By Abby Perkiss, USARA Board Chairwoman
When we last left off, a major tropical storm had overtaken the racecourse, and race personnel had made the decision to stop the clock and hold teams at staffed checkpoints until they could continue safely. Teams are now spread over 230 kilometers, Bear tells us. We’ve left racing behind and entered “survival mode.”
You can imagine the headache this is causing for HQ, as they try to keep tabs on everyone. Thank goodness for the advanced tracking technology that allows them to have metaphorical eyes on every team. I’m having a flashback to Eco-Challenge Borneo, where Sarah Bordman and her Outrageous Adventures teammate went six hours off-course on the opening leg of the race – an ocean swim – and all anyone could do was hope they weren’t lost at sea…
But back to Fiji 2020.
In the opening moments of Episode 3, we see seventh place Team Estonia, trying to match wits with the raging Waiga Canyon. I love the moment when they reach the far bank, pull out their machete – because everyone travels with that handy machete in their back pocket – and start to cut their way through the jungle, cameraman following behind. This embedded media is incredible. So much of non-Amazon Prime adventure racing gets covered in transition areas. With the resources behind Eco, viewers are getting a visceral sense of what it feels like to be in the thick of it – literally.
As the sun comes up on Camp One, where most of the teams were stopped overnight, everyone is busy sorting gear and plotting maps in preparation for the mass restart. This is an interesting decision from race personnel. Does it give these teams an undue advantage, having that extended access to their kit when teams who were pulled at individual checkpoints are stuck with whatever food and clothes they have in their packs, unable to get warm or plan for the next stage? We also learn here that the first cutoff remains at 4PM, despite the course stoppage. I have to wonder whether any back-of-pack teams would benefit from those extra hours in their push to Camp One.
Speaking of, we return to our friends on Team Unbroken, who have camped overnight on the island and are readying gear and boats for the sea crossing to the mainland. The team maintains their strategy of adhering to a military chain of command, with Hal noting that he made the executive decision not to get on the water at night. You get the sense that he holds the weight of the responsibility that comes with being team captain. “You get to a point in life,” he reflects in recapping the call to spend the night on the island, “where you have to decide whether the things that set you back will be the things that define you.”
On the mainland but still 55km from camp, we see the so-called back-of-pack teams waking up in the Sote Village school house. Teams Stray Dogs, Khukuri Warriors, Onyx, and Able Abels are about to get on their bikes for the long ride to their support crews. As they set off, one of the twins from Khukuri calls out, “Make sure you don’t leave anything behind.” Even in this massive production, which has clearly taken over the entire island of Fiji (in amazing ways and, I imagine, disruptive ones as well) we still get that “leave no trace” ethos of adventure racing coming through. I love this sport.
The schoolhouse is also the backdrop for a glimpse into the inner workings of the Able Abels. As Ashley assembles her bike – for only the fourth time ever, she tells us – we hear how the team came together. Younger sister Lauren was away at college when Ashley reached out. It had been a lifelong dream of hers to compete in an adventure race, ever since the sisters watched their dad cross the line at Eco Fiji in 2002. It’s unclear how much coercion Lauren required, but given that the team is now getting ready to embark on the final section of Stage One, it’s clear she relented. “I’m blown away by Lauren’s selflessness,” Ashley reflects. The exchange is touching; this is a team you’re rooting for to make it to the finish. Side note: still no sighting of the team’s intrepid navigator, Fletcher Hamel. It’s a callback to the fourth member of Team Kodak, racing alongside Luke Skywalker – I mean Hayden Christiansen – and his siblings eighteen years ago. Who was that guy? #WhereIsFletcher
Back at Camp One and racers are gathered for the mass restart. Here, we get a rare glimpse of some of the less-featured American teams in the event, including our friends on Team Bones and Team Strong Machine. Love seeing these familiar faces in high def. Team Bend Racing is there, too, itching to get moving. Hopefully the downtime has helped Dan recover from his early bout of heat exhaustion, and they’ll be able to push onward at full strength.
As Bear counts down, we see teams spread out across the course – 230km separates first from last, remember – New Zealand in their bili-bilis, Unbroken on the island shores. And then they’re off. “Into the jungle we go!” someone yells, as teams head for the canyon.
Near Camp One, we find Bear greeting Team Estonia as they make their way out of the jungle canyon. “That was a long, wet night,” he says, offering kudos and good cheer. Actually, one team member corrects him. “We broke through during the night. We came to the checkpoint and then we slept.”
Sometimes experienced racers aren’t as good for TV drama.
