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Chapter 4: The Sport



In 1982, viewers of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, the popular weekend TV roundup of athletic highlights, were transfixed by the extraordinary ordeal of young Julie Moss. The event was the Hawaii Ironman, then a little-known race that had debuted four years earlier to settle a bet about who were the fittest athletes: swimmers, runners, or cyclists. The first Ironman triathlon had combined three already exhausting competitions: the Waikiki Rough Water Swim (3.8 kilometers), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (one hundred and eighty kilometers) and the Honolulu Marathon (forty-two kilometers). Fifteen athletes started and twelve completed the original course, with the winner crossing the last of the three finish lines in eleven hours, forty-six minutes, and forty seconds. (The top men now do the route in just over eight hours.) However, it would be the efforts of an Iron Woman that would revolutionize interest in the sport and set the benchmark against which all future performances in endurance races would be measured.

Julie Moss, a twenty-three-year-old American college student, had gone to Hawaii to compete as part of her research into exercise physiology. To everyone’s surprise, as she entered the final marathon stage, she held a twenty-minute lead over the next female racer. A few hundred meters from the finish, Moss began to falter. After eleven hours, the sweat-drenched triathlete was succumbing to a loss of fluids. Cheering onlookers urged her on and tried to drape a Hawaiian lei around her thin neck, oblivious to the twilight zone of suffering into which she had passed. Her eyes appeared haunted. Her thin legs wobbled and began to feel like spaghetti. Suddenly, she collapsed in a heap of splayed limbs. She wearily pulled herself to her feet and continued at a walking pace. She tried to run again (foolishly, she would later admit), then staggered, tumbled to the ground, and was helped up once more. After another fall, utterly spent but unwilling to quit, Moss began to crawl the final twenty meters, only to be passed by her nearest rival. By the end, Moss had lost control of almost every bodily function, except her indomitable will to finish the race.

Twenty-five years later, the footage of Moss’s struggle to the line remains powerful. Her crawling finish inspired thousands to take up the sport of triathlon. They were drawn to discover whether they, too, could spur their bodies onward when every synapse and muscle fiber screamed at them to stop. The televised conclusion also cemented the reputation of the Ironman as the toughest race in the world. Any new event that wanted to make the same boast would have to offer competitors their own Moss-like moments of suffering and redemption, and then advertise their ordeals to the world.

We might like to think we invented the Age of Extreme. The urge to push the human body to its outer limits, however, has been around far longer than the current fad for Ironman triathlons, action sports, and reality TV. Public tests of human endurance are as old as the Greeks. Long before the Ironman, the most legendary measure of physical stamina was the marathon. The inspiration for the famous foot race was the tale of brave Pheidippides, the professional runner who dashed to Athens, in 490 B.C., to alert his countrymen and women of the Greek victory at the Battle of Marathon. “Rejoice, we conquer!” he shouted—then keeled over from exhaustion and into the realm of legend, the first recorded death of an extreme athlete. That noble effort inspired the organizing committee for the resurrected Olympics in 1894 to recreate Pheidippides’ legendary (although likely apocryphal) run from Marathon to Athens. Over the next century, the marathon became the universal yardstick of endurance as well as shorthand for any long-distance event. People would compete in swimming marathons, ski marathons, canoe and kayak marathons, and the Depression-era spectacle of dance marathons. Runners can now line up for arctic marathons, desert marathons, and mountain marathons. Marathons can be divided into half-marathons or expanded (twice the distance, often more) into ultramarathons. Marathon, as an adjective, now emphasizes any activity that has been pursued with relentless and impassioned endurance.

Even before the fin de siècle resurrection of the Olympic marathon, newspapers published accounts of long-distance running and walking races. These events became known by the unfortunate title of “pedestrianism.” In 1762, a British ambler won the first recorded one hundred and sixty kilometer foot race in just under twenty-four hours. Seven years later, another Englishman walked his way into celebrity (and settled a bet) by strolling six hundred and thirty-seven kilometers from London to York and back. Six-day races were especially popular, as fit Christians could complete the routes without running on the Sabbath. “The runners back a hundred, two hundred years ago were phenomenal,” marveled Ian Adamson, one of the world’s top adventure racers and an amateur historian of obscure endurance sports. “They had none of the technology we have—the moisture-wicking clothing and shock-absorbing shoes. People ran in flat leather shoes and drank whiskey. They did everything wrong.” And a few competitors likely crawled across the finish line, too.


