World’s Toughest Race: Eco Challenge FIJI is not for the weak. In fact, it’s considered the crème de la crème of expedition races. And every professional endurance athlete wants in.

Over 11 days and 671 km of non-stop gunning (think: waterfall rappels, rock climbs, SUP sections, steep treks, and mountain-bike rides over the most unforgivable mountainous terrain in the South Pacific), 66 teams from 30 countries competed in the world’s most epic adventure race yet. Among these top-tier athletes, Spartan Pros Ryan Atkins and Rea Kolbl tackled the challenge for Team Canada Adventure. They harnessed their well-honed grit, determination and perseverance to battle through mud pits, bug-infested swamps, torrential-tropical downpours, serious elevation gain, navigational mishaps and crippling sleep deprivation.

The main goal? Survival. The best part? The series premieres August 14 on Prime Video in a brand new 10-episode adventure reality streaming series, hosted by former British SAS and survival maven Bear Grylls.

We asked Atkins and Kolbl how exactly they trained for this feat, and not only survived, but also finished the damn thing feeling Spartan strong. Find out how they prepped, fueled up, faced the cameras and cultivated their legendary mindsets to dominate one of the toughest challenges they’ve ever faced. (And as badass professional athletes, that’s saying something.)

Related: Real Spartan, Real Talk: What It's Like to Race on a Reality TV Show

PRO PERSPECTIVE: How Atkins Trained to Crush the World’s Toughest Race

SPARTAN RACE: How did you prepare to race in Fiji’s unpredictable weather and unforgiving terrain, both of which are worlds apart from Canada’s conditions?

RYAN ATKINS: Fiji was pretty much as different from Canada as one could imagine. It's very humid and warm there, plus it's a small Pacific island, so a lot of the paddling portions were out in the Pacific Ocean, which I'm pretty unfamiliar with. To train for it, I did a lot of Spartan racing, trail running and mountain biking. We even practiced canoeing in an outrigger canoe on Lake Ontario. Our team also met up for a training camp in the Adirondack mountains where we went on six-hour treks in the pouring rain. We raced the Whiteface 100 mountain bike race and rented a four-person canoe after that.

We didn't see many wild animals in Fiji, but we ran into some amazing local villagers and got to go up some waterfalls in the remote interior of the country. We even got hypothermia in the mountain-rivers in the interior of Fiji! Overall, it was a diverse and amazing set of conditions that we had to contend with.

SR: What was the toughest moment in the race for you, physically and mentally?

RA: The toughest moment for me was on the fifth night. We got lost on a ridge and ended up spending five hours wandering around in circles through tall grass, up and down the mountains. I was extremely exhausted at this point, having not slept for days. When we found out that we had wasted so much time, it was a huge blow to my morale. I was feeling pretty low but I trusted in our team and we eventually figured it out.

SR: How did you fuel up and train for the race?

RA: I follow a diet of mostly natural foods (fruits and vegetables), and I eat vegetarian meals 80% of the time. I followed this in my training leading up to the race. I would workout out at least 1-3 times per day, six or seven days a week leading up to the race. Most of my training was running or biking, but I also did some paddling and strength work three times per week. My strength sessions would focus on core strength and mobility and injury prevention.

SR: What was your best go-to workout to prep for this challenge?

RA: Just getting outside and running or hiking with a 15 pound pack, in the mountains. The steeper the terrain, the better! At home, doing five sets of 100 squats with a 70 lb sandbag every few days helped a lot with leg strength and climbing mountains.

SR: How about the most insane thing you did to train for it?

RA: The craziest thing I did was a three-day, five-hour speed-record run where I climbed all of the 46 high peaks in the Adirondacks. I did it on almost no sleep and covered 140 miles with 65,000ft of climbing.

SR: What was it like racing on reality TV — any major takeaways or life lessons, and did it mess with your mental game?

RA: The event was first and foremost a race. The whole "reality TV" thing was very secondary to my experience. There were cameramen out there on the course, but we would often go 20+ hours without seeing anyone. Then we'd see someone with a camera for 10 minutes through a particular section. We didn't really interact with them, so it didn't affect me too much. Seeing some of the other "made for TV" teams out there with disabilities competing and completing the same (very arduous) course as we did, made me really rethink what was possible from the human body and spirit.

