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The Amazing Race 4, Episode 4 (19 June 2003)

Gmunden (Austria) - Paris (France) - Le Mans (France)- Marseilles (France) - Gorges du Blavet (France) - St.-Rémy-de-Provence (France)

Getting in Shape to Travel

It wasn't clear what delayed Josh and Steve on the drive through southern France that led to the to their elimination at the end of this week's episode of The Amazing Race. Nor was it clear why Marseilles was chosen as the first city other than Paris to be visited in two different seasons of The Amazing Race.

What was clear -- for the racers as for many real travellers -- was how ill-prepared the teams were, on the whole, for challenges that, by this fourth season of the race, they ought to have known they would face at some point in the race.

If you were in a race for a million dollar prize, with only a dozen pairs of contestants, wouldn't you spend a few weeks, and a couple of thousand dollars, in serious training?

Likewise real travellers, on a smaller scale: it's possible to predict, and prepare for, many of the things that are otherwise likely to be most difficult on an international journey on your own.

Now that the panic over war, terrorism, and SARS is abating, many people are eager to set off on international trips they've wanted to take, but have been postponing for many months. That pent-up desire to travel is leading people to spend less time preparing, in order to hit the road or the airport as soon as possible.

But no matter how soon you are leaving, and even if you aren't in training for a race, it's never too late for your journey to benefit from a little preparation.

My advice for regular travellers preparing for independent international travellers forms the core of "The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World".

But if someone in training for the next season of "The Amazing Race" were to hire me as team coach or training consultant, here are some of the things (other than dealing with airlines, schedules, routes, and travel agencies) that I would recommend as preparation:

  • Physical conditioning

    Not everyone picked for the cast of The Amazing Race is in good physical shape, and you don't need to be an athlete to be a traveller. Hiking, city pavement-pounding, and even mountain trekking is feasible for ordinarily fit people of any age. But if you were going to be in a race, wouldn't you think to train for it? Many city tourists find themselves walking much farther just sightseeing than in their normal sedentary automotive lives. If you are preparing for the The Amazing Race, you should be walking at least a couple of miles, including a couple of quarter-mile sprints, with your full pack, every day for several weeks before you leave. Choose a mixed training course that includes pavement and dirt, hills, and getting on and off a crowded city bus with your full /pack. If you can't do it, lighten your pack before the race starts.

  • Bungee jumping

    Each of the first four seasons of The Amazing Race has included a bungee jump. Nothing to do with real travel -- except as a symbol of overcoming your fears -- but I guess it makes good TV. There's no excuse for a contestant in the race being unprepared: if you've never taken a jump before, do it before the race.

  • Rappelling

    This one's even more important: like bungee jumping, rappelling has been a part of every season of the race to date. But rappelling down a cliff takes longer than a simple jump, and skill and practice can make more of a difference here. A basic rappelling class should be mandatory for anyone selected for the cast of The Amazing Race who takes their victory chances seriously.

  • Map reading and navigation

    Contestants in the race have to make do with whatever maps they've been able to find. (I'll talk about what to bring with you, and what you should plan to buy along the way, in a future column). But making the best of a bad map, vague directions, or ambiguous signage are skills every traveller could use. Most navigation classes focus on orienteering by compass (of limited use for most travellers) or navigation by GPS (probably forbidden in The Amazing Race). Better training would come from road rallies or, failing that, simply setting yourself navigation problems while driving in an unfamiliar place (preferably one where you don't know the language -- see below) with the first map you find, even if it isn't the best available.

  • Driving on the opposite side of the road

    Since The Amazing Race is produced for the automobile-obsessed USA (with sponsorships and product placements by auto and truck manufacturers), it's not surprising that the racers get around much more by self-drive car, SUV, pickup truck, and motor home/"recreational vehicle" than would be normal for most travellers. Get ready for it: if you haven't driven something the size of an RV, or driven on the opposite side of the road, practice (on rural roads, high-speed expressways, and the busiest big-city downtown streets) before you try to do it with a million dollars on the line. You don't have to go far: from the USA, left-hand drive is as close as Bermuda and elsewhere in the Caribbean. And in mid-winter low season, flights from the East Coast to London, Dublin, or Shannon, or from the West Coast to Japan, sometimes cost little more than flights across the USA.

  • Communicating without a common language

    Charades and "pictionary" are good practice for any traveller. Better still is practice finding your way around in a place where you can't understand the local language. Once again, you don't have to go far: in North America and the Caribbean, there's Québec (French), Mexico (Spanish), and Haiti (Creole), among other places to test your skill at non-verbal communication and direction-finding. Not knowing a particular language is always forgivable; not having any practiced strategy for soliciting help or directions when you don't have a common language is unforgivable in someone who's had weeks or months to prepare for the race. (But I'm getting ahead of myself; communications skills and aids for travellers will be subject of a separate future column.)

  • A shakedown trip

    The best preparation and practice for travel is travel itself: a smaller shakedown trip should be a standard procedure before any really big or important journey. If you are travelling for a month or more, take at least a long weekend to see how you get along with your travelling companion(s), how manageable your luggage is, what you've forgotten or didn't realize you'd want, or have packed but realize you don't need.

    Not everyone in the cast of The Amazing Race is in it to win. For those who are, however, I would strongly recommend a practice trip around the world after you are selected for the final cast of the show. From the USA, a 10-14 day trip around the world, with a stop in Europe and one or two in Asia, should be possible for no more than US$2,500-$3,000, all-inclusive. That's a bit of a waste -- you could travel for much more time for little or no more money -- but well worthwhile as an investment in your one-in-twelve chances for a half share of the million dollar grand prize. (If you think that's too much to spend, consider how much people spend pursuing other smaller prizes with much worse odds.)

    You'd have to take time off from your job anyway, first for auditions in L.A. and then for for the race, and there's no way your employer could really tell what it was for if you asked for another week or two off for a practice trip between the final casting and the race itself.


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