Canadian athletes come heartbreakingly close to winning the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji.
words :: Ned Morgan.
What’s an Eco-Challenge? It sounded to me like a worthwhile initiative to safely dispose of all the old toxic cleaners in my basement. In fact, it was a reality TV series founded by Survivor producer Mark Burnett in 1995.
After racing in the Raid Gauloises, a French multi-sport endurance race founded in the 1980s, Burnett bought the TV rights and transformed the idea into a team-based event first filmed for broadcast in the Utah desert. The Eco-Challenge ran until 2002 and featured what would become the template for adventure racing: mixed-gender international teams competing non-stop over rugged, harsh and remote terrain. Athletes switched between trekking/mountaineering, kayaking/rafting/canoeing SUP, horseback riding, mountain biking and other disciplines.
In 2019, Burnett and producers at MGM Television in association with Amazon Studios revived and rebranded the race as World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji. The hazardous and exhausting 671 km course winds through the jungles, mountains and waterways of the South Pacific island nation. Hosted by Bear Grylls, the ten-episode series is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.
Return to Fiji
Veteran multiport racer Bob Miller, based in Ontario’s Blue Mountains, was captain of Team Canada Adventure, who placed second (just over an hour behind Team New Zealand, who finished with a time of 141 hours and 23 minutes). Adventure racer Scott Ford plus obstacle race athletes Ryan Atkins and Rea Kolbl joined Miller to make up the team.
Miller and Ford had experienced the Fiji backcountry before. Both competed in the final race of the original Eco-Challenge in 2002—but dropped out after suffering debilitating foot infections (commonly known as “jungle foot”). By 2019, Miller had been out of adventure racing for seven years.
We recently talked to Bob Miller about his redemptive race.
ML: If you had to pick one moment of extreme struggle among many in Eco-Challenge Fiji, what would it be?
Bob Miller: For me, the most extreme struggle came on the last night of the race where we were paddling out into the Pacific towards the finish on the sixth night. We’d made a navigation blunder the night before and in the course of re-orienting ourselves wasted four hours when we otherwise would have taken some sleep. We ended up taking a quick 30-minute power-nap just before the sun came up and then pushed on. When we reached the fourth and final Camp later that morning we found out there was roughly 18 hours of racing left so knew we’d likely have to push through in one go without sleep, as we figured the Australian Team Gippsland were close behind.
By the time we reached the final paddle it was 9 or 10 pm and in good conditions, we could have finished in five or six hours so again knew we’d have to keep pushing even though we were all starting to feel the effects of little sleep the night before. It turned into an awful night for us as we struggled to stay awake, but me especially. I must’ve fallen asleep for brief moments hundreds of times only to be startled awake as I tilted dangerously towards the outside of the outrigger canoe. It amazes me that none of us dropped our paddles into the ocean during these periods of brief sleep.
I must’ve fallen asleep for brief moments hundreds of times only to be startled awake as I tilted dangerously towards the outside of the outrigger canoe.
We did try rotating power-naps in the bottom of the canoe, but the waves were too big and would crash onto you, making continuous sleep impossible. The final paddle ended up taking us closer to nine hours in our delirious state and we made another navigation error in the dark as our bearing was slightly off and we had to paddle a few extra km to get back on course. We were thrilled when we reached the second-to-last CP only five km from the finish and found out we were still in second place. It turns out Team Gippsland was also experiencing sleep-deprivation issues, but they still almost caught us, finishing just 20-30 minutes behind.
ML: What do you think was the key to your team relationship, when we saw so many other teams fall apart in the show?
Bob Miller: We had a very democratic team environment, as well as a complete commitment to doing whatever it took to reach the finish line as fast as possible. Whenever someone thought we could be moving faster or could have done something better it was quickly discussed, a solution agreed upon and we moved on.
However, we also really enjoyed each other’s company and tried to find as much humour in the suffering as we could. Many of the volunteers and support staff commented that we seemed the happiest and most enjoyable of the lead teams so I think that outlook really helped.
ML: Could you describe a moment when your team disagreed with or questioned each other’s judgment?
Bob Miller: When we struggled with navigation on both the fifth and sixth nights of the race was likely when we questioned each other most. Or perhaps my teammates started questioning me as the navigator. They were stressful times as we knew we were losing valuable time and a win, or podium-place hung in the balance.
ML: What about the fastest/easiest legs of the race for you, and also the slowest/most difficult?
Bob Miller: I dare say any of the legs were easy, but the whitewater rafting section was certainly a nice reprieve as we always had a current helping us along, a rapid to negotiate, or scenery to keep your minds distracted from any aches or pains we were dealing with. The slowest, most difficult was certainly the cold pool section atop Vuwa Falls. It was just as depicted in the show; hypothermia-inducing cold water, the slipperiest rocks you’ve ever stepped on, impenetrable jungle on the banks, coupled with four days of effort and sleep-deprived bodies. It’s a horrible place I never wish to see again.
ML: Tell us about the moment when you realized your team might be able to catch the New Zealand frontrunners.
Bob Miller: We’d been amongst the top five teams for the entire race so always thought the win or podium was within reach. However, with these races the real “racing” starts in the last 24-48 hours before the finish. You want to keep your team out of trouble and near the front until the last day or two and then see how much you have left to push for the finish. On the fifth night after the stand-up paddleboard section we were told both the Kiwis and Australian teams were less than 30 minutes ahead. So that really gave us confidence as we were all feeling good and ready to push. We also had a roughly 40 km trek ahead and knew it was our best discipline, so hoped to catch or pass them.
A few hours into the trek we passed the Australians as they stopped to sleep. Shortly after that we caught sight of the Kiwis’ headlamps on the opposite side of a valley so we were feeling hopeful we could gain on them. However it was shortly after this moment that we had our biggest navigation struggle of the event and lost four hours in the process.
After this struggle, we had no idea where we ranked and thought we could have easily dropped a few places, but were excited to reach the fourth and final camp and find out we still held second. Setting off on the final paddle the Kiwis were maybe four or five hours ahead, so we never thought we’d catch them. It wasn’t until we reached the finish that we found out about their boat capsizing and learned that we’d come close to catching them on that leg.
ML: Can you talk about the parts of the experience that maybe weren’t captured in the show? Ie, your takeaway memory?
Bob Miller: I think the show did a great job of accurately depicting the experience; for most teams the interaction and submersion within the Fijian culture was the stand-out highlight for sure. There aren’t many cultures as welcoming and genuinely happy as Fiji’s. I’ll forever try to emulate their optimistic outlook and positive energy.
ML: Due to the pandemic, we guess there won’t be another World’s Toughest Race this year. Does that (temporarily) dash your hopes to win another competition?
Bob Miller: The organizers are hoping they can run the next Eco-Challenge in Patagonia in 2021. They’ve provided two time-frames of February/March, or November, however, it’s anyone’s guess if it will be possible. Team Canada Adventure would be excited to go back and see if we can reach the top step of the podium.