9th Place (Racing as Subaru USA)
“Aeiiiigh!!!!!” A scream ripped the air. Instant goosebumps. The last thing anyone wants to hear at 3:00 AM in the middle of the jungle is a terrified scream.
We had been traveling with Emma Rocca and her Team Buff (Spain) for the past four hours as we tried to jointly navigate our way through the Lost World (a 40 km stretch of remote jungle travel on the East side of Viti Levu- Fiji’s big island). A tangled web of vines and palms kept our pace to a crawl. The genesis of the scream was a large white bat that had been sleeping, hanging on a vine in the middle of our path. Probably more surprised than we were, the bat met a quick death by the local Fijian who we had been following. Evidently, in Fiji, bat is a delicacy. Thus began our first night of the Eco-Challenge 2002.
The Eco-Challenge is a non-stop multi-day adventure race held in different parts of the world each year. Co-ed teams of four race to cross the finish line together, moving only as fast as the slowest team member. Dan Barger, Dan Rathbun, Heather Christensen and I had been racing as Team Subaru-USA for the 2002 season. The Eco-Challenge would be the last race of our season. A race in Fiji- how hard could that be? Paradise. Isn’t that what the brochures say? We were committed to making a statement.
It’s said that half the success of any expedition length (three + days) adventure race is getting all four racers to the start line, healthy and with all of their gear. If that is the case, then we were off to an auspicious start. We arrived in Fiji with word that our baggage (bikes, paddles, climbing gear, etc.) remained in Los Angeles. It wasn’t until three days later and the morning that we were to leave for the start line that our gear finally arrived. That day consisted of a mad rush to get everything packed and organized for the race. The night before was the pre-race meeting where we received our packing instructions: bike box with 2-4 days food, pack raft bag with 2-4 days food, gearbox with 2-4 days food. No maps were given out. The course would remain a mystery until the start line.
That night, race director Mark Burnett had shown us a five-minute video of what we would be traveling through and then issued a stern warning: “I wouldn’t be surprised if only a couple of teams finished the whole course. Navigation will be critical. If any team would like to back out now I will reimburse the entry fee. Come see me after the meeting. No questions asked.” We were nervous and excited. The island looked remote and wonderful. Nobody backed out.
We left at 10:00 PM the next night. Eight buses were to take all 324 athletes (81 teams from throughout the world) on an eight-hour ride to the start line. After being jostled like sardines on the unkempt dirt roads, we were all ready to get the race started. At 6:00 AM we arrived in a small village in a remote area on the Eastern side of Vita Levu. Native warriors escorted us into the village and then along with the rest of the villagers, performed a dance ritual to prepare us for our journey. The faces of the villagers were awash with wonder, as most of them had never seen a non-Fijian before. There we stood, 320 + athletes in spandex, and Oakleys, and Gore-Tex, and SHOES.
Finally, we were corralled into a clearing and a large parchment of a map was unveiled. It was apparent that this race would be more “Lewis and Clark” expedition than previous “plot your maps and go” type racing- the first six hours of maps was a hand drawing. We would have to race smart as well as fast. Copies of the maps were given out and we had five minutes to determine the best way to Checkpoint 1 (CP1).
Mark Burnett: "5, 4, 3, 2, 1, goooooo". We were off. All 81 teams sprinted off the start line to begin a three-hour canyoneering trek/swim. One would think that a race that would take teams 6-10 days to complete would start in a reserved, controlled manner. Not a chance. Teams bolted like it was a 10 KM road race. Mud and water sprayed everywhere as teams pushed, shoved, and tripped to get out in front. An hour into the race, we were trading places with Team Spie (France), Team Eathlink (USA), and Team Buff (Spain) for the lead. The walls of the canyon narrowed so that our only option was to jump into the water and swim. At a certain point where a stream enters the canyon, we were to follow it up and out and continue along it to the next village and CP1. We blew right past it. Giddy with energy and the excitement of leading the race we passed the stream and continued up the canyon. Ten minutes later we figured something was wrong when there was no one in sight behind us. Dejectedly, we retraced our steps and found ourselves twenty plus minutes behind the leaders and in thirty-something place. We spent the next 1-½ hours regaining lost ground and finally got to CP1 in 16th place.
