Next stop, who knows where

Having conquered the cutthroat world of the infomercial - Tap Light, anybody? - Anthony Sullivan of Tampa was ready for a new challenge. Mark Burnett was happy to oblige with Eco-Challenge: Fiji.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic
St. Petersburg Times
published May 1, 2003

He has spent thousands of dollars, months of his time and risked losing part of his foot, just for the privilege of enduring the harshest seven days of his life.

And if you ask Tampa infomercial producer Anthony "Sully" Sullivan whether he's willing to sign up for another edition of USA Network's grueling Eco-Challenge adventure race, he doesn't hesitate to answer.

"Doing this was the ultimate adventure," said Sullivan, breaking into a wide smile at the thought of tackling another race with his partners, Team Go OxiClean. "You get to be a kid . . . doing stuff you only read about. We live in a really sterile world where food is available when you want it, entertainment is there when you want it. This offers the whole excitement of not knowing what comes next."

"This" is Eco-Challenge: Fiji, the ninth edition of the sprawling adventure race founded by Survivor producer Mark Burnett. Hyped as "the world's toughest endurance race," the Fiji version featured 81 teams from 23 countries traversing a course that stretched 500 kilometers (310 miles) through dense jungle, rushing rapids and steep canyons.

By now, Burnett's Eco-Challenge races are legendary among those devoted to adventure racing: contests that require days of biking, kayaking, hiking, climbing and swimming on little or no sleep in the world's most formidable environments.

Indeed, any suggestion that Burnett may have changed the latest Eco-Challenge because veterans began to find the game less, well, challenging, brings a howl of protest from the guy who introduced America to the Tribal Council and grub-eating immunity challenges.

"It never got any easier . . . (contestants) got more experienced," said Burnett, an expressive former British paratrooper who sells his reality TV products with the enthusiasm of a born pitchman. "This was the ninth Eco-Challenge, and some people have done all of them. I couldn't make it physically harder . . . (so) I just made it more of an expedition, Indiana Jones-style."

Contestants once had 10 miles to travel between checkpoints - where you can receive refreshments, new gear and updated information on your location - but racers in Fiji traveled 20 or 30 miles between such stops. Teams were given a time limit to reach each checkpoint and precious little information on how to get there.

Other adventure races have crews waiting with hot meals and much-needed equipment at set checkpoints - not so in Burnett's equation.

One wrong decision meant hours of extra trekking through a jungle so dense, no stars were visible overhead to help with navigation. Even local experts hired as guides got lost or confused, sending teams into long, circuitous hikes that left them exactly where they started 12 hours later.

"I don't think people had ever been to some of these places we went through," said Sullivan, sipping tea in his tastefully decorated townhouse just off Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard - a space light years removed from Eco-Challenge's harsh environs. "(Burnett) actually said during the prerace meeting, "If four or five teams finish the race, I'll be happy."'

Just 10 teams completed the race, which was held across the Fiji Islands in October. (Before the competition began, Burnett offered to return any team's entry fee - about $15,000 - once he revealed how tough the course was. Of course, no one accepted that offer.)

Well aware that he'd also have to turn the race into a compelling, five-part miniseries for USA Network, Burnett included teams of Playboy Playmates, reality show veterans (including Survivor: Africa winner Ethan Zohn and original Survivor loser Jenna Lewis) and a team featuring the family of actor Hayden Christensen (Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones).

"It was much more difficult psychologically, because of the planning and navigation aspects," said Burnett, speaking by cell phone from New York, where he's casting his next reality show, The Restaurant. "You find they'll get more exhausted when they don't know what's coming. Eco-Challenge has become an endurance race . . . an expedition with a stopwatch (that) requires you to be part athlete and part explorer."

Sullivan, who first stumbled upon Eco-Challenge while sitting in a hotel room in San Francisco, watching the Morocco race in 1998, just wanted to finish.

"To rappel off a 600-foot-cliff is something that's really scary, but also really amazing," he said. "This is a complete departure from normality. It teaches you to reach deep within your soul."

