Bear Grylls talks about what it takes to win the world’s toughest adventure race.
By Todd F. Cole
Decked out in his trademark BG survival gear and with climbing harness webbing dangling from his waist, Bear Grylls looks completely out of place in the elegant bar of a luxurious five-star hotel. But so does almost everybody else, because the hotel we are at is a temporary staging base for the TV production of the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge – a televised expedition adventure race that first aired in 2002 and was largely responsible for launching the plethora of adventure races we have now.
Today, the hotel bustles with a small army of TV crews, photographers, media types and hundreds of similarly dressed adventure racers preparing for the start of filming. Along with about a dozen other journalists from all over the world, I have a 10-minute, one-on-one with Bear and the opportunity to talk to the show’s producers about the show which premieres on Prime in August. And, to be honest, I’m nervous.
You see, Bear is the reigning and undisputed king of survival entertainment and has been since 2006 when his breakout hit for the Discovery Channel, Man vs. Wild, had him surviving in some of the planet’s most brutal landscapes, famously consuming everything from goat testicles to maggots and even giving himself a dirty-water enema to stave off dehydration. After six seasons he split with Discovery and returned to TV two years later with Running Wild with Bear Grylls, a prime-time series that saw him and some very high-profile, A-list celebrities—Obama, Zac Efron, Roger Federer, Ben Stiller, et al — going on lite survival adventures together. His list of personal achievements is head-shakingly impressive, from serving in the British SAS to climbing Everest at 23, to attaining a black belt in Karate to paragliding over the Himalayas, to circumnavigating the UK in Jest Skis and journeying to Antarctica’s highest peaks. His business achievements are equally impressive. He has a successful apparel range, and extensive survival gear collection — over 2 million BG survival knives have been sold – an eponymous adventure theme park in the UK and several best-selling books that carry his unique name as author. (His given name is really Edward Michael Grylls, but his sister Lara gave him the nickname Bear at one week old, possibly because his first name was contracted to Teddy.)
Any way you look at it, Bear Grylls is a humungous brand and the man behind it is one of the most famous people on the planet. For the next few months, Bear is putting his considerable audience pulling power behind World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge as its host and commentator.
Also floating around the hotel lobby is the less famous but equally influential producer Mark Burnett. The Eco Challenge is Burnett’s brainchild and he is regarded as one of the most successful TV producers to ever put a show to air. Nominated for 143 Emmys, Burnett’s shows are generally considered as the genesis for modern-day reality television. He created the worldwide ratings juggernaut that is the Survivor franchise – one-third of the entire US population, 125million people, tuned in for some portion of the season 1 finale. He also made the Apprentice — and considers Trump a personal friend — as well as a raft of other money-spinning reality-TV franchises too numerous to list here. He now sits as the Chairman of MGM Worldwide Television Group.
The big chair at MGM is long way from where he started. Like Bear, Mark’s salad days were in the British Army, serving in the Parachute Regiment and seeing action during the Falklands War and Northern Ireland.
Interestingly, Burnett’s first job after leaving the military and emigrating to the United States was that of a live-in nanny in Los Angles. Despite no experience, he applied to the Jaeger family (as in Mick Jaeger and the Rolling Stones) for the live-in job. The Jaegers saw that having a nanny who could double as security would be beneficial so he got the gig.
In 1991, Burnett and four others joined a nascent French adventure competition, the Raid Gauloises, a prototype of modern adventure races named after their principle sponsor, a French cigarette company. Seeing the opportunity, Burnett secured the rights to race and went back to LA to raise funding to turn it into a TV show. He did and so was born the very first Eco-challenge. The first Eco-Challenge was held in 1995 in the Utah desert and televised on MTV, a hugely popular pay TV channel of the day. It was held each year in a new locale until 2002 when it went into hiatus. Eighteen years later, Burnett dusted off the format, reached out to Bear and put the idea to him. Bear agreed, as long as he had significant input into the race design. Which leads us to here, the bar of a luxury hotel in Fiji and Bear is walking my way.
Forty-four-year-old Bear is taller than I imagined (182cm), and looks extremely fit in that soldierly, functional way. He greets me with a genuine smile and firm handshake, and we take a seat. Two minders sit behind him and scroll through their phones once they establish I’m not a total nutjob.
