By Emily Korsch, USARA Interim Social Media Captain
Welcome back to the World’s Toughest Race Eco-Challenge: Fiji Episode Recaps! Episode 2 wastes no time in reuniting us with Team Bend Racing at CP 4 on Ovalau Island, trying to manage Dan’s heatstroke. It’s a potential blow to the team’s morale, sitting stationary while watching over 50 teams pass them by. Imagine being in the lead of the World’s Toughest Race, and watching 90% of teams pass you. An inexperienced team may have turned on each other. How will Jason, Melissa, Dan, and Stephen weather the storm?
The leaders are paddling their camakaus back to the main island of Fiji after trekking on Ovalau and free diving for the Ocean Medallion. Team New Zealand leads the pack, with Out There, Thunderbolt AR, Canada Adventure, Summit, and Estonian ACE each offering their quick pieces of advice on the opening legs of the race. In general, it’s hard to temper the excitement of the start with the knowledge that your team is only beginning a battle that will last for days. But the successful team must do just that - managing emotional as well as physical energy so when your reserves are needed in the most trying moments (of which there will be several), you and your team can find the strength to move forward. (Blog foreshadowing for Team Iron Cowboy in a few paragraphs)
The Americans on Team Iron Cowboy have made it to the Ocean Medallion station and elect teammate James to free dive to the ocean floor and retrieve the shiny trinket. As we mentioned in the Episode 1 recap, these medallions are certainly a production feature that you wouldn’t necessarily find in a traditional adventure race, but then again no adventure race is exactly the same. Sonja explains that the Eco-Challenge promotional video specifically challenged Ironman athletes, and their team was created to answer the challenge. It’s terrific to see people who have specialized in swim-bike-run take on new disciplines such as camakau paddling and free diving. Their adventurousness is rewarded when James succeeds in the medallion retrieval.
Meanwhile, back on Ovalau Island,
Team Stray Dogs avoided the camera in the first episode, but we get to know them and their history intertwined with Team Endure a little bit better while they are trekking on Ovalau Island. Team Stray Dogs have the unique distinction of being the oldest team in Eco-Challenge, with all team members over 60 years old. They have significant prior Eco-Challenge experience and are excited to be back in Fiji. They showcase many of the important pieces of adventure racing culture:
All I can say is GIVE ME MORE TEAM ENDURE AND TEAM STRAY DOGS. THE WORLD NEEDS MORE TEAM ENDURE AND TEAM STRAY DOGS.
Lead teams hit CP7 and are anxious to have more of the course revealed to them. This is another characteristic unique to adventure racing; teams often start races with only a partial set of maps, and the course is revealed stage by stage as they progress. This underscores the expedition aspect, and it also rewards teams who are able to quickly interpret maps and adapt their strategy on the fly - so different from other single-sport events where the course is often published months in advance, and/or repeated year after year, so athletes can hone their training specifically to the demands of a certain location. By contrast, adventure racing rewards the teams and athletes who have a higher level of general fitness and the mental strategy to adapt their skills to whatever the course demands on a moment’s notice.
An interview with Team Canada’s Bob Miller describes what Team Sundance Kids nicknamed “Fool’s Christmas” ...when teams receive a new set of maps, it felt like a gift - at least until they opened the maps and saw what brutal terrain the next sections of the course would entail. I love the brief shot of Chris Forne and Stu Lynch of Team New Zealand packing up for the SUP leg. Chris is packing Stu’s pack while Stu is wearing it. Another great strategy of top teams - often teammates get into each other’s packs more than their own, and have to know what each pocket, zipper, or clip will do to efficiently access whatever their teammate needs without stopping.
Meanwhile, back on Ovalau Island,
Team Unbroken is executing their lengthy but safer route between CP3 and CP4. They are discussing a Night One sleep, which is questionable given the hours they are knowingly adding to their race with their route choice. I’m not sure I would have advocated for a sleep, but it’s unclear how long they actually do spend stationary. And this is the fun of Eco-Challenge… armchair adventure racing!
At Race HQ (all adventure race directors everywhere are drooling at all of the team tracking maps and huge touch-screen displays), Bear reviews the navigation choices of Team Unbroken and Team OutThere, and we get a quick glimpse of OutThere’s nav error on the SUP. Evidently OutThere didn’t follow Mark Lattanzi’s adventure race navigation rule of “at night, you move way more slowly than you think. Repeat that,” and turned inland too early.
