Eco Challenge: The highs and lows of the world’s toughest adventure race
© Worlds Toughest Race
Last September, an Irish team took on Eco Challenge, a 10-day non-stop adventure race across the toughest terrain that Fiji has to offer.
Originally the brainchild of Survivor creator Mark Burnett back in 1992 it has since earned its reputation as the most ruthless adventure race on the planet. After a seven-year hiatus, the race returned, this time hosted by Bear Grylls and the subject of a 10-part series on Amazon Prime.
The show documents 66 teams of four as they race non-stop for 24 hours per day for up to 10 consecutive days across hundreds of kilometres of rugged backcountry terrain complete with mountains, jungles, and oceans in a bid to reach the finish line first. All of the navigation is done with just a map and compass and the disciplines include hiking, swimming, kayaking, stand up paddleboarding, whitewater rafting, biking, climbing and deep-sea diving. Rest is almost non-existent with competitors sleeping little more than an hour per day.
We caught up with badass adventurer Rachel Nolan who was on the Irish team, to find out a little bit more about what a race like this involves.
Adventure Racing is all about exploring the unknown
You see places you’d never see otherwise, bonding with people by sharing extreme experiences and pushing your own limits. A race is a time you can be away from all the craziness in our world and reconnect with yourself, nature and the simple things in life.
The most difficult part of an adventure race is getting your team to the starting line
It was a massive challenge just to get an entry ticket to the race. Then we had to set about getting a load of qualifications such as a wilderness first aid cert, whitewater certs and more. And it turned out we needed all those skills to make it through Eco Challenge in one piece. As soon as I had decided I wanted to enter the Eco-Challenge I knew it wouldn’t be easy but I knew I could!
You need to know your teammates inside out
If you’re able to tell what’s up by just looking into your mates’ eyes, you have a serious advantage. If you can tell your teammates what bothers you, maybe even about them, without hard feelings, you are more likely to succeed. I ended up putting together four strong individuals that were up for taking on the challenge but I feel like I failed to make us a team and this was a huge challenge for us.
Fiji is unpredictable and wild
Our mandatory kit list included a machete and this became a useful tool. We had to wade through knee-deep mud and puddles while whacking our way through the thickest jungle on the lookout for the next checkpoint. At times we had to follow a river for hours, we swam kilometres carrying all our gear, scrambling up and down rocks. We never knew what was coming next.
If you have a weak stomach don’t Google jungle rot
Tropical ulcer more commonly known as jungle rot was a serious problem for competitors including my teammate, Robbie. Days of plodding through the jungle and walking in rivers meant that some people’s feet were eaten alive by bacteria. I really took care of my feet so luckily I didn’t get it too bad.
There was a new challenge around every corner
The race organisers went out of their way to throw additional challenges at us. We had to collect checkpoints hidden anywhere from the bottom of the sea to thrilling heights. In the end what challenged us the most wasn’t a part of the racecourse but a teammate suffering from a serious medical condition. It showed us how fast a race, a challenge, a game, can become bloody serious.
From the start we moved slower than expected
The stages looked ok on paper but in reality, they were brutal. At one point we had a 70km bike section which we thought would be a good chance to re-charge the batteries. We were moving well at about 20km per hour when all of a sudden the heavens opened. It was monsoon conditions and the ground beneath us turned into a red clay that was like cement. We were moving at snail’s pace, slipping all over the place, having to carry our bikes on our backs. The hills were endless, I struggled with the weight of carrying the bikes now loaded with clay and I needed the help of my teammates more than once to pull me out of a mud hole. That section ended up taking us 24 hours and we were absolutely beaten by the end of it.
While we encountered excess water in some stages, the lack of water became an issue in others
During an extremely long SUP section, we ended up walking several kilometres ankle-deep in cow droppings carrying our SUPs overhead or dragging it behind. The lake was partially dried out and looked nothing like our maps which made navigation an additional challenge.
The sleep monsters during Eco Challenge were hilarious
We only slept around 10 hours in total over six days which was a slight tactical disaster. It led to a few hilarious moments like Jason falling asleep standing on the SUP and falling into the river with a big splash – twice. Mark was confusing another team's headlights for jungle fairies. During the night of day four, we encountered a more serious consequence of sleep deprivation.
After a particularly strenuous section, all our energy levels dipped at the same time and the whole team had an almost catastrophic episode. Exhausted, tired and mentally drained we had simply stopped moving and were sitting on rocks without a plan on what to do next. Luckily another team found us and realised that we needed help. They pulled us together, pitched up a tarp to shelter us from the rain and stuck us into emergency sleeping bags to warm us up. They basically put us to bed for a nap which was exactly what we needed. Without them, we could have been in serious trouble.
During a race I reach a mental state where I don’t feel fear in the same way as usual
I can suddenly jump off a cliff into the sea without thinking about it twice. There were moments in the Eco-Challenge when I took a breath and asked myself “Is this worrying?”. I was climbing up Vuwa Falls, a vertical climb of over 1000 feet. It was the middle of the night and my headlight went out. I climbed for another hour in the pitch black. I couldn’t see my teammates, the safety crew or hear anyone. There was just darkness. It made me wonder, even considering all the safety measurements put in place by the race organisation, how safe can these challenges really be and should I worry more. But then I decided shitting it while wearing a harness attached to a rope at some unknown height really isn’t an option.
I feel like I have unfinished business with Eco Challenge
It’s an experience of a lifetime and I reckon knowing what I know now about the race we can go back a lot stronger next year.
Eco Challenge is available to watch on Amazon Prime from 14 August