The Wilderman Offroad Triathlon was my first swim, bike, run triathlon and it is a full IronMan distance. I’ve actually only done 2 other triathlon races, both being the Grantsburg Adventure Tri which is much shorter and in the form of bike, paddle, run. The Wilderman was something I had known was out there and was one of those bucket list things. I signed up for it well in advance after finding out some other local folks had signed up and figured I would join them. I also had planned to be more specifically prepared for it, but that part didn’t really happen. Regardless, I decided to give it a go anyway.
A few notes about my Wilderman race report…
Structure – I split the report up into 3 main segments… Swim, Bike and Run of course. I usually include a course overview before diving into my reports, but I’ve put the specific segment course overviews with each segment.
Training – I only swam 6 times prior to the race to try and learn how to swim as I hadn’t swam anything more than the length of a hotel swimming pool in the past. I wasn’t too worried about the bike as that is my strong point. That being said, I hadn’t put in the miles this year that I normally would have. My bike training had been limited to a group interval ride on Tuesday nights and I’d try to commute home from the shop one other night a week. If I was lucky, I was able to squeeze in a 3rd ride somewhere in there. In fact, I did have a couple weeks back to back in June that my only ride was the Tuesday night group ride. I did have some concerns about my endurance. As far as running goes, not much. I only had 111 miles in for the year prior to the race, which was made up of mostly random runs.
Reference Links – Strava files and other reference links at the bottom of the report…
Podcast – It’s been awhile since I’ve kicked out a podcast, but I do plan to record an audio version of this at some point. It will likely be awhile before I get to it and I would encourage you to read through it first as you’ll likely get more out of the podcast if you read the written report first.
TYR Hurricane 1 Full Arm & Leg Wetsuit
TYR Nose Plugs – I picked these up after trying to swim a few times and struggled to keep water out of my nose.
TYR Swim Cap – I had picked up a yellow swim cap and my wife asked me to use this so she could try to spot me out in the lake. She was concerned about my lack of swimming.
Aqua Sphere Kaiman Goggles
Bike Shorts – I figured I’d skip having to change shorts at TA1
A little note regarding my swimming prep…
I had only swam 6 times prior to this… People asked if that was just specific to training for this race, assuming I’ve been a swimmer in the past or had some experience, but the answer is no. I mean, I’ve played at the lake or hotel swimming pool, but that’s it. I bought a wetsuit 6 weeks before the race and was able to get 6 swims in at the lake. These swims were basically back and forth across the beach area while my wife and kids played. I really struggled with the breathing part and it actually freaked me out a bit to get my face under water and get a breathing rhythm down. Seemed like I would get into a panic as I couldn’t time my breaths. By the 5th or 6th swim, I finally gained some confidence I could probably get it figured out and make it through race day, but I knew I would be slow.
I share that because too many people worry about being perfectly prepared for something before doing it and then end up not doing a whole lot of things. You’ll never be perfectly prepared for something and maybe a swim is not the best thing to go into under prepared, but I wasn’t going to let it get in my way. People thought I was joking when I said I’ll have 2.4 miles to learn how to swim on race day, but I was dead serious. Some may think that could be a bit arrogant, but I believe it’s more of an “I’m going to go do it” attitude vs “I’m going to give it a try attitude”. I actually started to figure it out about half way through the 2.4 mile race and swam really well the last half mile.
It was an out and back course that required 2 laps for racers doing the full course. Full course would be 2.4 miles. My gps came out to 2.65 miles and I’m guessing a bit of the difference is made up from my course wandering. I split the course up into 4 segments… Out Lap 1, Back Lap 1, Out Lap 2 and Back Lap 2.
It was a beach start kind of… We were in the swim area, some up on the beach, etc… I should have started back up on the beach, because I got run over a bit in the first 100m by folks that started behind me. I can’t imagine what an IronMan swim start feels like with a much larger group of people. I didn’t panic, but I got a little uneasy and needed to relax. I think I also took off too fast, was inefficient and worked way too hard. You can see it in my swim times. My first segment was actually just as fast as my last segment where I was swimming pretty good. Regardless, by the time I made it to the first turnaround, I was off the back.
After the turn around, I started feeling it and was wondering if I was going to make a second lap. I had to float and backstroke a couple of times, but I was starting to get better at swimming. I was also starting to feel my calves tighten up, which was a little scary. Cramping on the bike sucks, but in the water it is scary. One of my calves cramped up hard as I was finishing my first lap and yelling my name out to the volunteer. I had to stop and get it to relax. This happened a couple of times on the 3rd leg of the swim (the out section of lap 2) and I would float on my back and relax till it went away. You can see my 3rd segment was the slowest.
Cramps aside, I was getting better at the swim and getting into a better rhythm with my breathing. I was gaining some confidence now as well. I made the turn at the buoy for my final segment back to the beach and wanted to finish the swim strong. I do think I took a couple of points to stop and relax my muscles a bit, but I had a nice rhythm going for the most part and even passed a couple of swimmers in the last segment. That being said, when I looked across the transition area after coming out of the water, it seemed like there were maybe only a handful of bikes left in the transition zone and I knew I had a lot of ground to make up to get in the race.