At CP1 we were given maps and directions for the rest of the race. Each team was to construct a bilibili (a traditional Fijian boat) out of bamboo and rope (think Pixie Stix and dental floss on a large scale) that would be sturdy enough to carry four racers and their gear 40 km down the Wainimala and the Rewa rivers. I reviewed the maps while Dan, Dan, and Heather constructed our sturdy craft in record time. We left in tenth place. Long, thin bamboo sticks served as our means of locomotion as we “pushed “ the boat forward with the bamboo sticks when the water was shallow enough. These proved abysmally slow and we miserably watched as resourceful teams who had brought their canoe paddles fly by us down the river. Often it was faster to “line” the boat- jump off to shore and drag the boat along while trying to keep its nose from digging into the bank. The rest of the day and into the night we methodically steered our ship closer to CP2.
If there is one thing about Fiji that I will remember forever, it is the genuine happiness of its people. Wherever we went, we were greeted by smiles, handshakes, clapping, and cheering. Always the same salutation ”Bula!” (Hello) which we would answer. They would then want to know where we came from. When we answered, their response would be “Ah, America….Go USA”. Every village we ran through, every trail we traveled, every road we biked, the people were incredible. Heather would later state that the last villages that we passed brought tears to her eyes. Part of it was the emotion of the race, but most of it stemmed from the sincere generosity of Fiji’s people.
Along the banks of the river was where we first noticed this kindness. It was literally lined with villagers chanting, “Go, white, go.” “Go, white, go.” (Team Subaru was in white jerseys). When we decided to dance to the chanting, it drove the village children into a frenzy of laughter and screaming. It temporarily eased our pain of moving so slow.
At approximately 8:00 PM we finally arrived at CP2 in 16th place again and were instructed to disassemble our craft and haul all sixteen pieces of 22’ bamboo up a steep embankment to the bilibili boat boneyard. Up to our shins in mud, we finally finished 45 minutes later and promptly set out on a 40 km trek through the Lost World. When we were briefed before the race about this section we were warned that the navigation would be extremely difficult through the dense jungle. After a couple of false starts, we hooked up with Team Buff (Spain) to joint navigate our way. Around 2:00 AM we were searching for a river that would lead us to a village, which would serve as the benchmark for the second half of the trek. We were having difficulty finding the river when we came across a grass-thatched hut. I expected its occupants to react with anger at being awakened with all the noise, but instead, we were treated like guests, consistent with how we were treated throughout the race. Our host emerged from his home in pajamas, barefoot and bearing a lantern. We told him of our dilemma and he quickly insisted that we follow him to the river. Once there, he wanted to know where we were headed. Upon hearing, he once again insisted that we follow him since he knew the way and the going was difficult. Four hours later, still in his pajamas and barefoot and sporting fresh bat meat around his neck, we arrived on the peak of a mountain looking down at the village. I believe that we ended up taking the long way around, but at least we got there. It was at that village that we saw Team Bulafiji.com (Fiji). In less than 24 hours a teammate would bike off a bridge and break an ankle and be out of the race.
We continued along the rest of the trek through the Lost World fairly uneventful, mostly in rivers and streams to keep our bearings. Twelve hours later, just as it got dark for the second night we arrived at CP3 and the transition to bikes. Team Stalker (our unofficial fan club Ann Hall and Maria Burton) was there to raise our spirits. We decided to get two hours of sleep before continuing- our first rest of the race after 32 hours. After a little village rice (at $2 F a plate) we crashed, trying to stay dry and out of the light drizzle. Little did we know, that we would be consistently wet for most of the next three days.
