New! March 30, 2006
Behind-the-Scenes of the Amazing Race
by Lisa Iannucci
In 29 days, they race more than 72,000 miles around the world, flying from country to country, unaware of what their next destination, or adventure, will be. They are exposed to countless possible health risks, including extreme jet lag, altitude sickness, illness from tainted foreign food and water, malaria, Montezuma’s revenge and much more, but nothing stops these contestants from moving to the next leg of the race. Why? Because at the finish line is the possibility to win $1 million and the chance to be crowned victors of CBS’s extremely popular reality show, The Amazing Race.
Millions of viewers are glued to this fast-paced award winning show, its newest season just beginning on February 28, but there is so much you don’t see.
Thanks to the magic of television editing, viewers are rarely (and thankfully) witnesses to the contestants’ physical side effects of this extreme travel. For example, last year’s popular race contestant Uchenna Agu (Uchenna and Joyce) suffered from Montezuma’s revenge, season four contestant Al Rios (Jon Weiss and Al) was struck with food poisoning, and host Phil Keoghan was very sick with an unknown illness during the first season. Viewers, like myself, often wonder how they combat travel maladies while keeping up their energy and stamina to compete in high-paced, often grueling, stunts.
Even the camera crew and production staff are exposed to possible illnesses and injury as they travel alongside these millionaire wannabes.
A Bag of Pills
Once contestants are chosen for the show, they are sequestered in a hotel room, unaware of what lies ahead, when the race will start, or even who their competitors are. Producers review their expectations during briefings with the newest reality stars, including how to position themselves in front of the camera and during interviews after arriving at the pit stops.
Contestants are then given several immunizations and medications (the contestants call this their “bag of pills”) in case of illness. Contestants are informed when to take the medication to prevent altitude sickness, but are otherwise not taught about the individual health hazards within the borders of each country they will be racing through. They are not warned about what foods to eat and which ones to avoid or how to prevent bug bites.
“We tell the competitors that they have Cipro—an antibiotic—and malaria pills if they are heading into a country that may have malaria, but otherwise they are on their own,” Bertram van Munster said. He is co-creator and executive producer of The Amazing Race, who also travels the race along with many other producers and crew.
Contestants are given a packing list that explains that they should “pack for the extremes.”
“But how do you do that?” Uchenna said. “We had to do quite a bit of research and picking the right backpack was the most time-consuming. It had to be big and strappy enough.”
The producers and crew travel alongside the contestants and, in case of an emergency, doctors, surgeons and hospitals are on standby during the race. In one season, a crewmember broke his wrist during a boating mishap, but Bertram explains that otherwise contestants haven’t needed emergency treatment.
Montezuma’s Revenge Strikes
At the beginning of each leg of the race, each team is given money to either be used for tasks and food during that leg, or they can carry over the money for future legs. Although eating healthy and staying hydrated is a vital component in making it through the tough travels, many contestants stockpiled power bars in their backpacks, ate on the plane (the food was often free), or waited until the pit stop when they were treated to a meal, instead of spending their money on meals.
“We got really good at eating at pit stops,” Elizabeth Bransen said. She participated in the Amazing Race Family Edition (these teams traveled throughout North America). “We didn’t drink anything but water and probably ate more than we should and we tried to pack food—like granola bars—to eat on the race.”
The rest of the race, both domestically and internationally, the challengers were on their own to find sustenance. Unfortunately, eating foreign foods that might not have been cooked properly almost lead to Uchenna and Joyce’s downfall.
Uchenna, the self-proclaimed “garbage can of the house,” overall had no trouble eating foreign food. “I got through Peru and was fine, but when we were in Argentina, I started getting sick and Montezuma’s Revenge had me,” he said.
Fortunately for Uchenna, that night the contestants were scheduled for a 36-hour break, time enough to recuperate. “Luckily none of my illness kicked in at crucial moments when we were racing hard,” he said.
But illness would get Uchenna and Joyce again later in the race. “When we got to India, they provided a feast and I ate everything. That’s when I was at my sickest.”
Joyce also suffered from traveler’s diarrhea during the competition, but not even TD could stop the couple from ultimately winning the race.
Jon Weiss explains that regardless of the pre-race training that he and his partner did, Al was leveled with what they thought was food poisoning on one 12-hour flight. The competitors didn’t consider quitting and even agreed on a strategy to not let the other contestants know about Al’s illness.
“Al slept on a 12-hour flight and then we had to sleep in the streets in India overnight,” Weiss said, who is a clown with Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. “Al even got bitten by something in his eye and his eye was swollen so I gave him my glasses so no one could see. We decided not to let anyone know about any of this.” Al recuperated by the end of that leg.
The production crew and cameramen also cannot help the contestants no matter what, even if a team oversleeps for the next leg of the race. If the team didn’t wake up on time, their camera crew couldn’t wake them and, instead, would be forced to wait until the team arrived.
“The producers bring the crew food and water and put them in better accommodations than we have, but they couldn’t even give us a drop of water,” Uchenna said.
Oh, What a Rush!
Another side effect to this extreme travel is jet lag—constant travel through several time changes with no time for the traveler’s weary body to adjust. Most competitors slept as often as they could—on planes, buses, at airports and especially during pit stops.
“Adrenaline carries you through the race though,” Chip Ardnt said. Ardnt is the Season Four Amazing Race winner with partner Reichen. “You really don’t worry about jet lag much. You’re too busy strategizing.” During his race, Chip remembers one team suffering from altitude sickness and another team from physical exhaustion.
Joyce relied on over-the-counter sleep aids to help her catch some Z’s. “We were on a schedule that we slept when we could, but I can’t sleep on a plane,” Joyce said. “We never felt the jet lag until the race was over. We simply didn’t have time for it.”
When the couple returned home after winning the race, they slept much of the next three days to recuperate. “We would get up, eat and then be tired again for the rest of the day,” Uchenna said. “We really didn’t feel normal again for almost two weeks.”
Competitor Reichen explains, “We also weren’t on any sleep/awake schedule, but we were rested and we decided we were going to rest and eat as much as we could on the planes to keep ourselves healthy.” He explains that it took he and Chip about seven days after the race to recuperate.
“All we wanted to do was sleep and eat and do things that didn’t require much rush,” he laughs.
By the end of the race, Uchenna had lost 18 pounds, Reichen lost 20 pounds, and Chip dropped weight too.
What is the biggest mistake that Amazing Race contestants make? According to van Munster, it’s how much they pack. “I can go around the world on a pair of Pumas,” he said. “I pack everything I need in my carry-on, including a suit and a tie. They are also buying the wrong clothes.”
Uchenna and Joyce agree that packing too much was a problem that they needed to correct during the race. “The sickness didn’t debilitate us, but carrying all of our stuff almost did,” Uchenna said, who also explained that muscle soreness was a big issue. “There were definitely lessons there to pack only what’s absolutely necessary.”
Along the race, the couple trashed unneeded clothing and excess food. “You suddenly learn it’s OK to wear things over,” Uchenna said.
“I had cute things to wear at the very beginning, but I left them along the way and started repeating wearing things,” Joyce said.
While viewers watch the newest installment of this, well amazing, show, just remember that behind the scenes there’s a whole lot of things going on that are left on the cutting room floor.
Lisa Iannucci is the co-author of Healthy Travel: Don’t Leave Home Without It (Basic Health Publications) and hopes that the next set of Amazing Race wannabes consult it before trying out for the show. http://frequentflyer.oag.com/stories/03302006/amazing_race.asp?noimage=yes