THE SAME YEAR as Julie Moss’s miracle finish, Mark Burnett, a young paratroooper from a working-class family in England, quit the British Army, after tours of duty in the Falklands War and Northern Ireland, and bought a one-way ticket for the New World. He planned to seek work in Central America as a “military adviser” (read: soldier of fortune). His mother, however, had vague misgivings about his new job and told him as much. Burnett promised to look into a different line of work. He skipped out on Central America and stayed in Los Angeles, where an expat friend helped the young Brit land a position as the nanny for a wealthy Beverly Hills couple. For two years, he worked as California’s most combat-ready au pair and earned extra money by selling manufacturer-rejected T-shirts along Venice Beach. He sank those profits into a real estate deal and started his own marketing company.

By 1991, the thirty-two-year-old Burnett was living the American dream, warts and all—a well-off workaholic in the City of Angels, with a fast car in the driveway and an even faster-approaching existential crisis. On a February morning, he picked up the Sunday edition of the L.A. Times and read the opening lines of a feature article, the first in a four-part series, called “The Ultimate Race”: “A gentle rain began to fall soon after midnight, streaking the mud on my glasses and softening the sound of my horse’s hoofs on the jungle floor. . . .” The story described an exotic and arduous ten-day wilderness competition, in which co-ed teams of amateur athletes sleeplessly navigated through the rivers and rainforests of Costa Rica by foot, bike, boat, and horse. Burnett was transported by the descriptions of the participants’ epic suffering and by Gérard Fusil, the event’s swashbuckling creator.

A French journalist with globe-spanning ambitions, Fusil had been reporting on the Whitbread Round the World sailing race in 1987 when he had an epiphany. “I got the idea to organize an adventure competition for people who would only use physical and mental strength and no mechanics,” he recalled. “A race where you have to live in your environment as a family, instead of just passing through it.” In 1989, he had arranged five million dollars in sponsorship, laid out a course in New Zealand, and attracted thirty-five teams of five, with at least one woman in each, for his inaugural Raid Gauloises. While other multi-day, multi-sport outdoor competitions (such as the Alpine Ironman, also in New Zealand, and the Alaskan Mountain Wilderness Classic) had preceded his own race, Fusil’s ambitions were grander. The following year, the Raid decamped to the volcanoes and cloud forests of Costa Rica, and Fusil arranged for a team of international reporters, including one from the L.A. Times, to compete and field on-the-ground stories.

Mark Burnett knew from his market-tracking research that the future looked bright for a trinity of trends: environmental awareness, extreme sports, and personal development through physical challenge. The Raid Gauloises provided the perfect storyline through which to experience all three themes. (Fitness freaks did raise their eyebrows that the famous French cigarette maker was the title sponsor of the race.) Burnett took the newspaper article as a favorable omen. “Somewhere deep within my paratrooper soul still beat the heart of an adventurer,” he realized. “I needed to bring it forth before it was too late.” He had always envied the showy creative power of Hollywood’s TV and film producers. He decided to launch his own event. To make the theme of self-discovery through wilderness adventure even more explicit, he would call his race the Eco-Challenge.

First, Burnett needed to experience a race for himself. He signed up for the next Raid Gauloises, in the Arab state of Oman, cobbled together four teammates, and christened them with a name guaranteed to gall the French organizers, competitors, and fans: Team American Pride. Midway through a stormy sea-kayaking stage, however, one disgruntled member quit and disqualified the team. When race organizers found the solo racer alone on a beach, they launched a hunt to locate the missing Americans. “No one had ever died during a Raid,” Burnett recalled, “and it seemed a cruel act of fate for the novice American team to be the first.” It was a false alarm. The remaining members of Team American (Wounded) Pride eventually staggered across the finish line—in last place. For the following year in Madagascar, Burnett drafted a U.S. dream team that included three Navy SEALs. This crew, although not without its own squabbles, fared better. They finished ninth, the first U.S. team to complete the race as a group. More importantly, media coverage on ESPN and NBC introduced North America to a strange new French export, expedition racing.

Burnett now understood the logistical challenges of putting on a wilderness event. To ensure he did it right, he bought the franchise rights for an American version of the Raid. Secretly, he wanted to create an Eco-Challenge that was bolder and better than the Raid Gauloises. He would double the number of TV crews shadowing the teams and make the big race fit the small screen. “I wanted to produce a dynamic television show about racers questing after this Holy Grail,” he recalled in his memoir, Jump In!: Even If You Don’t Know How to Swim. “I wanted Eco to be more epic, more dramatic, more bombastic: a David Lean film come to life.”

