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 Sonja Wieck, a member of Team Iron Cowboy (#53). I live in Los Osos, California and I have dabbled in many occupations; triathlon coaching, blogging, a bit as an actuary, and recently even worked as a she-shed designer.
What was your adventure racing experience prior to Eco-Challenge: Fiji? Have you participated in previous Eco-Challenges or other adventure races?
I was a complete novice in adventure racing. Eco-Challenge: Fiji was my first adventure race of any sort, but I did have some experience with the different disciplines in the race, namely ultra-lite backpacking, climbing, and SUPing.
How did your team come together, and how did you train for Eco-Challenge: Fiji?
In the video Eco-Challenge put together for the application website it ended by saying “This is the race that eats Ironman for breakfast.” I felt like Bear Grylls was speaking directly to me, as my background is mainly in Ironman racing (18 Ironman finishes, 6X Kona Ironman World Championship Qualifier). I knew instantly I wanted to put together a team of Ironman athletes to see if the race did indeed eat us up for breakfast. My first thought for a teammate was James Lawrence, known as the Iron Cowboy. He completed 50 ironmans in 50 states in 50 days and I figured that he was an expedition racer whether he knew it or not. In the 50/50/50 he had Aaron Hopkinson as one of his “wingman.” Aaron is an accomplished Ironman athlete and works well with James, so that seemed like a great fit. We had to replace our 4th member a few months in and choose Shaun Christian for his experience in the outdoors and his ultra tough nature, also with many Ironman races under his belt. Our TAC Joe has been friends with James for decades, and is an Ironman athlete and also a mountaineer. We had 126 Ironman finishes amongst our group and we were all ready to test ourselves in a new challenge.
What were you most looking forward to at Eco-Challenge: Fiji, and what scared you the most?
I was most looking forward to the scenery, the lush jungle, steep mountains, gorgeous oceans and of course getting to know and communicating with the locals along the way. I was excited to visit different villages and get deep into the parts of Fiji that most people don’t visit. I had never been to Fiji and I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in all its glory. I was most scared about the navigation aspect of the race. We figured out early on that I was going to be our sole navigator for the race. I had learned map and compass in 2018 on a guided backpacking trip and I had an interest in developing my skills. I wouldn’t say I’m a great navigator but I was by far the best our team had to work with and I learned a lot during the race both from experience and from other navigators. In Ironman, navigation is not a factor… in the slightest.
What was your favorite piece of gear and/or clothing and/or food?
My favorite piece of gear was my Kialoa Hawaiki Steering Blade for steering both the Camakau and the Outrigger Boats. When we got accepted into the race I immediately joined our local outrigger club and I learned how to be a steersman. My paddle handled the heavy Camakau as well as the Outrigger boat like a dream while working as a great paddling paddle as well. My favorite food was a delicacy one of the teams who didn’t make it past the first camp gave to us and it’s called “Split.” It was like two gel packets stuck together where one side is peanut butter and the other side is jelly. I stashed those in my fanny pack during the race and saved them for when I needed a pick-me-up.
Describe a favorite moment of Eco-Challenge: Fiji, or one where you suffered the most.
My favorite moment came on the mountain bike after we had just completed a tough section of pulling our bikes through the mud for who knows how long. We popped onto a road in a village to have many Fijians waiting for us with leis, coconut water, music, selfies, and lots of "bula bula bula". They took our bikes from us and scrubbed them clean and a woman popped a fried doughnut into my mouth. I will love that woman for the rest of my life. They uplifted us when we were tired, hungry and dirty. We rolled out of that village happy, full, and clean. It was amazing!
After Eco-Challenge: Fiji, would you do another adventure race? Would you do the Eco-Challenge again?
I would love to do more adventure racing, and more Eco-Challenge races. I can’t wait until I can be on another starting line. The experience changed my life in more ways than one. I’m a convert, a lifer, I loved it.
What internal struggles did you experience during Eco-Challenge: Fiji? Did you experience any moments of self-reflection and/or growth?
I had a moment late in the race where I absolutely mentally broke down. I was overheating, exhausted, and the hills were so steep I couldn’t ride up them. My mind started to repeat on an infinite loop “I don’t think I can do this” and I had a panic attack. James and Aaron helped me through that moment spiritually and when I recovered a bit James said to me “I can push your bike, and I can carry your pack, but I can’t change your thoughts, you have to do that” It was the first time somebody knew the negative junk I was saying in my own head, called me out, and tasked me to change my thoughts. I knew I had to find a way to think differently, for my team, and for myself. What I came up with was “Your core body temp is fine” and I repeated that in my head until I was charging up the hills with a smile on my face. I’m really thankful for that life lesson.
What was re-entry into civilization like, both after the finish line in Fiji and back in your home country?
Frightening! Every time I went to sleep my mind thought I was still racing for about 10 days after the race. I would have these horrible nightmares where I thought my family was in the race with me and I was lost. I would say things like “everybody just follow the green light” and the green light was the light on the TV in our hotel room. I woke up my husband on many occasions whimpering or tossing and turning trying to stay found on the race course in my dreams.
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 think the boys really showed the world how much fun you can have in a race like Eco-Challenge even if you don’t come in with a ton of experience. Fun is a mindset, a lifestyle, and a tactic for staying mentally tough. They taught me a lot about that. I hope to inspire other women and girls, and to show them that they can learn to navigate by map and compass. We don’t often teach girls how to use a map and compass but being the navigator for our team pushed me in my communication and leadership skills and opened doors for me in terms of self reliance and access to adventure.
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.