Eco-Challenge Fiji bills itself as the “World’s Toughest Race,” and the Amazon Prime Video series certainly lives up to the name. The reality competition puts teams through physically and mentally demanding challenges, and Sonja Wieck battled them all as the captain of Team Iron Cowboy.
I spoke to Sonja recently about why she was attracted to taking on Eco-Challenge Fiji, her experiences making the series, and what she took away from the experience that stayed with her afterward. Learn more about her inspiring story in our interview before you dive into the show on Amazon.
Brittany Frederick: What was it that got you interested in Eco-Challenge Fiji? It’s no small decision to sign up for an adventure race out in the wild.
Sonja Wieck: They did Eco-Challenge in the late 1990’s, early 2000’s on Discovery Channel…And I was young, and I just remember being really impacted by it. My background with the race was just growing up kind of being an athlete, but always thinking, yeah, that Eco-Challenge thing. And then I became a triathlete; I was really an Ironman athlete for 20 years and didn’t think about, there’s this whole other sport over there called adventure racing.
But I didn’t get into that. I didn’t have a team or know how to navigate with a map and compass. I went the triathlon route and after I officially retired from triathlons, I didn’t know what was next. I’d kind of been aimlessly wandering around and I saw an application for Eco-Challenge coming back. It’s been gone for 17 years and it was Mark Burnett’s first show, the first Emmy that he got, and he created Eco-Challenge because he had done an adventure race.
When I saw the application it was still the old footage, and I remembered watching that footage. I had that immediate [reaction of] oh my gosh, I have to try to get into this thing. I don’t belong in this race. But at the very end of the ad they said, this is the race that eats Ironman for breakfast. It was like they were calling me. They were basically taunting me, saying you don’t have any experience with this race and it would eat you for breakfast. That was the light bulb moment in my head. I was like, I’m going to try my darndest to put together a team of Ironman athletes who don’t have any adventure racing experience and we’re going to apply and see if they’ll let us try.
BF: You didn’t just participate; you were the captain for Team Iron Cowboy. How did you end up in that leadership position – was it by choice or by chance?
SW: I saw the ad and I put together the team. I knew I wanted a team of Ironman athletes and I spearheaded it from the get-go. I was in contact with the show, I filled out the application and I put myself as team captain. But as that went on, I think there ended up being two leadership roles.
One was, who’s going to take care of all the details…and then there was sort of the motivational, emotional leadership side. That was definitely my roommate James [Lawrence], and I selected him for that reason. I knew I needed someone to be able to hold together our team from that emotional place, and that was definitely James.
BF: Many of the cast members like yourself came to the show with athletic backgrounds, but the whole point of series like Eco-Challenge Fiji is to do things that you haven’t done before. So how much did your previous experience actually help in practice?
SW: I think what I learned in my years of being an endurance athlete is just that you’re going to be really uncomfortable and you’re going to need to move through it. Sometimes you’re going to do it gracefully, and a lot of times you aren’t going to do it gracefully, but if you keep picking your foot up and not quitting, just keep putting one foot in front of another, even if you’re grumpy, even if you’re happy, you’re probably going to make some progress on the problem in front of you.
I had a bit more experience with things like rock climbing, ascending six ropes, out-river paddling, or I gained that experience. But my three guys from Utah, they were so green at all of this. And so having that experience put me in a position to be like, this is how we problem-solve this. It gave me a natural edge in some of these disciplines.
We had to build a bamboo raft and raft it down this river. Nobody had any experience building or rafting on these bamboo rafts. And we were on that raft for thirteen hours without getting off of it. We’re standing on this thing, and you take two pieces of bamboo, so we’re basically using toothpicks to paddle this thing. And none of us knew how to do that. It was just one of those things where we’re like, well, as long as we’re continuing to make progress, then we’re continuing to make progress.
You try a million different ways to do it better, but none of them really work out and you just end up making slow, frustrating, annoying, sort of tired, achy progress – and you have to be okay with that. I think if anything, my experience as an athlete has always taught me that at some point you’re going to have to just get comfortable with being extremely uncomfortable.
