Thomas Hardy and teammate Elora Van Jarrett, both from Salmon Arm, share a laugh with their Peak Pursuit team during the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji in September 2019. (Contributed)

Thomas Hardy and teammate Elora Van Jarrett, both from Salmon Arm, share a laugh with their Peak Pursuit team during the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji in September 2019. (Contributed)

Rapattack firefighters from Shuswap take on World’s Toughest Race

Training of past and present Salmon Arm-based crew helps them complete gruelling Fiji challenge

Based on results, fighting wildfires can be a great training ground for the World’s Toughest Race.

When Thomas Hardy and four other firefighters, all of whom have worked together at B.C.’s rapattack base in Salmon Arm, announced they were planning to go in a 671-kilometre, 11-day, non-stop, outrigger canoeing, paddle boarding, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, jungle trekking adventure race in Fiji, people they told were skeptical.

“A lot of people thought we were kind of crazy,” smiles Hardy.

The team, however, was not deterred.

At the urging of Ben Kwiatkowski, who was familiar with an earlier Eco-Challenge in B.C. and had spotted information on the ‘World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji,’ the five wildfire fighters formed Team Peak Pursuit and began to plan and train. They were one of four Canadian teams in the gruelling September 2019 race which included 66 teams from 30 countries.

Four team members: Hardy from Salmon Arm, Elora Van Jarrett who also lives in Salmon Arm, team captain Kwiatkowski who now lives in Squamish and Jasper Edge from Kamloops ran in the race, while Laura Lejeune from Squamish was the assistant crew member. She would meet the team at the four camps along the way to provide supplies and support. Along with the camps, teams were required to stop in at various checkpoints within set time limits.

The race was filmed for an Amazon Prime television series, now available to watch.

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Hardy, who has excelled as a multi-sport athlete, spent several years on the B.C. cross-country ski team after earlier years with the Larch Hills club in Salmon Arm. He is casually matter-of-fact about the race, saying it was not frigthening but it was tough.

Although the challenges were similar to those in firefighting, the team hadn’t really trained for sleep deprivation, he said.

“In the first three days we had three hours of sleep. It progressively got better as we slowed down a bit to sleep more – we realized we needed it.”

“A few nights we were feeling very weird,” he said, mentioning some hallucinating. “It was definitely strange and tough at times to keep going.”

But having three other people meant they kept motivating each other.

The race took them through water – lots of water – as well as mud and jungle and villages along the way.The friendly residents gave them excited welcomes.

“To just be biking through the middle of nowhere, we’d come into a village and people would be cheering,” Hardy said.

Some nights the team members would be invited to sleep on the floors of people’s homes, sometimes they found a grassy field, other times a sandy river bank. They took hammocks but only used them a couple of times in the jungle.

A big highlight for Hardy and the team were the Vuwa Falls, a 1,000-foot set of waterfalls in the jungle.

Race organizers had ropes set up to climb to the top. There, Team Peak Pursuit’s rapattack training paid off.

“That was one of our favourite days because we were so quick at it. A lot of people were having trouble but we just flew up.”

A full third of the teams which entered – 22 in total – dropped out along the way. Team Peak Pursuit placed 32nd. Their epic adventure encompassed the equivalent of 10 days’ or 233 hours of non-stop racing.

One of the tougher parts was the eight-kilometre swim in very cold water, where a few crews dropped out.

“We are all pretty low body-fat people; we just kept moving and stayed warm,” he said. They were grateful for hot soup in a warming hut afterwards. It also helped they were on a high note going into the swimming after the waterfall climb.

Despite being experienced mountain bikers, one of the toughest spots was some slick mud that turned into “peanut butter,” he said. “The tires would just seize up – we would end up carrying the bike or trying to push it off to the side.”

That went on for about 20 kilometres.

Hardy said the team was always a day or two ahead of the limit, so had a buffer. The biggest thing that could have taken them out would have been if one person went down. Although they didn’t have any bad physical injuries, three of them did develop stomach flu-type symptoms.

Near the end of the race they started sleeping more because of the rising stomach issue. At one camp they actually slept for eight hours, a necessity if they were to get better.

Asked what he appreciated the most upon returning home, Hardy said probably the cool air. Although he’s used to heat from firefighting, the humidity in Fiji was very high.

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Despite the physical and mental hardships, team members got along well. Hardy said Kwiatkowski was a great leader, well-organized and good at getting everyone on board.

If anything, Hardy thinks the race strengthened everyone’s relationships. With their firefighting backgrounds, he said they’re used to working long hours in high-stress situations.

“We’d already grown that base-level understanding and relationship. None of us blew up on each other and created any drama.”

Team Peak Pursuit wasn’t filmed too much, probably due in part to their happy-go-lucky attitudes.

“They kind of focused on teams that had a lot more drama in them,” he smiled.

Hardy said he doesn’t think any of his team members ever wanted to quit.

“We have a very strong team of people. I think we went into the race imagining we could possibly win it… And it was definitely out of our league winning it.”

A New Zealand team came first while a Canadian team was second. New Zealand finished in 141 hours and 23 minutes, while the Canadian team tallied 143 hours. An Australian team was a close third place in 143 hours and 31 minutes.

Hardy said he thinks the winners’ secret is having done previous adventure races, as well as “being really tough people who don’t need to sleep a lot.”

Although they might not be expecting a win, Team Peak Pursuit’s members are not done with adventure racing. Hardy said they have submitted an application for Patagonia, dates as yet unconfirmed.

marthawickett@saobserver.netLike us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Salmon Arm Observer