Eco-Challenge. The toughest race on Earth. Ultimate dream of every adventure racer. Madness.
It was an ordinary day in January 2019. Exactly a year ago. A friend of mine was calling me and said that he came across some kind of a race, but was looking for a girl. I said yes without knowing what kind of a race we were talking about. A few days later he calls me again and says “we’re in”, don’t book anything for September. That was the moment when I first Googled it. When I saw a huge title saying “the toughest race on Earth”, I kind of freaked out what I got myself into.
What is Eco-Challenge?
Eco-Challenge is a 14-day, 650 km long race in the toughest conditions. It takes place in different countries every year, this time in the Pacific Island of Fiji. There are about 60-70 teams from all over the world, each consisting of 5 members, competing 6 disciplines: hiking / running, biking, rope climbing and descending in the untouched jungle, wild river rafting, sailing and paddleboarding on the open ocean.
Now add minimum or no sleep at all, protein bars, nuts and dried fruits for two weeks. No phone, no GPS, no electronics, just a map and a compass.
This is Eco-Challenge. I couldn’t really imagine what this meant, but today I know what this means pretty precisely.
Preparation for Eco-Challenge
Some teams do adventure racing as their job. But that was not our case. Fortunately, we had one member in the team who had participated in the Eco-Challenge three times. The only thing we knew was that we had to train. A lot. And here comes the first problem. We all had full-time jobs and we just couldn’t take half a year off, which fundamentally affected our frequency of training. And the second problem was that half of the team lives in Turkey and the other half in the Czech Republic, so it was quite difficult & expensive to meet up.
In the end we did only 4 joint trainings – in Croatia, twice in Turkey and once in Japan. But we were never complete, someone was always missing.
During the training in Kackar mountains in Turkey, about a month before our departure to Fiji, I managed to partially tear my ligaments in the ankle. I got crutches, lots of pills and a solid brace. When I was explaining to the doctor in Istanbul that it must grow back together in a month, that I was going to the toughest race in the world, he was looking at me as if I was crazy. But I did everything I could to make the impossible happen.
It really did happen and on August 26 I was sitting on a plane to Japan, ready for my last training. I stopped using the crutches about a week before leaving. Two weeks after starting to walk again, I was standing on Japan’s highest mountain. My Turkish team, including me, was ready to kick asses.
Why did I race in a Turkish team?
Our team was kind of international. Three Turks, one Turk-American living in the Czech Republic and me, Czech. But we had to choose a country to race for, and with a large majority of Turks, it was obviously Turkey. I was the only girl on the team, also the youngest, the others were 50+.
There were 5 members but only 4 of us were racing – the fifth was a kind of support member. He was replenishing our food and bringing us equipment from place to place so that we could switch from the paddle board to the bike.
It should also be noted that I had never seen 3 out of the 4 members in my life before. But the most important thing that was connecting us was the adventure spirit and decent physical condition.
There was also a Czech team, with whom you may have seen an interview on DVTV. And I found another Czech in the Colombian-Spanish team!
Three, two, one, GO!
From Japan we flew straight to Fiji. At the airport, we even met the Japanese team – pretty easy to spot their six huge equipment containers and team shirts with the Eco-Challenge logo. We had to carry our equipment, including bikes, and arrange their transport. Traveling with a bike, enormous duffel bag and a huge 120L gear box wasn’t fun.
We arrived in Fiji five days before the start. It took us three days to pack our stuff into a small 35L backpack. We had to be really precise about what to take, because every gram counts for such an expedition. On the other hand, if we missed something, it might have not ended well. The basic equipment we had most of the time with us was food, clothing, map, compass, first aid kit, machete, harness, life jacket and helmet.
The next two days we went through various briefings and performance & knowledge tests, so the organizers made sure that we know how to use our sail or to work with our rope ascenders and descenders. Every member had to get a confirmation from a certified instructor beforehand for rafting, sailing, climbing and take some CPR classes.
