Race Report: The Wilderman

Scott is an attorney who lives in Grand Forks, ND.  He has completed several ENDracing events, including the inaugural Extreme North Dakota Adventure Race in 2007, and all three years of the END-WET downriver marathon swim.  He is a two-time finisher of the Arrowhead 135.  All Photos by Wes Peck.

What appealed to me about the Wilderman was the overwhelming doubt about whether or not I would be able to complete it.  I’m old, I’m overweight, I have bad knees that keep me from really running any more.  For me to complete a race of this difficulty would be a huge challenge.  I would have to be completely focused.  I would need to ignore severe pain for long periods of time.  I would need to carefully execute my nutrition and hydration plan.  And I would probably need to get lucky. 

The Wilderman sounded like a race of epic proportions.  A 2.4 mile swim.  A 112 mile bike on gravel and in the Pembina Gorge.  And a marathon through the gorge, crossing rivers and running through creek bottoms.  It was a formidable challenge.  ENDracing claimed that there had been more people to walk on the moon than to complete an off road iron distance triathlon.  The website link to the proof of that fact always seemed to be broken, but it seemed like a pretty hard race anyway. 

I knew the race would be a suffer fest.  Andy Magness’s races always were.  Andy puts together races that get into your head, where the mental challenges are equal to the physical challenges.  The race had a 28 hour cutoff and I knew that I would probably need all 28. 

I signed up for the race about three weeks before and bought a mountain bike about the same time. I felt the bike would be key.  I had biked long distances on road bikes and on a fat bike.  But I had never owned a mountain bike.  I bought a hardtail 29’er, a new term to me.  I put on ergonomic grips, a concession to my age and the fact that I had destroyed the feeling in my hands on a previous race.  I added aerobars so that I could spend some time on the gravel off my hands. 

I practiced by riding the gravel out to Turtle River State Park, then riding the trails in the park.  I ran into other Grand Forks people from time to time, all of whom seemed better than me at riding through the trees. 

We could have a “pacer” run with us for the last 16 miles of the race.  I asked my nephew, James Elmquist, who said yes without even asking what the race was about.  On the night before the race we headed to Walhalla with my wife Stacy.  She would drive us to the start and haul my bag to the transition points—a “Sherpa” in Andy’s terms.  She makes a good Sherpa. 

Before the pre-race meeting I sprayed all of my clothes with Permethrin which is supposed to keep bugs away.  I seem to be allergic to mosquito spray and hoped that I wasn’t allergic to Permethrin too.  At the meeting I sized up all the other racers.  Most were a completely different size from me.  It looked like there was a lot of real talent.  Andy claimed at the pre-race  meeting that the mosquitoes were so bad that there was a risk that people would actually go insane.  Nice touch, Andy. 

That night we checked out the gravel part of the bike course.  We found the spot where the transition bags could be brought to.  We found the spot where James could join me.  I was encouraging Stacy to haul my bag from spot to spot rather than have the race people do it.  I think I was mostly embarrassed about the size of my gear bag. 

On the morning of the race we drove to Mt. Carmel Dam.  I leaned my bike up against a tree and set up my T-1 transition area.  25 racers started out of 37 who had signed up.  The swim was absolutely gorgeous although the pictures show that none of us had a great sense of direction.  On the second lap of the swim I stopped for a second to wave to Joel Larson, who was finishing his first lap.  Joel was one of four Grand Forks participants.  He looked good and although not a strong swimmer it was clear he would get through the swim within the two hour cutoff.

I finished the swim in fourth place and left on the bike at an hour and ten minutes.  The swim was my best event.  I knew that the rest of the race would consist of people passing me.  The passing started within the first 15 miles of the bike. 

I was completely unprepared for the difficulty of the terrain.  On the first descent into the gorge I was scared to death riding on the rutted trail.  I rode the brakes hard.  I questioned whether my tires were inflated too much. I questioned why I was in this race in the first place.  At the bottom we had to carry our bikes across the river.  I have seen pictures of other racers lifting their bikes over their heads and charging across.  When Steve Hart saw me dragging my bike through the water he just said “Bearings Schmearings???”

I got through the river and then the terrain got tougher.  There were short muddy stretches and I tried to ride through them.  I got so much mud on my tires that I had to stop and scrape it off so that my front wheel would turn.  At one point a mud hole was deeper than I thought.  My front wheel got stuck and the bike me flipped over the handlebars into the mud.    A mile or so further along I was just recovering from that and reached for my water bottle.  I hit a rut steering with one hand and my right handlebar hit a tree trunk.  I skidded across the rocky trail on my left side.  After that everyone who passed me said, “Are you OK, man?”  They didn’t use the term “old man” but the thought was hanging in the air. 

The first lap of the bike ended with severe cramps.  Fingers, toes, calves, quads, hamstrings, abdomen. Muscles that I can’t name.  I was in trouble.  I was covered in mud and blood and sweat.  I got to the race bags and took some salt pills.  I drank a Thermos of chicken soup.  It’s got a lot of salt and it’s good for the soul.  I had brought it for the run but thought that if I didn’t improve I wouldn’t be running anyway.  I started out on another lap.  Over the river and through the woods.  At some point I discovered that I had way more water on board than I thought.  I had been carrying five 20 ounce bottles of water for 100 miles.  Maybe that’s why I couldn’t carry my bike across the river.  Thanks Steve. 

One of the racers across the river was having trouble and needed tools.  Good Lord, I had one of everything on my bike.  I left some for him and figured I would get them back when he caught me later. 

The hills seemed a lot longer on the second lap of the bike than they were on the first and on the second lap I was walking the hills.  Toward the end of the second lap the first female racer passed me.  She rode the entire length of the longest hill 0n the course while I was on foot.  Very impressive. 

