Welcome to our series of interviews with American adventure racing teams who participated in the World's Toughest Race Eco-Challenge: Fiji! This 11-day adventure race took place in September 2019 and will premiere on Amazon Prime on August 14th, 2020. Check out USARA's dedicated Eco-Challenge: Fiji page for interviews from other teams and additional material concerning the race!
Please introduce yourself!
My name is Hunter Leininger, the youngest team member of Team ARGeorgia (#45) at 18 years old. I currently reside in Canton, Georgia as an entrepreneur.
What was your adventure racing experience prior to Eco-Challenge: Fiji? Have you participated in previous Eco-Challenges or other adventure races?
I've been fortunate enough to be adventuring racing for 12 years now, I began my journey at the age of 7 with a 6-hour adventure race and I've been hooked ever since. I was a very ambitious baby, but I don't know if I could have competed in Eco-Challenge back in 2002 when I was 1 year old! Even though I've never participated in previous Eco-Challenges, I've completed about 50 Adventure Races and 10 Expedition length races including the multiple USARA National Championships and the Adventure Racing World Championships at 16 years old.
How did your team come together, and how did you train for Eco-Challenge: Fiji?
After racing only with my Dad (Jeff Leininger) for 5 years, we wanted to attempt an expedition adventure race but we needed more company on our team. So that's where our other teammates came into the picture, we began our journey of competing in expedition adventure races around the country with Tom Ambrose and Jeni McNeal. It was a no brainer to attempt the World’s Toughest Race with a team that we felt comfortable with after racing together for 7 years! Training for Eco-Challenge was a tricky venture for us, we had no clue what they would throw at us. Once we heard that Bear Grylls was going to be part of the race, we immediately started to train to eat bats and worms.
What were you most looking forward to at Eco-Challenge: Fiji, and what scared you the most?
After dreaming about this race for over a decade, we were looking forward to just starting the race, and experiencing what an Eco-Challenge was all about. The lead up to a race is one of the most nerve-wracking parts especially Eco-Challenge since there was so much pressure and we still didn't know what they would throw at us. We all trusted each other to know that once the race began there was no way that anyone would quit even if we broke our legs (I packed a pair of crutches if that happened). Since the leadup to the race was so long, everyone was a little scared that they would put our teams chances in jeopardy if they got injured before we even started the race.
What was your favorite piece of gear and/or clothing and/or food?
Socks, socks, and more socks. We knew that foot issues were the main reason teams dropped out of the 2002 Eco-Challenge, so we did everything in our power to combat any foot issues and one of the easiest solutions is to change your socks often. So that is the reason why we packed upwards of 30 pairs of socks! My favorite food during the race was actually all of the foods that the locals offered us, towards the beginning of the race we were super cautious of eating their offerings due to their lack of clean cooking water and our weak American stomachs would easily get sick. But after 7 days of eating race food, we were desperate to change up our palate and luckily we never got sick and we were able to experience all the amazing Fijian delicacies such as mini pancakes, lemon pies, and fruits that we have never seen before.
Describe a favorite moment of Eco-Challenge: Fiji, or one where you suffered the most.
Hands down my favorite moments during the race was when we interacted with the local Fijians. From the outside, they don't have all the luxuries that we are told to lead to happiness, but every time we interacted with them we were overwhelmed with the amount of generosity and joy. The pinnacle moment that exemplified this generosity was after a long muddy hike-a-bike, our team's spirits were very low until we popped out of the woods at 2 am and we were greeted by an entire village with hundreds of Fijians that were cheering for us. This was where we really understood that this was way more than just a race!
After Eco-Challenge: Fiji, would you do another adventure race? Would you do the Eco-Challenge again?
I don't know if I will ever stop adventure racing, I have a slight (well I guess a massive) addiction to this amazing sport. It has been really inspiring to see other racers still competing well into their 70s, so once I reach that age I'll probably be the most experienced adventure racer with over 65 years of racing! I hope to be blessed with the opportunity to compete in every future Eco-Challenge and hopefully win a few of them.
What internal struggles did you experience during Eco-Challenge: Fiji? Did you experience any moments of self-reflection and/or growth?
No matter how strong a racer you are, you will undoubtedly face some internal struggles but all that matters is how you respond to those struggles. On the other side of your struggles is where you will find the most amount of growth, nobody grows if they don't face any struggles in their life. My most profound self-reflection was that I still haven't come close to my limits and that I am capable of so much!
What was re-entry into civilization like, both after the finish line in Fiji and back in your home country?
It was definitely a unique experience reentering civilization, because during the race, you tend to only focus on things that are important and that will keep you alive. But as soon as we returned home, we were bombarded with the unnecessary things that our society shoves in our face, such as celebrity drama, political debates, Facebook fights, etc. After a few days of being back home, I was so ready to pack everything up and move to Fiji where life was simpler. My favorite thing about adventure racing is that it gives you a lot of time to think about life and determine what is truly important to you (you don't get that with any other sport in my opinion).
How would you like fans to interpret your participation in Eco-Challenge: Fiji? Did you set out to inspire another group of people and do you think you accomplished that?
I set out to inspire primarily young people by showing that they can accomplish incredible things at whatever age and that they don't have to wait until they get older to pursue their dreams. That is one of the most common excuses in our society, "you're not old enough to start that business, build that thing, complete in that race... you should wait until you get older to do those things". The biggest issue with this mindset is that once people put off their dreams at a young age, they tend to never come back to them which results in them never accomplishing anything. The best time to do something is now, so go after your dreams before it's too late!
Stay tuned for more from USARA! Visit www.usara.com for more information on adventure racing in the United States.
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