Richard Browne

Mountain Biking

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Tails from the Trails

Richard Browne

Eco Challenge- so what is that?
by Richard Browne (3 time Eco-Challenge adventure racer)

Didn't I see that on the Discovery Channel- something about a Leeches crawling up some guys you know what? This is the question most people ask when the subject of Eco Challege comes up. The Eco Challenge is the ultimate challenge, produced by Mark Barnett of Survivor fame, it has been around for 8 years. This yearly event occurs in a different part of the world, such as Borneo, Australia, Morocco, and Patagonia. Location of the events dictates much of what type of sports are included but they usually have: Mountain biking, hiking, bushwhacking, kayaking, horseback riding, climbing (rappelling, fixed ropes, plus ascending), rafting, and swimming. Some other sports that have been included are: Camel back riding, Sailing, Mountaineering (glacial trekking), some type of locally made boat paddling, caving, scuba diving and white water swimming. The race has about 80 international teams- of four members per team, with the stipulation that all teams are mixed, therefore usually 3 men and one woman (but some teams have had more than one woman). The team has to stay together through-out most of the event- and has to finish together. The main challenge is that it is non stop between 6 and 12 days depending on how fast your team is. Each team decides when to sleep and how much to sleep! One last thing, each team must navigate through the entire course with just a compass, maps and instructions on where checkpoints and transitions are located in (No Gps allowed!).

This year the event occurred in New Zealand. This was a wonderful mountainous course, of an exotic tropical environment, large volcanoes, down vertical rock faces, and sub-alpine terrain of the lower slopes. Other areas covered included fast flowing rivers, glacial lakes and many deserted beaches. The 2001 Eco Challenge included Mountain biking, Mountaineering, River rafting, Horseback riding.

This was my third Eco- Challenge- having competed on Team Subaru Outback Canada in Argentina and Borneo for the last two years. My Team mates were Dave Zietsma, Lawrence Foster, and our new member Sarah Wiley. We had arrived after 2 straight days of air travel into Queensland New Zealand (Adventure- Extreme sport capital). One of the team's goals was to finish in the top 5 as we had finished 9th last year. Preparation for this event is huge as all your food and equipment had to be organized beforehand. The next step was getting all our mandatory equipment checked for each activity which had all sorts of specifications. Finally all our skills were tested by the event staff. This is a small taste of our team's plight through this long event.

The race started at 7:00 am- horse back riding! This year's equestrian section used two horses per team that meant two people run two people ride. Before getting on my horse named Carrot, I caressed her, making eye to eye contact and trying to make friends with this beautiful beast. The trainer that handed me the reins mentioned that Carrot was a bit feisty. She said to watch Carrot that she likes to flip the reigns out of the riders' hands. I knew this meant trouble but looked forward to the race start. Bang the gun went off. Sixty Seven teams started, 134 horses, Yeah Haw! Thank God Dave was holding my horse's reins as we started off, Carrot was ready to run. Immediately after the start- horses all around us were bucking their riders off. If you could imagine all of these riders with 50 pound packs, riding flimsy English saddles. We were doing fairly well getting up into the top ten teams, but Carrot was a wild ride. Dave had to hold her most of the first ride- as she wanted to run even with the reigns pulled tight. Just In front of me Simon Dinato, from another Canadian team, Adver, came flying by- out of control. I watched in horror as the Japanese team female member was holding on to her horse's neck, upside down, with her huge pack dragging along the ground. Her horse some how flipped her up and she landed back on her saddle! It was all very exciting and before long we got to the end of the section where all teams split into two teams of two. At this point Lawrence and I went for a trek; Sarah and Dave were off with the horses to meet us further down the trail.

Lawrence and I ran for 3 hours up and down a mountain. We were close to the French Team so we were quite exited as they had finished second last year. By the time we reached Dave and Sarah- we were exhausted but now in the top 10, Dave and Sarah had their own problems, the horses did not like crossing water so they had a tough time. Lawrence and I hopped on the horses and finally, Carrot was riding well, now a bit tired and I figured that by keeping a firm hold on the reigns, she was controllable. Then disaster almost struck when Lawrence's saddle broke. He went flying to the ground his horse took off. Lawrence got up with no broken bones and we caught up to his horse which we ran in the rest of the section.

