Cocktail umbrellas and Fiji go together, right? With the sparkly ocean dancing in front, you settle further into a deck chair and gently remove a pretty paper parasol from the pineapple that’s swimming in your cocktail. With the baby brolly gone, you sink the rest of your drink and drift off to the rhythm of the tropical breeze. It’s not yet midday.
That’s Fiji, or so we thought.
Team Gippsland qualified for the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-challenge Fiji and headed to the island paradise to challenge themselves on a nearly 700km, multi-sport endurance event — madness!
We recently chatted with team captain, Rob Preston, eager to understand what drives someone to risk life and limb in such a gruelling race.
Rob, how did you find yourself on the World’s Toughest Race? What’s your background to be fit enough for such a demanding challenge?
Our five team members submitted a short video and application outlining our experience and desire to compete. Team Gippsland was fortunate to be one of the 66 teams selected out of hundreds of applications from over 30 countries.
My wife Kathryn and I have been competing in elite endurance competitions for over 20 years. One of our first experiences together was running for Australia in the 2000 Orienteering World Cup in Canberra. We were a lot faster back then, but we race much smarter now!
For the last 15 years, we’ve moved into longer events, such as 24-hour rogaining (like orienteering, but in teams of two), where we have won several world championship medals, and also adventure races taking from five to ten days.
Even with a long history with endurance sports, there were skills we needed to learn and improve. Stand up paddling was new for us. We also needed to learn to sail a local Fijian sailing boat, which is a lot different from traditional sailing. We’d never done any outrigger paddling either, so we travelled to practice in Melbourne.
This event required lots of preparation, and we haven’t even covered the huge amount of gear and food needed!
Four of our team members live in Gippsland, with our final member, Aaron, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. We’ve all been competing internationally. Tim, Kathryn and I have been racing together regularly for the last three years, but we had never raced with Aaron. Team comradery was really good. Despite taking the competition side quite seriously, we could still enjoy a laugh and the environment around us. One of the keys to successfully completing these events is to be able to recover from challenges, whether they’re navigation mistakes or sick team members, and continually moving towards your goal without getting too frustrated or demoralised.
In adventure races, which is more important: being physically strong or mentally strong?
Despite the course being an extraordinary 671 km long, the mental challenge is normally harder than the physical.
The body is much more capable than you expect, and with experience, you’re able to keep pushing harder for a very long time, so long as the mind is strong enough.
What was the most difficult challenge you faced during the race?
Keeping our team healthy. In tropical climates, it’s very easy to get infections that worsen during the race. Towards the end, we had some illness that needed management. It’s a fine line between pushing too hard for a better result and risking putting a teammate in a bad way and not finishing at all. We were definitely on the edge, as Kathryn was helicoptered to the hospital from the race finish.
Do you think this series will reveal a new side of Fiji?
The World’s Toughest Race: Eco-challenge Fiji will showcase the many amazing sides to Fiji. Most tourists never leave the beach resorts, but the country’s interior is rugged jungle with steep mountains and fast-flowing rivers.
The production side was incredible. They attracted the best cameramen from the adventure world (some are very accomplished athletes). Mostly, we could still concentrate on our race, with the occasional helicopter hovering over us and interviews at the four campsites between each stage. Trying to speak coherently with only two hours of sleep and 22 hours of tough adventure isn’t easy.
What was your post-race meal?
For Kathryn, it was a tasteless sandwich at the Nadi Hospital! But she did beat the rest of the team back to the hotel, once the doctors treated her wounds, so it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. We finished on an offshore island resort, which had a great buffet, but it was the fresh fruit that I remember the best.
What is the most rewarding facet of being involved in a project of this scale?
We’re very excited to have our sport shared with the broader public at a level never seen before. Footballers play 80 minutes per game, with a break every 20 minutes, if they haven’t already been benched. So, it takes about 23 games to reach the same time as the first race stage. We then had another four stages to complete, and if a team member withdraws, it’s game over. No result. It’s a very big challenge.
Does Gippsland provide a solid training ground for adventure races?
Yes, Gippsland offers some of the best adventure opportunities in Australia. My favourite places to explore are the hills around Walhalla and the even grander landscapes of Licola and the Alpine National Park. The Thomson, Macalister and Mitchell Rivers contain some of the best long, technical water paddling anywhere on the east coast of Australia.
There’s been a big lag in endurance events happening in Gippsland, compared to the rest of the state, but that’s changing now. For example, Duncan’s Run at Tarra-Bulga National Park and the Mitchell River Trail Run allow locals to challenge themselves and showcase how special our region is to visitors.
We’d love to get more Gippslandians involved in adventure sports, including our own event, the Explore Gippsland Adventure Race. The skills needed to compete in expedition-length races, such as Eco-challenge Fiji are significant, but with a spirit of adventure you just need to get outside, start exploring and learning as you go — then stand at the start line of an event. If you wait ‘until you are ready’, you’ll always find an excuse to not challenge yourself.
Cheer on Rob and Team Gippsland when the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-challenge Fiji launches out of the jungle and onto Amazon Prime Video on August 14.