The first signs of a breakdown appeared in broad daylight. In the
middle of a grassy unpaved road lay a plastic sheath containing
maps and instructions. A little farther on was a water bottle,
then another, the scattered debris of a machine that had thrown a
rod. After sustaining a blistering pace through nearly 200 miles
of the 2001 Eco-Challenge in New Zealand's Southern Alps, Team
PureNZ.com, the cream of Kiwi adventure racers, was faltering.
"We knew when we found that stuff that they were loopy with sleep
deprivation," says Ian Adamson, captain of the U.S.-based
Salomon/Eco-Internet team that had chased PureNZ.com up and down
vertiginous peaks and through glaciated river valleys for 3 1/2
days. "No team has gone without sleep for three days. You can't
function. It's not possible."
This is an article from the Nov. 12, 2001 issue
The Kiwis had gambled that it was. PureNZ.com was still smarting
from a second-place finish in September's Discovery Channel World
Championship in Switzerland, the result of a two-hour nap the
team took late in the race. Consequently, following a mandatory
four-hour rest in a dark zone on the first night of the Eco, they
were determined to forgo all sleep. While the Eco-Internet team
had slept for three hours on Night 2 after a punishing mountain
climb and a slog through a bog, the Kiwis had sped off into the
night toward another peak, prompting race director Mark Burnett
to remark, "I want to cut their arms off and see if wires fall
However, not long after PureNZ.com had changed out of its bike
gear early on Day 4 and hurried off on the final, 45-mile leg,
Nathan Fa'avae, the team navigator who had spent the transition
poring over maps instead of eating, started getting nauseated and
showing signs of heatstroke, carbohydrate and glycogen depletion,
and acute sleep deprivation (or, as teammate Kathy Lynch put it,
"He got the bonk on"). As night fell, Fa'avae repeatedly stopped
or wandered off, asleep on his feet. His teammates attempted to
coax him along, explaining to him that he was in the
Eco-Challenge, that the team was in first place and they were
"I left the planet for a few hours," says Fa'avae, 29, an Outward
Bound instructor and one of the world's strongest adventure
racers. "I felt like I was in someone else's nightmare. I
thought, I'm supposed to be on a team that's winning this race.
This team has some guy on it who's totally out of it. Obviously
I'm on the wrong team."
As the Kiwis made painfully slow progress through the evening
toward the mile-high Minaret Col and a rappelling section beyond,
Fa'avae kept trying to sleep. "After a while it seemed cruel to
make him go on, and we didn't want him rappelling in that state,"
says teammate Jeff Mitchell. At around 11 p.m. they set the alarm
for 1:30 a.m. and lay down in a field. About an hour later team
captain Neil Jones saw the lights of Eco-Internet go by. "When
the clock went off, we nudged Nathan, but there was no response,"
said Jones. "He was with the fairies."
The Kiwis finally got moving around 2:30 a.m., convinced that
they had lost the race. Meanwhile, Eco-Internet, having
experienced a moment of euphoria upon learning at a checkpoint
that it was in the lead, was unhappily backtracking in the dark
through a river canyon a few kilometers away, trying to make
sense of instructions that required the team to negotiate a
slippery river bank that was thick with beech trees and
needle-sharp Spanish grass.
After Eco-Internet had mucked around in the canyon for two hours,
daylight revealed a river that was negotiable by boulder-hopping
and canyoneering. By the time the team got to the raft put-in on
the Matukituki River, "we were literally looking over our
shoulders," says Adamson. Eco-Internet thought it would need a
30-minute margin to beat the Kiwis, who are better paddlers. As
it turned out, it had 54 minutes, most of which it would need.
After guiding its unwieldy boat through a river and across a lake
with the aid of a sail, Eco-Internet paddled to the finish at
Lake Wanaka's Glendhu Bay, four days, five hours and 34 minutes
after the horseback start of the race, and 21 minutes ahead of
PureNZ.com. For the first time a non-Kiwi team had won an
adventure race in New Zealand, the birthplace of the sport.
Besides outrunning the Kiwis, Eco-Internet had fought off an
emotionally charged challenge by Team Earthlink, a squad that
included Robyn Benincasa and Isaac Wilson, two people who, as
members of Eco-Internet in last year's race in Borneo, had helped
them win. Although Wilson had expressed no hard feelings when he
was replaced on the team several months ago, the exit of
Benincasa--who had been with the team for four years--was bitter.
After struggling for every breath during the Switzerland race,
she had been diagnosed with exercise- and altitude-induced
asthma, prompting Adamson, whom she considered her best friend,
to find a new woman for the Eco-Challenge. (Each four-person team
had to include at least one man and one woman.) "Robyn seems to
have found treatment for it," says Adamson, "but it didn't seem
fair to the team to use this race as the experiment to see if it
Benincasa says that after her diagnosis, she got inhalers that
took care of the ailment and, in fact, increased her lung
capacity. "I was training hard and beating old times," she says.
