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David Zietsma can look forward to hacking through the jungles of Borneo with a machete and picking leeches off his teammates in this year's Eco-Challenge Sabah 2000, a 500-kilometre expedition race.

Zietsma, 29, from Toronto, will captain Team Subaru Outback, one of a record five Canadian teams entered in the sixth Eco-Challenge that begins on Sunday.

The Eco-Challenge is held in a remote part of the world each year and it couldn't get much more remote than Borneo, the third-largest island in the world, located southwest of the Philippines and southeast of the Malay Peninsula.

Seventy-eight teams of four, which must have at least one woman, will trek and mountain bike through rainforest, paddle outrigger canoes, rappel down waterfalls and even scuba dive to one checkpoint. Many of the teams won't finish.

The fastest team, which wins $55,000 (U.S.), will need at least six days to finish. If one member of a team has to drop out, that team is disqualified, though it can continue to race unofficially.

"It's not so much about who is the best athlete or who can ride their bike the fastest," Zietsma said. "It is who can work as a team effectively and persevere through more than anybody else.

"You know going into every race that things are going to go wrong and you know after the first two days you're going to be dead tired and sore and not really thinking straight.

"Once you learn as a team how to look after each other and maintain focus until the finish line, then you can go into any one of these races not knowing the country and still know that you have a good chance."

The race conditions will be hot and wet. The teams will grab snippets of sleep when they can and eat and navigate on the move.

And the leeches? They're just the Borneo equivalent of Canada's mosquitoes "except they suck more blood," Zietsma said.

"That's not the worst thing we have to deal with. There's also something called hookworm. If you're walking through water, they have tiny eggs that can wash in through your socks and shoes. They can get under your skin if you have any scrapes or cuts or blisters. The eggs will plant in your skin and grow and in a month you'll have a little larva about an inch long coming out of your arm."

The 2000 race will be Zietsma's fifth. His first was in British Columbia in 1996. The race has since been held in Australia, Morocco and Argentina.

Zietsma, who runs his own business offering 36-hour versions of the Eco-Challenge in Canada, is hoping for a top-10 finish for his team that includes Lawrence Foster of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Richard Browne of Toronto and Nancy Dassie of North Vancouver, B.C.

Foster and Browne were members of Zietsma's 1999 squad that finished the race but didn't officially place in the standings after Laura Walsh of Calgary had to drop out at the 168-kilometre mark because of complications from an ovarian cyst. It had been discovered the day before the team left for Argentina but the team decided to go ahead and monitor her condition through the race.

"When we had to make the decision to pull Laura out of the race, we were all in tears," Zietsma said. "It's such a tough thing to do. We had so much riding on it and we had hopes of finishing in the top 10."

Zietsma's team has certain rules:

Monitor your teammates to see if they need help;

Always accept help that is offered;

Minimize breaks and maximize pace;

There is no room for individual egos.

The team carries mostly food and a few other items: head lamps, maps, first-aid kit, compass, whistle, knife, emergency blanket and the machete. All teams carry emergency radios in case they get into trouble and will be disqualified from the race the moment they use them.

Each member of Zietsma's team is responsible for his or her own fitness level. They competed in five 36-hour races to get sharp for Borneo.

The thrill for all the team members is discovering how far they can push themselves, Zietsma said.

"Reaching the finish line in a big adventure race is such an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment because you've come up against totally unrealistic challenges," he said.

"When you really push the pace and push the limits, your true colours come out. You can't hide any more. You've got to dig down and show what you're made of."


Canadians in the Eco-Challenge Sabah 2000 that starts Sunday in Borneo: Team Subaru Outback: David Zietsma, Toronto; Nancy Dassie, North Vancouver, B.C.; Lawrence Foster, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.; Richard Browne, Toronto. Team Advil Canada: Bob Faulkner, Rob Hartvikson, Cary Evans, Adrian Rothwell, all of Vancouver. Team Sunlight: Jeff MacInnis, Yvonne Camus, Kevin Wallace, all of Mississauga; Scott Ford, Toronto. Team Ninth Life: Sandra Rondzik-Popik, Toronto; Michael Popik, Toronto; Paul de Larzac, Unionville, Ont.; Jarek Stelmach, Toronto. Team VPD Ralph Stringer, Joanne Wild, James Flewelling, Peter Lafred, all of Vancouver.