Ten days in Fiji - Bike Magic

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Ten days in Fiji

Before the start

Team The North Face Kona comprised of team captain Keith Byrne, Anna McCormack, Peter James and Norman Dunroy. They travelled to Fiji for the toughest adventure race on earth, The Eco Challenge.

I arrived in Fiji with my three teammates not knowing what to expect. The Eco Challenge 2002 course was going to be kept a secret from the racers until five minutes before the start. When you are about to embark on a non-stop race for ten days over 520km, then the not knowing begins the mind games that
would be a major part of the next ten days.

Eco Challenge is an expedition race involving teams of four containing at least one member of the opposite sex. The race runs for between six and twelve days, 24 hours a day over a secret course using mountain bikes, river rafting, sea kayaking, trekking, canyoneering, coasteering as well as ascending and descending ropes. The first team to cross the finish line together is declared the winner whilst any team who loses a team member through illness or injury is immediately disqualified.

Giant suitcases or tiny people?

Fiji is a majestic collection of islands where the Fijian people put on a show that would find me nominating them for the friendliest nation in the world. What they made of the 81 teams from 23 countries stood at the start line on the outskirts of the jungle we will never know. Five minutes before the start we were issued with maps for the first part of the course telling us that we would be jungle trekking for a huge part of the race. Like most teams we were banking on large sections of kayaking so we were immediately on the back foot.

After the first few hours of jungle trekking we were treated to the challenge of building traditional bamboo rafts called “bilibili’s”. The fun of building a raft out of 13 bamboo sticks was soon removed as we started a 41km paddle down a very slow river. We were supplied with bamboo sticks to “punt” with but the length of the paddle meant that teams were trying to improvise and strap helmets and shoes to the sticks to turn them into effective paddles. Six hours later we were back on dry land but this just meant we were back in the jungle in the “dark”!

Looking in the dictionary there is no such thing as “a shortcut through the jungle” which we were about to find out the hard way. Going through the jungle at night is very difficult and slow but teams continue at night trying to get an advantage on their competitors. The decision to sleep is left to each team and eventually the “sleepmonster” gets to you and even a couple of hours are necessary. We made a bad call in the jungle and ended up having to deal with treacherous waterfalls, very difficult descents and steep cliffs on all sides. Eventually we found a way down a steeply vegetated spur with the help of our machete. We had lost at least six hours in doing this and we were pretty pissed off with ourselves.

“Could you tell me the way to the finish?”

Now we were racing from behind chasing down teams that we should have been ahead of had we chosen right. Next we started the 90km mountain bike leg and we soon discovered that no roads in Fiji are flat. The heat was amazing, around 30degC with high humidity. We charged off with our Kona King Kikapus but even with decent bikes Fiji was testing us to the extreme. The bike leg took a grueling twelve hours but we were making progress up the field which sort of made up for the pain we were starting to feel.

The next section of the course found us in single person river rafts, which were great fun and allowed us to navigate through an amazing canyon and gave us the thrill of a few white water sections too. This didn’t last long enough before we were back on our feet and trekking through the jungle again. Feet were to be the most important piece of equipment in the whole race. Those who looked after their feet would end up being the teams that made it home.

Fiji threw up a few surprises but none more than driving rain and the cold. For two whole days it rained and this found us in our element, as we knew how to deal with the cold and wet. Teams chose to stop and rest under compulsory tarpaulins but with no dry clothes they soon started to suffer from hypothermia. A huge chunk of teams retired on day three and four as a result of the onset of hypothermia. We had chosen to continue through the night very slowly but at least we were still moving. The jungle trail was getting worse in the rain so we got into the river and started swimming upriver. A weird experience at 3am in the morning
but we still managed to smile and think that somehow this was fun of the sickest type!