When it made its American debut in 1995, however, the Eco-Challenge was not universally embraced by locals. In Utah, Burnett thought he had found the ideal site. The spooky desert wilds and mesas promised a picturesque backdrop, and the stateside location would ease the logistics of TV production and event management. By choosing Utah, however, the producer waltzed into a political hornet’s nest in an already polarized corner of the country. Burnett had the support of the state’s Republican governor, but that fact only made liberal-minded environmentalists suspicious. The race promoted self-propelled travel and crossed federal lands already used by all-terrain vehicles. Still, green groups found fault because competitors would infringe on the habitat of bighorn sheep and peregrine falcons. Utah ranchers, on the other hand, assumed that Burnett was just another of the environmental activists with whom they had been feuding, an opinion based largely on the “Eco” in the race’s name and its broadcast deal with MTV, the video-age apotheosis of urban decadence. Paying for impact assessments and lobbying efforts drained Burnett’s finances, and he stared down a million-dollar budget shortfall and a bureaucratic logjam of land-use applications. Only a last-minute sponsorship deal and federal permits issued four days before the start saved the race from imploding.

Despite the early hurdles, the first race in Utah proved a popular success. When only seventeen of fifty-three teams finished a course that Burnett had boasted “ate the Ironman triathlon for breakfast,” the Eco-Challenge cemented its reputation as a rival to the title of world’s toughest race. Shortly afterwards, cable sports network ESPN invited Burnett to produce another race in Maine for the network’s inaugural X Games. He whipped up a second race in six months. With the ESPN contract, he paid off the debt from the Utah event. At MTV, the cable network was gravitating away from music videos to reality TV melodramas such as The Real World. For the next Eco (as the race became known to fans), executives demanded that Burnett only feature participants who fit MTV’s demographic of good-looking twenty-somethings (presumably, female, drunk and dressed in bikinis). That restriction didn’t fit with Burnett’s broader vision of adventure racing. Burnett found a more willing collaborator with Discovery, the international cable channel, which could broadcast the Eco-Challenge to a global audience of one hundred and forty million households in a hundred and thirty different countries. Adventure racing was ready to make a truly international debut. Now Burnett had to design a wilderness course and produce a documentary of the race that would live up to his hype.


“A VISION QUEST, a journey into nature. Push yourself until the pain comes, until you think you cannot survive, and then go on. Here the ego will let go. Here you will be purified. Here is the moment of true prayer, where you will feel the power of the universal law. It is here where your quest begins . . . and ends.”

In February of 1997, a barrel-voiced narrator intoned the philosophy of a new tribe of modern adventurers. Around the world, the Discovery Channel broadcast, in five episodes, an event that led seventy teams of five through the Coast Mountains near Whistler, British Columbia. TV viewers were introduced to the nine-day competition (filmed the previous summer) as Eco-Challenge: The Adventure Race and learned that teams had paid ten thousand dollars “to complete the most grueling course designed in the fifteen-year history of adventure racing.”

What captured audiences’ interest in the race wasn’t simply the natural landscapes of coastal British Columbia or the mystery of who might win. Rather, the show accented the human drama of amateur athletes working together or falling apart under the stress of completing an expedition against the clock. The British Columbia–based Eco-Challenge provided the narrative template that Burnett would use in his later reality TV hits. His secret? He found compelling and quirky personalities, removed them from their ordinary lives, faced them off against each other under intense conditions, and then hired enough camera crews to capture every emotional meltdown. “Life is competition,” he later observed in his memoir. “And the Eco-Challenge—as the perfect blend of sport, human dynamics, and adventure—is the epitome of competition. . . . Whether competing in the Eco-Challenge, vying for a CEO’s position, or racing for the last spot in a crowded mall parking lot, everyone on earth is in the game.”

The British Columbia race witnessed a close battle between three top teams, including the eventual winners Team Eco-Internet, led by Ian Adamson, the inexhaustible Australian who was establishing his reputation as the Michael Jordan meets Tiger Woods of adventure racing. The broadcast also wove together storylines that followed people to whom couch-bound viewers could better relate. Team Houston, a rookie squad of four bankers and one lawyer, promised comic relief, especially in the form of Michelle Blaine, a coiffed and perky Texan who packed a cosmetic kit for mid-race touch-ups and seemed destined for disaster. “I have to wear my lipstick,” the doe-eyed attorney explained. “It’s a team joke—this race is the antithesis of being a princess.” And yet Blaine outlasted two male teammates, who dropped out due to exhaustion and injury.

Other competitors weren’t so lucky. Throughout the broadcast, Burnett made cameos to warn about the obstacles set for his racers. “This is not Club Med,” he promised. “This is not a vacation. There is no guaranteed finish.” A medley of scenes drove home that fact: Racers gone catatonic from dehydration. Gimpy competitors helicoptered off mountainsides. Grown men weeping into calloused palms from sleepless exhaustion. Friendships fraying like cheap T-shirts as exasperated teams abandoned slower members.

