On the fifth sleepless night of the world’s toughest expedition race, three intrepid Playmates crashed down the rapids of the Segami river in Borneo, boulders surging up suddenly out of the black, fighting to control the sampan canoe, headlamps swiveling, paddles digging, shouting warnings. Disaster would be the one boulder we missed seeing. So we tied up to an overhanging tree for a few hours sleep, placing our life jackets under us for cushioning. The jungle was as black as a cave -the triple canopy sealed out the starlight and without the lamps we could not see our hands-and it was incredibly loud with the monkeys screeching, the river roaring, large, thirsty animals crashing through the brush to the water for last call, and the occasional explosive grunt of a meal missed or seized. With thoughts of crocodiles curious about the bump, bump, bump of the canoe against the bank, none of us were sleeping heavily when the snake came for us.
Kalin Olson was on hyper watch, her headlamp gyrating like a berserk lighthouse, when she screamed-a seven-foot pit viper was skimming across the river toward the canoe in the rippling cone of her light. When it reached the gunwale it did not divert but stopped, lifted its head out of the water, and began waving from side-to-side, trying to propel itself into the boat. All hell broke loose.
“Ohmygoditsahugesnake!” screamed Kalin, Miss August 1997. “Get a paddle and hit it!”
“Turn your light off!” screamed Jenny LaVoie, Miss April 1993. “It’s coming in!”
“Cut us free, Owen!” screamed Danelle Folta, Miss August 1995 and our team captain. “Now! Now!”
“AAAHHH!”, was this former Marine’s contribution to sanity. “AAAHHH!”
After I cut, slashed, hacked, and bit loose the tether, the dug-out spun sideways into the next set of rapids waiting in ambush, smashing into a submerged log. The canoe slowly rode up over the log, tilting and slipping toward a capsize, without life jackets, on a black night into a black, fast-running river brimming with reptiles. I had the troubling thought: This could end badly-what am I doing in this crazy race again? And what the hell are three Playboy Playmates doing here?
Founded by Survivor producer Mark Burnett, the Eco Challenge is a brutal competition that pushes its racers to the edges of their emotional and physical limits-then shoves them past. Co-ed teams of four (I was the token male that reversed the usual gender breakdown) paddle, hike, rappel, kayak, climb, swim, raft, mountain bike and run for ten days toward a finish 500 kilometers away. There are no time-outs and the clock never stops; teams sleep only when the bodies refuse to go another step without rest. Racers navigate using maps, compasses, altimeters and their fading ability to make decisions and function as a team, becoming more disoriented with each sleepless night. After the first 24 hours of continuous paddling or running, most carry a lingering nausea, much like after an all-night party binge. Only they will carry with them that retching feeling -along with their other gear-for another ten days.
The Eco Challenge annually attracts insane endurance athletes from around world in pursuit of adventure racing’s World Championship so they might butt their already damaged heads. The 300 racers include some of the world’s best conditioned athletes. All expect to finish well, yet over the years, most fail to finish at all.
After the 1998 Morocco Eco Challenge, I vowed never to race again, a promise I had made at the finish lines of three other Ecos. So when my wife got the call inviting me to join three Playmates as the token male on Team Playboy Xtreme, her response was immediate. “He’ll be there.” A midnight dip in the crocodile-infested Segami River? A small sacrifice for the sisterhood. Danelle Folta founded the Xtreme Team in 1998-a warren of athletic Playmates who competed in various sports around the nation, outclimbing and outrunning college kids on spring breaks, kicking corporate ass in well-attended volleyball and softball tournaments, placing well in miniature, three-hour versions of the Eco Challenge, more triathlons than adventure races. Everywhere she took her team, Danelle took another step toward her goal: shatter the stereotype that Playmates are too soft and coddled to compete on a high athletic plane. In the Eco Challenge, she had a chance at the ultimate test on the ultimate stage, the Mount Everest of extreme endurance, and though it had come a few years ahead of her scheduled workup she leapt at the chance. If we can just do well in this bitch of a withering race, she thought, maybe even finish, we’ll vanquish this irritating myth.
