An Adventure Junkie Takes On Fiji – The Lessons I Learned From Competing In The World’s Toughest Race

Daniel Bussius

August 13, 2020

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  • An Adventure Junkie Takes On Fiji – The Lessons I Learned From Competing In The World’s Toughest Race

Most people know me as the award-winning marketer and Chief Executive Officer of the Built by Love Agency. What you likely do not know is that in my spare time, I am an adventure junkie.

I am an avid rock climber, cyclist, and outdoorsman. I completed the Grand Canyon rim to rim hike in 24 hours and climbed many challenging routes in Yosemite and Tuolumne Meadows as well as doing The Mountaineer’s Route on Mt. Whitney.

I conquered the rock spires of the Sedona Desert. Before I got married and became a father, summiting Mount Everest was on my bucket list.

Image: Daniel Bussius rock climbing in Sedona, Arizona.

So, when the opportunity to participate in The World’s Toughest Race was presented to me, I enthusiastically said “yes” before I even checked with my wife!

Image: World's Toughest Race, Race Briefing. Image courtesy of The World's Toughest Race, Amazon Prime.

The World’s Toughest Race with guest host Bear Grylls premiered on Amazon Prime in August 2020. I was on one of 66 teams from across the world to endure 417 miles of the toughest terrain Fiji has to offer (you can learn more about the show by visiting www.ecochallenge.com). My team was called Team Peak Traverse.

Team Peak Traverse (center: Show Host Bear Grylls). Image courtesy of The World's Toughest Race, Amazon Prime.

Training and preparedness.

Our team had eight months to prepare for the race. During that time, we completed several essential certifications, purchased the required gear, and trained extensively in the disciplines we needed to master. We committed ourselves to weight, cardiovascular and diverse terrain training. 

Image: My personal gear packed and ready the day before The World's Toughest Race.

We spent countless hours mountain biking and hiking in the Santa Cruz and Lake Tahoe Area mountains, pushing our limits to understand where each team member would hit his or her breaking point. All of us had to pass a health check from a doctor who gave each of us the green light to race.

Image: Team Peak Traverse white-water rafting certification

Our white-water rafting training prepared us to be able to handle anything the rivers of Fiji could throw at us. We spent hours paddling in Lake Tahoe so that we could meet the demands of paddling across the Fijian racecourse.

Image: Team Peak Traverse training session.

We traveled to the hottest location we could find - Joshua Tree National Park - so we were prepared for the heat and exhaustion waiting for us in the humid jungle.

Image: The traditional handmade Fijian camakau used in The Worlds Toughest Race.

What we did not train for, which became our weakest point in the race, was sailing a traditional Fijian boat called a camakau. If you haven’t yet watched the show, do so now, and you’ll see firsthand how tough the open water navigation was in this event.

Image: Team Peak Traverse paddling out of the river and headed to the open ocean. Image courtesy of The World's Toughest Race, Amazon Prime.

The Start of the Race

We started on a river next to a small village on the main island of Fiji. After Bear Grylls announced the start of the race, excitement and chaos ensued. 66 teams fought their way through the crowded river system, some tipped over, many bumped into each other and it was an exhilarating start to The World's Toughest Race!

We spent hours paddling our traditional camakau to the mouth of the river and then out into the open ocean. The plan was, once we entered the sea, to raise our sail and navigate through multiple island checkpoints until we reached the island of Ovalau. A distance of over 14 miles. When we hit open water there was no wind, so the only option was to paddle. We paddled for over twelve hours straight, battling the heat, currents, and exhaustion. We were quickly learning that the race was indeed living up to its name.

Image: One of the many breathtaking islands of Fiji.

By the time we reached Ovalau, we were in second to last place. Although we were tired and frustrated, we did not let our poor ocean performance deter us. We dropped off some of our gear in the darkness. Then we quickly left to conquer the jungle on our way to reach the summit of the volcano.

Navigating in the dark is a challenge. Navigating in the dark inside the jungle is an incredible challenge. When you are in the jungle, you can’t even see the stars because the canopy is so thick. But we weren't just navigating through the jungle, we had to summit a volcano too. Climbing up the mountainside compounded the level of difficulty exponentially. Humidity in the jungle was nearly 100%. By the time we had summitted the volcano and broken through the jungle canopy, it was past midnight. We had reached another checkpoint and now had to enter back into the jungle and navigate our way back down to the boat. We knew we had at least another 4 hours back in the hot and humid jungle. Hours passed as we made our way down ravines, carefully maneuvering around trees, vines, mud and, frogs. At some point we realized we were 24 hours into the race and had not slept or eaten a proper meal. Yet, we pushed on.

