Owen West’s other career: Eco-Challenge

CNN, 04/02/2001

“I trade natural gas futures.” Owen West also trades one career for another. He’s with Goldman Sachs in New York, “been here since the summer of 1998” … except for when he wasn’t there.

Say that time during his first year with the company. “Well, yeah, that was Eco-Challenge: Morocco.” And before he joined the firm? “Eco-Challenge: Utah was in 1995. So was Eco-Challenge: New England in Maine.” And there was the British Columbia Eco-Challenge in 1996.

West’s participation in “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett’s Eco-Challenge series of what many would call exhilarating adventure-sport — and others would call awful experiences — “is usually done on vacation,” he says. “It takes 12 days. Kind of pushed the boundaries of my vacation on that. It’s not a particularly fun vacation, either. When you come back, you’re more stressed than when you left.”

Now, you can see why: Nightly at 8 p.m. EDT through Wednesday, USA Network is airing successive installments of a five-hour miniseries on the Borneo Eco-Challenge agony fest Burnett mounted in August. (Temperatures reached some 115 degrees Fahrenheit, in case you’re wondering.)

Careerist-sportsman West has a good word for his employer on this whole business. As you read this, he’s on his way to Mount Everest, where he’ll join a 14-person team “led by a Kiwi” in an attempt to climb the North Face. “Goldman saw it the same way I did — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There wasn’t any wrangling. Everest will probably take 10 weeks.”


‘Pay to be miserable’

In Eco-Challenge: Borneo, some of West’s expenses were covered, he says, by Playboy. He was tapped to be the single male member of a four-person team — Team Playboy X-treme — that included three former Playmates. But the sponsorship didn’t cover all the costs, nor does the eventual televised production pay participants’ way, he says.

“The Eco-Challenges generally run $5,000 to $10,000. No matter who you are, it’s still an amateur sport and you have to love it because one way or another, you’re going to pay to be miserable. Everest (not an Eco-Challenge event) costs $30,000. It’s become so popular that both Nepal and China charge more than $10,000 in climbing permits, per climber. I just paid off my student loans in December. But I figured I’m fit right now and should jump at this chance instead of waiting 20 years when the money might be easier.”

As you talk to West, you realize this 31-year-old has about as many career sides to him as an Eco-Challenge has skill demands. The trader and adventure-sportsman also is an author. His book, “Sharkman Six,” is due out from Simon & Schuster in the fall, he says. He’s a Harvard graduate and a former six-year U.S. Marine Corps captain.

“No kids right now. I got married about a year ago — we’re trying to decide where to live. She’s involved in these events (adventure sport) by default. She’s a former swimmer. Doesn’t enjoy being miserable as much as I do. If it’s raining out and I haven’t packed a sleeping bag or the tent because I figured we could suffer a night or two, I’ll hear about it. She was one of our team assistants on one of the Eco-Challenge races. But she likes to sleep.”


‘Hand my pack off to a bunny’

Sleep deprivation is one of the most wracking trials of an Eco-Challenge, regardless of the terrain. “You need to be able to function without sleep,” Owen says. “You know that feeling after a late-night binge, when you get up early? On Eco-Challenge, you carry that nauseated feeling for nine days. It’s very strange. You’re just not quite right. It’s kind of a drag.

“Of course, my modus operendus was to just hand my pack off to a (Playboy) bunny and just rest.”

That’s a joke. West has nothing but good words for Danelle Folta, also 31, the Florida model and stuntwoman who led Team Playboy X-treme. With them were two other Playmates — Kalin Olson, 24, a model from Sherman Oaks, California, and Jennifer Lavoie, 29, a businesswoman from Merrimack, New Hampshire.

“They’re terrific athletes. They’re fighting against some preconceptions. The pressure on them was more difficult than it would have been for most. Danelle was simply a great leader for our team in every since of the word. And the other two women just weren’t going to quit. They were afraid of letting her down. Pretty amazing to watch.”


‘I couldn’t be the one’

As in his previous Eco-Challenges, West got together with his teammates ahead of the event for several “sleepless weekend” test runs. “I remember that when we did a weekend in Manhattan — and I live here, I knew how punishing a 24-hour walk on pavement can be — they showed up with packs heavier than mine.

“I figured they’d eventually find out they were carrying too much weight. But they never took it out. So by the end of the weekend, I was embarrassed because I knew they’d pick up my pack and realize I’d cheated on the hike. So I’d never take my pack off on rests. But eventually, they got suspicious.”

At stake for several national teams were world standings. A U.S. team (Team Saloman Eco-Internet, led by Ian Adamson) vied in Malaysian Borneo most directly against teams from France, Australia and New Zealand. For other teams, like Team Playboy X-treme, the goal was finishing.

But West says he had a special incentive of his own on this one. “I knew I couldn’t be the one” to drop out of the race before reaching the end of the course. “My God, if the Marine had dropped out and ruined the Playboy bunnies’ chances of finishing, I told my wife, we’d have to move to Australia and set up a small fishing operation.”