The following stories were written by Marshall Ulrich for the book The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of My Feet: Tales from the World of Adventure Racing by Neal Jamison, et al. He titled his chapter, "I May Be a Stray Dog, But I'm Not Lost."
Dr. Bob, Mace, Marsh 1995 Eco Utah finish.
We’d been wandering around the desert for days. Three of our teammates had chosen to withdrawal from the race, but Mace and I were perfectly content to make our way 15 extra miles out of the wrong canyon and around to the correct one. As we made our way up the canyon, along came the remnants of another team, including Dr. Bob and Lisa. We decided to join forces, and finish the race together. “We were just wandering around, lost…like a bunch of Stray Dogs,” Dr. Bob would comment later. Thus, the Stray Dogs Adventure Racing Team was born.
Looking back, I’m grateful I had the opportunity to participate in the U.S. debut of adventure racing, organized by Mark Burnett (now of “Survivor” and “The Apprentice” fame). Mark had participated in the Raid Gauloises and used that as a pattern for his race. He reportedly collected numerous credit cards and, by design, forced himself into deep debt to pull together the first ever Eco-Challenge. Just a few months later, Mark took the top twelve teams to finish the Utah race (six American teams and six international teams) to New England to compete in the ESPN Extreme Games/Eco-Challenge. Discovery Channel bought the rights to cover Eco-Challenge, followed by USA Network…and the rest is history.
The following history covers those first two Eco-Challenge races in 1995, followed by races in 1996-2002. After a 17-year hiatus, Eco-Challenge finally returned as The World's Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji. Despite that fact that the Stray Dogs had started racing in their forties, they were honored and happy to participate in that race. Yes, in their sixties! Marshall Ulrich, Adrian Crane, Dr. Bob, Haugh, and Nancy Bristow - with an average age of almost 66 years old - made up Team #59, Stray Dogs. They are one of 14 teams, out of 66 from 30 countries around the world, to be highlighted in the 10-part series now available on Amazon Prime Video. If you don't already have a membership, sign up for Amazon Prime Video now.
Eco-Challenge Utah 1995: Where It All Began
At 44 years old, I knew nothing about adventure racing, but jumped at the chance to race the first Eco in Utah in 1995.
I had no idea what adventure racing was when Chuck Blish called me in November 1994. But, after spending 20 minutes on the phone with him, I agreed to be a part of Team Mile High, one of 50 teams to compete in the first Eco Challenge in Utah. Later, I learned that adventure racing was developed in New Zealand, then expanded with the first Raid Gauloises, a French-based race organized by Gerard Fusil. Some people already had a reputation as being the top athletes in the field: people like John Howard, Ian Adamson, Keith Murray, and Robert Nagle.
I was a world-class ultra runner – having won two silver medals in the national 24-hour run; being the first person to complete “The Last Great Race” (completing all six 100-mile races in one year, finishing in the top 10 in five of them); completing several over-200-mile runs (including the 310 mile, record 88 hour Run Across Colorado); and winning the Badwater Ultra 146, a race across Death Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney, four times (including setting a record to the summit of 33:54 that stood for 29 years!). But, adventure racing was “all Greek to me.”
In “the Utah days,” Eco Challenge teams consisted of five members, one of which had to be the opposite sex. So, typically, teams were four men and one woman. Team Mile High included captain Chuck Blish, me, Mark (Mace) Macy, Justin Bein, and Daphne Solone. We began training together because, at that time, there were no short courses or schools to teach us the skills we needed. We just muddled through it in our own (very special) ways. We spent a lot of time laughing at ourselves – perhaps the most important skill we learned.
Mace was always a good sport, even when faced with new challenges, like paddling.
Chuck put the team together. Mace and I, being ultra runners, were “good on our feet” and brought knowledge about nutrition (feeding yourself over 100 miles), sleep deprivation (over a period of 3 days, at least), taking care of our feet (although we had much to learn), traveling in the dark (an important skill in adventure racing), and dressing appropriately (over changing terrain and altitudes). Justin was to be our navigator, and Daphne, a very experienced tri-athlete, was, to quote Rebecca Rusch (a very experienced adventure racer I’ve had the honor of racing with), jokingly, “a mandatory piece of equipment: the girl.”
Mace and I also had the reputation for persisting, no matter what—a reputation that was put to the test as we spent the first few days wading, swimming, and scrambling through rivers and cold slot canyons, often a bit confused and out of water. Our packs and equipment were too heavy, navigational skills inept, climbing not to be admired, and whitewater skills crude, to put it kindly.
The Stray Dogs in Class V whitewater in Cataract Canyon.
On day three we approached Capital Reef and had to decide which canyon to go down. Trying to hone our navigation “skills,” Mace stood on the edge of one canyon, and I on another, and yelled to each other “do you see anything?” Of course, we didn’t….and we chose the wrong canyon. It was when we reached the bottom of Capital Reef hours later that Chuck, Justin, and Daphne chose to withdrawal from the race. The cool thing was that Mace and I realized that we didn’t much care that we were a bit lost, and continued around to the correct canyon, where we met the remaining members of team Columbia Sport: Robert (Dr. Bob) Haugh, Lisa Smith, and Cory Shane.
