Survive this! Four from Washington train like mad for Eco-Challenge 2002 in Fiji

West Seattle resident Don Wahl usually spends his Octobers recovering from a busy summer of making coffee and copies at the Alki Mail & Dispatch on Alki Beach. This year, however, tending to the copy machines and espresso maker will have to wait.

Wahl and friends Erik Nachtrieb, Jeff McCann and Michelle Maislen will spend the month trekking, paddling, rappelling and bushwhacking the dense tropical forests of Fiji, as members of the only Washington-based team to participate in Eco-Challenge 2002 — an event that will air in mid-February on the cable station USA. Wahl recently won a lottery to compete in the event, but now, it's clear that the biggest challenge in getting there might be the process of restructuring their lives to get ready.

"This is something we've dreamed about for years," says the 40-year-old Wahl, who says the goal of the team — dubbed Washington Adventure Racing — simply is to finish. "Still, I'm not sure any of us knew what we'd have to do to prepare."

Regionally, in competitions such as Oregon's Gorge Games and Banff's Eco-Challenge Canada, adventure races are grueling affairs, frequently involving little to no sleep, and two or three days of everything from kayaking to mountain climbing, swimming to cycling. Eco-Challenge is the mother of them all, with 80 teams of four contestants in a remote location for 10 days with nothing but a map and a compass.

This year's race, Oct. 11-21 in Fiji, requires competitors to traverse more than 350 miles, including Class III rapids, jagged peaks and dense forests. The eight teams featured on the broadcast are chosen randomly by producers, but executive producer Lisa Hennessy said Wahl and his teammates stand a good chance of being featured, because they're amateurs.

"We like to focus on teams that people can relate to," Hennessy said from Eco-Challenge headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif. "The more 'human' a team appears to be, the better."

The members of Washington Adventure Racing work as hard at their day jobs as at adventuring. Wahl, the team's paddling expert, owns one of the oldest businesses on Alki, while Nachtrieb, the navigation expert, is president of a construction contracting firm up the hill near the Admiral Junction. McCann, the running specialist, is president of his family's land-development business in Renton, and Maislen, a cycling fiend and the youngest team member at 28, works for Microsoft as a software test engineer.

The quartet has had to schedule sessions at every hour of the day. When they can, they train together. In mid-September, for instance, they tromped up I-5 past Vancouver for certification in swift-water rescue, and the next weekend, headed to North Cascades National Park for courses in rope training and jungle survival.

"There are still some things we don't know how to do," says 32-year-old Nachtrieb, humbly. "We want to make sure we don't embarrass ourselves over there."

Teammates work out on their own, too. One evening recently, after working a 10-hour day on the beach, Wahl strapped on his headlamp to scramble up and down Tiger Mountain. On a foggy morning two weeks ago, Maislen arose before the sun for a 60-mile bike ride near her home in Woodinville. Last week, Nachtrieb took a two-hour lunch to lift weights. And on Wednesdays, McCann drives nearly 90 minutes from his home in Maple Valley for four-hour cycling workouts around Green Lake.

While Maislen, Nachtrieb and Wahl have few problems scheduling these workouts, McCann, 32 and a former Ironman competitor, admits that structuring his life around additional training has been particularly tough. He has an 18-month-old baby and just started a new relationship. Between these responsibilities, running his business, and serving as the team's liaison with Eco-Challenge organizers, McCann says he's lucky to find time for any exercise.

But, he says, "if I'm going to juggle a schedule like this, I figure I might as well do it while I'm young. There's plenty of time to sleep when we get back from the race."

Time management isn't the only challenge. There are the logistics: purchasing tickets, buying gear and gathering the $14,500 entry fee (Wahl estimates they've spent close to $40,000 in three weeks). They've also adapted their diets, switching to high-protein and low-fat foods that maximize energy and minimize sluggishness.

Maislen's even devised a routine to stave off dehydration: "I set my watch alarm to ring every 15 minutes, and when it beeps, I yell, 'Drink!' " she says. "It's a little primitive. I feel like a coxswain, but it works."

Just about the only aspect of the trip that teammates haven't figured out is financing. Team members say they are hoping to find donations and corporate sponsors to help defray at least some of the costs.

Already, friends and family members have chipped in nearly $2,000, and the team has approached companies such as REI, Starbucks, Safeco and Vulcan to be sponsors. Wahl says he hopes for another $5,000 in donations and some official sponsorships before they leave Sunday.

"I just want to get out there," Wahl says. "When this race starts, we'll be ready."