CHICAGO — You can’t miss Illinois native Coree Woltering — or his Speedos — on “World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji.”
“The Speedo became a thing back in (2016) when I was in Florida for a 50-kilometer race, and I forgot my racing shorts, but I had Speedos with me,” Woltering told the Tribune by phone. “I ended up winning that race, and the picture just went like viral on social media, and after that everyone was like, you have to race in a Speedo. That just became my thing.”
The 30-year-old professional trail and ultra runner packed several Speedos for the Eco-Challenge, an 11-day race over 416 miles of mountains, jungles, rivers and ocean. The event, which took place in September 2019, is documented on a 10-episode Amazon Prime Video series scheduled to premiere Friday.
The show is hosted by Bear Grylls and executive produced by Mark Burnett, who created the Eco-Challenge race series, which began in 1995 in Utah and ended in 2002 in Fiji. Lisa Hennessy, who grew up in Park Ridge and worked alongside Burnett on those early Eco-Challenges, serves as showrunner and executive producer of the Amazon reboot.
Technology changed a lot in the 17-year break between Eco-Challenges. Nearly 200 cameras were used to record last year’s race, including handheld cameras, GoPros, drones and time-lapse cameras. Hennessy said the five-member teams were outfitted with tracking devices that were monitored at race headquarters. Sixty-six teams from 30 countries competed in the race, which required paddling, canyoneering, sailing, climbing, swimming, mountain biking, building rafts, grabbing medallions and other skills.
“It’s really an interesting sport where you can have so much diversity on the playing field from background to age to different countries represented,” Hennessy said.
Woltering and Chicago freelance designer Sam Scipio are on Team Onyx, which is touted as the first all-Black endurance racing team to compete on a global level. Besides finishing the race, the members also wanted to inspire others.
“Our goal was basically to just bring awareness to the fact that there are people of color that like to do adventure sports and just really intense things in the outdoors,” said Woltering, who lives in Ottawa, which is about 80 miles southwest of Chicago. “And then personally for me, I also wanted to show that there are people in the LGBTQ+ community that are also very into outdoor sports.”
Woltering said the Eco-Challenge was his first adventure race and most of his team didn’t know each other when they signed on. He said he trained by mountain biking and practicing new skills like rock climbing, paddling and performing wilderness first aid.
Scipio, 29, said she incorporated training into her everyday activities like walking about four miles from her Avondale home to her job as a bike mechanic at Comrade Cycles in East Ukrainian Village. She said she was most concerned about the water portions of the Eco-Challenge because she learned to swim only a few years ago.
“It’s kind of a steep learning curve of going from being totally uncomfortable in the water to being able to sail on the open ocean,” Scipio said. “But it turned out to be one of the funnest parts of the race.”
She’s not sure whether she would compete in this type of race again because training is time-consuming, but said she’s grateful to represent Black women and visit Fiji. “It was really great to be in a country where I was surrounded by Black people and surrounded by people that looked like me.”
Hennessy said thousands of teams applied to compete. Metal fabrication equipment dealer Starker White, of Rockford, said his older son, Cliff, took the lead.
“We all hired personal trainers, and we were in good shape to begin with because we were adventure racing and doing other events,” said White, 66. “We knew we wouldn’t win. Our goal was to finish. There were some elite world championship teams out there that we knew we didn’t have a chance against, but we wanted to be in as best shape as possible to give it a flying chance.”
Despite the hardships they faced — including extreme heat and humidity and a tropical storm early in the race — our local competitors hope TV viewers will be encouraged to try adventure racing.
“I didn’t grow up doing outdoor sports, and I want (viewers) to know that they can get into it,” Scipio said. “It’s not this elite club. It’s not a club where you need the highest (priced) or best gear or the most water-proof jacket. Just get out there, even in your city, and start exploring. You’re welcome here.”
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