NatGeo’s Race To The Center Of The Earth is a pretty straightforward concept. The title tells the story. It’s a massive race and the course is… this planet. The teams all started in different corners of the globe — North America, Southeast Asia, South America, and Russia — before arriving in Hawaii for the finale.
Though the production team is the same as The Amazing Race, this show hems close to NatGeo’s evolving ethos of cultural respect and seems more authentic than its predecessor. It’s a travel competition with real stakes and drama that never feels manufactured.
The finale of Race to the Center of the Earth aired last night and it lived up to the hyperbolic energy that’s surrounded the show’s first season. Two days before the air date, we talked with two of the competitors, James Batey and Autumn Fryer, about the production process, challenges, and the (very intense) finale. Check the convo below, but be warned: Spoilers abound!
It takes a lot for me to be impressed by a show concept in the travel space. And I love this idea. How did the invite to be on the show come about for each of you?
James: I found an ad online. I saw that they were casting for this show. And when I saw what they were asking of the contestants, this was the perfect show for me. If I could make a reality TV show, this is what I would script. Unknown physical challenges across the world? All kinds of different sports and vehicles and travel and cultural immersion? All that stuff is exactly what I’m looking for in terms of a show to either watch or participate in. And so I knew that I had to make this happen, as much as I could. So when I saw the ad, I just applied through the website and got a couple of teachers together who I knew felt that same way.
Jay is our school’s outdoor ed teacher and Marlina is our language teacher, both really accomplished rock climbers and mountaineers and just living in the outdoors for the last 15 to 20 years. I thought the three of us together could be really competitive in a show like this.
Autumn: For me, I was contacted through Instagram by a casting director and they were like, “You want to hear about this upcoming show that we have? I’d like to get on a call with you.” And he mentioned National Geographic and it perked my ears up. I was like, “Oh, say no more, man.” I was like, “That sounds awesome.” NatGeo’s known for great locations and beautiful places and epic, epic spots — like the stuff that they shoot all the time. And so I instantly was in for it. I didn’t really need to hear much, just that it was an adventure show. As soon as I heard about it, I was just in. And he’s like, “Put your team together and get back to me in 12 hours.” So I thought of like rock climbing buddies and people that I get outside with all the time and people that I know their like physical capabilities and we kind of went for it.
With these shows that claim to be adventure-driven, sometimes there’s a lot of fixing that goes on behind the scenes or it seems like it’s constantly kinetic but it’s a lot of “hurry up and wait.” Other times, they really are incredibly nimble and incredibly grueling. What was the pace of this show? How difficult did it really prove to be?
James: It was incredibly difficult and the pace was literally nonstop. I was just so impressed with the crew, both from a pre-production standpoint and shooting. We almost never waited for the crew for a moment. It was as fast as we can move was as fast as they were going to catch it. And it was like that for, I would say eight to 16 hours every day that we went. We’re moving as fast as we possibly can. It might be slowed by public transportation or by traffic or anything like that, but when you’re trekking or when you’re biking or when you’re climbing, it’s as fast as you can move, they’re going to keep up with you and they’re going at your pace, which was just incredibly impressive. These cameramen running next to us with a 30-pound camera on their shoulder while we’re sprinting — they did it every day.
Autumn: And they’ll pass you and circle you and get in front of you. And you’re at the trailhead and all of a sudden here comes these feet and you’re like, “How?” It was so impressive, what they can do. Situational things would come up, transportation things and whatever that would slow you down, but it was definitely a fast pace. And I honestly felt like we had to dig pretty deep. I haven’t done half of the things I did on that show. I’d never canoed. I’ve kayaked twice, but like fun kayaking, not like race kayaking. It was just… everything was a lot different on the show versus what you think you’re training for.
What were the things for each of you that felt really outside of your core capacities, physically?
Autumn: For me, it was the bike ride. For most of my life, you do like bike riding outside your house or on streets and stuff. I’ve never downhill mountain biked with big, chunky rocks in the trail and stuff like that. And that was difficult for me. And if you don’t ride a bike, it’s not comfortable riding a bike for that long. That was hard. It was really hard.
James: And biking was a huge part. There was a lot of biking on all of our stages. For me, it was climbing. We had a section, I’m not a climber, I’ve never really climbed outdoors. Both my teammates are exceptional climbers. And so we had a section where we had to climb a 5:11 pitch was our challenge. And both of them got up it probably in less than 60 seconds and it took me 25 minutes of strenuous work. And that humbles you when you get to that spot where you are proficient in all these different skills, but then you hit something that you’ve either never done before or is very technical and you are not practiced at it. And then you have to get through it, anyways. And that’s kind of the crux in this show, I think.
From my team, Marlina had never really swum before and had a fear of open water, but she had to get across that water. So it’s like figuring out how to put yourself in that position where you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re in over your head, but you have your teammates to lean on and to kind of push yourself against. And then you’re going to go before them and do something you’ve never done before, which is a really cool thing to feel as well.
Autumn: And to like get on the other side and see that you did it, no matter how rough it was, to complete the things, it’s nice feeling.
Do you guys have memories from shooting or stories that you tell? When you come back home and you’re back in your regular mix and someone says, “Give me the one story; give me the one craziest thing.” I know that’s always a really hard thing for a traveler, but what’s the one for each of you?
Autumn: For me, it was getting caught up in the unexpected civil unrest that Chile went through when we were down there, that was a reality check that there’s a lot going on outside this show and we’re just like here to do the show and there’s a lot of other factors that could stop the show. I feel like that was something for us that we didn’t plan for.
