Up to the challenge
Former Beaver thrives in real-life‘amazing' race
By Jeff Welsch
Mid-Valley Sports editor http://www.democratherald.com/articl...tory/comm2.txt
For Lisa Hawkins, a longtime ultra-athlete and former Oregon State volleyball player, the adjectives "incredible" and "absolutely amazing" took on a dramatically enhanced meaning for 10 days in October.
It was sleeping in the previously impenetrable jungles of Fiji amid cave dwellers who 50 years earlier practiced cannibalism.
It was fending off four-foot biting eels, swatting nasty insects and curling up at night in an over-sized Glad garbage sack in a cave full of bats to avoid the biting bugs and chilling rains.
It was taking antibiotics daily to dodge diseases and infections from gashes that always became infected anyway.
It was keeping on your muddy, soggy, tattered shoes for a week straight because once they came off they'd never go back on feet swollen three sizes beyond their norm.
It was near heat exhaustion by day, near hypothermia by night and sleep deprivation throughout.
It was running, jogging, walking, biking, climbing, kayaking, swimming, shimmying, traversing and navigating for 10 days in, around, on and amid pouring rain, searing heat, shivering nights, dense jungles, sheer rock faces, thundering waterfalls, muddy logging roads and roaring rivers.
"It was soooo incredible," Hawkins said Wednesday from her Beaverton home, "that I'd like to go again."
Such is the irresistible lure of the Eco-Challenge, an eight-year-old event that's billed as the world's premier Expedition Race and described by founder Mark Burnett as "epic, gritty and unpredictable."
Based on popular multi-sport endurance races in New Zealand, the Eco-Challenge requires teams of four — two men and two women — to race across 300 miles of a remote region of the world using a wide variety of skills. Teams must be fit and solve problems under constant duress with little sleep.
To Hawkins, who was known as Lisa Hecht as an OSU volleyball standout from 1988-91, it was the perfect antidote for an active person looking for something more scintillating than the structure of team sports, the predictability of marathons and the routines of kayaking, hiking and biking.
"I saw it on TV about five years ago," she said, "and I thought, ‘This is an incredible race to do. Let's do that.'"
Hawkins, 32, enlisted her 30-year-old sister Tricia Glad of West Linn and 34-year-old ultra-athlete Joe Durkee of Portland. For a captain, they approached 39-year-old Randy Couture of Gresham, an ultra-fit former OSU assistant wrestling coach and Greco-Roman champion who is billed as "The Natural" on the Ultimate Fighting Championship tour.
Without knowing whether they'd be one of the 80 teams accepted — Hawkins said there were 1,000 applications submitted in the first 10 minutes they were taken — Team Quest began training in the wilds of Oregon for Eco-Challenge Fiji.
They woke at 4:30 a.m. daily and swam in the Willamette River at Gladstone, ran down the river's banks, and then swam again until they were near exhaustion. They trekked in the Columbia Gorge and kayaked on the White Salmon River. They rode bikes for 15 hours straight and spent countless more hours in the gym.
"You have to be able to pass a bunch of skills tests to make sure you're not going to kill yourself in the jungle," Hawkins said. "What limits you is how much discomfort you can tolerate before you give in. You're putting all your abilities on the line."
When at first their application was rejected, they were encouraged by Eco-Challenge staffers to re-apply, building a creative portfolio that included video and relying heavily on Couture's name recognition.
In June, Hawkins received a call saying Team Quest would be one of 44 U.S. teams competing in Fiji.
"When I heard ‘Eco-Challenge' on my message machine I was so excited," Hawkins recalled.
Thus began the process of acquiring the $15,000 entry fee and the massive amounts of equipment required to compete in the Eco-Challenge. They got sportswear from Columbia, pepperoni and beef jerky from Reser's Fine Foods and the entry fee from 24 Hour Fitness.
Then, three days before the team was to depart for Fiji, Hawkins and Durkee and Glad were watching Couture fight on Pay-Per-View when they saw their captain take a blow to the face. Soon after, Couture's wife, Trish, called from the hospital, saying that his eye was damaged and he wouldn't be making the trip to Fiji.
"I was having a heart attack," Hawkins said. "I was just mortified."
In a pinch, the team called 29-year-old Corey Nagel, a professional kayaker from Portland. Nagel accepted the offer, and the team anxiously headed for Fiji.
Team Quest was greeted in Fiji by pouring rains and a 10-hour ride in a rickety bus over a muddy logging road constructed for the race. When the bus inevitably broke down, the participants had to disembark and change the tires.
