I am sitting here realizing that I have so many thoughts to share, but am unsure where to begin. I first heard about the Wilderman race earlier this year through some intense Google searching. It fascinated me and drew me in, because, until that point, I had a hard time imagining what might be harder than an Ironman. I immediately registered without have a Mountain Bike or any familiarity with the course/skills that might be necessary. Nothing could have prepared me for this incredible race that challenged me in every way possible.
I flew into the race Friday, driving up from Grand Forks and accidentally ending up at the Canadian Border since Walhalla is only 2 miles from Canada. All of the racers met and checked in at the Walhalla country club for the opening meeting and pre race pasta meal. It was awesome meeting everyone else, and crazy to realize that there were only 7 of us doing the full Wilderman – talk about a lot of alone time over the course – and 10 doing the half (which is actually longer than a half a lot). We went over course signage, aid stations, and words of wisdom to set us up for success the next morning. I was amazed that we didn’t even need race bibs since there were so few of us. I stayed in a town called Langdon for the night at a wonderful hotel, Cobblestone Inn, which enabled me to get a great night’s sleep before the chaos ensued as it was also close to the swim start at the Mt. Carmel Dam.
Race day, I woke up at 4:45am out of habit and ate a couple of powercrunch bars for breakfast. Luke, another competitor, and I left the hotel around 5:50 to get the swim start with plenty of time to get our gear in order. I had realized the night before that I had forgotten to buy CO2 cartridges and luckily, a Canadian racer named Tom provided me with one in case I got a flat. Transition was basically free for all. Find a place against the trees or on the grass and just make yourself at home. I put all of my additional gear, which we could access at mile 70 of the bike, T2, and mile 10 of the run, into my awesome Tri bag labeled Impossible is Nothing with my name sewn into it, a wonderful present from my siblings and to remind myself to press on.
For the swim, it was a beautiful course with clear water that allowed me to see my stroke in full. There were 2 yellow buoys .6 miles apart and a random black intertube assortment in the middle to serve as a guide. I could hardly see that, so I just focused on sighting the yellow buoys. After the first loop, you had to take a moment to yell your name to the people waiting on the beach before continuing onto loop two. I opted out of using my wetsuit since I didn’t really want to fly with it and I figured I could use the practice prior to IM Lousiville in case it isn’t wetsuit legal. I also liked not having my shoulders strained in the wetsuit. Of course, I was the only person not wearing a wetsuit, but I was super happy to hit my goal time of 1:30 on the dot having swam 2.6 miles according to my GPS. I concentrated on good form and a long, relaxed stroke the whole time since I knew it was just the start of what would be a very long day. It was nice knowing the swim would be the easiest part for once! I also thoroughly enjoyed doing an Ironman without getting pummeled by other racers the entire time.
Coming into transition, I leisurely walked and took my sweet time putting on compression socks double layered with cushion socks and my recreational bike shoes. I wore my US Military Endurance Sports kit with a longsleeve wicking shirt underneath to protect against bugs, falls, and the sun. I had loaded up my camelbak with all of the mandatory gear to include compass, heat blanket, waterpurification tablets, first aid gear, my phone for emergencies, and nutrition, so it was all ready to go. I opted to listen to my iPod on the bike since I wasn’t too worried about traffic or lots of people on course. I also used cushioned gloves and didn’t bother using my Garmin since I have a basic bike computer for speed and time of day. Once I got changed and geared up, I set off on the bike in a great, come-what-may mood just before 9am thinking, well here goes nothing, time for my first genuine mountain bike ride!
