By: Brent Freedland
1996 will always be seared into my memory, not for the troubles and trials I endured as I embarked on my high school career, but for the fortune I had one night as I tuned into a television series I discovered on the Discovery Channel. That show, Eco-Challenge, would change my life in profound ways, as it did for many now participating in the sport of adventure racing. It helped revolutionize television as well, cementing creator Mark Burnett as a force in the reality tv world. For countless other viewers, unwilling or uninterested in participating in an adventure race themselves, it served to inspire, portraying stories of athletes that seemed both superhuman and oddly normal, reminding us of our neighbors, our parents, our grandparents, ourselves.
That first, fully developed edition of Eco-Challenge, set amid the soaring peaks, dense forests, and raging rivers of British Columbia, set a high bar, earning the show an Emmy Award for best miniseries. It also helped bring a niche sport to the masses, spawning adventure races all across the world ranging from highly competitive, multi-day expeditions to short, three-hour sprint races aimed at those who lacked the resources, time, or drive to dive into an event like Eco. When producers Mark Burnett and Lisa Hennessy walked away from the adventure racing world in 2002, they left a gaping hole that has never been completely filled, and Eco has remained in the community’s collective imagination for nearly two decades since it last ran in the wild jungles of Fiji.
In the wake of its disappearance, a few ambitious race production teams would try to emulate Eco-Challenge’s success, sometimes even landing more lucrative sponsorship deals and offering larger prize purses. Primal Quest had a brief but enjoyable run on television, broadcasting an Eco-like mini-series on major networks for a few years. A handful of sprint-style adventure race series like Hi-Tec and Balance Bar drew thousands of eager adventure racers, ranging from professionals to weekend warriors. Troy Farrar, inspired by Eco but recognizing the need for more beginner-friendly and accessible events, founded the United States Adventure Racing Association, which has provided guidance and insurance to race directors in the US for over twenty years while also producing an annual national championship. Perhaps the most successful initiative influenced by Eco Challenge was the creation of the Adventure Race World Series, an annual calendar of high quality expedition races across the globe that culminates each year with a world championship. Despite these efforts, however, no one has captured the magic that Mark Burnett and Eco-Challenge brought to the world of sports during what many still call “The Golden Age of Adventure Racing.”
Eco-Challenge never saw its competitors diving out of planes, but Burnett learned from and was inspired by what he had experienced during the two Raids in which he competed and he modeled Eco on his experiences and observations of the iconic French race. Before winding down in 2002, Burnett produced several events in North America, including Utah, New England, and British Columbia, and he visited other captivating spots including Australia, Morocco, Patagonia, Borneo, New Zealand, and Fiji. Competitors swam glacial rivers, sea-kayaked the Great Barrier Reef, traveled through remote indigenous villages in the high Atlas Mountains, caved through bat-infested subterranean labyrinths, rode horses and camels, and endured life-threatening mountain storms.
While the destinations were part of the allure, Burnett’s true gift to the sport was his ability to bring the participants’ journey to the screen, capturing the jubilation of a successful mountain summit with the heartbreak of an ocean rescue after nine days of racing, hours before the finish line. He not only had the resources and technology to capture these extreme outdoor pursuits for the viewer at home, but he knew how to weave a story. Plenty of others have captured breath-taking imagery from adventure races since Eco-Challenge took a break, but none have translated the human spirit to viewers at home like Eco did.
Those of us who fell in love with adventure racing through Eco-Challenge undoubtedly recall the sweeping aerial shots of teams on lofty mountain peaks, but what truly inspired us were the stories of the racers and teams brave enough to tackle such an adventure and expose themselves to the casual viewer, most of whom lacked the experiences necessary to truly understand what it was like to experience something of the magnitude of an expedition race. More than beautiful locations, we remember Team East Wind carrying an injured teammate over a mountain so that they could stay in the race; the jovial persistence of Team Go, who were hindered by blisters that would cripple an elephant; the strategic battles between legends such as John Howard, Robyn Benincasa, Ian Adamson, Nathan Faave, Jane Hall, and Mike Kloser; and the example set by the Brazilian women - Shubi, Nora, and Karina - who may not have made it through the Fijian jungle in 2002 but who inspired us through their perseverance, grit, and teamwork. Stories of mothers and fathers, married couples and best friends, women breaking down norms and taboos, racers and teams failing to support one another, and the many others that demonstrated what it means to truly work as a team.
Burnett captured the raw emotional humanity on display during these ten-day, non-stop events, and while at first glance adventure racing tends to be about the spectacle and the sensational locations, it’s this unfiltered human nature, the connection within and between teams, and the life lessons learned that truly make the sport special. Burnett understood this, and the gifted storyteller he is, he was able to translate these experiences onto television screens. By the end of Eco’s first run, however, some of the more graceful elements of the early events had been replaced by a tendency to focus on the conflict and low moments that adventure racers are prone to experience under the grueling conditions of such races. While entertaining and a real part of any adventure race, the show lost a bit of its human appeal.
2020 has been marred by many tragedies, but it will also be remembered as the year Eco-Challenge returned. Adventure racing has evolved considerably in the seventeen years between Eco’s last production and its rebirth, and it will be fascinating to see how Eco is affected by these changes. The sport has matured with more high-quality events of all levels hosted in countries across the world. Gear has improved tremendously, and new film technology, including smaller, lighter-weight cameras and drones, will undoubtedly elevate the visual experience to levels even higher than the sensational coverage of Eco-Challenge twenty years ago. In addition, satellite-based tracking has evolved since 2002 to allow spectators to follow the progress of the race more closely, creating richer analyses of the competition. Burnett and Hennessy are back in the production chairs, but Burnett has handed the event over to adventure legend, Bear Grylls, who will serve as the new face of the race.
Racers have changed, too; during “The Golden Age”, the best teams were professionals, winning respectable prize purses and earning sponsorship money that allowed them to train and race full time, or at least close to it. Even beginner teams often secured financial support to cover race entry, gear, and travel. Few teams now claim to be professional and most racers are now thrilled to receive some donated gear, but the quality of the teams remains high. Many suspect that only a small sliver of the teams competing will finish the race when all is revealed on Amazon Prime on August 14, and considering that only ten teams finished in 2002, that may be a prudent prediction. Still, there is reason to believe that the adventure racing community is more seasoned, better equipped, and potentially deeper than it was two decades ago, even if the money has dried up. The race directors of the World’s Toughest Race: Eco Challenge, Fiji, as Eco-Challenge has been rebranded, may be surprised at the talent, speed, and ability that the adventure racing community now brings to the fold. There may only be a handful of teams truly competing for the win, but many more might make it to finish line than the trailers lead us to believe.
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