I was also feeling pretty spent as I made my way up to transition from the beach and was starting to wonder how I was going to ride 112 miles off road… My longest swim to this point was in the 30 minute range, but that was only 50 to 100m at a time across the front of the beach swim area where I would stand up at each end.
Anyway, with a race like this… you just take one step at a time, so I just focused on getting transitioned to the bike and I would worry about pedalling once I got on it…
Trek Checkpoint SL6
-Rear axle adjusted all the way rearward
-40mm Kenda Flintridge Tubeless Tires
-Bontrager clip on aero bars
3 full bottles of water/nutrition inside the frame
1 storage bottle with multi-tool and CO2 cartridges under downtube
1 storage bottle with nutrition on top tube
1 mini frame pump
1 saddlebag with 2 spare tubes
The bike course came out to 111.7 miles and was made up of 2 laps. It did have about 12 total miles of asphalt, about 40 miles of atv trail and the rest was gravel. The course also consisted of 2 laps to complete the full course. The totals I just gave you were for the 2 combined laps. There was a fair amount of elevation. Training Peaks is telling me just under 5,000 feet and Strava is telling me a little over 6,000 feet.
Lap 1 – TA1 to Aid 1
This section felt like more of a preamble and then the real grit of the racing would start past Aid 1. Don’t get me wrong, leaving that campground into the headwind sucked as I was getting my wits about me and settling into the bike, but it was mostly flat. I actually didn’t drink or eat anything for 15 minutes or so. I believe it was either Dave Scott or Mark Allen (IronMan legends) on one of Lance Armstrong’s Podcasts that said give yourself a little bit of time on the bike to settle in before you start loading up your gut. I have no experience with this transition, but figured it might be sound advice and gave it a try.
I was tired after the swim, but it felt good to start spinning my legs. I could see another rider out in front of me and I started to reel them in. Not very fast, but slowly gaining. The start of this ride was into a headwind until I turned east. It was loose gravel up till that point as well. The east section was pavement also, until making the turn back to the north onto more loose gravel about 8 miles in. Heading anything South or West was terrible as there was a strong wind coming out of the Southwest.
The road turned north shortly after and I was able to pick up the pace. I also passed by a few other racers in this section. Aid 1, also where my main bike drop bag was, came up around mile 12 at about 40 minutes of time into the bike. I just road through as I had everything on me that I needed at this point and the bike ride was just getting started.
Lap 1 – Aid 1 to V2
A little over a mile later the course took a right headed east on more loose gravel and then back to the north again in another couple of miles. The next turn to the east at around mile 15 would turn into 2 track and start snaking around the fields. There were a couple of mud holes and some scattered rocks, but it was still fast riding. Eventually I headed into the woods at mile 17 on some rougher and more narrow ATV style 2 track, that would drop us into the Pembina Gorge to the first river crossing.
This first 2 track is where a mountain bike could have been handy to carry more speed as the 2 track was a little rough. It had a steady washout that zig zagged back and forth as it headed downhill into the gorge. I’m confident in my bike handling and let the bike rip with just a little bit of caution. It was the sections like this that I was happy about running the 40mm tires. Not to mention I was only running about 32 psi in them and felt like I had a lot of control and grip. I let the bike go and bombed down the 2 track fairly fast. I caught another 1 or 2 people toward the bottom, before hitting the river crossing and then a couple more coming out of the river crossing.
Lap 1 – V2 to V3
It was mostly climbing for nearly 2 miles out of the bottom of the Pembina Gorge on somewhat rough or loose atv trail. I think I caught a couple more racers on the climb out of the river at the bottom of the gorge. Around mile 20, a jug of water was sitting out after coming through a rough off road trail access parking area. I skipped the water fill thinking I was good till the Aid 2. I had 3 bottles of fluids on the bike and had planned 2.5 to 3 hours to Aid 2 and figured that was enough, and I still had a bottle and a half left.
Lap 1 – V3 to V5
The pace was starting to slow a bit at this point as the trail became more twisty, active and just more work to navigate. We were headed generally east at this point, but it was tree covered in the gorge, which made that Southwest wind across the open fields irrelevant. I came up on a few other racers through this section and knew I was making up some ground and getting myself well into the main field of the race by now. I also ran out of my water and Infinite Nutrition mix and was wishing I had filled up at that water station a few miles back.
Around mile 24/25ish the trail actually becomes a bit flowy, but we were going uphill. Riding the other way would have been a riot on a mountain bike. It was still atv trail, but was fairly twisty and mostly working up hill. You come to a short section where there would be 2-way traffic as you take a loop up out of the gorge to another water station. This was around mile 27.5. It was starting to feel pretty hot at this point and the guy that came in behind me told the volunteers at the water fill to put him down for switching to the half course once he finished the first lap of the bike. He mentioned that he was more of a road rider and didn’t think he’d finish the 2nd bike lap before the cutoff, based on how things were going up to this point.
I filled up one water bottle with just water and a second bottle with my nutrition mix and got back on the trail.
Lap 1 – V5 to Aid 2
I can’t remember much of this section from the first lap, other than connecting a few dots as I came back through the short 2-way traffic section. I never came up on anybody during this section, but it’s technically a 2-way. Anyway, I think I was riding fairly strong through here and still feeling ok ,even though the heat seemed to be creeping in. This trail section ended with a fast gravel road downhill into Aid 2 where I refilled my bottles.
