Eco-Challenge 2021 Update: No News is Good News?

The return of Eco-Challenge in 2019 brought plenty of energy and excitement to the adventure racing community. When that event was over, the production team behind World’s Toughest Race promised that another edition would soon follow as the team is preparing for casting for next season. That was before a global pandemic brought everything to halt, leaving us to wonder if the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Patagonia would still happen as previously announced.

Last week, an email update was sent out to athletes, volunteers, and the media with the alluring subject line of “Eco-Challenge Update.” But as it turns out, that email didn’t really have anything to say. There is hope however that in this case, no news is good news.

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Adventure Racing for the Masses

When the original Eco-Challenge burst on to the adventure racing scene back in 1995, it instantly became a hit with endurance athletes participants. That event took place in the wilds of Utah, pushing teams to their absolute limits on a tough backcountry course. Later, it would find an small, be loyal audience on television as well, as future super-producer Mark Burnett created and introduced an athletic competition unlike anything most people had ever seen before.

Future Eco-Challenge races would be held in places like Australia, Morocco, Argentina, Borneo, and Fiji. Each successive event seemed to get more challenging and demanding than the last, right up until the last Eco-Challenge season run in 2002. Team New Zealand completed a remarkable come-from-behind effort to reach the finish line and was hailed as the winning team, who also won the previous race held 17 years prior. At the time, Mark Burnett’s reality TV show Survivor, co-produced by MGM Television like his other reality TV shows, The Voice and Shark Tank, was starting to become a worldwide phenomenon in its own right, drawing his attention away from adventure racing for a time.

In the years that followed that final Eco-Challenge race, fans and endurance athletes routinely clambered for more. While there were other great adventure racing events, few ever came close to having the same level of prestige, challenge, and production values as what Burnett had been able to create. Even fewer ever garnered a television three year contract.

Eco-Challenge 2021

The Return of a Legend

Over the years, there were occasional whispers and rumors about a possible return for Eco-Challenge, with everyone getting their hopes up—then dashed—time and again. Eventually, after a decade had come and gone, most finally gave up on the idea that Burnett would return to AR. I even had the chance to ask him about it directly once and he told me that despite the fact that Eco-Challenge was his favorite created project ever, the liability of holding such an event had become too much.

But something must have changed over the years the led him to change his mind. In 2018, Mark Burnett—along with Amazon Prime Videoannounced that not only was World’s Toughest Race is coming back, they had recruited British adventurer Bear Grylls to serve as host. Bear Grylls is widely known for his survival reality show, Man vs. Wild. Naturally, this got both the old school adventure racing community and the new generation of endurance athletes fired up.

In the weeks that followed, we learned the location and dates of the adventure race, with confirmation that it would retain the original format. Teams of four competitors (originally five members), at least one member of each gender, and supported by an assistant crew member racing together through some of the harshest, most demanding terrain and environment on the planet.

The race requires trekking by foot and traveling in different non-motorized forms of transportation, like paddling and sailing, horseback riding, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, climbing, and canyoneering. In this case, it would return to Fiji in September of 2019, called World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, and become available on Amazon Prime Video in August of 2020.

Status of Eco-Challenge Patagonia

As mentioned, not long after Eco-Challenge 2019 was filmed and began streaming, Burnett and company announced that another edition of the reality show adventure race was already in the works. This time, the race would take place in a remote region of Patagonia, where the wild terrain and unpredictable weather would test the teams in very different ways than Eco-Challenge Fiji. Though there are multiple windows when it might be filmed. Since the announcement, however, there has been very little news, in large part because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, the production team came to of hibernation long enough to share an update with the Eco-Challenge community. That email read:

Hello athletes,

Hope you are having a wonderful start to 2021. 

At this time we do not have an update on when or if Eco-Challenge Patagonia will happen. 

When we have information to share we will notify you.  

All our best,

The Eco-Challenge Team

That’s the entire message in its entirety, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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Bear Grylls and Team Khukuri Warriors from India (team members Tashi Malik, Nungshi Malik, Brandon Fisher, Praveen Singh Rangar and VS Malik) during the 2019 Eco-Challenge adventure race in Fiji on Thursday, September 19, 2019. (Corey Rich/Amazon)

The Future of the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge

Considering how quickly after its debut on Amazon Prime Video that we received confirmation that another Eco-Challenge was already on the way, I think it is safe to say the 2019 edition was a success. That said, the ongoing pandemic has put most things on hold, so it should come as no surprise that television production and travel remain challenging. Still, there is reason to be optimistic for both a return to normal life and a new edition of the race to be on the horizon too.

Now that vaccines are starting to roll out around the world, there is at least an end in sight to the pandemic. That said, I suspect that 2021 will remain challenging for anyone to travel or produce a television show. I suspect that means that the next edition of Eco-Challenge won’t take place this year, but could still be on the docket for 2022. By then, more countries will have received the vaccine, making travel safer and more predictable all over the world.

It is also good news that last week’s note didn’t announce that Eco-Challenge was once again going away. A lot of television shows and USA Network haven’t just had production cuts, but have been canceled altogether. It would have been easy for Burnett and Amazon to just walk away from this event/show. Instead, they’ve chosen to stay below the horizon and keep their cards close to the vest—at least for now.

I’m sure we’ll learn more when we know the race can take place in a safe and well regulated manner. Until then, we’ll all just have to remain patient a bit longer. That shouldn’t be too hard. After all, we waited 17 years between previous editions of the race. What’s a few additional months?

Kraig Becker