The bike started with gravel roads leaving the dam, so I focused on picking my line and was grateful for the advice to put lower pressure in my tires in order to grip a little better. I was jamming out to great music and thanking God for the beauty of the open road, especially when we got to take advantage of a paved road for a bit before linking up with more gravel roads heading towards the trails. When I wasn’t marveling at the landscape, I was envisioning epic falls with the constant sliding of the gravel beneath my wheels. Coming off of the gravel, one of the prettiest sections was a field of yellow canola that I captured in a photo on loop 2. After that, we went down a gut-wrenching (for me) descent that had me feathering my brakes and praying a whole lot. It was fairly steep at 20+ mph the entire time with water washouts and some major high crash potential locations. I was recalling over and over Cynthia telling me to trust my bike. Part of me could not stop grinning, but the cautious side of me was full of anxiety. Coming off of the downhill, we came to a riverbed, where we had to ford the river with our bikes hitched over our shoulders to get to the other side. I was grinning from ear to ear, thinking if only my family could see me now! The water was cool and felt great, coming just above waste deep for me. After the crossing, I soon came to a massive mud section with no clear view on how others may have crossed it. I elected for the idea that mountain bikers are hardcore and that they totally must have just biked right on through it. Well, if people were able to glimpse this epic moment, I got halfway before completely falling over in the mud and caking myself in it, face and all. It was absolutely hilarious. I could not stop laughing at how brilliant this day would be if that was how my bike ride was starting. After the giant mud puddle, we had a couple other muddy crossings that I was able to bike through slowly before coming up to some downhills with major speed bump like obstacles at the bases. I was terrified at one point that I must have fractured my left wrist from absorbing the impact of these bumps. After that, we had a variety of terrain, with a lot of ATV trails and then some hard packed sand/gravel sections. The ATV trails had plenty of uphill climbs and switchbacks to constantly keep me focused on the next step. We also got to cross some cobblestone areas that always made me nervous since they looked very slippery. If ever there was a point that I questioned staying upright over an obstacle, I just opted to walk around to avoid injury. During the first loop, I racked up fall after fall. I managed to pull a wheelie on an uphill by accident, slid completely backwards on another uphill (try, try again, right?), skidded out on several gravel sections, accidentally braked too much on a downhill causing my tire to completely seize up and send me flying, had several failed ascents due to not being able to clip in from too much mud in my shoes/pedals (I stopped to scrape it all out after a few fails), and probably managed to fall in every way possible to the point that I could be the sole show on America’s Funniest Videos with 20+ wipeouts. If people could have seen my attempt at teaching myself how to mountain bike, they would have been doubled over in tears from the first loop. Needless to say, I thought of Cynthia, my badass mountain biking friend, the entire time and knew she would be enjoying every minute. I have a whole new appreciation for the sport of Mountain Biking and there was not better way to learn/teach myself it than spending 112 miles on the saddle. Once we finished the crazy trails, we got to ride on some more gravel/road sections to include some crazy long climbs, far too many close encounters with swarms of bees, my improvised aero bars in the form of balancing my elbows on my handle bars, and an epic downhill where I got up to 39mph all while being terrified out of my mind. There was one especially brutal uphill that parallels a ski slope and was roughly 400ft up over the course of a mile. Just before that point, my darn iPod had decided to repeat the same song for 30 min straight, then the next song (Higher by Tiao Cruz) for nearly the same duration, and finally Let It Go for another 30ish whole minutes. It was absolutely the most mental torture I could have endured! I opted to nix the iPod at the 62 mile mark and changed out of my muddy garb too. The second round of the bike course was much better for me, I actually started to resemble a real mountain biker and only fell once the entire time, and even that was just a slide skid out. I was super impressed with my ability to luck out on some close calls and finally realized how to climb and use appropriate gears on my bike. Remember that giant mud puddle that I biked straight into the first loop? Well, a fellow racer had just biked by me right before it and I couldn’t wait to see how he crossed it. Low and behold, much to my surprise and adding hilarity to the situation, he didn’t bike through it, instead he took the trail that started about 10ft before it and snuck around the entire thing. Who knew there was a trail? That would have been great to know loop 1! I chose to take a few pictures during this lap and could not wait to be done with the bike, if only to give my wrists a break. During the bike course, there were several times where I had to dismount for ATV crossings/near collisions. At one point, they were completely blocking my trail and at another, I had to adjust to avoid them and would have fallen, but one man pushed me tour de France style to keep me upright. Also, the second loop was when I decided to walk the major hill I mentioned above to save some energy. I loved the bike, it was the scariest thing I have ever done, and I could not wait to be off of it towards the end, but it was so cool to be out there rocking trails with absolutely no mountain biking experience and only 3 rides on that bike beforehand all less than 10 miles. While I will most likely never be a pro mountain biker, I sure felt like one at points on the second go around when I started to attack more things. I exceeded my longest ride on that bike by 102 miles and managed to keep my goal of 10mph average despite walking up the super long hill the second go around. I got off the bike around 8:15pm to get ready for the ‘run.’ I spent roughly 11 hours and 30 min on that bike and feel like I bought a great bike for the course...minus the saddle!