Lap 1 – Aid 2 to V6
It was later in this section that I had my first signs of fatigue start to settle in and slow me down… I left Aid 2 strong and caught a rider shortly after entering the trails. He stayed on my tail and might have even passed me back again. I can’t remember exactly. I remember having a rider behind and another out front as I hit the gravel roads again.
There was a mile or 2 section that was headed east where the strong southwest wind was nice before heading south where the pace slowed as that southwest wind became a deficit. There was another section of road headed east on actual pavement before heading south again and back down to the bottom of the gorge. A rider from Marquette, I believe by the name of Jay rolled up beside me and we chatted as we crossed the bridge over the river and then up the next climb a bit before he started to pull away from me. There were some riders up ahead that we were both gaining on, even though I was starting to feel some leg cramps creeping up on me.
I managed to grind my way up the hill, passing the riders I had seen up ahead. At the top of the hill was a left hand turn going south that took me back into the headwind and then another turn directly west. I could see another rider behind me that looked strong, he was one of the riders that I had passed at the top of the hill. I could also see Jay out in front of me.
Finally, a right hand turn with the wind to the back and I could get cracking again. This was all loose gravel road, the previous section a little rougher, but all gravel. This new section with the wind to the back was fast and I went into my aero bars and went with it. It looked I was putting a bigger gap on the rider behind me, but not sure if I was catching back up to Jay or not.
The course started heading downhill and downhill fast and I was out of the aero bars. I probably tend to trust the bike too much at speed and let it rip. My Garmin file shows a max speed of 48 mph, but the Training Peaks file says 42. Regardless, I let it rip down the gravel hill. At the bottom of the hill was a water fill station where I refilled my bottles before heading out again.
Lap 1 – V6 to Aid 1
It’s almost immediately uphill once making the left out of that water station. You actually pass right by Frost Fire, where the race eventually finishes at the end of the “run”. So close to the finish, yet so far away. I ground my way up the climb that was one of those climbs that you really had to pick your line if you were going to stand on it, as you risked spinning out. The gravel is really loose and you needed to find the worn in tire tread vs the 4 inch deep loose stuff that was more abundant.
At the top of this climb, the gravel continued into that headwind that was coming out of the southwest and it was a strong headwind. There were a few miles of pavement and I can remember being in my aero bars and only going 10 to 11 mph… At that point, I’m not sure how much good they were other than giving me a bit of a different posture to ride in for a while.
I was starting to really feel the fatigue and even pulled over on the side of the road at one point to stretch my legs and grab some food. I think it was Jay that passed me at that point and asked if I was ok. He must have still been at that previous water station when I left. I could see some other folks out in front of me as well.
Finally, I hit the turn off of the pavement onto the gravel that would head north to finish off the first lap of the bike portion. It was a bit of a mental game here… I was 5 hours into the ride, which I’ve been here many times before, but never after having swam 2.5 miles prior to jumping on the bike. It was hot now and I really haven’t been doing a lot of riding this year. In past years, I would have had multiple 3 or 4 hours rides in by this time of the year and a couple 100 mile mtb races in as well. However, this spring and summer have been a different story and I haven’t been doing any endurance riding and been lucky to get 3 rides in a week. Mostly 2 and some weeks only 1.
Anyway, I had another 50+ miles to go and had to repeat this entire thing all over before heading out on the “run”…
Lap 2 – Aid 1 to V2
I refilled my bottles and resupplied my nutrition on the bike from my drop bag. I had a Coke in my drop bag, but it was really warm. I tried drinking some of it, but ended up dumping most of it out. I should have used a cooler for my drop bag, which I’ve done in the past for other races. I’m really not sure why I didn’t for this one, but I was kind of scrambling to get ready for this one at the last minute.
Anyway, I rolled out and was on my way again. I was rolling a little more conservative this time, but felt ok. I wasn’t sure how the climbs were going to go on this second lap either. I tend to like big single lap or point to point courses, but I’ll admit… It was nice knowing what I had ahead of me.
Soon I was done wrapping around the Canola fields and dropping back into Pembina Gorge for round 2… I ripped down the washed out 2 track fairly quick as I knew what was coming this time. I was only running about 32 to 33 psi in my 40mm Kenda FlintRidge Tubeless Tires and my traction was great. It was by no means mtb traction, but I felt very confident all day with my tire set-up. These tires are a little heavy and feel like they drag a bit when it comes to rolling resistance, but I was happy with how they handled. I didn’t get crazy as I recognized I was fatiguing, but the trail sections were my place to make up ground on the other racers if I was going to do it. Keeping in mind, I knew I came out of the water with a big time deficit and I didn’t expect to be very fast on the “run” segment.
I hit the river crossing to find the volunteer waiting. I’d like to say she was probably enjoying her afternoon in the sun, but it was hot and I’m betting she probably had way better things to do than sit at this river crossing in the middle of nowhere under the hot afternoon sun. Thanks for being out there. I can’t remember if it was this trip across the river or the first trip across. Heck maybe it was both… Anyway, I half fell into the river one of the times. It was very fatiguing crossing the river and when I came out the other side, I just wanted to lay down. It’s amazing how walking across that will suck the life out of you.
It took me 27 minutes to cover this segment vs 21 minutes on the first lap.
