World’s Toughest Race – Eco Challenge Fiji
Would you take on the World’s Toughest Race – again?
Eco-Challenge – the bed rock of Adventure Racing
Even as a child I didn’t watch much TV. I’ve always preferred to spend my time outside looking for adventures and my Mam had a hard time getting me into the house in the evenings. When I was first asked to join a team to compete in the Amazon Prime ‘World’s Toughest – Race Eco Challenge Fiji‘, I had to do some research.
In the last years I gathered experience in Adventure Races all over the world, but I had no idea that this 90s TV show kicked off “Adventure Racing” as a sport and the phenomenon of “Survival” reality TV shows.
I hesitated for a moment. I consider myself an endurance athlete with a passion for exploring. Participating in a multi-day adventure race is all about exploring the unknown. Places you’d never see otherwise, bonding with people by sharing extreme experiences and pushing your own limits. A race is a time I can be away from all the craziness in our world and reconnect with myself, nature and the simple things in life…
Does my mindset fit into a TV-format trying to produce good entertainment for an audience?
In the end it didn’t take long and I had convinced myself that there is no way I’ll miss out on taking on the World’s Toughest Race, the bedrock of Adventure Racing especially since this Eco Challenge would take me literally to the other end of the World. My mind was set – I want to explore Fiji!
Challenge 1 – Getting into the World’s Toughest Race
This decision was quickly followed by the desire to put together an Irish Team. I’ve joined teams from other countries before and loved it. But for this Challenge I wanted to race under the Irish flag.
There it was. My first big challenge on the way to Fiji. It’s common adventure racing wisdom to say: “The most difficult part is getting your team to the starting line”
I couldn’t agree more. First, it was a massive challenge itself to get an entry ticket to The World’s Toughest Race. As soon as I had decided I wanted to enter an Irish Team into the Eco-Challenge I knew it wouldn’t be an easy mission. Ireland’s adventure racing community isn’t huge and a race like the Eco Challenge is a massive time commitment. The rule was that each team of 4 is only allowed one member of a different nationality than the others, as well as including at least one male and one female. Additionally, every team had to bring one person as their own Team Assistant Crew (TAC) and, at this point, it was completely unclear what this person’s job description would be.
At least I ticked the box for the female 😉 so I only had to find a jack of all traits to become our multifunctional one-person crew and 3 more crazy adventurers, preferably two of them strong navigators, and at least one of them with a male gender identity.
The first person I contacted was Ivan Park. He had raced himself before and with his massive experience in organising adventure races I was delighted that he committed to support the team in Fiji.
Ivan had heard that Robbie Heffernan was on the lookout for an adventure. We had crossed paths over the years, and he seemed like a great all-rounder to have on the team.
Noel, now based in South Africa, had competed under the Irish flag in the Fiji Eco-Challenge in the 90s and was eager to go back to the 2019 version of the World’s Toughest Race. We were still missing one team member and the registration was about to close. Our only choice was to send the registration in with a ‘wildcard’-member. A friend was willing to fill in for the application and we would try to find a committed teammate once we got accepted.
It worked! Team Ireland had an entry ticket – but there was a lot to do before we finally got on the plane to Fiji!
Challenge 2 – Getting to Fiji
In only a few months all team members had to up their training, get certified in different disciplines like white water rafting and rock-climbing and we had to figure out how to get ourselves and all our gear to the other side of the world.
Somewhere in the middle of all the planning madness we now had to find not only one but 2 additional team members since Noel had to pull out due to work and personal commitments.
An event like the Eco-Challenge is a massive commitment. Besides the 3 to 4 weeks we had to spend in Fiji, race preparation was taking over our life’s. Researching and testing gear, figuring out the best kit, learning and practicing new skills and of course upping the general fitness level is crucial to be prepared for an expedition style event. You must be prepared for everything and most of all be prepared to be surprised.
Touching base with lots of buddies in the Adventure Racing community, my friend Chipp, who I met at a race in Belize, linked me up with Mark Lattanzi from the US. Mark is one of the most experienced Adventure Racers in the scene and a renowned navigator – he was exactly the person we needed on the team and we were delighted when he said he would join Team Ireland AR.