September 5th all the teams started together on the southeast part of the island. Unfortunately, I can’t write anything more specific about the race, who won or how we did, because the whole race was filmed. This year there will be a multi-part series on Amazon Prime, and we have signed confidentiality. But I’ll tell you a few moments which were the strongest for me.
What is it like to race in Eco-Challenge?
Insane. Difficult. But awesome and unforgettable. I never thought about giving up, but there were three moments which were extremely frustrating.
1 – We were supposed to be biking. Instead we waded through knee-deep mud carrying the bikes on our backs. Thirteen hours straight, in rain and dark. Our speed was about 400 meters per hour. After three days of absolutely no sleep, and exhausted to death. Some of us even started hallucinating. At this point we were lost for the first time. We decided to have the first 20 minutes of sleep. We literally passed out on the ground, somebody into the mud, somebody into a thorny bush. I stayed awake because I was the main navigator, so the compass and the map belonged to me. In those twenty minutes I managed to figure out where we got lost and which direction to go.
2 – We were paddleboarding not only on the open ocean, but also on rivers. Against the stream. It was raining at the moment and it was night, of course. The demotivating moment was when I looked toward the shore and my paddle board wasn’t moving. At all. We encountered quite strong currents and we couldn’t get past them. I started panicking that the current would carry us back to where we came from if I stopped paddling. Finally, we got out of the stream and continued for another 30 kilometers…
3 – Bilibili. This is a Fijian raft made of bamboo trunks tied together by a rope. The raft moves by pushing off with one bamboo stick, there are no paddles. We had to make the rafts ourselves. There were two people on one raft. It was a black night for a change and it was absolutely impossible to see where we were going. There could have been a waterfall right in front of us and we wouldn’t see it. They wouldn’t do that to us, I thought. Because we tied our raft not so well, after some 15 hours we began to dive, so the front was about 30 cm under water.
However, it was an ideal opportunity to get some sleep. One would keep the raft moving, the other will sleep and after three hours we would switch. But the one who was just asleep had to lay almost entirely in the icy water. Sleep was stronger than cold at that moment, but I kept waking up, frozen and shaking. It took me several hours to stop shaking.
Eco-Challenge Vol. II…?
We all survived, although there were plenty of injuries. But my ankle was fine! The guys looked like they just got out of concentration camp. The irony is that I gained about 3 kilos during the race, while the guys lost like 8. I compensated tiredness with food, so I usually had enough energy.
Despite the suffering, we had great moments when we laughed or admired the beautiful, untouched nature. I bet even the natives have never seen the places we did.
After the race we had a few days to rest at the hotel, which we spent more or less by sleeping, healing injuries, eating and cleaning equipment from mud.
I always imagined Fiji as a place with sunny beaches palm trees, white sand and turquoise water. I couldn’t be more wrong. I mean, the coast does look like that, but inland is one large impassable muddy forest with several hundred waterfalls and streams. Regular tourists have no chance to see the inland, so I’d wouldn’t know what Fiji looks like if I hadn’t taken part in the Eco-Challenge.
As soon as I flew back to Prague, there was only one thing in my head: “what about next year?” The destination of the next Eco-Challenge is not known yet, so I’m still not sure if I want to go through this again. But if it took place in the mountains, which is “my kind of thing”, I’d really consider going again. I guess I didn’t tell you, but I have a phobia from the open ocean, and I’m really having trouble going for a swim in the sea. So for me the biggest challenge was to overcome my fear and set out on the open ocean. I’d definitely rock it in the mountains.
Anyway, if you’ve read the article until here, congrats! Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of pictures because I didn’t have anything to take them with. So it’s a mix of moments before the race. However, you can watch a video from our training sessions or photos from the previous article.
You will certainly be interested in $$, as always. To be honest, it was extremely expensive. I don’t remember exactly how much, but the starting fee was 5000 USD/team. Now add the cost of equipment, trainings and flight tickets and you will get the approximate amount.
You can find more info about Eco-Challenge on their website.
Feel free to ask questions! 🙂