Lap 2 – V2 to V3
The climb out this time was a little slower and I took it a bit more conservative. I didn’t know where I was at in the field and was just taking things at my own pace. I even walked 1 or 2 steeper grades that were loose to help mitigate leg cramps that were coming on.
It took me almost 20 minutes to cover this section vs 13 minutes on the first lap.
Lap 2 – V3 to V5
I stopped and filled my bottles from the water thermos at the beginning of this trail section. I squirted a little down my back as well. The heat was starting to stack up on me. I was also starting to struggle with getting my fluids down, in particular my nutrition mix or any water that wasn’t cold. I actually hadn’t even gone to the bathroom either yet and still had no signs of needing to.
I ripped the downhills and carried as much speed as I could through sections, but I did jump off and walk up a couple loose steeper grades as those are the ones that would start to fire up the leg cramps. The fresh cold water from the water thermos was a huge help.
At one point, I tried to roll up around the edge of a clayish mud hole, but slipped right in it. I fell down on my side into the weeds with my left leg and bike sliding into the hole. I had clay down my leg and was pretty sure it was poison ivy that I fell into. A little bit after that, I decided to stop and take my arm coolers and knee coolers off incase poison ivy was in them. I rolled them up and stuck them in my back jersey pocket.
A couple of days after the race, confirmed that it was poison ivy and I ended up with it all over my back, rear end and a few spots on my legs and ankles. The ankles might have come from the run though.
At some point, I came up on another racer by the name of Scott, that looked like he was just picking himself up and his bike was laying down. I wasn’t sure if he had stopped for a break or had actually went down. I stopped to check on him and picked his bike up and chatted for a minute or so to make sure he was ok before moving on. He jumped on and starting riding behind me, but I slowly rode away and didn’t see him again.
I rolled into V5 not too long after, where my wife and kids were waiting. Another racer Eric was also there refueling. My wife had kind of taken over the volunteer station. I guess volunteers had left to help track down a couple racers that were MIA and my wife said somebody at Aid 2 had told her to go ahead up to V5 and give whatever help the racers needed, since it was so hot. She actually had some bags of ice and gave some to Eric and I to dump down our neck and back. I guess she stayed at the station for a little while after that as well to help out the next couple racers that came through.
I took some time at the station, filled up my bottles with cold water from the thermos at the station. Eric asked if I had seen Scott and I told him about coming up on Scott and that he should be shortly behind me. Eric left out of the station just before me and then I got going. I didn’t realize it till now, but my wife let me know that Eric was actually the leader and that I was now running 2nd, with Scott apparently in 3rd now. I thought Jay was out in front of me, but he must have turned off onto the half course back at Aid 1 or maybe I pulled out of Aid 1 in front of him… Not really sure.
It took me 1 hour and 11 minutes to cover this section vs 47 minutes on the first lap.
Lap 2 – V5 to Aid 2
The cold water from the volunteer station was awesome and livened me up again for a while. The trail sections were also my strong point as I mentioned earlier and I really think my bike was set up well for it. I ended up catching Eric a little bit into the trail and then pulled away. I did put in a little extra effort in, thinking that if I was going to maintain a lead, I needed to get away before we got back on the gravel or he might reel me back in again. I knew I would be at a deficit once we were on foot with most of the folks that were out here.
I pulled out of the trails and dropped onto the loose gravel to make the descent down to Aid 2, where I could swap out my bottles. I think I opted to only fill 1 bottle with my Infinite Nutrition and then filled the other 2 with cold water. I was really struggling to get my nutrition fluids down and cold water was about the only thing I could get down. I wasn’t getting sick, but… anything other than cold water would start to make me feel like I might start getting sick. I was starting to remind me of Marji Gesick 2017…
Eric came into the aid station while I was there, but I ended up leaving out before him.
It took me 37 minutes to cover this section vs 40 on the first lap. I think I was slightly motivated after realizing I was running 2nd and could potentially lead. I would pay for this extra effort soon enough…
Lap 2 – Aid 2 to V6
I headed up the hill into the next section of trail and felt the legs starting to cramp, it was different this time though. I started to dial back and it didn’t matter. I had to jump off and walk. I even had to stop as they locked up. I got back on after getting the cramps to relax and they would start to come back. It didn’t matter what position I was in, I couldn’t fight them off. At one point I was locked right up and almost fell off the bike. I caught myself and was stuck trail side in pain leaning over my bike. I found one position that my legs wouldn’t lock up and send me into a vocal scream of pain…
Eric actually came up on me during this point and I’m sure he might have heard me from down the trail. He stopped to check on me… asked if I needed water and/or salt tablets. I had plenty of water at this point and had some tablets with me as well that I had already taken. I knew I would be ok, just needed some time. I had been here before and told Eric I’d be ok and thanked him for stopping. I didn’t want to hold him up either.
I told someone this story later and we talked about all the great people we’ve met while endurance racing and how it’s a different breed of people. I didn’t know Eric prior to this and had just met him only less than an hour earlier, but thankful to be able to race with people like him.
Anyway, I eventually got the cramps to relax and got back on the bike. I soft pedaled my way out of the trail and up to the next section of gravel with the cramps on the edge of firing back up. I hate that feeling. I’d jump off the bike again on the steeper sections just to avoid the inevitable.