Sullivan's journey to the competition began in that San Francisco hotel room, where he fell in love with the idea of adventure racing.

Raised in the rural West Country of England as the son of an arcade game concessionaire and teacher, the gregarious 34-year-old had already turned a $15,000 commercial filmed in a rented Palm Harbor home into $60-million in sales for the Tap Light. That's the "As Seen on TV" portable lighting once wildly popular in infomercials (he also produces spots for the local king of infomercials, Billy May, who hawks OxiClean stain remover, among other products).

A fan of sports such as white-water rafting and snowboarding, Sullivan decided to put the personality and tenacity that had once helped him move products as a pitchman on the Home Shopping Network to another purpose: selling himself as an adventure racer.

Burnett's Eco-Challenge office received a video sample of Sullivan wiping out on a snowboard, a "resume" of sorts that included pictures from his Boy Scout days, a care package packed with OxiClean products and regular, outrageous phone calls.

Eventually, they hooked him up with Mike Eck of Team Go - the team that eked out a last-place finish in the previous Eco-Challenge: New Zealand, becoming the show's comic relief in the process. (It helped that Sullivan had offered corporate sponsorship; eventually, OxiClean ponied up $30,000 of the $50,000 total race cost.)

Team Go agreed to drop their weakest member to take him. After weeks of training and thousands of dollars in equipment purchases, Sullivan and his new teammates tackled a warm-up event: the Four Winds adventure race in Utah.

They had surprised each other by landing in first place about 60 percent of the way through the course, when it happened.

Sullivan slipped after a swim and landed on a sharp rock, tearing a huge gash in his foot.

In a flash, not only was Team Go OxiClean knocked out of Four Winds, it seemed Eco-Challenge would be a pipe dream, too.

After all, Sullivan had a tear in his foot that required 70 stitches, and it was just six weeks before the Eco-Challenge would begin. Even for participants with healthy feet, blisters and foot difficulties were often competition-ending problems.

How could Sullivan possibly get ready in time?

"The first words out of my mouth were, "I'm out of Eco,"' said Sullivan, who provided camcorder footage to Burnett of his wound in Utah for use in the first Eco-Challenge: Fiji episode. He found a Tampa foot doctor willing to help him recover in time, prescribing a regular regimen of workouts, medication and wound-cleaning.

"At one point I felt so bad, that maybe if they wanted to drop (Sullivan) out and put some local (Fijian) on their team, I was open-minded to that," said Burnett, who juggled a 1,000-member staff that filmed more than 650 hours of footage during the race, jumping from site to site in his own helicopter. "I was a little disappointed in them, because . . . they ended up having almost an equally bad experience as they had the previous year."

But Sullivan's team refused to drop him, and his foot injury never became a problem. Other obstacles loomed larger: constantly hiking through water, trouble navigating and a crushing fatigue so heavy that team members began hallucinating halfway through the race.

"This was a race of calculation," Sullivan said. "You don't have any information. We ran out of food. We ran out of batteries. You're hiking in the jungle with no lights and there was no moonlight. I think they asked us if we wanted to quit about five times."

Team Go did quit on the seventh day, when it was obvious they wouldn't make a cutoff time. But Sullivan still hopes to join the group for another Eco-Challenge. Burnett's contract with USA Network ends with the Fiji race, so they haven't yet scheduled the next competition, which could take place in 2004 and be offered to a broadcast network.

Burnett, who remains an aggressive hustler now developing a restaurant reality show for NBC (superstar chef pulls together a trendy eatery) and a business show in which mogul Donald Trump selects an apprentice (the highlight; watching him "fire" a contestant every week), quickly sums up why people flock to races such as Eco-Challenge.

"It's very similar to climbing Mount Everest, or some people want to cross the desert on camels," said Burnett. "It's an inner quest . . . they want to find out, "Are they tough enough?' There's nothing left to explore and no one has time to take off a year to do an expedition. Here's a thing you can take off a few days, it's organized for you, but it's still an on-the-edge expedition."

At a glance
Eco-Challenge: Fiji airs at 10 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, and at 9 p.m. Thursday on the USA Network.