Show of Force: The Return of Eco-Challenge
© Krystle Wright/Amazon
After a 16-year hiatus, the original gonzo reality show, Eco-Challenge, is back. This is the story of the crazy adventure behind the crazy adventure race.
Published on The Red Bulletin
It was at the top of a daylong climb up a massive waterfall in Fiji that Kevin Hodder felt the first twinges of doubt about what they were getting themselves into. It was March 2019 and Hodder was already more than a month into a backcountry scouting expedition, trying to piece together a course for World's Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, the freshly rebooted reality TV show built around a supersized adventure race. That afternoon, race director Hodder, race technical director Scott Flavelle and two others had fixed ropes and scaled more than 650 feet up the side of Vuwa Falls in searing tropical sunshine.
Here was precisely the kind of audacious-looking, stupidly scenic moment that makes for obsessive-compulsive streaming habits back home. Or at least in theory, anyway. Somewhere near the top, they had literally climbed inside a cloud, all mist and wind and slashing rain. This is typical in Fiji, where warm tropical air collides with the mountains, but it set off an odd chain of events: one team member, lead race coordinator Ryan Vrooman, succumbed to heat exhaustion just as Hodder, who feels the cold keenly, started shivering in the early stages of hypothermia.
It was a dilemma. “It’s hard for me to warm up unless I get moving,” Hodder says, “and it was obvious that Ryan wasn’t going to be moving.” The depleted team strung up a tarp for the night and Hodder recovered in a sleeping bag. The group woke the next morning, their fourth day in the bush, to more dreary, cold rain. They pulled on clothes still drenched from the falls and pushed forward.
For the next proposed section, Hodder and Flavelle, who had designed many adventure races together, had selected a 6-mile-long river canyon that included climbs over two more falls, gaining a combined 1,500 feet of elevation. From maps and Google Earth, they could see that the current pooled in places along the route like pearls on a necklace. But the traverse didn’t look egregiously hard. They were reminded that day of an old truism about creating adventure races: Don’t believe what you see on a map.
The pools were actually ponds of what Hodder, 51, characterizes as “really, really cold” water, deep enough to require stretches of swimming. The shallower sections served up jumbles of slick, algae- coated rocks hidden just under the surface of the dark water, making every footfall a gamble. “It was a matter of finding a speed where you’re not bashing your shins or falling off rocks,” says Flavelle, 61. There was no getting around the water, either: The jungle along the banks was denser than the beats on a K-Def record. In the end it took nine hours to stumble, slip, curse, wallow and churn their way through the canyon—and all four are strong athletes from the mountains of British Columbia. “When you’re tired and wobbly,” Flavelle says, “you’re just fighting for every step.”
On the other side they looked at each other in the dimming light, aware that they faced a reckoning. If they eliminated the difficult leg from the race, they’d just beaten themselves up for nothing—and would still have to identify and execute a Plan B the next day, to connect the east and west sides of the island. “We would be cutting out the heart of the course,” Hodder says.
But if they kept it? They would need warming tents to treat hypothermic racers. With 66 teams of four participants each navigating that terrain, the potential for unscripted carnage—broken ankles, dislocated shoulders—would be significant. And with the low cloud cover, flying in a rescue chopper would be dicey.
Even if there were no injuries, that 6 miles would likely destroy any number of teams that had already been racing almost around the clock for somewhere between five and eight days by this point. It would be great TV. But there’s a line, and they were right on it. As Hodder puts it, “The question in our minds was, Is it too much?”
Designing a televised adventure race is like writing an epic story. To create a great one you need crucibles of indecision and danger (or at least the appearance of them); moments of rollicking fun and meditative ones; and challenges that deliver racers to both Herculean mountaintop triumphs and morale-killing slogs.
To pull off such a race, someone has to assemble all of those narrative parts. Which is why, when producers Mark Burnett and Lisa Hennessy decided in the summer of 2018 to revive Eco-Challenge after a 16-year hiatus, they called Hodder and Flavelle. Burnett is the godhead who essentially invented outdoors-based reality television with Eco-Challenge and Survivor. The former ran from 1995 to 2002 and is largely responsible for the global adventure-race craze that endures today.
