Executive Summary:
–  25:10 total time. 1:40 swim, 11:50 bike, 11:50 run. Probably some transition time and stuff in there too.
–  Swim was long and choppy. Bike was a perfect mix of flat gravel road, rutted ATV track and groomed, flowing ATV track. I don’t know if there’s a perfect bike for a dry WILDERMAN course, but probably a modified cross bike is your best bet.
–  Run. What can I say. Hardest f*ing trail I’ve ever run, even without the 114+ miles that preceded it.
Preface
I signed up for this little adventure either back in December or January with the rest of “The Wolfpack” (Jacob, Tom and I).  The idea being we would either do this or Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race and this one sounded like more of an adventure.  Plus, who doesn’t love North Dakota and visiting Scott?!
As the event got closer, my training went to absolute sh*t. Ihad done well training for Triple T, but the event itself was a beast and I had no energy for two weeks. After that, I was spending 5-6 hours every night prepping for race directing Copper Creek, which left no time for training. This essentially I had a two week taper, Triple T, four more weeks of taper, one decent week of training, and then a taper until this event. My goal changed from challenging for first to just plain survival. (It should be noted that had I been in shape, even spending 5 minutes talking to Ian, aka Dragon slayer, I would’ve known he was going to win, barring a mechanical or getting lost.)
Going to the event was actually quite relaxing and a huge relief, given the crap I had dealt with leading up to the race. I had a relaxing day before volunteering at Project AWARE, where we helped in the removal of over 56,000 pounds of trash from the Cedar River (woo hoo).

 

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Project AWARE cleanup.  Good, clean fun.

 

 

I left from there to meet Jacob and we drove up to Fargo, for a quick spin on the Scheels Ferris Wheel and then to Grand Forks for lunch with Scott, Tom and Tom’s brother. Aside from a surprise flat on Friday night, everything was going swimmingly.


Swim
The swim was a doozy. It was cool and windy at the start with overcast clouds. I had put my wetsuit on early just to stay warm. The water was warm, in the 70s, but the air temp was cool. I brought my mirrored goggles, which are great for outdoor swimming in a bright sun. The only problem was there was no sun at all so all I could see was a wall of grey. As I entered the water, I looked for the buoy off the distance, but couldn’t see anything. That’s right, there are two buoys, one at the start and one at the turnaround. Good. F*ing. Luck. So I just followed the splashing and off I went.
After I passed the first buoy I looked at my watch and saw 24:00. I thought “HOLY CRAP! I must’ve swam 350 meters in the wrong direction!” But in fact, I had not. The course was (presumably) just that long. This was the beginning of “Death by 1,000 paper cuts” that this course would throw at me this day. I looked to what I thought was the north and started to swim back, until I heard something behind me, and I realized I had gotten turned around and almost started swimming in the opposite direction. “Oh boy. It’ll be amazing if I can actually get through this thing.”
The overall swim was longer than I anticipated, measuring 2.9 miles instead of the expected 2.4 on my Garmin. I believe a stiff NNE wind all night had moved the buoy a fair amount which made the course a pinch long. Other athletes I talked to agreed. My normal half ironman swim is usually 34-36 minutes. This was approximately 48 minutes each time. We all had to swim the same course, so it is what it is.
Bike.
We started out headed south on the bike and I pedaled a comfortable 18-19 mph at heartrate of 150 bpm. I wanted to take it really easy at first so was trying to stay under 145 bpm on this flat section, but that was really hard. The first 11 miles were flat but really beautiful country and I found myself easily distracted in this part. We headed back north into the wind, also dubbed “The North Dakota Mountains” and my pace dropped precipitously even though the course was flat as a pancake. This section was my favorite of the whole course as we passed some beautiful rapeseed fields on a rutty B before we dive bombed down a rough ATV track into the gorge. This was my first inclination that this course was an unforgiving b*tch.
At mile 14, you reach the bottom of the gorge and dismount to carry your steed over the thigh high river crossing. The next seven miles were a climb up the gorge on heavily rutted and somewhat muddy ATV track. This section was the most technical and thus my least favorite section where I had a couple dismounts around light mud and poorly executed hill climbs. It was hard to hydrate here as there were few breaks in the terrain that would allow you take your hands off the handle bars.

 

 

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At mile 14, you reach the bottom of the gorge and dismount to carry your steed over the thigh high river crossing. The next seven miles were a climb up the gorge on heavily rutted and somewhat muddy ATV track. This section was the most technical and thus my least favorite section where I had a couple dismounts around light mud and poorly executed hill climbs. It was hard to hydrate here as there were few breaks in the terrain that would allow you take your hands off the handle bars.

 
At mile 14, you reach the bottom of the gorge and dismount to carry your steed over the thigh high river crossing. The next seven miles were a climb up the gorge on heavily rutted and somewhat muddy ATV track. This section was the most technical and thus my least favorite section where I had a couple dismounts around light mud and poorly executed hill climbs. It was hard to hydrate here as there were few breaks in the terrain that would allow you take your hands off the handle bars.

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Photo Credit: Wes Peck

During this section, there was one section of mud right up a small incline. I was positioned on the wrong side and tried to cross over, unintentionally lifting up my handlebars, jerking the wheel hard left and landing down, by total accident, just over the muddy section and with my jacked up wheel perfectly positioned in the dry dirt. It was so f*ing rad. I looked around to make sure how cool it was and to see who saw it. Psh. NO ONE. Effort wasted! I felt like waiting for someone to come through so I could talk about it, but decided to keep going.