Together, we completed a daunting repel, and huge (Class V) whitewater in Cataract Canyon. We lied to Mace and told him that the front of the raft was the safest place to be and, never having done any whitewater rafting, he jumped right in. I learned a few new swear words that day but, by some miracle, we made it through without flipping over.
Marsh and Mace on the ropes.
Lessons Learned We finished the first Eco Challenge as a fragmented, unofficial team, and I came away with true respect for the sport. I learned that having a good time was instrumental to finishing.
The 370-mile race was a process, just like life, with inevitable ups and downs. Taking things in stride, and looking at every problem as something to be solved, rather than something to complain about, was the key. Not letting anything, or anyone, beat you down. I realized that living life to its fullest was the ticket to finding out more about myself. I had touched upon this within the solitude of ultra running, but now I was not alone. I was part of a team. We could look to our teammates and draw strength from each other, growing stronger as individuals.
More importantly, racing afforded us a chance to take a good look our weaknesses. It would allow us to identify those weaknesses – the ones that can cripple us in a race and in life – and try to grow beyond them. For example, I got to face two of my biggest fears straight on: heights and water. Growing up on a farm, the tallest thing I ever climbed was a silo, and I didn't learn to swim, if you can call it that, until college. I learned to face these fears, and do it anyway.
Original Stray Dogs Lisa, Dr. Bob, Mace, and Marsh at the very first Eco-Challenge, Utah 1995.
As I wrote about the 584 mile Quad Badwater (crossing Death Valley four times, and summiting Mount Whitney twice), “I have found that one thing all extreme events have in common is that they have very little to do with the event. So when people ask me why we take on such challenges, I suggest that it might have to do with compensating for something that is missing in our lives, proving to ourselves and others that we are, perhaps, worthy.”
It was shortly after the event when Mace, Dr. Bob, Lisa, and I were joking about how we were from all over the country, wandering around the course “like a bunch of Stray Dogs.” We would race together again over the next decade, developing a profound bond and admiration that only adversity can solidify. I am honored to call them dear friends to this day.
Eco-Challenge New England 1995/ESPN Extreme Games
Adrian, Tommy, Angelika, Whitt, and Marsh Eco New England 1995.
I was invited to be on the “Twin Team” for the Eco Challenge in Maine and Rhode Island. In Utah, Angelika Castaneda had put together a team of four women and one man, Adrian Crane, and had finished in the top six. Angelica had an identical twin sister, and the two were famous for doing extreme endurance events, and finishing together. They were superb athletes and astounding individuals. Much of their sponsorship came under the auspicious of racing as the “Twin Team,” and thus this is the name Angelica chose to race under in New England. For the first time, I raced with Adrian, Whit Rambach, and Tom Possert. With the exception of Whit, we were all ultra running “misfits” and had won (or had held records) at Badwater. We were “desert rats” competing in a race with huge amounts of paddling. But we were confident that with Adrian’s navigational skills, combined with the strength and experience of the team on the ground, we would do well.
Even though we portaged the canoe part of the way, we still had to paddle.
Canoeing across Moosehead Lake, we watched patiently as all of the teams rounded the corner and disappeared out of sight toward the first checkpoint…and we went the opposite way. Adrian and Tom had discovered an alternate route by which we would portage the canoes along an active set of railroad tracks, drop into a second lake, then arrive at the checkpoint. It was a calculated risk, saving time (if not energy – portaging the canoes was hard work!), but it paid off, as we arrived at the checkpoint hours ahead of the rest of the teams. We took other calculated risks during that race, including running much of the land portions and sleeping only 20 minutes each night.
The kayaking leg dropped us to 2nd place.
When we finished the bike leg, and were flown to Martha’s Vineyard, we had increased our lead. But, by this sixth and last day we were so sleep deprived that we couldn’t even remember the names of our own teammates. We would imagine that we were in a different place and time, and paranoia set in. If one member would imagine that we were about to go over a spill way, the rest of us would adopt that thought, add our own unique frightening spin, and become fearful ourselves. Looking back, I estimate that we were functioning (if you can call it that!) on 20 percent of our brain power. Added to sleep deprivation, Tom had never been in a kayak, and we didn’t know a tide chart from Adam! During that last leg of the race, a long sea kayaking paddle from Martha’s Vineyard to the finish line at Newport Beach, we lost our lead to Team Thredbo, a team of world-class paddlers: Jane Hall, John Jacoby, Novak Thompson, and Andrew and Rod Hilsop.
Note Mark Burnett in the background.
We crossed the finish line in second place. We were pleased, but it was extremely painful to think straight, and the medical team worried that Tom had slipped over the edge and might not return to normal. After a night’s rest we breathed a sigh of relief as Tom finally recognized us, and we all appeared to be almost as normal as when we started. “Normal” being relevant, I suppose, as some people may not think I’m normal. But, I’m as normal as any one else—I just have a few quirks here-and-there. Who doesn’t?
It was an honor to participate in this second Eco-Challenge; the second one in the same year, the only time that would happen. To say that Mark Burnett had a good thing going would be an understatement, especially in light of what he's done since Eco-Challenge (you know, little things like Survivor and The Apprentice) but it's interesting to think "I knew him when . . ."