Punctures: Same the world over

The ropes course found us ascending 500 metres of rope up a waterfall which guaranteed that we would remain wet and very tired. The course was designed to test us to the limit so following the ropes we were heading up a boulder-strewn river. Now the feet were getting hammered as we slipped and banged our feet against rocks in the river. Then the island began to change. At the end of this section we reached the highest point on the island where the climate changed to a very hot and dry terrain. We were in what the Fijians call “The lost world” and we could see why. Any rescue attempts for injured teams would be very testing for the emergency crews. Soft and wet feet were now being transformed into dry and cracked feet and left them wide open to infection as well as great discomfort for the owner!

Over ten days the team goes though all sorts of highs and lows as well as sickness. The best teams are able to keep moving through these problems and get their team members back on their feet. We had team illnesses through heat exhaustion, gastro issues, foot infections as well as just general fatigue but we were able to keep each other driving on. As the race continued news kept coming in of many team retiring. By day eight there were only 23 teams left in the race, 58 teams had retired, the race organisers had hit us with the toughest Eco Challenge in history.

The second mountain bike leg came as a blessed relief to the feet as they were now feeling the full effects of such long trekking legs. I was unable to get my cycle shoes on swollen feet so had to adapt the pedals to accommodate powerstraps – in cycling terms are a major throwback in time. We managed to get a huge chunk of this leg done in the dark, which meant we weren’t suffering in the heat so much. The motivation on the bike leg to move quickly was down to the next leg being a huge trek over a mountain pass, through the jungle followed by a major descent on ropes. We wanted to do as much of this in the daylight as possible.

Ooh, ooh, ah, ooh…

Moving through the night after so many days starts to play all sorts of tricks on your mind. As we advanced through the jungle the shadows convince you that there is either somebody watching you or you are able to see dumb things like dinosaurs. Sleep deprivation seems to offer the hallucinogenic properties of drugs but without the major downer afterwards, just complete fatigue. This is a sensation that you cannot fully describe to somebody who hasn’t felt it but it’s both strange and equally spooky.

With two days to go we were now up against the clock to make sure we finished within the allotted time or face disqualification. Our determination had seen us move up the rankings and we were just outside the top ten. We were now sea kayaking off the West Coast of Fiji in the most wonderful heat and aided by a calming sea breeze. Despite running low on food our spirits were high and it was a great opportunity to rest the delicate feet which were also expanding now from eight days of pulverisation.

The last challenge before the sea kayak section home was to navigate around an island that we had paddled to. As we landed on the beach we were ready for anything they could throw at us now. The marshall who checked we were okay told us that most teams were taking about sixteen hours to do this section, our hearts sank but we knew we had to do a job. The island was pure paradise; stunning palm trees, thatched cottages, locals singing and the sound of waves crashing against the rocks. We were almost oblivious to this now having travelled for nine days and our thoughts turned to the finish line and what our first meal would be.

The slightly steamy end

The last section of sea kayaking found us about 11 hours from the finish line but having to paddle in the sea at night. The sensation of paddling at night in the sea is that the islands never get any closer to you and that the sea is pushing you backwards, it’s a horrible and depressing feeling. Falling asleep whilst paddling is also an unnerving experience especially when you realise that you are at sea. It’s a very common sensation in the longer races and we were now battling this enemy.

On the morning of day ten the finish line started to appear before us, crowds were there to cheer us onto the beach, the TV crews were on hand to witness the culmination of an awesome journey. As a team we were still talking to each other and we knew that we had come through something quite unique. Our top ten finish was a bonus and guaranteed us entry to next year’s race in South Africa. Would we want to put ourselves though this ever again? Absolutely.

Top ten in Eco Challenge is normally greeted with great credibility, top ten in Fiji has been greeted with amazement and great admiration. Only 23 teams crossed the finish line and only ten teams achieved the greatness of completing the full course. As I write all team members are recovering from minor foot infections but nothing too serious. Each of us lost in the region of 9kg in body weight over the race, which we are all enjoying replacing currently. Team The North Face Kona are planning their 2003 race diary which begins with the Indoor Adventure Racing Championships at the NEC in March. More details will be posted soon. If you want more information about adventure racing then sign on to www.sleepmonsters.com



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