Three tribes gather in a clearing, groggy from spending a night sleeping on the ground. They know what the day will bring: multiple challenges followed by tribal councils where they vote each other out of the game. The winner will be named the Sole Survivor.
Among the contestants are some familiar faces: Survivor: Millenials vs. Generation X contestants Adam Klein and Sunday Burquest, Survivor runners-up Susie Smith and Carolyn Rivera, Survivor: Cagayan alpha male LJ McKanas and John Raymond, a first boot from Survivor: Thailand.
The chipper host, John Vataha, describes the challenge: one member of each tribe will hold a rope attached to a basket, while the opposing tribe members will toss logs into the baskets weighing them down. The first team to drop their basket will lose, and will head to tribal council. (Full editorial disclosure: PEOPLE’s Steve Helling was holding one of the ropes, and singlehandedly lost that challenge for the tribe.)
But this is not Survivor.
This is the Durham Warriors Survival Challenge, a Survivor-like contest where hundreds of the show’s fans gather in rural Maine to watch contestants try their hand at the show. During the event, 24 contestants, including six former Survivor cast members, play a version of the long-running CBS show.
The event raises money for the charity Durham Warrior Project, which works with organizations like the Wounded Warriors Project to aid veterans and active duty military.
The four-day competition is held annually at the farm of Survivor: Gabon winner Bob Crowley: other Survivor royalty like Richard Hatch and Ethan Zohn mingle with the audience while watching the challenges and tribal councils.
By all accounts, this four-day extravaganza is the closest that Survivor fans can get to competing in the real thing. The challenges are so close to those of the real show that Survivor producers have consulted with the event’s producers. After tribes lose, they have a few minutes to strategize and vote someone out. Then the cycle repeats itself at a breakneck pace.
The event even goes through great pains to cast diverse people from different backgrounds. (Where else can you imagine a New York City dogwalker, Dan Rodaire, strategizing with Nick Hartmann, a data scientist from Boston? Or Massachusetts-based Digital Marketing manager Laura Holzwasser bonding with Illinois dental assistant Jessica Tooley?)
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The Survivors tell PEOPLE that it was especially gratifying to see the game through the eyes of the show’s superfans. “I really enjoyed watching fans experience Survivor,” says Sunday Burquest. “It reminded me of getting the chance to do something really cool with my kids. I believe they truly caught a glimpse of the real game!”
To be clear, this is not an easy experience, and a medic has to be on site for any injuries. (Nothing serious, but everyone came away with bumps and bruises. After a particularly brutal balance challenge, Chicago teacher Katie Brocato was walking funny for the rest of the day.)
Now in its fifth year, the number of DWSC applicants has increased, both in numbers and in quality. In last week’s challenge, Cosmopolitan writer Alex Rees squared off against local anchorman Wayne Harvey. (In true Survivor fashion, neither of them told the PEOPLE writer what they did for a living.)
While many of the contestants have tried out for the CBS show, others have never found the right time to throw their hat in the ring … although a few of them seem custom made for the show. (Nick Cloutier, an athletic, 28-year-old non-profit social media coordinator, seems like a shoo-in to play the real game, while Kala Grant is unable to play the CBS show because she’s Canadian.)
And despite the fact that these contestants had just met each other, there was a surprising amount of emotion: when Alabama single mom Candice Bodiford had to vote out an ally, the tears were real.
The game’s high point: a surprise nighttime tribal council that resulted in a very close vote of 6-5. (It was a high point for many people, but clearly not for PEOPLE’s Steve Helling, who was voted out in 11th place. He’s still salty about it.)
As the game wound down, Survivor contestants in the crowd commented on the brutal and aggressive gameplay. While the contestants were novices, many of them had experience playing online and real-time Survival-type games. (One contestant, Austin Trupp, actually holds his own semester-long Survivor competitions in Maryland. While he was an early favorite to win the game, he was blindsided by the season’s youngest contestant, Liza Stratton, a 21-year-old camp counselor.)
After the lying, scheming and gameplay, all 24 contestants gathered at Crowley’s home for a barbecue, where they discussed how their game went awry and vowed to do better if they ever played again.
“The worst part of playing the DWSC was trying to re-enter real life after finishing the game,” says the game’s runner-up David Holdworth, a 47-year-old executive. “It requires every ounce of your strength, endurance and mental capacity. And it was awesome!”
“I got everything I wanted out of the experience and so, so much more,” adds Bethany Sass, a 25-year-old Chicago accountant who won the game. “I was so afraid that I would fail, but I exceeded my own expectations!”