Following is an account of Team Tactel Ispira in the 2000 Eco Challenge in Borneo, Malaysia. Members of the team included Mark Macy, Marshall Ulrich and Adrian Crane, among the worlds most experienced adventure racers. Mo Monaghan, the forth and female member of the team, is new to the Eco Challenge but is destined to become one of the great talents in expedition distance racing. The course traveled through the dense jungle of the state of Sabah, its coral rimmed islands and surrounding expanse of the South China Sea. It is my hope that this brief vignette will allow you to visualize the enormity of the jungle, the vastness of the ocean and feel the wildness of the environment in which the race occurred.

 

  • After a brief prolog of no significance, unless of course you were one of the three teams that sunk your native Perahu sail boat and a result were DQ’d , the race began on a beautiful cloudless day on an island in the South China Sea several miles off the coast of northwestern Borneo. Like every other competitive team Tactel Ispira was excited to begin the journey with dreams of victory or at the very least a top 10 finish among the greatest accumulation of adventure racers ever gathered in one place at the same event. Imagine our chagrin when, one hour into the WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS OF ADVENTURE RACING after having been hit by a rogue wave reminiscent of the Perfect Storm we found ourselves capsized, floating aimlessly as the entire field continued on the journey we anticipated being a part of for the preceding several months. As we floated with our boat, which we had been warned could not be righted if capsized, my overriding thought was how could we possibly explain to our sponsors and more importantly to my kids, how it came to be that we only lasted for two hours in this Eco Challenge.

 

  • Having initially accepted that we may be this years’ exemplification of the agony of defeat, with great effort we accomplished the impossible, righted our boat and as a large portion of our limited gear floated towards the Philippines we began our chase of the remaining SEVENTY FOUR teams who, hours ago sailed over the horizon with no concern whatsoever for the plight of Team Tactel Ispira. With a broken mast rendering our sail useless we paddled into the early evening arriving at CP2 ranked 73 of 75 teams. While Adrian and Mo continued to paddle our damaged Perahu around a classical volcano island, Marshall and I began our effort to reel in those teams whom had earlier abandoned us. For the next 12 hours we hiked coastal shores, swam miles across coral reefs, climbed and bushwhacked tops of what must have been enormous volcanoes and became intimate with every species of prickly, stinging, grabbing and slashing plant in the south Pacific. At the end of one of the most satisfying nights of my competitive life we arrived on a far away beach and found Mo and Adrian whom had rebuilt our beleaguered Perahu at CP 7 anxious to depart into the eye of the awaiting storm. During that perfect night Tactel Ispira passed 29 teams.

 

  • As the dawn began to break on day 2 and while other teams heeded the warning of the race officials not to go out onto the open ocean in the presence of a looming storm we left a handful of teams who preceded us and paddled away from shore with the hopes of rejoining the race from which we had been dropped the day before. Dawn broke with smooth and calm seas which by mid morning gave way to a stiff breeze which propelled us across the seas as we hopped from one deserted island to the next; each as beautiful and alluring as displayed in any travel brochure. Day passed into a classic adventure racing night, navigating by the stars and at times distant light while sharing mutual hallucinations with teammates who haven’t slept in 48 hours. Having crossed the sea and avoided capture by what must have certainly been alien spaceships (actually well lit stationary shrimp boats) the a.k.a. Stray Dogs arrived at the bike transition in 40th place.

 