Now still one Irish team member short the situation began to make me nervous. I wanted to do this race; we had an entry ticket but will we find another athlete in Ireland who is willing to take on the World’s Toughest Race.
I had already expanded my search pattern a little outside the Adventure Racing community when I got in touch with Jason. He is known in Ireland as endurance cyclist and climbed summits like Everest and K2. There was no doubt that Jason is a serious athlete, but he didn’t have any Adventure Racing experience. I was curious to see if his endurance sport skills translate into the Adventure Racing world, he was up for the challenge and our team was finally complete.
Months of planning, training and organising later Rob, Jason, Ivan and I boarded a plane from Dublin to LA. We met and collected our teammate Mark and boarded the plane to Fiji.
Challenge 3 – Getting to the start
Adventure racing is about complete self-sufficiency. What you don’t pack you won’t have, and that rule applies down to little details like electrolytes and bum rash cream. The race organisation supplies you with a list of mandatory and recommended gear. For the Eco-Challenge the list was more like a book – and that’s only the basics. On top of that you have to figure out what you and your team will personally need during the race. Your bike needs to be stored in a box of a certain size so it can be transported on a truck.
We knew that we would hit 4 camps during the race where we will have access to a supply boxes, but we didn’t know what the race course would look like around the box. The only thing the race organisation would supply in the 4 camps throughout the racecourse was water – everything else we needed we had to carry from the start or put it into our supply box.
Having Ivan as our TAC was a huge help. His job description was to organise everything around the 4 camps. Pitch our tents, restock our food supplies, help with the bikes and make sure we make it out of the camp as well prepared for the next leg as possible.
Arriving in Fiji we were greeted by the race organisation team at the airport and transferred to the hotel. A very luxurious service compared to my usual travel style. All competitors stayed in a 5* resort – again a very different level of accommodation than I would usually pick but preparing for a 10 day expedition without a bed, a bathroom or even much sleep I found it adequate:)
We had 4 days before the race start and our schedule was filled with checks for mandatory gear and skill tests. The race organisation really wanted to make sure we were as safe as possible, and we had to show them that we were actually able to climb up vertical walls on ropes and ascenders. This gave us a bit of a taste of the challenges to come and I felt pumped. I just couldn’t wait to finally start and felt done waiting around after all those months of preparation.
I had a few very nice and comfortable ideas on how to spend the last night before the race start until we found out we would have to pitch our tents close to the starting line. Ivan , like all the other TACs, had rented a 4×4 car and drove us a few hours away from our hotel. Gear boxes marked with 28, our team number, were waiting on a sports field belonging to a Fijian school.
The race organisation and the villagers had put together an opening ceremony followed by a huge and delicious buffet dinner. It all felt more like a summer festival with lots of amazing people camping together. Around 10 o’clock, when the big spots flooding light over the field went out, I began to realise that race day was close. I told myself: Rachel you better get some sleep, it might be the last in a while.
The World’s Toughest Race – Eco Challenge Fiji
You don’t need an alarm clock in Fiji, the roosters are going to handle that for you.
I was ready to go way ahead of time. We were told to bring our paddles and life jackets to the start of the race so we assumed the first day might include water, but maybe we would have to trek for hours carrying the additional weight of our water gear. We all just wanted to go, finally start what we have been waiting for so long. All 66 teams marched together out of the camp area down a dirt road. This was still not a part of the race, but some teams almost started running. I could feel the tension and excitement of 264 athletes loading up the cool morning air – all these people having the same thought. Bring it on! We are ready!
We were led into a circle of flag poles with a huge covered board in the centre and shortly after a helicopter landed close by and Bear Grills ran up onto the little platform. He stripped the cover to reveal the map of the racecourse for the first time. I could hardly hear the rest of his speech. All I could focus on was running out of this flagged circle and starting the race, but we still didn’t have a detailed map or instructions.
Finally, all the teams followed Bear out of the circle to the actual starting line of the race.
The Ocean Medallion
Camakau paddling/sailing – river & ocean
When I first saw the 66 camakaus lined up in the river I felt relived. The Eco-Challenge was finally about to start. From my previous experiences in Adventure Racing this meant the difficult part – getting to the starting line – was over and I could start enjoying this epic adventure.