Burnett had selected British Columbia for the show’s second season, which aired in 1996, and he chose Flavelle to help design the course. Though he was only 38 then, Flavelle already had a vast résumé of mountain expertise; his work in expedition-film documentaries had taken him all over the world. He, in turn, hired Hodder, and the two have since built a cottage industry around staging immense outdoor experiences. Hodder was the operations manager at Whistler Olympic Park during the 2010 Winter Games and has produced challenges and contests for many competition-reality shows, including Survivor, Big Brother and Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls.
Once they fielded the call that Eco-Challenge was back, the two old compatriots met at a coffee shop at Whistler and spitballed possible destinations. They quickly settled on Fiji, an aspirational, scenic destination loaded with knee-buckling hall-of-fame terrain, including mountains, jungles, whitewater rivers and even its own inland sea. They’d both designed a couple of adventure races there before—in fact, Fiji was featured in the final, 2002 edition of the original Eco-Challenge.
But that didn’t mean it would be easy. This incarnation of the show needed to be next-level great. For the reboot Burnett had partnered with Amazon Prime, which meant greater resources and loftier expectations than the Discovery Channel had brought. Burnett wanted the toughest edition ever of the world’s toughest race. Bear Grylls would sign on as the host, conferring an even greater level of hype. But the team still had to manage the risks. “You have to balance it,” Flavelle says. “To put yourself into stupid danger is definitely not part of the criteria.”
The harder miles needed to be interspersed with easier ones, to give teams a chance to recover after they suffered. The rules specify that if one team member drops out, the rest of their group are disqualified.
Then there are the idiosyncrasies of the Eco-Challenge franchise. The race draws some of the world’s top athletes—beasts with massive engines who can endure days of hardship and suffering—so the course must rise to meet them with seriously stiff challenges. But because it’s a reality TV show, the race can’t be so hard that it quickly spits out the “lifestyle” teams: the ones with made-for-television stories about overcoming personal hardships or father-and-daughter teams racing together. The former group will be competing to win; the latter will consider it an enormous triumph just to make it to Camp 3.
“We’ve got the LeBron James of the sport competing against high-school players, on the same course,” Hodder says. “The NBA doesn’t have that challenge.”
And of course it all had to look really, really good: Camera technology had made a quantum leap since 2002, so the course would be its own character—one that would be presented in far greater detail than any of the previous installments. Ultimately, there would be 200 cameras filming the action, including 23 Varicams and a small army of GoPros and drones.
No pressure, right? Hodder and Flavelle spent a few weeks sorting through options, a process that involved studying maps and Google Earth and talking to people in Fiji. “First and foremost, it had to be the right adventure,” Hodder says. “It’s all about the course.”
Once they’d done their advance scouting, the real work began: They would spend the entire months of February and March 2019 on the ground in Fiji, and at the end of that time, for the show to come off on schedule, they needed to have a course ready to present to Burnett.
It would become the adventure behind the adventure race. Because if you want to create a great course, you have to do the whole thing yourself. And then some.
In theory, the mission is utterly straightforward. “Once you know the 10 places you want to include,” Hodder says, “then you try to piece it together like a puzzle."
One immutable fact when designing a race of this magnitude: Just like with a puzzle, there will be trial and there will be error. Pieces that look right won’t actually fit. Early on, Hodder and Flavelle tested a route-finding challenge. It would be interesting, they thought, to offer teams the chance to cut out a hike around a huge oxbow in a river. Instead of the long, predictable way along the riverbank, contestants could try their luck with a shortcut through the bush.
“It happens every time we design one of these courses,” Hodder says. “You get into one section that, you look at it on the map and you look at it on Google Earth and it’s like, ‘Oh, how hard can it be?’ ”
In this case, they almost immediately ran into a mass of vines and thorns that drooped to waist level, so they were either constantly crawling under the bush or hacking away at it with cane knives and machetes. And although the landscape looked flat on the map, it was actually an endless series of slippery, mud-covered ravines. “Whenever there was a section of jungle that we assumed we could get through easily, it sort of turned out we couldn’t,” Flavelle says.
