On April 17, 1999, the townspeople of Catarman woke up to a
day that they would never forget. There, scattered on the seashore of Pambuhan
Beach, decked out in exotic regalia, were 22 adventure racing teams from 14
countries around the world. They were surrounded by all the brouhaha of a major
international sporting event: race marshals, event organizers, members of the
press, sponsors' representatives and curious spectators. This was the start of
the first-ever Elf Authentic Adventure race, the newest creation of Gerard
Fusil, one of the founding fathers of the "sport" of adventure
But the racers and their support network weren't the only ones
there: adding to the general melee prior to the start was a group of Filipino
demonstrators chanting slogans of protest and carrying signs that read:
"Respect our rights! No to Elf!" and "Gerard Fusil:
global capitalist pirate!"
The protesters in Samar weren't the only ones who raised their
voices against the event; the Elf Authentic had been created from a situation of
confusion and ill will, and right from the start had been greeted with
It was hardly an auspicious start to a race that organizers
had declared would be different from other major international sporting events.
Intended to bring racers closer to the local residents, it included community
projects as part of the race format to leave behind something of lasting value
for the common people. It seemed like Gerard Fusil's latest dream had gone badly
Fusil was undoubtedly smarting after being ousted from the
original event that he had created, the highly successful Raid Gauloises. His
reaction was to come up with a new event - but the international adventure
racing circuit was already crowded. The cost and commitment of entering a
big adventure race means most teams can do one event a year at most and over the
years the Raid - and the original adventure race, the Southern Traverse - had
been joined by the Eco Challenge, the Mild Seven Outdoor Quest, the Beast of the
East and others. Fusil needed something original to draw attention, competitors
and sponsors from these other events.
The Elf Authentic Adventure
has a certain mystique about him. His philosophical outlook and French flair
combine to give him a character that works well as a marketing tool to promote
his ideas. Capitalizing on his name, and partly on his split with the Raid, he
introduced yet another concept, one that he promised to be definitive. One that
would transform the sport from its present form.
In this new incarnation, athletes would more closely resemble
explorers of old, by maintaining a level of self-sufficiency during the race and
have a closer interaction with the land and its people. But they would go one
step further than their predecessors - who often had a highly questionable
impact on the land they passed through - the competitors would be required to
give something tangible back to the people in the host country. Either a gift or
some kind of social program.
This new concept was introduced to the extreme adventure
racing world as the Elf Authentic Adventure.
While not directly critical of other races, Fusil said that
generally, "athletes just go to a country to compete and nothing else. The
participants just see stadiums, circuits and hotels. Competitors pass through an
area with a hello to children and that's it." In an interview with
Adventure Racing World before the 1999 event, he said: "The goal
of this competition is to live incredible situations, and also meet people-from
the same team, other teams and the host country."
The Elf, said Fusil, would be different. Elf participants
would set up a project to give something back to the community - be it artistic,
cultural, scientific, medical, environmental protection or awareness-before,
during, and after the race.
In addition, organizers imposed total independence by leaving
the teams to organize logistics to carry them through the race. For this, and
other reasons, the race was expected to be more challenging than most adventure
races, and a class system was devised to keep racers from dropping out. Teams
were classified into three categories, Extreme class, Adventure class, and
Discovery class, based on whether or not they made it out to Checkpoint 9 within
24 hours after the leading team had passed it.
But people outside the race were skeptical of the
self-sufficiency aspect and the concept of the Elf being the
"authentic" race. Critics wondered if Fusil was merely trying to
re-package a standard adventure race to distinguish it from the others.
Certainly, like all adventure races, the course of the Elf was kept secret - all
that was announced was the country: the Philippines.
Sometime in 1998, the residents of Catarman, northern Samar, noticed a
group of foreigners and Filipinos arrive in their homeland. At the time, it
didn't seem like anything for them to be alarmed about. But months later,
Catarman folks started hearing some unpleasant things about the visit. The
foreigners, they now heard, were searching for minerals while taking off with
the indigenous flora and fauna.
That the foreigners remained stubbornly silent about the
actual purpose of the visit didn't help. It was, of course, the Elf course
planners charting the course, but if communication with the locals was one of
the goals of the race, the event wasn't off to a good start. By the time
everyone lined up in Samar on race day, protesters were there to greet them. And
the critics were having a field day.
To his credit, Fusil remained undaunted by the criticism
levelled against the Elf. He assured local protesters at the opening ceremony
that the Elf would increase tourism activity in the region. The race, he said,
would open the eyes of the world to the "magnificent secrets of Samar and
Leyte." While undoubtedly an adventure haven, the beauty of the twin
islands, located at the heart of the Philippines, was relatively unknown, even
to some Filipinos.
Survival of the fittest
At last, around
noontime on April 17, the gun sounded to signal the start of the race. To
complete the 623-km course, racers would kayak, trek, spelunk, rent and sail
outrigger canoes, hike, rollerblade and finally sail traditional vessels called
Subirans, which the participants had to make themselves.
But Fusil's problems were far from over. On the eighth day,
when the winning teams were expected to cross the finish line, Fusil found the
members of the leading team, Spie, stuck in a muddy section of the course and
unable to walk. Worse, they still had 250km left to race. They weren't the only
ones, though. Other teams had been disqualified after having members drop out,
had abandoned the race, or had been demoted to a lower category for not making
it to the checkpoint at the designated time. What was worse, a jungle foot
disease was slowly infecting most racers, disabling some.