The next sections included huge amounts of trekking. We had trekking poles which greatly helped considering we all had heavy mandatory equipment: Tent, stove, sleeping bags, rope, first aid gear, crampons, and food. All the scenery was beautiful; the total amount of elevation gain for the whole race was 60,000 feet (yes that's twice the height of Everest!). Needless to say we all got blisters and trench foot. This is a problem which occurs in most long adventure races- your feet are continually wet and after a while the skin starts to peel away like dead skin. Additionally- Lawrence and I got Eco feet which is hiper sensitivity from overuse. Your feet just are in complete pain every time you put your feet on the ground and you loose balance very easily. The vegetation was brutally harsh, with a plant called wild Spanish. This waist high plant had huge thorns all around, the only way to negotiate this was slide underneath and hope the next plant would not spear you in the shin. The weather was fairly calm, meaning we did not get into any huge storms, some snow. The tops of all mountain treks were snow up to your knees and sometimes waist! In the middle of the night Lawrence needed sleep at the top of one mountain so we pulled out sleeping bags and got pumbled by snow and sleet. During the biking section it was raining on and off as well.

After a fairly uneventful rafting section and another trekking section we found ourselves at the start of the mountain biking section. This occurred on the 4rth morning. We had gotten through much of the hardest parts of the trekking section and we were looking forward to hopping on our bicycles. We did not realize our feet now one size larger from all that trekking had a hard time fitting into our cycling shoes (OUCH)! The blisters and all the other problems we had with our feet did not help. At this point we had only slept 4 hours total! We were totally falling asleep all over the place. Dave had athletically induced asthma so he was really hurting. In the first 2 miles we hit a huge hill. We had to get off the bike to climb this monster hill and of-coarse our feet really did not like this at all. In 9th place we were back and forth with the Swedish and English teams. We were determined to catch more teams.

The ride was beautiful in the rolling hills of New Zealand. There were always huge numbers of sheep to keep us company. One often wondered how the sheep farmer's life was like compared to ours? The bike course just got harder and harder- and we ended up walking many of these ridiculously steep hills. We tried putting our equipment on seat attached pannier racks- but this really did not help. We kept zig zagging along a river crossing it no less then 8 times! We did get feedback from the camera men along the way- that all teams were walking the hills, so we did not feel as bad. Half way through the biking section we hit the base of this mountain and new we had to climb this huge hill in the dark. At this point I had run out of my favorite foods- and started eating- 2 day old sandwiches and a really wet combination of peanuts, Jube Jubes, chocolate and dried stew! The climb took 12 hours and with sleep deprivation we all started to hallucinate. I saw funny little pictures on all the rocks and thought there were people hiding on the side of the course! I forced the team to sleep 30 minutes at this point as crashing was inevitable on the bikes. We woke up at 3 am to a 90 minute crazy downhill ride, often both brakes locked, ass over the back of our seats, on gravel road covered with large bolders. We had some tough navigation which slowed us down considerably. By now it was light and we had hit the roads. Sleep deprivation was scary because we could go fast on the roads, but Dave was on the verge of crashing. Again we took a 15 minute sleep and finished the bike section and back into our food boxes Yeah!

The rest of the coarse included huge amounts of boldering followed by a traverse on top of thick bush and ending with a two hour river raft. I could go into all the team dynamic problems and fights that we had but sorry to say we worked really well together. Yes we finished, 8th place top Canadian team. No Leaches or tropical diseases - quite an easy year!

-- Richard Browne

Richard is still looking for sponsors for the coming 2002 Eco Challenge Fiji. Sponsorship keeps the dream alive so pass the word. He can be contacted at rbinc@interlog.com. -- TheLoneRider

Other info can be found at ecochallenge.com.

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