After a brief return to Team Unbroken, who has now reached the Ocean Medallion, and an interlude with local favorites Teams Tabu Soro and Namako – the two Fijian teams in the race – we jump ahead to the end of the bilibili leg. As they pull off the water, Nathan Fa’avae remarks that the team benefited from rising water levels during the storm. Doesn’t it always seem like New Zealand gets that extra boost? A team that knows how to put themselves in the position to take advantage of a little bit of luck.
Following close behind are Teams Tiki Tour, Gippsland, Canada Adventure, Summit, and Thunderbolt – noteworthy that four of the top six teams are from the South Pacific. So far, we haven’t seen much in the way of interviews with these pointy-end racers, outside of New Zealand and Summit. It makes me wonder if the producers didn’t expect this group at the front. With Camp Two in sight, maybe they’ll start to get more attention.
Back in 57th place, the Stray Dogs are struggling. With eight hours to the cutoff and 40km to ride, we find Bob Haugh deep in a heat-related hole. Face caked in sunscreen, he’s trudging up a dirt road, clearly trying to right the proverbial ship. When Marshall Ulrich comes up and suggests that he unbutton his shirt – “show a little skin here” – Bob returns a quick punchline. Give the public what they want. It’s an easy rapport, built over years of racing together. The two are the elder statesmen of the team (and the sport), their decades of experience clearly pulling them along in ways their physical strength no longer can. Bob is grateful for his old friend’s presence. “Almost like having the Buddha with you,” he quips.
An hour ahead, the members of Team Endure are lugging their bikes through peanut butter-thick mud. Despite the challenge, Travis Macy remains upbeat. His energy leaps off the screen. What in Episode 1 might have felt like a performance now feels genuine. It’s who he is, and it’s how he and his teammates are going to help his dad through the race.
Family dynamics are on display across the course, from the Able Abels sorting through sweet tarts (#WhereisFletcher) to the nervous TACs in Camp One, anxiously watching the clock as the cutoff approaches. For the young women of the Abels and Khukuri Warriors, their crews are also their parents. It’s a hard balance, reflects the elder Malik, to at once help them compete and be their father. “The girls are very young still,” he notes, “and they don’t rationalize the dangers as much as I do.” Despite his parental concern, his support is clear. Don’t just dream at night, he recounts telling his two daughters, whose goal it is to open up adventure sports to more women and young girls in their home country of India. Pursue your dreams by day.
Another group breaking down barriers, Team Onyx, has stopped in a small village to regroup for their final push to Camp One. There, the local community takes note of their team makeup. “All black people?” someone asks. “The whole team,” Chriss Smith responds. “First team ever, from all across the United States.” The locals offer their approval, chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
Cut to an interview with Sam Scipio: “It means a lot to represent black females, in particular. You don’t see much of it in adventure racing. So, I’m happy to show people that there are black superheroes.” And then we get the first best line ever to come out of a race: “This is the closest we ever get to being superheroes.” Tell me you saw Sam in the trailer and didn’t get goose bumps.
Meanwhile, the lead pack has made it to Camp Two, where they’ll take their mandatory ninety-minute break and ready themselves for the River Leg: 63km of biking, 30km of whitewater rafting, and 50km of jungle trekking. All in a day’s work, right?
Aussie Rob Preston of Team Gippsland isn’t coy about his team’s ambition (for students of US racing, you’ll recognize Rob’s name from the now-dormant Team Tecnu/Adventure Medical Kits) . Their motivation, he says plainly, is to beat the Kiwis. Nathan Fa’avae – a thirty-year AR veteran – and his New Zealand teammates are the best in the sport, Rob continues. “But hopefully we can be the team that can knock them off the podium.”
Back at checkpoint twelve and the bili-bili put-in, midpack teams are busy building their rafts. As Bear tells us, these bamboo boats have been a mode of travel for local Fijians for thousands of years. The rafts also made an appearance in the 2002 Eco-Challenge Fiji. Then, Atenah Brazil’s Nora sliced her finger while cutting line for the raft. Two days later, she was pulled from the race, infection coursing through her body. This time around, she’s wearing gloves for protection.
Cut to Brett Gravlin of Team Curl, who has just nicked his own hand. As he cleans it out, hoping to avoid infection, I can’t help but wonder if this is ominous foreshadowing. This team of AR rookies includes Gravlin, described by teammate Steven Lenhart as a “stoner from Santa Cruz who surfs and raises kids,” plus science teacher Justin Smith, ultramarathon runner Jennifer Hemmen, and Lenhart, a former professional soccer player.