James: For us, it was a little more nitty-gritty than that. I guess the areas that we were traveling through were snake-infested, I think Cobra deadly snake-infested. And it was a big concern for the safety crew every day because we were trudging through the jungle and they’re living in these pits and we’re kicking through all this debris. And so we’re constantly looking out for cobras and snakes. And when we rafted the river in Thailand, we finished and we set up our tent and the crew had left for the night. So it was just us there with one safety guy sleeping in his own tent. As we’re getting ready to get in our tent, we see this huge Cobra just rip across the river and then hit the ground 15 feet from our tent and slither into the brush. And then for us, it’s just like, “Oh God, hold on. I guess we’re not getting out of the tent tonight. We’re going to post up and snuggle up until the sun comes back up.” Because this is a reality that there are cobras out there and they might get you.
So for us, it was just kind of dealing with the surroundings and I guess, one more story with the same idea’s that there are unexploded ordinances in Laos as well and Northern Vietnam. So we had to be careful if we went off-trail or we got a little bit lost because there might be landmines or bombs have yet to go off that cause trouble up there. And these are just things that we don’t often think about when we are adventuring here in the states that are really serious and that can negatively affect you pretty quickly.
So now let’s spoil this sh*t. Give me some scoop. Assume that everyone’s seen it, that the finale has aired. What do you think and how were you ripped off and what grudges are you going to take to the grave?
James: Do you mind if I start?
Autumn: No! I want you to start, James.
James: I’m flexing right now because we won. We took it down. The teachers from Seattle we’re able to finish and to win the million dollars.
James: Thank you. It was such an incredible cap to just an insane journey. And my biggest takeaway from those last two days is just how fucking intense it was. It was definitely the two most intense days of my life, where I was just dialed and focused and wasn’t making jokes to the camera. I wasn’t trying to have conversations with people. I was just so dialed in and focused on winning a million dollars and not making a mistake that I remember just my whole body being tensed for 48 hours straight. And then seeing the buoy, pulling up his crab pot with a million dollars cash inside of it and just having this release and this joy and this feeling of accomplishment that was unlike anything I’ve ever had in my life.
That was a really incredible moment.
Autumn: Yeah, I don’t think — well, I did see you in the airport after, so I did say congrats, but congrats again, dude. So happy for you guys.
Autumn: Yeah, our team… I medically withdrew from the competition. We were downhill mountain biking and I wiped out really bad once and I put my arm down really strange and we were, it was in Hawaii so there are all these volcanic rocks everywhere, and I smashed my hand into one of these volcanic rocks and get back on my bike and we continue down the hill. My hand hurts like hell already. And I wipe out again and I crash my same exact hand and hit my jaw, my hand. We had pads, but I totally hit rock.
At that point, I couldn’t hold my handlebars. Like we’re going downhill and I can’t put the pressure into my handlebars on my bike anymore and apply my brakes. You know what I mean? I just can’t squeeze my hand. So I fought with that for like two hours, maybe a little less. I don’t really actually know the exact time of it. But it felt like two hours had gone by, walking my bike down this hill and trying to figure out how I can manage my hand and whatnot. What else was going to come for the day? I didn’t even know what else lies ahead with how much I’m going to need to use my hand or what I’m going to need my hand for.
Part of the show was that if one person gets injured, the other two can continue on. And so I didn’t want to continue holding up my team and hindering their chances of getting it done in time. I couldn’t continue, so I withdrew early. So James knows way more about the finale and the second day than I do. But the first day, it was grueling. I mean, it was tough.
James: That was a downhill mountain bike off the summit of Haleakala Volcano on Maui, which… people can’t do that. This race allowed us to do things that you can’t do, no matter how much money you have or desire, unless you were part of this production. So we get to the summit of this mountain and we just downhill mountain bike for two hours, straight downhill on volcanic ash because it’s 10,000 vertical feet of downhill on technical terrain. Stuff like that was part of “stage two.” Stage one was the travel, the public transportation, traffic, and stage two was just “go.”
Autumn: It’s just way more go.
James: It’s all go the whole time, working hard, punching yourselves, relying on your teammates and just doing everything that you practiced in stage one, all the repelling, all the biking, all the trekking that you did is all now, “show what you know and show your work” in stage two.
Autumn: I was just going to say that, I feel like stage one is like a preparation for what you need in stage two. And there’s no time for tears or fear or any of it. It’s “go time.” So buckle up and you just go for it and hope it all comes out the way you hope. But injuries are a bitch.
Autumn: I’m all recovered now. Everything’s great. And honestly, the experience and the show itself is a win. You got to do amazing things. You got to see amazing places and meet amazing people. And that for me, and sometimes I feel like you lose, not you lose, but you learn more in your failures than in your wins. And so, it’s all around, it’s good.
Last question: We always try to make sure that we have something practical for everyone. Did each of you see someplace that you want to get back to or that you would tell people to visit?
Autumn: Two towns in Argentina called El Chalten and El Calafate. They’re just really two climbing towns. The Fitzroy is right in the range of Patagonia. So you see Fitzroy and these huge glacier lakes that have like the prettiest blue water you’ve ever seen. You literally just like go anywhere throughout those towns and you just cry off of how pretty it is.
I’ve never seen a prettier place. It was breathtaking. So those two are my spots I’d recommend people and those are the two that are on my list to go back and visit with some real time to enjoy them.
James: And for me, it’s Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. It’s such a unique location and it’s just so stunningly beautiful that it’s worth a visit for anybody.That’s my go-to recommendation for people asking me.
Autumn: It looked awesome.
Race to the Center of the Earth is streaming now on Disney+