DURHAM — They stood in the blazing heat, 24 people from all over the country, balancing on barrels, using an oversize block to answer multiple-choice questions, running circles with two 15-pound bags of sand slung around their necks.
Next up: A new maze lined with electrified cow fencing.
All 24 were there to win. Bob Crowley could relate, a little.
“Like I say, I’m not competitive unless I think I’m losing,” Crowley, 64, said with a smile.
Friday kicked off the third annual Durham Warriors Survival Challenge, part fundraiser, part homage to one of the most popular shows on TV, hosted by “Survivor” Season 17 winner and Maine native Crowley.
More than 60 people from 25 states competed for the 18 challenge slots, the other six taken up by “Survivor” show alums. Through grueling challenges and a series of tribal council votes, they’ll winnow down to a sole winner on Sunday.
The public is welcome to come to Crowley’s Maine Forest Yurts, the event’s home, to watch.
Participants paid or raised at least $300 to take part, with the funds going to the Durham Warriors Project, a nonprofit that covers the costs for disabled veterans and other nonprofit groups to stay in one of the yurts.
They eagerly signed up to rough it (they got only a blanket outdoors Thursday night.) To starve, at least a little (lucky winners in one challenge got to split two doughnuts between six people.) And to tangle with mud, water, each other and electrified fencing.
This group includes players from Vermont, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, California and four from Maine.
“This is about as close a cross section of American society as you can get. Half men, half women, all of them are huge ‘Survivor’ fans and they are playing the game,” Crowley said. “The show touches a nerve. I think everybody wants to go on an adventure in their life.”
Mark Shipley and wife, Christy, from California were two of more than a dozen volunteers helping at the event Friday for the third time. Mark Shipley played in it the first year.
“Birthday and Christmas, all I said is, ‘I want money so I can go to Maine,'” Christy Shipley said. “I tell people, it’s like being on the set of your favorite television show and watching it unfold in front of you.”
Linda Townsend, a teacher from Buxton who played last year and returned this time to volunteer, called the experience one of the best in her life. Her former tribe, which bonded over challenges and meals of crunchy rice sprinkled with Doritos, still talks once a week.
“It’s the next best thing if you can’t get on the show,” Townsend said.
Peggy Crowley said it has turned into a “great family project,” with she and Bob’s three grown children, David, John and Page, all actively involved. Year-round, there are Monday night conference calls with volunteers plotting the next year’s challenges, twists and woodsy locations.
“Easily, there are hundreds and hundreds — if not thousands and thousands — of man-hours, woman-hours (to pull this off),” Bob Crowley said.
John Vataha of Arizona, the event’s Jeff Probst-like emcee, does much of the planning. Kevin Thurber of Topsham builds many of the sets.
Kathy Dubar is a Bath Iron Works engineer behind challenges such as the electrified maze, Crowley said.
“If it involves ropes or frustration, Kathy Dubar is in charge,” he said.
Each of the six “Survivor” alums — Brooke Struck, Jill Behm, Jamie Newton, Joel Klug, Troy Roberston and Nina Poersch — also volunteered their time and flew themselves here for the long weekend.
“We’re giving them free lodging — in the dirt,” Crowley said.
Crowley was a Gorham physics teacher when he won the sole “Survivor” title. Now retired, he still wears his trademark bow tie and still looks and sounds the same as he did on TV — and he said he’d do it again in an instant.
“They’ve called me up five times,” Crowley said. Each time, he’s said yes, including for the recent “Blood vs. Water” season. Each time, he didn’t make the cut.
After the last call, “I said, ‘When you’re serious, call me,'” he said. “I’m packed and ready to go. I probably wouldn’t leave right now, but I would leave Sunday afternoon.”
Go and do
Durham Warriors Survival Challenge
When: Friday through Sunday, Aug. 28-30. Watch “Survivor”-like challenges and games of skill from 8 a.m. to noon, and 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday, and 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Maine Forest Yurts, Durham. Park at 491 Auburn Pownal Road to be driven to the challenge site.
Bring: Chair, sunscreen, bug spray. Snacks are for sale on site. Donations to the nonprofit Durham Warriors Project are accepted.
There will be a celebration cookout at 491 Auburn Pownal Road at 3 p.m. Sunday, as well as a pop-up museum of “Survivor” memorabilia from several seasons of the show from 3 to 6 p.m.