Angelika is a true leader.
Lessons Learned If God made man go without sleep, this would be a screwed-up place to be! During ultra runs, adventure races, and mountain climbs before (and since) I have experienced many hallucinations. But, this went beyond simple hallucinations. It was truly terrifying to be that far from reality. To be that fearful and paranoid. Since New England, the team and I sleep an average of two hours a night during any adventure race. Sleep pays dividends. The time spent sleeping can be made up easily during the course of the race.
By watching Angelika, an outstanding individual and the best woman athlete I have ever met and had the privilege to race with, I learned what a team captain should be. She led with grace, and let her actions speak for her more than her words. I gained even more respect for her during the race as I watched her set a good example with her athletic abilities, and even more, with her strength of character. She proved to be brave, honest, and humble; and taught me that it’s entirely my responsibility to put those qualities of character in motion in my own life. She also taught me that we all have choices to make. If we make a bad choice we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Marsh and Adrian, back in the day.
Maine was the first time I had the pleasure of racing with Adrian Crane, who would race as a Stray Dog in five more adventure races. Adrian has accomplished amazing things in his life. In 1997, he was the U.S. National Long Distance Orienteering Champion. He holds numerous records, and has raised thousands of dollars for charity (a passion we both share, as we realize that the event, or the accomplishment, itself is really not the valuable thing). Today, Adrian and I are the only two people in the world to have competed in all ten Eco-Challenges. Of my ten, Eco-Challenges, I’ve competed in eight of them with Mace.
Eco-Challenge British Columbia 1996
Eco BC started on horses.
The original Stray Dogs – Mace, Dr. Bob, Lisa, and I – along with Jacques Boutet, got together for this race across the mountains and glaciers of British Columbia. And what a time we had! We started with two horses, switching off running and riding, until we came to a glacial river. Plunging into the less than forty degree water, I was swept down a couple of hundred yards only to be plucked out like a fish on a string. I remember lying on the opposite bank, flopping around, trying to rid myself of multiple leg craps. The beauty of it all! Adventure racing at its finest!
We climbed up the river bank, and thought that the short (30 mile) trek ahead of us should take about a day-and-a-half. As we walked up the mountainside we were all wondering why Dr. Bob’s backpack was so heavy, and discovered it was because he was carrying way too much food. We’d learned a valuable lesson about weight in Utah, hadn’t we? Not wanting that lesson to go to waste, the obvious solution was to lighten his load by getting rid of the extra food. We spent 15 minutes stripping the wrappers off the food and throwing it into the woods for the varmints to feast on. Great idea huh?
For the next three days, we trekked up a long valley; which, by the way, seemed a perfectly logical way to go. Yes, we did get a bit hungry, since we ran out of food the first day. No, Dr. Bob didn’t say a word about it. We had a great time swearing and laughing at ourselves, knowing how naive and goofy we all were (with the exception of Dr. Bob) to throw away Dr. Bob’s food. We finally made it out of the woods, and were well on our way to a successful outing.
Dr. Bob and I went the "wrong" way during the canoeing section.
During a canoeing section, I thought it would be a good idea if we could all get a bit of rest. After all, we’d learned a valuable lesson about sleep deprivation in New England, hadn’t we? Dr. Bob and I were in one canoe; Mace, Lisa, and Jacques in the other. We set out with strict instructions from the race organization to avoid the left fork of the river just up a spell. So…as much as we tried not to, Dr. Bob and I went down the left fork because…well…sleep had seemed more important. Fortunately, the left fork was not as treacherous as was supposed. As Dr. Bob and I waited on shore below the point where the forks of the river reconnected, the other canoe was nowhere to be seen. After night fell, along came the rest of our team. In true Macy style, Mace went on to tell the story of how Jacques had assured him and Lisa that he was proficient at being “the boat captain” (the guy who steers the canoe from the back seat). As the canoe headed into and got overturned by a strainer, Mace and Lisa increased their vocabulary, teaching each other swear words that the other didn’t know existed. Together again, we spent the rest of the night taking turns paddling and sleeping in the bottom of the canoes in what felt like freezing weather. In the mountains the weather blew in. About day six, the conditions worsened, and the team decided to withdraw from the race. This would be the only Eco Challenge where I would not complete the entire course (only 14 of 70 teams did finish!). Funny thing, though. At the time, Mace and I realized yet again that we didn’t much care.
Marsh, Mace, and Dr. Bob: still Stray Dogs and friends in 2019.
Lessons Learned Humility is one of the greatest lessons learned in this unique sport. As I have always said, “some of my best learning experiences have taken place when I have had the pleasure of being humbled.” In British Columbia, I was humbled by the enormity of the course; but, even more, I was humbled by Dr. Bob’s ability to take things in stride and never complain. He rose above the human tendency to say “I told you so” about our choice to get rid of his food, and he suffered the ensuing hunger with more grace than the rest of us. Learning to trust yourself, and your friends, is another lesson to be learned. We all tend to take odd turns in life; like Dr. Bob and I going down “the wrong fork” of the river. But, somehow, someway, those odd turns always seem to work out for the best, often in spite of ourselves. Odd turns can turn out to be blessings, depending on how you look at it. When things seem out of control, we have to trust in ourselves. We also have to allow ourselves to trust the people who know and love us. More than that, we have to be individuals that others can trust.
