By Cliff White, USARA Board Member
Over and over, we’ve heard Bear Grylls breathlessly shout the words, “Team down! A team is down!” So much so that it has become its own meme.
As the tenth and final episode of The World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji opens, we know a team is likely going to be out of the race. But which one? Is it Iron Cowboy? The indomitable Khukuri Warriors? The energetic Costa Ricans? One of the two hometown favorite Fijian squads? Or carefree Team Curl?
We’ve gotten to know and even love these teams and their kooky, spirited characters over the past nine episodes of World’s Toughest Race. With episode nine ending on the cliffhanger of a bloody bike crash, we’re left hoping it wasn’t as bad as it looks. We don’t want to see any of these teams eliminated after so many miles and hours of brutal suffering.
Day nine dawns on Bear circling overhead, and a 72-hour “Final Race Cutoff” countdown timer ticking away on the bottom half of the screen.
“For the teams still out there, these days become exponentially harder,” Bear says. “They’re sleep-deprived, they’re dehydrated, they’re hurting. They’re so deep into muscle and mental fatigue that really, they are running on empty.”
With dramatic slow-motion action shots of our favorite teams flashing across the screen, Bear continues. “This is where you separate yourself. Can you dig deep? Can you draw on reservoirs of determination and resilience that most normal people just don’t have? And most of all, can you draw on each other?”
And that’s when we see Fijian Team Tabu Soro emerging from the mist around CP22, right after the frigid pool swim. Captain Uri Kurop (who saved famous surfer Aaron Gold’s life at Fiji’s feared Cloudbreak four years ago) is hurt, having bruised his ribs in a fall on the slippery rocks of the river.
In a cutaway shot, Kurop’s teammate William Simpson said he was certain the team would drop out.
But Kurop won’t have any of it.
“It’s hard, there’s a lot of pressure being the home team. People want you to do well in a sport you haven’t really done before, and there’s expectation that you’re going to do more than ‘just well,’” he says. “So, you can’t let yourself down and you can’t let your other people down, no matter how much pain you’re feeling.”
That dramatic scene is undercut somewhat by close-up shots of Kurop and his teammates intensely pumping up their SUPs for the lake paddle. [Helpful tip for the show’s editors: These shots of the furious SUP-pumping are a little awkward…] But we’re really happy that these local heroes are continuing on.
Up ahead on the course, in 27th place, are the chill bros from Cali, Team Curl. Steven Lenhart is sitting around while his teammates work on a bike broken by the ceaseless mud and hills of Fiji.
“I’m glad this is approaching the end,” he says. “I’m just ready to sit in a hot tub.”
For Lenhart, Eco-Challenge seems much more about personal growth than it is about the competition. “The World’s Toughest Race is kind of like an external symbol for me to face things as they come. I want to develop a part of me that, like, trusts other people and is sensitive to that authentic part of myself,” he says. “I don’t know how the World’s Toughest Race is gonna change me, but that’s why I’m doing it.”
Approaching the End
At the penultimate transition area, Team Costa Rica is arriving, and they’re a mess. Veronica’s legs aren’t bending and she’s in tears.
“I suffered so much to get here,” she says. “I couldn’t take it anymore.”
Veronica says this race is harder than any other she’s done before – including races where she’s suffered from frostbite, a detached cornea, and yes, even the one where she drowned.
“I think the challenge is how we do things, and I have to learn to express that fear, to trust others, because I won’t be able to overcome this myself. It’s something very, very difficult,” she reflects.
The Conga Line
Trusting others is exactly what Teams Iron Cowboys and Khukuri Warriors are doing, along with the Dutch Team Checkpoint Hunters and what seems like every other adventure race team in the Southern Hemisphere. They’re all walking behind Alex Mann of Team True North, an Eco-Challenge veteran and ace navigator.
“The whole race is here,” quips Team Iron Cowboy’s Sonja Wieck.
Though we’re only just meeting them – seemingly out of coincidence as more high-profile teams have bumped into them – Team True North is a pretty great story, with Mann racing with his teenage daughter, Becca.
“I think this will be a really good bonding experience for us to have before I move out and become an actual adult instead of just being eighteen years old,” she laughs.
Along the way, this freight train of adventure racers is picking up even more teams, including Team Super Fighters. All will struggle to make the Camp Four cut-off if they don’t hurry – and if Alex Mann’s nav isn’t spot-on. And the sun is setting…
Fast-forward to the middle of the night. A long trail of headlights stretches into the distance, advancing slowly. The freight train is still moving, though we hear that the lead teams covered this ground at twice the pace. Mann says his team has been moving for 22 hours nonstop. Then, in the distance, the spirit-lifting sight of camp torches appear and the racers begin to break out in smiles. They have made it, with time enough to spare that everyone will get a good night’s sleep. As the teams straggle into Camp Four, Mann gets mobbed by his gang of new friends.