In this boat build after the Fijian tradition we would start the race by paddling down the river. I’ve spent a lot of time in kayaks before, but this type of boat was different to what we would be used to. We got lucky drawing the starting position 2 out of the hat beforehand. When we heard the sound of the Fijian seashell trumpets, indication the start of the World’s Toughest Race, we managed to start paddling down the river without getting caught up in a little mess after one of the camakau capsized. Luck wasn’t with us for long as we capsized ourselves, at least away from cameras, only minutes later and a few meters down the river. Guess we needed a little cool down. Hit by the camakau Mark got a nasty cut on his head that left blood over his face and top. Other teams passing by gave us worried looks. I’m not sure if they were worried about us or because they started to realise what lies ahead of them.
We managed to paddle our way down the river and were really looking forward to putting up the sail. Our camakau-captain Mark had designed a wood plank construction that should help us steering once we set sail. We gave it a try but unfortunately there was absolutely 0 wind! The only way to move forward was to keep paddling, all the way, all 35km to the next island.
It took us several hours to collect CP1 and we reached the beach of Ovalau Island and CP2 in the afternoon to set off for a 20km jungle trek loop around the island.
Jungle trek on Ovalau Island
We had to collect CP3 and CP4 on the way and then return to our camakau. I felt really good to have solid ground under my feet. Foot and bike sections are my stronger disciplines and I was confident that we would make good progress on this leg. During this first trekking section on Ovalau I had to first realise that taking on the World’s Toughest Race with a Team of individuals that don’t really know each other will be more challenging that expected.
We hiked up to a little hilltop and started to jog down the other way when Jason told us he isn’t a runner and he won’t be able to keep this up for long. This was the moment when it first struck me. Jason is an incredibly strong endurance athlete, but this is his adventure racing debut and long-distance running isn’t usually on his training schedule. That’s when I started to realise that his strong skills in climbing and cycling might not necessarily be enough to translate into becoming a strong adventure racing athlete. Ideally we shouldn’t have started the race with so little knowledge about each other but we were here and in this together.
Mark, the most experienced member and navigator of our team, is confident and fast on foot. Robbie and I also feel more comfortable at a run/shuffle than walking pace, but a team can only move as fast as all the members feel comfortable with. There was no point in trying to push into a pace that we couldn’t all hold for maybe up to 11 days.
Camakau paddling/sailing – ocean
When we arrived back to CP5 at our camakau the sun had set, and we had to find the location of the first medallion in the dark. Mark’s ocean navigation skills got us to CP6, and he also managed to dive down and retrieve the first medallion. Even if this felt like a small victory it also gave us a sense of how much more there was to come, and we knew that difficult challenges were still ahead of us.
Starting with some night ocean navigation to find CP7 back on the main island Viti Levu. There was still not enough wind to use the sail, so we had to paddle through the night. A few group sing songs and trying to work out some of Mark’s riddles kept us somewhat focused and entertained.
SUP – River
It was still dark when we arrived to CP7 and switched over from the camakau to stand up paddle boards. At this point we started to feel tired, but we were eager to push on. This was probably the first of many moments where a little bit of rest could have helped us move more efficiently. In the dark it was difficult to find the right river arm to paddle up and the tide was going out, so it was hard to move upriver. After struggling at the start we managed to find the right way. A new day had broken, we had our first sleepless night and about 100km of the racecourse behind us. The sleep deprivation started to cause the first few hilarious moments like Jason falling asleep standing on the SUP and falling into the river with a big splash – twice. The only other thing that I remember about this SUP section is that it felt brutally looooong. 30km up the river is quite some time to spend on the SUP and I felt relieved and excited when we finally reach CP8 in Sote village.
I couldn’t wait to hop onto my mountain bike and out of my wet clothes. In the brightness of the day we felt newly energised and set out to complete the 56 km hilly mountain bike leg without resting for long even though we hadn’t stopped for over 24 hours.
