft, this may be an advantage as the rain will raise water levels. For the teams still trekking through the canyon, it is a disadvantage. As Silver Enselaar explains, “in normal circumstances, you don’t want to go into a canyon in the rain because the level is rising, and the speed of the water is getting larger and larger all of the time.” Team Estonia ACE finds themselves in a potentially dangerous situation, which means their embedded cameraman, Pablo, is also in potential danger. It underscores how athletic Eco-Challenge: Fiji’s media crew is - to follow top adventure racing teams into this precarious and difficult terrain. Even with the water rushing, Team Estonia ACE is fairly calm about their situation and even refuses rescue from an eager helicopter.
As the episode comes to a close, Bear gathers the TACs and announces that the race will be temporarily stopped while the incoming tropical storm pushes through the race course. While it makes sense for most teams, Team Estonia ACE does not have the benefit of Bear’s official guidance, and so continues to try and move ahead in the canyon. Bracing against their teammates to cross a rushing river, Silver and company (and cameraman Pablo!) continue to inch their way through the canyon, hindered only by the abrupt ending of the episode. Hey! How are we supposed to go to sleep now, with that kind of ending? Oh… you mean Episode 3 is loading right now and will play in 5 seconds? Oh. OK. Thanks, Amazon Studios. You’re forgiven.
Stay tuned for more from USARA! Visit www.usara.com for more information on adventure racing in the United States.
By Emily Korsch, USARA Interim Social Media Captain
Welcome to the highly, HIGHLY anticipated return of Eco-Challenge! The adventure racing community started hearing rumors way back in late 2018 that the fabled Mark Burnett-Lisa Hennessy production, shuttered since 2002, was going to make a return with the backing of a major studio. In the Eco-Challenge hey-dey (click here for a more complete history), it attracted a unique mix of the most gifted endurance athletes in the world and your everyday “off-the-couch”ers, competing against each other and against a multi-day, multi-sport wilderness course where the clock never stopped. The production brought the sport of adventure racing from “international niche” status to mainstream in the United States. Co-workers discussed sleep strategies over lunch. People started seeing their neighbors running with backpacks. Kids wondered if they really could just eat candy bars all day and never brush their teeth. And then, what happened? Well, perhaps only Burnett and Hennessy can tell us that, but they came up with the concept of Survivor (you may have heard of it), which brought the same themes to the TV audience without the hassle of following elite athletes through the jungle for days on end.
Fast-forward to 2018, and the technological advances both in the film and outdoor gear industries. Suddenly capturing an adventure race for a TV audience didn’t seem quite as imposing (and expensive) as it once was. Also, we now have big tech conglomerates looking to reach new people, instead of the dot-com sponsorship which had largely funded the first wave of Eco-Challenge races. Mix all those ingredients with Burnett, Hennessy, their amazing crew, and a roster of old and new adventure racing personalities, and we found ourselves in Fiji on the start line of a brand new adventure race.
The addition of Bear Grylls to the Eco-Challenge team is a good choice. He brings a great perspective and a large following to the sport of adventure racing, which combines many of the activities he already exemplifies in his other media ventures. He kicks off the series like any TV host worth their salt: with a flashy helicopter entrance and a pep talk, including one of the most important principles of AR… if one teammate drops, the whole team drops. The crowd then parades down to a fleet of traditional Fijian camakau boats waiting on the banks of a river.
Bear counts the race down and it’s instant chaos. I mean, what would you expect with 264 racers paddling unfamiliar boats towards their chance at reality TV stardom? The highlights from the start include at least two teams capsizing their camakaus, one of which is the reigning Adventure Racing World Series (ARWS) champion Team New Zealand. I love this moment so much - it shows that even the top teams do silly things out there, but what makes them top teams is that they just get on with it. Grab your floating gear, flip the boat back over, and start passing teams. A few minutes later, I also love hearing Sophie Hart talking to her team, giving out pointers and offering up encouragement. This is another sign of a top team - keeping the internal team dialogue consistent and positive. It’s clear Team New Zealand is visiting Fiji on a business trip.