As Joe Cocker sang “I get by with a little help from my friends” and “have a little faith in me.” I know that I can trust my friends, and I strive to be a person that others can have faith in.
Eco-Challenge Australia 1997
The pre-race meeting included an appearance by Steve Irwin, talking about the snakes that could kill us out there!
This year marked the change from five-person to four-person teams. Because Lisa was racing on a different team, Mace, Dr. Bob, and I had to find a woman for the team. We suspected that this Eco Challenge would involve a lot of ocean kayaking, so we asked Sharon (Shaz) Davis, the two time woman’s Australian marathon kayak champion, to join the Stray Dogs. This was also the year that support crews were eliminated. From now on, all of our gear would be contained within our bicycle boxes, plus 50 gallon Rubbermaid totes. Race organizers would move these containers along the 337-mile course to two or three transition areas. The Eco Challenge had thereby simplified logistics, cut the number of competitors, and reduced support personnel. It forced teams to be more self-sufficient. It also forced teams to think ahead about what would be needed. Ultimately, it meant that we would all carry more food and equipment. What was truly unique about Australia was the diverse climate, foliage that contains all forms of barbs and thorns, and a wide and strange array of animals. The race started in the arid outback where the kangaroos roam; traveled through the rain forest where crocodiles hide; continued up Bartel Frere, the highest point in Queensland; headed through enormous sugar cane fields, where seven of most deadly snakes in world could be hiding; and transitioned to the coast where we would begin the final sea kayaking leg. Dr. Bob felt that this would potentially be his last Eco Challenge, so the Stray Dogs were focused on just finishing the race. We had a great time because we allowed ourselves to move at a somewhat slower pace, enabling us to absorb the experiences along the way.
Shaz, Mace, Dr. Bob, and Marsh: how bad are YOUR feet?
During a mountain biking leg I vividly recall Dr. Bob unintentionally standing his bike on its front tire, sliding down the frame, and doing a head spear in the middle of the trail. He just laid there for a few seconds as we rushed to his aid. Seconds later, all of us were laughing about the absurdity of biking on a trail, in the dark, covered with hidden rocks that would “jump out and grab ya.” During the long trek after we came off Bartel Frere our feet were getting shredded. Mace casually commented that he thought he “might have a blister or two.” I was horrified when he took his shoes and socks off and saw that at least half of each foot was engulfed in two or three 2- to 3-inch diameter blisters. “No problem,” he said, putting his shoes back on, mentioning how important it is not alter bio mechanics or it would probably make them worse. Typical Mace. His feet were often the worst, but he never complained.
Squalls producing 10-foot waves were rolling along the reef when we emerged from the sugar cane fields to the kayaks on the ocean shore. Mark Burnett greeted us, mentioning that he was glad that we were so experienced in sea kayaks. Not having done the New England Eco Challenge, Mace replied, to Mark’s horror, “I’ve never been in a sea kayak.” Well Mark just about pulled the plug on us, but we all swore we’d be careful, and off we went. As a safety precaution, all teams carry a radio, which is sealed and can’t be used—if the seal is broken it means that the team is calling for help, and the team is disqualified. On this occasion, however, Mark advised us to keep our radios on as an extra safety precaution. We paddled the whole day through. As night fell, the squalls increased in frequency and intensity. We heard over the radio that “the course had been cleared” because of the bad weather, and that “no one was left out on the ocean.” Mace immediately got on the radio saying, “Hey guys, we’re Team Stray Dogs and we’re still out here!” We were advised to paddle to a small island just off the finish line and park it till morning. Once again, we didn’t much care—no problem. Once we got the okay, we finished the race in 26th place; well down in the ranks, but satisfied with what we had accomplished.
Marsh, Shaz (and son), Mace, and Dr. Bob at the finish: no one sufferer like Dr. Bob.
Lessons Learned Mace suffered a lot during that race, with his severely blistered feet, but I have never seen anyone suffer so much in a race as Dr. Bob. In an effort to stabilize himself as fatigue set in, Dr. Bob had grabbed just about every plant in Australia that had hide-ripping barbs and thorns. He lost about 20-pounds, and his hands, arms, and legs were cut and swollen. I remember him sitting on the plane on the way home, just barely able to move, looking straight ahead in a comatose-like trance. But he never complained. Now, when I think that I am hurting, I think back to that race and Dr. Bob. Of his ability to suffer and pay the price. As I wrote after the Badwater quad, “To answer the question, ‘What does it take to do an extreme event?’ It takes the support of family and friends. It takes making and sticking to an agreement with yourself that you are willing to suffer and pay the price. It has been said that anything worth doing is worth doing well. Sometimes that includes a bit of suffering. That is indeed what life is about. I believe that to appreciate the profoundness of life, we have to live it to its fullest, both the joy and the suffering.”
Eco-Challenge Morocco 1998
Mace starting the race on a camel.
Mace, Shaz, Isaac Wilson (new to the team, since Dr. Bob did in fact retire from adventure racing), and I headed to Morocco for the fifth Eco-Challenge. Mace and I had already been to Morocco to complete the Marathon Des Sables, a 150 mile desert stage run, so we were familiar with the climate and the Atlas Mountains. I had been sick with some kind of dysentery during that race, so we safeguarded against that by bringing a full spectrum antibiotic.
