Before there was Survivor or The Amazing Race there was The Eco-Challenge, known as The World's Toughest Race. It was the first, toughest show of its kind, from creator Mark Burnett, who knows how to turn an endurance event into a biblical drama. Before it went off the air in 2002, Eco-Challenge had spawned a generation of races like Tough Mudder and Spartan Races that attracted hundreds of thousands of weekend warriors trying to prove they had what it takes.
Tonight on Amazon, The Eco-Challenge returns, hosted by the half-man, half-bear, aptly named Bear Grylls as host and presenter. He uses a personal chopper to follow teams of competitors across 671 kilometers of the toughest terrain the producers could throw at them: Mountains and jungles, green rapid rivers and rough ocean traverses, swamps, boulder fields, and just about anything that would halt most humans in their tracks. We get to watch it all unfold over 10 episodes filmed beautifully in lush Fiji–a vicarious vacation for us couch jockeys yearning to get out into the wild. Some of the best endurance athletes from all over the world were enlisted to compete, and three of those are totally vegan and plant-based. Imagine doing the world's toughest race on virtually no sleep, now imagine having to carry in all your food, and now imagine that food has to be totally plant-based.
Actually, these plant-based athletes told The Beet, it made it easier on some levels since plant-based snacks and bars and fruit snacks are both nutritious and easy to carry and don't spoil. Here is their story -- sans the outcome, of course, since though the ten episodes are in the can, no one is allowed to divulge who won. We have clues, however. Read their stories and pull up to the TV with your air-popped popcorn and your beverage of choice. It's going to be an exciting night. One thing's for sure if we were betting, The Beet would put all our chips on the plant-based athletes to being the ones t kick some serious butt.
Each of these athletes is part of a four-person team, with one person doing the chafing and production involved in creating the camps, the fire, and procuring the food. It's a vital part of the race that sees competitors sleeping about 4 hours total over 4 days of racing in wet shoes with feet peeling and tempers flaring. Staying focused, energized, hydrated and fueled is part of what separates the winners from the ones medivac-ed out. Here are their stories:
Watch the trailer here:
Plant-Based Eco-Challenger Justin Smith, a former triathlete, 38, California, Team Curl
The Beet: "Did being a plant-based athlete actually help you in any way?"
Justin: "I am biased but yes. I love what I eat and my lifestyle, but anyone considering going plant-based needs to know there are many resources for great food these days. Also, if you're an athlete, you recover better from workouts, you sleep better, and you race better.
The Beet: You had to bring all your food with you into the jungle?
Justin: "We had to prepackage everything. We brought a good number of calories to the island knowing there was not going to be accessible to large markets like we are back in the states. We brought 30,000 to 40,000 calories of food with us to the island. We factored each of us would need 6,00 calories a day for about 20 hours of racing, so 300 calories an hour.
"One of the joys of endurance racing is you can eat copious amounts of food.
Variety is key because what you love one minute you might not love a few hours or days from now. We brought a variety of prepackaged food like Clif Bars and Z bars. But I like hearty, sustainable foods like baked potatoes, and a little salt and olive oil, and when you're grinding it out this tastes great. The Yukon gold travels better than the sweet potato but my wife makes a great sweet potato brownie, with cacao powder and almond butter... I can get you the recipe!"
"I grew up in the foothills in California and we now live in Sacramento. I went plant-based ... the health benefits. we have done a ton of traveling like to India and Bali and Indonesia where it's easier to go plant-based. So when I was competing in Triathlon, traveling you eat locally.
"I had some knee pain. Dairy never jived well with me. And I grew up on a regular meat diet but when Melissa and I met we went cold turkey and it didn't take long before we felt it: We were both sleeping better and all-around performing better.
"Now we have a 16-month-old peanut and though my wife wanted to come to Fiji for the race, it wasn't the timing. We have a little plant-based girl named Neru after the peak in the Himalayas.