All we learn about the team here is that they all have curly hair – hence their team name. They’re likable enough, but it’s not clear yet why they’re being featured in the show. I get the sense that they must play a significant role in a later episode. Foreshadowing, indeed.
Further downriver, Team AR Georgia is plodding along on their bilibilis. As they struggle, they come across a local who has set up a cottage industry, carving out bamboo paddles at $4 a pop. Just as Stray Dogs set the record for the oldest team on the course, Hunter Leininger of AR Georgia gets the award for the youngest. Hunter did his first adventure race at seven years old and hasn’t stopped since. Now eighteen, Hunter is a seasoned racer, experienced enough to know that the $16 investment is well worth it.
As Hunter and his teammates continue down the river, back at Camp One the course cutoff looms. Team Endure arrives with two hours to spare. Not long after, the Abels arrive, to the delight of their waiting TAC Allison, AKA “mama bear.” When Ashley rolls in and sees her mom waiting, she melts into her arms. As I watch the scene play out, I can viscerally feel that emotional release. Sometimes in adventure racing, you just need a good cry.
Ashley collects herself and the team makes their way through camp to their station, eager to get off their feet and recover before heading off on Leg 2. As they walk, we see others TACs cheering on their arrival – a subtle indication of the tight-knit community forming in the camps. (still asking: #WhereisFletcher)
Here I find myself wanting more on the role of the TACs. What are they allowed to do? Can they resolve mechanical issues? Can they plot maps? Are their restrictions on the help they can give the teams?
As the Abels transition, Bear pops over for a quick hello, and the two sisters squeal in star-struck delight. It’s a sweet moment, and one of the few times where we see a chink in that fourth wall, a reminder that this is as much a reality TV show – with a reality TV star – as a race.
With forty minutes to spare, Team Onyx rolls in. Immediately, captain Clifton Lyles drops his bike and embraces their TAC – his daughter, Mikayla – in a huge bear hug. Clifton has played support for Mikayla her entire life; she’s proud to have the opportunity to turn the tables. As the team heads to their own camp – adorned with a Pride flag hung alongside the stars and stripes– Mikayla works on bikes as Clifton leads a discussion on sleep strategy. Father and daughter make a great pair, leading Eco’s first all-African American team into Leg Two.
At this point, Unbroken and Stray Dogs are the only teams who haven’t arrived at Camp One. Stray Dogs are still working their way through the 40km bike course, and Bob’s heat issues persist. We get a glimpse into how the most experienced AR teams operate: pushing each other’s bikes, offering pep talks, doing everything they can to keep all four team members moving. Adrian Crane reflects this when he notes, “back in the day, we were on competitive teams. Because of the ravages of a few extra years, we are really trying to get each other through this.”
Many kilometers behind, we see Unbroken finally reaching the mainland. They’re met by Race Director Kevin Hodder, who breaks the news that their race is over. It is impossible for you to make it to camp by the time cutoff, he tells them. I have no choice but to pull you from the course. The change in tone is palpable; in just seconds, you watch the team shift from elation to deflation. But then just as quickly, they start to recover.
“We said we’d go until they told us we couldn’t go any further, and we have done that,” says Gretchen. “What happened... was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done, and I’ve relied on you guys just like I would my own troops. And that meant the world to me. You are my guys. We are still unbroken. This will not break us.”
This is one of those archetypical Eco moments. On paper, the team has failed. They won’t make it to the next checkpoint; they won’t be able to continue on the course. But in profound ways, the Eco production team departs from previous seasons here. Rather than playing up the conflict among team members, rather than turning them into caricatures of inexperienced racers, Eco made a production decision to lead with compassion.
As someone who’s watched each of the previous editions of Eco-Challenge several times, I’m so moved by this decision. I’ve always felt that the later seasons – New Zealand, in particular, but Fiji-2002 as well – were propelled forward by intra-team drama and inter-team rivalries. While it makes for good TV, it’s far less compelling than the true nature of adventure racing: the grit, the perseverance, and the teamwork. I can’t tell you how much I love that the producers here have chosen to highlight humanity. And they do so at almost every turn. It’s what makes these early episodes of The World's Toughest Race: Eco Challenge Fiji some of the most compelling television I’ve ever seen.
Cut back to Stray Dogs, who have pulled into Camp One just as the cutoff hits. “It’s now four o’clock,” Bear tells them with a pregnant pause. “You’ve made it. You guys are through.” For a moment the team seems caught off-guard. They weren’t expecting to continue on. But then their whole bodies relax in relief.
“You are still on the world’s toughest race, says Bear. “Now go and smash it.”
Stay tuned for more from USARA! Visit www.usara.com for more information on adventure racing in the United States.
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