Saturday, July 23, 2016
The Wilderman Triathlon Welcome to The Wilderman (off-road Full/Iron-Distance, that is 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run) first popped onto my radar in early 2014 when I was looking for long, tough races to do. After 30 years of racing, my knees don't work as well as they used to, and I have a harder time running ultras and now do more triathlons. I was immediately intrigued, but at the time my mountain bike was a 1998 model GT Timberline that I rarely rode, and I wasn't sure I was ready for it. I planned to do it in 2015, but the date was moved from August to July and it fell on the same weekend as our Cacapon 12 Hour Challenge Trail Run that we put on here in West Virginia. I resolved to make 2016 the year, and contacted the RD far in advance to confirm the date, then scheduled our race for the week before. I had done two traditional 'Ironman' races in the last four years, Beach2Battleship and Michigan Titanium, and I got a nice new Trek Top Fuel mountain bike two months ago, specifically with this race in mind. My training was going well all winter and spring, but I was still nervous and even though the plane tickets and hotels were booked well in advance, I didn't actually sign up for the race until two weeks before. The timing wasn't optimal, only three weeks after a hard marathon at Bay Of Fundy, but no excuses, no regrets, it was go time!
We flew into Fargo on a beautiful breezy Tuesday afternoon. We quickly learned that it's nearly ALWAYS windy there. Upon exploring the town, we realized that Fargo is a really cool place with a lot of neat shops, restaurants, breweries, parks, and things to do. We went up to the Visitor's Center and got this year's Christmas Card photos taken care of!
We realized we were only minutes away from Moorhead, MN (a state we'd never visited) so drove over there for some refreshments at Junkyard Brewing company. It seemed like a good time to start carbo-loading for the race! As of now, this does NOT qualify for us to check Minnesota off on our 50-State run/ride/race list, but that may change in the future!
We had dinner back in Fargo at The Boiler Room that night. Went for a short run Wednesday morning that crossed the Red River of the North (into Minnesota again), spent some time at the Red River Zoo, then picked up my bike at Great Northern Bicycle Company (it had been shipped out for the race).
We weren't sure if it would work, but somehow managed to fit the intact bike, five people and four suitcases into a Nissan Quest minivan and headed out that evening for our next destination...Langdon, North Dakota, about three hours north. Once we arrived there, we wished that maybe we'd stayed an extra day in Fargo...
The Cobblestone Inn and Suites provided nice accommodations in Langdon. The problem was...there wasn't much to do there and we still had three days until the race. When Trip Advisor tells you the top things to do are the Eagles Club and bowling...and the best place in town to eat is Dairy Queen...you're not exactly in a tourist Mecca, and even for our usual off-the-grid preferences, this was a bit much. What to do?! Luckily, with a little research, Mary Jane found an awesome ziplining place 45 minutes away in Manitoba, Canada and we made reservations there for the next day! While we were there, they recommended a dinosaur museum in Morden which was really neat.
Thursday night after our day of Canadian adventures, I hung out at the hotel 'bar' drinking a few beers and watching the Tour de France, hoping I might meet a couple of my fellow WilderPeople, but I didn't. Friday morning though, we did bump into Brendan out in the parking lot and we talked a bit about the race, tire pressure and the benefits of putting aero bars on our mountain bikes. I pegged him as the man to beat, and that turned out to be correct! That afternoon we drove over to Walhalla to scout out the course a bit. We wound up at a trailhead where I would exit the gorge on my bike twice the next day...and the girls found a trail that was made for them!
The race briefing and check-in was pretty low-key. No numbers, no bibs. No bike or helmet stickers. No USAT card verification. No timing chip. No body marking! Just a swim cap, a T-shirt and sign the waiver! The RDs went over the next day's plan. We learned that 3-4 miles of trail would be removed from each loop of the bike course because they were unrideable due to all the recent rain. Furthermore, the river was at a high level, so ropes, rafts, and life jackets would be present at tomorrow's three scheduled river crossings! Good times coming! We ate some pasta and salad and retired back to Langdon, anxious to get the race underway.