  • The Dogs stumbled through an incredibly slow transition as we packed and repacked in a sleep deprived state all that we needed and didn’t need, but believed that we did, to carry us through what we anticipated would be a fairly simple and innocuous 120k mountain bike ride in the jungles of Borneo. After suffering through 20k or so of mechanical problems with my bike, which I’m embarrassed to admit slowed my team considerably, we traveled a well maintained and entirely unused dirt road through what appeared to be some sort of jungle national park. As we rode through the afternoon, passing some of the largest piles of paciderm excrement I have ever seen we experienced what would become our greatest nemeses throughout the coarse of the next many days; jungle heat and humidity. Let me make that clear-JUNGLE HEAT AND HUMIDITY! For reasons, which still, after many weeks of sufficient sleep, are not entirely clear to me, I was of the belief that the arduous bike ride was completed at 65k when we arrived at a river for a well deserved and necessary swim. After receiving the bad news from Adrian (navigator and keeper of the maps) that we had completed only slightly more than the first half of the ride we readjusted our expectations and headed deep into our first glimpse of a REAL JUNGLE on single track trails. We spent a remarkable afternoon climbing, crawling and sliding around fallen trees, hyperthermic while pedaling through the steaming, motionless air on continuous climbs only to find ourselves hypothermic and soaked to the core in the single greatest cloudburst I had ever experienced in my life. What a great day! The JUNGLES of Borneo, elephants pulling down branches while trumpeting at who knows what, orangutans in the trees, covered in mud, traveling downhill at 40 miles an hour on a bike with brakes that no longer work. Another day at the Eco Challenge. Team Tactel Ispira arrives at the entrance to the Danum Valley wet hungry, sleepy and happy, in 36th place with still to learn what a real JUNGLE is all about.

 

  • After eating 100’s of the best tasting bean, onion and cucumber sandwiches all soaked in gas fumes, the team took a 2-hour power nap, our first serious z’s of the race. While several teams slept contently we began a two-day, non-stop trek in the JUNGLE that I will never forget. Our trek began innocuously enough at about 10 p.m. on the third night of the race in an immense JUNGLE that we couldn’t see but could feel all around us as we climbed and descended hill after hill in relative comfort and unimpressive heat and humidity. Our evening stroll was interrupted by an attention getting half tyrolean traverse across a whitewater river just before dawn. A half tyrolean across a river means the rope is just barely above the river. When you clip on and jump in, the river carries you down stream and the current forces you to the opposite shore while large quantities of water hit you in the face akin to falling on water skis but hanging onto the tow rope. Fully awake we began day four of the race in the heart of the Danum valley. We continued to hike endless small hills to seemingly meaningless minor summits only to descend and return again to the next unnamed minor summit in the most unbelievable humidity and heat I have ever experienced. There was not a moment during the daylight hours of day 4 when I did not have a continuous flow of water running down my body, without having set foot in a single shower. Over the course of those same daylight hours I drank 500 oz. of water without having the need to relieve myself.

 

  • To steal a phrase, night 4 was a night that will live in infamy. Each and every competitor who spent that night in the Danum Valley will remember the sights, sounds and ferociousness of the weather as long as they live. As darkness began so did the torrential rains. It rained and it rained and it rained some more. With the rains came horrendous winds and lightening that crashed and echoed throughout the valley the entire night. As we traversed the incredibly steep hillside with our competitors and friends from team Vail, the ground beneath us slid downhill with all of us along for the unintended ride towards the darkness of the river, which we knew to be hundreds of feet below. As we scratched and crawled over the sliding goo we heard and felt the crashing of ageless trees throughout the JUNGLE around us. We continued on at approximately half a kilometer an hour having lost Adrian, who, temporarily blinded by the fog on his glasses and the drowning of his headlamp, was feared to have finally fallen into the darkness below. I will never forget the conversation between Marshall and I calmly discussing, as the storm crashed down upon us, which of us was a better friend with Adrian, the significance being, that person would have the fearsome task of sliding down to the river to look for him. Fortunately as we debated the issue Adrian appeared as contented as could be having no idea we feared he’d gone under.
  • Needless to say we survived the night and another long hot humid day constantly nagged by the hundreds of leaches that became enamored with our large blood-filled bodies which would, after one hour and twenty seven minutes, on average, satisfy their immense appetites, and arrived back where our never to be forgotten trek through the JUNGLE began.