“Give me a hug – you’re an animal!” James Lawrence, the Iron Cowboy himself, congratulates the navigator. “We could never have made it here without you, man.”
Racing Smart, Racing Safe
The next morning, further back on the course, the sun is rising on Team Flying J, a group of no-nonsense military types who are stuck in a half-completed hut in a rural village, with a teammate who can’t stand up, much less walk. Guy Larocque’s knee is, he says, “really screwed up.” When we get a look at it, it doesn’t take a medical degree to know he’s drastically understating the matter. If a piñata could be made out of a human leg, it would look a lot like Larocque’s right now.
“You need to talk,” Captain Dianette Wells says. “You need to be honest. You’ve been walking funny for days and you’ve never said a word.”
The fact that Larocque hasn’t complained about his leg, which looks like the world’s biggest sweet potato, is pretty remarkable. This thing looks like it has been inflated up to 60 psi.
“It hurts,” he says. “There’s something really screwed up with it.”
A deep gash has become badly infected, we learn from Wells. Once again, it appears it isn’t Fiji’s visible threats, but rather its invisible ones, that might claim another team as its victims.
Watching Larocque try to stand up, you can’t help but wince. To everyone but him, it’s abundantly clear that someone needs to get on the radio and call for the first available helicopter to get Larocque to the nearest accredited medical facility. But to Larocque, the shame of quitting is too much.
“I wanted him to say, ‘I can’t go on.’ But he’s so stubborn and he wouldn’t do it,” says Wells, who dedicated her race to Johnny Strange, a remarkable person who was the youngest person to climb the Seven Summits and who died in a BASE-jumping accident in 2015.)"
Team Flying J is smacking head-on into one of the most interesting moral issues raised by Eco-Challenge – when does bravery cross the line into dangerous stubbornness? These Eco warriors have given so much to get as far as they’ve gotten. When does the internal drive that helped them achieve that need to be switched off for safety reasons? Just how much, exactly, is an Eco-Challenge finish worth? To the casual viewer, Larocque’ hardheadnesses may seem imbecilic. It’s just a race, after all. But to Team Flying J, as with most adventure racers, his behavior is totally understandable, even admirable. The mantras we live and race by are: never let the team down. Never say die. Never quit. And yet, there’s also the mantra about “racing smart” – which, as Wells implies, requires effective and ample communication.
“Some people are like that. They’re so macho they won’t say, ‘Something hurts, or something’s not right. Let’s fix it.’ And that obviously can end up bringing down the whole team,” she says.
As Bear swoops in to help with the extraction, Wells says what’s on every viewer’s mind, no matter which side of the philosophical debate they fall.
“Thank God we’re not going further and he’s going to get the medical help he needs,” she concludes.
With the sun rising, attention turns to the back-of-the-pack stragglers limping into Camp Four. Those include the two Fijian teams, who are welcomed with cheers by the residents of the beautiful, thatched-roof houses that make up the village.
Anna Cowley of Team Tabu Soro, who has one of those totally authentic smiles that makes you just automatically love her, is greeted with a flower wreath.
“We dragged ourselves through, but we made it through,” she says, choking back tears. “It was just… really hard.”
Instagram stars Team Mad Mayrs and Team Eagle Scouts run into camp with a jump in their step. If you look closely, you can see 22-year-old Matt Moniz shouldering two very full backpacks… hard core! Until you realize this dude holds a ton of impressive climbing records, including being the fastest person to climb the fifty U.S. high points (a record since broken), the youngest person to summit Makalu, and recipient of the Honor Medal with Crossed Palms from the Boy Scouts of America for his work in Nepal in the aftermath of the horrific earthquake there in 2015 (and you can throw in an Everest summit and some other impressive peaks for fun).
There are now 55 hours until the racecourse closes. Team Iron Cowboy isn’t wasting one second of that, heading out with their “business” sunglasses on. Sonja Wieck, who has recovered from a breakdown early on in the race to become a leader of the team, explains why the group remains so upbeat, even as they’ve so beaten down by the course.
“I know when I’m out here that I’m living my best, truest self,” she says.
The team stops for a break in what little shade is available on this dry, highland landscape, on what looks to be another 1,000-degree day in Fiji. Iron Cowboy sheds some tears thinking about his family, then his teammate calls him to continue.
“Summon your Eco powers!” he yells, one of the best lines uttered in the entire show.
A bit further ahead, Team True North is rappelling down the stunning Qalivuda waterfall. This team is somehow making Eco-Challenge look pretty easy. Incredibly poised and clearly tough, Becca Mann talks about how much of a bonding experience with her father the race has been. Alex Mann feels the same way.
