May 21, 2008: 10:56 AM EDT
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Team building in paradise (pg. 3)

By Jeffrey M. O'Brien, senior editor

Will those people rethink the way they work? It's the great unknown. Some may forever alter their approach to life. Others may leave the warm and fuzzies in Queenstown. A few might just leave. Charlie Sander joined Seagate at the same time as Watkins. He was 49 when he ran in his fourth and final Eco. "This particular Eco was about aspiring to goals," Sander remembers. Sir Edmund Hillary spoke about his first Everest climb, and that inspired Sander. "I had a dream to run my own company. By the end of the week, on the plane back, I decided this is the time."

Sander left to co-found Confio Software in Boulder. Today Seagate is one of Confio's biggest customers. "Those who experienced Eco were different in some way," he says." There was the personal inspiration, but also the perspective on teamwork. It's a really powerful message. It prepared me for the next phase of my life." Watkins and Sander both consider this an Eco success story.

RESULTS - Friday, 4:45 A.M.

After an exhausting week, it would be tempting to say that we've internalized the CEO's insight about the relationship between winning and happiness. But come race day, even at this absurdly early hour, GB5 wants above all else to win.

Nine hours ago David Kelly, one of the world's elite adventure racers, with calves the size of cantaloupes, outlined a few details about the course he designed, and handed out thermal tights while warning us that a storm was on its way from Antarctica.

After a long bus ride this morning, we're lined up at the base of a glacier. Watkins drifts among the teams, offering moral support and encouragement. "I know you guys are trying to win," he says to me. "But do me a favor. Don't hurt yourself." A conch sounds, and we begin a rapid ascent. Team 39 sets the pace, but after an hour of climbing appears confused. Keep climbing, or follow a path down the back of the mountain? The map's scale is too opaque to show paths, and we're too inexperienced to read elevations. They descend. We keep climbing for a half-hour before realizing that no one has followed. By the time we retrace our steps, we're at the back of a single-file cattle train. Loh, our Malaysian engineer, begins lagging, leaning heavily on a walking stick and refusing help. Davis declares our chances of winning gone. MacPherson is pissed. "Are you going to let this ruin your whole week?" Davis asks her. We sign in at checkpoint three, having dropped from fourth to 33rd place.

We pass seven teams before reaching the kayaks, but heavy winds make rowing a slog. Wong emerges as a star paddler, but for naught. We surrender our gains and exit the kayaks back in 33rd place. Four hours in, and we're desperate for motivation. We need to find our own one-legged runner.

We scale an eight-foot fence, cross a meadow, and see a dozen teams wandering aimlessly in a pasture. I'm stuck up to midcalf in bog mud. A voice from a megaphone implores us to go back the way we came. It's the race director, on a clifftop. There will be no helicoptering out any teams this year. In the confusion, we manage to gain ground, reaching checkpoint nine in 27th place after five hours and nine minutes. The winning time was expected to be about six hours. That seems absurd now; we're not yet halfway done.

And then we find ourselves standing over the coolest thing ever. It's called a Tyrolean: a 100-meter cable staked at either side of a 200-foot deep gorge. We see the people before us clip themselves to the cable and drop out of sight over a sheer cliff. MacPherson wants to skip it and take a time penalty. Davis persuades her to go through with it. We each cross the canyon unscathed and exhilarated, and pause to cheer on the teams behind us.

After a race down another hill, we fuel up with water and PowerBars and head off on our mountain bikes. Wong has never ridden a mountain bike. He did fine in training, but today is not his day. He lags on flat roads and slows dramatically at each river crossing and on hills. We race ahead and wait for him, race ahead and wait. Eventually, we decide we need to tow him with a bungee cord. There's a rule in adventure racing: Whenever someone offers to carry your pack, you must accept. We decide the rule also applies to towing. Wong refuses, then swallows his pride. He loses his grip on the cord now and again and falls off his bike. Then he stops pedaling entirely to focus on staying upright. "I was so depressed when I cannot control the bike properly," he would tell me a few days after returning to Hong Kong. "At the end, I give up. I don't want whole team waiting for me."

We exit the biking portion in 27th place, and all that separates us from the finish is a river crossing, one last fence, and a sprint toward the showers, buffet, booze, and massage tables. Watkins told us on day one that come race day we could be cold, wet, and miserable - or just cold and wet. The southerly storm never amounted to more than a little rain, and yet we're nonetheless all freezing, drenched, and covered in mud. But no one's miserable. After nearly ten hours, we throw our bikes onto our shoulders and wade through a final thigh-deep river.

As we near a barbed-wire fence, several teams are waiting to cross a locked gate. Sensing a chance to leapfrog, I toss my bike over a portion where no one's standing. I put my left hand on the post and my left foot on the bottom wire. With my right hand, which is holding a metal walking stick, I grab the top wire - and quite suddenly realize it's electrified. I'm thrown back into a fit of epithets. Head down, I return to wait in line for the nonelectrified portion. We ditch our bikes, grab hands, and cross the finish line united, tearful. Our time: nine hours and 53 minutes, an hour behind the leaders, in 21st place, an hour ahead of the laggards. Tui makes up for the pathetic Haka stunt with a race day victory. They're awesome.

AFTERMATH - Saturday, 3:30 P.M.

Watkins and I leave Queenstown along with a dozen or so Seagaters. On landing in Auckland, we jog to our connection in another terminal. Watkins knows the route; we all follow his lead. Upon reaching the terminal, the CEO, who's carrying a stuffed laptop bag and sweating at the brow, appears winded. His limp is more pronounced today, but he still manages a smile when I come up beside him. Well? I ask. "Good Eco," he says, nodding knowingly. "A good week."

As it turns out, this was the hardest Eco course ever. Some of the organizers think it was too hard. But I didn't hear anyone complain. Out on the great expanse of southern New Zealand, time moves slowly, except when you're doing something you never thought you were capable of. Will finishing this grueling trek embolden Seagaters in a substantial way? Watkins admits that he doesn't know. He's never won his own race. He has come in dead last. This year, he didn't even compete. Still, he radiates like a man who has accomplished his mission. "The only thing you know for sure," he says before we board our flight home, "is that if you do nothing, then nothing will happen, and nothing will change."  To top of page

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