When most of us say that something was “The hardest thing I’ve ever done,” we’re usually talking about an activity the rest of us can relate to — like the time you ran/walked a 5K, or when you had to take the ACT or SAT exam on just two hours’ sleep, or you helped a buddy carry a piano up five flights of stairs.
But when Dr. Brandon Fisher says it, you can bet your semi-sedentary life that it involved pushing himself to the very literal limits of human endurance. And that it probably carried with it a good shot at death and/or permanent disability.
Last September, the radiation oncologist at Ogden Regional Medical Center in Washington Terrace participated in what is billed as the “World’s Toughest Race.” It’s a 12-day extreme endurance competition that involves mountain climbing, whitewater rafting, swimming, sailing, paddle boarding, hiking, rappelling, rock climbing, jungle navigation, mountain biking and a few other modes of human-powered transportation as you work your way across a 671-kilometer island nation in the South Pacific.
For the metric-system-challenged, that’s more than 400 miles.
And it was all recorded for posterity. Not to mention ratings.
On Aug. 14, Amazon Plus will debut its latest original-content, 10-episode streaming event, “World’s Toughest Race: Eco-challenge Fiji.” Produced by Mark Burnett (“Survivor”) and hosted by that manliest of men, Bear Grylls (“Man vs. Wild”), the race involved 66 four-person teams from 30 countries traversing mountains, jungles, rivers, oceans and swamps.
Hangin’ with Bear
So, how did a local doctor get involved in all this international madness? It’s “kinda crazy, but a bit of a story,” Fisher admits.
About four years ago, the good doctor was climbing Denali in Alaska when storms temporarily halted his team’s progress for five days. There he was, in a camp at 15,000 feet, hunkered down with a bunch of other climbers. Two of the climbers in that camp were Nungshi and Tashi Malik, twin sisters from India. Fisher says the two twenty-somethings were upbeat and friendly, and basically kept everyone’s spirits up for those five days in that storm.
Fast-forward a couple of years. Fisher was in Kathmandu, Nepal, doing cancer outreach with his nonprofit organization Radiating Hope, when he happened to run into the twins. The two sisters have a big presence on social media, and they use that platform — and the outdoors — to empower women in India, according to Fisher.
Bear Grylls had invited the Malik sisters to take part in the “Eco-challenge” race; they approached Fisher to help fill out their four-person team.
“Knowing me, they knew that growing up in Utah I’d done whitewater rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking — things like that,” Fisher recalls. “So they were, like, ‘You know how to do all these things, and we don’t know how to do them, so why don’t you lead our team?’”
Fisher remembers well his thought process at the time: “Wait, you want me to hang out with you and Bear Grylls, in Fiji, and do all these incredible things?”
They didn’t have to ask him twice.
No one finishes?
In researching the “Eco-challenge,” Fisher discovered that for eight years it had originally been held annually, before being discontinued in 2002. This latest event is the inaugural reincarnation of that original race.
Fisher’s research also showed that hardly any competitors were able to finish those original eight races. And that this year’s event was designed to make the rest look like child’s play.
When they arrived in Fiji, Fisher says Bear Grylls admitted to the contestants that they’d made the race especially difficult this year. Indeed, he said it was so hard he wasn’t sure any of them would finish. Having told them that, he said any contestants could quit right then and there if they wanted to.
“We looked at each other and thought, ‘Man, this must be tough,’” Fisher said. “But these girls are made of pure grit.”
Fisher’s not so bad himself.
“I think it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Fisher, who has climbed the highest peaks on every continent and done all sorts of boundary-pushing outdoor activities for most of his adult life.
“Everest? It was harder than that,” Fisher said of the endurance race. “With Everest, I had my meals all planned out, I knew when I was sleeping, what camps I was going to. I had GPS and other things to guide me, and weather stations to know what was coming.”
But with the World’s Toughest Race?
“All we had was a map and a compass,” he said. “We didn’t know what was coming next, if we’d get food or if we’d get a nap. We were getting thrown things the whole time we were out there.”
Fisher says some of the teams would go four days straight without sleeping. Basically, every 36 hours there was a time cutoff — if you didn’t make it to a certain camp by a certain time, you were eliminated.
“When they said it was a 24-hour race, they meant it,” he said. “Some days as you’re racing you’d watch the sun set, then watch the sun come up, then watch it set again. They said it was a 12-day race, but for me it felt like 30 days.”
The race’s official trailer — which is all Amazon is releasing for the moment — is chock-full of breathtaking, edge-of-your-seat moments.
“This is not a normal adventure race,” Grylls intones, before a competitor says: “Our biggest fear is not the other teams. It’s the course.”
Yet another participant on the trailer alludes to the super-human effort that the race requires.
“This is the closest we ever get to being superheroes,” she says.
For now, Fisher is sworn to secrecy about how his team fared in the event. And while it’s called a “race,” the contestants didn’t see it that way.
“It really wasn’t about who can win it. It was mainly about who can survive it,” Fisher said. “There were times during the race where I thought, ‘They’re beating us up to pieces, just for entertainment.”
As dangerous as the race may have seemed, Fisher said he believes the organizers had everything under control.
“We kinda felt like the Amazon Prime “Eco-challenge” people had enough safety things in place that we wouldn’t die,” Fisher said. “We couldn’t use GPS, but they could, and they were always tracking us; they had an eye on us all the time.”
Of the 66 teams in the event, 10 were called “featured teams” that were followed by cameras at all times.
“Our team was one of the featured teams, so we felt pretty safe,” Fisher said. “Still, there were times during this race that things happened and we thought, ‘We’re in deep trouble. What are we going to do?’”
After the race, when he first returned to Utah, Fisher admits he was in bad shape. He was temporarily hobbled by jungle rot on his feet. He’d contracted a flesh-eating bacteria. And his metabolism was all messed up.
“It took about a month and a half to recover,” Fisher said. “And I had nightmares for three weeks.”
But Fisher is used to paying that sort of price for his outsized adventures.
“I’ve said after every single mountain I’ve climbed, ‘I think I’m done climbing mountains,’” Fisher confesses. “But after three months, it becomes, ‘OK, where should I go next?’ At first, with the nightmares and limping around, I thought I shouldn’t do it again. But in actuality, I’d do it again in a second.”
Fisher says Burnett and Grylls organized an amazing race with some of the most spectacular views and terrain.
“You get to see the world in the most intense ways possible,” he said. “And I’ll do anything for a good sunrise or a good view.”
That is, when they’d remember to check out the view.
“As we were out there, the ‘Eco-challenge’ staff would sometimes remind us, ‘Hey, don’t forget to look up,’” Fisher said. “After hours and hours of looking at your feet, you’d stop once in awhile and say, ‘This is priceless. Now let’s keep moving.’”