Adventure racing first burst onto the world scene with the debut of Eco-Challenge, a television show in the late 1990s and early 2000s that featured co-ed teams of four racing nonstop for five to 10 days straight in remote and exotic locations such as Borneo, Morocco, and New Zealand. The show became a huge hit as viewers across the U.S., and the world watched teams push the limits of human endurance and work together as a team to make their way through near-impossible courses.
Eco-Challenge spurred adventure racing (AR) enthusiasts all over the country and globe to take up the sport, and regional, national and international races sprung up to meet that demand. To make the sport more accessible, simpler races requiring less gear and as short as three hours in length sprouted up all over the country, opening up the sport to newbies and those not able to take weeks of time off to participate in so-called expedition races like Eco-Challenge.
Adventure racing is thought to be the toughest sport in the world, and yet, it is remarkably easy to get started - all you need is a compass, some clothing that can withstand a day of being in the woods, and for some races, a bike. Oh, and two or three friends you can convince to be your teammates.
Entranced by the amazing feats we saw on Eco-Challenge, my dad and I signed up for our first adventure race in 2002 (my dad did it for my high school graduation present), along with my best friend. In our first AR, we biked about 20 miles, hiked five miles, and paddled an inflatable kayak another four miles, managing a mid-pack finish. We were hooked. Over the years, we tried our luck at several more beginner-level races. While three hours may sound like a long time to be racing, we found it actually went very quickly, and that switching sports frequently used different muscle groups, so we never got too tired or worn out.
We stopped racing for several years as I moved away from home, finished college, and got a job. In the meantime, I met my now-wife, Kate, and moved around the country for our education and early career opportunities. Seven years ago, we were able to move back closer to my dad, and soon after, we began racing as a team of three. Together, we made the commitment to try longer races and to try to get better at navigation, considered the most critical component of AR.
It was these two years of racing where we went from being casual participants in AR to more dedicated racers. And it was definitely a trial by fire. We did our first 12-hour race and finished – two hours after the cut-off, meaning we lost all the points we had collected and actually finished with a negative score. In another 12-hour race, we got into our canoe without checking our map, and we wound up paddling 30 minutes in the wrong direction, until the river we were on became a stream, and then a rivulet. In our first overnight race, an 18-hour race, we spent three hours in the middle of the night looking for a single checkpoint. And in our first 24-hour event, we spent two hours huddling together for warmth, avoiding a lightning storm, torrential rain, and howling wind.
Despite the difficulties we faced – or perhaps because of them – the three of us formed deep, indelible bonds. We learned to trust each other in tough situations, and believe in our ability to think our way out of trouble – or persevere through it – as a team. We each started taking on different roles within the team – Kate as lead navigator, Starker (my dad) as bike mechanic and gear guru, and myself as team mule and motivator.
We began traveling further for races, scheduling our vacations around a race in a particularly interesting location. We did a 15-hour race in the Tetons which was spectacular. A 30-hour race in northern Wisconsin, which had the most unique navigational challenge we had ever encountered – kettle moraines, or giant holes in the ground caused by glacial retreat tens of thousands of years ago. We did another 30-hour race north of Yosemite National Park that had us awestruck with the beauty of the place. We participated in the national championships in Maryland, Kentucky, Indiana, and Georgia. And in 2016, we raced our first international race, the ITERA Expedition race in Ireland, part of the Adventure Racing World Series. That six-day race saw us complete more than 450 kilometers – around 300 miles – of kayaking, biking, spelunking, coasteering, and trekking through the rugged and beautiful mountains and mores of western Ireland.
Along the way, we got better at the sport. We became faster at hiking off-trail to checkpoints hidden in the woods. We became stronger paddlers as we worked as a team to paddle in synch. And on biking stages, we used drafting and towing techniques to level out the differences in our paces. Most importantly, we became more confident navigators, spending less time stopped and staring at our map and compass and more time moving efficiently toward and between the orange-and-white flags that typically mark an adventure racing course.
While we knew we would never be an elite team, we began to see our results improve from near the bottom towards the middle of the pack. In some smaller races, we began to hit podium positions. It was fun and rewarding, but in reality, the results were of little importance to us. What mattered most was having life experiences – like using teamwork to nail a difficult checkpoint in the middle of the night, or biking down a mountain pass at dawn, or paddling iconic rivers like the Mississippi and the Kennebec.
As I write this, the three of us are on a plane, heading to Fiji for our biggest challenge yet. The race will be the consummation of a long-held dream we thought impossible until earlier this year, when it was announced that the producers of Eco-Challenge were bringing back what is considered “The World’s Toughest Race.” It’s expected to take 10 days to finish, and that’s just for the few teams that do – historically, only about 10 to 20 percent of teams that start the race actually finish it. We know that we face incredible difficulties and hardships ahead of us, but we feel prepared given our experience. We know we can rely on the closeness of the bonds of our team to get us through tough times. And while the odds may be against us finishing, that doesn’t mean we won’t give our all in trying.
Even if we don’t make it to the finish line of Eco Challenge, it will still have been worth it. To push to the edge of our personal physical and mental limits, to get to do the sports we love, and to experience the world’s natural beauty in ways few people get to, and to be able to do it together with people you love, are some of the many reasons we love adventure racing. It’s not for everyone, but if you’ve read this far, it’s probably for you. So...check it out!
Balega is proud to sponsor Cliff and the rest of team Strong Machine to make sure their feet are protected and to help get them through the toughest of the tough races.
Check out this sneak peek video from the show's host, Bear Grylls and make sure you tune into Amazon Prime to watch The World’s Toughest Race series debuting in 2020.
Cliff White is team captain of Strong Machine Adventure Racing, a non-profit based in Portland, Maine. “Eco-Challenge: The World’s Toughest Race” will premiere on Amazon Prime in 2020. Cliff and his family are Team #60, Strong Machine.