The Amazon Original Series World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji premieres on Amazon Prime Video this Friday August 14th 2020. As well as being an epic, often genuinely inspiring and nail-biting thrill-ride, Toughest Race, presented by Bear Grylls, is also the perfect chance to see determined humans at their most active in some breathtakingly exotic locations at a time when many of us are still largely confined to our homes. Filmed in September last year, the revived reality TV series pits 66 teams from 30 countries against one another in a non-stop race across hundreds of miles of rugged backcountry terrain complete with mountains, jungles and oceans. Competing as part of the first all African American team in expedition racing, Team Onyx, is 30 year-old ultrarunner Coree Woltering. Often referred to as Speedo Man because of his signature racing attire, Coree began his running career with the 400m and 800m at middle school and college. He was on his way to becoming a professional triathlete when he discovered ultrarunning and starting winning races and setting records, like achieving the fastest known time for running Wisconsin’s 1147 mile Ice Age Trail in June this year. The heavy-metal loving Midwesterner lives with his husband, a professional skydiver, in Ottowa, Illinois.
Ahead of the series premiere of World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Coree Woltering about competing with Team Onyx, the importance of representation in trail running, securing sponsorship with The North Face after he came out and his recent fundraising run helping small businesses in his community. He also tells us that he has a soft spot for David and Patrick’s relationship in Schitt’s Creek.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: I’ve seen the first three episodes of Eco-Challenge and I’m absolutely hooked on it.
Coree Woltering: “I can’t wait to watch it myself!”
Yes, and relive it all! So you describe yourself as an ultrarunner, can you tell me what ultrarunning is and how you how you got into it?
“Yeah, so I’m a professional ultrarunner for The North Face and basically I go out and run far distances on trails. An ultra would technically be considered anything that is 50 kilometers, or 31 miles. Well, that’s where the official distance kind of starts, I guess. But I do a lot of stuff that’s 100 miles.”
Okay, so 50K or 31 miles is not enough for you then?!
“It’s all fun!”
Tell me about the draw of competing in World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji.
“I remember watching Eco-Challenge around 10 or 11 years ago. And I always thought it was this crazy adventure, but I never thought too much about it. And then our team captain Clifton Lyles, who I didn’t know at the time, reached out through Instagram and was like, ‘Hey, I’m trying to put together the first all African American team to race an Eco-Challenge and I think you’d be a great fit for it.’ And so through Instagram he was able to put together a team and we went and raced, and it was awesome!”
What defines Team Onyx, what do you guys represent?
“We were the first all African American team to race an eco challenge and that was important for us because when you watch shows like that, or when you go to races like that, you usually don’t see a lot of people of colour competing in the sport. And so we found it to be a great opportunity to not just show the world what we can do, but also hopefully inspire people to want to go out and do some of these awesome things themselves, whether that’s inspiring someone to explore their local trail and go for a hike or a bike ride, or do something like Eco-Challenge. I’m openly gay, and we also had another person on the team that is part of the LGBTQ family, and so we also thought that was super important to show, just because I’m not sitting at home baking cupcakes all day, I like to go get dirty and I like to go do these adventure sports, and I just want to inspire people to do that as well.”
And also I think you taking part in a television show like World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji is an important piece of representation in itself, reaching an audience that perhaps wouldn’t be watching LGBTQ specific TV shows and hopefully changing some preconceptions.
“Yeah, absolutely and I just think that’s really cool and I’m happy that the series shows it. The other really cool thing about it is that there were 66 teams competing, so you’re racing against people from all around the world. It’s super cool to to be part of something like that.”
What’s the dynamic like of being part of a team rather than competing solo as you generally do?
“Yeah, it’s definitely awesome. For me, I am normally racing solo and I’ll probably have one crew person with me that can meet me at different stations and perhaps a pacer for the final 30 miles out of 100 miles. But for the most part it’s just me, so doing something like this was quite a bit different for me because you have different skill levels on the various activities. Some people may love the bike and some people may hate the bike, some people love water and some people hate water. It’s all so intense and you have to be super respectful of other people’s boundaries, but at the same time we feel like we’re trying to win this race so let’s go!”