After two hours of fitful sleep, we mounted our bikes and fishtailed our way up the muddy road and into the darkness of the second night. We must have been quite a sight. The laughter from the villagers didn’t subside until we were beyond earshot. For 14 ½ hours we biked the roller-coaster terrain of the Waivaka Valley and into the Valley of Pain. We were wet and cold all night, but the morning brought the debilitating effects of extreme heat and humidity, especially for Heather who had stopped eating and was showing signs of heat exhaustion.
At 10:00 AM we reached CP4 where we picked up our paddles and gear for the kayak section. After a short 6km trek to the Navua River , we pumped up our inflatable kayaks and pushed off. It was 1:30 PM. The kayak leg was 22km of class II and III whitewater. We had less than five hours to get to the takeout before the “dark zone” was imposed. The “dark zone” is a restriction of forward movement during a race where darkness presents too great a danger to the athletes. Kayaking this river at night presented such a danger. Any boat not off the water by 6:15 PM would be forced to dock at the nearest shore and remain there until 5:00 AM the next morning. Meanwhile, any team that made it would be allowed to continue on to the next trek.
The kayaking was spectacular. We entered a canyon whose walls narrowed and rose a couple hundred feet, hiding the sky and treating us to the reflections of rouge sunlight. Big, tropical raindrops the size of nickels sprinkled the surface as we made our way down the gorge and toward the big rapids of the river. After an hour, the canyon opened up into a larger valley where tiered waterfalls parted the jungle and cascaded into the river sending up huge walls of mist. Had we not been in a hurry to get off the water before the dark zone, we may have become intoxicated by the beauty and languished for a few more hours. Dan Rathbun swore he saw the ruins of ancient civilizations in the limestone walls overgrown in a jungle of vines. We laughed at his hallucinations. I didn’t tell anyone I was seeing the same things.
We pulled into CP5 at 5:38 PM, elated that we were now in 10th place and able to continue through the night. A 51km trek through the Trail of Fire would take us to the base of Vuwa Falls and CP6. We spent the better part of the evening making our way toward the Namuamua village with a local who we had met on our route. We arrived around 3:00 AM and our host roused a family from their beds and promptly invited us into their home for a rest. Mom, Dad, and their two young daughters joined our host and us in some idle chitchat before we started dozing off. We were offered the floor for some sleep. In seconds, we were out. We slept for a couple of hours under five pair of watchful eyes. In any other circumstances it would have been creepy to be watched while we slept. This time it didn’t matter- we were comatose.
At 5:00 AM we woke, thanked our gracious hosts, and started down a gravel road. Over the next couple of hours we would pass children walking to school, barefoot, in uniform, and always with a smile of surprise and happiness. The rest of the morning, afternoon and early evening, we continued to move forward- always forward. Mid- afternoon, Heather became a victim of drinking bad water. We had treated our water since the start of the race and had been lucky with good health up until then. We had heard stories of the teams behind us with intestinal problems- vomiting and dysentery, effectively debilitating teams. Somehow Heather had gotten an especially bad batch of water and the suffering began. Heather, who can suffer with the best, never complained. She gave up her pack to Dan Rathbun and pressed on between quick breaks behind the bushes.
By 6:00 PM we had reached the river that would take us up to the base of the falls but our pace had slowed considerably and the team decided to stop and reevaluate our situation. The decision was to sleep for the night and tackle the ropes and waterfalls in the morning. A quick assessment of our food supplies gave us some additional bad news. A bagel with peanut butter, a can of Ensure, a couple of Jolly Ranchers, a Luna Bar and some nuts. We would be on rations until the packraft (small inflatable raft) pickup, still 20 + hours away.
It was a frustrating night of sleep, as seven teams would pass us- each waking us with their headlamps believing that we were CP6. In the morning though, it was evident that we had made a good decision. Heather felt much better. We calmed our rumbling bellies with some rations and proceeded toward the ropes.
Day five was a dreary one. Overcast and heavy with moisture, the air clung to us like a wet blanket. A three-hour rock-hop, river-wade and boulder scramble brought us to the base of Vuma Falls and CP6. Ropes had been attached to the rock up the falls and we were to ascend them to the top using climbing devices called jumars. After 120 meters (approx. 360 feet) of ascent we were able to enjoy the view- for a brief moment. Then it was off on another two-hour slip and splash trip to the base of Gaganaura Falls and another 100 meter climb. By now, it was raining- again. Hard.