I’d get thoughts popping in my head wondering how I was going to finish this thing, knowing that I had to “run” a marathon through unrunable terrain after this. I put those thoughts out of my mind and focused on the moment, one pedal stroke at a time…
I was back out on the gravel… There was that short section that headed east and took advantage of the southwest wind, but then I was headed south again and moving real slow. Still trying to fight off the cramps. I can’t remember, but think Eric was out of sight now with nobody in sight behind me. I was alone with no carrot and nothing chasing.
I was struggling to get fluids in still and the situation was getting worse. That feeling of just a little bit of fluid, might make you sick. I certainly couldn’t get my hydration mix down and my water was warm again, which made my stomach want to turn over. I kind of felt like my stomach was just shut down and already full. I almost wanted to stop and force myself to throw up, just to see if I could reset and take down some fresh fluids. All this going on, while I slowly ground out pedal stroke after pedal stroke across a lonely North Dakota.
At some point, I think my mind was starting to go as I got really confused about the time. I kept thinking I was going to miss the cutoff to run the full run course after the bike. I think I was looking at my time on the bike and thinking it was way later in the day than it really was. I couldn’t figure it out and couldn’t understand how I could miss the cutoff. This went on for what I thought was forever, but I couldn’t reconcile the difference between my time on the bike vs actual time of day. I would try to pedal harder to beat the cutoff and then the cramps would creep up again and I’d have to dial back. I’d get frustrated thinking that I could have gone this far, be riding in second place overall and still miss the cutoff. At some point… and I can’t remember when, I finally figured it out.
Each pedal stroke with any effort over a mild one would encourage the cramping. Once across the river, there is a long climb out, that I ended up walking most of. It pissed me off because I knew I would embark on a rugged trail marathon only a few hours later. It didn’t matter though. The trail run was irrelevant at this point and it was about getting the bike done. I would worry about the trail run after I finished this task.
At the top of the hill, I thought I would see if I could take a leak. I didn’t have to but, though if I could force it, maybe it would spark my digestion system back into working. There wasn’t much and I couldn’t tell if it was yellow or brown… It made me nervous, but I also think psychologically it may have worked to get some fluids moving again. I went back to where I was at with the Marji Gesick in the heat last year and just started forcing small sips of fluid in, trying to ignore the feeling that it might come back up.
I finally got around the windy section at the top of this open and desolate prairie to head back down the super fast descent again. I took it a little easier this time as I knew I was weaker and my reaction time would be slower. At the bottom, I found an empty V6 station. Earlier in the day there were a few people there and a few other racers. Now, late in the race… it was just a thermos of water and a couple of cans of Heed laying on the side of the road.
I decided to take a chance and try the Heed. I’ve had it in the past and didn’t care for it, but figured I needed to try something different from what I was doing till this point. It’s amazing how much better cold fluids go down in this situation. I was able to get some cold water down and then dumped some down my back. I had been over heating and this helped cool me down. I mixed up a bottle of Heed and got back on the bike.
It took me 1 hour and 51 minutes to cover this segment vs 1 hour and 10 minutes on the first lap.
Lap 2 – V6 to TA2
I made the left hand turn onto the road that passes by Frost Fire and knew I had a climb ahead of me, followed by a long stretch of road into a headwind. It’s a long climb and I already had in my head that I was going to have to walk some of it. As I came around the bend and started uphill… I saw my wife’s Jeep parked alongside the road with my kids on the side of road with cowbells. They saw me and started running down the side of the road toward me with the cowbells and cheering!
My first though was, “crap… I can’t walk this hill in front of my kids. This is gonna hurt.” There is no way I could hold off the cramps grinding this hill out seated and I’d have to stand the entire climb to switch up the muscle engagement. It wouldn’t totally hold off the cramps, but it would help mitigate the full lock up. I stood up as I felt the cramps creeping up and found a gear that I could grind. The pain nearly brought on tears at points, but I couldn’t stop. I had to be strong as my kids ran up the road beside me and I hid the weakness that spilled while nobody was around in the previous miles.
I later told them and my wife about walking the previous climb and that I had it locked in my head I was gonna have to walk the Frost Fire hill until I saw them… I couldn’t let them think I was strong the entire time and had to let them know that they were my strength at that moment and I was weak without them in the previous hour.
I finally made it to the top of the climb and felt some level of strength come back. I don’t know if it was the mental win of making it up that climb, knowing that I had to fight on and didn’t want to let my wife and kids down or maybe that Heed was actually working and getting some electrolytes back in my system. Either way… I was on my way to the finish of the bike and the race was really only half over.
I made my turn off north toward Aid 1. I was feeling stronger again and even feeling like I might want to eat something solid. Maybe it was the sun dropping in the sky and the air starting to cool. Cool isn’t really the right word, but more like the heat starting to drop. Regardless, I rode through Aid 1, let them know I was fine and headed toward TA2 (bike/run transition).
It seemed like forever to get to the transition after passing Aid 1. I started to process in my head what I thought I was about to embark on and prepare myself for a night of unknowns and firsts. As I came upon the transition I was met by my 2 boys running down the road with cowbells and cheering me on again. I also saw Eric headed out on the run and was surprised that he hadn’t put more time into me than that.