At T2, I spent about 35 minutes leisurely preparing for the run. I refilled my water, changed completely, stocked up all my essentials to include headlamp, flashlight, insect repellant hood, and nutrition. I also spent a long time chilling in the nice folding chair they had out for us. I was certainly in no hurry to begin the run! I opted for compression socks, a long sleeve top, carried my camelbak, wore a hat and clear glasses, and then put the insect hood over top of that and later the headlamp. Let’s just say that my fashion was impeccable this entire race.
To start off, I was cruising at 9-10 minute pace and loftily envisioning a sub 22 hour finish. I was confident that I could keep that pace, come what may. It was rather uncomfortable running with such a heavily laden camelback, but it was nice knowing I had everything covered for nearly any scenario. After we got off of the gravel path and arrived at our first ‘follow the creek’ section my sub 22 hour idea quickly evaporated. Rather, the creek section was tedious, time consuming, and involved a lot of improvised trails, cold feet from simply walking along the creek bed that was ankle high once I gave up on alternative options, and a lot of uncertain steps that ended up with either sinking deep into mud, sliding on rocks, or losing footing on shale. I could just envision getting injured in the middle of the creek and waiting days to be rescued, not the nicest thought! It took a very long time to get out of that section. I just kept telling myself that I would run once I was out of it. Well, that idea quickly changed as well when the first steps out were up this very steep hill that was barely runnable with grass patches and uneven ground. In fact, even if I hadn’t swam and biked and were doing the entire ‘trail run’ in daylight, I doubt I could run most of it. It appears my concept of trail running differs drastically from that of the North Dakotans! There were some sections that were straight up climbing, others where the sign simply said cross this field with absolutely no path, very steep downhills, cliff-edge trails, a sketchy cabin that I totally sprinted away from with horror movies running through my mind, too many creek bed walks for my liking (~6 miles), epic quick-sand esque mud sections where I ended up waste deep at one point and had to pull myself out with a tree branch, a 30 min detour in the wrong direction crawling through a gazillion tree branches and rocks before having to backtrack it all, and a lot of wild woman moments while I ran with a flashlight in one hand and a stick in the other trying to eliminate all spider webs from my trail. It was crazy spending 10 miles out there without seeing another person. It was just me, the pitch black sky, my head lamp, and my vivid imagination. Here were some of my thoughts: “Did I hear something? Was that a bear track? Is everyone else already done? What was that? Ooh, look! A light! Wait, nope…lightning, definitely lightning. Awesome…Yay! A downhill! That is really steep, no like really, really steep. How far have I gone? 2 miles…in the last hour. So about hiking the Appalachian and PCT…Remind myself to never, ever try to escape someone by running into the woods. At this rate, they would be on to me in minutes! When I am done…in over 16 miles, 16 MILES, oh my gosh, SO FAR! I am glad no one was around to see that. Where on earth did the path go? Am I going the right way? La la la la (aka singing songs in my head) Whoever made this course has a cruel mind. I can see it now, “Hey look, the path goes to the right…let’s throw a marker or two on the left up that steep climb and through all those bushes before putting them back on the trail!.”” There were plenty more thoughts, but the hardest part of the day for me came just before the aid station at mile 10. Finally, I was off the wooded trails and walking along a path that was very runnable, the only problem was not that my legs were too tired, rather, I finally felt the impact of 112 miles on a saddle that I had minimal experience on and was night and day from my tri saddle. I felt like the saddle had destroyed all soft tissue and it became apparent that my anti-chafing measures did nothing. I wanted to cry, I paused to collect myself and while I really wanted to run, even walking was painful with the movement of the fabric. I just focused on each step until I finally shuffled my way to the aid station and the last access point to my spare gear. I refilled my water and switched out a couple items I also put on my rain coat because just as I left it started raining. As I trekked on, I walked along a gravel road surrounded by low lying fields and no trees with lightning strikes and thunder turning the