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!
I’m Eric Lillstrom, polar expedition guide and 30-something adventurer living in Portland, OR. Captain of Team Eagle Scouts.
What was your adventure racing experience prior to Eco-Challenge: Fiji? Have you participated in previous Eco-Challenges or other adventure races?
Eco-Challenge: Fiji was the first adventure race for everyone on my team. While I have a lot of experience in expedition travel, and all of the disciplines of this race, the structure of adventure racing was entirely new to me.
How did your team come together, and how did you train for Eco-Challenge: Fiji?
I think it's fair to describe us as a "ragtag group". We were all chosen individually to collectively represent the Boy Scouts of America and had never met each other before. We met for the first time in Lake Tahoe, three months before the race began, to train as a team in some of the more specialized disciplines (outrigger canoeing, rope ascension skills, etc...). Luckily our personalities clicked very well and our shared background in Scouting (and shared goofy sense of humor) set the foundation to become a rock-star team. Everyone on the team came from a very athletic/endurance background. Matt is a high altitude mountaineer, Corey is an ultra-marathoner, Katie was trying out for the Olympics in snowboarding. I wasn't concerned about our physical ability. A poor team dynamic can break a team much more quickly than a couple hundred kilometers of adventure racing, so we spent as much time as possible developing our bonds, sharing stories, having Skype hangouts, and texting each other daily. I was lucky to have such an incredible group of people on my team.
I spent most of my individual time training in wilderness navigation. It is something I have experience in, from time in the Boy Scouts and guiding Polar Expeditions, but wanted to be as prepared as possible for finding our way through the Fijian jungle. Looking back, I wouldn't change a thing.
What were you most looking forward to at Eco-Challenge: Fiji, and what scared you the most?
This race consumed my life for the 6 months leading up to it. I went to bed thinking about Eco Challenge, I dreamed about it, and woke up right where I left off the night before. It was a familiar mixture of excitement and anxiety. My biggest fear was that we'd get knocked out of the race early (and several experienced racers I spoke with hinted that this was likely). I really wanted to have the full experience; to take in as much of Fiji as possible, from spending time with the local people to seeing the unreal transformation of the climate as you traverse the island from East to West. That was what I was most looking forward to, and my greatest fear was that we wouldn't get the chance.
What was your favorite piece of gear and/or clothing and/or food?
All of my gear worked really well but I can't choose a single piece as a favorite. My favorite food, however, was the meals that our TAC Charley made for us at the camps between expedition legs, especially the bag of coconut rice that he'd send us on our way with as we plodded off on the next leg of the adventure.
Describe a favorite moment of Eco-Challenge: Fiji, or one where you suffered the most.
One of my favorite moments came at our lowest point in the race. We were very close to the cutoff time while approaching one of the Camp checkpoints and were convinced that we weren't going to make it. For 5 hours, we were all broken with disappointment and grief over the idea that we'd be knocked out of the race but eventually came to terms with it. We happily ended up making it before the cutoff time, but then had to face the fact that we would not have any time to rest and needed to start the next section immediately. That realization broke us a second time, but we lifted our chins and took off again. Within 30 minutes of leaving camp, Katie broke down. She just sat down on a rock and wanted to give up. We all just sat down, huddling around her. Then, another team came back along the trail having given up due to physical ailments. We spoke a few words, and asked if we could help. They were disappointed, but knew they’d given it their all. As we parted ways, one of them stopped and said, almost as an afterthought, “you know you guys are a lot stronger than you know.” I saw a cold, hard determination rise in Katie’s eyes. She stood up and started walking… and so we were off again, into the night. For me, this was the moment where I developed a hard confidence that we could finish.
After Eco-Challenge: Fiji, would you do another adventure race? Would you do the Eco-Challenge again?
Knowing what I know now, I would definitely take on another Eco-Challenge. It was a life-changing experience in the best possible way, and to decline the opportunity would be a mistake. For now though, raising a family will take precedent. I will hone my adventure racing skills with some shorter, local races, in addition to some Eco-Challenge-inspired personal adventures.
What internal struggles did you experience during Eco-Challenge: Fiji? Did you experience any moments of self-reflection and/or growth?
One of the benefits of the "leader" role that I have found over the years is that it becomes easy to focus all of your concern on your other team members. When you have to be there for other people, failure is not an option (or that's how it is in my mind). That mindset, absent of self-doubt, allows you to believe that you can do anything, and in turn you end up being able to push yourself a lot further than you could otherwise.
That being said, I missed my family a lot. I was recently married at the time (still married now thankfully), and I thought about my wife and our new home all the time. But every morning without fail I would have the same experience. It would be 9-10am (usually my most exhausted time of each day) I would start to think about my family and friends at home. I would think about them cheering for me, and internalizing all of their belief in me took my energy from 1 to 100. Each time, the energy and emotion swelled up and I would quietly cry for a few minutes and became invincible for the next 5-6 hours. I've never experienced anything like that before in my life. It was one of the best feelings I've ever had.
One big takeaway from the race is that our bodies and minds are capable of so much more than we regularly ask of them. It really opened my eyes to that. The second was the lasting impression that the local Fijians left on me. They were all so kind and happy. They welcomed us into their homes and were eager to share their culture. It was an incredibly humbling experience.
What was re-entry into civilization like, both after the finish line in Fiji and back in your home country?
Re-entry into civilization involved a lot of sleep. Unlike many other racers, I did not have any lasting medical issues, just a few infected cuts and scrapes. As with many experiences that involve lots of "Type II Fun" (miserable in the moment but fun in retrospect) I was only left with positive feelings, but I did wake up with night sweats for the following month.
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?
We came into the race with the mindset that we would be "competing" against the course, not other teams. Some of the best adventure racing teams in the world were there, so winning just wasn't realistic. We set out to inspire other Scouts around the world, and show the rest of the world that the skills we learned in Scouting would carry us through the race. I think we accomplished that. One specific goal we had during the race was to help other teams whenever possible. This we did on more than one occasion and one time in particular, were able to help a team through a situation that would have certainly ended their race.
Stay tuned for more from USARA! Visit www.usara.com for more information on adventure racing in the United States.
A space for AR musings from the USARA team and guest authors. Ready to race? Check out the rest of our resources on the USARA homepage.