By Emily Korsch, USARA Interim Social Media Captain
Out of the 66 teams that started the World’s Toughest Race, 58 are still racing. However, that number may decrease as we check in with Team Onyx. Bear Grylls left us with his signature “A TEAM IS DOWN” cliff-hanger last episode, and we finally see who it is in the opening minutes. Team captain Clifton Lyles has suffered a crash on a gravel road, his bike careening into a ditch and leaving him pretty banged up. His teammates, out of sight when the crash occurred, come racing back to find Lyles emerging from the ditch pretty banged up. Sam Scipio starts asking the right questions right away, “Are you OK? No, are YOU ok? Where’s your helmet?” Her extensive bike racing experience helps guide her team in assessing the damage: the bike seems ok, Lyles’ flesh wounds seem ok, but they are worried about his head. His bike helmet is crunched and he’s having some trouble focusing. To further evaluate Lyles’ situation, Team Onyx decides to back-track to Camp Two and get an official assessment from race medical staff. It’s such a blow to retrace your steps, but in the grand scheme of things, a potential head injury isn’t worth risking race progress. It may be Eco-Challenge: Fiji, but it’s still just one race.
The main focus for the chase and mid-pack teams in this episode is the approach to and ascent over Vuwa Falls. In the previous episode, even Team New Zealand struggled with this section. Fran Lopez Costoya, teammate of Emma Roca on Team Summit, echoes a familiar refrain for Eco-Challenge: Fiji, “We used to be four people with no commitments whatsoever, and now we are four people on a team with twelve kids.” Costoya emphasizes that adventure racing is so hard that complaining to your teammates will only make things worse, a theme that we’re happy to see embraced by the this reincarnation of Eco-Challenge. To illustrate, his team is having their share of navigational problems in the approach to Vuwa Falls, and while things are tense, they are working through the map with dedicated teamwork.
Team Iron Cowboy is still on the path to Camp Three and fully immersed in the muddy muddy mountain bike. The three boys swap their last remaining drops of water on a hilltop while they wait for Sonja Wieck to make the final steps. I’ve been in this situation before (though never with a cameraperson next to me), and it is so frustrating. Seeing your teammates ahead, resting, while you struggle to catch up can be demoralizing even on good days, and worse on day five (or is it six?) of an expedition race. To remedy this, usually I ask teammates to take weight out of my pack (or just take the whole dang pack), or give me a tow. It’s unclear if Team Iron Cowboy is adopting those strategies, but Wieck is giving it her best effort.
Approaching Camp Three is Team Bend Racing, having made up a myriad of places from DFL (dead _______ last) up to fifteenth. Grylls admires their grit, team member Melissa Coombes admires their grit, and WE admire their grit! Some teams race better off the front and some teams race better while chasing down the leaders. I’m not sure which Team Bend Racing prefers, but they are sure making the best of their chasing role.
We are treated to a Bear Grylls demonstration on how to ascend with a Bear Grylls™ machete in your backpack. We also get a quick shot of the CP20 check-in sheet, showing Team New Zealand had roughly a five-hour lead on the chase back of Gippsland, Canada Adventure, and Tiki Tour, with Team Summit arriving in 5th place later in the morning. Costoya emphasizes the team motto, a Chinese proverb: “If your problem has a solution, why get angry? If it does not, why get angry?” Again, I love this new Eco-Challenge emphasis on no drama and all teamwork. Team Summit is full-body tackling Vuwa Falls as more teams are reaching the base of the climb. Teams Vidaraid (sixth), Thunderbolt AR (seventh), Swedeforce (eighth), Estonian ACE (tenth), OutThere (fourteenth), Atlas (fifteenth) are all chomping at the bit to get on the ropes after Summit. To close out Team Summit’s climb, Bear Grylls is perched atop the falls, ready to give Emma Roca a pep talk that she doesn’t really need but accepts graciously.
Gryll’s positivity extends up to Team New Zealand, checking in on the team like a doting mom - “Are you feeling okay? Did you get a good rest?” - as they trek into a SUP section. Sophie Hart recounts how “physically taxing” the Vuwa Falls section was as the team inflates SUPs and Nathan Fa’avae underscores that top teams require commitment both to personal health and pushing hard. They have a 20km SUP and a 40km highlands trek ahead of them before getting to Camp Four, the final camp of the race.