After we had spent the first day out on the open ocean under the scorching sun, dark clouds were emerging above us. The whole team seemed to feel good and we made progress. The hills were steep to climb up, the heat and humidity were tough, but I loved the cooling wind on the downhills. We expected it would be raining soon but as we are the Irish team a little downpour didn’t frighten us too much. Around the middle of the day the sky opened. A proper tropical storm had hit the island and, as we learned later, became an issue for teams that were still out on the ocean in their camakaus. Being further inland on the bike we didn’t feel there would be an issue even though crossing rivers with the bikes on our backs got more difficult due to rising water levels and the sun was setting.
The race break
It was dark when we arrived at CP9 and the checkpoint crew informed us that the race was stopped. I was furious. My exhausted and tired brain had insanely translated that piece of information to “The race is over” and I couldn’t believe it. All the months of training and preparation and now the race gets cancelled due to bad weather?? I didn’t know what to say or what to do with my anger. It took a little bit until my brain was able to listen to and process what was really going on. Due to the bad weather condition & the darkness of the night the whole racecourse had been ‘dark zoned’. Dark zones are a very common thing in Adventure Racing. Usually there are certain very difficult or dangerous sections that can only be raced during daylight and can be a real game changer depending on what time you get to start them. In this case every team got stopped at the next CP or camp. If you were lucky, just after a CP and on passable terrain your team could push on while others are on a forced break.
We got dark zoned at a CP semi-ideally equipped for a longer rest. We were soaking wet, it was cold and camp 1, with our snuggly warm sleeping bags, was just a few hours away. We had hoped to make it to the camp in the late hours of this day 2 to catch some sleep during the night before pushing on in the morning. Now we were shivering, without food and at the end of our water supplies stuck in a little tarp shelter with the other teams, unsuccessfully trying to rest .
A few hours later more and more teams had arrived at the CP and the race organisation decided to let everyone cycle on to camp 1, declaring only the Waiga Canyon a dark zone. Those who have seen Team Estonia Ace’s experience in the canyon will understand that decision. Due to the heavy rain falls the water level in the canyon had risen to a dangerous level. Some lead team had made it out of the canyon before the rain but Team Estonia Ace, the last team to be allowed to leave camp 1 before the dark zone, got stuck for hours over night.
The Jungle Medallion
Our team made it to camp 1 / CP10, Naivucini village, in the very early morning hours of day 3. We knew the race course was going to open as soon as the day breaks and we were desperate for some food and rest. It took me a while to get rid of the traces of some 40 hours of beating my body through the salty ocean, endless rivers and muddy paths. By the time I was dry, clean, fed and lying in bed I couldn’t stop my mind from thinking about what was next to come. I maybe managed to sleep for an hour but at least I rested the body and aired the feet out for a little bit.
Trek – canyon & jungle
Early morning the next day we packed our gear. Arriving into camp 1 we had gotten the maps for the “jungle” leg ahead of us. Mark was studying the map to figure out the best way to get us out of the canyon and through the jungle.
As the racecourse opened, we left camp 1 in the middle of a lot of other teams, but the big group soon stretched out over the whole canyon. The water level was still high. What probably had been an easy walk in knee-deep water for the lead teams passing through here before the rain was a half swimming, half pulling myself along slippery rocks kind of stunt for me now. The canyon was amazingly beautiful, nevertheless, it was just so huge and dramatic and I think one of the highlight sections for Team Ireland AR. We managed to find CP11 ok but struggled a bit to find the right path through the jungle to CP12 and ended up taking the steep route using our machetes to get through.
Bilibili rafts – river
At CP12, the start of the bilibili river section, we were awaited by the friendly villager of Navuniyasi. The lead teams had paid them to help building their bilibili raft and they also helped us out and all the teams that followed. Our top inventor Mark designed canoe style paddles out of the bamboo sticks to increase paddling power. We had to split up in duos and headed out on the traditional raft down the river. Unfortunately, Jason’s paddle would fall apart every few minutes and we couldn’t really make these rafts go at a decent pace. I had teamed up with Mark on the bilibili and 45km of drifting down the river, trying to paddle with a bamboo stick, gave us a lot of time to share our life stories. This is one of the main things I love about adventure racing. It’s an opportunity to really get to know someone. While exploring the unknown, places you’d never see otherwise you can really bond with people by sharing extreme experiences and pushing your own limits together. Sitting on those bilibilis for countless, slow moving hours definitely pushed my patients to new limits. In the end I really enjoyed the time for deep conversations and singsong battles with Mark and the delicious coconuts Fijians passed down from a bridge.