Making our way down early in the morning (around 5am), one of the team members was showing signs of exhaustion. He suggested that we take a nap. Now, that might sound like a good idea, but at the time, we were precariously perched on a steep ledge of rock and mud. There was not an area big enough to lay down and this was definitely not a safe place to rest!

The beauty of adventure racing is adapting to whatever comes at you and sometimes that means to stop and assess the situation before you get yourself in trouble. We found a safe place further in the jungle and stopped moving for a short bit to ensure each team member was hydrated; we rested, checked our navigation once more, and then we pressed on.

We exited the jungle at daybreak only to pass another team that had gone the long way around the jungle and was making thier way in. I remember talking to them wondering how they made it to this point by having not summitted the volcano. There were other checkpoints that had to be made in a specific order so, that must've meant they backtracked for miles. (If you watch the show on Amazon, you'll hear their story as that is what they had done).

The morning of the second day racing we walked into the camp to find our boat. That is when the next lesson for our team came. Half the team wanted to take a quick power nap; the other half wanted to charge on. Collectively, our team decided to eat those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we had in our packs and then push on. I recall eating that sandwich. It was the best damn tasting sandwich I think I ever had. Of course, I had been nonstop racing and trudging through the jungle and paddling in the open ocean so, looking back at it, that may have been why!

At the checkpoint where we had to embark back out into the ocean, race organizers alerted us to a weather pattern they were watching closely so, we knew we had to try and reach the mainland as fast as we could. Getting caught in a storm in the open ocean would present an entirely new set of challenges we wanted to avoid.

We boarded the camakau around 8am and headed out to sea. Immediately, we found ourselves fighting a severe headwind. That meant we again could not sail, only paddle using brute force. Our team was exhausted as we moved slowly fighting the current and headwind. 

Image: One of the many remote and beautiful Fijian islands we experienced.

I was steering, so I sat in the last seat in the boat. Hours passed as we made our way past island after island fighting the current and headwind the entire way. Sometime in the afternoon after having passed the last major island en route to the next checkpoint (located at Leleuvia Island; the diving medallion checkpoint that I was eager to dive for), I noticed in the far-off distance an ominous dark storm cloud that was approaching the mainland - our ultimate destination. 

Mindful of the team’s current state, I made a suggestion. If we pulled in close to a neighboring island bay, rested for five minutes, and gathered up as much energy as we could, we could make a concerted team effort to paddle hard and fast and make it to the next island that offered shelter from the approaching storm.

What I didn’t tell the team was that I was setting visual landmarks all afternoon to try and pinpoint the direction and speed of the storm as well as the progress of our movement. I knew the storm was headed for us, and I could see it wasn’t just going to rain. I did my best to be positive because I could sense my teammates were getting worried.

The team asked, “Will we make it to the island before the storm gets to us”?

I lied. I said, “Yes, we’ll make it.” I knew we didn't stand a chance.

The storm was moving too fast. I could see torrential rain and, as the storm crossed over the mainland’s last mountain range and into the open ocean, waterspouts had formed.

Image: Team Peak Traverse from the United States (team members Ryan Opray, Tim Cannard, Mikayla Wingle, Daniel Bussius and Stephen Morrow) compete in the 2019 Eco-Challenge adventure race in Fiji on Saturday, September 7, 2019. (Poby/Amazon)

Heading into the Storm

Our team pushed together in unison giving all our remaining effort. We were making progress! We were working as a team fighting the elements, and it was a fantastic feeling of teamwork and commitment! Unfortunately, it was too late. The storm had now closed in upon us. The seas had grown rougher, and we could no longer paddle through the strong currents. The wave height increased to four feet. Our little handmade camakau started taking on water.

Image: The traditional handmade Fijian camakau used in The Worlds Toughest Race.

We soon lost control of the boat, and it started to list from side to side as the waves continually crashed upon it. Then came the hail and torrential rain. We were fighting to keep the boat to face the onslaught of waves so we didn't have time to pull out our waterproof windbreakers. Soaked, freezing, and exhausted, we were now in a boat that was taking on water and unnavigable. Before we left that morning, I tried to tie down everyone’s backpacks to the boat but, we were in a hurry so that never was completed.

Now all of us were in the heart of the storm and facing a perilous situation. If the boat listed anymore, it would have tipped over. Our packs, which carried all of our clothing, food, water, and survival gear, were not secured to the boat. If the boat did overturn, everything, including the team, would be dumped into the ocean. The fast-moving current would quickly scatter us and all of our gear. Our female team member began to shake as she was drenched, physically depleted, and cold. She stopped paddling and placed her oar in the boat and clung to the bamboo mast. The remaining three team members continued to fight to steer the boat and keep it afloat.