The race started with camel riding and, yes, they can be as difficult and nasty as you've heard, including spitting at you if they want to. The saddles are not very comfortable, and a few athletes got through off almost immediately, but Mark was able to stay on his "ship of the desert."
The surf was just a small sign of things to come.
Next we jumped into kayaks to head out onto the North Atlantic. Isaac is a strong paddler, like Shaz, and their skills immediately became apparent. We spent two days on some of the roughest water that I have experienced, including 15-foot waves and over 50-mile-per-hour winds. Some of the breaking surf near the checkpoints was so bad that we were required to have one team member swim into shore, leaving the kayaks in the care of the other teammates, as it would have been almost impossible to get the kayaks back out to sea if we had paddled in. At the end of the kayaking leg we did have to paddle to shore, “surfing” the waves as best possible. Shaz and I capsized and had to swim in. As we did, we looked over and saw Mace and Isaac surfing the waves beautifully—right up until the nose of their kayak planted itself in the soft submerged sand near shore. The back end of the kayak rose straight up, giving them an unwanted birds-eye view of the water they were about to drop into. Luckily, we were all fine; although Shaz had swallowed a huge amount of water, and inhaled the rest. Race officials immediately fished her out and put her on oxygen. When she arose, spitting out the “piss and vinegar” words that we became so fond of hearing, we moved on.
Mace stared down every challenge, dead on.
We trekked onward through the Sahara Desert and up into the Atlas Mountains. At one point we had been without water for nearly a half day with none in sight when, miraculously, there appeared a man headed over to a nearby…yes you guessed it…well. As the man helped us fill our bottles, we all thought how it was as if an angel had appeared in the form of this man. After helping us, he filled his containers and vanished over the horizon, and the desert was empty. The temperatures dropped that night, and continued to drop the next day as we approached the top of a 13,000-foot peak. I was hypothermic and had to stop. Over the next couple of hours we holed up behind a ridge out of the wickedly cold wind, and my teammates pitched together to help get me warmed up and functioning again. Later on Shaz would have her difficulties too, and it was like pulling teeth to get her to relinquish her backpack in an effort to allow her to conserve some energy. As before, we persevered—learning of our own weaknesses, and of the strength of the team.
Marsh, Mace, and Isaac shake hands at the finish.
We finished on a long (over 100 mile) mountain bike leg, drafting behind Isaac (who had been on the U.S. junior bike team), peddling to a 10th place finish. His strength on the bike, at the end of the race, was truly amazing. It was a great feeling – being escorted the last few miles into Marrakech by a race official on a motorcycle.
As we shook hands at the finish we experienced the elation that is afforded only to those who have gone through a long, hard race together.
Marsh, Shaz, Isaac, and Mace walk the red carpet during the closing ceremonies.
Lessons Learned As we set out onto the rough North Atlantic, I learned not to think about what it was we had to do, but to just do it. It wasn’t the first time that I was scared of the unknown, and let that thought cross my mind. But, I just focused on the task at hand. You see, if you take too much time to process information, you can psych yourself out of even starting something you really want to do. The trick is to get started, and just keep going.
My experience on the mountain taught me yet again that I don’t have to be alone in the world. Trying to be self sufficient at that moment failed to make sense. I realized that the strength of the team lies not with the strength of us as individuals, but within supporting and complementing each other. Our strength came from sticking together no matter what the circumstances or how crappy things got.
Once again, I was taught to count my blessings and have faith that things will always work out— in a race and in life. For whatever reason, that man high up in the Atlas Mountains was there, leading us to the well when we needed it most. Maybe it was divine providence, or maybe we willed it to happen. What ever the reason, curiously things worked out, as they always had before and I’m sure always will.
Eco-Challenge Patagonia, Argentina 1999
Patagonia is stunningly beautiful.
What a magnificent environment the Andes Mountains of the Patagonia region was to race in! The lakes were pristine and the mountains majestic. But Argentina meant more than just a drastic change of scenery – there was another change within the Eco Challenge rules. Now all members of the team had to be from the same country, so we could no longer use Shaz, who was Australian, on the team. Lisa was no longer racing, so Mace, Isaac, and I – along with Louise Cooper, an experienced and capable ultra runner and adventure racer – made up Team Stray Dogs.
In fact, Louise had competed in, and completed, all of the previous Eco-Challenge races, except Morocco. After Patagonia, she would go on to complete Eco Borneo and New Zealand. Today she is a two-time cancer survivor, still a dear friend, and has joined the Stray Dogs in hopes of being accepted to compete in Eco-Challenge 2021 (dates and location still to be determined).
Team Captain Louise leading the way.
