On their first day, they scaled a 1,400-foot cliff that took several hours. On the following dozen-plus days, the Denver trio trekked more than 3,000 grueling miles across Canada, every step captured by a gaggle of camera operators.
But the biggest challenge for Denverites Dave Bacon, Mindy Murphy and Paul Montague Jr. wasn’t the obstacles they navigated in Canada’s rugged wilderness as part of the National Geographic’s “Race to the Center of the Earth” adventure-race reality series that premiered last week. It was not telling anyone any detail about their adventures. And this week: staying mum on whether they won the million-dollar prize.
“So we’ve been harboring this secret about what happened for a year and half,” said Bacon, the owner of the BW Bacon Group, a technical recruiting firm where Montague and Murphy work. “It was like opening a time capsule when it finally aired.”
So Dave, you sipping cocktails by your new pool? Hanging at the new ski cabin?
He’s not talking. That’s part of the gig for these reality series: Contestants can’t spoil the big reveal. But after the first episode, Team North America — Bacon, Murphy and Montague, Jr. — were in the lead.
In virtual time, they competed against three other teams of three: cops from Alaska racing across Russia; outdoor educators from Seattle navigating Southeast Asia; and Southern California rock climbers traversing South America.
The contest is like the old “Amazing Race,” but without the silly games or host. Each day of the race features a challenge and contestants have to pass through a bunch of checkpoints in a certain amount of time. They earn points for meeting the course times set by organizers and more points means an early start in the grand finale race for a buoy in the ocean holding a million dollars.
Bacon’s team called themselves “Hustle, Grit and Sizzle.” On their first day, they had to climb a sheer granite cliff in Quebec’s Saguenay Fjord National Park. Montague, an avid rock climber, flew up the face with ease. He’s the “Hustle” in the team name. Murphy, aka “Grit,” was less than 24 hours into an antibiotic regimen for strep throat and she took a bit longer but figured out the complicated method of climbing a rope known as jumaring. Bacon, the “Sizzle” of the group, took hours to scale the wall. At one point he was sure his harness was coming apart and just about lost it.
“I was overconfident and immediately found myself out of my league with terrible technique,” Bacon said, describing his bad decisions to wear too many layers on the climb and leave his water bottle in his bag at the bottom. “Just super humbling.”
Luckily there were dozens of cameras documenting his struggle in a somewhat amusing series of heavily-bleeped clips. In one of many brief interviews scattered throughout the show, Montague said that maybe those cameras could help entice more Black people into mountain sports.
“When I go to the climbing gym, maybe one other person of color is there in this huge gym and I think that shouldn’t be the case,” he said in an interview with The Colorado Sun. “Maybe this will expose mountain sports to more people who look like me.”
Maybe “Race to the Center of the Earth” could make Montague an inspiration to a new generation of mountain athletes.
“Just something to spark it. Maybe people want to get out but they just don’t know how,” he said. “Maybe they will see the show and think, ‘Wow. I want to do that,’ and that’s all it takes. If I can have that kind of impact on just one person, that would be so great.”
The trio were pretty half-hearted when they tossed their names in the hat for the race reality series in early 2019.
“It was kind of a watercooler office joke,” Bacon said. “Then things started happening really quickly.”
After some phone call interviews with casting agents and producers, they were called to television studios in Burbank, California, in the summer of 2019. There were 15 possible teams competing for four slots. They got one of them.
A week before departure in early October 2019, race producers gave them a packing list that noted things could be chilly. “Subarctic,” they said. The team started guessing. Greenland? Russia? Antarctica? They didn’t know where they would be racing until they boarded a plane in Burbank. Race organizers took their phones. For the next 29 days they had no connection with the outside world. Even their partners and families did not know where they were.
The race itself was physically demanding, Bacon said. On last week’s, teams climbed, pedaled bikes, drove trucks, rode horses, paddled boats and sprinted through complicated courses. Meeting the times set by the adventure race organizers meant the racers could not afford for anything to go wrong, Bacon said. In the first episode, something did for Team Southeast Asia: a bus does not arrive on a mountaintop to help the team meet the day’s deadline to earn points.
“A lot of good decisions need to be made and a lot of things need to go your way,” Bacon said. “It became evident very quickly it was tough to consistently beat the daily course times.”
During the race, each team had no clue how the other teams across the world were faring — or even where they were racing. In many ways, last week’s premiere revealed as much about the race to them as it did for first-time viewers.
In the days following last week’s episode, the trio was inundated with calls and messages from friends far and wide.
“It’s just so humbling to think about all the people who are rooting for us,” Bacon said. “I think this is really galvanizing our broad community in Colorado. Just this outpouring of energy and enthusiasm, it’s so stinking fun.”
One more sneaky cast from a nosy reporter with a disdain for secrets: Didn’t you just buy a new truck, Dave?
“It’s a used truck!” Bacon said, deflecting. “But really, I think every one of the people involved in this race left feeling like we had won just by having the opportunity to do something like this. It was such a gift and it was such a privilege.”
“Race to the Center of the Earth” runs on Mondays on the National Geographic Channel.