Between CP6 and the Wainisavuleva Dam where we were to pick up our packrafts were multiple lakes. Teams had two options. They could either swim with all of their gear or they could try to cut a path along the lakes through the near impenetrable jungle. We were told by those at CP6 that Team Nokia (Finland) actually tried to build another boat so they didn't have to swim since they were so tired of being wet. We were drenched anyways, so decided to swim, wade, and when a muddy bank presented itself, slosh our way toward the dam. The good news was that a few of the teams ahead of us had lost some food and it was floating in the lake, still in its wrapper. We ate it like the savages that we resembled. The bad news was that we were wading and swimming in a cloudy lake with the knowledge that eels up to six feet in length were swimming around. We found out later that a gal from another team had been stung by an eel and had gone into anaphylactic shock before being hauled out by helicopter.
At one point, wading up to our necks in a particularly cloudy lake, I felt my foot give and heard Dan Rathbun behind me start yelling something about poisonous gas. Seeing the massive bubbles break the surface, we all scrambled to get away from the stench as quickly as possible. We never knew what it was. As darkness settled in we swam the last 300 meters to our pack rafting bag and supplies where we were greeted by friendly faces (Team Stalker) and a volunteer who took pity on us and allowed us in her tent to get out of the rain. We hadn’t seen our food supply in over 50 hours. We now ate like kings. Gummy Bears, fruit cups, yogurt raisins, Dinty Moore raviolis, and peanut butter bagels didn’t stand a chance.
The art of packrafting is to navigate the waterways (in this case a slow moving river) in an inflatable one-person boat that is barely large enough to fit a child and their pack. Forward progress is made by either hand paddles or really small kayak paddles. The object is to stay dry.
Still wet, cold and miserable from the rain we reluctantly left the tent, stepped out into the night and labored to blow up our boats. Shortly thereafter we were off, paddling upstream along the Ba River. Dan Rathbun led the way and the rest of us followed in procession. Under the cover of darkness we thankfully didn’t have to explain what we were doing to any curious villager. It felt like a Disneyland ride gone bad- real bad.
During any adventure race it is important to keep your feet dry whenever possible. Even though it was currently raining, I figured that having my feet out in the open instead of inside wet shoes and socks would allow them to breathe. I tucked my shoes in behind my pack and followed the headlights of Dan, Dan and Heather. For the first couple of hours we were able to make good time, as the river was wide, and the current slow against our efforts. The river gradually became more narrow, creating a stronger current that required us to get out and walk our boats until the river again widened enough to allow us to paddle. After several of these, I decided that it was time to put the shoes on again. My heart dropped as I searched the boat for my shoes. I found the left one but not the right. It was floating somewhere downriver.
My initial thought was that the Fijian people walked everywhere in bare feet- why couldn’t I? It took two more hours and the completion of the packraft section before I got the courage to give my teammates the news. After the obligatory “oh, shit” the consensus was that we could fabricate a new one. I was reminded again why I love racing with these guys. There is always a contingency plan. Still raining, we built a makeshift shelter with the boats, a paddle, and a tarp. Dan, Dan, and Heather tried to get some sleep while I took my first stab at becoming a cobbler. I first taped my whole foot, including toes. The insole of my left shoe became the foot bed of my new shoe. A little Duct tape, a sock, an ace bandage, more Duct tape, a second sock, and my masterpiece was complete. A beauty it wasn’t. Functional it was. We broke “camp”, cursed the rain, and started trekking upstream. Our destination was a logging road and CP7. Throughout the rest of the night we hobbled up the creek. Daylight found us mostly out of the water, climbing up a canyon on slimy rocks. Eventually, at 10:30 AM we limped into CP7. The timing was good. My “shoe” was showing signs of abuse. One of the socks was shredded and the Ace bandage had lost all of its elastic. With the sun out for the first time in days, we unpacked our packs to let everything dry out and caught some shut-eye. It was at CP7 that we first learned of the carnage happening behind us….