As we paddled the lakes and portaged over the land our hopes were to finish well. With the exception of Isaac suffering a bout of hypothermia at the end of that first paddle, things were going well. After getting Isaac up and running again, we mounted our horses and continued uneventfully to the start of a long trek. But, within hours we were heading up the wrong drainage. Through the second night, we continued along, finally reaching the top of a mountain. As we looked across to a distant valley we saw the Discovery Channel helicopter. “Damn!” we all thought to ourselves, “we’re still lost.” We had lost about 12 hours and had scrambled across and up and down a couple of extra valleys, but eventually made our way to the checkpoint. Continuing on, a storm blew in and the ropes section at the top of the mountain was closed for safety reasons. Teams were given the option of resting and waiting until the ropes section opened again, or trekking around the mountain—a longer route, but it meant we would continue moving. None of us wanted to stop, so we chose the trek—and were the only team to do so. We trekked throughout the night and arrived at the next checkpoint a half dozen spots or so ahead of where we had been. A calculated risk, but one that paid off!
Mace steps out of the kayak.
Unfortunately, we lost another 12 hours trying to find a passageway up into and over a heavily forested area to the start of the final paddle. Paddling those last long miles, we had time to reflect on the humbling and frustrating experience of being lost for a total of almost 24 hours; but, we still finished in the top twenty.
Team Stray Dogs may have “strayed” off course, but we stuck together in a “pack,” and successfully completed the course…as friends.
They thought we were old at over 50!
Lessons Learned Never give up! I knew this from other races but, being lost twice, for so many hours, was a difficult test. To be honest, I never thought of quitting. I just never let the thought cross my mind; and I doubt that it crossed the minds of my teammates. Out of frustration comes clarity. Sometimes that clarity just takes a while to present itself.
As in a race course, there are many ways to go in life. Sometimes going the long, hard way may actually be the best path. Sometimes, continuing on the path I’ve chosen, trusting that it’s the right one, having patience to continue, and following through, is the best thing I can do. Sometimes, I choose the wrong path, and get lost. If I come to realize that the path is clearly wrong, rather than being stubborn and continuing on, there is nothing wrong with admitting my mistake and going another way. The trick is knowing the difference: when to continue on, and when to admit your mistake. Whichever path I choose, I have to take responsibility for my choice. If I blame others when the path I am on becomes obstructed and obscured, I am not taking responsibility for my own life, and I become a powerless victim. Instead of being a victim, I must choose to accept the responsibility, and the consequences.
Eco-Challenge Sabah, Borneo 2000
Mo, Mace, Marsh, and Adrian check the first set of maps.
In 2000, Louise decided to put together and captain her own team and Isaac decided to race on a different team, so for Eco-Challenge Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, Mace and I asked Adrian to race with us, along with Maureen (Mo) Monaghan. Adrian would be our navigator and we had great confidence in Mo, who was an excellent athlete and, while now a U.S. citizen, had been on the Irish National Mountain Biking Team. This race would challenge many teams, including ours, as it involved a lot of trekking through thick jungles; days of paddling crude, native, outrigger style boats; and climbing in hot humid caves, wading through ankle deep bat guano. Minutes into the race we went from the top twenty to dead last as a rogue wave in the South China Sea hit our outrigger from the side, immediately capsizing us. We were told that if the outrigger capsized, there was little or no hope of righting it. I remember looking at Mace and agreeing with him that we would be the first team ever to be finished in less than an hour of racing. After the initial shock, and a bit of laughing at ourselves and our predicament, we gathered our wits. We all stood on one side of the craft, pulled on ropes that we had attached to the opposite side and, in a cooperative tug, heaved the craft upright. We were shocked and looked at each other in disbelief. On one level we joked about not wanting to continue, as it would have been all too simple to break open the radio, and just call it quits. After a few more wise cracks and more laughing, we got over that and, in keeping with the sprit of Stray Dogs to persevere no matter what, paddled on.
Adrian, Marsh, and Mace in Borneo.
On the first island, the team had to split up, with only two members doing the next land leg of the race. Since our mast had broken, Mace and I went on the island swim and trek while Mo and Adrian fixed the outrigger. It was during the island trek that we met up with Charlie Engle. We had lost our map when we capsized, so Charlie agreed to share his (whew!). We spent the rest of the day and that night swimming and slopping through mud, generally having a great time, poking fun at our predicament when we got slightly lost. Once again, Mace and I didn’t much care, and loved the fact that Charlie didn’t much care, either. Some of the inexperienced teams had heard that “the Stray Dogs are navigating,” and, knowing that we were Eco Challenge veterans, were eager to follow. Yep. They didn’t know that it was truly a case of the blind leading the blind! We did manage to find our way (eventually), and met back up with Mo and Adrian.
One of outriggers used in Borneo.
With the mast fixed, we paddled from island to island. On one island, we climbed up the belly of a hollow mountain in what is referred to as “the bat caves.” What a smelly place that was! We climbed up hills and over jagged knife-edged cliffs and, as morning broke, rappelled down a 300-foot cliff into the thick jungle. I had inadvertently left a water bottle behind, so Mace shared his water with me until it was gone. A couple of hours later Mace was in the worst condition I had ever seen him. He had literally sacrificed his water, and his well being, to help me continue. Reluctantly, he finally gave up his pack and we all staggered back to the outriggers, thoroughly exhausted. Here, we met up with John Howard and his team, who had decided to withdraw from the race. John knew that we had lost much of our equipment (not just the map) when we capsized, and his team graciously provided us with everything we needed to finish the race. Although the race was over for them, they were eager to help us finish in any way that they could. After just one more day, we did finish. The Stray Dogs had come back from capsizing the boat, a near race-ending event, to finish in 12th place.