SR: What did your race nutrition look like?

RA: During the race, I ate dehydrated camp meals (while in the transition area) and sports nutrition the rest of the time. I used BeetElite powder and we ate a lot of Honey Stinger gummies and Spring energy gels throughout the event. We also ate some Ensure meal replacement drinks, and some baby formula and baby food. The biggest challenge was taking in enough food on a consistent basis. I was eating non-stop for the entire race!

SR: Sleep deprivation for you guys was a brutal challenge — what did you do without recovery time for 11 days?

RA: During a race like this, your body is slowly shutting down, so it's just all about damage control and taking care of your body. During the last five days of the race, we only slept about four hours [total], so there wasn't much of a sleep schedule. It was just "lay down when you absolutely have to" and then "keep going no matter what". The desire to compete, perform and be there for your teammates was more important than my body's desire to sleep.

SR: Do you feel like you went in prepared, and would you do anything differently?

RA: I feel like I was extremely well prepared physically for the race. I would have done more adventure races to prepare, but you only have so much time to get ready. There aren't many races like this that happen, so doing them for practice can be quite challenging.

SR: Did you have professional trainers weigh in on how you should best tackle this?

RA: I've been an endurance athlete at the top level for over 12 years. I've learned so much about my body and about how to prepare for these races that there isn't much a trainer could help me with. I feel like I'm more experienced than almost any trainer in these types of events. I did work with a mental coach who helped our entire team prepare for the event.

SR: What were your biggest life lessons learned, and what advice would you give to other Spartans looking to tackle a multi-day adventure race like this?

RA: First, keep going no matter what! Eventually it will get easier, so just keep a positive attitude and keep pushing. Second, become a student. Learn as much about the race and the terrain and the challenges as possible. Try to recreate these in training. And finally, stay positive. Help others. Don't be a jerk. I've been at 24-hour obstacle races where my competitors (world champions athletes!) have refused to help me, after I've helped them up an obstacle. That kind of bad karma comes back to bite you in the end. So just be a pleasant person out there. After all, it's only a race.

PRO PERSPECTIVE: How Kolbl Dominated the World’s Toughest Race Like a Badass

SPARTAN RACE: Tell us about Team Canada Adventure — how did you get involved and why did you decide to give it a shot?

REA KOLBL: My teammates were Ryan Atkins, Scott Ford and Bob Miller, and we had a team assistant crew, Wayne Leek. I watched Eco Challenge as a kid when it was on Discovery Channel and always thought it’d be such an amazing thing to be a part of, but never thought I’d actually get a shot. I heard the race was coming back in 2017, but having had no adventure racing experience, or knowing people who did, I never considered applying. Then, in March of 2018, Ryan Atkins asked me if I’d be interested in joining his team as they were looking for a female teammate. I think I said yes before he finished the sentence.

SR: What were your biggest concerns racing in Fiji?

RK: Luckily there aren’t really any animals that could kill you in Fiji. Our biggest fear was moisture. With the race cut-off at 12 days, we were looking at having wet feet for potentially 12 straight days without having a chance to dry them. There’s also a danger of bacteria coming in through cuts (which we got plenty), and an infection called jungle rot that attacks your feet and makes it seem like you’re walking on broken glass. (It’s what caused both Scott and Bob’s team to drop out in 2002, when they were there racing the last Eco Challenge of that era.) We researched and brainstormed ways to keep our feet healthy, and had a pretty detailed plan of foot care through the race. (For the entire 671 km, my wet feet had zero blisters or any other issues.)

Fiji terrain is unlike anything I’ve ever imagined. You only find flat land on the beach. The rest of the island is extremely hilly, and I felt like for most of the race we were either going up or down (if we weren’t paddling on rivers or oceans). It’s steep, muddy and unforgiving. The weather is similar. There was a day when I thought I was going to get a heat stroke in the morning, only to find myself shivering on the edge of hypothermia in the afternoon. But it’s the people of Fiji I will probably remember the most. We passed through several villages and got a really unique peek at their culture. Fijians are some of the most welcoming people I know. We were constantly offered food and shelter, and the cheers from all generations would lift you up no matter how down you were feeling in that moment.