In the first three episodes that I got to see it didn’t look like you got much sleep!
“In our first four days I think we only slept for about three hours.”
“Yeah, and so that is something else that you have to deal with. Some people need more sleep than others, but when you’re racing you can’t always take time to sleep. The cool thing about our team is that we had all only been in the same location once before we got to Fiji. We did one training weekend in California. Other than that, the team did a 24-hour adventure race but I couldn’t make it to that one because I had other commitments going on. So the next time we all saw each other was in Fiji.”
Well, that’s very impressive.
“The plan was to get to Fiji a few days early to all be together, but then my flight out of Chicago was late taking off and late landing, and so I missed my connection in San Francisco. So the rest of the team was there, but I got to Fiji about 36 hours after they did. You know, half of the battle is just getting to Fiji in the first place!”
Yes, that should be its own episode shouldn’t it?! What’s your favourite snack or the thing you like to eat while you’re taking part in something like Eco-Challenge?
“Canned tuna is a great thing you can eat or a canned SpaghettiOs, but obviously you don’t want the can with it. So you just empty it into a plastic bag and throw it in your pack and go. But I have a story about that. Anytime you take food out of the can and put it in a bag you need to double bag it, and of course I’m always going to double bag it, but I actually forgot to double bag the tuna one day in Fiji. I swear to God it had to have been a hundred degrees outside and I go to open up my backpack and the pack of tuna had just exploded all over it, inside my pack! I’ve never smelled anything that was that bad before, and of course my clothes were in there and everything else, so I was walking around in tuna covered clothes and it was disgusting!”
Talking about your clothes, you’re well-known for wearing a Speedo when you run, which we see on the show, and you are often referred to as ‘Speedo Man’. When did that first come about?
“So that actually that started back in 2015. I was going down to Florida to run a 50K and I brought some shorts for training and had packed a bunch of Speedos, because I thought hopefully I’ll be at the beach also, but I forgot my racing shorts. So I could either wear a dirty pair of shorts, or I could just run in a Speedo, and people were like ‘it’s Florida, just run in a Speedo!’ So I did. But then I won the race and that’s when everyone was calling me Speedo Man! So that’s how that came about.”
It became a bit of a lucky charm I guess? So since then you’ve actually run quite a bit in a Speedo, right?
“Yeah, just about every race since then.”
What was being part of a television show like from your perspective as a competitor in World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, having all those cameras around which are often pretty close up monitoring your every move? Does that sort of add to the pressure of it in a way?
“I wouldn’t say that it adds to the pressure. We were there to race and show the world what we can do and so you almost forget about the cameras at some point because you’re just like, I’m tired, I’m dirty, and this is extremely…I wouldn’t say stressful, but it’s just hard on the body. And so at the end of the day, you forget about the cameras. Having the camera there is probably the easiest part of it!”
It’s billed as the World’s Toughest Race, so what were the most challenging aspects both physically and psychologically?
“Well, there are definitely a lot of challenging parts. Mentally, I would say that just having to function with very little sleep can make even the most basic tasks seem extremely hard at times, so that’s the most exhausting part. Physically, the hardest part was all of the paddling, because there is so much water on a course like Fiji that you’re going to have to paddle whether you want to or not. It can also be extremely frustrating when you hope for windy conditions that help you sail and maybe you’re just not getting the wind that you need or the wind is in the wrong direction. I come from running, a sport that’s all about my legs, but paddling is a ton of upper body and core, so that can be tough”
And does that does that come into the training? I mean, it must be quite a hard thing to actually train for because there are so many different components.
“Yeah, so we have to do some training courses and specific certification, but we all have to train for this on our own and it can be difficult to juggle, say, trying to run professionally and race 100 miles in the mountains, but then also know that I have to be paddle-boarding, and, kayaking, and rafting and sailing, all those other things. And so, basically, my goal was to just show up in Fiji as fit as possible. I had to gain weight for the race because my teammates were saying ‘you’re just so lean already that you’re you’re gonna want more weight.'”
