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On a new hit television show, he’s known as the director of the world’s toughest race. Now, after an eight-hour slog through the Whiteshell that included an unplanned dunk in a lake, Kevin Hodder is going back home with a taste of Manitoba’s most gruelling adventure.
On Saturday, a British Columbia team composed of three officials from the Amazon Prime series World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji biked, hiked and canoed their way to victory at the 14th annual Swamp Donkey Adventure Race, which sends teams on a nine-hour journey through the Whiteshell’s terrain.
Competing as Team Where’s Bear — a wink at the absence of World’s Toughest Race host, adventure TV star Bear Grylls — the crew of Hodder, Eco-Challenge Fiji co-ordinator Brian Finestone and operations manager Phil Gautier eked out a first-place finish amongst the 76 teams competing at Swamp Donkey this year.
To win, the team overcame some challenging navigation through the dense bush — without the help of mountain landmarks they’re used to, in their B.C. home base — as well as a frantic swim to shore after they capsized their canoe on the home paddling stretch.
"The course was fantastic," Hodder said on Sunday, of the 50-kilometre journey. "The navigation was very difficult, so it was really impressive to see all these teams successfully being able to navigate to that capacity. They ran a world-class event on a local budget, and it’s really, really impressive and commendable that they’re able to do that."
Their presence at the race started with a bit of fun. Last month, Swamp Donkey’s Instagram account posted a photo from 2017 of race directors John Ford and Rick Shone swooping down in a helicopter — something Grylls is regularly seen doing in the Amazon Prime show, which is produced by Survivor guru Mark Burnett.
Hodder responded: "If we want to come do we fly to Winnipeg and rent a van?"
Four weeks later, he was hitting the trail in the Whiteshell. For Swamp Donkey organizers, that was a pretty big get: the Eco-Challenge race, Ford says, is like "the Super Bowl" of adventure racing, and having its organizers come to Manitoba to experience their intrepid local race set off big buzz amongst Swamp Donkey fans.
"As soon as we released (the news), teams are like, this is like Christmas for them almost," Ford said, chatting before the race last week. "Not only do they get to meet these guys, but they actually get to race against them. Can you imagine the bragging rights to say you get to beat the race directors from Eco-Challenge?"
In the end, nobody beat Team Where’s Bear — that’s what experience will do for you — but their entry did help put a global spotlight on the longtime Manitoba race. That’s something Hodder says is important to his team, even as the success of the show itself has set off a surge of renewed interest in adventure racing.
"We’re also interested at growing the sport at both levels, the big international level and we’re also trying to support it more at the grassroots community level," Hodder said, as his team was driving back to Winnipeg. "The health of any sport at all levels is integral to the success of the sport at both ends of the spectrum."
That mission seems to be working. After the World’s Toughest Race premièred on Amazon Prime, Swamp Donkey saw a surge of registrations and volunteer applications; they soon sold out all 76 team spots, and even capped out their number of volunteers. Inquiries about next year’s event have already begun.
"Our goal always is to put Manitoba on the map for adventure sport," Shone said. "The Whiteshell is just taking off. We like to think that we had a part in some of that. But it really is putting Manitoba on the map, and now with these guys taking note of us and with everybody in the world looking at Manitoba and Swamp Donkey."
It’s especially pleasing news in a year where countless races worldwide had to be cancelled. Through the summer, Swamp Donkey organizers believed they could go ahead safely. They had to tweak a few procedures: out was the usual dance-til-you-drop post-race party, in was a staggered race start and touchless checkpoints.
Beyond that, an event that throws teams into the middle of the wilderness played well with pandemic protocol.
"Our theme this year on our T-shirts is ‘Social Distancing Since 2007,’" Shone said. "It’s been a serious situation for a lot of people, with a lot of fears, emotions, anxieties and stress. We wanted to hold a race that we know is going to be something that helps people with those anxieties to get outside and be active."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.
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