Then our navigator stopped paddling.

He was rifling through my pack looking for our emergency radio. The boat’s navigation and propulsion were left up to the captain at the bow (front) and me in the stern (back). He glanced at me and I glanced at him. Our eyes locked. We both knew there was no way two men could steer the boat in this storm but neither of us said a word. We just kept fighting the waves doing all that we could. The boat listed again and I had to stand to shift the weight to prevent it from capsizing. As I did this, I saw our team navigator and our female team member trying to radio into Race H.Q., but the storm had temporarily knocked out G.P.S. and radio signals. For a brief moment, but what seemed like an eternity, we spoke about having to attempt a swim to shore.

Luckily, the race organizers had thought of everything, so we had flares. Our team navigator pulled out the flare and launched two of them into the dark sky. I'll never forget that moment. The smell of the flare, the sound it made as it rose into the dark clouds and the feeling that began to creep in. As the rain poured down on my face as I gazed up, I knew for us, this was the beginning of the end.

Image: Navigating rough seas in Fiji at night.

Race Support to the Rescue

A nearby boat noticed the flares but did not know it was a boat in the race. They came over to assist and saw our boat floundering in the sea, taking on water and spinning as each wave pounded us.

It's a weird feeling when you are in a situation like that. Emotions rush over you. You train so hard for months. You travel across the world and endure pain, fatigue, frustration, joy, and, incredible natural beauty. You aren't quite sure what to feel as so many feelings race through your mind. You are relieved that a rescue boat has arrived yet, you also wish they weren't there. There's a voice in your head that says "keep fighting no matter what" and you begin to be lured into avoiding logic and commonsense. In the moment, I recalled a book I had read before arriving in Fiji named Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why and it talked about mindset in extreme environments as well as when to listen and when to ignore those voices that creep in.

Ultimately, as the rescue boat was trying to maneuver into a safe position to help us, I looked at our team navigator. He was exhausted, shivering and he had a daughter back home to raise. I too have a wife and small child back home. As much as we wanted to press on, we have to look out for one another and we have to know that we will make it home safely to race another day.

We threw our packs into the rescue boat, and once we were all safe onboard, the realization had finally sunk in. We were done. The race rules were that if you needed assistance, you were out of the race. At that point during the storm, we had no choice but to ask for help. Our race was over, but thankfully we left the race with just bruised egos.

Image: Team Peak Traverse

Lessons Learned

Would we have made it further in the race if we had better leadership and been more prepared? I think so. However, the ultimate lesson learned in the forty-hours we raced was that life can and will throw you curveballs. It’s when those unexpected challenges arise that make or break your chances for success.

You must have the right team in place. Every team member has to be prepared for what you might encounter (we hadn't done any outrigger style training prior to the race). Your team has to be unified and has to understand each other’s strengths as well as weaknesses. You have to support one another so that the team is stronger than the individual. Whether you are adventure racing or building a business, just know that the unexpected will come and it's how you handle those challenges that shape your destiny. As a team, we fell short and we learned those lessons however, this was a lesson we all had to learn because with that, we grew stronger and, we will be better prepared to race again.

Adventure Racing is like Building a Business.

Many of my agency’s clients are business owners. They too have a world’s toughest race that they must endure. Statistically, most businesses fail. Business owners face challenges every day, like finding the right team members, being prepared for challenges and, when those challenges do appear, steering their team safely through troubled waters.

My experiences in Fiji taught me so many lessons I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I learned so much about empathy for others and looking for signs of when I could help. I learned about quieting those voices in your head that will come for you as they did for all of us in the race. Those voices will tell you that you aren’t strong enough, that you aren’t good enough, and that your competitors are better. I learned to ignore those voices and keep charging ahead. I learned so much more about failure. Sure, I have failed in the past at all sorts of things but I realized if you fail, that’s okay. Learn what you did wrong, improve, and try again. I learned about patience. Life’s delays are not life’s denials. The World's Toughest Race couldn't have been a more rewarding experience rich with life's lessons.

Each and every one of us has our own version of The World’s Toughest Race to take on, and every single one of us has the capabilities within ourselves to accomplish what we set out to do. There's no greater power than what you already have in you. Keep your dreams alive and work for them. You will experience everything from elation to frustration but it's not the destination that is as rewarding as the journey. Appreciate where you are now and learn from the lessons you encounter then, keep going. You will reach your final destination and it will be so much more fulfilling to have overcome the obstacles once you are there.