I got off my bike, took a couple of minutes to gather my thoughts and figure out what I was going to do. I decided to forego my Infinite Nutrition and switch to Heed. I didn’t really like the taste, but it seemed to work at the moment and may have been what got me out of the hole. I’ll never really know. I changed out of my bike shorts and into running shorts, filled my hydration run pack, laced up my Altras, gave my wife and kids a hug and then grabbed a half a peanut butter sandwich and headed out into the sunset.
It took me 1 hour and 28 minutes to cover this segment vs 1 hour and 14 minutes on the first lap.
It’s quite laughable to call this a run. I did run or jog small portions of it and a strong runner could run or jog parts. For me it was a wilderness hike, you really can’t even call it a trail hike as most people would not choose to go hiking on any of it. There was a nice ridgeline early on that would have been a nice hike, but it felt like you were either in old overgrown trails or creek beds for most of it. Training Peaks is giving me about 2,500 feet of elevation gain and Strava is giving me about 2,800 feet of elevation gain. Either way, that’s a lot of climbing for that distance.
I really didn’t know how this was going to go. Looking back, I had only ran a total of 111 miles total for the year prior to setting out on this journey. My longest pavement run ever was 10 miles and that was back in 2002 when I signed up for a race with some folks from work. My longest trail run was 12.5 miles, which I had done about 2 weeks prior to the race and it had turned into a trail hike after about 8 or 9 miles.
I fully intended to train for this event when I signed up for it, but life and business got in the way and as weird as this sounds, I rarely prioritized training first. I’ve always tried to keep my training purposeful, but I usually fit training in around life and just gave it hell when I could. I’ve had more time in previous years, but this year happen to be an exceptionally crazy and stressful year with taking on half ownership of my local bike shop, where I had been prioritizing most of my time.
Anyway, I share this just like I did with the swim, because I didn’t want it to stop me from seeing if I could still do it. I had multiple people tell me I should cancel and back out. They were likely right and concerned about me making the swim or just ruining the next couple months of other potential activities, due to likely burying myself during this event and tieing up the rest of my summer recovering from it.
If this run was actually runnable, it might have been a different outcome, but I also knew it might be a slog through the night and since I wouldn’t have the repetitive impact of traditional running that my knees and other joints were not prepared for… I thought I might have a chance at finishing it and was willing to find out.
TA2 to Aid 3
I started jogging down the gravel that would eventually lead to an overgrown old path through the woods. I ended up eating through that half sandwich from the transition aid pretty fast and was wishing I grabbed another.
I stopped at one point to get my DEET spray out as the mosquitos were starting to swarm me. I soon found out that DEET 100 doesn’t play well on a carpet burn left from a wet suit 12 hours earlier. That left me with a pretty good burning sensation on the back of my neck for the next few minutes, but at least the mosquitos weren’t bothering me anymore. In fact, I really never had many issues with mosquitos for the rest of the “run”.
I soon found myself in the first creek bed only about a mile into the “run”. This one wasn’t so bad. At the time it wasn’t so great, but after traversing some of the creek beds later in the race, I was missing this one… It was still daylight and there were places to run that were still dry. The rocks were a little soft and unpredictable, but I could actually jog or trot some of it. There was a bit of deadfall to get over, but all in all it wasn’t so bad; at least by creek bed navigation standards set later in the night. In all reality, running in any creek bed kind of sucks.
Coming out of the creek bed solidified more of what I heard. The trails weren’t really even hiking trails. They were overgrown old hunting or atv trails that didn’t look like they were used anymore. I remember climbing out of a creek bed onto an overgrown path and then starting an ascent. I do think this one actually did have some single track like hiking trail. Not trail, that I would intentionally go hike on, but it did work its way up a ridgeline out of the Pembina Gorge.
I remember running when I could as the sun was going down and it was getting dark in the woods. At one point, I snagged my headlight, which was still turned off, on a branch and ripped it off my head. I didn’t feel it come off, but quickly reached up to check. I turned back and found it laying in the weed covered trail about 10 feet back. I went ahead and turned on the little red light on it in case it happened again, so I could find it easier.
I remember some trail that worked its way along a ridgeline where the ground was eroding down into the gorge near the edge of the trail as it was getting dark. I looked across and could see no signs of civilization. It was a bit eerie… The only think I knew is that Eric was out in front of me somewhere and there was likely someone coming behind me at some point. I didn’t mention it above, but as I type this I remember somebody riding into TA2 when I was jogging out of it.
The trail soon started dropping into the Pembina Gorge again and about 6 miles in, I would find myself in another creek bed. I can’t remember exactly where it was, but somewhere in this first section, I swear I saw the image of a photo that Author Dan Woll had posted on Facebook about this race only a few weeks prior. Dan has a book called North of Highway 8 and writes for Silent Sports where he’s written a short story about his experience at the Wilderman. I believe he did the very first one. I’ll post some links to his stuff in the reference section at the bottom of the report…
Back to the race… It was starting to set in that there wouldn’t be much running. I would run/jog when I could, but most of the trails were overgrown and as it started getting dark, I was worried about foot placement along the trail as well.
I remember passing through a couple open prairies and one had an old cabin shaped like an octagon if I remember correctly. I looked in and saw couches. I remember thinking how nice it would be to lay down just for a few minutes. I actually walked in and look around, before being hit in the face with that old hunting cabin musty smell and got back on the trail. I wasn’t actually going to even sit down, but curiosity got the best of me and I at least had to look inside.