"So Eco-challenge came along and I put my name in the hat and I actually got chosen. A buddy of mine I swam within the college and we said, what do you think? Can we put some people together? So we created Team Curl, and we represent all the curly-haired people of the world. I found a woman whose kids I coached on a swim team years ago and he had a buddy who played soccer for years and we convinced him and we had a paramedic who was a crew chief. So we have a school teacher, an ultra runner and mom of three and an ex-professional soccer player. And we had a great time.
"The takeaway should be to the at-home viewer: It's totally possible to be plant-based and compete at the top of your game. If I can do it, trust me anyone can do it. there are some inconveniences but you can pull it off. In an endurance race, it does require some planning and some preparation but you can prepare meals that are delicious and plant-based.
"Going plant-based, you will definitely feel better. anyone who is a dairy consumer should consider getting rid of it and seeing how they feel. if you pay attention to your body you get some congestion, chances are it's just part of the dairy. Dealing with that when you are challenging your body to the highest level... you need it to be a clean machine."
Plant-Based Eco-Challenger T immoTammemae, 36, Ultra-Runner from Team Estonia.
The Beet: Tell us about your plant-based journey. And did you win the Eco-Challenge?
Timmo: "I ate plant-based for 3 years. my first child could not tolerate meat so my wife and I got rid of it and we both performed better."
The Beet: What did you bring to Fiji for the race?
Timmo: "I brought with me cherries, goji berries, strawberries, blueberries, but also I think during this Eco-Challenge we got some food along the way at villages. For this or any adventure race, I eat quite a lot of bananas and all sorts of fruit. It's possible to have those in the transition area. I also eat jelly and cookies... I have found that it's not the best food for my body over time though. I prefer healthy foods: Salads, grains, legumes and beans of all nature. Chickpeas and beans and so on.
"Sometimes it's hard to find the right food during a race, especially if it's days and days and days. We visited the shops and found local food. It's very good to eat what the people in the same area are eating. I lost a little weight during the race but not too much. I didnt lose more than a kilo. I was the only plant-based one in my team. We are on Team Estonia Adventure.
"I am the youngest member of the team. I am 36 years old. Everyone else is around 40. I think it's a very good age for doing this kind of race, since you have experience and you have to be able to get along with other people.I play the role of the navigator of our team. I like to think about it and be strategic.
"My strongest sport is running or ultra running. I am a few times world champ of the Rogaining sport, which is racing for 24 hours and you have a compass and you have to find your way in 100 square kilometers of terrain. This discipline is called Rogaining.
The Beet: So did your team get along? And did you win?
Timmo: "Actually we offered tension for the camera crew and they were quite happy. We fight together and we fought hard. But in the end, we all got along. Estonians are not the type of people who talk that much. And we are more friendly than some. Not that aggressive than maybe some other nations. Estonia is a small country of only 1.3 million and we have our own language. And our country is 318 meters above seawater and the largest slope is only 84 meters. So it is a flat country. In Fiji it was volcanic and the climbing was steep. Some races you have to climb 15,000 meters. How we train is reasonable to have a strong headwind.
"You have to remember to eat and take in calories. You have someone on the team reminds everyone it's time to eat. All the time you have to eat, drink because otherwise, this tiredness comes when you forget to eat and drink. Salts are key; we had some salty gels and I'm usually using electrolytes in tablets. It helps to recover the fluids you have lost.
"Racing in Eco-Challenge was a big thing for me. I have raced for many years and I think I am quite skilled, but there is no way you can understand how important it can be to be in Eco-Challenge. It's been 18 years since Eco-Challenge, and I've been dreaming about it and when it came out that Eco-Challenge was coming back, I organized the whole team and we are lucky that they chose us. We did the video together. Estonia Ace Adventure.
The Beet: What is the hardest thing about being vegan or plant-based?
Timmo: "At home, I eat a diet that is healthy. Eating out is the challenge. I have gained, knowledge of how my body likes to refuel. The main challenge is how to eat healthily outside the home. When I go out to the office or out to eat it's a challenge and I don't often know how the food is made or what the ingredients are, but thanks to my diet intelligence I am used to asking questions like has the food not been fried with butter and can you replace it with olive oil. and usually, when I order something I asked how it's prepared and If it's possible to do it differently.
