“Eco-Challenge” features local Vail athletes
Adventure race television program took teams all over the rugged terrain of Fiji
If you’re looking for something to binge-watch, the latest Eco-Challenge, coined the “World’s Toughest Race” is now showing on Amazon Prime and features a team that is predominantly from Vail.
Before British television producer Mark Burnett was known for shows like “Survivor,” “Shark Tank,” “The Apprentice” and “The Voice,” he created “Eco-Challenge,” which took athletes to extreme terrain all over the world for a multi-day expedition-length adventure race. The “Eco-Challenge” series aired on television from April 1995 to April 2002.
The race returned in September 2019 to Fiji and so did one of the race’s winners and Vail local, adventure race athlete Mike Kloser. “I guess I always liked Eco-Challenge as an event and organization. They’re sort of the gold standard of courses as far as how they are run, the exposure they get and the way they do the television series,” said Kloser, who has won three Eco-Challenges, five Primal Quest races and four World Adventure Race Championships. His first Eco-Challenge win was “Eco-Challenge: Morocco” in 1998 with Vail teammates Billy Mattison and Andre Boesel and Summit County teammate, Sarah Ballantyne.
“I always left the door open with Eco-Challenge and said if it ever comes back I’ll do it. Fiji wasn’t ideally the locale I was hoping for, but you take what you get,” Kloser said. Kloser’s team finished second in the “Eco-Challenge: Fiji” in 2002.
Kloser picked other elite racers from the Vail community, Josiah Middaugh and Gretchen Reeves along with Gordon Towsend from New Zealand. “Josiah is known for winning Xterra and other races, Gretchen has a long history of adventure racing, mountain biking and trail running and Gordon has a Special Armed Services background with New Zealand’s military,” Kloser said.
“Gordon and I knew of each other, but he came highly recommended by Neil Jones, who raced and won the last Eco-Challenge,” Kloser said. Kloser had asked Jones to join the team but he had torn a tendon in his calf while fishing with his son. Jones did join Kloser’s team in a support role. “Neil is highly skilled in reading maps and we relied on him to manage our navigation,” Kloser said.
Over 2,000 teams sent in applications and a video and the event organizers selected teams based on that. “I think having been one of the top teams in the past and winning former events helped us get our slot,” Kloser said.
The local team started practicing in the spring of 2019. “One of our first training sessions was competing against each other in the GoPro Mountain Games in the Ultimate Mountain Challenge,” Kloser said. The trio trained together throughout the summer by hiking from Vail to Aspen, worked on rope skills at Piney Lake and paddling skills on Lake Dillon and the Eagle River. They also did hikes in the Gore Range to work on navigation skills and to get more time with packs on their backs.
No spoiler alerts here, we ended our interview with Kloser and decided not to interview any of the other teammates at this time to keep the rest of the story a surprise to the viewers. The “World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji,” was released on Amazon Prime on August 14.
The series, hosted by Bear Grylls of the television show “Man vs. Wild,” follows 66 teams from 30 different countries. These teams navigate 671 kilometers (about 417 miles) of mountains, jungles, rivers and ocean over 11 days of competition in rugged Fiji. For more information on how to view the series, go to amazon.com.