Race morning dawned cool and clear. It hadn't rained for 36 hours or so, giving me some hope that the course would dry out a bit. We reported to Mount Carmel Dam/Campground. Transition was again very low-key...no bike racks, no mount line. I lay my bike on the ground with my gear, put on my wetsuit and headed down to the water. The race started promptly at 7:00 am and we were off. Due to the small number of competitors, it soon began to feel like a solo swim. It was a straight shot to the turnaround buoy, 0.6 miles away...the only problem was the rising sun was right behind the buoy, so sighting was difficult. Whether it was this, GPS inaccuracy, or a long course, I finished with a 2.63 mile swim in 1:17:41...a couple minutes slower than hoped but not bad. I learned I was third out of the water, 4 minutes behind Brendan and just trailing the lone relay team in the full distance race.
Transition went smoothly and I was off on the bike. My biggest fear coming into the race was getting lost on the bike course, but it was extremely well-marked. My oldest daughter Alexandra captured one of my favorite-ever photos of me from the minivan as they cheered me on early in the bike ride. That is a huge field of Canola behind me. Mountain bike meets Tri bike.
I really enjoyed the first loop of the bike course. It was a nice mix of 25 miles trail, 10-12 miles of pavement, and the rest dirt and gravel roads. I passed a couple of the half-distance people early in the bike ride before hitting the first river crossing. It was intense! The water was borderline torrent, chest-deep, with a rope stretched taut across. I carried my bike in my right hand and held the rope in my left, and it was not easy! I wish I could share the experience, but there were no photographers there, and I dared not try to pull out my phone to document it, lest I lose phone and bike both downstream! Rest assured, this experience will be forever etched in my memory as one of the all-time highlights of my racing career. I passed Scott, the relay rider, shortly after the river crossing, then caught a bunch of half athletes in the later miles of this loop, which was a nice confidence booster. I rolled into the mid-bike aid station to see my family there and they reported that I was roughly 10 minutes back of first place.
This news emboldened me to start riding more aggressively in hopes of catching the leader. A few miles later, I was descending a tough technical stretch that I took really easy the first time through. I decided to try to hammer through it this loop to make up some time...mistake! My front wheel went under a big rock, created a pivot point and next thing I knew I was flying over the handlebars Superman-style, tumbling to the ground and then my bike crashed down on top of me! I was in a good bit of pain, and it took a couple minutes to compose myself, say a few choice words, and verify that my bike and myself were still functional. My left aero bar was knocked loose and my multi-tool had somehow disintegrated into a bunch of pieces inside my bag, so I had to ride about 20 miles with the aero spinning and bouncing around until I got to an aid station where someone helped me get it locked down again. My right arm and hip bore the brunt of the crash, and I still bear noticeable bruises and abrasions a week later, but it could have been much worse. I could have easily broken my collarbone, arm, or bike and been done for the day. It took a few miles to really get rolling again, but I had a solid second loop. There were several spots where I had to unclip and walk the bike through massive mud puddles or past groups of ATVs, but I made all the ascents in the saddle. The rain really got going the second half of this loop, making the roads muddy and slow. I rolled into T2 in good spirits, covered in mud and a little blood.
Mary Jane and the girls were there and they had pizza and chocolate chip cookies which hit the spot! The aid stations were pretty sparse, mainly just water and Heed. I had carried and eaten three peanut butter sandwiches, several handfuls of trail mix, some gels, and a few electrolyte capsules on the bike so it was nice to get some real food on board after 10 hours of effort. I was very excited to see that Brendan, the leader, was still in transition as well. Even though I don't run very much anymore, it's still my strongest discipline and as I headed out just a few minutes behind him, I harbored some hope that I could catch him and we could work together into the night...it had been a pretty lonely day. After an initial dirt road mile, I learned that this 'run' was going to be a doozy. The bike was very fun, and while challenging, had actually been slightly easier than I expected and not quite as hard as some other things I've biked (Garrett County Gran Fondo Diabolical Double and ABRA Hilly Billy). But the run was going to be a different story. The RDs described it as 'grueling and often punishing' and this was no understatement! Two miles of creek running followed by several miles of climbing/descending and bushwhacking on overgrown, barely identifiable trails were producing 15 to 17 minute miles. My trekking poles were invaluable for staying upright and knocking bushes and branches out of my way! I saw my family again around mile 10. As always, it was a big lift to see their smiling, cheering faces! They reported that Brendan had extended his lead to 20+ minutes...apparently the run was his best event too! I resigned myself that he wouldn't be caught and made a goal of finishing under 18 hours. A dirt road section from miles 10-14 produced five miles at 9:40ish pace, so that seemed plausible...until I hit the next creek section! This one was over four miles of creek bed running in water that was sometimes waist deep and had a lot of deadfall that had to crawled under/over/through/around. It was still raining, and there was a beautiful double rainbow that inspired me through the gorge here as the sun set. I wanted to stop for pictures many times all day long, but felt like I should keep moving...not to mention the fear of losing my phone since the course was so difficult. A couple people did get some photos though, so this can give you some idea of what some parts of the run course were like...