The sun finally appeared, drying out our clothes and rekindling our spirits. We rested at CP7 for two hours as our bodies thawed from the prior two days of miserable rain and cold. Ten minutes behind us came Team Schick Xtreme (Canada) and twenty minutes behind them, Team Pharmanex (USA). Team AXN Atenah Brasil (Brazil) had already been there three hours but was one member short. One of their female teammates had been bitten by “something” and her arm had swollen and become non-functional. She had been flown to the hospital by helicopter. They were devastated. The CP captain told us of the carnage behind us in the waterfalls and lakes that we had passed the previous day. A constant deluge of rain and cold temperatures created ugly conditions and as many as thirty teams had to be pulled from the course due to mostly cold-related maladies. Only 25 of the 81 teams to start the race would make it to CP7.
As we prepared to leave, I started rebuilding my “shoe” which was a mess of Duct tape and caked mud. Fortunately, Sarah Wiley from Team Schick Xtreme 3 saw what I was doing and offered the extra pair of shoes that she had been carrying. After brief negotiations, I purchased her shoes with a $60 IOU, and the possibilities of making it to CP8 seemed much brighter. Never mind that it was a size 8 ½ women’s and I wear a size 11; a little modification to the toe-box and I was a new man, with happy feet. Albeit with toes blowing in the wind.
Our trek from CP7 would take us from the mountaintop to the valley floor and the Navala Village, then back up another mountain range to a river, where we would again blow up our packrafts and paddle down to CP8. We decided to take the direct route down the mountain instead of the road, which wound around and added several miles to the bottom. The extra miles would have been worth it as the short cut down the mountain ended up taking us through a steep forest of bamboo, where the only way to descend was on our butts, bouncing off rocks and unseen hazards. Still nursing our backsides, we entered the beautiful Navala village. In the center of the village a huge thatched bure (traditional Fijian house) had been built and we were ushered in to meet chief Varasiko and the village elders. We were served fruit and other unidentified foodstuff, which we ate with trepidation, unsure of how our systems would handle the food that the flies seemed particularly fond of. We decided to risk it since it was presented in our honor and we didn’t want to offend our hosts. The next 24 hours we trekked and packrafted to CP8 where a group of kids met up with us and escorted us into the village.
All four of us spent time in the medical tent getting attention to our feet. My toes had stopped working and I was now dragging them along as mandatory gear. At 11:00 PM we left on our bikes in 13th place. I was especially thankful that my whole foot was now in a biking shoe. We climbed out of the village to the Nausori Highlands, which in the darkness resembled a lunar landscape. The mountain peaks were black, a silhouette against the gray sky. The jungle had given way to what appeared to be a high desert range. Our “map” was a sketch that Dan Rathbun had to copy from the official map at CP8. I felt strong but very sleepy. My strategy was to pedal quickly up the hills, crash for the 2-5 minutes that it would take for the rest of the team to catch up and then repeat.
At approximately 4:00 AM, after five hours of riding, I felt rumblings in my intestines- this was not going to be good. By 5:00 AM I was cursing the native food that I ate the night before. By 5:15 AM, I was fertilizing the countryside. This would continue every 15-20 minutes for the remaining eight hours on the bike. Dehydrated, sapped of all energy, and unable to keep anything down or in, I struggled with the rest of the bike leg. The day grew dreadfully hot and everyone started feeling the monotony of slow progress. Water was scarce. We finally found a puddle where a local Fijian woman was washing her clothes. We tried not to think about the taste.
CP9 was a local rugby field that more closely resembled a parched lakebed. Red clay, cracked from exposure, was a hostile environment for both rugby players as well as any vegetation. Both were noticeably absent. The sun however was not. I felt like an ant under a magnifying glass. Completely spent from the ride, I lay down on a tarp, semi-conscious, and slept. I didn’t bother with the flies that danced in my wounds. It was their time to party.
