African Extremes

36 Hours of Speed

We were in first place going into the final race. It didn’t really matter. No matter what, whichever team lost, would eliminate one member. The remaining 11 would go on to Costa Rica. With our speed, it didn’t seem fathomable that we could lose. The experts had warned us time and time again that in adventure racing, it’s not always the strongest team that wins. I was more concerned about how I would hold up in the heat. We would have two solid days and one long night of high endurance events to get through. I had been on some long hikes and climbs, but nothing of this magnitude.

It started with a long bike ride through vineyards, followed by several hours in kayaks down the Orange River rapids. Followed by navigating, on foot through a huge river gorge, complete with rock climbing and repelling. All the time, working off maps and navigating with a compass figuring out where the next check point was. By mid day, Team Shackleton was out in the lead and going strong. We spent hours along a river, on foot, in and out of the water to stay cool. Eventually there were hours away from the river were we sweated and hoped for some relief from the heat. Finally it came. One phase of the race required us to sit in inner tubes and paddle with our arms, several miles downstream. It was bliss to be in the water in the heat of the day, even though, after several hours of paddling into the wind, I thought my arms would fall off. Then, more running in ankle deep sand. All the time, we were trying to stay nourished and hydrated. At one point Eric and Darren were out of water, again, and we had to find a spot to fill up. It was amazing to me that these guys had consumed twice the amount of water that Sam and I had in the same amount of time. We filled up and thought nothing more of it. By nightfall, we were on our bikes facing a 30 mile bike ride in the dark. I felt great and was ready to go. I anticipated the night hours, not having to battle the sun. Less than an hour into this bike ride, Darren started to weaken and get sick. Before long, in pitch darkness in the middle of nowhere, he was on all fours getting sick. Eric was not feeling well either. Later we learned, they drank too much water and the body’s response is to flush itself. This inflicted Darren for most of the night as we watched our lead disappear, while the other team’s slowly passed us and gained a huge lead! For nearly six hours Darren struggled along to the next checkpoint. There was nothing the rest of the team could do but be patient, compassionate and let him recover. Our starry filled night was spent moving at slower than a snails pace while the other teams sprinted onward, increasing their lead. By four AM we reached the next checkpoint, where Darren had the option to drop out or take an IV to rehydrate his system. He choose the IV, and thus, to continue on, and maybe salvage the race by catching one or both of the other teams. Just before sunrise we were on the trail again, climbing a rock wall and repelling down again. Back on our bikes, laboring through ankle deep sand as the heat of the day continued to build. More running and navigating and pushing bikes in the scorching sun. We moved fast, but, never fast enough for Darren, who wanted to sprint to catch the other teams. He knew if we lost this race, someone would be eliminated. I felt all we could do was keep a steady pace and hope for the best. Any more sprinting in this heat and any of us could overheat and “crash” physically. By the finish we had gained almost two hours on the other teams, but it was not enough. We finished in last, and thus knew our fate.

In reality TV, drama is what every producer wants. So, exhausted, physically and mentally, at the finish line we were required to eliminate one of our teammates. There ended up being two days of drama revolving around this elimination decision. For me it was impossible to eliminate a teammate. How could I? They were all extremely fit, talented, and friends. How could I assess their climbing ability on Everest by some events we had done in the heat of the desert? Moreover, they were all elite athletes and very capable of taking anything on, individually or as a team. As a result, much to the dismay of the drama seeking Director, I used a random game to determine who I would eliminate, Darren. In the end it was tie vote between Sam and Darren and the experts ultimately made the decision to eliminate Darren. Not because he got sick and lost the race for our team, but how he had carried on after he had recovered.

In the course of all this, I was told they were having a hard time building a character out of me, for TV. This was a huge compliment, rather than an insult. Despite the pressures of being on TV, I was able to keep my personality and not let any of the production pandemonium affect me. I was typically a pretty quiet, middle of the road, average sort of guy. Maybe my personality wasn’t fitting for TV drama, but maybe level headed enough and very suitable for Everest? Time would tell.

I boarded a plane to leave Africa with relief. The long days in the blazing sun were over and I had persevered. There would have been no disappointment had I been eliminated, for I had made some great friends and had amazing experiences. This alone was satisfaction enough for a journey. Yet, it wasn’t over, as we flew under the cloak of darkness, headed east, across the ocean to Costa Rica.

Troy Henkels lives in Eagle River, Alaska. He is a native of Dubuque, a 1985 graduate of Wahlert High School, a 1989 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa. He writes about his adventures and experiences from around the world. Copyright 2004 Troy Henkels