Arriving into CP13 I couldn’t wait to get my bike box, put the thing together and head out to move at a decent pace. Day 3 was coming to an end and we were on the way to camp 2 and were certain we can arrive there before the dawn of day 4. It started pouring rain again and the path was muddy, but we put the 40km cycle behind us arriving into Waivaka village way before the cut off.
The River Medallion
I think Ivan was even surprised to see us arriving into camp 2 / CP14 already. This should have probably given us a hint to take a bit more time to rest but the rain had turned the field we were camping on into a mud party and the sun was about to rise. It’s funny how even though I am exhausted my inner clock makes it difficult to sleep during the day. With only 12 hours of daylight in Fiji all of us felt we should move as long as it is bright. What we didn’t take into consideration is how that had a knock-on effect. We wouldn’t get enough rest and therefore move slower than we had expected and eventually always ended up wanting to push through the night because we didn’t find somewhere suitable for a rest. It’s difficult to stop in the middle of the ocean for a nap or in the jungle when you are low on water and food.
On top of all that we got the maps for the river leg and saw that it included a rafting section that was a dark zone. It can only be started before 4pm. We thought if we head out of Camp 2 before dawn, we can mountain bike the 65 km, collect CP15 and CP16 on the way and complete a short trek to CP 17 the start of the rafting before 4pm on day 4. That would have given us a considerable advantage over teams who need to wait all night before starting the rafting and the plan was to just get some more rest then.
At the time it made perfect sense, but we didn’t expect what the rain had done to the next 65km bike leg.
MTB – hike-a-bike
We were able to cycle for a about half of the leg before the dirt road had turned into one big muddy slope. It was impossible to cycle, and even walking was extremely strenuous. Red clay-like mud was sticking to my bike and myself weighting me down. We had to push our bikes for kilometres slipping through the mud. I had a full suspension 29′ bike which in hindsight was not ideal for me. As it was a small frame, there was very little clearance from the wheel and bike frame which meant the mud just kept getting stuck. I physically struggled to carry the bike up some of the hills and Robbie kindly helped me on more than one occasion. It was an absolute nightmare and the plan to finish the rafting section before the dark zone cut off drifted far away. It ended up being way after dark by the time we reached the end of the bike section. I could hardly recognise my bike with all the red clay mud sticking to it. We carried the bikes down to the river to clean them as best as we could. When I watched the show on Amazon Prime and saw that some teams got to clean their bikes with a high-pressure hose at this checkpoint I almost cried. I actually sold of that very bike shortly after returning from the race. Every time I looked at it, I felt retraumatised and couldn’t stop thinking about being stuck and drowning in red clay mud.
Now at CP16 we only had a short track to the start of the rafting but we knew we couldn’t start rafting before 6am. It was lashing rain and there was no shelter anywhere around. Desperate times call for desperate measures – We ended up crawling into our bike boxes to lie down and rest. I was super jealous of Mark who had brought a piece of foam in his box. A great idea to protect the bike and to make your emergency sleeping quarters more comfortable. I managed to fit into my box quite comfortable and jumped into my foil blanket. Jason did the same but the lads are all over 6 foot tall so pieces of them were hanging out. Robbie’s foil blanket had gotten wet. He still got into it but later realised that this offered a fun playground for bacteria munching on his feet.
I don’t think any of us really slept and we headed towards the rafting long before dawn to reached CP17 just as the rafting section open in the morning.
Luckily the rafting on Navua River wasn’t to technical or difficult and we made it to the end without major trouble and only a few funny ‘shoe-less man overboard’ situations.We collected our jungle leg medallion from the chief of Namuamua Village at CP18 and got ready to head out into the jungle again.
Trek – jungle
For the first few kilometres of this next foot section we were accompanied by Fijians who showed us the way and carried our bags. This might be an unusual option as part of an Adventure Race but it was an amazing opportunity to meet the locals, have a good chat and give back something to the local community. We enjoyed the company and the relief from our bags for a while before our new friends had to turn around to make it back to their village. We also crossed paths with some other teams including the US military, with whom we spent some hours side by side and chatting too, sharing our stories so far. It’s always a highlight to link up with other teams for a bit as it adds another fun element to the journey and breaks it up. Even though Marks navigation took us on a short cut this trek was more than 50km long and very strenuous. We only arrived into camp 3 at CP19 in the morning of day 6.
