At the start of the pandemic, streaming subscriptions like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu saw a surge in memberships–with some services up 50% from 2019. Locked at home, would-be globetrotters traded their walking tours for Tiger King. Checking in no longer meant swiping your key card at a hotel room, but clicking “yes” to the “Are you still watching?” prompt on Netflix.
Based in Fiji with no community COVID-19 cases, I have it pretty good compared to the rest of the world. Still, closed borders and cancelled work contracts have left me with a little more time to tune into TV programs I might have otherwise ignored. Fitness classes and good old fashioned TV escapism have led me to one pandemic obsession, Eco Challenge Fiji: The World’s Toughest Race.
Airing on Amazon Prime, this show covers ~60 four-person teams as they embark on an 11-day course throughout the country, in what is clearly Fiji’s toughest run. Bear Grylls comments on the race from the cockpit of a helicopter, blades whirring in the background. Contestants must paddle a traditional canoe, mountain bike, hike, abseil, swim, and build a raft from bamboo over grueling terrain. Hypothermia, infected wounds, and fatigue are adversaries alongside the other racers. Each team has a support crew member who preps the team’s food, camp, water, and gear.
Watching the show, I became fascinated with each team’s ability to cope through these tough situations without starting an all-out war with one another. Were they really powering on for hours on end with so little sleep? How did each team member stay calm when another would make a frustrating mistake? While of course the show is heavily edited and likely far from reality, there’s no hiding the fact that the contestants somehow pull off some challenges that test both the mind and the body immensely.
One section of Eco Challenge Fiji traverses through Namosi, a beautiful village in Fiji’s largest island’s interior. Spurred by the popularity of the show, race organizers in Fiji decided to host a marathon, half marathon, and 10k run through this region, deeming it “Fiji’s toughest run.” When my friend asked me if I wanted to run the half marathon with her, I agreed. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t run more than a few miles in months–I’d seen clips of Eco Challenge Fiji and worked out few times a week. That was good enough for me.
The race kicked off at 6:30 a.m., with a long hill to greet our fresh legs. I struggled up the first hill, a small taste of what would come.
Like a devoted adventure racing buddy, my friend stuck by my side. Another friend acted as our impromptu support crew, strategically positioning herself at the top of steep hills, intuitively knowing the points we’d struggle through the most.
“I’m so thirsty,” I’d admit to my running partner.
A minute later, we’d see our support crew member parked with a Powerade in one hand and a water bottle in the other.
Once my body got used to the fact that we’d be doing this running thing for a while, I hit a steady pace and felt at ease. We trod along dirt roads through small villages where people waved and handed out motivational high fives. Horses, cows, and pigs kept us company. We passed waterfalls, rivers, and limestone cliffs that scraped the skies. No bend around the hills looked quite like the last. With scenery so stunning, it was easy to forget about threatening blisters and aching legs. Rumbling clouds hung overhead, protecting us from the sun.
At around the 15 kilometer (9 mile) mark, a drizzle of rain cooled us down and clung to us for the rest of the race. My friend spurred me along, encouraging me to keep pushing whenever I felt like taking it easy. As we rounded the last kilometer in the race, a steep hill greeted our weary legs. My friend promised that this hill would be our last–giving me the boost I needed. We pushed up to together, crossing the finish line within seconds of one another. Our support teammate was ready to shuttle us back home to warm showers and cozy beds.
Race organizers were happy to announce that every single marathon and half marathon contestant finished the race, a true success given the hilly terrain and humidity of “Fiji’s Toughest Run.” Though the run was just a small fraction of what the contestants had to complete in Eco Challenge Fiji, succeeding at completing a miniature section of it made me wonder about what other adventures could be possible with a bit more training and planning.
Scouring the comment sections of YouTube adventure racing videos and internet forums, it seems like I’m not the only one who’s been inspired to use this time at home to prep for a bigger adventure (3-day adventure race? thru-hike? crazy expedition?) whenever the borders open again.
Have you found a source of travel inspiration in an unlikely place this crazy year?