BF: Coming back from something like this, how did you then re-acclimate to normal life? Or what was like the first week post-race like for you?
SW: A lot of the teams were quite injured. If you do a race like this, you’re getting very scratched up, beat up, bruised up, and those wounds are getting infected. Almost every team had one or two people on the team that had a lower leg infection, and a lot of people ended up in the hospital trying to fight those undiagnosable infections.
I fared pretty well. I didn’t have to go on antibiotics. I had six spots on one leg that were all pretty infected, so R&R [rest and relaxation]. For ten days I stayed in Fiji and slept and rested and hung out at a resort. But I had massive nightmares every single night for about ten nights.
Because the race is continuous, you choose when or if you sleep. So you don’t sleep a lot in the race, maybe an hour or two here or there. And I think your brain goes into a funny place when you are sleep-deprived. It’s trying to get some REM sleep; it’s trying to follow these sleeping brain functions while you’re still awake. So I think what happened is when I actually did go to sleep, my brain still thought I was racing.
Most of my nightmares were trying to get my family safely through the race, because my brain knew I was with my family, but it also still thought I was in the race. I had a lot of really crazy screaming fits in the middle of the night where I would wake up and tell my husband, just find the green light and you’ll be fine.
BF: Is there anything that you want people to take away from watching World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji? Or anything you want them to know that they might not immediately notice as they watch?
SW: I wish people would talk about the emotional things that happened out there. I feel like so many of us had sort of spiritual experiences throughout this process. There was part of it that was spiritually really amazing. I had some amazing revelations about life, and one of them was, it almost seems cliche, but that our thoughts matter. I had an experience very late in the race where we were pretty tired. We had just had a little rest and we were coming back into a mountain biking situation. It was like 90 degrees, super hot and I was already pretty done.
I’d been racing for eight days at this point, I think, and we got going and we had to climb the hill really quickly and I couldn’t climb it. I had to walk my bike up it. I started having thoughts of, I can’t do this…And I had a panic attack, I ended up sitting in the middle of the road, can’t get my breath. My team’s standing there over me like, what’s going on? What was going on was what I was thinking. What I was thinking was really making all of that other stuff happen. But I didn’t want to tell anyone what I was thinking, so I was just like, I’m hot. It’s really hot out. This hill is really hard.
James has been through a lot of really hard stuff in his life. He lifted me and he grabbed my shoulders and he said, I can carry your bike, I can carry a backpack, but I can’t change your thoughts. You have to change your thoughts. And it was the first time someone actually called me out on what I was thinking. I thought I was getting it over on everybody, but he knew from the actions that I was taking that it was actually my thoughts.
The minute he said that to me, I thought, okay, well, what other thoughts can I think instead of, I can’t do this? And the only thought I could come up with is, my core body temperature is fine. Fine, not good, but fine. So I repeated for half an hour, My core body temperature is fine. My core body temperature is fine. And within fifteen minutes, everything was fine. I was fine, my core body temp was fine, my mindset was fine, my peddling was fine. Everything flipped around.
I came home really, really realizing that sometimes, we can sit there and sort of eat junk food in our brains. We can just keep feeding ourselves junk food in our brains, and all anyone’s ever going to see is the manifestation of that in your life. But it’s really [your] thoughts that you keep cycling. I didn’t understand that connection until I really got to my bottom out there in the race. That’s how important that is.
BF: Speaking of watching, now that you’ve had a chance to watch the show, how do you feel? Especially now in quarantine where going out into the world like this just wouldn’t happen?
SW: It’s a crazy time to be watching what I did a year ago because it just couldn’t be more different. The discrepancy between where I was at in September last year in Fiji with all these teams doing this big, crazy thing, and now here we are, all on lockdown, separated from everyone, not able to do any more things like this for the unforeseeable future.
It was bittersweet; even though it was so hard, it was the most amazing experience of my life by far.
World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji is now streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.