Later in the race, the Eco-Challengers were further splintered by an alpine storm—rain, lightning, hail, winds of eighty kilometers per hour—that caught teams exposed on glaciers and mountain peaks. “Mother Nature at her most frightening,” as the show’s narrator observed. Burnett made the tough decision to cancel the second mountain stage, as well as the whitewater rafting section down the Elaho River, now engorged with storm runoff. He faced discontent from teams who wanted to finish the entire course, not a truncated version. One British Arctic explorer complained about training so hard, only to have “the fun bits” cancelled. Burnett held firm.

Even as the TV broadcast emphasized the wilderness dangers, Burnett played up a safety-first message. “In a race of this magnitude,” he explained, “weather and safety are the overwhelming concerns.” Before the event, he and his production team had landed in Whistler, Canada’s pre-eminent alpine playground, and cherry-picked the best climbing and paddling experts to help rig cameras, occupy checkpoints, and ensure that competitors passed unharmed through the exposed high-country and whitewater sections. “People want these great Indiana Jones-like adventures,” explained Kevin Hodder, a local mountain guide who would become the course designer for subsequent Eco-Challenges. “Our product was a safer way to have one of those adventures.”

The televised documentary of the nine-day race proved a hit for the Discovery Channel and earned Burnett his first Emmy nomination. Hundreds of weekend athletes discovered a new outlet for their energies. Subsequent Eco-Challenges were flooded with entries. While other expedition-style events existed, the television exposure of the Eco-Challenge elevated Burnett’s race above those of his competitors. “It branded the sport around the world,” recalled one veteran racer. “It was the race everyone aspired to do. Even Joe Q. Public knew about it.” Soon, similar (and shorter) events such as the Fundy Multi-Sport Race began to sprout up across North America and beyond.

As Mark Burnett built on the foundation of his early Eco-Challenges, his restless imagination circled a new project that could explore similar themes of team dynamics and wilderness endurance in an even more dramatic environment. In 1995, a Fox TV executive had told Mark Burnett about an idea for a show being shopped around by a British production company, co-owned by rock star–philanthropist Sir Bob Geldof. Sixteen people would be split into two teams and dropped on a desert island with minimal provisions, and then followed by camera crews while they competed in various challenges and voted each other off the show one by one. A million-dollar pot would stoke their psychological brinkmanship. A version of the concept, called Expedition Robinson, aired in Sweden in 1997 and became a huge, if controversial, success. A French take on it was filmed in the Turks and Caicos Islands using an underwater pearl-diving cage. Burnett was intrigued. On business trips or while scouting Eco-Challenge locations—Australia, Morocco, Patagonia—he would glance out the plane window and imagine crash-landing on a scrubby island or getting shipwrecked on a barren atoll. Where would he fit into that new society? he wondered. Who would lead and who would follow? And who, above all, would survive?

The fascination with survival stories is as old as Jonah and the whale. Tales of shipwrecks and castaways cut off from civilization have an especially firm grip on our imaginations. Shakespeare used it as a plot device in The Tempest (based on a Virginia-bound ship that foundered off the Bermudas in 1609), while Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe (inspired by the four-year odyssey of marooned Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk) provided the template for three centuries of desert-island fantasies, from Tom Hanks in Castaway to innumerable New Yorker cartoons. In the twentieth century, the travails of polar explorers drew readers to serialized depictions of their suffering, and Ernest Shackleton’s plucky determination against all odds in Antarctica made him the survivor par excellence, subject to frequent revivals of hero worship.

As an ex-commando and adventure guru, Mark Burnett was inspired by the theme of modern castaways stripped to their essential selves in a survival scenario. He used his Eco-Challenge experience to pitch an even more ambitious reality TV series. “My Survivor would be bigger, more dramatic and more epic than any nonfiction television ever seen,” he promised anyone who would listen. He even coined a new word to describe the televised marriage of real people in dramatic situations: dramality. (It never caught on.) When the debut season was serialized on CBS in the summer of 2000, the show became a monster ratings success, the most-watched summer TV show ever. More than fifty million viewers tuned into the finale to watch Richard Hatch, the clothing-optional schemer, outwit, outlast, and outplay his way to the million-dollar first prize.

By then, office workers across the continent were wagering on Survivor pools, and newspapers scrambled to offer local angles on the cultural phenomenon that everyone was talking about. In Saint John, before the final episode, a reporter from the Telegraph-Journal tracked down Sara Vlug to get the young adventurer’s take on the show. Vlug said she wouldn’t want to be trapped on an island with any of the devious finalists, but confessed that, as an adventure racer, she wouldn’t mind attempting a Survivor-style challenge. “I think it’s a real test of your mental capabilities,” she said. “You can see the stress.”

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