sky into a vision of turmoil. It was exquisite and so ironic to be doing the Wilderman in such epic elements, but the rain made me shiver and I even contemplated breaking out my emergency heat blanket. I thought that I seriously might die from a lightning strike and was very happy to look behind me and see a fellow racer approaching about a mile back. A car drove by and asked me if I was going to press on, for most races that wouldn’t even be an option! Was there even a question of stopping? Part of me wanted them to call me off the course and say they had to cancel due to the storm, because that would be the easy way out. But, my competitive side told me to make it to the woods before they could find me to drag me off the course. A short while later, Luke caught up to me and we silently decided to do the rest of the race together. I tried to match his longer stride and it helped me to ignore the pain I had been focusing on earlier. We left the road with 11 miles to go and we were optimists in thinking that we could keep a good pace throughout the rest of the hike. Again, joke was on us as we ended up on a creek bed that was more like a stretched slinky causing us to do so many zigzags that we questioned our sanity and had far too many déjà vu moments for our liking. We climbed under and over trees/branches, stepped into deep mud that was becoming more and more exhausting to pull out of, went nearly waste deep at points in the very chilly water, got attacked by every vicious plant out there as we tried to forge new paths, and followed the creek bed for longer than it took the sun to rise again. Seeing another creek bed was the last thing I wanted at that point, the elation at seeing a sign signaling the end of it was on of the ultimate highs of the day. Of course, the end of the creek brought us to the next river crossing. At that point it had a pretty nice current flowing too and was probably a good 20ft plus wide. The next part wasn’t too challenging as it was just walking straight across a very long field. Our GPS distances didn’t match, so we were unsure how much longer was left. Just when we were getting back to a decent pace, we ended up at another creek section that was more of boulder hopping and a lot of slips that could have resulted in serious injuries. I was very tentative with every step and shuffled my feet a lot since there were several deep drops in the middle. We had to follow this final section for a mile before we said bye to the water altogether. There was an aid station at the end and we had to scale a loose rock wall to get to it before continuing on through a section that seemed like it would have been better, but was a path full of hidden holes. We slowly trekked on past points would narrow to less than a foot wide with drops a couple feet down on either side. With the wet grass, it was hard not to fall. A while later, we came to one of my favorite signs of the day in terms of bringing joy. While I was greatly amused by the signs saying follow field to the other side, walk this direction until next sign, and arrows pointing straight up, the ~2 miles left sign was a blessing. The final mile of that was all uphill on a hill similar to the one we had biked earlier. It was symbolic and funny how that seemed like nothing compared to everything else we had to endure because the end was so close. It was the final push that brought us to a finish at 8:30am. 25 hours and 30 minutes after we started and well under the 28 hour cutoff. We were the 3rd and 4th finishers for the Wilderman and there were still two other competitors out there on course. The finish was so magical. There was no finisher medal, and no crowd, there was only one person sitting in a chair by a sign that stated “This is where suffering-tears-shivering-hunger-bleeding-agony-exhaustion doubt ENDS (also known as the finish).” The perfect ending to the longest day and change of my life.
This race was by far the hardest thing I have ever done. I love ironman races because of the challenge and the people that do them. I love the crowds, the energy, and the strategy. This offroad ironman had very few people, but quality supersedes quantity. My fellow racers were each incredible people in their own right and the volunteers were absolutely wonderful. It was a long and grueling race and I was so grateful to being able to spend so many miles with great company when Luke joined me. It would have been a much longer day without him out there to take my mind off of exhaustion. I can officially call myself a mountain biker and a Wilderman! I am so happy to have done this and grew so much and was humbled time and time again on course. You never know your own strength until you challenge it.