By Emily Korsch, USARA Interim Social Media Captain
The previous eight episodes have seen their fair share of teams struggle and triumph as they inch closer to the finish line on Mana Island. Now with the podium decided, mid- and back-of-pack teams are still very much in the throes of battle with this Bear-Grylls-Brutal (™) course. When we encounter Team Iron Cowboy, they're tackling the physically demanding 1000’ ascent of Vuwa Falls at night. Sonja Wieck’s positive mental attitude emanates through the screen as she works up the falls, and we hope that just a fraction of it can seep into her teammates as they struggle themselves. All four members reunite at the Medallion bowl, in a mix of excitement, pride, exhaustion, loneliness, and togetherness that defines expedition adventure racing.
Narrating the final Island Leg of the race from - where else? - a helicopter, Bear Grylls reaches into his backpack of adjectives for a replacement to “brutal” and comes up with… HARROWING!...to describe the outrigger paddling section to the finish. Teams Summit, Estonia ACE, and Thunderbolt AR are paddling in the signature turquoise Fijian waters, in canoes that looked big on the beach but are now tiny toothpicks in the ocean swell. These teams are in the top ten, and they're fighting against sleepmonsters and the frustratingly slow progress of paddling against ocean winds and currents as they focus in on the finish line.
In the frigid waters of the jungle pools, we get our first introduction to Team Flying J, who like all teams are struggling with the cold temperatures and slow going of this section. Team captain Dianette Wells works with her teammates as they reach the end of the swim and take stock of their injuries. The team pulls together in an encouraging hug as they reach the gravel road for the final kilometers into CP22 and the much-needed warming station.
Team Khukuri Warriors are stoked to be in their element - climbing - as they start the roped ascent up Vuwa Falls. They are moving through this section near Teams Mad Mayrs, Tabu Soro, and Namako. The native Fijians on the latter teams are especially touching to watch - succeeding in reaching the top of their country’s most famous waterfall and taking the moment to look back on the vast expanse of Fijian wilderness. Soak it all up - your country is incredible.
Twenty kilometers ahead, Team AR Georgia is SUPing along their way to Camp Four. The waterway looks low. According to teams, it was mapped as a lake. But water levels on race day were down roughly 50% from when those maps were made, leading to many exploratory excursions down channels that ultimately dried up. Surrounding what little water there is are cow pastures, fully featured with mud and cow poop. Team navigator Jeff Leininger tries to balance the need for travel in the correct direction with the feasibility of actually paddling in these low water conditions. Hunter gets to climb up the channel’s banks to try and scout, a task that is exceedingly difficult without the map that’s in Jeff’s possession. Teammate Katie Ferrington explains to the cameraperson what’s going on in a way that's practiced from many years of managing intra-team... differences. She's a pro.
Team Flying J has reached the medical tent at CP 22 and Harald Zundel goes in for treatment on a deep gash in his leg. I need to confess something, I “watched” this whole section with hands over my eyes because I don’t do wounds very well, and the editing spared no detail (visual or audible). So, if you are a medical person, you probably enjoyed the in-depth coverage of cleaning and stitching the wound. I did not, and I was relieved to see the team back on their feet. Except, now teammate Guy Laroque is struggling and explaining what so many expedition adventure racers feel in these late stages of a course: “It’s designed to turn you inside out. You just never know when your day is coming. What day is it going to be? For me? Yesterday.” As Team Flying J hobbles off to start the SUP, we can only hope that the paddling will give them a bit of time to rest, recover, and heal.
Above Vuwa Falls, Team Iron Cowboy is “enjoying” a brief overlap between adventure racing and triathlon... swimming! Except, it’s in ridiculously cold water, and they have to haul their packs, clothing, and shoes with them, effectively negating the group’s swimming skills. However, Sonja has leveraged the positive mojo she built climbing the Falls and continues to push ahead, modifying her pack’s shoulder straps and hip belt to help her swim. “Game-changer,” she chirps. She helps her teammates make the same modifications and they are able to take more advantage of their many hours of triathlon swimming training.
Meanwhile, ahead on the SUPs, Team AR Georgia is still fighting their way to CP24. Ferrington (a skilled navigator herself), is diplomatically frustrated as the team inches their way along. The elder Leininger has developed some more confidence in the route, giving into an adventure racing truth, “Just because you’re on a SUP board, doesn’t mean that you’re paddling!” The team hauls their boards out of the narrow channel and proceeds overland towards the CP, now navigating bogs of mud and poop. They finally make it to CP24, dropping their SUPs and proceeding to carefully clean themselves before heading out on the bike.
In a sharp contrast to the muddy Fijian interior, we are whisked away to the sparkling waters of the Island Leg, where a top ten finish is up for grabs. Former two-time ARWS World Champ (with Team New Zealand, ironically) Jo Williams leads Team Tiki Tour into fourth place with a killer paddle face. Team Vidaraid Adventure follows in fifth, France Expenature in sixth, Thunderbolt AR (who are incredibly “impressed with [them]selves” and we are too!) in seventh, and the embattled Team Summit in tenth. Emma Roca has led this team through an extremely challenging course, and while there were moments when it looked like Summit was facing elimination, they rallied around the team and fought to a well-deserved Top Ten.
Team Curl is trekking through the 50k highlands leg and, brimming with navigational confidence, decides to take an unusual route. I wasn’t sure what to think of Curl when they were introduced in an earlier episode, but I’m loving their team here. They are embracing the full spirit of adventure racing while visiting remote parts of Fiji, taking in the vast expanse of the landscape and acknowledging how small humans really are. I’ve thought these same thoughts on adventure race courses and I’m honored to be mind-melding with Team Curl. Team navigator Justin is wrestling with his compass (never a good sign), taking them up a steep hillside that tests his teammates' patience with unusual routes. Will this route choice pay off for Team Curl, or will they reach a breaking point in the Fijian highlands?