Three hours later Dan R. dragged us into action. He and Heather had gathered water to replenish our empty supplies and then had packed the bike boxes so we were ready to go. I was able to get to my feet assuring the CP captain that I didn’t need an IV (which would have resulted in a four hour penalty). Given how I felt, I was even more amazed at the mental and physical strength of Heather who had suffered the same malady several days earlier and was still being affected by it, but pushed on without complaining. We left CP9 on foot at 3:45 PM in 13th place. I still did not have any hiking shoes, so I wore Dan R’s size 13 biking shoes. They were actually quite comfortable.
The trek to CP 10 was a 1000-meter (3000 foot) climb to the top of a mountain. Once on top, we struggled through the jungle that was intent on tripping, pulling, and tearing at us with every step. By 10:00 PM it was raining. I don’t believe we have ever moved as slow as we did through that jungle. Every step was measured and calculated as we tried to avoid roots, vines, thorns and things that would grab. My peripheral vision narrowed to a spot six feet in front of me. Step by step we inched closer to Sauvine Falls. By midnight we made it to CP10- a rappel down the waterfall. We were wet and it was dark. The absolute last thing that we wanted to do was rappel down a waterfall. It was damn cold. Once down, we needed to scramble down the creek bed below the falls. The rain was now coming down harder than at anytime during the race. The heat from our bodies clashed with the cold air and created a cloud of fog that shadowed us, making it hard to see. Footing was non-existent so we mostly slid down the rocks, fighting the current, the moss, and anything else that was in our way. We were close to the kayak section and were afraid that hypothermia would overcome one of us before we got there if we didn’t hurry.
We arrived at CP 11 (the ocean kayak) at 5:09 AM in 14th place. Physically and mentally spent, we were looking forward to the rumored 12-hour kayak to the finish- we were almost there. We walked into the CP tent and met our loyal followers Team Stalker (Ann Hall and Maria Burton) who we hadn’t seen since CP6, many days earlier. The look of concern on their faces gave us an indication of what me must have looked like. It was like observing someone watching an accident happen. We hadn’t had a change of clothes in almost eight days. I’m sure that we looked and smelled every 192 hours of that.
We dropped to the floor and silently started eating and changing clothes. Our gearboxes (and change of clothes) were finally available to us. An hour later, Ann and Maria got the courage to tell us that the rumor regarding the finish was wrong. There would actually be several island visits by kayak, including a 35 km trek around one of them. At a minimum, it would be 35-40 additional hours before we would see the finish line.
I’m not an emotional guy, but I was mental milquetoast at that point, and this news nearly brought me to tears. I choked down the self-pity and thought of those who were following our progress, cheering us on from home. Resolve spurred us into action. We dressed, packed, and launched the sea kayaks off Saweni Beach and out into the calm sea with Team Northface Kona (UK) and Pharmanex (USA) right behind us. A mere seven hours later we would find out how quick things can change at sea.
Hallucinations for me typically occur near dawn. When the morning rays cast shadows on bushes and trees, the landscape becomes a circus of animals- rabbits, oversized squirrels, horses and even a giant flamingo in Colorado. Deep, deep, down inside, I know that the objects of my imagination are not real. But during those times when sleep depravation wrests logic away, I swear that the flamingo is about to attack Heather. Screaming, I yell for Heather to run!
On day eight of the Eco-Challenge in Fiji, we began our ocean kayak at 9:10 AM in 14th place. The seas were calm, barely moving and almost hypnotic. The hallucinations came on strong shortly thereafter. With no bushes or trees to act as animals, my mind shifted to a different world. In the movie The Truman Show, Jim Carey paddles away from a man-made stage town to escape, and crashes into the painted screen of the sky that served as the edge of his world. With Heather in front of our tandem, I struggled with reality. Several times I slammed down my foot to hit the “brakes” (there are no brakes in a kayak), hoping to avoid crashing into my own edge-of-the-world delusion. Heather was not amused and did not share my visions- she wanted to keep moving forward. We were still racing, she reminded me, and then promised that we wouldn’t crash.