 

  • After a full night’s sleep (dark zone) and in 22nd place we, along with several other teams, jumped into the tumultuous class 3 waters of the Segma river for a four hour swim and 45 mile paddle. The often times hypothermic swim was a welcome respite after suffering through the heat and humidity of the JUNGLE and allowed us to leave several teams behind. When we reached our Sampan canoes, we were somewhat surprised to find 400 pound behemoths that were clearly too long and heavy for a whitewater river. I was even more surprised when I was chosen, because I had more zero whitewater guiding experience than the rest of the team, to guide the boat through the course. Despite some desperate moments we avoided tragedy on the river during the course of the day and felt lucky to avoid the boat breaking boulders intimately experienced by other less fortunate teams. Night six was another, “best night of my life.” We continued down the river on our now favored Sampan, in the dark listening for white water, franticly trying to avoid rocks we couldn’t see, all the while trying to stay awake as Marshall called out directions which at times indicated the direction of the rocks and at times was the best course of travel. We finished the paddle at approximately 3 a.m., caught a quick 40 minute power nap, awoke, jumped into a swamp we couldn’t see and hiked another 20 miles or so, ate huge quantities of mostly uncooked egg sandwiches, which were the best uncooked egg sandwiches I ever ate before reaching our Perahu sail boats which we had docked days and a lifetime of memories ago. Night six was one of those nights that was so perfect and so memorable I am certain adventure racing will remain a mandatory part of my life.

 

  • We pushed off from shore, in 16th place in the midst of rough seas and howling winds towards the Madi caves, known throughout the world as the source of nests used for bird nest soup which apparently is not only a delicacy but eliminates the need for Viagra for those who are amorously impaired. We arrived at the shores of the Madi, amidst another group of alien spaceships lit up with bright green lights, again hallucinating, and began the 10k hike to the caves. Enroute we hade been warned by other teams that the caves were suffocating and that at least 100 oz. of water was necessary to do the climb. To some extent we discounted the advice. Who in their right mind would carry 100 oz. of water for a short climb? We arrived at the caves at approximately 1 a.m., to find ourselves in the most surreal setting I have ever experienced. We were escorted to the entrance of the caves and through its dark knee-deep bat guano filled passages by children who couldn’t have been 10 years old to the base of the climb. For the next eight hours we climbed, sweated, took the leap of faith on the tyrolean across a chasm we could not see, sweated, climbed, sweated, traversed a knife edge ridge, sweated, climbed, ran out of water, sweated, rappelled off a 500 ft wall and dozed while walking the 10k back to the alien spaceship from the night before to find that it was really a tent P.C.

 

  • Sleep deprived and fully hallucinating we began the final 65k paddle across open ocean to the finish line. The seas became immediately stormy and intimidating. We passed from island to island, and as darkness fell, lightning threatened and the seas became increasingly tempestuous. Fortunately we had the good sense to stop on an island no bigger than my house where we had the good fortune to wait out a storm so violent that it sunk our waiting Perahu, while Team Vail and the Japanese were left to fend for themselves behind us on the open ocean. We departed when the worst was passed and after an all too brief scuba dive off the coast of an unnamed island arrived at the finish line the early afternoon of the 8th day of continuous racing.

 

  • Any Eco Challenge veteran will caution that the race doesn’t end until you arrive at home and sleep in your own bed.  For many of us the race still hasn’t ended. Leptosporosis is a bacterial infection, typically absorbed through open wounds while immersed in water containing the bacteria. Most of us became extremely ill after arriving at home. In my case for eight days I shivered, sweat and experienced severe muscle pain in my legs that required the use of crutches to get to the bathroom. As is always the case, bad moments pass, the sun shines, woods need to be run through, and as I write this story that I intended to be brief, with the exception of some lingering weakness in my legs I have recovered. Now on a snowy afternoon in the Rockies, nine weeks after crossing the finish line I declare the 2000 Eco Challenge to be finished.

 

Team Tactel Ispira is extremely proud, given an unlucky and almost fatal start, of its 12th place finish in the most competitive expedition distance adventure race ever held. While I have no intent of ever returning, the JUNGLE and ocean of Borneo have left me with memories that will feed my need for adventure in later years and will bind Marshall, Mo, Adrian and I in an everlasting friendship experienced by those lucky individuals who have endured an adventure together. Thanks to all of our sponsors- particularly DuPont the proud inventors of Tactel Ispira, who because of their financial contribution, allowed us to compete in the world’s greatest race. 

 

Mark Macy, Team Tactel Ispira, November 11, 2000

 


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