TEAM ENDURE ALERT!! They are on Ovalau Island waking up from a restorative five-hour sleep (#onlyinadventureracing) and preparing to paddle their camakaus back to the main island. Teammate Shane explains the difficulty in coping with a teammate with Alzheimer’s - Mace is not able to fully contribute his lengthy skill set to the team, and Team Endure instead is focused on caring for him. “The reality is, we can make a difference by supporting people like Mace, and Travis, the path that those two are are on...it’s an honor, bottom line.” I’m not crying, you’re crying. Give us a ten-episode series on Team Endure.
Still on their extended trek, it seems like Team Unbroken is struggling to make forward progress. Keith details his serious injuries from Iraq and what he had to overcome to even start training for Eco-Challenge: Fiji. This group is surely overwhelmed by the enormously challenging course and the looming time cut-offs, but their team spirit is pushing them through despite increasingly bad odds.
Ahead, Team New Zealand crushes the 56km mountain bike section and is first to reach Camp 1/CP12, followed by Canada Adventure, Thunderbolt AR, TIki Tour, Summit and Estonia ACE. I love hearing more about Emma Roca, who is an old-school, extremely talented adventure racer who has made a comeback for Eco-Challenge: Fiji to encourage more women and girls to be Team Captains for adventure racing. As teams spend their mandatory ninety minutes in Camp 1 to prepare for the next leg, we are treated to fun shots of the racers rinsing off in the freshwater creek, which is surely a relief after spending about 24 hours padding in the saltwater of the ocean.
Meanwhile, back on the water,
Team Iron Cowboy is having a tough moment at the end of the camakau paddle. Sonja, a top amateur Ironman triathlete from 2009-2014, dealt with a severe mental health crisis in 2017 and has used Eco-Challenge: Fiji to fuel her comeback to competitive sport. She and her team have experienced huge highs and lows in just the first 24 hours of racing, and there are several more days to go if they are planning to attempt the full course. Surely the difficulty she experienced taking in enough nutrition while steering the heavy camakau has negatively affected her emotional state. Her teammates are doing their best to even out the emotional roller coaster, and provide a steadier emotional stoke to lend consistency to their progress.
Incoming! Incoming! A tropical storm is looming on the horizon. Teams Nika and Peak Traverse are officially so over paddling their camakau against the strong headwind and pushing tide. Race staff offer assistance with the caveat that it will end both teams’ participation in Eco-Challenge: Fiji. It’s a crushing realization to the teams who have spent months preparing, only to have their race end just after 24 hours. But if they have been unable to make forward progress paddling, what other option do they have? Let’s hope they can find a ride back to the race hotel, or even better, turn into super-volunteers at Camps to help out other teams.
Meanwhile, back on Ovalau Island,
Team Unbroken is becoming quite familiar with this tiny Fijian island. Completing the trek but facing a long paddle back to the main island with impending storm conditions, they decide to sleep again. I’m sure it’s frustrating to spend their second overnight of the race still on the second section. It makes me wonder if Teams Nika and Peak Traverse could have made the same decision to wait out the storm with Unbroken and all three tackle the paddle/SUP/bike after the storm passes.
Up again with the lead teams, we get fun shots of Team Summit enlisting local help to build their bili-bili rafts. Emma is a wonder to watch in these interactions - so encouraging and excited that even I want to get a plane ticket and help her build a bili-bili raft. Where can I sign up? Just don’t ask me to paddle it! As Team Summit tries out their new bili-bilis, the incoming tropical storm starts unleashing a huge downpour. For the teams starting to raft, this may be an advantage as the rain will raise water levels. For the teams still trekking through the canyon, it is a disadvantage. As Silver Enselaar explains, “in normal circumstances, you don’t want to go into a canyon in the rain because the level is rising, and the speed of the water is getting larger and larger all of the time.” Team Estonia ACE finds themselves in a potentially dangerous situation, which means their embedded cameraman, Pablo, is also in potential danger. It underscores how athletic Eco-Challenge: Fiji’s media crew is - to follow top adventure racing teams into this precarious and difficult terrain. Even with the water rushing, Team Estonia ACE is fairly calm about their situation and even refuses rescue from an eager helicopter.
As the episode comes to a close, Bear gathers the TACs and announces that the race will be temporarily stopped while the incoming tropical storm pushes through the race course. While it makes sense for most teams, Team Estonia ACE does not have the benefit of Bear’s official guidance, and so continues to try and move ahead in the canyon. Bracing against their teammates to cross a rushing river, Silver and company (and cameraman Pablo!) continue to inch their way through the canyon, hindered only by the abrupt ending of the episode. Hey! How are we supposed to go to sleep now, with that kind of ending? Oh… you mean Episode 3 is loading right now and will play in 5 seconds? Oh. OK. Thanks, Amazon Studios. You’re forgiven.
Stay tuned for more from USARA! Visit www.usara.com for more information on adventure racing in the United States.
Official USARA Media Partner
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.