The jungle was tough on Mace, and all the athletes.
Lessons Learned Humor is the antidote to misery. When we were floating out in the South China Sea, at first we thought there was no hope. We literally humored the boat into submission and, when it wasn’t looking, we up-righted it. Then we laughed and joked ourselves through the rest of the course. I remember sitting out a storm on an island, watching as other teams sought refuge in life boats hanging on the sides of huge commercial shrimp boats that were also waiting out the storm, while others hopelessly clung to their overturned or water logged boats. After the race most of the teams that finished talked about laughing somewhere along the line, as we did. What else is there to do at times? There’s truth in the old saying, “If I didn’t laugh, I’d cry.”
Empathy is required. At one time or another we have all been reduced to less than human. We must remember our own humility, and be there to help the person that is in the greatest need. While our own survival instincts are key to allowing us to prevail, occasionally we all need the help of our teammates and other teams. If someone is “in the toilet” (so to speak), but others are willing to help and encourage that person’s will to survive, we can all succeed.
With the combination of humor and empathy, we get through it somehow… we always do.
Eco-Challenge New Zealand 2001
Mo, Adrian, Marsh, and Mace pre-race.
Mace, Adrian, Mo, and I were excited to race together again in New Zealand. This course – with the vertical gain equivalent to climbing Mount Everest...twice – would seemingly agree with the team as Adrian, Mace, and I were all very familiar with mountain venues. Mace and I live in the Colorado Rockies, running 14,000-foot peaks for training; I had summited Mount Whitney nine times, all after finishing the Badwater race across Death Valley; and Adrian lives near the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, and holds the record for the fastest climb of the highest peaks in all 50 states. The sheer beauty of the course was appreciated by all of us, especially by Mo, who had never seen the majestic beauty of mountains like those of the “Southern Alps” in New Zealand.
Stray Dogs men mountain biking, with no trail - of course!
Most of the elevation gain was covered during the trekking/mountaineering and mountain biking legs of the race. During the second night of one of the steep, long, and rocky bike legs, my lighting system began to dim. To further complicate the situation, a rock kicked up and nicked my rear hydraulic brake line, rendering it useless. Mo rode close to my side, just behind me, to provide lighting and coach me on how to effectively brake on very steep downhills with no rear brake. I still went over the handle bars more than once. But, my skills sharpened and the whole experience made me a much better mountain biker.
Marsh, Mace, Mo, and Adrian at the top of the mountain.
The mountaineering sections proved fairly easy as we were all accustomed to working together as a team. There were differences of opinion about safety; in particular, whether or not it was necessary to clip into the ropes on some of the steeper sections.
In a very democratic process that was respectful of everyone’s opinion, we agreed not to force any member on the team to do something they did not feel comfortable with. So, it was an individual’s choice to clip in, or not.
The rest of the course was essentially business as usual, and we finished in 18th place. It seemed that the team was continuing to gel, and we all looked forward to racing together once more.
Sometime rolling with the punches means sleeping whenever and wherever you can!
Lessons Learned Learning to adapt to a situation and improvise is key in adventure racing, and in life. “Rolling with the punches,” – instead of being paralyzed, ineffective, and helpless – enables us to deal with challenges in our lives. Losing my bike light and brake line could have been a negative thing but, with the help of Mo, we turned a negative into a positive: my skills evolved and we learned the importance of teamwork once again. Everyone’s voice counts. If your interactions with others are diplomatic, any difference of opinion can be resolved. We may have to change the way we think about something and compromise, but there is always a solution. By looking at things from all angles, we reach a better understanding of each other, and obtain a more profound and empathetic view of life.
Eco-Challenge Fiji 2002
Dianette during a mountain "biking" river crossing.
Some teams, mainly the French, had been bragging that it was easy to finish Eco Challenge. In Fiji, Mark Burnett apparently wanted to send a message to everyone that his race was not easy. At the pre-race meeting, Mark said that this would be the toughest Eco Challenge ever, and even offered money back, “no questions asked,” to any team that didn’t want to start the race. He explained that, because of the difficulty of the course, the last ocean kayaking section would be divided into three categories: a long, an intermediate, and a short course. He predicted that only a few teams would be able to finish. He was right. Sponsorship dollars were hard to obtain (after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and downturn in the economy), forcing Mace and I to change the team. While we were disappointed to not be able to have Adrian and Mo on the team, we were pleased to race with Charlie Engle (whose map we had shared in Borneo) and Dianette Strange, a small but capable woman who had finished several adventure races.
Mace (back) and Marsh trekking through the cold jungle.
Around midnight we were loaded on a bus and driven to the start in the middle of a field. Our backpacks were packed and, as with every Eco Challenge, there were those who bolted out from the start. For two cold, overcast days we swam canyons and trekked up streams because the jungle was too dense to travel through. And, as with every Eco Challenge, after a couple of days the difficulty of the race reduces egos. In this race, by the end of the second day, half the teams had missed the first cutoff. The second night we decided that is was too dangerous to travel through giant boulders in the dark, so we stopped and huddled beside a stream. Dianette, who has no body fat, became hypothermic. As Dianette shivered uncontrollably, we took turns huddling and trying to keep her warm. At times she would slip into an almost unconscious state and speak incoherently. It was a long, fearful night, and we were thankful when dawn broke enabling us to move and generate the precious energy that is a key to staying warm.