They realized that because it was so close to the start of the race, most teams, still operating at full strength, would likely take their chances with the shortcut. But in addition to the harsh terrain, navigating with a map and compass at night would be impossible. (Teams aren’t allowed to use GPS.) They imagined a mass of racers bunched up, thrashing around the jungle, lost. “There was a risk that it could just be a complete flop on day two,” Flavelle says. So they scrapped the shortcut.
Another time, they considered linking two sections with a hike across a tall-grass pasture that had looked promising from Google Earth, and even a pass in the helicopter. “And then you get there,” Hodder says, “and underneath is like this matrix of heavy vines that are giving you a bruise on your shins every step of the way.”
They were reminded repeatedly that in Fiji, the waterways are the real trails. And such lessons came with a cost. In many cases, they knew early in their day that a section was unusable but were committed to exploring it—their ride would be waiting at the—their ride was waiting at the other end, and there was often no cell service. “You know you’re never going to use this piece of terrain, but you’ve got four more hours of this to do,” Hodder says. “It’s so frustrating and demoralizing. And the next day you’re going back to Point A and have to figure out another route to Point B.”
Like the teams who would come later, they were also racing the clock, in a sense. Hodder was expected to present the course to Burnett in early April. And because it was a scouting mission, the team could move only in daylight—in order to assess hazards, note where ropes would need to be rigged and figure how many bolts would be needed, among many other considerations. They might pedal a mountain-biking section several times to pin down the best possible route, or to find a way to avoid private land. Sometimes they slept in the bush, other times in villages.
Complicating things further, they couldn’t rush through Fijian villages without stopping for introductions and a conversation about their plans. “You have to stop and have kava”—a ceremonial, peppery drink made from a root—“and ask for permission to pass through,” Flavelle says.
Still, just like the racers who would follow their path, they had their triumphant moments. The day after the debacle in the tall-grass pasture, they located a beautiful grassy ridge that led to a village that’s inaccessible by road and sees few foreigners.
What they sought above all else was variety, Hodder says. Eco-Challenge teams will hike and climb, of course, but they will also maneuver pack rafts, stand-up paddleboards, mountain bikes and a type of Fijian boat called a Camakau outrigger canoe, which can be sailed or paddled but is perilously tippy either way.
Hodder ultimately completed every inch of the race course, using the same mode of transport the racers would use, carrying the same gear. Usually Flavelle came along, but sometimes he traveled with experts hired for individual disciplines—for example, he pedaled the mountain-bike legs with Brian Finestone, former manager of the legendary Whistler Bike Park. They capsized the outrigger canoes, sometimes on purpose—to see how hard it was to right the boats, and guess at the possible number of open-water rescues—and sometimes not.
And then, finally, after eight weeks, the course came together. Many so-called survival-based reality shows exist in the space where raw athleticism meets made-for-television stunts, and campy suffering meets true grit. At times it can be hard to tease apart the difference.
But Hodder and Flavelle’s course proposed to leave no doubt about the onscreen hardships. The route spanned 417 miles that the racers would have to cover in no more than 11 and a half days, hitting cutoff times along the way. The total elevation gain was 29,730 feet, or about 700 feet higher than the distance from sea level to the top of Mount Everest. Four climbing sections would require 30,000 feet of fixed rope. These sections would include 2,000 feet of cliffs, waterfalls and overhanging rappels.
Only at the end, when they could evaluate the race in its entirety, could they make the call on individual parts—like the cold-water canyon hike. Hodder and Flavelle ultimately decided to keep it in because of its position near the end of the race. Contestants who made it through that would likely finish—which, of course, doesn’t make it any easier in real time. “That was the proverbial fence that they had to climb over,” Hodder says. “When you see the TV show, you’ll see that everybody’s suffering. There is no free pass.”
At the end of March, Hodder flew to California to show Burnett the proposed course. Eight weeks on the ground and they’d barely finished in time. “I needed every hour in Fiji,” he says. “We just got it done, went to the airport for the flight, then drove straight to the office in Santa Monica.”
Five months later, teams would arrive in Fiji to start racing.
