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 Heather Flebbe and I am the Team Captain of Team SuperFighters (#62). I am a Professor of Exercise Physiology at Cal State University, Los Angeles as well as the proud owner of my gym, Kaia Fit Santa Clarita. 4 of our team members call Santa Clarita, CA our home. Our TAC, Danny Trudeau, is lucky enough to live in the mountains of Pine Mountain (Frazier Park area), CA. Cary Flebbe, my husband, is an LA County Fire Fighter and Cancer Survivor. Sean Martin, Cary’s best friend of 25 years, is a Ventura County Deputy and Cancer Survivor. Michael Nicolaides, AKA “Nico”, is an LA County Fire Fighter and former professional cyclist.
What was your adventure racing experience prior to Eco-Challenge: Fiji? Have you participated in previous Eco-Challenges or other adventure races?
I, Heather, was a former member of Team Revo. We competed professionally in the Hi-Tec and Balance Bar Sprint and 24 Hour Adventure race series across the United States. I raced with Team Revo from 2003 - 2006. I always dreamed of competing in the Eco-Challenge but the series ended before I had the chance. It was a dream come true to be selected to race in its return to Fiji! Cary and Sean had raced in previous local adventure races together. This was our first adventure race together as a team. I knew well the demands of being the only female on a team with 3 incredibly fit men. I knew the challenges ahead of me, but I absolutely love being stretched and challenged and molded, no matter how stressful at the time. Our team spent every moment preparing for the extreme demands of this race. We sacrificed a lot to make sure we were ready to endure. With all of us having full-time jobs, this was very demanding but we knew this experience would be unforgettable and one so many people would never imagine taking on.
How did your team come together, and how did you train for Eco-Challenge: Fiji?
My friend Renee forwarded me the email about the return of Eco-Challenge, the World’s Toughest Race. I did not hesitate and knew immediately that I MUST be a part of this. I immediately told my husband Cary that we will get a team together and we will do this. Of course, he had his hesitations after only finishing his cancer treatments one year ago and now living with only half of his right lung. I was not going to give up on this dream. We had very limited time to get a team together and make a video to submit. But how do you find 4 people crazy enough to race for 12 days straight through the jungles and rivers and mountains and all the unexpected adventures? And..., we had to find someone that wanted to take 3 weeks out of their life to just come attend to all of our needs as the Team Assistant Crew (TAC)! We called and texted and coerced and pleaded. We had me, Cary, and Nico but we could not find a 4th racer. We had 1 night left to submit our video and we were starting to lose hope. We called Sean in the middle of his dinner with his wife and begged him to come over to just be in our video. We told him we could replace him if he didn’t want to do it, just be in our video so we could submit. See, Sean also had his hesitations. As a cancer survivor as well, he had lost a lot of function of his tongue. He was worried he would be able to eat and drink enough throughout the 12 days to sustain his energy to race. But how incredible would it be if these two best friends and both cancer survivors could cross that finish line together after all they have been through? We submitted a crazy video and our hope grew with this team we had pulled together. We started envisioning us actually winning this race. Well, I envisioned winning. See, I like to believe the impossible is always possible. My teammates kept urging me to believe that just finishing an extreme challenge like Eco-Challenge was a huge accomplishment.
I still remember the moment that we got the call that we were chosen. It was around 9pm at night. I was getting ready for bed. Cary was at work at his station. I almost didn’t answer because I didn’t recognize the number. I’m so glad I did! My heart stopped when I heard the words, “Your team has been chosen to compete!" I ran through the house waking my 12 year old daughter up and busting into my 19 year old son's room to cheer! I called Cary and shouted the news to him. He didn’t believe me! It took him a few days to actually believe it. I quickly told our other 2 teammates, “You better start training because this is for real!"
We trained as a team, on our own, with our friends and co-workers, every second that we had. Long mountain bike rides, long nighttime trekking, hours of paddling in the oceans and lakes nearby, a whitewater rafting trip, many days of rock climbing to get me and Nico over our fear of heights, orienteering/navigation events and coaching, meeting competitive outrigger teams to train us, training in the blistering heat of Santa Clarita, traveling for weekend training “camps.” We committed to doing whatever it would take to be the best we could be and the most prepared we could be. My daughter heard a lot of, “I’m sorry. I have to go train.” She was so understanding and patient. My son stepped up to help out with her any time we needed. All of our friends and family were there to help out with anything we needed and cheered us on every step of the way. We are so lucky to have such an amazing network of friends and family. Their support and confidence in us meant everything and truly fueled us to give it our all. Almost a year of our lives was committed to training for this race. We found as many experts as we could and we are so grateful to each one of them and the time they gave to teach us. We lived, slept, ate, and breathed adventure racing.