The Highland Medallion
We had slept next to nothing at this point but again our plan to spend a good night’s rest in a camp didn’t’ work. It was a hot and sunny day in Lutu village, and our tents were pitched on an open field. The only shelter from the sun was a small tarp and we thought we wouldn’t get much sleep now in the middle of the day anyway.
We left camp 3 before noon eager to push on and find our way through the next, supposedly difficult to navigate, section during the day. This next section was my personal favourite, it was a playground of bouldering, jumping from one huge rock to another. Jason was struggling with the balance and so Robbie took on some extra weight off him and added it to his own bag. The goal was to move faster together and to hit the waterfall section before dark. Looking back, this was not the best idea as Robbie’ s feet had started to cause pain and this extra weight was not going to help the situation.
Climbing – waterfall
Again, later than expected we arrived at CP20 in the evening and started the climbing section up Vuwa falls. This section was just epic, so stunning, so dramatic and just an insane challenge. We were tired and ascending a vertical slippery wall is no joke. Once we harnessed ourselves in and got started, that was it, there was no turning back and no time for a real break. We climbed up over 1000 feet. I just kept focusing on positive thoughts and moving one foot at a time. For a lot of this, I could not see or hear anyone, the noise from the waterfall and the vast size left us in isolation to just get on with it. When I arrived at the top, Mark was already there and munching on some snacks. Robbie then arrived up a while after me, he had some difficulty getting tangled in the ropes which must have been terrifying, but he got through it. Jason then arrived; he also had some difficulty with the ascenders. The important thing was that we all made it to the summit to reach CP21 and collect the jungle medallion just as darkness has set in.
Trek / Swim – jungle / pools
Day number 6 of the World’s Toughest Race was coming to an end and I think I have slept maybe 6 hours in total. Adventure racers can handle a lot of sleep deprivation, but we all started to go a little nuts.
Standing at the top of Vuva falls I felt pumped and was excited to continue. Especially because we bumped into a few other teams and I was up for a chat to find out who they are and how they feel. As I mentioned before, this is one of the amazing things about this sport. You meet lots of other amazing athletes from all over the world and it’s not uncommon to join forces with another team for a while.
Team Ireland AR’s sleep monster
Unfortunately, we couldn’t keep up with the others. Our badly planned sleeping schedule started to catch up. The team members were exhausted, the team spirit went offline for a snooze and I think, just for a minute, we had enough. About 140 hours of racing together were behind us. We hadn’t left each other’s side in all that time and the finish line was nowhere close. After hours in the dark in the freezing cold river we stopped. I don’t really remember why but we ended up sitting on rocks at the side of the river. Thanks to my amazing thermo gear I didn’t get as cold as many others but my energy levels were depleted. Even though I knew we had to keep moving I couldn’t make myself make the others move – stagnation.
This is the exciting and challenging part about adventure racing, we have to all move together and do our best to be open about how we are feeling so we can help each other get over the low points. The slower you move, the longer you are on your feet, the tougher it gets so sometimes it is better for everyone to push on a little faster.
I don’t remember for how long we had stopped when we saw lights in the dark walking towards us. Mark joked about it later telling us he thought he saw jungle fairies paying us a visit. Our rescue fairies turned out to be Team Scouts Australia. They saw that something about us wasn’t right and asked if we need help. Mark later told me he wanted to say, ‘No thanks’ but then looked around us and said ‘Yes I think so’. This amazing team took the time to help us pull ourselves together. They put up a tarp to shelter us from the rain and stuck us into our bivy bags. They literally put us to bed for a little nap. Thanks again Team Scouts Australia!
After a little rest we continued and found CP22 not to long after. A bag with dry clothes was waiting for us here and the medics briefly checked us to declare us ready to head on. Apparently a good few teams struggled with hypothermia after swimming through the cold pools, but our biggest problem was our feet. Robbie suffered from severe jungle rot at this point and every step became a challenge. We all got a little break when a car took us about 45min up the road to the beginning to the SUP section.