SR: What was the toughest moment in the race for you, physical & mental?

RK: I think every day there was something that I’d say to myself, “this was the hardest thing ever”, only to be outdone the next day. There were some mentally hard sections, some physically hard legs, and some had it all. For one of the legs, we had to make these rafts out of bamboo and float down the river for over 45 km. We did that section at night. I was exhausted, it was taking forever, and there was very little we could do to make our boats go faster. It was mentally hard to stay motivated and positive (and awake). Toward the end of the race, we had to paddle canoes across the ocean to an island, but none of us had slept in almost 60 hours and staying awake paddling while sitting down in a rocking boat was extremely difficult. We had no choice but to paddle, as there was no way to anchor our boat for rest. Then, there was one trek up a river, only eight kilometers long, but the whole thing was hopping from one slippery rock to another. We never knew if the next rock would hold, or if we’d slide off and fall for the millionth time. It took us hours on end [to finish that leg] through the night.

SR: Did the best moments outweigh any mental block or desire to quit?

RK: Despite all of the challenges, there were so many breathtaking moments as well: sunrises after long nights, traversing ropes across canyons, climbing up waterfalls, and views along mountain biking and trekking sections that took our breath away. The organizers did an amazing job to make the race almost impossible, yet beautiful enough that you never wanted to quit. Which I never did. Of course there were times when I thought moving on was extremely difficult, but quitting never crossed my mind. I wanted to do it all and see it all. Barring an injury, I would never forgive myself for dropping out of the race and missing out on even a small part of the full, long journey.

SR: How did you fuel up and train for the race?

RK: When I learned I was going to be a part of the race, I had to quickly learn so many skills. It was roughly six months until the race, and I had never mountain biked before, ascended ropes, or paddled much aside from a casual drift down a river. So I added a lot of skill-specific training to my days. I spent hours on my new mountain bike learning how to ride, and developing strength and endurance. I paddled my SUP, not just for recovery but for training. And I tried to spend as much time as I could on my feet. There was a lot of volume, and in a way it made me slower. (Or maybe I was just constantly a little tired... I tend to overdo everything I try!). I scaled down immensely a couple of weeks before the race, giving my body the biggest taper I’ve ever done. It all ended perfectly. I was rested for the race, and my body held up to all the challenges — even the ones I didn’t train for as much as I should have (like spending hours and hours in boats). I didn’t really change much with my nutrition. I ate a lot, which was true before.

SR: What was your best go-to workout to prep for this challenge?

RK: I’d go out and explore! Long rides, long runs. Long rides followed by runs, long runs followed by rides.

SR: What was it like racing on reality TV and working with Bear Grylls?

RK: It didn’t really feel like a reality TV show most of the time. Cameras were either well hidden or following a different team. There were a few times we noticed their presence, which was mostly just really cool and uplifting. One time, we were trekking through the jungle and as we gained a ridge, a chopper flew in and hovered above us. The wind was blowing leaves around us and it all seemed like a crazy movie we were a part of, not real life. We took the race very seriously and focused on the challenge, so maybe we noticed the TV part of it less. But none of it was scripted, altered, or affected in any way because of the TV. It was first and foremost an expedition adventure race. Running into Bear Grylls every now and then, however, was fun.

SR: What did you eat during the race, and with that many days to bag going full-send 24/7, did you ever feel like you had your nutrition dialed?

RK: Knowing that the race would take multiple days, fuel was really important… you can only go so far if you don’t give your body what it needs. I didn’t do the best job at bringing a variety of foods. Sure, I brought a variety of flavors, but one Bobo bar per hour, every hour for four days straight turns old pretty soon. Toward the end, I just tried to trade everything I had for anything that someone else brought that tasted different. I tried to take in 200-400 calories per hour, every hour. Then, when we got to a camp (around every 30-40 hours or so) we had a bigger meal that our team assistant, Wayne, prepared. Once he got us pizza which was the best thing ever. Then he got us fried chicken and fries, which were even better. He always had fruit and dehydrated camp meals ready. Every time we had a chance to eat, we ate as much as we could — there’s no way to keep up with the caloric demands of the challenge so we were just trying to do the best we could.

