In a bid to stave off the increasing desire to travel somewhere aesthetically different to my own neighbourhood, I have been indulging in watching a lot of shows that transport me virtually to different parts of the globe. My husband and I both share a love for travel and so, glass of Amarula over ice in hand, we decided to follow international teams participating in something which was billed by Amazon as the World’s Toughest Race.
You know it’s going to be brutal when Bear Grylls is the presenter because he doesn’t generally indulge in any half-baked nonsense – it’s all action: people being uncomfortable for a lot of the time; probably wet; probably hungry; undoubtably, mentally stressed; possibly injured; on rough terrain with limited resources, doing almost impossible things, etc.
I’m not sure how often they hold these sort of challenges but in this programme, they are filming the 2019 race, which was in Fiji and the islands look spectacular. It has definitely become a place that has been put on my “to-do” travel list.
One thing is certain, however, and that is that I will not be experiencing it as a team member on the World’s Toughest Race.
I have to say that a lot of me admires people for putting themselves through feats of mental and physical endurance, never mind the fact that it makes great television. Terry Fox, one-legged marathon runner, cancer sufferer and Canadian icon, is one of my heroes for that very reason as there is no way that I could achieve what he managed in his short and cruelly ended life, unless someone told me that the lives of my loved ones depended on it and even then, I’m not 100% certain that I wouldn’t break.
So, the fact that these people are putting themselves out there in an environment that is unsympathetic, at a pace that is unrelenting, on terrain that would test the fittest among us and most of them are doing it to see if they can do it – well, they must be a bit mad, mustn’t they?
Suspected madness aside, what this programme does present to the audience in the characters of the people are strong individuals with stories to warm the heart and some of the best qualities of humanity on show: perseverance despite the odds; loyalty to team members; a positive mindset and “can do” attitude; a doggedness in the face of the near impossible; a grit (one of Bear’s favourite words), enabling them to dig deep physically and psychologically to continue despite their pain or weariness.
And there is a lot of pain and weariness because it is a race and so, the team that gets to the finish line the fastest are the winners. No great surprises there. But, in order to do this, they have to follow a course which will challenge them to the utmost.
It begins with a race on water where they have to paddle out into the Pacific to reach their starting point for the land race and then there is hiking and cycling and paddleboarding and swimming and rope climbing up waterfalls and hiking and cycling and paddleboarding and coming down waterfalls and swimming and hiking…you get the general idea.
That list was just in one day! I am teasing, of course as no-one could manage two paddleboarding sessions, could they?
I said “day” above but there aren’t really days, only the passing of endurance time because the teams that want to win don’t stop. They might have a rest for 90 minutes in a camp because it is obligatory but this could be in the middle of the night. They might have some hot food, a cat nap and get some dry clothes and then they are off again! In the dark, in an unknown environment, wet and slippery and cold surrounded by strange noises with only a miner’s style lamp on their head to guide them. And they could be hiking or cycling or paddleboarding or in a boat on the open ocean in the dark, all in the name of winning a race.
It truly was a revelation.
Watching the actual race was entertaining enough but meeting some of the competitors was also interesting as there were teams from all over the world. We didn’t get to meet some of them, the programme focused on a key few and I’m not sure why it was – we didn’t know until they crossed the finish line that there were teams from Britain and the Czech Republic, for instance – unless they had opted out of being interviewed or having a cameraman with them to film their adventures. Who knows?
My favourite team was Stray Dogs which was made up of experienced adventure racers all over the age of 60, the oldest member of which was Marshall Ulrich who was 68 years of age.
68! I’m not sure about you but when I’m 68, I do not want to be walking in a river with slippery rocks that I can’t see competing with a current which could undermine my footing and with creatures unknown. I do not want to be cycling 50km on a mountain bike that I have had to put together myself from a box before I can even get going. I do not want to then discover, once I get going, that the torrential rain that we had had the previous day and which was a welcome relief to the relentless heat when I was having to propel myself across a surging Pacific Ocean the day before that, which brought me to the brink of heat exhaustion and dehydration, has turned the bicycle route that we have to follow into mud of epic proportions. In fact, mud is too light a description for the red clay bog that the participants found themselves in. Even the blokes from The Grand Tour would have had trouble getting through it and they’d be in the cabs of their specially adapted vehicles.
