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.
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