Eco-Challenge a test for race organizers, too
By Neville Judd
There's possibly one thing as tough as completing the world's toughest race — organizing it.
For those involved in bringing Eco-Challenge '96 to the Sea to Sky corridor and making it work, endurance has been every bit as much in demand. Overseeing the organization of Eco-Challenge has been a character-building experience for Tes and Lesli-Ann Sewell.
"I think we've both found certain parts of our character neither of us knew we had," said Tes.
"It's a mind-boggilingly huge event. There are so many idiosyncrasies to
it," he added.
"We're thinking of redesigning our business cards to have the logo 'from permits to portapotties'," laughed Lesli-Ann.
The Sewells have lived in Whistler for nine years and have been together "much longer than that," after first meeting in a bus lineup at Victoria bus station in London, UK. They organize mountain biking's Cactus Cup annually in Whistler and their company, 2Swell, was originally sub-contracted by Howe Sound Community Futures to act as a liaison between the B.C. government and Eco-Challenge.
"What we've done you could equate to the film industry, where you have a location manager and you have someone on the production side who facilitates everything to do with the event or the production," said Tes. "It's really a race event and a television production. We brought in outfitters and made all the introductions.
"We work very closely with Eco-Challenge, although HSCF funds us, and we work with that board to satisfy the interests from an economic development perspective in the area."
According to Tes, the most pressing concern about the race is the course itself, more particularly its higher elevations.
"It's the biggest issue for us right now and the biggest hold-back is there's so much snow in the Alpine. It's been a really late melt and there's still a high snow pack up there.
"As far as accessing some of the higher points of the course we're still sitting on the fence somewhat."
Few things could have as dramatic an impact on the race as a death to one of its contestants. With media coverage equating to tens of millions of dollars in publicity for the region, it's been an overriding priority in planning the 480-km route.
"Obviously, somebody dying is something we definitely want to avoid," said Sewell.
"If you look at this course, well you can't look at this course because it's a secret, but if you look at last year's course in Utah and you pulled each of its components out and looked at them individually, the scariest part of the course, the rope section — a 1,200 foot climb, 400 foot rappel — it's actually incredibly safe.
"There are so many safety nets for each part of the course. The really tough part of it is holding the team together and not punching each other out. The key to the whole race and what makes it so tough is the fatigue that's involved. Nobody is going to be climbing bare rock unassisted but it's the fatigue that makes it tough to do in any circumstances."
When the race is on both become logistically linked to it, Tes troubleshooting any problems that arise in the mountain bike leg of the race as well as dealing with any general issues raised for the race as a whole. Lesli-Ann will be looking after VIP guests and media throughout the event.
The thirst for any competitive edge has already surfaced in bizarre fashion, from unknown sources among the 81 teams vying for the title. Without elaborating Lesli-Ann says the pair believe they have been followed on occasions and fear their distinctively labelled van being broken into for course secrets.
"We've been asked some pretty bizarre questions too, and have sensed when not to say anything," said Tes. "People have turned out to be friends of friends in the race. The secret is still safe though."
They are not the only ones to have been approached in this way. The region's economic development officer, Robert Fine, is also privy to the course details. A few weeks ago he answered the phone to someone claiming to be a journalist.
"I'm pretty sure he said he was from Oregon, said he'd heard about the race and asked some very general questions about it," recalled Fine.
"Then he asked about the course itself and I told him I could not discuss the course details, at which point there was a pause and the line went dead."
Fine was heavily involved in getting the race to the region but admits he had never heard of the race when he was first approached about it by the Canadian consulate in Los Angeles, where Eco-Challenge and its founder Mark Burnett are based.
His initial contact with Eco-Challenge was just before Christmas 1994. By April 1995, preceding the inaugural Eco-Challenge race held in Utah, it was agreed B.C. would host the event in 1996. It was still with some trepidation, Fine remembers travelling to the little town of Bullfrog, Utah, where closing ceremonies would see the torch passed to Whistler.
"It was a terrifying trip because it would have been a long way to go to find the whole thing was a farce," said Fine. "But we were impressed by the contestants, the media presence, the whole organization — it was everything we'd been told it would be."
Burnett and Eco-Challenge had been equally impressed by Whistler and the support of the B.C. government for the race.
"Once they got here they were just blown away. They couldn't believe it, the quality of accommodation, the physical layout of the village, while being in the middle of some very isolated terrain."
According to Fine, it was the additional support of the B.C. government and the co-operation of permit agencies that convinced Eco-Challenge to choose the province over competition from Mexico, Ontario, Saskatchewan and several U.S. states including Hawaii.
Last year Burnett was blind sided by unforeseen legal action by an environmental pressure group not convinced that Eco-Challenge would be leaving course terrain in a better state than they had found it, despite organizers having obtained all necessary permits from the Bureau of Land Management. Although Eco-Challenge beat off the legal challenges it left the race $400,000 over budget and almost brought about its cancellation.
According to Fine, environmental standards expected from the organizers by B.C. were every bit as stringent and have been duly satisfied. Concerted opposition to the race, for any reason, has yet to surface.
Fine talks of the race's financial impact on the region in tens of millions of dollars, "the kind of media coverage we couldn't even dream of buying." Its impact on B.C.'s ecotourism industry is also hard to put a figure on.
By Aug. 31, people in 170 countries will have seen and heard of Whistler and B.C. The sort of exposure that could only be exceeded by a Winter Olympics.