I loved the travel show aspect to World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji in that you get to see all those stunning locations that you were running around in. Was there a particular place that took your breath away or can you not really focus on that while you’re running or paddling or biking or rafting?!”
“Yeah, it’s extremely beautiful, but it can also be really hard to appreciate the beauty at times. I remember, I think it was coming into Camp two, and it was gorgeous but it was a very trying time and so because of that it was like ‘Oh, this is really beautiful, but I kind of wish that I was just seeing it on my own and not in the middle of the race!'”
It seemed like you were getting a lot of support from the Fijians standing outside their homes and in different places as you were racing past, what was that like?
“Fiji is known as a country of hospitality, but I honestly believe that people in Fiji are such amazing people. There are a couple of different moments that really stand out. One of them was a family that was chopping coconuts and giving us fresh coconut water, and it just came at an extremely important time for us, so that was awesome. Then there were other villages where people would bake cookies or bake bread and bring it out to the racers as they were coming by. There are times when we were travelling in the middle of the night, and you don’t see any lights for a while, but then you come into a village and there’s a bunch of kids out dancing and singing and playing music. That was really awesome.”
That coconut water moment you mention made it into one of the episodes, so we get to see that.
“That’s nice, because it was amazing.”
Obviously so many sporting events have been cancelled this year, but I know you’ve been been keeping yourself active during the pandemic. Tell us about your idea to run all over your city and then also the Ice Age Trail.
“I had hoped to be racing a 100 miler in the summer, but with all the races getting cancelled I knew that wasn’t going happen. So I thought, I have my fitness and I would love to do something. So I decided to run every street of Ottawa, Illinois and call it Big Run for Small Business. Basically, we set up a contest where if you took a picture of me as I was running by and tagged me on social media you’d be entered into a chance to win a couple of gift cards from different local businesses. You could also do it if you were donating money. Anyway, I ran 205 miles over 12 days and then we ended up raising about $13,000 for small businesses. We donated 60% of that as gift cards from small businesses to frontline healthcare workers and hospital staff. Then the other 40% went to small businesses that had to shut down because of Covid-19, because we weren’t able to buy gift cards from them. It went over really well and was a lot of fun. Then about a month later I started the Ice Age trail up in Wisconsin, aiming for the fastest known time, and so that was 1147 miles which I completed in 21 days and 13 hours. Through that I ended up raising a little over $30,000 for Feeding America.”
That’s incredible, congratulations on all of that fundraising. What kind of reception did you get from people when you were doing the Ice Age Trail because it was quite an intense time in the country with the pandemic and protests.
“Yeah, absolutely. Covid was going on and then I started June 1st, and the George Floyd incident was four days before I started this trail, and so it was definitely a weird time to be doing this because the Ice Age Trail starts about an hour north of Minneapolis. It was the first 350 miles or so, the first week basically is up in very rural Wisconsin, and we weren’t sure what would be happening out there. And I feel like that’s a valid question to ask given how racially charged things were at the time and it was honestly a great experience. People in northern Wisconsin were extremely friendly, and people were making food in their homes and bringing it out to us at the different trailheads. People were dropping off supplies if we needed them. It was honestly a great experience.”
I saw you got some lasagna and some red velvet cupcakes made for you at one point?
“Yes! Yes, I did, and they were so good!”
You had a lot of interest and support on social media, did that give you a boost while you were on the trial?
“That was really awesome. I honestly didn’t think that it was going to get that much attention because the Ice Age Trail is extremely long, but it’s not necessarily that well-known. But with everything else that was going on, this was an extremely positive story of a person of colour doing something awesome. And people really believed in it and got behind it and so that just felt great. I was getting so many comments and messages that I couldn’t read all of them while I was out there. It was just people being like ‘keep up doing what what you’re doing, we appreciate that you’re doing this!'”
Would you mind telling me about coming out in your mid twenties; what that was like for you and the kind of reaction that you received when you when you came out?