I found myself crossing over a creek back in the bottom of the gorge again and then climbing back out. The course was marked well with ribbons, but as I was working my way up this steep overgrown path… I looked down at my gps to find myself gradually going off course. I decided to go back down until I saw a ribbon to verify I was on course vs continuing on a potentially wrong path. I found another ribbon that verified I was on course and then started back up the climb again. I’m not sure what was going on with the gps, but I came to another ribbon along the trail and the gps line eventually joined back up as well.
I wish it were daylight coming up this climb as I think there would have been some fantastic views off to the left, but the sky was starting to fill with stars. At the top of this climb was a hunting cabin. I can’t remember what the sign said, but it was something to the effect of cold drinks or something and an invite inside. I went on ahead and found a fridge with some cold bottles of water and cokes. I downed a cold bottle of water that felt awesome. I could see a bucket on the counter with some other empty bottles and cans. I grabbed another bottle of water and a can of coke for the road and headed back out into the night.
I cracked the coke and started sipping on it as I started to jog down a gravel road/drive that wrapped around the edge of a field. I would jog a little, then walk a little and drink some coke. I eventually finished the coke, crammed the can into my jersey pocket and started on the cold bottle of water. It was so refreshing. I think my feet were starting to feel like they were in pretty rough shape and the running part didn’t work out very well, but I gave it a shot the best I could and let the cold refreshments sink into my body.
Eventually I came out to where the gravel turned into actual road and straightened out. I could see headlights way down and knew that I was coming up on the aid station and was hoping I’d find my wife and kids there. I can’t remember what I did for refueling here, other than maybe grabbing some more cold water and then heading on my way.
It took me 3 hours and 24 minutes to cover that 10.6 mile section.
Aid 3 to Aid 4
This next section was less than 4 miles and uneventful. I started to run it, but my feet were in pain and I wasn’t even halfway through this thing. My feet were still wet also. I was looking forward to my drop bag at mile 14 to put on some dry socks and switch into my Altra Superiors with a little extra cushion over the King Mts that I started with.
On a positive note, I finally had to take a bit of a leak without having to force it… I suppose things were working again and I was actually getting rehydrated. Oh the excitement that surrounded this splendid occasion that only an endurance racer who’s gone to the limit would understand… Ok, sorry for the side step, but it was a joyous moment!
I finally worked my way into Aid 4 to find my wife, kids and my friend Ben. Ben was all geared up and ready to run. He asked if I wanted a pacer? I think I asked if he was up for it and he of course said yes. I said “let’s do it”
To take another side step… I had actually had a conversation with my wife at some point prior to this race about pacers. I think it was when we were reading through the race details and saw that you could have a pacer after Aid 4. I think it’s actually advised to have a pacer, because the next section of creek bed is pretty horrible.
Anyway, I had expressed to my wife that I didn’t think I’d want a pacer and that sometimes in adventures like this, maybe it’s good for you to fight the demons on your own. That being said, I was happy to have Ben join me and share the experience with him. He’s one of the best dudes you’re going to find. Ben had a rough morning in the race and had to pull out early. He had gone back to camp, recovered and was out here in the middle of the night to pace me and share in the adventure. I’m sure this won’t be the last time Ben and I get ourselves in a mess together and I’m looking forward to some more adventures with him down the road.
I changed into dry socks and shoes… Which turned out to be a waste, less than a half mile later. Regardless, it felt good to put some dry stuff on. I can’t remember what I did for nutrition.
The crazy part is that it took me an hour and 12 minutes to cover that 3.6 miles of gravel road. My legs were in pretty rough shape and I likely wasn’t going to find a pace any faster than a hike the rest of the night.
Aid 4 to V8
Before heading out, Ben and I listened to some instructions from the race volunteer about heading into the creek and that you can’t get lost. “Just follow the water flow”, she said… The creek would come out at a river that we would cross and we would find a volunteer there directing us.
This would be the creek bed that I read about in another race report prior to the race, about a guy walking in circles in weeds over his head in the middle of this creek bed for over an hour. I too thought to myself… No way, it can’t be that bad. I will tell you… I think that guy exaggerated about how good it actually was. It was pretty terrible… We were in the creek shortly after leaving Aid 4 and the weeds were over our head. I grabbed another flash light out that I could point around to more easily find our way.
We literally walked the water flow through weeds over our heads. There was deadfall and then sometimes the water would just disappear. You’d walk around through the weeds a little and find water again, try to examine which way it was flowing and start following it. I totally get how that guy got lost without actually going anywhere.
You would be walking in a fairly packed creek bed bottom with water maybe up to your ankle, then take one step into a hole up to your thigh or it would just turn to muck. It was an interesting experience for sure. I’m not sure what more to say about it, but it was definitely a new experience. I fell down at one point as we were trying to make our way around some deadfall. Sometimes you couldn’t figure out the best way around stuff.
It was 4.5 miles of creek bed that took us back down into the bottom of Pembina Gorge to find a volunteer with a campfire next to the river and it “only” took us 2 and a half hours to cover that 4.5 miles…
V8 to Aid 2
The first thing I remember about the river crossing was that the river was super warm. The next thing I remember is calling bull on the volunteer that told us we would find the trail marked just across the river. It was marked, but I’m not sure how much of a trail it was… I say this laughing as this was an awesome experience, that I’d like to go back and have a round 2 of. The matter of perspective is funny though. We followed the ribbons up through a meadow and I guess there was some resemblance of a path.