I was hoping to get out of the creek before dark, but didn't make it. These miles were in the 16-19 minute range. At one point my feet were hurting from all the shale in my shoes, so I stopped and sat down, took off my shoes and shook out a very small amount of rocks and shale. Odd, I thought, it feels like there's a lot more than that in there? Then I removed my socks and a huge volume of silt and shale poured out of them! One got away from me and started floating downstream but I caught it. Had to repeat this entire operation again later. Well after dark, my Garmin showed I'd been in the creek for over 4 miles with no end in sight, and I became increasingly worried that I had somehow missed the exit point, and began to really cast about with my light looking for marking ribbons. Finally, I saw the glow of a big campfire through the raindrops and ran up on two guys chilling next to it. 'Are you with the race?' I asked. They were, and they guided me to the final river crossing of the day, the toughest one yet! Hand over hand in deep, rushing water I made it across!
I had about 7 miles to go at this point. I was being swarmed by armies of mosquitoes, you couldn't count all the bites I had the next day. MJ had planned to begin running the course backwards from the finish to meet me and pace me the last few miles. (She's training for her ninth 100-miler next month and needed to get some miles in too!) I expected to see her anytime, and after going for quite a while without that, became concerned that she was lost. At last, I saw her headlamp coming towards me around mile 21. It was still pouring rain and we were both soaked. I mentioned that I felt OK since I was still moving well, but had some concern for hypothermia among people still out in the creek with many more hours to go. She had indeed gotten misdirected and off course but now we trudged onward together. A sign informed us that the course had been rerouted late in the race to skip a third creek section, presumably because it was dangerous or impassable? Luckily, they were able to add an out-and-back segment to preserve the full marathon distance, so we could maximize our suffering. I had joked to the RD earlier in T2 that we should get a small refund for the few miles cut from the bike, lol. I had to walk a bit more and run a little less in the final miles. We popped out onto the road for the last stretch and climbed one last big hill to the finish at Walhalla Country Club. MJ ran ahead to make sure the girls were ready for my finish...good thing:
They came out and ran into the finish holding my hands and it was a done deal! I was a WILDERMAN! Just missed my goal of 18 hours, finishing in roughly 18:05, about 1:20 behind Brendan, he really smoked me on the run. I was very happy to finish second overall, but The Wilderman isn't really like a traditional race, it's more of an experience, and a battle against yourself and your own limitations and fears.
It would be six hours before the next full distance finisher came in after daybreak. We got a couple pictures; I was hungry and we headed back to Langdon for food and recovery. Enjoyed a couple beers and pizza, I was so wired from the all-day triathlon that I didn't get to sleep until after 5:00 am! We missed the award ceremony so we could check out of our hotel, then went back to pick up my bike and return to Fargo for one more day. We had a blast in North Dakota...although we missed our mountains, we loved the people and the natural beauty, and the wide open spaces. It marked the 25th state in our quest to race/ride in all 50 so we are halfway there! Thanks ENDRacing for an epic experience I will never forget. As a fellow RD, I appreicate all your efforts, you really had to do some serious RDing with the last-minute course changes and high water! Thanks to CTC Bikes and Great Northern Bicycle Company for getting my bike out there and ready to race; and thanks to Mary Jane and my girls for supporting me and keeping me going all day! I hope this race sticks around and grows in coming years, The Wilderman rocks!