Wilderman: A Love Story

The Wilderman is harder, better, wilder, and a heck of a lot less expensive than IRONMAN™ and XTERRA™ events. So claims the race organizer Joel Larson on the opening page of the race website, and as a race finisher this past weekend I’m not inclined to disagree.

Wilderman is one among the new crop of events for those for whom the standard Ironman no longer scratches the itch. It takes place in and around the Pembina Gorge in North Dakota, so close to Canada that my phone’s text box was loaded with details on international roaming charges. The swim is 2.4mi in a lake; the bike is roughly 112mi on dirt and the run, well, the “run” is something else entirely.

Larson’s likeable and unique style was on display at the pre-race meeting. It would likely put off the type-A triathletes you see at the paved and pampering races. One question at the meeting was, “How can I keep my feet dry in the creek bed sections of the run?” Joel’s answer was “Don’t even try. I love running in wet shoes. I pour water on my shoes before every run.”

I did my due diligence before the start by studying old race reports, mapping out the course topography with several on-line tools, studying the weather and more. While GPX files and Spot-Trackers were offered, I chose to go old school relying on well marked trails and my internal compass. The day prior to the race I drove every bit of the course that was accessible by car, and walked a few hundred meters into each trail section to get a feel for what was to come.

I was daunted by some of what I saw: a 2k climb on the bike that gains 450ft on a dusty, gravel road, and the beginning of a creek bed run section that looked impassable. I was also enchanted with other sections: wide open spaces of farmland with few fences, and loamy soil giving way to verdant crops waving in the wind. North Dakota is beautiful.

At the pre-race meeting on Friday night I received a swim cap and nothing else. There are no numbers assigned here, we simply give our name to volunteers at certain check points and at the very limited aid stations. There’s no chip timing; the race starts at 7am and volunteers simply write down the time of day as you pass by their area. After the meeting, I placed my bike in T1 – which is to say, I laid it on the grass near the lake and headed back to the only hotel in Walhalla to get a short and nervous night’s sleep.

There are some logistics at Wilderman: T1 and T2 are in different locations and the finish is in yet another spot. Before the start I set my T2 bag, bike fuel bag – which I’d be able to access at mile 12, 60 and 106 of the bike – and a bag for mile-15 of the run into their respective piles so that the volunteer staff could disperse them around the course. A dearth of aid stations combined with the remote race course demands excellent planning for brief and infrequent moments of support.

The swim allowed all 26 starters to go off together – the same number as the inaugural race in 2014 – 9 started the full, 12 started the half, and there were 5 relay teams. The lake was warm – in the mid 70s –and we had been instructed to stop at the turn buoy after the end of loop-1 and yell our names to volunteer Carmen, who stood on shore. There was a strong wind blowing straight down the narrow lake and while the first leg of the swim was a joy, the return was straight into a building chop. Knowing how long this day was going to be, I cruised the swim and was first out of the water in 75 minutes. T1 took 3 minutes, and I rolled off for the 2-loop bike ride.

The bike course is 10 miles of pavement, 34 miles of ATV trails and roughly 68 miles of gravel farm roads. We also had to wade, waist deep across the Pembina River carrying our bikes…twice! The trails are part of a state recreation area designed and maintained specifically for ATVs. The system of trails crisscross the side of the Pembina Gorge and are covered with a canopy of lush trees and bushes. The trails are 5-feet wide, smooth with very few rocks or tree roots, and have banked corners that make most of this section a combination of a GS ski course and a BMX pump track.

There are many deep mud sections eroded into ditches some of which can be ridden and others require a dismount and a brief hike-a-bike to cross. While I saw all versions of mountain bikes in the race (26”, 650B, 29ers and fat bikes), a few of us chose to ride some version of a gravel bike and it was the right tool for this job. I rode almost the whole trail section in the drops and had such fun that my broad grin was only reduced now and then to keep the throngs of dragonflies out of my teeth.

The farm roads were a different kind of joy; every road ran alongside endless acres of mature crops. There were oceans of waist-high barley, yellow canola, and flax with little blue flowers on top. The course even had many segments on private land, and one of the tractor paths ran so close to a snap pea crop that I was able to reach down while riding and pluck several pods fresh off the plant for a quick snack. I saw wild turkeys, deer, and a bald eagle.

I pulled into T2 at 5:40pm with a 9:25 bike split. You’re reading that correctly; my bike split was roughly equivalent to the entire race time for the slowest Kona qualifier at IM Lake Placid in M30-34 age group. T2 was situated in the grassy front lawn of a remote farmhouse. The property owners were standing under a 10x10 pop up tent next to the typical Wilderman offerings: water and bananas. I stripped behind a tree in their yard and donned full-length tights, a long sleeve cooling shirt, and a hydration vest in preparation for the “run”.

I will forever refer to the last leg of Wilderman with quotes. This segment does offer about 7 miles of possible running. An elite trail runner doing a relay might eke out 10 or even 12 miles of running but no one could run this entire course. The first mile was a joy and I think I clicked it off at 8:30 pace, but then I dropped down into the first of 3 creek bed sections.

There is no trail in these sections, only a narrow canyon with a stream running through the bottom. The initial desire is to run on the banks of the creek to avoid getting wet, but they are obstructed by tall grass, thick brush, deep shoe-removing mud, and toppled trees – some of which are high enough to duck under, some low enough to climb over, but most seem to have fallen perfectly in-between.

The 3 creek bed sections total over 7 miles and change day-to-day depending on heavy rains that can re-sculpt the course in a matter of hours. A fast pace through these segments would be anything under an 18min mile. The remaining 10 miles of trail scattered along the course are also difficult to run due to extreme steepness (both incline and decline) and thick growth. The loam that brought me so much joy on the bike helped to create the 7th level of hell on the run: bushes and weeds so think you couldn’t see your feet obscuring the many downed limbs, long grasses, rocks and holes that tripped me up nearly a dozen times.

I pulled into the finish (touching a huge hunk of wood with the Extreme North Dakota logo carved into it) just before 2am and that shook out to a run split of 8:14. Upon reflection, the torture of the “run” only made the reprieves that much sweeter. As an example, at mile-9 I was in a very bad place; out of water, bonking and with still a mile to go to the first aid station. I emerged from the forest to see a remote hunting cabin and a note on the course from the race director: “The course goes straight ahead but there are cold drinks in the fridge in the cabin if you need them.” Two cold Cokes and I was back to life! That snap-shot is exemplary of this new breed of ultra-endurance races; the difficulty makes the lows a bit lower and the highs even higher.

A closing note on how nutty Wilderman is….I finished just before 2 am, drove back to my hotel to shower and slept until 7am. I drove back out to the finish at the country club, primarily because it was the only place in town that served breakfast on a Sunday. I was sharing war stories with the other racers over breakfast when volunteer Carmen (to whom I had yelled my name at 7:30am and who recorded my time at my 2am finish) came in to tell us that the last finisher was about to arrive outside – it was 9:40am, 26 hours and 40 minutes since we started.

[Editor's note: Ian didn't just "finish" the Wilderman; he finished first. The photos are his (he took them during the race); or if they're of him they're taken by Jaci Woinarowicz of Great Northern Bicycle Company. There is one photo from a prior year's edition of the race, and the credit is on that photo. This year's racers would've looked similarly had there been someone with a camera to memorialize the crossings.]