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 Nathan Whitaker, I’m a video game programmer and I competed in Eco-Challenge: Fiji 2019 as part of Team Canyoneros (#48). I originally come from Newcastle Upon Tyne in England but live in Longwood, Florida.
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 adventure racing for seven years with the bulk of those races taking place in Florida and Georgia. We’ve competed in the USARA Nationals twice and in both events we placed in the open division at #3, and #4 respectively. With the exception of our female teammate, this was our first race outside of the USA.
How did your team come together, and how did you train for Eco-Challenge: Fiji?
Four of us have been working and racing together for many years now. Eco-Challenge: Fiji was the first time any of us had raced with our female teammate who made the trip from Mississippi to race with us. For almost a year we’d all been following a training plan heavily geared towards biking and long treks. The Florida environment was great for the Jungle conditions we would see in Fiji and we had some long training days which just involved trekking long distances through the Florida wilderness and swamps. My main worry before Eco was about the feet taking a beating from being wet for days on end. Training in the harshest Florida conditions allowed time to figure out what worked for our feet and skin.
Eco required that the team had to be certified in some new (for us) disciplines such as white water swimming and rafting. We made the trip to North Carolina where we met our female teammate for the first time and we all were certified over several days. We also needed certification in Jungle Navigation, Ocean Navigation as well as sailing experience and Outrigger paddling. We were able to get this experience and certification in Florida.
The final certification we all needed was for ascending and rappelling and with the help of a local climbing gym and a SWAT master rappeler, we were able to obtain the required skills.
What were you most looking forward to at Eco-Challenge: Fiji, and what scared you the most?
The adventure and seeing if we could finish such a long, brutal race was what drew us in. Rarely do we get a chance to challenge ourselves against such harsh conditions, would we be able to finish?
My own biggest fear was the punishment the body and skin would take in the Jungle conditions. I’d read many articles about trench foot, jungle rot, illness and the high risk of serious infections. I’d focused all my training on preparing my body as best I could. It doesn’t matter how many miles you can run, or how fast you can bike, if your feet are in such a bad way that you can’t stand on them… One thing that really helped me was extensive research on foot care. I tested many products, and blister prevention strategies, whilst tracking the results in a log of what worked for me (footcare is different for everybody).
What was your favorite piece of gear and/or clothing and/or food?
I really liked my Hyperlite pack, especially because of the amount of time we were spending in the water. There is nothing worse than a soggy, heavy pack but sogginess was not an issue for me (the weight of the contents still was though ). I also really liked my choice of socks which was an equal mix of Darn Tough and Seal Skinz. With frequent foot care and sock changes, I didn’t get my first (of many) blisters until 8 days into the race.
My favorite snack, by far, was Snyders Buffalo Pretzel pieces (they became popular with my teammates too).
Describe a favorite moment of Eco-Challenge: Fiji, or one where you suffered the most.
There were many amazing moments but my favorite was ascending 1200 feet up Vuwa Falls, I remember pausing near the top just to look around and appreciate the amazing view. Wow!
We had so many beautiful moments interacting with the Fijian locals. They are some of the nicest, most welcoming people on earth and so many times, they cheered us on, offered us food, or “saved us” with fresh coconut water. At other times, the locals provided us shelter for the night or guided us through difficult terrain on a local trail. One time, our guide was a big, heavy guy, and he quickly led us up a steep mountain trail, chatting non-stop without losing a breath. Meanwhile, despite months of training, we were all huffing and panting , dragging along behind him. Oh and he was barefoot too!
As for suffering, there was plenty. I started to become sick mid-way through the race and things just continued to get worse until eventually, I could barely stay on the bike. I wrecked several times after that point, one time hitting my leg so hard that the resulting injury took months to heal.
After Eco-Challenge: Fiji, would you do another adventure race? Would you do the Eco-Challenge again?
I’ve not raced since Eco as it took me a long time for me to recover. I left Fiji with a serious infection, unwelcome guests (parasites), and a nasty leg injury.
What internal struggles did you experience during Eco-Challenge: Fiji? Did you experience any moments of self-reflection and/or growth?
Pushing through illness and injury for so many days, was the most difficult thing I have ever done. I thought about how much my family had given in terms of support and I felt that I could not let them down. That became a huge motivator to keep moving and never give up.
What was re-entry into civilization like, both after the finish line in Fiji and back in your home country?
It wasn’t the post-race celebration that I expected! the Fijian hospital for infection treatment. I remained there until I flew back to the US a week later. Once I got back to the USA, my treatment resumed at the local hospital and a Tropical Infectious Disease specialist.
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?
Good question, I like to think it serves as an example for my children, that you can accomplish anything you put your mind to. I never thought as a game developer and a part time racer, that I would be able to participate in, or get an opportunity to try and finish, an Eco-Challenge: Fiji.
Stay tuned for more from USARA! Visit www.usara.com for more information on adventure racing in the United States.
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