A four-hour paddle brought us to Vomo Island where CP 12 was on top of a 150-meter peak. Dan Rathbun and I hustled to the top with Team North Face Kona (U.K.) and Pharmanex (USA) right behind us. Back in our kayaks, we headed off to Wayasewa Island, which was the location of the 35 km trek, and CP 13. For 2 ½ hours, the ocean had remained still. As the afternoon grew long however, the wind started picking up. The clouds quickly gathered and by 5:00 PM, the ocean was boiling. With the island in view, and within striking distance, the waves tested our kayaking prowess. The swells grew to five and six feet and our boat soon lost sight of our teammates Dan R. and Dan B. We could see where we had to land our boats, so for the next hour, Heather and I redoubled our efforts to get to shore as the rain began to fall. Once we got close enough we were able to turn the boat, and finally let the waves help carry us in. We surfed the last wave into a beautiful white beach that was lined with Fijians, all singing and playing ukulele guitars. The extraordinary visual was a dramatic contrast to the stress and effort of the past hour of paddling. A group of burly locals lifted the kayak out of the sea, with us still inside the boats and placed us gently on the tan beach. It was Heavenly.
The resort island was prepared for its guests and we were treated royally with food, a dance ceremony, and lodging – with beds! We crashed in the beds at 8:00pm with the alarm set for 1:00 am. Pharmanex (USA) decided to sleep as well. North Face Kona (UK) immediately began the 35 km trek. Canon Quasar Lontra (Brazil) had left earlier in the day. At 1:00 AM we woke and evaluated our situation. We had heard that the navigation through the jungle was difficult. Dan Barger suggested that additional sleep, racing with a clear head, and in the light was a smarter move than departing in the middle of the night. It was agreed. We again set our alarms – this time for 4:00 am. By 4:30 we were off.
Although Canon Quasar Lantra had a 12-hour jump on us, they never made it to CP 14. Team Pharmanex would never leave CP 13 after one of their teammates decided he had had enough. The absolute misery of the previous night in the jungle contrasted with the oasis he now found himself in. He could not will his body to continue, much to the anguish of the team captain Louise Cooper. While North Face Kona had left nine hours before us, they were now our target. We were rested. They were not. They were in 9th. We wanted that spot.
Wayasewa Island resembles a figure eight – two land masses connected in the middle by an isthmus (a narrow strip of land). We departed at the bottom of the island for a mountain climb and jungle trek that would take us to the middle of the island then up to the top of the island at CP 14. Rested and refocused, we made great time. After we crossed the isthmus in chest-deep water, we met Spectrum Access (USA) captained by Billy Mattison, who had just come back from CP 14 and was now resting at CP 15 (the isthmus). It had taken them over 12 hours to get from CP 13 to CP 14. We felt much better than they looked, so with resolve we pushed on hard. We had an English team to catch.
CP 14 was on the tip of the island on top of the highest peak. We knew that there would be a rope climbing section at CP 14, so we wanted to catch North Face Kona before they reached it. As we took advantage of low tide and hopped across the coral, sand and rocks that served as the beach around the island we caught sight of North Face Kona in front of us. Dan Barger motioned for us to proceed quietly so that we could overtake them by surprise. We did. Despite leaving CP 13 nine hours after they had, in less than four hours we had now caught them.
It wouldn’t be that easy though. They jumped on our heels as we raced up the mountainside to be the first to CP 14 and together we arrived at the ropes. We climbed to the very top of a rock outcropping that served up an incredible view of the island. With renewed adrenaline and with 9th place ours to lose; we took off, back down the mountain with North Face Kona right behind us. They stayed with us for about an hour before we finally lost them on our way back to CP 15 (the isthmus). Low tide meant that the trip between the two islands was now ankle deep instead of chest deep. We continued to push hard to CP 16, which was the bottom of the island we had left that morning. We arrived at CP 16 with the fastest time around the island – a mere 7 hours and 49 minutes. The average time was 14 hours. We were solidly in 9th place and intended to keep it.