I want to be visiting Fiji in comfort with air conditioning and some sort of motorised vehicle to get me around, not my own woman power except for a mild hike of limited exertion, with a good 8 hours of sleep at the end of the day after having had a replenishing meal and a cheeky cocktail, listening to the lapping of the waves on the white sandy shore and watching the sun set over the ocean.
But, respect to the man, Marshall. He was resilient and positive and a true team player and leader. What also came across was that he loved what he was doing and he loved the people with whom he was doing it and I felt a bit envious of that. This was especially noticeable in his dealings with a member of another team, Team Endure whose team members included a father and son, Mark and Travis Macy.
Mark Macy had previously been a Stray Dog, competing alongside Marshall for many years but this year, Mark was accompanied by his son, Travis on an especially made team so that the two Macys could be together. You see, Mark Macy had recently been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s and so, his cognitive ability was becoming impaired and in a bid to create some great memories with his dad, Travis wanted to adventure race with him. It was something for which his dad was renowned and Travis was also a fan of the sport so it seemed the best way, to share something that they both love.
We track Mark’s progress quite a lot during the series. We are told that he is now unable to tie his own shoelaces or fasten zippers, this being one of the things lost due to his diminished cognitive function. We see Travis sharing details about their lives together in the past and details about what their lives hold for them both now. We see Marshall, Mark’s old team leader, ask the race officials if they know how Mark is getting on, if he is safe and still competing.
This was all particularly touching and there is nothing like the steel of human spirit with a side order of compassion and empathy to produce a tear or two in this blogger.
And this was just one story of many, describing people’s resilience. There were team members who had had breakdowns and were there to challenge themselves, to show that they have usurped their previous obstacles to success, and endured. There are people who have climbed Everest and wanted a new challenge. There were war veterans who despite their disabilities, like amputed limbs and hearing loss, were determined to show how bloody able they were.
I was gratified to see that there were loads of women, some as team leaders, lots of them mothers and some making up whole teams, all eager to show the world what women can do and how they can do it really well.
In fact, on the winning team, there was a female member who had recently had a baby and was out there showing how it could be done. Respect to her. Perhaps that was why she did so well at the night sessions as she may not have had any sleep for months so it was just another night of no rest but this time, with some vigorous exercise to pass the time.
But along with the stories of strength came the details of exactly how harrowing this race can be. Trenchfoot and blisters seemed to be one of the accepted consequences of this race and many abrasions happened where cuts were kept together with duct tape so that water didn’t get in and the racer could continue.
One particularly gruelling leg of the race has the team in water for hours, cold, cold water, for miles and miles with no respite. They have just climbed up a waterfall to get there. They are tired, not having slept properly since the race started. They have put their bodies through more in the space of hours than I think I have ever done in my lifetime!
You can see just how much it is taking out of the teams to keep going but they have to, even when individuals are showing clear signs of hypothermia, they have to keep going. Obviously, there are doctors all throughout the course who can be consulted and at the end of this leg there is a warming tent where warmed blankets and hot food and drinks are given to raise body temperature but even that is not enough to bring people back to consciousness.
There was one team member whose condition was very much touch and go and I feared for him. He was incoherent at the warming tent and we had already seen him shaking in the pools and struggling to put one foot in front of another. How he did not collapse, I do not know. It was truly tough to watch.
Of course, if he could not continue, then the whole team’s race would be finished too and it was interesting to see the dynamic of the conversations the team was having about their ability to keep going. There was a sense that no-one wanted anyone to die but no-one wanted their race to be over and whilst that might sound dramatic, it’s not – there is a real chance that someone could die competing in this race.
You have to be a strong-minded individual to compete, you have to want to succeed or you would not have had the drive to be there in the first place- if your race is ended because of someone else in your team when you could go on, how do you view that? Are they the weak one who has prevented you reaching your goal? Are they a crucial component of the team, the team being all or would you perceive them always as the person who held you back? If you were the person who was a burden, could you dig deeper for the sake of the team, even if you felt like it could kill you?
So many questions and luckily, as I will never voluntarily put myself in that scenario, ones to which I will never be subjected.
I like a hike up a mountain; I have even done a bit of canyon hiking, walking through fast flowing water with my shoes on over slippery rocks and in the baking heat and I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed it. But this was something else.
I loved this programme. I loved the people and their stories, I loved the scenery and the way it was filmed, I loved the welcoming nature and helpfulness of the Fijians, I loved the ability of people to keep going, even if they were suffering.
I can’t recommend it enough and I am sorry it is over although I suspect a lot of the contestants may be feeling exactly the reverse!