Fusil was worried that few teams, if any, would finish the
race by the awards ceremony day, April 29. Even the two leading teams were
having great difficulty walking. So he made the critical decision to shorten the
last jungle leg. The decision, however, sparked criticism from Sabah's Asia
Ability team, which was in third place to that point. Putting their local
knowledge to maximum advantage, they were going fast through the jungle and
taking care to keep their feet clean and dry to avoid the disease that was
affecting the other teams. They felt they could have easily passed the two
leading teams on this vital leg. If the race was an "authentic" event,
they questioned, shouldn't those ahead of them accept the price of trying to win
at all costs?
Fusil disagreed with that.
"My goal has never been to exhaust the competitors. I see
sometimes here and there competitions that I don't like at all, because it seems
like the goal is to show on TV people with their faces totally destroyed,
begging for some water-as though the goal is to avoid being killed. That is not
my spirit at all. My spirit is that the competitors need a lot of qualities, to
be very comfortable in nature, to be fit, to be very clever, and because they
are like that, to discover new horizons, new worlds, new people," Fusil
After 10 days, 11 hours and 45 minutes of this discovery, Team
Spie completed the race, winning the first Elf Authentic Adventure. Team
Pharmanex came second.
The jury deliberates
With the race
finished, unofficial post mortems began throughout the world of adventure
racing. Some Elf watchers were not impressed. Clive Saffery, a Taiwan-based
endurance athlete, who is an ardent follower and supporter of adventure racing,
was among the critics.
"The Elf race is an interesting new development but the
event last year in the Philippines proved too long and had to be shortened.
Because of this I think many people have questions about the organization and
indeed if the whole concept (of being so self sufficient) is just too difficult.
It will be tough to retain sponsors' and racers' interest if only one or two
teams are capable of finishing the race," he commented. "Then, too,
there's the issue that if Elf was the 'authentic,' tough race that it claimed to
be, then trimming the course certainly contradicts it," he
But there were plenty of competitors ready to give the event
the thumbs up. "All of the major adventure races are a feat to simply
complete," Cathy Sassin of the champion team Spie said. "Just
navigating your way through remote and wild countries that have extremely
diverse and complicated terrain, dealing with constantly and unpredictably
changing elements and environments, over a week, with extreme fatigue, is a
lifetime experience in itself," she added.
By having three categories, Sassin enthused, every team can
have the same exciting experience, feel the same competitive spirit and do the
best they can with and against a group of their peers, regardless of the level
of experience they have. "I think this is a wonderful and necessary trend
in the sport," she said.
But when it comes to separating the hype from real substance,
perhaps the most telling area was the community projects. There was considerable
skepticism about this element, especially after the demonstrations and protests
that preceded the start. It's still difficult to determine whether or not they
achieved their goal. To begin with, the projects were as varied as the teams
Philippine team Sanofi, for instance, tried to raise
environmental awareness among locals residing around the Leyte Gulf, through its
Scubasurero project, a clean up and education drive on the dangers of
marine pollution. "[The local people] were so surprised to see tons of
garbage they had collected on their shorelines in such a short time. I think,
that really opened their eyes," said team leader Jerome Luego.
Another Philippines team, Ayala Mountaineers, held a medical
mission and treated about a hundred children. That eventually led to a deworming
campaign and then to the installment of a pump well in the village. Elf
Aquitaine-UK's team distributed 20,000 books for schools in Samar and Leyte.
Quebec Adventure Team's Clowns Sans Frontieres' (Clowns Without Borders)
performance "gave children back their smile and laughter." Team
Pharmanex, which worked with the Mabuhay Deseret Foundation, screened children
with cleft palates for reconstructive surgeries.
Not everybody, however, lauded some teams' cultural exchange
projects. Team Spie, for instance, was criticized for giving only basketballs,
and Asia Ability, for distributing soccer balls.
"We gave out 20 soccer balls to villages along the course
as we only had three weeks to prepare for the race and almost no money for the
trip. We played soccer with the kids in the villages and Gerard [Fusil] even
played with us," said one team member.
"In the end, it's not just what is given, but its
long-term impact, as well as the sincerity of the racers that counts the
most," said Antonio Cinco, a school teacher at the Angelicum School in
Tacloban City, a recipient of a theater-inspired teaching technique
project introduced by the team from
It wasn't all smooth
sailing for these projects, and there was one big glitch: Cinco said that many
of the initial reactions against the exchange projects were due to gaps in
communication. "Teams went to a community for the exchange projects with
the locals hardly knowing anything what was going on," he said.
The same thing happened during the pre-race reconnaissance.
"The French organizers wanted to keep their activity a secret. While that
may be the way in France, as Fusil insisted, it's definitely not the way
here," he said. Local customs call for a stranger to make his or her
purpose known to at least the local officials. This is especially necessary in
Samar and Leyte, which have a long history of rebellion and affiliation with the
rebel group New People's Army.
But this cultural misunderstanding was overcome as soon as the
locals knew the real purpose of the Elf race. "What happened in the jungles
was a complete reversal of the initial attitudes of the locals with the
racers," said Ayala Mountaineer's Torralba. "As soon as they knew we
were just racing, the attitude changed."
Even Francis Fincalero, a medical doctor and municipal
councilor of Catarman, Samar, who showed up at the opening ceremony of the race
to protest, admitted that the Elf did no damage to the community. According to
him, this is why the protests ultimately died out.
The final verdict
"Racers see the Elf
as an emerging race, tougher than any other but without the cachet of the Raid
or Eco. That's probably a few years down the road," said Martin Dugard, a
veteran adventure race journalist. But Elf watchers are optimistic. After all,
the Raid's first event attracted only French nationals, compared to Elf's 22
teams from 14 countries. The sharp increase in interest of adventure races may
have influenced this number. It's still too soon to tell, but it looks as though
the Elf is trying hard to be authentic, as well as being unusual. This year's
race in Brazil will be watched keenly to see if the race fulfills Fusil's