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Could You Handle the Eco-Challenge?

Trail and mountain runners on Eco-Challenge teams discuss how their running skills help them succeed at adventure racing.

The self-proclaimed “World’s Toughest Race,” aka Eco-Challenge, Fiji, will bring together 66 four-person teams from 30 countries for a multi-sport ultra-endurance challenge. Dramatized coverage of the expedition adventure race airs August 14 as a 10-part series on Amazon Prime Video. Produced by Bear Grylls, Lisa Hennessy, Eric Van Wagenen and Mark Burnett, the footage will provide in-depth “up close and in person” coverage of several of the teams as they make their way over more than 415 miles (671 kilometers) of the “expedition with a stopwatch” that combines endurance multisport racing and reality television. The setting, besides being one of the world’s most beautiful locations, boasts plenty of water, mud, sand, dirt and rock to keep throwing obstacles at the exhausted competitors as they make their way non-stop through the diverse course.

Given the length of the race, terrain and weight of the gear carried by the participants, there isn’t a lot of running involved in a race where competitors use paddles, mountain bikes, rope, and navigation and feet. Nonetheless, the squads, each with at least one member of the opposite sex, require the endurance of ultrarunners as they find their way and solve a variety of problems on the way to the finish. And several of the competitors come from a running background.

We caught up with two members of Team Endure and one from Team Out There, all serious mountain and trail runners, to ask how runners fare on in adventure races on tropical islands. Team Endure’s Danelle Ballengee and Travis Macy went to Fiji to race with Travis’ father, Mark Macy, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, as a way to show the world what can be accomplished with the disease to provide inspiration and hope. Josiah Middaugh competed as a member of the accomplished endurance and adventure race team Out There, which has won past Eco-Challenges.

Eco-Challenge adventure race in Fiji
Travis Macy and Mark Macy, during the 2019 Eco-Challenge adventure race in Fiji. Photo: Bligh Gillies/Amazon

How much running did you do during Eco-Challenge Fiji?

Middaugh: We ran intermittently but in an expedition race that is over a week long, nonstop, it is important to limit the amount of running. The terrain in Fiji was extreme so many parts were not runnable. Sometimes the only route was actually in a river. This meant hopping slippery rocks and wading/swimming through deeper sections, sometimes at night. The alternative was literally bushwhacking a trail through the bamboo with a machete. At times we were going as slow as 1 km per hour.

Macy: Although we did days and days of trekking, our team hardly ran at all. With my elderly father on the team, our goal was to move consistently and stay ahead of the cutoffs, which generally meant hiking instead of running. The top teams probably did a whole lot of running, generally involving power hiking up the hills and running downhills, very much like what’s done in many ultrarunning races.

Ballengee: We jogged about a mile along a flat road, otherwise we walked.

Did you prepare by doing much running training? Did you do many orienteering courses as part of your training or was navigation relegated to one teammate?

Ballengee: Yes, I ran about 4 hours per week to prepare and did two orienteering courses/races. I did lots of hill hiking.

Macy: I ran and biked almost every day for months leading up to the race. Time on feet is essential. I trained with a bit of road running, lots of trail running, and plenty of off-trail hiking, scrambling, and meandering through the woods and mountains. An adventure racer needs to be ready to run, walk, hike, and scramble while carrying a pack, so I do a lot of training with my fully-loaded race pack. I was the primary navigator on our team, so strong skills with map and compass were very important. I highly recommend orienteering events as a way to learn navigation. I use maps daily to create and carry out runs, rides, hikes, and hunts; reading a map needs to become second nature for at least one person (and hopefully more) on each team. My wife makes fun of me for spending time poring over the same map almost every night in anticipation of the next day’s outing!

Middaugh: Even though most of our time on foot was trekking, running was still an important part of our preparation. I extended my long runs and took more of my trail running into the backcountry, such as running 14,000-foot peaks. More important was covering rugged terrain with a heavy pack. For example, we did a 3-day trek from Vail to Aspen with 50-pound packs, straight through the Rockies. I practiced navigation with teammate Mike Kloser on the Gore mountain range here in Colorado, but during the race we relied mostly on the navigation expertise of our teammate: Kiwi, Gordon Townsend. It was always a team effort but since there is only one set of maps it is important to have one point person for navigation.

Team Endure navigating Photo: Adam Chase

How did your running background help you during the race?

Macy: I came into adventure racing in the early 2000s just after running collegiately thanks of course to the one and only Adam Chase [Travis Macy raced on several of my professional adventure race teams.] and the years of running training and racing gave me a solid foundation: I knew how to pace; I could climb and descend; I had worked with a team; I could outrun most of the competition; and I knew how to suffer. That said, running a lot did not teach me to ride technical terrain or navigate or paddle or manage transitions or handle sleep deprivation. In those early days, my paddling, in particular, was way behind my trekking and biking. In my first few races, I couldn’t even keep the boat straight and spent a lot of time spinning in circles!

