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”.
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