What were you most looking forward to at Eco-Challenge: Fiji, and what scared you the most?
As a team, our strongest event is mountain biking. We were looking forward to experiencing the exciting trails of Fiji and utilizing our strength during these legs of the race. We thought we knew what to expect. As we learned every step of the way during the World’s Toughest Race, you never know what to expect! Imagine the hardest thing and somehow, Eco-Challenge: Fiji was able to make it even harder!
Each member of our team would have a different answer for what they were most scared of. Cary, as our lead navigator, was most nervous about getting us lost. He had a lot of anxiety about this responsibility. He was also scared that his limited lung capacity would hold the team back. Sean was scared that he would have the time he needed to eat and drink the necessary fuel and hydration he would need. With the effects of cancer still dramatically impacting his life, it takes him longer to eat and he requires a lot of water with his food. Nico and I were most scared about how high we would really have to go when rock climbing. We watched the videos of the previous Eco-Challenge races and those climbing scenes made our hearts miss a beat.
What was your favorite piece of gear and/or clothing and/or food?
Our team agrees that our Black Diamond Rain Shell was critical in our survival. I think we wore that rain shell for at least half of the race. It was lightweight, rolled up to a small ball, the perfect amount of warmth, and kept us very dry. We had planned to sleep in our hammocks and maybe sleeping bags but it turned out our bivy sacks were the perfect lightweight sleep sack that kept us so warm we were almost sweating. A good headlamp in the dark was crucial to keeping us safe as we trekked, biked, and paddled at night. We chose the Black Diamond Storm.
Our Ibis DV9 hardtail mountain bikes helped us rip through the bike legs.
My favorite food was Fig Newtons. After endless bars, chews, and nuts, the Fig Newton felt like sweet heaven. I had a small bag of skittles that I rationed throughout the race. They really perked me up right when I needed it.
Describe a favorite moment of Eco-Challenge: Fiji, or one where you suffered the most.
Our favorite moments of the race was anytime we would pass through a Fijian village. No matter what team you were, or what place you were in, the entire village would erupt in applause and cheers and shouts, always asking, “what team?” We would say U.S.A. and they would shout back “USA, USA, USA!” They would run up to fences, or out from their homes onto the path, many times offering food, fresh coconut, or a place to sleep. They were truly excited to see these insane racers coming through their village. They invigorated our team every time. We were offered homemade donuts, cake, pancakes, fresh squeezed juice, coconut and even pizza! PIZZA! My favorite food! Made my day.
A special moment for me was the day then turned into night that we chose to ride horseback up a long climb into the pitch black. I have a little anxiety about horses because I used to own horses growing up and I had been thrown many times in my life. To this day, their power and strength makes me a little phobic. Sean really wanted us each to have a horse. I quietly whispered to Cary that I didn’t think I could get on a horse. I was really afraid. Because of this, a Fijian man named Kali offered to ride horseback with me. He lead the horse and I wrapped my arms around his waist. Kali proceeded to tell me all about his life and how he fell in love with one of the female racers from New Zealand. He serenaded me up the mountain with his beautiful singing voice. It was such a special moment to just listen and understand what was important to him and what he and his daughter needed. It took my mind off my weary, tired, broken body. We even galloped up the hill, flying past my teammates. I was so happy to have been forced to get "back in the saddle" again. It was one night that our team felt lighthearted and joyful and carefree. Cary and I and my kids would later go back and visit Kali after the race. He wanted my headlamp so bad. I had to go give it to him.
A moment of suffering? We suffered a lot! From Heather having a fever of 101.3 early in the race, to Nico battling heat exhaustion, to Cary getting an infection in his leg, and later Nico getting a bad infection but not telling the rest of the team, to jungle rot on Heather and Cary’s feet, suffering was the name of the game! We suffered and never gave up!
After Eco-Challenge: Fiji, would you do another adventure race? Would you do the Eco-Challenge again?
We would MOST DEFINITELY do the Eco-Challenge again!! It was a life-changing experience that will stick with us forever. You cannot get this kind of learning experience anywhere else. We learned so much about adventure racing, efficiency, teamwork, ourselves as individuals, the right gear to carry, how to adapt, and especially, how to persevere. How can we not use what we learned to come back even stronger and better?!
What internal struggles did you experience during Eco-Challenge: Fiji? Did you experience any moments of self-reflection and/or growth?