It somewhat followed along the other side of the river and was fairly flat that I can remember, relative to the rest of the course. At some point we hit another creek bed that was pretty nasty. This one was bouldered with big rocks that you had to really watch your footing on. I think I remember Ben stepping in a big squishy hole of mucky clay and then climbing over a rock and finding clay from the previous person wiped all over. We both might have laughed a little bit.
I was starting to go into some dark places during this section. Not really sure if Ben knew that or not, I’m sure he knew. I think this might have been the section… Well maybe it happened a couple of times where I expressed how horrible this was using various expletives… My feet were wet and I was pretty sure I had fallen into poison ivy earlier in the day on the bike and walked right through it during the hike. This was so awesome…!
Eventually we came out of this horrible rocky creek bed up to Aid 2. I had been here twice already on this adventure during the bike. I can’t remember what I got out of my drop bag here. I don’t think we stayed very long and then headed out again.
Aid 2 to Finish
This was the home stretch, or kind of. I remember crossing the road near the aid station looking almost straight up this atvish path. It was steep and I still question how an atv would get up it. Something obviously made it at some point. Regardless, it was a tough climb on quads that had been working for 19 hours already between the bike and this much of the “run”.
This was a section that looped up this hill and believe it actually came back down the nicer atv trail that I had gone up twice earlier in the day, or the previous day on my bike. It would have been the one where the cramps finally hit pretty severe. If I’m not mistaken, somewhere on this little section, prior to connecting with the previous bike course… I believe we had to cross over a creek again. I’m not 100% on that, but looking back at gps, confirms there was a creek up there. I can only assume they sent us up that steep hill just to get our feet wet again, cause it would be a shame for our shoes to dry out before the finish.
We popped back out on the road and entered the trail again, not far down from Aid 2. I had no reason to stop and just wanted to get this thing done, so we just hit the trail. My feet were hurting pretty bad at this point. Each step hurt and as you can see very little of the terrain was flat. The downhills would fire up the knee pain and there wasn’t much speed that could be carried downhill.
The trail worked its way up hill above the previous bouldered creek bed and we could hear voices that sounded like other racers working their way up the creek bed. Our trail eventually headed straight up hill again. Whoever designed the course, must have walked the bluff above the creek bed looking for the steepest climb out, just to see if they could break us…
We finally came to the cabin that would signal we were a few miles from the finish. It was a pretty awesome view from there as well. Now it was time to head back downhill…
The sun was coming up now and the downhill was ever so painful on my knees, but it was one of the most majestic mornings I’ve ever experienced in my life. I had been moving since 7am the previous morning and I’d be pushing close to a 24 hour race time by the time I made it to the finish.
This downhill was on a 2 track down through this prairie that the sun was lighting up. Ben dropped back a bit and snagged a couple of sweet photos. I was spent and just trying to keep moving forward. I’d try to trot on occasion, but it was painful and lessons from the previous 20 hours of racing had taught me to be weary of what could still lie ahead. I also knew I still had to climb back up to Frost Fire…
Near the bottom of this trail, it did flatten out for a short period and I tried to run, figuring I was in the home stretch. Ben later called it my finish line sprint, although he kept pace behind me with a simple walk… At the time, I thought I was really moving and it was a mental win alongside of being very close to conquering this wild beast of a course.
Finally, out on the gravel road leading to Frost Fire… We crossed the bridge and was headed up hill. I started to run, well, I guess, I mentally thought I was running. We made the left hand turn into Frost Fire with one last hill up to the chalet where the END sign would be awaiting. We crossed the parking lot and I laid my hand on that sign in 23 hours and 43 minutes to finish 2nd place overall!
I guess this makes me a Wilderman…
This was by far the craziest race experience I’ve had and I’ve spent some time since looking for other similar ones to tackle. There doesn’t seem to be much out there. I definitely had some painful moments, but never questioned doing it. I really wanted to see if I could do it. When I started getting back in shape 8 years ago, my end goal was to be in good enough shape to just go out and tackle various experiences without necessarily having to purposely train for them.
Each year, I try to find some new things to go do. Most of it has been mountain biking at this point, but I’d like to knock out some trail running stuff at some point and an actual IronMan event is on the list as well. I’d also like to go back to the Wilderman and see what I could do with it in slightly milder temperatures, better preparation and knowing what I’m getting myself into.
I know I talked about how rough that “run” was, but that whole thing was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. I got to see and experience parts of this country that few ever will and there was something majestic about having made it through the night and watching the sun come up.
Anyway… I’m not sure how to cut this one off, other than to tell you to get out there and test yourself. It doesn’t have to be the Wilderman, but find something new each year to push yourself a little further than you have before. Don’t wait for the perfect moment or assume you have to be completely prepared. Life is too short to let time pass by without getting after it. I’m not sure what next year’s challenge will be, but I’m sure I’ll get myself into some kind of mess that I’m underprepared for. In the meantime… I’ll reminisce about my near 24 hour adventure in North Dakota’s Pembina Gorge.