Welcome to our series “15 First Adventure Races” which interviews veteran adventure racers on how they got started in the sport. If you’d like further resources, check out our New to AR? page on usara.com for additional material!
What's your name? How old were you when you did your first adventure race? Why did you want to participate?
Scott Erlandson (most people call me Erl), I was about 33 when I did my first AR. I had seen Eco-Challenge British Columbia on TV and was drawn to the teamwork aspect across multiple sports that AR required. I was running road marathons at the time and wanted to try another sport that wasn’t so hard on my body.
How did you find your first adventure race? Which race did you pick and where was it?
There was a quarterly magazine called Midwest Sports that I received. The magazine included an events calendar for Minnesota and Wisconsin. There was only one adventure race listed and that was a six-hour race at Camp Ihduhapi, just west of Minneapolis.
Did you create your own team or did a team recruit you?
My Uncle Roe was a triathlete so I asked him to be my teammate. The race was four-person teams only, but the Race Directors helped pair everyone up so the two of us were placed on a team with two others. I don’t remember much about our other two teammates - so they weren’t terrible!
Did you need to get any new gear, what did you need, where did you find it?
I had a decent mountain bike already, but I bought a Camelbak Mule for my race pack from REI.
How did you train for your first race? Did you need to gain any new skills?
I was already into running road marathons so I had pretty good fitness, but I added in some bike miles as well. The paddling section in the race was pretty short and my uncle and I felt good about our paddle skills for that distance.
Were there any resources (online or in person) that significantly helped you prepare? Please provide links if applicable.
I didn’t find anything. After the Ihduhapi race, I wanted to get more involved in AR, so I went to an adventure racing indoor climbing clinic put on by some former Eco-Challenge racers. That’s where I met a guy named Paul, and after the clinic we decided to do a race together. The following weekend, the Minnesota Orienteering Club hosted a navigation clinic, and Paul met another guy named Justin. I reached out to another adventure racer named Amy who I had met at Camp Ihduhapi. So myself, Paul, Amy and Justin formed a team called “We Eat Dust And Like It” which eventually evolved into WEDALI.
How did the race go?
So, we finished under our own power, but were past the cutoff and the finish line had already been taken down and put away. All of the post-race food was gone and the RDs were about to leave. I don’t even think we found half of the checkpoints. Our team just had a lot of fun together on the course. Before the race, I thought the checkpoints would all be on the trail, but most of them were off-trail, and I wasn’t quite ready for that.
What hooked you on adventure racing?
Honestly, based on my team's experience at our first race, I should have hated it. But I didn’t. Adventure racing was just so different from anything else I had experienced so far. I really enjoyed being in remote wilderness areas with just my team to rely on. I liked all of the different sports that went into AR and wanted to improve in each sport. I liked developing good teamwork and being a good teammate. AR is just fun to me.
Since your first race, name one or two AR highlights you’ve experienced.
My most treasured AR memories are all of the amazing teammates I have gotten to race with, including meeting my wife! I have gotten to travel all across the US and also internationally for races. Adventure race directors always find the most interesting spots, even in areas that might seem boring on paper. It is so cool to explore new parts of each state or country that most people don’t get to see. Also WEDALI started in 2003, and won USARA National Champs in 2010 and 2012 with myself, Justin, and his wife Molly. Those wins were a highlight because we all started at the same time and worked our way up together.
Stay tuned for more from USARA! Visit www.usara.com for more information on adventure racing in the United States.
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.
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.