The Paddle (CP1 & CP2)
As the teams settle into their paddling rhythm, we get to hear a bit from Team Onyx who, according to the pre-release press and trailers, will be a featured team. It’s obvious that adventure racing would and will benefit from a more diversified participant and fan base, and Team Onyx has taken the lead in demonstrating that all humans do all sports. I’m looking forward to hearing more from Clifton, Corree, Sam, and Chriss throughout the show. Another featured team appears to be Team Unbroken, composed of civilians and military veterans each fighting personal battles. Hearing Gretchen narrate the discovery of her abrupt loss of hearing is powerful, and her resolve to continue pushing her limits connects us again to the humans in adventure racing - simply some of the strongest people you will meet.
Once teams [for those keeping score at home, click here for a complete list] hit the open ocean in their tiny camakaus, the race rules allow them to raise the boat’s sails if they so choose. This is one of the hundreds of strategic decisions that the teams will make throughout the course, and the “right” answer for each individual team often varies. Team Bend Racing, who has shot out to the early lead, opts to leave their sail down, feeling confident in their pure paddling speed. So confident, in fact, that captain Jason wants to make sure the TV audience understands just exactly how “pretty okay at paddling” that Team Bend Racing is. Yes, Team Bend, you ARE doing okay paddling, obviously.
When the cameras focus on Team Khukuri Warriors, you can see exactly the equation that Team Bend was calculating. To put a sail up is a team effort, requiring the boat to stop forward progress and deal with the parts and pieces of the sail. Then, even after the sail is raised, someone needs to manage it, adjusting for any changes in the breeze. Will those lost minutes be gained back from the wind power? The answer is different for each team.
It’s a thrill to see an American representative, Team Bend, arrive at Checkpoint 1 (CP1) in the lead. The smile on Melissa’s face is incredible and I can just feel the team energy through the screen. As the rest of the teams arrive at CP1, we get to learn a little more about Team Endure. Mark Macy has been an Eco-Challenge fixture since the beginning, inspiring his son Travis to exciting achievements in adventure racing. Mark’s original team, the Stray Dogs, is racing as well, but Travis thought it would be safer if they raced together with a new group, Team Endure. When Mark is explaining his team to the cameras, he pivots into the most honest and approachable explanation of Alzheimer’s Disease that I’ve ever experienced. He brings the audience into his situation with zero awkwardness and an invitation for us to join him in the journey. Again, adventure racers are simply some of the strongest people you will meet.
Speaking of strong, could you be any stronger than planning a “Speedo of the Day” for Eco-Challenge? You keep making it happen, Corree and Team Onyx! I’m not sure your legs will thank you later but it’s not a real race until someone shows up in a Speedo (am I right, Team Virtus?) At CP1 we also learn a little bit about Team Able Abels, a family team. Dan raced Eco-Challenge back in the day, and his young daughters cheered for him at the finish line. Now the three of them are doing the race together, with navigator Fletcher Hamel brought in as an honorary family member/compass whisperer. I love hearing about the backstories to these teams and how the show brings out the humans of adventure racing. The Able Abels is a family crew similar to, yet totally different from, Team Endure. But the power of a parent-child teammate situation is undeniable and so relatable for us watching at home.
The Trek (CP3, CP4, CP5)
As the lead teams finish up the first paddling leg with Team Bend Racing still in the lead, we get to witness our first transition area (TA). This is a key feature in adventure racing - teams must switch sports, in this case from paddling to trekking, changing out any clothing or gear required while simultaneously restocking their food and water needs. Triathletes do this twice in their events - referred to as T1 (swim-to-bike) and T2 (bike-to-run) - and often have the transition down to a science that takes only seconds. In adventure racing, it’s a bit more complicated as there are more gear and nutrition needs to fulfill, plus you need to make sure the entire team is ready at the same time so you can leave the TA together. But a top team will make efficient work of the TA, while slower teams can lose hours in TA without even realizing it.
