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Sep. 20, 2020
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Lanier lap record holder tackles Eco Challenge Fiji

By Jane Harrison
If he had paddled with a bamboo stalk around Lake Lanier, adventure racer Joshua Forester might have been more adept at maneuvering a bilibili in Fiji. The 37- year-old adrenaline junky who completed a 400-mile Lanier Lap last summer found himself with a slashed bamboo stalk as a paddle in Stage 1 of his dream race, the Eco Challenge in Fiji.
 
The record-holder for circumnavigating Lanier in a kayak went on to the jungles, whitewater rapids, South Pacific tides, and steep cliffs of Fiji to complete the endurance feat that inspired him as a teenager watching it on TV.
 
“It was everything I saw on TV and more,” Forester said in retrospect of “World’s Toughest Race: Eco Challenge Fiji” which began streaming on Amazon Prime last month. Forester was sworn to secrecy and recently cleared to talk with Lakeside News about his September 2019 adventure.
 
Shin-bashing underwater boulders, mud as sticky as peanut butter, shoulder-high rivers, steep canyons, and torrential rain threw test after test at the 66 teams attempting to traverse 416 miles in the tropical archipelago in 11 days. There’s blood, sweat, tears, and vomit as racers push their bodies and psyches to the limit. And, there’s a five-second close up of Forester determinedly trudging through nearly neck-high water in the third episode. “My five seconds of fame,” he joked later.
 
When Amazon Prime streamed the show last month Forester’s “Lake Mama” and Lanier family looked for “our boy” among the diverse roster who paddled, trekked, biked, roped, and sloshed the treacherous route on the beautiful, yet rugged cluster of  islands. Whenever they thought they caught a glimpse of him, Lu Treadway and a small party of Forester’s supporters would stop, rewind and pause to double check. Treadway said she would have loved being among the Fijian villagers who rallied to feed, porter, and repair gear for Forester and other competitors.
 
In the Lanier Lap, Forester’s final big individual push before shoving off for Fiji, Treadway led dozens of Lanier dwellers who tracked and fed the charismatic sojourner on his six-and-a-half-day journey around Lanier.
 
“It was an uplifting experience to do before (Fiji),” Forester said recently. “I knew I had a lot of people at home cheering for me.”
 
Although the paddle sections of the race weren’t what he expected, Forester said his time on Lanier further hardened his resolve to finish Fiji. “Mentally, just being in the water paddling and pushing so long” definitely enhanced his resume, he said. A stand-up paddle board lesson or two from the Lanier Canoe & Kayak Club might have helped, too, he quipped.
 
Forester had long pictured himself navigating oceans, climbing cliffs and pedaling fat tires in an Eco Challenge, just as he had seen his forebears do on Discovery Channel TV. The awestruck teen and champion distance runner vowed to do it himself one day.
 
When Eco Challenge terminated in 2002, Forester continued to aim high. He won a national adventure race solo division, summited Denali, North America’s highest peak, and completed the Lanier Lap. He had set his sights on Mount Everest but “dropped everything” when he learned Eco Challenge was coming back. “Eco Challenge is my Everest,” he remarked.
 
Using social media and a network woven from years of adventure treks, Forester assembled a team of experienced multisport racers, most of whom had military connections. Team US Military was born. Forester, a scientific researcher employed on a Defense Department contract at Georgia Tech, captained the squad of Caitlin Thorn, 37, U.S. Airforce engineer from Alabama; Army veteran Jesse Tubb, 47, from Maryland; and Jesse Spangler, 34, an emergency physician from Virginia. A fifth team member, Kevin Howser, an Army retiree from West Virginia, didn’t race but helped with logistics and set up recovery camps for brief stops.
 
Their adventure in Fiji started on a narrow river with a crash in a jam of camakaus, native canoes outfitted with optional sails. Reeling at the sight of a 9-inch gash in their boat, Forester wondered if his decades-long dream would be over in five minutes. Fiji villagers came running with wood, hammer and nails. The particle board patch up would do until just before the crew reached the Pacific, where an Eco Challenge ocean squad repaired the boat for an open water crossing and deep dive to retrieve a submerged medallion.
 
Forester said he experienced the most magical scene of his voyage during a paddle to the mainland for an upriver SUP jaunt. Small green flecks of bioluminescent plankton sparkled under his paddle. “Seeing the faint, green sparks was so pleasurable. It was like fireworks coming off each stroke,” he said.
 
The worst parts were a close call between sticky mud nearly up to their derailleurs on the mountain bike and a river scramble over potentially bone-cracking boulders. Forester described the bike trek as “ridiculous. I’ve never seen mud like that. We struggled with it.” Worse still was a “huge, massive assent” up canyon walls that later put the sleep-deprived adventurers in a flooding river. “It was night and the river was cold,” Forester recalled. Flashlight batteries went dead. “Even more unbearable were the rocks, bowling ball to Volkswagen size, slimy, wet rocks” that team members feared could bludgeon them to death. Tubb gashed his shin. Thorn nearly broke her helmet against a rock. Forester’s shoes disintegrated during the gnarly moonlit yoga-style spider crawl. “We were happy to be past that,” he said.
 
Through it all, Forester’s squad kept drama-free, he said. “We were really blessed,” he said. “There was great humility on the team. We checked egos at the door.” He said he drew on his own special ability to “stay happy through a lot of suffering.” Early life struggles overcoming depression taught him how to maintain optimism. “I’m generally a very happy person and enjoyed a lot of the race,” he said.
 
Would he do it again? Yep, but first he’ll get married and honeymoon in Africa where he hopes to summit Mount Kilimanjaro. He plans to wed Shanna Irving, his “first mate” support on his Lanier Lap.

Treadway said she’ll keep following Forester’s wake. “He’s somebody everyone needs in their life,” she said, adding that he reminds her of her son, another adrenaline junky. “It was a pleasure and an honor to follow him, serve him and feed him” around Lanier.

Posted online 8/28/20

 
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