After quickly restocking our kayaks, we pushed off toward CP 17, which was back at Vomo Island. The ocean was not calm. In fact, the swells were bigger than the afternoon before and I braced for a very rough paddle. I was kayaking with Heather however. A year prior, she had spent three months paddling the Sea of Cortez. This was child’s play for her, she made it look easy and we made great time. A six and a half hour paddle brought us back to Vomo Island. A couple of black-and-white sea snakes that nuzzled up to our kayaks while we beached the kayaks to CP 17. They slithered away as we jumped back in and headed to our next island.
We arrived at Beachcomber Island and CP 18 at 11:09pm. It also happened to be the site of an Eco-Challenge party for the staff that night. Having been told that North Face Kona had decided to get some sleep at Vomo, we couldn’t resist the temptation to join the fun. We dragged ourselves into the club for some “toasties” (grilled cheese sandwiches) and beer. The dancing, though, would have to wait. An hour later, the pull of the finish line got us to our feet and back into the boats for the final paddle. It took everything we had to stay awake for that final three hours. Dan Barger who had been able to avoid the hallucinations that we had suffered earlier in the race, finally succumbed and swore that the lights that we saw on the horizon were a secret code to motorboats about how and when to dock. He went into great detail for about an hour until Dan Rathbun told him to “shut the hell up”. We tried everything we could think of to stay awake – memory games, singing, name that song games. Finally it was easier to have one person paddle with their eyes closed for several minutes and then switch off.
Mercifully, at 3:58 am after 9 days and 19 hours of racing we landed at Denarau Beach in 9th place to a raucous crowd of three bleary-eyed staff and of course, Ann and Maria of Team Stalker. Team North Face Kona would come in five hours later and round out the only teams to finish the whole course.
Of the 81 teams to start the 2002 Eco-Challenge, only ten would finish the whole course, with another thirteen that would finish a short-course. The rest of the teams did not finish due to illness, injury, or exhaustion.
I was asked after the race what it felt like to paddle the last 100 yards to the finish. It was hard to answer. My emotions were left on the islands we had just run, biked, and kayaked across. By the end of the race I was numb. I guess relief would be the best answer- relief that it was finally over.
After the Race
Immediately after the race I sat on the floor of the shower and for an hour let the water prune me. I spent the time unwrapping the tape, gauze and bandaging that had kept my feet together during the final days. Finally clean of the jungle grime, I slept restlessly, curled up in a fetal position.
The next morning at the medical tent we were given a quick health check, drug test (we passed, whew!), and a dose of diethylcarbamazine that we were instructed to take upon returning to the States. The drug, they said, would prevent Elephantitis (caused by repeated mosquito bites, a worm gets into the skin through the bite, then crawls around the lymphatic system and causes blockage leading to enlarged organs). Unfortunately, taking it would often make its taker vomit. Better than the alternative though…. I took my medicine.
I flew back the next day with a pit stop in Los Angeles and a surprise greeting from my Father-in-Law John and his wife Cris. Once back in Sacramento, three of my biggest fans (my kids) ran into my arms. A warm smile and hug from my wife, and I knew I was finally home.
The race though, wasn’t that easy to shake. For the next week, I would dream of the need to move forward. Every night, all night long, I would fight the jungle again, always needing to make forward progress. After nine days of conditioning myself to push past the discomfort during the race, my mind was not ready to let go. I would wake drenched in sweat, my sheets soaked with the frustration on not moving forward fast enough.
The abrasions on my knees and shins became infected with whatever bacteria was still in my skin. They would scab over, but then would ooze from the inside, becoming infected again. Ten days after my return, I noticed a bump on my knee where there had previously been nothing. Over the next several days it became larger, until it was the size of a large marble. When I couldn’t take it any longer I lanced it, exploding a kaleidoscope of green, red and gray. Now, almost 60 days after the race, the last of my sores are gone- I hope.