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At the close of last year's Eco-Challenge in New Zealand, organizer Mark Burnett regarded the event he had created, saw it for the overheated off-road triathlon it was becoming and vowed to take it back to its expeditionary roots. The result: Eco-Challenge 2002, which begins in Fiji on Oct. 11, will be expeditionary in the extreme, according to Burnett. "In New Zealand we had so many permit restrictions that we had to give competitors 40 pages of detailed instructions on how to get from point to point," he says. "This year, for starters, they will get very limited instructions and have a lot more choice on how they get to where they are going."
Burnett, who read up on Major John Wesley Powell's 19th-century exploration of the Grand Canyon before concocting this race, promises that Fiji will include other challenges that adventurers of yore would have faced, like building boats from local materials and interacting with natives who don't speak your language. In parts of the race, says Burnett, competitors will be negotiating thick jungle and rivers full of "horrible-looking eels" en route to remote villages that have little experience with Caucasians, or any foreigners for that matter. "I'm going to advise racers that they should seek out the headman in every village they come to and participate in the customary welcoming ceremonies," says Burnett, who sampled a few preparations of mildly narcotic ceremonial kava while laying out the course. "They can't just go blowing through villages. It's important to be respectful." (Especially if racers hope to get advice on the quickest route to the next village.)
Many racers welcome the prospect of more navigation, more problem solving and more intellectual challenge. "I just hope Mark doesn't make it into a circus, with a lot of mystery events just to make it interesting for TV?' says Rebecca Rusch, who plans to enter her sixth Eco-Challenge, as part of Team Montrail. "I hope it'll be cool."
Regardless of how retro the race's challenges are this year, the inescapable made-for-TV aspect of Eco will only be intensified by the participation of one team that includes Canadian actor Hayden Christensen (Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones; The Virgin Suicides), his brother and sister as well as another team made up entirely of veterans of reality-television shows, including Burnett's other pet project, Survivor.
While Burnett acknowledges that the reality-TV quartet presents an intriguing marketing possibility for the show he creates out of every Eco race, there is no guarantee the team will be interesting or enduring enough to merit a camera-crew shadow. "They might not last a day," he says. Burnett is so confident of the difficulty of the course—which measures more than 350 miles—that he wouldn't be surprised if the finish rate, which was 88% last year, is as low as 10% this year. "If just one team finishes," he says, "I'll feel like the route was doable."
"The Eco-Challenge is real reality," says Survivor Africa winner Ethan Zohn, whose Team Mad River includes Tim Beggy and Adam Larson of Road Rules and Jenna Lewis of Survivor Borneo. "I think it's going to make Survivor look like a walk in the park. And in this, if things aren't working out with the others, I can't vote them off the team."
Rarely one to share the spotlight, hypercompetitive rock jock Hans Florine (above) did just that when he and Steve Gerberding partnered to climb El Capitan's Dihedral Wall last Saturday. It was the 100th El Cap ascent for both men, who set a speed record for the route (14 hours and six minutes)....