Team Bend Racing and Team New Zealand transition like the pros they are, and head out on foot in search of three checkpoints on the remote, volcanic island. The effects of the hot, humid climate and the frantic start are starting to show. Teams are puking, flopping in creeks, just doing anything they can to manage overheating. And we are treated to a dramatic episode of overheating from Dan on Team Bend Racing. This is another classic situation in adventure racing, where one teammate has serious issues that force the team to stop, adapt, and overcome. It’s difficult to piece together the entire sequence of events due to editing, but Dan suffers hard for what appears to be the entire 30km trek. And Team Bend Racing is right there with him - carrying his pack, his extra clothes, letting him rest momentarily, even putting him on tow for several kilometers. Towing is common in adventure racing, allowing stronger teammates to assist weaker teammates, but I’ve never seen one as impressive as Dan’s underwear tow. Maybe he caught wind of Team Onyx’s “Speedo of the Day” plan and decided to join in? The real gem that Jason describes to us is not only that can the team provide help, but that Dan will accept the help. How many of you would allow yourself to be towed through the jungles of Fiji, on national TV, in your underwear, all of the good of the team? Again, adventure racers are simply some of the strongest people you will meet.
On the trek we meet another American team composed of four Ironman triathletes, Team Iron Cowboy. The physical endurance developed in long-distance sports like Ironman triathlon will surely benefit them; however, it’s not clear if they are prepared for the realities of adventure racing. Can they deal with the map-and-compass navigation that is the backbone of AR? Can their team put aside the individual nature of triathlon to focus on the team? What will happen when they go more than 140.6 miles? As so many teams are discovering, physical endurance is a small part of the entire adventure racing package. In any case, it’s terrific to see athletes stepping out of their comfort zones and tackling new challenges.
The Ocean Medallion
I'm being honest here - at first glance, the addition of five "Medallions" into the Eco-Challenge: Fiji course seemed like Hollywood worming its way into the rugged sport of adventure racing. The round metal donuts seemed hokey to me, and I didn't want to even give them time in the recap. But, after speaking with Eco-Challenge: Fiji racers, it turns out that the medallions actually were a welcome addition to the race for many. Teams set goals to collect all 5, one for each team member. They were a highlight on the course, allowing teams to complete fun (or "fun") activities and take home a souvenir. Sort of like how Jeff Probst keeps all of his Survivor torch snuffers, now racers have a piece of the course to take home with them. And, you can even find a medallion emoji on Instagram or hashtag on Twitter to decorate your social media posts about the World's Toughest Race. Medallions for the win!
Back on Ovalau, Team Unbroken faces unique challenges on the jungle trek. The darkness of the night, contrasted against the brightness of headlamps, makes it extremely difficult for deaf teammate Gretchen to read lips. Trekking at night is hard enough. Trekking through the jungle at night is even harder. Losing communication ability with your teammates? Well, we keep saying that adventure racers are strong, but Gretchen and Team Unbroken underscore that point. The team doesn’t make it easy on themselves either, opting for a lengthy but safe route between CP3 and CP4. Just like the earlier choice to use the sail or not, route options are things that teams consider carefully hundreds of times throughout the race. In this case, they also manage their way through individual dissent before leaning on the familiarity of the military command chain to proceed.
At the end of the episode, there are so many questions yet to be answered. Will Team Unbroken’s nav choice work out for them? Will Team Bend Racing get Dan healthy again? Will Team New Zealand run away in the lead? Will the rookie teams complete the course? However, one question that has been answered is the production value that Burnett, Hennessy, Grylls, and Amazon Studios bring to the Eco-Challenge adventure race. The camera and audio work is at once expansive and detailed. The mapping visuals help us understand where the course is going. The personal interviews help us learn about all of the human stories that have showed up on the starting line. And, who is going to turn down a TV show hosted by Bear Grylls in a helicopter?
Wow. Are you as excited for the return of Eco-Challenge as we are?
A space for AR musings from the USARA team and guest authors. Ready to race? Check out the rest of our resources on the USARA homepage.