“Having your daughter reach out and hold your hand when she’s little, you kind of take that for granted. Then it stops,” he says. “But Eco-Challenge basically gave that back to me.”
In last place, the Mad Mayrs are struggling to bike up what racers later called one of the toughest climbs of the race, during the hottest part of the day. Greeted by Bear near the top, the team flashes their famous smiles, has a quick chat, and then moves on.
“There’s a lot of teams pulling out behind us, which now has put us at the back of the pack,” Tyson Mayr says. “But we’re still kicking along with the same attitude and the same energy we’ve had since day one. Probably a little less energy now, but it’s still that same spirit of, ‘We’re here to finish.’”
At the top of that climb, that finish is probably in sight. If the Mayrs had a telescope, they could likely see Team UK Adventurers crossing the line with their assistant crewperson Gill “Gillinator” Watson cheering them in to Mana Island. Team Aussie Rescue finishes next, followed by an impressive showing from the Hombres D’Maiz, a Guatemalan team that is frequently seen at races around the U.S.
It's hard not to bask in the triumphs of these teams, but even the hardest of hearts would melt with the ebullient celebrations of Team Costa Rica, and especially the private moment Veronica Bravo seems to have after their outrigger hits the beach. Veronica has just crossed forty kilometers of open ocean, overcoming deeply held fears of the water after nearly drowning in a race years earlier. For those of you who don’t know her, Veronica is tough. In an adventure race in Patagonia, she got frostbite up to her ankles. After normal skin grafts failed to help, Veronica was patched up with shark skin, and eventually recovered. But even after leaving adventure racing for a time to become one of the best ultrarunners in the world, Veronica still lives that AR maxim, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
“We were made to live and share with one another,” she says. “We can attain many things individually, but teamwork is super important. That’s true ‘Pura Vida.’”
Nearing the end of their own journey, Team Curl is enjoying a fast bike descent. Why does this look so familiar? The action speeds up, but attentive viewers will remember the scene from the beginning of the episode, which featured an accident. Your inner monologue starts screaming, “Slow down!” as the fun-loving surfer bros start hot-dogging it down the steepening slope.
You scream again, “Slow down, Steven!” But then the camera reverts to a first-person GoPro shot of a set of bike handlebars going inverted. Blackout. Painful sighs.
The camera turns back on and pans from a loose gravel road up to Steven Lenhart, in his signature Robin Hood green tights, with a rivulet of blood leaking from his face down his bare chest. A race volunteer with medical experience begins tending to him. Lenhart has some facial lacerations, but the big concern is that he hit his head. Helicopters can’t fly because it’s after dark, so he needs to talk with a doctor over a cell phone held by the volunteer. It seems like he won’t be medically pulled, but after consulting with his team, Lenhart seems to think it’s best to withdraw himself from the race.
Speaking through a loose tooth and a bloody mouth, he says, “I probably could finish it, but I’m not out here trying to prove myself in that way.”
Finding his own answer to the moral question of when it’s right to quit, Lenhart says, “Obviously, I want to stay in the game for my teammates, but I think we have a general understanding that we want to take care of ourselves and our relationships are much more lasting than this race.”
Teammate Brett Gravlin echoes those sentiments. “We were close, but it’s more important to have a friend,” he says.
The Final Crossing
A little closer, at CP30, dawn breaks on the eight teams that have been stuck at the dark zone before the final leg of the race, the outrigger paddle to Mana Island. Included in that grupetto are Team Iron Cowboy, Team AR Georgia, and Team Khukuri Warriors. Barring a jinx as strong as Team New Zealand’s, it looks like these fan favorites are going to make it.
At CP29, the two Fijian teams have reunited once again for the final two paddle sections. More egregious SUP-pumping scenes are drowned out by the uproarious cheering of a boisterous, flag-waving crowd of locals.
Alivate Logavatu, captain of Team Namako, explains the unique experience of being the local favorites: “The pressure was there to finish the race because of how people were reacting to us and how they cheered us on and made us feel proud of what we were doing,” he says. “There was no way we were going to quit.”
Captain Uri Kurop seems a bit improved health-wise – and certainly he has to be, if he’s made it through the long highland trek and bike.
Bear gives them kudos from his lurking perch above them in a circling chopper.
“Go for it, guys!” he yells.
Arriving next at the finish, with less than 24 hours left in the race, is Team Iron Cowboy, with family awaiting them on the beach.
“If you were to take ten consecutive Ironmans…and compare it against this, this is way harder,” says the Iron Cowboy – or should we call him the AR Cowboy now?
As much as Lawrence is their namesake, by the time they reach the podium to receive their finishers’ medals, it’s clear that Sonja Wieck has become the heart and soul of this team.