Adrian and his team entering a village on the dry side of the island.
The next four days continued to be cold and overcast as we paddled up streams, trekked up even more steams, and mountain biked up and down obscure trails and muddy dirt roads – and we watched more teams drop out. Finally, we crossed over to the opposite side of the island and were bathed in sunshine. On the seventh day, we finally saw our gear boxes and could change our clothes and get more food.
No matter how cold and miserable he might be, Mace always kept his sense of humor.
On our tenth and last day, we rappelled down a cliff near a steam. As I hopped onto a boulder eight feet above the stream bed, my feet immediately went out from under me, and I found myself falling head first downward. Next thing I knew, I was laying in the stream bed, reaching into my mouth to see if I had lost any teeth or broken my jaw. Luckily, my water bottle, which was on my backpack shoulder strap next to my chin, had absorbed the impact, saving my jaw. Although I had landed on my right shoulder and it ached, I was mostly intact.
Mace came running up and asked if I was okay. When I said, “yes,” in true Macy style, he joked that, as he watched me fall, his first thought was that it would be a bitch to get me out of there; and his second thought was that it was a bummer that we would be out of the race so close to the finish.
We carried on and arrived at the ocean shore where we hopped in the kayaks and paddled the short course to the finish. Burnett was right. Out of 81 teams that started the race, only 23 teams finished (we were happy to be 17th). Many of the top teams, including the French, did not finish; and for good reason – it was a hard race.
Lessons Learned Never assume anything. At the start, we had assumed that we would be able to get into our gear boxes every few days. We got caught—just when you think you have things down, the unknown reaches up and grabs you in the ass! It also taught us to accept our fate and make do with, and be grateful for, what we had; especially our food, no matter how meager. I was reminded to always have hope. When Dianette was cold and shivering and there was no end in sight, it seemed hopeless. Although we had to wait for days before the sun came out, it did come out, warming our souls and giving us new life. During those tough times, we never lost our sense of humor—one of the first skills we had learned in Utah. Hope and humor, more than anything, gave us the will to continue. Life is much the same. Taking the good with the bad, and deciding to see the brighter side, makes life truly a joy worth living.
Team Stray Dogs on their Bili Bili: traditional rafts that had to be constructed by each team from bamboo, including pieces for poling down the river.
World's Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji 2019
Sorry, no spoilers! You'll have to finish watching the 10-part series on Amazon Prime Video first. Then, the Stray Dogs – Nancy Bristow, Marshall Ulrich, Adrian Crane, and Dr. Bob Haugh, who “came out of retirement,” which was not a shock, as shown on this screen shot from a story on Entertainment Tonight – will share their personal story about the return of Eco-Challenge after a 17-year hiatus.
Marshall Ulrich earned those lines of wisdom.
The following is edited from what was at the end of Marshall's chapter in Neil Jamison's book. The Stray Dogs hope it helps to explain the "why do they do it" question so many people ask of adventure athletes.
An Attempt to Answer: Why? The Eco-Challenge and other adventure races will continue to take its competitors to exotic places on a physical and mental level. For me the journey of running, adventure racing, and mountaineering (I completed the Seven Summits in 2006) has given me a profound sense of gratitude for what I have, who I am, and where I am going. Adventure racing presents the opportunity to learn new technical skills but, more importantly, it provides the opportunity to learn more about yourself and the importance of positive interactions with others. Each of the ten Eco-Challenges I participated in provided valuable life lessons, including the following . . .
Learn to laugh, especially at yourself – never take yourself too seriously
Work as a team, and draw strength from each other
Take everything in stride; don’t complain about your “problems” – find solutions
Learn from your own weaknesses
Humility is important – allow yourself the pleasure of being humbled and you will learn from it
Keep a positive attitude, no matter what
True friendships are those built on respect and admiration, solidified by facing adversity together
Strength of character includes being brave, honest, and humble
Being humble must include the ability to not say “I told you so”
Count your blessings, especially your friends
Things always work out if we trust ourselves, trust our friends, and can be a person that others can trust
Have the invaluable ability to suffer, with grace
To appreciate the profoundness of life, live it to its fullest, both the joy and the suffering
Don’t think too much, just do, or you might psych yourself out
You’re not alone, so you don’t have to be self-sufficient; it’s okay to draw strength from others
Never give up
Be responsible for your own choices, good and bad, and accept the consequences
Turn a negative into a positive – it will empower you
Humor is the antidote to misery
Empathy is required
Adapt to any situation and improvise. “Rolling with the punches” is one key to success
Every voice counts – with diplomatic interactions, any difference of opinion can be resolved
Never assume you know everything – there’s always more to learn
Be grateful for the gifts you’re given
Always have hope
For me, I can't think of a more challenging, fun way to to learn these, develop life-long friendships, and see the world. So, the question in my mind is, "Why wouldn't you want to adventure race?"
I can only hope the next few decades will be as fulfilling and enlightening as the past six (gads, almost seven!)