SUP – lake/creeks
Sitting in the warm car, slowly making our way up the bumpy road, we all enjoyed a little power nap. A soft car seat appeared like absolute luxury compared to what we’ve been through so far. That brief little bit of car comfort left us, once dropped off, feeling more tired and cold. Before heading out onto the next SUP section we were desperate for more rest. We ended up seeking shelter in a small toilet changing room around CP23 and I shared a bivy bag with Robbie to warm up. Thinking back, I find this one of the most hilarious moments of the World’s Toughest Race. Three almost delirious tall lads and myself trying to somehow fit into a tiny Fijian changing room / toilet (I still have no idea why this building was there in the middle of nowhere), all squeezing together like penguins to generate some heat – doing this for fun. I was dreaming about the next, assumingly easy 12km SUP paddle.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the World’s Toughest Race if you wouldn’t be in for a surprise. What looked like a very straight forward section crossing Monasavu lake turned out to be a navigational challenge. There was a lot less water around than shown on the map. It seemed sheer grotesque how we encountered so much excess water the days before and now there was just not enough. We spent a lot of this section dragging our SUPs through fields of knee-deep cow droppings, trying to find the way.
We all felt relieved when we finally found CP24 where we could drop off the SUPs to continue trekking without the extra weight.
The leader-board in each camp was our TAC Ivan’s only information about our team’s progress. It would basically show him the last CP we’ve passed and combined with reports from other teams on how long it took them to get through the stage he could take a guess on how far away we are. Ivan had dinner ready for us on the evening of Day 7 and was sure we’d arrive in before midnight. He couldn’t anticipate we were moving at snail-pace.
The next 50km through the highlands would take us almost a full day. All our feet had suffered from being submerged in water for most of the past week. Trekking through mud and cow shit didn’t make it any better. Robbie’s feet where just one big open wound at this point. It’s unbelievable that he was able to move on at all. I still think back and admire him for breaking through any possible pain threshold he may have had- it was seriously hardcore!
Again, we hadn’t planned to be out between camps for that long and ran out of food. It was in the middle of the night when an amazing local family took us in, and we again experienced the incomparable Fijian hospitality. They served us all kind of regional specialities. I passed out on the concrete floor for a powernap in the middle of eating and I still wonder what all the Fijians we met must think of us and this whole Eco-Challenge circus.
We met locals who still had stickers and merch from the 2002 Eco-Challenge in their houses and they told us stories about the athletes they met all those years ago. This time around they were delighted to meet us, the Irish team, to discuss the Rugby world cup and sing ‘Ireland’s call’. It’s amazing how sport events connect people around the world, in this case Rugby and Adventure Racing.
When I woke up again, I found my teammates we also awake, it was still dark but nevertheless time to get moving. We needed to reach a camp to get some proper rest and treat our scattered feet. This section took a lot longer than planned, I had taken Robbie’s bag to relieve some of the weight from his feet as we were seriously just focusing at moving one step at a time. Every-time Robbie put his foot down, his face clinched, he said it was like walking on fire and crushed glass.
The Island Medallion
When we arrived into camp 4 around lunch time of day 8 Ivan had bad news. The lovely dinner he had cooked for us the night before just got robbed by some village dogs. He was up all night waiting for us, keeping his famous bolognese pasta creation safe from predators. His guard was down for only a split second, but the skilled pack knew when to strike.
We settled into tour little Team Ireland AR camp the middle of Navala village surrounded by traditional Fijian huts. The setting was simply picturesque, the temperatures where moderate even, Ivan did his best to create a substitute dinner and I liked the idea of resting here for a while before setting out for the last leg of the race. We weren’t in a hurry since we made it here more than a day before the official cut off.
In my head the hardest part was over. We had made it up Vuva Falls, survived the freezing cold river and managed to walk on bloody feet over the mountains.
We got the maps for the last leg – the Island Medallion. It would start with a mountain biking section followed by SUP and outrigger paddling. Except for a short trek and an abseiling challenge to retrieve the last medallion we wouldn’t have to walk much, which was an extremely relieving taught particularly for Robbie.
