The Eco Challenge was arguably the world’s most difficult race. It started in 1995 and was held annually until 2002. It was what is called an adventure race, which in short defines a race that is typically several hundred miles, although shorter versions exist. These races require teams of athletes to traverse several types of terrain to finish the race.
The Eco Challenge itself was tied to reality television. A series called Eco-Challenge: The Expedition Race was created by Mark Burnett for everyone’s viewing pleasure. One might think that because it was for television that it wasn’t really what it was billed as, but it was still a brutal race. It was created in a time when reality television was really reality television. The concept was still new and still appealing without all of the scripted drama that is seen in today’s reality shows. If Burnett’s name sounds familiar to you, it should. He is one of the Hollywood’s biggest producers. He has produced Survivor, The Voice, and The Apprentice. It is pretty clear that reality television is his niche and he was able to create a show that had viewers hooked.
The Eco Challenge was the ultimate reality race. It took place over 300 miles and was a 24 hour a day race. This was not anything new as this is typical of adventure races, but it was the first time it was being brought to the masses. It being a 24-hour race meant that the clock kept running until all 300 miles were completed. Aside from the race being 300 miles long, what made it very difficult was that it wasn’t just running. As mentioned earlier having to travel through different terrains added to the difficulty.
Some of the things that needed to be done to finish the Eco Challenge included kayaking, horseback riding, scuba diving, and mountaineering. Teams of four or five people competed and were typically mixed with both women and men.
Races were held all over the world. The first race which took place in 1995 took place in Utah, and the last race which took place in 2002 was held in Fiji.
The races had a general set of rules. They were as follows:
- No motorized vehicles used for travel.
- No GPS can be used (maps ok).
- Teams must stay together through the entire race.
- You can’t receive any outside help, unless it is from an opposing team.
- Mandatory gear must be worn.
The races typically focus on specific disciplines, which would help you get across the different terrains. These were paddling, traveling on wheels, beasts of burden, catching air, covering terrain, and learning the ropes.
Paddling involved the use of kayaks, canoes, rafts or tubing. Traveling on wheels was normally the use of bikes, or some type of skate. Beasts of burden typically involved a horse or camel being ridden. Catching air was hang gliding or paragliding. Covering terrain was swimming, mountaineering, canyoneering or other similar things. Learning the ropes was rappelling or climbing. Having some skills in these areas was a must to complete the race. If you didn’t have any type of experience with any of this, not only would you not be able to finish the race, but you your team wouldn’t either.
The elements were a big part of the Eco Challenge. Competitors didn’t get a nice hotel to sleep in, they had to be able to use what was around them, but sometimes not being able to sleep in a comfortable place is all it takes to break someone. There was also weather they needed to deal with, and no one can control mother nature. With bad weather, and lack of sleep, many times the racers had to complete the races while suffering from sleep deprivation. Not having enough sleep could spell doom for the team, it made normal activities someone might have been used to increasingly more dangerous.
Despite all the rules, and elements of the Eco Challenge, the most important thing was team work. Without team work completing the challenge was impossible. When running a solo race, you only need to worry about yourself. With the Eco Challenge a team captain is normally in charge of picking the strategy and leading his team. A strong leader can make all the difference during a challenge.
The team make up is also key, not all athletes were versed in all the different disciplines. Having a well-rounded team to was important because as long as each discipline was covered they could help other teammates succeed in accomplishing tasks when needed.
With the Eco Challenge show having ended in 2002, it doesn’t mean the races are dead. There are several adventure races that take place throughout the world. They might not have the same attention as the Eco Challenge, but use the same principles. These races have become more challenging each year and the emphasis always comes back to team. Adventure races outside the Eco Challenge can vary on their rule set, some last a few hours while the more hardcore ones last several weeks.
A steady pace is really important in the race. Trying to finish as fast as possible is not a sound move to make. You need to make sure that everything is calculated. At this point it is not only about physical attributes, but also your mental game needs to be strong to survive the difficult conditions.
Even though Burnett didn’t create the race, his decision to make the Eco Challenge into a show shed light on adventure races, something that likely would not have happened if not for him. It also proved that that outdoor competition shows could succeed and is what led to other shows such a Survivor. The only difference from Survivor to the Eco Challenger is that Survivor is not a race and is more about patience.
Do you think you have what it takes to complete an adventure race? If you do then you need to gather up your friends and register for any adventure race that still exist. It would be the ultimate test for your group.