By Abby Perkiss, USARA Board Chairwoman
Episode five opens in the early minutes of day five, with Team New Zealand staring at the 1,000-foot ascent up the face of Vuwa Falls as the chase teams are snoozing in TA. Captain Nathan Fa'avae describes the strategy in their decision; they can set their own pace, without having to worry about teams around them. But the plan comes at a cost. While Gippsland, Canada, and Tiki Tour bank sleep, the Kiwis push on, gambling on their ability to rest at the top before daylight. “If we want to continue to be a champion team,” says Fa'avae, “we have to suck it up and push on.”
But the ropes are slow going, says navigator Chris Forne. And the team is now likely too wet and cold to stop. It doesn’t look like sleep will be in the cards that night. Ahead of them is an 8km swim, a 16km paddleboard, and a 50km highlands trek en route to Camp Four.
A Family Affair
Days behind, the back-of-pack teams are pulling into Camp Two off the jungle leg. Team Able Abels arrive in 53rd place, well ahead of the 12:30pm cutoff. Still, their spirits are low. They just spent 12.5 hours sitting in water, Lauren tells her mom, TAC Allison.
As Allison comforts her daughter, I’m left wondering: are there vulnerabilities in having a family member as your support person? Just as they walk the careful tightrope of parent and crew, so do the racers balance their roles as child and competitor. Is Lauren at risk of throwing off her equilibrium with her mom there, making her more susceptible to dips in motivation and drive?
After a quick montage of teams arriving at TA – Teams Khukuri Warriors, Onyx, and Stray Dogs – we see the sun rise on day five and the dark zone lift at the whitewater put-in.
There, Team Atenah Brazil, now in 24th place, prepares their boats and makes plans for a local guide at the takeout. As they set off, we hear a now-familiar (though no less compelling) refrain – the women of the team have gone from daughters to mothers in the time between Fiji 2002 and 2019. An interviewer asks Karina what she wants her children to say about her. “That I was a life-eater,” she laughs. “That I live my life very intensely.”
Then the conversation takes a powerful turn. We learn that Jose, the team’s fourth member, is filling in for his late wife, Kris. Kris was Shubi, Karina, and Nora’s teammate and coach. Five years earlier, she died of cancer. It has been many years since they all raced. Eco is the first opportunity to bring the team back together. They are racing to honor their teammate and friend.
Back at Camp Two…
Teams Able Abels, Endure, Eagle Scouts, US Military, and Costa Rica are all setting off on the 59km mountain bike to the rafting section. Team Onyx, in 58th place now, is the last team remaining. Until the previous night, they had slept only four hours over four days. The five hours they got in Camp Two were restorative, says Clifton, magical. The team is rejuvenated and ready to rock the next section.
Coree is particularly excited for the upcoming highland trek. A professional trail and mountain ultrarunner, the “ground game” is where Coree thrives. Suited up in a Speedo, Coree is someone we want to hear more from. He came out as gay at 25 years old and now he uses his platform to advocate for the LGBTQ community and communities of color in the outdoors.
Just ahead, the Abels are crossing the first of several river crossings on the mountain bike route. It’s a good reminder that just because you’re on a bike leg doesn’t mean you’ll be riding your bike. Dan Abel describes his role as captain and father as a razor’s edge. It’s almost a conflict of interest, he says, looking out for the safety of his daughters while worrying about team strategy. Seeing the narrative arc of this team – this family – you have to wonder if the relationships, clearly so strong, may ultimately be the team’s undoing in terms of finishing the course.
130km to the northwest, New Zealand has finally finished the ropes course after eight hours negotiating the climb. For Sophie, in particular, the section was a challenge. She hasn’t raced in four years, and she struggles with the shifting identities between mother and competitor. There is, on one hand, the loss of independence that comes with having kids, and the guilt she feels being away for training efforts. And then there are her own doubts about her ability to race with her three strong teammates, who have won three world championships in her absence.
Talk about that razor’s edge.
Nathan, meanwhile, seems to be having his own low moment. He’s tired, and the section has taken longer than they hoped and expected. But he doesn’t have time to dwell on it. The team is getting ready for a quick 8km dip in the Nisavulevu Creek, where water temperatures hover around 58 degrees Fahrenheit.
Bear Grylls tells us that they’re expecting many teams to drop here due to a combination of low morale and physical issues.