"I was excited to come here, but unbeknownst to me, Ian had
already put Sara Ballantyne on the team. It was unnecessary to
break up a friendship and a business [Adamson and Benincasa
co-own Colorado Adventure Training, which, ironically, teaches
team-building skills to corporations] over a couple of inhalers."
When Earthlink's Cathy Sassin dropped out a few weeks before the
event because of a lung parasite, Benincasa stepped in and raced
in top form. On Day 3 she carried her pack and that of team
navigator Roman Dial up the steepest part of the course. After
that climb, team captain Jason Middleton announced to a camera
crew that if Eco-Internet wanted to win, "it was going to have to
pull it out of our cold, dead fingers."
That, however, was before Earthlink had finished the 54-mile
mountain-bike leg, a steep, rocky course that produced a torrent
of toxic language from the top teams and convinced Wilson that
bike-course designer Sebastian Pot should have to spend the rest
of his life as "an aerobics instructor in a smoking lounge." At
the end of the bike leg Earthlink conceded victory and formed an
alliance with Team Pearl Izumi, with whom it had traveled much of
the race. On Day 4 the two teams shoved off into the Matukituki
with their rafts carabinered together and their pace dictated by
Middleton's three-meter-square kite-surfing kite, which towed
them past sheep pastures and deer farms as most of the octet
Shortly after they reached the finish line hours later, still
tied for fourth, Benincasa received a surprise marriage proposal
from boyfriend Jeff Akens, who, like Benincasa, is a San Diego
firefighter but was not an Eco competitor. (It was, as it turned
out, the first of three finish-line marriage proposals.) Stunned
out of a sleep-deprived fog and standing on a podium before a
phalanx of TV crews, Benincasa blurted out a few expletives
before finally saying, "Yes, honey, of course I'll marry you!"
It was a moment that would have been appreciated by third-place
Team Spie, a French contingent that always finds a way to
experience a little joie de vivre amid the conventional
adventure-race privation. While other teams nourished themselves
with energy bars, canned fruit and tuna, cheese curls and lasagna
cooked by chemical reaction in a paper bag, Spie knocked on the
door of a farmhouse in the middle of the biking leg and asked for
food. As captain Jeff Robin tells it, "a beautiful woman"
answered the door, considered their request and, within minutes,
produced enough cold lamb, asparagus, tomato salad, bread,
cheese, Coca-Cola and coffee to satisfy four famished racers. "It
was like a dream," says Robin's teammate Benjamin Midena.
Robin and Midena's tale could be mistaken for one of the
fatigue-induced hallucinations that constituted some of the
race's most interesting scenery. In the middle of a dark bog on
the second night, for example, Pearl Izumi's Rebecca Rusch
imagined that an Asian woman was selling fruit. After slogging
through the same bog 10 hours later, Lawrence Foster of Team
Subaru Outback sounded like a naturalist from the Land of Nod. "I
saw witches and alligators and fish; there are tons in this
area," he said. "They hide in the rock."
In reality, pristinely beautiful New Zealand has almost no native
animals that can hurt you or even gross you out, which makes it a
far cry from last year's edition in Borneo, where racers had to
battle leeches, biting ants, snakes and, for an unlucky 40% of
the participants, leptospirosis, a nasty bacterial infection
caused by exposure to contaminated animal urine. Lacking that ick
factor, race organizers had expected the Southern Alps' often
harsh spring weather to give this Eco its edge. Aside from a few
mini storms, though, the first week of the event saw the most
pleasant stretch of October weather in 20 years, according to
That was the main reason that the top five teams completed the
225-mile course--which involved traveling by horseback, raft,
mountain bike, rope and foot up and down 45,000 feet of ascent--a
day ahead of organizers' predictions. It's also why those teams
felt technically unchallenged. In contrast to the Switzerland
race, in which 32 of the 41 teams didn't finish, the Eco saw 59
of the 67 teams complete the course. "This race had route
contingencies for bad weather, but none for good weather," says
Even Burnett, who started Eco-Challenge in 1995, before the huge
success of his Survivor TV shows, was uninspired. "Eco-Challenge
has started to lose its magic," he said. "My vision was for an
expedition race, but the racers have become so good that it's
become ninety percent race and ten percent expedition. If I leave
it as it is, it will deteriorate into another Ironman."
Burnett says he is not looking to make the ultrasafe
Eco-Challenge more dangerous, just more cerebral. "I want the
next race to have more of an Indiana Jones feel to it, more
problem-solving, navigating and high adventure," says Burnett,
who plans to hold next year's race in a yet-to-be-determined site
in South America. "For example, when a team reaches a river,
instead of having an inflatable raft waiting for it, the team
will find the tools to make a water craft. The team will have to
decide what kind of boat to make, or whether it should use the
time to build the boat or walk instead."
Of course, there will always be another option: Teams can simply
drop their packs and take a nap.
had to battle leeches, biting ants, snakes and leptospirosis.
expedition. If I leave it as is, it'll deteriorate into another