"I am now used to asking that question about the food is prepared, because you really are what you eat."
Plant-Based Eco-Challenger Aaron Hopkinson, from Wind River Wyoming on
Team Iron Cowboy
The Beet: How did you happen to go plant-based and end up on the Eco-Challenge?
Aaron: "My journey started ten or 15 years ago when I started reading some books and this is probably a good path for longterm health but I didn't have the motivation and kept putting it off. Then 3 years ago I went vegetarian and didn't feel good, honestly, so I bagged it. Then 2 years ago I thought it's now or never, so I went totally plant-based and it's been super easy actually. Cutting out eggs and dairy I instantly felt better. I was seeing different health issues in my family and realizing that was what was awaiting me as well, but there are no guarantees but I decided.
"When you go vegetarian it may be that I wasn't very thoughtful about the way I did it. Or it could be the dairy thing. But I basically just cut out meat without really doing anything else. And where am I going to get these extra calories from? I'm an active guy, and I just added more carbs which is not a healthy way to do it. And that is not a way to feel good. Especially for me. And it might have been the dairy, which was maybe part of it."
The Beet: What were the challenges: How did you manage that?
"On the Eco-Challenge itself, we are part of a team of five people including our crew. I have always taken the approach I will be pretty reasonable about being plant-based ... our crew member is looking for anything he could find to feed us. Everyone there was gathering around us and trying to get us food. He cooked things that had seafood in it. To me, it's been a series of health choices. There is a healthier choice and less-healthy choice and certainly, there are times when the healthier choice may not be plant-based. Shout out to my crew member Jay who is a professional chef and bike mechanic. The perfect crew member.
"I think for me the biggest challenge–actually two things– was sleep and all that water. I don't do well on very little sleep. And I became a major asshole at times. With my team members and Sylvia was trying to get us to keep going.
"I was the navigator, making it up as I went along. But Sylvia was the strongest woman in Fiji, and definitely has this background of Go-go-go! And she is used to continuous progress. Number two challenge is I am just not a water person. I'm a mountain person. So of course we choose Fiji as our first place to go for our adventure race. And there is so much water -- infinite water–paddling and swimming, carrying your bikes, over water. I mean, river crossings are fine but the long water events were so hard.
"You're almost constant eating. We had a few interactions with our crew Jay kept us fed. but the other thing we did that was awesome was that we were fed by the local villagers. We would be floating upriver and in the jungle and this little village would come out of nowhere. They would come out with homemade donuts and they would give us amazing food that was local, and they would give us everything they had and we would pay them but they were amazing.
"It was the experience of a lifetime for sure. No doubt there were a handful of times when I told myself I am never doing this again. It was torturous at times. But memory is short and you think back on the full experience and the opportunity that Eco-Challenge gave us to go places I would never go and meet people I would never have met otherwise.
The Beet: What advice about eating plant-based would you give the at-home viewer?
Aaron: "What works is really keeping it very simple. If I were to direct anyone to one resource it would be Dr. Greger's Daily Dozen app. That got me from thinking "How can I possibly go plant-based?" to Dr. Greger's way of checking the boxes of what you should be eating a day. Dr. Greger wrote How Not to Die. Actually the idea of it is harder than the execution. Just put beans and greens on everything and honestly, you will feel a lot better. That's what I do at every meal."
Tune in to the Eco-Challenge on Amazon Friday, August 14th for the first of 10 episodes
Watch tonight as 66 teams with a total of 330 elite men and women athletes from 30 countries including the USA, Australia, UK, Japan, Russia, Mexico, France, South Africa, New Zealand, Turkey and Canada compete against each other and mother nature. They covered 417 miles of dense jungles, steep mountains, winding rivers, treacherous oceans, and dangerous swamps in breathtaking Fiji will test their physical and mental endurance.
You'll be able to watch death-defying activities including outrigger paddling, mountain biking, rappelling, climbing, whitewater rafting, and epic hiking trails. Preview the teaser HERE.