Ballengee: It helped a little but not so much in this particular race.

Middaugh: For a race like Eco-Challenge, I like to think that everything I have done in my life prepared me mentally and physically. Since I have been running competitively since age 11 (30 years), the physical demands of running have always been at the core of my endurance abilities. However, Eco-Challenge requires many special skills and a different type of endurance.

Did you ever feel you were close to breaking, mentally or emotionally, during the race?

Ballengee: Once, on the bike course when I had heatstroke. I knew I would be okay since I’d ‘been there before. But it was tough. I had another moment when I felt so bad for my teammate who was suffering so much and I felt so bad for him it pretty much put me in tears. I wasn’t sure if I should stop him or let him suffer on.

Macy: Fiji 2019 presented our team with the unique challenge of grappling with my father’s Alzheimer’s disease. We knew we’d have to sleep a lot (6+ hours in a warm, dry place) each night, and we were able to make that happen, so the usual sleep deprivation was not really an issue for me. Racing with Dad, Shane, and Nellie was incredible and fun — a once-in-a-lifetime experience! And it was very hard. I had to be constantly dialed in and very calculated about risk, time of day, pace, and Dad’s gear and fueling. Dad experienced some disorientation most nights and severe disorientation on the second night. It got scary and I decided if things weren’t better in the morning we’d have to withdraw. For me, that was the most trying point, mentally and emotionally. Thankfully, sleep washed the disorientation away and the next morning Dad was hammering the hills on his bike!

Middaugh: I had low points for sure, but we were very lucky not to have serious illness or injury. I wasn’t sure how I would respond to the sleep deprivation and the extreme duration of the event. At one point we had gone 60 hours with only one hour of sleep and we were all in a tough place. Extreme fatigue can make some people cranky, but I felt more loopy and silly.

eco challenge fiji
Josiah Middaugh transitioning from water to land challenge Photo: Adam Chase

What would be a runner’s weakness going into an expedition adventure race like Eco-Challenge?

Macy: Runners know suffering, and that gives them a leg up in adventure racing. Some runners, however, are so stuck on minutiae like pace, distance, time, routine, terrain, and other variables they like to control that they really struggle in a necessarily uncontrollable environment like Eco-Challenge. Team dynamics are essential in adventure racing and some runners are drawn to running because it can be done as a solo endeavor. Running is so nice and simple when it comes to gear; adventure racing is not. Many runners like to know and plan for each and every mile of the course, but at Eco-Challenge you don’t even know the course until five minutes before the race!

Middaugh: The special skills of an expedition race are important to have experience with; specifically white water paddling, mountain biking, and rope skills. This race had about seven different disciplines that all required attention in preparation. Running is a great background to have, but in this race about 40% of the distance was on the water.

Ballengee: Paddling and all the water stuff. You had to be comfortable in water to be ok on this course.

What advice do you have for runners thinking of getting into adventure racing?

Ballengee: Go for it!

Macy: Adventure racing is a great way to spice things up! You might start by getting out for some less-structured adventures with multiple sports: bike to a trailhead, run up the trail, hike to the peak, run back down, and ride home. If you like that, try adding some paddling and off-trail travel and orienteering. Go for a fast-packing trip and see how you like sleeping outside with minimal gear (but don’t forget the basics needed for safety and emergencies). Get out there with friends and learn together. Practice mental flexibility, spontaneity, and resilience. Dial in your gear — and start saving for more gear. The newbie mindset is a great one, and learning is fun; don’t hesitate to read books, watch videos, and reach out to experts. And, most of all, turn off the beep on your watch between each mile for goodness sake!

Middaugh: Go for it! I originally gravitated towards multi-sport racing due to running injuries and adventure racing is a natural progression. Start with single day multi-sport events, progress to stage racing, then if you really seek adventure you might consider an expedition style adventure race.

Any thoughts, comments or observations you’d want to share with PodiumRunner readers?

Macy: For what it’s worth, a key factor in my personal longevity in endurance sports has been engagement in a variety of sports. Practicing multiple sports in a given month or year helps me decrease injury and burnout. Adventure racing, in particular, has been a great way to travel the world and develop lasting international friendships. And, when all is said and done, running will probably always be my favorite.

Middaugh: This race was truly an epic adventure. Even though adventure racing is not usually my focus, I always told myself that if Eco-Challenge ever came back I would want to be a part of it. When Mike Kloser, one of the most accomplished adventure racers of all time, asked me to be on his team I couldn’t pass it up. In an expedition adventure race the clock never stops and anything can happen. The co-ed team dynamic also makes the sport very unique. The goal is to be stronger than your weakest link — that that can change from day to day or discipline to discipline. The team gives you accountability to more than just yourself and at the end of the day, misery loves company.