When they arrived at the starting line, they had already been awake for 15 hours and knew they wouldn't sleep for another three days.
"I thought, ‘You've got to be kidding me,' " Hawkins said.
The event included 20 professional eco-challenge teams, but also had diversity for the sake of the omnipresent televisions filming a mini-series that will begin airing Monday night on USA Network. One team included two former Playboy Playmates and another was comprised of "Survivor" contestants.
"The Playmates cheated in the first 24 hours, along with the Survivor team," Hawkins said. "We saw them in a car. The Playmates were on horseback, and always had tents up. You don't take tents, but they had a little crew with them."
The teams received their course maps five minutes before the start, and off they went into the jungle amid a deluge. The first stop was the Navua River, where the teams were to build rafts, or "bilibilis," out of bamboo.
Several villagers helped with the construction, but alas, their bilibili began to break down immediately. Following the waves of a villager on shore, they headed down the wrong chute in the pitch darkness and were hung up on a rock.
They jumped into the river to pull the craft, wary of the eels that had already bitten another participant, forcing a helicopter evacuation. They were on the river for 15 hours; they had planned for nine.
After the bilibili portion, Team Quest was 70th of 80 teams.
Next was The Lost World, a jungle area so dense and eerie that villagers refused to enter and warned contestants against it, saying "Don't go in there — you won't come out." Two hours after entering, they encountered other teams returning, saying there was no way through.
At that point, Burnett arrived in a helicopter, ordering the participants to march onward.
Team Quest made it through, Hawkins said, "in record time."
"We were climbing 100-foot waterfalls, jumped over 10 feet of cliffs," she said. "It was amazing. Nobody had ever been here. It was breath-taking."
On the mountain-biking portion, more problems: Nagel, the newcomer, hurt his knee and said he couldn't continue.
Now Team Quest was down to three members, which automatically disqualified them from official competition. But they opted to forge ahead, determined to finish.
Hawkins and Glad absorbed Nagel's gear and they began to ride. Quickly, Hawkins' bicycle chain began to break again and again, and then she had derailleur problems, turning her 21-speed mountain bike into a one-speed.
At about 3 a.m., they came upon another participant lying motionless in the middle of the muddy logging road, blood trickling from his ears, nose and mouth. They fired off flare guns, but no one responded; the nearest checkpoint was six hours away.
So they began hiking in that direction with their woozy competitor.
The bad news: They lost six hours. The good news: Race officials rewarded Team Quest by moving them directly to the end of the mountain biking leg, enabling Hawkins and her inflamed knees to avoid torturous climbs on her one-speed.
The next few days included more of the same, including a night lost in the jungle in which at about 4 a.m. they spotted a light in the distance. Upon closer inspection, it was a fire outside a cave where natives lived.
"They were smoking ... whatever ... and eating fried bananas," Hawkins said. "These people sat there and watched us watch them. It was truly the dawn of man, I'm sure."
Hawkins remembers how enthralled they were by Team Quest's silver space blankets, her blonde hair and especially Reser's pepperoni.
The next morning, on the eighth day, the team approached a towering waterfall with a mere two more days to reach the beach finish line and make the official cutoff. As they prepared to use ropes to ascend the falls, they heard the telltale whir of helicopter blades overhead.
It was Burnett, who deemed the waterfall flow too dangerous. He was closing the course.
The team contemplated going the long route around the falls, but they would've arrived at the finish 12 hours late.
"That was the end of our race," Hawkins said. "It was kind of a publicity thing. They only wanted a few teams to finish. It was kind of heartbreaking to know we'd gotten that far. Eight other teams were there, too."
Helicopters arrived to remove the nine teams, and after vaccinations, Team Quest returned to the United States with dreams of competing in Eco-Challenge Jordan in 2003. Those dreams are on hold because tensions in the Middle East have forced a postponement, and the next Eco-Challenge likely will take place in 2004.
Either way, after her "incredible" and "absolutely amazing" experience, she's ready for more — for reasons couch potatoes wouldn't understand.
"I could sit on the couch like a potato,' " she said, "but you've got to do out and do something. You make your own life exciting.
"I think it's to show what you can do. This is the toughest race in the world, and I know I can do it."
WHAT: 300-mile non-stop race featuring trekking, canoeing, kayaking, mountaineering and mountain biking
WHO: 80 teams from 24 countries
TV: USA Network, 10 p.m. and midnight, Monday-Thursday
ETC: Eco-Challenge was first held in southeast Utah in 1995 … 23 teams finished, led by a team from New Zealand