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Original Issue

Full Tilt Through Fiji

While covering 300 miles of jungle in seven days, racers in the latest Eco-Challenge overcame a raft of new hardships

It was only the third day of the Eco-Challenge, but Kristina Strode-Penny of Team was already in bad shape. The evening before, she'd spent three hours hunched over on the side of the jungle trail dry-heaving, her stomach spinning like an empty dryer. Now it was the Fijian morning heat that was getting to her. Dehydrated and wobbly, she eventually collapsed in a flushed heap. Too feverish to take in fluids, she sat there as teammate Jeff Mitchell poured cold water over her head and torso. It was horrible. It was dehumanizing. "It was," Mitchell says, "the reason we won."

Forced by Strode-Penny's condition to sleep for more than 10 hours over the first three days--far longer than the team would have otherwise--the Seagate quartet, well-rested and eventually healthy, roared back from ninth place to pass the brain-dead and foot-weary front-runners. In doing so, the four New Zealanders won the $50,000 first prize in one of the toughest Eco-Challenges yet, crossing the finish line on October 21 after six days and 23 hours of kayaking, canyoneering, mountain biking and rafting. That it was not some bold strategic stroke but rather heatstroke that forced the members of Seagate to pace themselves may say as much about the headstrong nature of adventure racers as anything else.

Regardless, on a brutal 300 plus-mile course that only 23 of the 81 teams finished, Seagate learned a valuable lesson about the advantages of slumber. After losing last year's Eco-Challenge to Ian Adamson's team on the final day after attempting to go three days without sleep--a strategy that backfired when captain Nathan Fa'avae began stumbling around like Dudley Moore in Arthur--the Kiwis returned the favor on Day Five this year, bounding past Adamson's GoLite team, which was in second place at the time. "We were fumbling about with the instructions when the Kiwis came running up," says Michael Kloser of GoLite, which finished second. "They were moving so fast they dropped our jaws. We'd been on the other end of that, so we knew how it felt."

After the abundant early rest Seagate needed only an hour of sleep in the final two days. Not too long after passing GoLite, the Kiwis took first when two members of front-runner Buff AXN, a Spanish team, developed foot infections that forced them to drop out. The Spaniards weren't alone in their woes; the combination of sweaty socks, puncture wounds, teeming bacteria and hours spent wading through rivers and streams left many of the competitors with swollen, infected soles that looked like misshapen slices of raspberry cheesecake.

Nightmarish podiatric specimens were but one of the horrors encountered along the course, most of which was on the main Fijian island of Viti Levu. Disappointed by last year's Eco-Challenge, which ran more like an Ironman than an expedition, Eco creator Mark Burnett set out to create a far more challenging course (though he could have dropped hokey section names such as Trail of Fire and Valley of Pain). The first wrinkle came on Day One, when teams were presented with 13 bamboo poles and told to make, using the 100 meters of cord mandated in the packing list, their own bilibili, a traditional Fijian raft. Once assembled, the crafts had to be piloted about 25 miles down the Wainimala and Rewa rivers. Those who had gambled on getting away without toting paddles were left to push and steer with long, thin bamboo poles, a technique as efficient as stirring a bowl of cake mix with a toothpick. As most of the rafters struggled, AXN Atenah Brasil, a team of three women and a man, flew by as if outfitted with an outboard motor. Not only had the Brazilians brought paddles, they'd also gone to a local bilibili-building competition to learn the craft. Says Kloser, "They made us look like rookies out there."

Off the water, teams had to fight through thorny jungle that was often nearly impenetrable. One notorious section, on Day Three, was so thick with bamboo and bristling vines that even the mandatory machetes were useless, and traveling 100 meters took half an hour.

If the terrain--complete with waterfall ascents, muddy river walks and chilling stream crossings--was disheartening, it was at least offset by the enthusiasm of the locals. As teams made their way through more than 100 villages, the Fijians cheered them on, handing out coconuts split with machetes. Beds and bananas were offered, and everywhere the racers went, they were greeted with the traditional welcome of "Bula!" (pronounced BOO-lah), making the jungle ring as if inhabited by hundreds of aspiring Stuart Scotts.

Seagate in particular felt the support of the natives, who adopted the New Zealanders as their own once a token Fijian team dropped out. As Seagate headed toward the water for the final ocean kayak leg, a line of village warriors formed a tunnel on a sand spit, and onlookers chanted, "Go, Kiwis, go!"

Once across the water the quartet docked their kayaks on the beach, nearly a week after beginning, and celebrated the team's first Eco win. The 29year-old Fa'avae bounded into the arms of his wife, Jodie, who'd made the trip from New Zealand despite being seven months pregnant with their first child. Mitchell and navigator Neil Jones embraced while Strode-Penny grasped a bottle of champagne and glowed. When asked, "What's for breakfast?" the woman who'd had the good fortune to be so sick only days before was joined by the rest of her team in replying, "Everything!"

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY REED HOFFMANN/BLUE PIXEL POLING PLACE Their homemade bilibili floated just fine, but without paddles several teams were up a creek; on land, villagers (top) offered a hand.

COLOR PHOTO: DAN CAMPBELL [See caption above]

COLOR PHOTO: REED HOFFMANN/BLUE PIXEL HIGHS AND LOWS Sleep-deprived contestants were kept alert by challenges spanning from treacherous canyon crossings (top) to stream fordings (bottom).


COLOR PHOTO: KEVIN GILBERT/BLUE PIXEL SOLE SURVIVORS The wet and rugged miles took their toll, but in the end the winning Seagate squad (bottom) was sitting pretty as it churned for the finish.

COLOR PHOTO: DAN CAMPBELL [See caption above]


One notorious section of the course was so thick with bamboo and vines that traveling 100 meters took half an hour.