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.