The mood at the Pullman Nadi Bay Resort and Spa is twitchy and tense in the days leading up to the start. Eco-Challenge teams are required to report in few days in advance, to attend orientation sessions on the outrigger canoes and ropes sections and pose for cameras. Those who traveled from the other side of the world need to acclimate to the time change. But the sense of anticipation, and the mostly idle days, clearly chafes.
The teams of elite racers from places like New Zealand and Switzerland and Brazil normally don’t do much sitting around. Then there are teams that don’t necessarily have world-class athletes but have stories. Team Unbroken features three American veterans working their way through combat trauma, including Gretchen Evans, who is deaf, plus a physician—none of whom have ever competed in an adventure race before. There is a team of video- game makers and a team from a town in California devastated by wildfire. There’s a father who had raced in the previous Eco-Challenge in Fiji and is now back to compete with two daughters. One team features 23-year-old twin sisters from India who’d summited Everest. Another has two teenagers, and yet another has contestants with an average age of 66. There are CrossFit geeks and a circus acrobat and beach volleyball player. It’s an impressive cross- section of humanity, and how they will fare against the assembled challenges here is anyone’s guess.
Milling around among the racers are Burnett and Grylls. Both men seem eager to ratchet up the adrenalized scene with the kind of hyperbolic sound bites that television people specialize in. Burnett calls the race “an expedition with a stopwatch.”
Grylls recounts how, over the past 15 years, Burnett would occasionally tell him about his plans to bring Eco-Challenge back: “He’d say ‘I’m going to give it to you to make it your own, and you’re going to make it bigger and badder and tougher than ever.”
With the course, Grylls says, they’ve succeeded. “This is now officially the toughest, most extreme adventure race in human history." He adds that, although he believes the teams are qualified, “I do believe there is the potential that no one will finish this course. We really have set it that high.”
Somewhere inside the hive of humanity, Hodder paces and talks into his radio, ticking through countless final tasks. Square-jawed and preternaturally calm, he admits to feeling roiled up for days beforehand. What began with him and Flavelle in a US coffee shop has mushroomed into a production that has cost tens of millions of dollars. “We want a significant number of teams to finish,” Flavelle says. “And we’re a bit paranoid that nobody will finish. Imagine on day one: ‘Oh no, I think we made the course too hard.’”
No pressure, right? “We want a significant number of teams to finish,” Flavelle says. “And we’re a bit paranoid that nobody will finish. Imagine on day one: ‘Oh no, I think we made the course too hard.’”
At the start, finally, 66 teams load into 66 outrigger boats on a 10-foot-high riverbank. They will paddle several miles toward Fiji’s inland sea, where they will raise their sails. As teams go through their preparations, Hodder moves up and down the riverbank with a megaphone, calling out instructions, a thin line of order against a mass of chaos. When word finally goes out to start, months of preparations and workouts and nerves and barely harnessed energy boils over in a crush of boats heading together toward a bottleneck in the river. Half a dozen canoes flip in the frenzy.
A few things, inevitably, go sideways on the first day: One team collides with part of a bridge, damaging their boat and prompting Hodder’s helicopter to land nearby so he can troubleshoot. Fiji’s omnipresent winds are somehow a no-show, causing the contestants to paddle what is expected to be a sailing section. A member of the first team to finish that sea crossing passes out in the jungle heat on a subsequent hike. Then the gusts finally reappear, and the last teams to recross the water have to be bailed out when they capsize and run up against squalls and a brick wall of a headwind.
But that afternoon on the second day, as teams roll into a checkpoint on the island of Leleuvia, Hodder feels a wave of relief. “Proof of concept,” he says, grinning.
Within two days, a few teams had already dropped out or been eliminated—a surprising happenstance. Others will soon reach the cold-water canyon, where they will “push themselves to the absolute brink,” Hodder says, “to the point where I thought, This team is done—they’re not going to be able to move from this checkpoint.”
Will they or won’t they? What happens next? These are the questions Mark Burnett and Amazon hope you’ll ask yourself this summer.
World's Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji premieres on Amazon Prime Video on August 14. Watch here.