Planning for the Next Adventure

While we weren’t able to cross the finish line in Fiji, I’ve organized a new team that has submitted to race in Season Two of The World's Toughest Race: Patagonia. Should we be fortunate enough to be chosen, I can assure you that we’ll come unified, more prepared, and stronger than ever to cross the finish line. Only time will tell how the next chapter of this adventure pans out for us.

Key Takeaways from Forty-Hours Racing in Fiji

Although we did not accomplish our goal, my World’s Toughest Race experience taught me some valuable life lessons I'd like to share with you:

  • Set your vision and know the path you’ll take for success. Make sure everyone on your team knows the path and believes in that vision. More importantly, every team member should understand how they play a part in your team’s success.
  • Prepare for the goals you’ve set. That includes the right tools, the right team, the right training, and the right strategy.
  • Be quick to understand what is happening when you miss your milestone. Learn from it, adjust your course, and then carry on. Don’t make hasty decisions that aren’t backed up with reason and logic.
  • Time is on your side. We all have our own race to take on, whether that be personal, professional, or for fun. You can succeed just by crossing the finish line, so focus more on the journey than trying to be number one.
  • Enjoy everything. I understand this can seem a bit like an overzealous statement, but it’s true. After you’ve come out from the other side of the doldrums, you’ll appreciate more the tough times because there are rich lessons that life teaches you in those moments.

Special Thanks 

I need to thank the incredible people and teams that came together to create and produce The World’s Toughest Race. Mindy Zemrak and her team for casting us. Mark Burnett and Lisa Hennessey for producing the race. Kevin Hodder and his team for organizing the race route. Bear Grylls for being the show host. The over 700 incredibly talented crew members and volunteers who helped make sure the race was safe, organized, and an epic experience. Last but certainly not least, the amazingly kind and welcoming people of Fiji that helped make this one of the truly most memorable experiences of my life. The citizens of Fiji will always hold a special place in my heart.

Image: Our amazing mountain bikes provided by Trailhead Cyclery.

Recognizing Our Generous Team Sponsors

  • Trailhead Cyclery: They provided us with most coveted mountain bikes and gear for the race.
  • American Whitewater Expeditions: They gave us the training for whitewater rafting for the race.
  • Platypus Rescue: They gave us the training for swiftwater rescue and compass navigation.
  • Bikeflights.com: They shipped our bikes to and from Fiji with ease, on-time.
  • GU Energy Labs: They provided us with race supplements and nutrition for our training rides and during the race.
  • Pit Viper Sunglasses: Their glasses kept our eyes protected (and in style) from the elements every step of the way.

About Daniel Bussius

Daniel Bussius is an award-winning marketer and C.E.O. of Built by Love Agency. He is a sought-after marketing speaker and consultant. When he is not helping business owners from around the world scale their business with intelligent marketing strategy, he is a loving husband, father, and adrenaline junkie. You can learn more about Daniel Bussius by visiting his website at www.agency-danielbussius-staging.f01absdq-liquidwebsites.com

About Built by Love Agency

Built by Love is an award-winning digital marketing agency that serves businesses over $1M in annual revenue focused on growth using proven marketing strategies and tools. Built by Love offers marketing strategy, copywriting, email marketing, automation, advertising, web design, graphic design, and videography services. Built by Love has a proprietary process named The Marketing R.A.M.P. that guides clients to success using a proven method to map out the customer journey, brand voice, and alignment of marketing tools and strategies. To learn more about Built by Love, you can visit the site at www.builtbylove.agency.

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Daniel Bussius

Daniel is the CEO for the award-winning full-service digital agency, Built By Love. He is also an award-winning Marketing Consultant that has been flown around the world to consult for and train CEO’s and marketing agency owners. He is one of the top Infusionsoft/Keap Certified Partners in the world. Daniel holds a number of acclaimed marketing certifications, including being the world’s only StoryBrand Certified Agency and Infusionsoft/Keap Certified Partner.

He is a member of the Infusionsoft/Keap Partner Advisory Group as well as a Digital Marketer Certified Partner, PandaDocs Gold Partner, Memberium Partner and PlusThis Certified Partner. Daniel’s agency, Built By Love, offers full-service digital marketing, strategy, creative, and execution.

You can learn more at:
Built By Love (full-service agency): www.builtbylove.com
Daniel Bussius Consulting (strategic consulting): www.danielbussius.com
In The Mix Agency (live events): www.itmpromos.com

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