I really tried to go for variety of sweet and savory, but even then, all the sweetness caused really bad heartburn for the last couple days of the race. I was struggling to get any nutrition into me. At some point, eating just becomes a part of the race and you do it on schedule… not because you particularly want to. I just remember that the first thing I wanted to eat after the race was broccoli, carrots and hummus.

SR: What did you do to push your body to move forward when it was the last thing it wanted to do?

RK: Part of it is adrenaline and being in such a big race. For the most part, you can push through a lot more than in a normal training week. But for me, really the only reason I can race for multiple days in a row is that the disciplines switch, and most of the race is at low intensity. You’re never running at your max speed, biking at your max speed, or going for rowing PRs. And we never did a single discipline for more than 10 (or so) hours. So just when your ankles are starting to hurt, you switch from trekking to biking. Or when your hands can’t hold a paddle anymore, you get a break from the boats to do something else. It’s the variety, and the constant challenge, that kept us occupied and focused for multiple days in a row.

SR: How did being utterly sleep deprived play into your performance?

RK: Lack of sleep was (at times) a lot harder to manage than the actual physical load. Over the course of the race, I think we totaled around 14-15 hours of sleep — something I’ve never done in my life before. We tried to sleep (or, take 20-30 minute power naps) whenever we got so tired that we slowed down, either [mentally, via] slower decision making, or physically. It surprised me how fresh you can feel even after just a quick nap. As the race went on longer and the lack of sleep cumulated, I started hallucinating as well — something that has never happened to me before! My hallucinations were a lot more real than I thought they would be… [I saw] things that could actually be there, like real life objects that didn’t necessarily seem out of place.

I think the lack of sleep leading to hormonal imbalance was the hardest to recover from. After the race, nothing specific was really hurting. I could run without pain or much muscle soreness. But after just 10 minutes of jogging or a quick snorkeling session, all I wanted to do was go back to sleep. The first week or so, I slept over 14 hours each night and napped several times each day. It took awhile for my sleeping rhythms to go back to normal.

SR: Do you feel like you went in prepared, and would you do anything differently?

RK: I felt incredibly unprepared, but also ready for the challenge. Never having raced anything that long before, I had no idea how my body would hold up or react to the lack of sleep and continuous movement. In a way, not knowing was almost easier as the only thing I could promise myself was just to do my best. I knew I was good at adapting to challenging situations, which proved to be such a valuable skill in the race.

I think the only thing I would do differently is nutrition. I’d bring more real food and variety. Bars and gels only get you so far before your stomach gets really upset. And maybe paddle more... I’d definitely paddle a lot more.

SR: What were your biggest takeaways from tackling a race of this magnitude?

RK: I think the most important part of the training is mental toughness, and training for unexpected situations. Of course, it’s important to be physically fit, but when events are that long, everyone starts hurting eventually. It’s how you get through that pain that determines how well you would do, if you’ll finish. I didn’t necessarily plan workout sessions for that, but I made sure I didn’t avoid training when conditions outside were unpleasant and tough. Every single challenging race or previous experience I had made it through was there for me to draw upon when things got hard in Fiji.

SR: How about the most insane thing you did to train for it?

RK: A lot of it was just volume. We did a training camp in Vermont as a team where we all raced a 100 km mountain bike event (my first ever mountain bike race). And then right after “ran” up the ski resort (gaining 3000+ feet in elevation) while the rest of the competitors munched on finish-line snacks. I think that was Ryan’s idea. Also, nighttime mountain biking was a game changer. I’m sort of scared of the woods at night, so getting on my bike at 9 p.m. with helmet and handlebar lights definitely seemed a little crazy to me. But honing the skills of navigating trails at night, while carrying considerable speed, proved a valuable skill in the race.

Dying to watch Atkins and Kolbl crush this epic feat? Catch the new Amazon Original series, World’s Toughest Race: Eco Challenge Fiji series, premiering 8/14 on Prime Video. Consider it your perfect rest-day motivation to stay Spartan Strong. AROO. 

How 2 Spartan Pros Trained for  Prime Video’s ‘World’s Toughest Race: Eco Challenge FIJI’

By Patty Hodapp