Other profiles I’ve read of Bear relay his Steve Irwin-esque like enthusiasm and it comes across in spades when he starts talking about the race.
“In terms of adventure races, this is the longest, hardest, most extreme adventure race ever run in human history,” he says with genuine relish.
The longest, hardest most extreme adventure race ever run in human history? It is a big call, but at 674km long with a total of elevation gain of 9062 metres (more than climbing to the summit of Everest from the ocean), this race is the mother of all adventure races.
“Each of the sections on this race is an expedition in itself,” says Bear. “We asked a couple of our team who are elite runners to re-test one of the sections and just run a really small five percent of it. One got heat stroke; one was hypothermic – and that was just one little bit of the course.”
In total there will be 330 competitors making up some 66 teams representing 30 countries who will have to run, paddle, climb, swim and ride for some ten days to make the 674kms to the finish line. “I know 100 percent that not everyone is going to finish it,” Bear says and leans in. “There is the potential that no one will finish this.”
This becomes evident when I watch the start later that day and the trailers for the first few episodes. Calamity, injury and heartbreak ensue almost immediately after the starting gun. There are meltdowns and serious injuries almost immediately, which explains why they had five helicopters and a team of 20 paramedics, doctors, nurses, rescue specialists and volunteers standing by.
Lasting ten days, with competitors getting an average of two hours sleep a night and expected to burn between 12000 and 15000 calories a day, this is one very physically demanding race, which begs the question, how do you prepare for this level of exertion? Bear explains, “Ultimately it’s a mental battle… The physicality of the race, the multi-discipline, the fact that you’ve got to be a ninja with everything. There are 12 different extreme adventure disciplines you have to be good at. Then you throw in sleep deprivation, you are off-piste all the time and all of that physically reduces people.
“You have got to keep your team together. This is not like when I look back to SAS selection – when you are on your own – here you’d think teamwork makes it easier, when really it makes it harder, because it’s four times more likely that someone [in your team of four] is going to have a physical, mental or emotional moment. Everything is stacked against you – that’s why it’s the world’s toughest race.”
I had already met some of the competitors and they ranged from ex-military types to professional adventure racers to have-a-go types. Six Aussie teams are participating, including a team of scouts, some knockabout Gold Coast mates, (Mad Mayrs) and team of paramedics, firefighters, ex-special ops (Team Aussie Rescue). Some are happy-go-lucky, others are deadly serious (the yank teams mostly) and it’s hard to pick who’ll survive let alone win. I put it to Bear and his answer is suitably profound and surprises me: What makes a good potentially winning team?
“Lack of ego, kindness when you are under pressure, like the extreme conditions these men and women will be under, kindness is king. Ultimately the key role of the leader is your team knowing that you really care for them, that you would put them above yourself. You will have leaders here at the end of the race that the team will never speak to again and the team will hate each other because the leader has been nightmare.
“What’s happened is under pressure there has been an ego, it’s been about themselves, but on the other extreme you will have a group here who will be friends for life after this experience. Great leaders care about others more than themselves, and in those dark moments that these guys are going to go through, that leadership quality will be everything. Helping someone with their feet, helping carry the weight of their pack, helping them paddle when they can’t move, kindness is king.”
By any measure, it will hell for every competitor, winner, DNFer or last in the pack. It will break some people and injure others. Despite this, then advertised, they received thousands of applications. Why?
“I think it is deep in our DNA, says Bear Grylls. “We are like grapes: when you squeeze us you see what we are made of.”
Bear is of course, inundated with selfie requests and says, “Normally when I put my arm around someone for a selfie it’s a bit squidgy, whereas here, it’s like touching granite. Every single person here is an extreme athlete in their own right.”
“Everybody is fit, that is a given, but the journey that they are going to go on as a team personally and emotionally through because their reasons for being here is so strong and their stories are so strong, is what makes this so special.
So Bear, bottom line, what does it take to win a monumental challenge like this? I ask. Bear doesn’t miss a beat. “I always drive these three things – Courage in the big moments, kindness in the tough moments and the never give up spirit.”