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.
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