With little sleep for days, the four racers had been scaling a bitterly cold New Zealand mountain almost non-stop during the 2001 Eco-Challenge. Once finished, they saw their reward for staggering to what appeared to be an almost unreachable halfway point: the start of a tortuous 60-mile bike ride over the meanest terrain imaginable, with even more seemingly impossible stages to follow.
That's the price Team America's Air Force paid when entering the world's premier expedition adventure, which covered a punishing 230-mile trek on New Zealand's South Island in late October. But for more than six days, Tech. Sgt. Ken Fournier, Senior Master Sgt. Skip Kula, Staff Sgt. David Shuman and 1st Lt. Rebecca King pushed aside pain and fatigue to finish a merciless course of river rafting, mountaineering, rappelling and trail biking.
Out of 67 international teams that started the race, held annually in a remote region of the world, the Air Force team finished 12th overall and first for military competitors. Plus, for bragging rights, they easily bettered the previous top showing by a U.S. service entry, a 17th place finish in Morocco by a 1998 group comprised mostly of Navy SEALs.
But most importantly, they simply survived an event labeled by its organizers as "a race measured in pain-endured lessons."
"If one person quits or is injured, the entire team, which must include men and women, is disqualified," said Mark Burnett, race director. "To succeed is to finish; to win demands something extraordinary."
Simply put, it calls for going beyond the beyond. "When you're in the middle of it, you definitely have your doubts of why the heck you're doing this," said Fournier, 39, captain of Team America's Air Force and a pararescueman, or PJ. The bluesuiters qualified for the 2001 Eco-Challenge after winning the Armed Forces Eco-Challenge in June, covering 158 miles of Alaska wilderness in four and half days. That race, however, covered only two-thirds the distance of a New Zealand grind that took some participants the maximum time allowed --12 days -- to complete.
The key to finishing? Burnett believes it's group dynamics.
The teams that do well, he said, are those that minimize friction that is bound to arise after many days of grueling travel."
Fournier agreed: "The biggest (concerns) are those that tear apart teams because of the stress level. My goal was for us was to finish successfully and stay together."
In an article for GQ magazine, the team was described "as living the beer commercial." Shuman, 32, also a PJ, explained: "We're a pretty easy-going, happy-go-lucky group."
But their self-described laid-back personality can be deceiving. For when it comes to their vocations and avocations, the four are all business.
Founier has twice been named Air Force Special Operations Command Pararescueman of the Year. During one unforgettable day of his life, he rescued an F-15 pilot off the coast of Florida and later on assisted in his own baby daughter's delivery. …