Robbie was in the medic’s tent to get his feet checked out. There isn’t that much you can do to cure tropical ulcer though. You must keep your feet up, let them dry and heal. It just takes time. If you don’t have time to rest for several days to let it heal your only option is to get on with it. Cycling and paddling seemed, compared to hiking through the highland, so much easier.
Eventually we also sent Jason in to see the medics. He had changed from long pants into shorts and we were concerned about his swollen ankles and some small cuts that looked infected.
None of us saw coming what happened next. The medics took Jason’s temperature and he already had a fever. All attempts to lower the fever failed and an hour later we were all called into the medic’s hut. Jason’s condition had gotten considerably worse since he arrived. He was diagnosed with a sepsis and the doctors couldn’t continue his treatment here. Bear Grylls was with us when the medics decided that this is the end for Team Ireland AR in the World’s Toughest Race. Jason’s condition was serious and life threatening, and they decided to airlift him into the next hospital.
What it means to end but not to finish the World’s Toughest Race
Team Ireland AR didn’t get to cross the finish line of the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji.
In a nutshell you could say a microbe is to blame for an unexpected twist in our race story. Jason was helicoptered to the hospital and Ivan drove the rest of us back to the hotel. The finish line was on Mana island and there was no way to even get there to cheer for other teams. The situation felt surreal. One minute we were out there, fighting our way through pain and exhaustion, step by step towards the finish line. The next minute we were back in the real world, missing one of our teammates.
This was probably the toughest challenge I ever encountered in Adventure Racing. To this point I had finished every race I’ve started, without any team member suffering from serious injuries.
This time luck wasn’t on the Irish side. We all had difficulties comprehending what was happening. An adventure race is certainly a journey of self-exploration on multiple levels. These expeditions put me in a state that I cannot reach in other ways – at least not within the usual comforts of our modern world. My body is tested to its limit and I really thrive on pushing my own boundaries. The right state of mind is probably the most crucial component to the game as the body will always follow. A lot of people tell me: “I can’t even imagine doing this”. Adventure racing taught me that I must be able to visualise achieving and be confident in who I am, my abilities and most importantly trust my teammates. The power of knowing that you can do it is the key to success – not only in adventure racing. The flipside to this medallion is that I wasn’t mentally prepared for this scenario since dropping out before the finish line was never even thought about.
We’ve put our bodies and minds through the extreme over the last week and naturally we were exhausted and depleted. Now I additionally felt worried sick about Jason while self-doubt and guilt were rising within me. Was there a way I could have seen sooner that Jason wasn’t alright? Could we have prevented this by managing our rest and sleep better? What did I miss? There must have been something I could have or should have done. I felt like I’ve let myself and my teammates down. Looking back, particularly during this section Jason was wearing a wooly hat and all his clothes while we were in short sleeves, he also kept wanting to stop and sleep. We thought he was just exerted and encouraged him to push on, little did we know what was really behind this story.
An Adventure Race, especially if it’s as long as the World’s Toughest Race, taps into every last resort of physical and mental strength you might have. Everyone needs a few nights of good sleep and lots of rest to get over the after effect. Usually the satisfaction of crossing the finish line helps a lot to get over the post-race-blues. Not only did we miss out on the finish line experience we also had to deal with the seriousness of Jason’s medical condition. This turned into a nightmare and we felt helpless and lost.
Recovery & Return
Now, almost a year after the World’s Toughest Race in Fiji I can only say that I feel eternally grateful that Jason made a full recovery. He’s back in the saddle fighting his way through the world’s toughest endurance events. Our experiences in Fiji have created a bond for life between all of us. I admire Jason for his determination to get over this injury and fight his way back into the world top of endurance racing. While Jason, due to other event plans, won’t be reuniting with Team Ireland AR; I’m excited to announce that we plan on taking on to the World’s Toughest Race again.
Team Ireland AR has put in an application for the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Patagonia 2021.
This time Rory Arnott will join Mark, Robbie and myself. Team Ireland AR has unfinished business with the World’s Toughest Race and, on top of that, Patagonia is a dream expedition-destination for all of us. Fingers crossed we can get one of the few golden tickets and make it to the starting line of the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Patagonia.