The bike took me over twelve hours total.  When I got to the transition area after 9 p.m. I was questioning my commitment.  Jeremy Sartain was there along with my wife and my nephew, the Pecks and other volunteers.  Jeremy, an athletic trainer, had broken his foot on the bike but was in great spirits and encouraged me to change clothes and keep going.  He said the next section would be eight miles, about two and a half hours and then I could reassess. 

I put on a Camelbak, a headlamp, and trekking poles and took off into the growing darkness.  The downhill into the gorge was steep.  Then it was into the creek.  I hadn’t really understood that the creek running would be actually running in a creek.  I guess I had assumed that it was a dry creek bed or other difficult terrain, but this was pretty much just trekking along in the water.  Over trees, through branches, up and down on hummocks of grass and on rocks.  Eventually I was in the forest.  At one point the climb out of the creek was so long and so steep that I just laughed.  It went forever.  It was insane.  It was Andy. 

I don’t really know when it was that I got lost.  At some point though I realized that it had been a long time since I had seen one of the reflective Wilderman signs on the trail.  First bad decision.  I just kept going, hoping to find another sign.  Second bad decision.  At some point, rather than go back, I veered onto a side trail hoping to connect with the right trail.  Third bad decision.  I took out my GPS and tried to reason my way out of my mess, cutting entirely off trail through the forest.  It was so steep there that I couldn’t always stand up, and I really didn’t want to try to retrace my steps.  Besides, I was lost anyway and couldn’t have done it.  Eventually I intersected another trail and walked on it for quite a ways.  At some point I turned around and behind me was a Wilderman sign.  I had been walking the wrong way on some portion of the run course.  I went in the direction of the signs.  Things started to look familiar, even walking that direction.  Looking back at my Spot Tracker, there were portions of the run course that I did three times, twice in the right direction and once going the wrong way. 

I was pretty demoralized.  I was passed by another woman who at least confirmed that I was back on track.  I have to admit that I knew that I was walking next to a cliff but even so I put a pole over the edge in the dark and went over.  I had to grab roots and vines to pull myself back up. 

Eventually I got to the octagonal cabin.  David Jensen, (not my son, but a different David Jensen) was inside.  We discussed the fact that I had been friends with his grandfather.  I wouldn’t say it made me feel any younger.   We were joined by the landowner on a 4-wheeler who explained that there were women at the checkpoint who were very worried about those of us who had been down there so long.  He said that it was two miles to the checkpoint, but when we left in the direction of the river again he said that it was not just two miles going that way.  We could hear volunteers calling for someone, either us or someone else lost or hurt.   On this section it took me six hours to go eight to ten miles.  It was 3:30 in the morning. 

When I got to the checkpoint I was pretty much dead.  I think I would have quit but I had dragged James all the way to Walhalla for the weekend to run this part.  He had stayed up all night and it seemed impolite to pack it in.  I decided that I would try the road section and then reassess whether we had enough time to get done within 28 hours.  We had 16 miles to go. 

We made pretty good time walking on the road.  David Jensen started to run and left us.  We got to the next checkpoint and Matt Burton Kelly was there in his car.  He said we had ten miles to go, three miles of creek running, then a path, then more creek running, then path and road.  We figured we would try.  We saw several people on this stretch.  The creek was tough.  It was pretty shallow, but as the sun was coming up I failed to notice a large pool, tripped and went face first into four feet of water.  I was freezing.  After that I stepped on a wasp nest and the wasps swarmed out.  I got stung countless times on my legs and jumped back into the water.  James, who was not wearing long sleeves, got stung nine times on his arms where we could see the marks.  On reflection I don’t think Andy planted the wasps there, I think they just occurred naturally. 

We asked the volunteers at the river crossing how far we had to go.  They said we had 11 miles or 15 kilometers left.   If this was true we wouldn’t make the cutoff.  We hoped Beek had been right.

Eventually we crossed the river and walked on a trail in tall clover where the mosquitoes were so thick we wore them like a shirt.  I couldn’t quit coughing because I had a lot of them in my lungs.  Another racer passed us and asked whether we had known what we were getting ourselves into.  We said we did.  He was wearing short pants.  He had apparently done a lot of iron distance races but hadn’t experienced this level of suffering from the conditions. 

We got to the last creek section and to our surprise Caleb Kobilansky passed us, again.  He had crashed and burned and slept in the back of a car, then gotten up in time to finish the race.  He actually looked pretty good. 

The last sign said there was just a mile to go.  It also said that it was all uphill.  And it was.  Andy again.  We finished in just under 27 hours.  I couldn’t have done it without James, who was an uplifting force on the last 16 miles.  Not even one complaint about the bugs, walking in wet shoes filled with rocks for hours, or getting stung by the wasps. 

I tried to eat at the finish, but was unable to get any food down.  I was too tired to sit up at the awards ceremony and just laid in the grass.  Approximately 17 people finished the whole course.  There were some injuries, I think an Achilles tendon and people, including Joel, who suffered dehydration and and had to quit due to being unable to hold down their food. 

I ended up very thankful for another opportunity to test my limits.  Thanks to ENDracing.  Thanks to Andy and Beek and Dexter and the Pecks, Steve Hart and the Smith family and the other volunteers from the area.  Wes Peck always takes some great pictures.  Thanks to James.  And thanks to Stacy.  She ended up developing a strange rash, in long lines on her arms, her shoulders and other places on her body.  Poison Ivy.  It sort of matched up with every place the straps on my race bag touched her body as she carried it around.  She makes a great Sherpa. 

 

 

 

 

 

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