Team Onyx has retraced their steps back to Camp Two to get medical attention for Lyles’ potential head injury. It seems that by backtracking, they may have sealed their fate even if Lyles gets a medical clearance. The team has a deep, honest, tough conversation on a hilltop outside of the camp, preparing themselves for a potential withdrawal. It’s such a complicated situation, both on a personal and team level. Scipio gives us the perspective on the balance of racing and life, “We want him to be okay, we want [race medical staff] to say he’s okay, but at the end of the day, it’s human life, and it matters a lot.” Boom. We’re with you, Sam and Team Onyx.
As if climbing nearly 1000 feet up Vuwa Falls isn’t hard enough, once teams make the top, they are treated to an 8km river trek/swim through bone-chillingly cold water. It’s a huge challenge to balance the need for movement to generate body heat with the need for slow progress to avoid slipping on river rocks. Throw in some full-body immersion on 58 degree Fahrenheit water, and this is nearly an Arctic challenge. Team Canada made it to the end of the section and the race-sanctioned warming hut to look after teams. Having made it past his nemesis Vuwa Falls, team captain Bob Miller has a visible spark in his eye to chase down the leaders.
Team Summit, however, is not so sparky. Emma is struggling to put on extra layers. This is a huge challenge with shivering appendages, combined with the loss of body heat that any stop in movement causes. Her teammates are also stopped while waiting for her, causing them to become further chilled as well.
Back at Camp Two, Team Onyx finds a visibly shaken TAC Mikayla (also Lyles’ daughter). Her concern for her dad’s potential head injury is evident. The entire team waits anxiously as Lyles is evaluated by the race’s medical team. The staff ultimately recommend a hospital evaluation, which would pull the team out of Eco-Challenge: Fiji. It comes down to a personal choice, and Lyles makes the call to drop out, not wanting to further endanger himself or his team by continuing their forward progress. It’s heartbreaking to see the end of Team Onyx’s race, knowing how many stereotypes they pushed through to be on the starting line of the World’s Toughest Race.
Scipio reflects on their journey. “Just being the person you are is always enough,” she says through tears. Are they my tears or hers? Answer… they are our tears. “You’re enough,” she continues. “Each one of us is enough.” We are with you, Team Onyx. You belong in adventure racing, and we couldn’t be happier or more grateful for your presence.
We get to spend a few minutes with Team Tabu Soro from Fiji near Checkpoint 15 as they wait for the other home team, Team Namako, to cross the river. Adventure racing isn’t a typical Fijian sport, but to have not one but two local teams in the field is a huge accomplishment. I’ve heard from other racers that the Fijian teams would actually lose several minutes each time they went through a village due to enthusiastic locals cheering for their home teams. And the Fijian teams were so accommodating that they chatted with everyone who wanted a few minutes. Go, Fiji, go!
On the dark riverbanks below Vuwa Falls, Team Bend Racing captain Jason Magness is still working through tough team dynamics to resolve his navigation error and restore team stoke. These are tense moments for the team, but it’s what top teams do: vocalize concerns, advocate for what each team member needs, and work together to address issues. This is what constructive conflict resolution looks like, which is such a departure from what Eco-Challenge has shown us in the past with the temper-tantrums, shouting matches, and pouting. Thank you, producers, for showing us these moments! And good luck Team Bend Racing!
Team Summit has finally emerged from the cold pool swim. As they make their way down the gravel road to the warming tent, the teammates work to outfit Costoyo in typical adventure racing high fashion: the emergency blanket cloak. (Side note, the emergency blanket can also be used to create a skirt, muu-muu, scarf, turban, shirt, vest -- really any number of fashionable and functional pieces.) The team gets to the tent and it’s clear we have a serious situation on our hands. Race medical staff hurriedly remove Fran’s wet and chilled clothing and cocoon him in dry fleece blankets to start the warming process. They encourage him to drink warm liquids as he is experiencing a double whammy: hypothermia AND muscle cramps. It’s painful for him, and painful for his teammates to watch.
As Team New Zealand closes in on the final Camp Four, it seems their lead may be in the most jeopardy yet with Teams Gippsland Adventure and Canada Adventure very close in pursuit. Will these teams get close enough tonight to see each other’s headlamps? How will mid-pack teams fare in the frigid waters above Vuwa Falls? Will Team Summit help Costoya recover enough to continue racing? Give us episode seven!
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