Less than 10 kilometers behind, second-place Team Gippsland is ascending the Vuwa climb – nicknamed the Widowmaker, according to Bear. The team is led by Rob Preston, but their secret weapon seems to be Rob’s wife, Katherine. “A real hidden talent,” he tells us. Katherine does look strong as the team surges up the falls.
Team Canada, in third place, is also on the falls. Captain Bob Miller recounts how his race ended here seventeen years ago, when jungle rot ate up his team’s feet and made walking impossible. Keep going, Bob and team! With no Americans in the lead pack, we’re rooting for our neighbors to the north!
Team Tiki Tour, having made a couple of wrong turns, is now in fourth place, and eager to catch up to their Kiwi rivals. Of note here, team member Joanna Williams raced with the New Zealand crew (then Team Seagate) to victories in the 2016 and 2017 Adventure Racing World Championship. A reminder of how small the AR world is; often, competitors become teammates, and then become competitors again. This likely also means that Jo knows some of New Zealand’s trade secrets. Will it help Tiki Tour in their bid for a podium spot?
A hundred kilometers behind, Team Costa Rica is getting ready for the whitewater rafting. Veronica Bravo is particularly nervous for this leg; several years ago, she drowned during the rafting leg of an adventure race and needed to be resuscitated. I get chills watching the team help each other through the section. Veronica says it perfectly: “The moment [of fear] passes, and then you realize, maybe that’s why you’re there – to be resilient.” Wow…
Meanwhile, Team Onyx is ready to make its way out of Camp Two. It seems that the whole team is eager for the upcoming leg. With more land travel than water, this crew of ace bikers and runners is excited to capitalize on their strengths and see what they can do. Riding up one of the many Fijian rollers, Chriss notes, “Some you walk, some you ride, and some you scream downhill.”
Further along on the bike route, rain has transformed the clay road into muddy red muck. While the Mad Mayrs seems a bit caught off guard by it, for Team Endure it’s just another day at the office. “This is the Eco-Challenge way,” Mace tells us as he pushes his bike through the slop, the metal ding of his spokes ringing with every rotation. This is most likely his last race, Bear reminds us. It sounds like Eco is giving him just the send-off he expected.
An emotional Travis reflects on growing up with this Eco legend as a dad. When he was a kid, he tells us, the two would walk the dogs together in the woods every night. And each time Travis would wonder: how is he not afraid, walking around in the dark in the woods? “And I would reach into his pocket,” he remembers, “and grab his hand, and I’d get that feeling that it’s going to be okay. I’m here with my dad and it’s going to be okay.”
Whew… What a journey this team is on.
Further back, the Abels have just reached CP15, the start of the mud slick – or as race personnel tells the team, “bili-bili squared.” You can see the conditions starting to wear on them, particularly for Ashley and Lauren, the two younger Abels. This scene also gives us what might be the first mention of their intrepid fourth team member – maps-whisperer Fletcher Hamel (#ThereisFletcher!)
The Warming Hut
After the eight-kilometer swim, New Zealand has finally reached dry land, and they’re making their way to CP22. There, they encounter a makeshift camp, including a warming hut and a team of medical staff. With water temps below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, race personnel want to ensure everyone’s safety before allowing them to continue on. The Kiwis are grateful for the reprieve – especially, says Sophie, for the warm coffee. Clearly, the team is depleted. This section took its toll. Will they be able to maintain their lead?
Just a few kilometers behind, Gippsland is taking on the cold creek with expert efficiency. They’re chilled, of course, but they’re looking strong and focused; they seem to be better-positioned right now than the Kiwis ahead. When they reach dry land, Bear finds them running down the road. It’s clear the team is racing; they’ve got no time for a chat. They offer the host a quick high five, and then it’s down to business.
Fourteen kilometers past Camp Two, Team Onyx is enjoying the ride. Or at least Chriss, Coree, and Sam are. The three have stopped on the road, chatting with locals as they await the arrival of Clifton. Chriss tells us that this isn’t atypical for them; often their captain is slower on climbs and then catches them on the descents.
When Clifton hasn’t arrived 10 minutes later, the rest of his team turns back to look for him. Cut to action-camera footage of a rider – presumably Clifton – crashing on the side the road, he and his bike tangled up with each other. As the team comes into view, we hear the helicopter overhead, and Bear yelling in alarm: “Team is down, a team is down.”
We’re all hoping this is just a dramatic Bear moment. But we’re all worried that this could be the end of Team Onyx’s race.
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