The over-under on Team Playboy Xtreme was established quickly in Borneo-three days, then one of the bunnies will come up with an injury or just quit. There were whispers that Burnett’s race course-kept secret until the gun is fired-was going to be murder this time. Over a hundred miles of ocean paddling. Vicious squalls. Impossibly thick jungle navigation. Leeches everywhere. Terrifying rope ascents and rappels. Brutal 100km mountain bike leg. If one teammate drops, that can end the race for the other three. I had seen many hardcore teams drop because one person’s will had ground up and blown away or because of serious injury, including my Morocco team where one teammate ripped open her quadriceps and another had such severe altitude sickness that only a helicopter rescue could stop his vomiting. In the hardest race to date, British Columbia in 1996, 75 teams crossed the starting line but only 13 finished. I didn’t like the odds on Playboy Xtreme, but I understood them.
So while mountain biking at 3 AM on a jungle road-with just four hours to go before we could take the ‘Three Days’ monkey out behind the wood shed-I was not surprised when Danelle’s bike shattered and proved irreparable. The Eco Challenge does this sort of thing. Kicks you when you’re down and watches to see how you’ll react. If there were any questions about mettle, Danelle answered them when she pushed the bike-you must start and finish each Eco Challenge leg with all your equipment-and began what was to be a Bataan Death March instead of a bike leg, hiking instead of riding the final 40 kilometers, the sun rising, temperature reaching 100 degrees, evaporating the already low levels of water in our bottles and bodies, beating down and down even as the mud trail forced us up and up.
Gender is inconsequential in adventure racing but there are peculiarities when you’re racing with three women: alien conversations-love, boys, waxing and the differences between Playboy and that rag Penthouse-and a constant and drastic shift in emotions that left me feeling like I was on a Mr. Toad’s wild roller coaster, peaks of laughter and valleys of growls a second later. We left a trail slick with tears but, drifting dangerously close to heat exhaustion, we reached the end of the bike leg in 29 hours. The fastest team had finished in ten. We pushed our bike across and finished the leg as a team.
It marked the beginning of the nastiest leg of the race-a 60 kilometer jungle trek that had ruined the feet of some of the fastest racers. The broken bike had prevented us from reaching the checkpoint in time to continue on for an official ranking (nearly half the teams faced this conundrum) so we had two choices-we could still attempt the finish line unranked or we could quit.
The thought of starting a leech-infested jungle trek immediately after a hike that had extracted such a terrible toll was abominable. I suspected that someone would yield but I was proud of our effort. In three and a half days I had seen wondrous things, and I’m not just talking about the women themselves; that novelty disappeared during hour two on the western Pacific Ocean when the wind came up and our tiny ocean canoe was severely punctured by some coral. That night, I had seen the women eagerly dig their paddles into a black ocean as we set off in our freshly patched junk for one of the ocean crossings. There were no signs of other boats or even atolls to use as aiming points, just a dark curtain on a compass heading where low rain clouds obscured the stars. The Playmates were chatting happily when the wind came up but the timorous steersman was thinking, This is for keeps. I had seen Jenny-95 pounds of pure energy-hike up an impossibly steep atoll with a heavy pack, crying most of the time and putting me on ‘mute’ but never quitting on a hump that would have dropped most soldiers. I had seen Kalin, perhaps the best natural athlete among us, paddle non-stop through the night in a race against the sun even though she was badly dehydrated-lips cracked and throat scratched-while the rest of us were forced to take rests. And I had seen the best kind of leadership in Danelle. Period. In a race that puts its premium on teamwork, the captain wears the relentless burden of decision-making, balancing tough orders on food and load distribution with cheerleading and coddling. I tried to get my share of the love hugs by faking a limp and complaining about a tummy ache but as exhausted as she was, Danelle saw through my ruse and devoted her energy to keeping the team moving forward.
“What’s the verdict?” I asked when we dumped the cursed bikes. “We driving on?”
“Hell yes, we are,” Danelle answered for us. “The official ranking doesn’t matter. The finish line does.”