Meanwhile, in the cold pools, Team Iron Cowboy is still swimming. Just when you think adventure racing is tough, who else but Bear Grylls swoops overhead with a pep talk from a helicopter. To any adventure racing newbie - don’t expect this in any other race besides Eco-Challenge. But the visit clearly perks up the members of Team Iron Cowboy, who wave and smile. Having used the Bear-Boost to make it out to the gravel road, the team treks into the warming tent and takes some time off their feet to warm themselves around the camp stove. As they reminisce about race stages from just days ago, James Lawrence and Wieck each offer excellent, articulate reasons for adventure racing:
“I think a race like this really allows you to really have conversations with yourself," Lawrence reflects. There’s a lot of slug-festing out there where it’s just you, your mind, and your thoughts. You’re going to find out real quick if you like you, or if you don’t like you.”
Wieck adds, “Like many endurance athletes, I have demons that I’m trying to slay. We do really hard things, because it helps us feel like we’re maybe in control of the things that maybe we aren’t.”
Both of these rookie adventure racers, who some may say bit off more than they could chew with an Eco-Challenge: Fiji entry, have each found the center of their inner grit and are using it to propel themselves and their team forward on the unrelenting course. And this is why so many adventure racers around the globe do this sport - especially races outside the Eco-Challenge bubble - the opportunity to look inside yourself, see what you’re made of, and prove it to yourself, your team, and the world.
Also in the water but on their SUP boards, Team OutThere and Team Bend Racing are edited to be very near each other in their approach to CP30, the start of the final outrigger canoe section. However, there isn’t actually a shot with both teams at the CP at the same time. Nevertheless, when teams are close by at the end of a multi-day race, things get tough. Racers are exhausted but so competitive that they lock into an especially grueling pace in the final kilometers. Our international friends on Attackpoint (an adventure race training log) call this “dicing to the finish,” and it’s a special kind of pain. Bend Racing and OutThere each want to be the top American team, and each dig deep to find one more gear of paddling speed to get them across the line first.
Did you know bull-fighting was a discipline at Eco-Challenge: Fiji? It’s true, and Team Costa Rica has found it on their approach to Camp Four. While they are running (running!) along a rocky river bed, an especially aggressive but deceivingly cute baby bull tries to run them over. I’m sure they had a moment of “Is this real life or an AR?" hallucination? before scampering out of the (luckily tethered) bovine’s way. #onlyinadventureracing
The encounter seems to energize them on the approach to Camp Four, where Eduardo Baldioceda even finds a moment to play a joke on the team when searching his backpack for their medallion. This Costa Rican team has the perfect encapsulation of their home country and host country: "Bula Vida!"
Still on the trek to Camp Four, Team Curl seems to be getting back on track in the highlands after their “shortcut.” Steven Lenhart, a former professional soccer player, explains that part of his goal here at Eco-Challenge: Fiji is to “metabolize” his grief from his father’s suicide eight years ago. I haven’t heard grief explained in caloric terms before, but when Lehnart does, it makes so much sense to me. Grief can be a tangible, physical thing that needs to be processed in a similar way. Lenhart commits to doing that, and also to “fully show[ing] up and get[ting his] ass kicked” on the Fijian adventure racing course. The team shares a resting moment to take in the beautiful sunset on the ridge. It’s so special to see this team evolve through the course, from rookie racers into full-fledged adventurers.
Back in the cold pools, Teams Tabu Soro, Namako, and Khukuri Warriors are facing down the threat of hypothermia and steadfastly advancing through the chilling water. Nungshi (Nash) Malik draws on her significant mountaineering experience, realizing that the cold water “is temporary, you know? Fear is in our mind. So if you can move that away, and tell your mind to just keep moving past these obstacles, fear just is not-existent.” Could these teams have these revelations anywhere else besides the cold jungle pools of an adventure racing course? As they exit the water and trek into the CP22 warming station, the team seems to have steeled its resolve to make it across the finish line. It’s the little things in life, and adventure racing, that so often bring the most joy. Malik glows with the latest gift, “I can’t believe I’m holding a cup of hot chocolate.”
Team Curl, hours behind their original plan due to their route choice error, finally makes it to Camp Four! An exhausted Lenhart explains to us the unconventional allure of adventure racing, “The way this thing is set up... it’s not only physically beating us down, but it’s making us have to rely on some deep parts of ourselves. Why the hell am I doing something like this? Why do I care about facing suffering over and over and over? What is it about the unknown that’s enticing? Relying on ourselves, and on each other... it’s developing something pretty nice inside.” Welcome to adventure racing, Team Curl. This is the feeling so many others get; it goes beyond finisher medals, t-shirts, or podium finishes. “Something pretty nice inside” is what we are all looking for and finding out there. That, and a quesadilla with a side of hugs from your crew, can’t get any better.
Ahead, on the finish line at Mana Island, race director Kevin Hodder is waiting on the first US team to finish, which turns out to be the ever gritty, surprising, and charismatic Team Bend Racing. What a hard-earned finish for this crew, battling back from last place on day one to fourteenth place at the end. In adventure racing, it is truly never over until it’s over, and this team never gave in or gave up, embodying the spirit of Eco-Challenge: Fiji. Jason Magness, Dan Staudigel, Melissa Coombes, and Stephen Thompson walk away knowing that “the earned victory makes the better story” as Staudigel explains, satisfied with their efforts here in Fiji.
With only one episode left of this epic series, there are so many stories left to savor. And it looks like there are still some unexpected twists coming our way, as well. We’ve enjoyed the ride so far, and are looking forward to congratulating all teams!
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