Oh, so that's what cardio's for. One would think after watching MTV's The Challenge that a half-ton of muscle mass is all a guy really needs to pull out a win, but as the Free Agents season finale proved, sometimes the ability to lightly jog uphill can come in handy as well.

One of the things that has always set The Challenge apart from other reality competitions is how legitimately difficult its final competition always is. Whereas Survivor or Big Brother might do a simple endurance challenge—'stand on this log'; 'hold out a handful of nickels'—The Challenge producers put contestants through a physical gauntlet only trained athletes might attempt. If we're being real, the sheer unpleasantness of these end runs sometimes skirt the limits of watchability and this year was no different. On the bright side, at least there wasn't an eating challenge?

That Zach proved to be a "300-lb baby" was the episode's biggest surprise (a Bananas/Laurel victory has been a virtual guarantee since the start), but his complaints—and screams of torment—weren't unfounded. First Zach's canoe capsized and he nearly drowned in whitewater rapids after hitting his head on a rock, and then things got bad. In the second stage he and Nany lost time after struggling to put together a geography-based puzzle (is Oaxaca north of Vancouver?), but in the third stage, which involved a straight-up ludicrous hike up a mountain, his entire body began cramping and seizing up in pain. Zach claimed it was due to altitude and the lack of oxygyen coursing through his behemoth-exoskeleton of a body, but he also seemed to think it had a lot to do with Laurel shouting in his face about not dragging her down.

Probably the most hilariously brutal leg of this five-part race was when the remaining six players finally arrived at their tents after a long and arduous day only to be told that they then had to pedal 25-miles on stationary bicycles. Zach of course complained, but Nany threatened to quit the show (a rarely heard producer tried to convince her to stay) before getting back on the bike and openly sobbing while pedaling. The stronger players finished this task in a mere 90 minutes (!) while Nany and Devyn just sat on their bikes crying in darkness for hours and hours. And then, three hours after finishing and going to bed, T.J. unzipped their tents to wake them up for their final sprint up an icy volcano.

After reminding contestants that they wouldn't receive ANY prize money for quitting the competition, all six, remarkably, dragged themselves up that volcano. Even Zach, who repeatedly claimed he was going to die (and how great was that righteous flashback of how awful he'd been to Sam when she fell behind in the final few seasons back?), finally made it to the top for third place. Devyn was so overcome with the trauma of it all that her tears continued during even her on-camera confessionals. But it all came down to the cumulative time spent during all five legs, and in that respect there was no competition: Bananas beat Johnny and Laurel beat Nany (which, to be fair, was only by 9 minutes).

"I could do that," might be a common viewer boast when watching a reality TV competition, but I don't think anybody would ever say that about The Challenge's final runs. For a show so dense with partying, hooking up, and interpersonal drama, this series demonstrates an almost touchingly old-fashioned devotion to physical achievement not seen outside of, like, professional sports or the damn Olympics. But with the amount of time these kids spend in the gym, it makes sense that they're up for anything. Well, maybe not cardio.

GREAT SEASON, THE CHALLENGE. Come back soon, you beautiful beast of a show.

[Image via MTV]

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