“I came out about a month before I turned 26. It’s actually funny because I had been engaged for four months by then and I still hadn’t come out, so it got to the point where I thought I absolutely just need to get this done because we’re getting married five months later. I couldn’t really send out wedding invites if I wasn’t out! I struggled with if I wanted to come out or not just because I still had not picked up any major sponsors and at that time I knew that I wanted to be a professional athlete, but I didn’t know what the reaction from the running community would be and especially in trail running. So I put it off as long as possible and then finally came out to a couple friends and they were just like, ‘Yeah, we know.’ And what do you say to that? I was like, ‘How do you know, I haven’t told you?’ And they said ‘We just knew’. Then I told a few more people and they were just like, ‘Yeah, we thought you were gay.’ So I thought, okay, this is not as big of a deal as I thought it was gonna be. So finally, on Facebook when I came out instead of being like, ‘Oh, I’m gay’, or whatever, it was more like, ‘I’m engaged and we’re getting married in July.’ And nobody even batted an eyelid, it was great. Nobody cared. I mean, they cared, but they were just like, ‘I’m happy that you’re happy.'”
Yeah, it’s interesting how it’s often such an internal struggle which we really build up into a big thing, because it is a big deal to us, but then the reaction from people can be a little bit of an anticlimax almost. I guess that ‘so what?’ is the reaction that we really want, but it can still be surprising.
“Yeah, I was thinking there was going to be a much larger reaction than what it actually was, I guess. It’s funny because my hometown of Ottawa, Illinois is fairly conservative I would say, but we also had a gay mayor for 20 years. It’s just one of those funny things where yes, we can be very conservative here, but the town is open-minded too.”
You mentioned one of the things that you had reservations about was securing sponsorship if you came out, so tell me about how that came about because it was after you come out presumably?
“Yeah, so in 2016 I had a pretty solid year of racing. Then at the end of November there’s Tunnel Hill, a race that I do every year, and I ran the second fastest trail 50 mile time that had been run in North America. So I got picked up by the company inov-8 shortly after that, which was awesome, and had a great two years running for them. Then finally I got picked up by The North Face at the start of 2019.”
I think that’s a great thing for people to see because although things have changed in sport, there will still be people wondering whether coming out might harm their chances of getting sponsorship, so that’s really encouraging.
“Yes, I think it is, absolutely, and honestly, most companies don’t care if you’re gay or not. If anything, it’s probably a good thing when it comes to sponsorship at this point because companies are always trying to be inclusive and show and promote diversity. And I guess I just wasn’t thinking like that back in 2016 because I couldn’t think of any openly gay professional trail runners that were out there and I thought maybe the trail running community was more conservative, but it turns out that they’re very open.”
You could’t see anyone like you out there, but what do you think about the idea that what you’re doing now might be inspiring others?
“I honestly feel like it’s an extremely important story to tell. I hadn’t realised that I was going to be the openly gay Black trail runner, but I am and I’m totally fine with that.”
Tell me what’s on your playlist, what are your top tracks to help you keep keep keep moving?
“I love hard rock and heavy metal. So right now I’m listening to Code Orange, Slipknot and Asking Alexandria.”
Here’s a question that we like to ask everyone; what’s your favourite LGBTQ+ film, TV show, book, play, artwork, music or it could be a person and why? Something or someone that’s made an impact on you.
“If I was gonna pick a show right now it’d have to be Shitt’s Creek. I absolutely love that show. I love David on there because I think he’s hilarious and I also loved Patrick’s coming out story, and him and David just working through life together. It’s such a great show.”
And is there someone in the sporting world, an athlete whom you admire and have been inspired by?
“Although she is not gay I would say that Chrissie Wellington is my favourite athlete just because she’s the most dominant woman to ever race Iron Man. I started out as a triathlete before being a trail runner and it was just awesome to watch her win everything.”
Overall were you pleased with how Team Onyx did in Eco-Challenge?
“Yeah, and hopefully you’ll see Team Onyx again for the next season!”
The ten-episode Amazon Original Series World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji premieres worldwide on Friday August 14th 2020 exclusively on Amazon Prime Video. #WorldsToughestRace #TeamOnyx