The following morning, in a scene that would repeat itself five more times, Playboy Xtreme lowered its collective head, strapped on its packs and plunged into the next discipline, all the tears and the I can’t go on’s of the previous day forgotten. The Borneo jungle is nature untamed, a raw in-your-face clime filled with hungry critters and stinging plants. I was leading the file when I heard Kalin’s otherworldly scream, nearly human. The women were running toward me so I sprinted too-hey, when you’re an antelope and the herd starts you don’t ask questions.
“Why are you running!” Danelle shouted.
“I’m running because you’re running!” I called over my shoulder.
“Well stop for chrissakes. Kalin’s got a leech.”
I could tell from its dark brown racing stripes that it was a Tiger Leech, swollen and turgid with blood, attached firmly to her calf. We tried our emergency lighters-rusted shut. We tried our waterproof matches-false advertising. We tried Vaseline-little bastard could hold his breath longer than Kalin could contain her temper. When we eventually routed him with Betadine, Jenny began twisting and shouting herself, stripping off her gear and clothing, frantically swiping at her skin. Fire ants. The jungle was quite an experience-after a few hours we were plucking the hitchhikers from our broken bodies like veteran hosts, slipping and sliding down steep mud slides on our mashed feet in squalls so thick we had to tip our heads forward to breathe. But darker things lurked.
Four days and over 150 miles of jungle whitewater and Pacific Ocean later, just a day and a half away from the finish line, we collided head-on with the worst leg of the Eco Challenge, a caving section that had beaten down some of the world’s best racers. It was a train wreck. We entered the caves wearing medical masks and immediately were wading in shin-high (for Jenny it might have crested her knee) bat guano that invaded all the cuts on our ravaged legs and bleeding feet. The smell was a waveringly thick crush of waste and rot that made us wince and hustle forward under the high-pitched screeeecch that echoed off the walls. The cave was boiling with bats that fluttered in the narrow cylinders of our headlamps and made occasional runs at my teammates’ flopping braids.
After a grueling ascent out of the hole on 150-foot fixed ropes that left us painted with guano, the race turned cruel, as it is prone to do. Two more jungle summits, a 500-foot rappel, and a steep foot march stood between us and our canoe, with another 50km of windy ocean paddling to go before the finish line. The obstacles just kept coming and coming, and so did the tears. But I was used to them by now and had evolved, an advanced species of man, force-fed with Playmate sensitivity; instead of going silent, nodding, and trying to hide behind a tree somewhere until the storm was over, I had learned to mimic and mumbled, “I understand your pain and I appreciate it. I’m here for you.” Oh, if the guys could see me now!
Finishing an Eco Challenge is always in question, but I knew we would taste the line when we were steps away from the second summit. Jenny had collapsed under the weight of her pack and she was bawling. With another team I would have been convinced that the emergency radio was about to be activated, but I had seen such furious determination in my teammates during the previous seven days that what happened next did not surprise but buoyed me. Danelle and Kalin offered to hump her pack and this was taken as an affront. Jenny’s eyes were burning and her teeth were clenched when she brushed them off and growled, “Shut up and…Stand. Me. Up!” Now, my teammates had a flair for the dramatic but this was over the top. Down and out one moment. Charging Little Round Top the next. The three of them leaned into the hill and pushed higher and higher, setting a wicked pace, laughing at a joke. Nothing would stop them now.
I was struggling to catch my sine-curved teammates when I saw them pass one of the many tough-as-nails, three guys-and-a-girl teams in front of whom we would eventually finish. In what was a microcosm of the entire race, my teammates-who had been staring into the abyss just minutes before-announced their arrival with friendly shouts as they passed the superstuds.
“Hey there, guys!” shouted Kalin.
“Hi guys! Lookin’ goood!” shouted Danelle.
“Woo, hoo! Almost to the top! Keep it up!” shouted Jenny.
They moved ahead quickly and, approaching from behind, I heard one of the men, a big guy with a flattop who was carrying his friend’s pack, say to his ailing buddy, “Come on, man. Suck it up and step it up. Suck. It. Up! I mean, we just got passed by the fucking Playboy Bunnies, dude.” Ah, but there’s no shame in that, my friend, no shame at all-you have plenty of company.