As the female on the team, there was a lot of pressure for me to be tough, don’t cry, keep up, be strong, take care of myself, don’t get emotional, and maybe I put that pressure on myself. My teammates never said those words to me and they definitely offered much assistance. My teammates also believed I was fully capable and strong enough to take care of myself. I am a perfectionist and never satisfied so internally I struggled with how I was doing. I wanted to be tough and strong and not cry and represent women well. But man, that race was hard! I didn’t want to let it defeat me. Sometimes, I felt defeated and weak and disheartened. Sometimes, I felt like superwoman and in complete awe that we were in the World’s Toughest Race! I told you that I totally believed we could win this race. I didn’t want to be the one responsible for holding us back. It was a lot of pressure I put on myself.
The entire race was all about self-reflection and growth. All you had was time to reflect as you trod along for hours and days through the jungles and mountains. I spent many an hour reflecting on how the people of Fiji were transforming my soul. The people of Fiji seem to have found the magical answer to true happiness. I saw them give so selflessly and without hesitation, time after time, with such consistency. They were happy because they just give. It was as simple as that, give. Give when called upon to give. They don’t think about all the other things they have to do, or all the other ways they could spend their time. They just give. They welcomed strangers into their homes and villages and all they wanted to do was share with us. As I witnessed this key value embedded in their culture, I hoped I could bring this back with me. I hoped I could spread this same joy and kindness throughout the United States. I’m still working on it! But I will never forget the lessons they taught me.
I know that Cary would tell you that the Eco-Challenge: Fiji was the hardest race he has ever done. As the lead navigator, he struggled with the pressure to lead us the right way. It was a lot of weight for him to bear to have us completely reliant on him the entire race. He really never got to rest or zone out. His mind was always going, always finding the path. It was extremely exhausting for him. Even when we would come into camp, he couldn’t rest and prepare his gear like the rest of us could. He had to eat quickly and sit down with the maps to mark out our next course. Danny, our TAC, would sit with him and help but Cary still always felt like he didn’t have enough time for himself at the camp. With only half a lung coming into this race, Cary also struggled with the fear that he wouldn’t be able to breathe, or keep up, or have the stamina he used to. This was a big worry for him throughout the whole race. These doubts about his capabilities are a big reason why I wanted us to enter this race. I hoped as Sean and Cary saw what they could overcome after defeating cancer that any doubts about their athletic potential would be wiped clear from their minds. I hoped they would complete this seemingly impossible adventure and gain the confidence back they had so proudly boasted about before their adventure with cancer.
FROM SEAN: “For me, the internal struggle or challenge was keeping something positive in mind to keep the motivation going to keep moving forward. My self-reflection of my lowest lows in my cancer struggle to realizing that we were on our way to finishing Eco-Challenge: Fiji. I am till reflecting and still growing from the experience."
What was re-entry into civilization like, both after the finish line in Fiji and back in your home country?
After the race was over, our team was in a bit of a shell shock for a while. We went through a lot! We didn’t speak very much for the first 24 hours. That could have been from extreme exhaustion. Sleep was of utmost importance. After spending so many days together, we definitely needed our own space to reflect on what we just went through. After some rest and recovery, we were able to start reliving it again with each other, like we almost couldn’t believe what had just happened. We all experienced many nights of night sweats and very vivid dreams. We ate A LOT! Cary and I were still limping from the jungle rot on our feet. Nico was nursing a bad infection. Sean spent a few scary nights in the hospital with major stomach issues. Our adventure was definitely not over!
Our team spent 5 weeks in Fiji! We arrived early to acclimate ourselves to Fiji then, our families joined us for an additional 10 days after the race. We really soaked up the Fiji culture. Fiji has such an incredibly positive vibe, it was very hard to leave. Arriving back in the USA was exhilarating because we had been away from our friends and family for so long. We wanted to share our experience with everyone we knew! Hours and hours of stories we had to tell. Coming back to the hustle and bustle and demands of the modern world was a little sad after seeing the simple happiness of the Fijian people.
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?
Our hope was always that people watching our team would see that ANYONE can overcome any obstacle in their way. Everyone has the power within them to conquer any mountain they are confronted with. Life truly is an adventure race. Enduring is a mindset that believes in the impossible. Cary and Sean triumphed over cancer and did not allow their limitations to stop them. They raced to prove they can still overcome the World’s Toughest Race. Cancer will not defeat you. It may change you, but you will find that you have gained a superpower from the battle.
We hoped to inspire all those battling cancer or living with the aftermath of cancer to keep moving forward and look forward to more adventures.
We also hoped to get the message out to men about the importance of going in for their regular health screenings. Men tend to avoid doctors, even if they think they have a serious health problem. Had Cary gone in for his lingering cough or a regular health screening, he may have caught the tumor in his lung before it was so large his lung had to be removed. Putting off seeing the doctor can lead to more serious health issues.
I hope our mission was accomplished but I guess we will have to wait and see the show!
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.