“If you believe in yourself, it doesn’t matter who loves you, who hates you,” she says. “If you’re living your truth, and you have a deep belief in yourself, that’s all that you need.”
Next in is AR Georgia, greeted by family and fun signs! If you look closely, you can see Katie Ferrington’s two kids wearing Wonder Woman costumes. Like all the women in this race, Ferrington – a USARA race director – is tough. It’s clear her girls have an amazing role model to look up to, and no doubt will store away this memory of running to greet their mom as she finished the World’s Toughest Race when they have times in their own lives that they need to be strong.
Teammate Jeff Leininger – another USARA race director – should get major credit for getting this team to the finish line. But the good dad that he is, Jeff hands over the limelight to his son, Hunter, who with his finish becomes the youngest-ever finisher of an Eco-Challenge (unless Becca Mann is younger? The show doesn’t say). The younger Leininger is an up-and-coming racer in the U.S. and is poised for greatness. Let’s just hope he keeps his passion for the sport and doesn’t get distracted by ultrarunning, his new hobby during coronavirus times.
Team Checkpoint Hunters finishes next in a total time of 243 hours, 19 minutes (Does any other sport have such ridiculous finishing times?), then Tierra Viva, though their time is 230 hours, 46 minutes.
Then a sight we weren’t so sure we would see when we started this journey back on day one – the Khukuri Warriors touching on Mana Beach at sunset. With no adventure race experience on the team, these athletes faced the additional challenge of having no idea of what they were getting into when they signed on the dotted line. But they’ve conquered the World’s Toughest Race, and in the process, proved what they set out to: that Indian women are powerful and worthy of respect.
“Through this experience, we are hoping that girls are going to feel so much more inspired seeing that we made it to the finish line, and use that in their own lives as a metaphor to get through the challenges every single time they ever doubt their path, ” Nungshi Malik says.
The slow-motion shots of the twins receiving their medals is enough to swell anyone’s heart with pride, but the Maliks’ dad looks like he’s going to burst.
“This was tougher than Everest, hands down,” Nungshi acknowledges, after her dad tells her that they have just made history as the first Indian team to complete an Eco-Challenge. “And to do it with my sister was even more special, because having her is such a blessing. She’s like my safety pin – if I need her, she’ll be there.”
The Mad Mayrs get in next, under the cover of darkness and lit by the glowing torches lining the finish, making their finish all the more dramatic. These guys somehow appear freshly showered and manicured as they cross the line! How did they manage that? Perhaps that’s what it takes to be social media celebrities – do badass things and look good while doing them.
Early in the morning on the last day of the race, Team Regulators comes in with a time of 263 hours and 51 minutes, followed by Team True North, in 40th place, an hour later.
Finally, Fijian flag flying high, the lanterne rouges of Tabu Soro and Namako line their outriggers up with the finishing chute and are all smiles as they paddle in.
“It’s a proud moment for all of us to represent Fiji,” Tabu Soro’s William Simpson says with a million-dollar smile. “That will resonate in the hearts of Fijians as the first team in Fiji to ever finish an Eco-Challenge.”
Alivate Logavatu of Namako expresses a more introspective takeaway from his time in the race.
“Now we have experienced this place in a whole different way. We saw it in a whole different light,” he reflects. “It’s a really special place. It’s a really beautiful place. And I got to share it with some special people.”
Kurop, who is quickly becoming a Yoda-like figure as he dispenses equal doses of wisdom and humor, lets people in on what he’s learned from his Eco-Challenge adventure.
“Sometimes you’ve got to just got to push on, and on the other side of that pain is reward,” he says. “I think that’s a life value. This is a ten-day training camp for life in general because you just learn so much from it.”
Singing the Fijian anthem, both teams link arms and cross the line together.
For what seems like the first time in ten episodes, Bear Grylls appears unable to attach a superlative to this performance. He stands silently, beaming, looking like he’s near tears. Sometimes silence speaks louder than words, and this is one of those cases.
Eventually, Anna Cowley of Tabu Soro helps him out.
“The message I hope people take out of this is to try, because if you think that you can’t do something, you won’t do it, but if you give it a shot, you never know,” she says. “Just like we did.”
As the closing montage flips through images of some of the teams we’ve come to know and love, we begin to recognize the show’s biggest star: the beautiful island nation of Fiji and its equally beautiful inhabitants.
“It was the people, we just loved them… and you realize we’re all one big family,” Tashi Malik summarizes. “And to feel the pulse of this place was just so powerful.”
And the race’s chief takeaway is perfectly summarized by – who else? – Fijian Anna Cowley.
“This race,” she says, “has really shown me that we can do so much more than we think, if we just try.”
Season Two of the World’s Toughest Race will take place in Patagonia, and applications close on Friday, August 29. Will you try?
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