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LOL! I’m an idiot…

After about seven miles of getting beat up in the rutty ATV section, it was time to climb out and reach an aid station, which consisted of a cooler with a few bottles of water in it. I stopped here to chug some water and refuel before heading out again. The next section I believe was about 8 miles long and was well maintained ATV track. This is mostly descending but was more flowing and easier to traverse than the first part. I really enjoyed this part and it was easily the most fun part of the entire course. However, it did lead to a false sense of confidence because as soon as you got going, then there would either be a suicidal “S” curve or a surprise ATV caravan traversing up the trail. Once done with this, it was a steep descent down a gravel road to Aid 2 with a bike mechanic and some real food (a banana) and then back on to a short section of ATV track that was a short climb up to the Pembina Gorge Park Entrance and then on to gravel road. This was my best section because it was downhill with a tailwind on gravel road and the only part I could go over 12 mph. This eventually lead back past the Country Club and down deep into the gorge on gravel roads and back out.

The climb through the gorge was a bastard, plain and simple. My garmin measured the highest temps of the day here and I had the wrong gears for such a climb and I ended up walking some. As I crested the hill, I was dripping with sweat. I think I easily burned through 16oz of water just on this hill. The next section was fairly flat, with a little bit of B road and ATV track on private road and only a couple climbs and descents that were manageable before you climbed back on some paved road and back north into that nasty wind. As I came into our midway point, I was struggling so I took a good long break and tried to refuel as much as I could. I had Perpetuem in my bag and I had been using it in my bottles on my bike. I noticed when I drank it I felt really good, so I decided to double down on it for the second lap. (If one scoop of something is good, then two must be better, right?) This would turn out to be a mistake. I got the last of my food and headed out on the second lap.
The second lap was much of the same and I knew I would be walking a lot with the gears I had selected and just based off my energy level. Surprisingly, I felt better through the rutty uphill climb past the river crossing than I did the first time. The Perpeteum must’ve been working! MOAR MOAR MOAR. Keep drinking, I thought! You’re unstoppable! This lasted until I got to the top of the climb, and then my body started rejecting the Perpeteum full force. I felt all puffy and gross, like the stay fresh marshmallow man or something. I struggled through the downhill flow track and the descent to the bike mechanic. Once there, I drank some water and had something to eat at the aid station. I was constantly worried about my rear wheel as I my tire was totally flat on Friday night and I was convinced it would flat during the race. I tested it by pushing on it and it seemed fine so I rode off once again.
I didn’t make it 400 feet before I turned on to the ATV track and heard a loud “PSST!” and I instantly knew I had a flat. I looked behind me and saw Stan’s shooting from my tire like a geyser. I stopped and stared at it like a moron. “Do your job, Stan!” I thought, before thinking “Stop it, you idiot!” I tried to flip the tire to the ground to stop the leak to see if it would help but to no avail. Completely gone. I walked it back to the mechanic to hopefully have him solve it. He tried to pump it up and cover the hole, but it was a good 1/8th of an inch and the Stan’s didn’t stand a chance. He started to put in a new tube.
**This here is the scariest part of my race. I was sitting in a chair in the shade, trying to get my bearings and watch the mechanic work on my bike. The mechanic had taken my rear wheel off and was working a tube into the tire. At that moment a truck drove by and shouted out the window to get everyone’s attention, curious as to what event was going on. Simultaneously, a wind gust blew through at the worst possible time, knocking the bike stand over with my bike on it. The bike stand was positioned just right and was just long enough so that the tool tray came crashing down and smacked a small girl (I’d say 5 or 6) square on the back of the head who was sitting in a chair. Every one there saw all this happen about 2 seconds too late and, from my view knocked the girl out cold. We moved the stand off of her as she sat slumped over in the chair. Her mom was there in a beat and picked her up and consoled her and she came to, but to me it looked really bad. She ended up being fine, but man, just that moment scared the crap out of me. **
After everything settled down, we got the tire in and I was on my way. There was about 32 miles left, but they were a struggle. I had zero energy left for climbing, and I due to my terrible gear selection, the gorge I had to partially walk last time I had to walk the entire way this time. I think it was about 500 feet of vertical over 1.25 miles and had to slowly grind up the damn thing. After that the bike was pretty simple and I just had to muster through it.
I got to T2 and they informed me the 2nd place person, Scott, had just left. (They had stopped updating me on where first place Ian was.  I guess when someone is two hours in front of you they do that.)  I took my time here knowing I would have to make a strong push to the end. I Still didn’t see anyone the whole time in transition so I figured I had a comfortable lead in third at this point.  From here I would hope to muster enough to catch Scott and grab second.
Run
The run. What can I say. I’m speechless. This is by far the hardest trail run I’ve ever done, hands down. And it was after a 112 mile* (well, 114 mile, but who’s counting) bike ride. It was deceiving because the first 0.5 mile is on gravel road and b road, so you think it’ll be easy. Then the trail stops and you’re left to run on what I wouldn’t describe not so much as a trail but a loosely marked passage through heavy brush. It’s not like you’re supposed to be there, or anyone for that matter, but this is the route you get to go through to get to the creek. It’s a good opportunity to fold up your poles here and use them to hack away the brush.
Once into the first creek, it’s impossible terrain, but in hindsight not nearly as bad as the bullsh*t you’ll see later on. There’s a few weeds, but not much, just lots of shale rock, boulders and many, many minor inconveniences. This goes on for two miles and is comparatively easy to traverse. As I said, in hindsight, this part of the run is easy!

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The next section is a monster climb up an overgrown ATV track which is actually pretty cool and scenic given the situation. This is, however, until you realize you get to the peak and are running along the ridge and have to go back down. I reached this point at dusk and it was quite difficult to see. You might say I overdramatize things and paint stuff in colorful language, however, this section was, no bullsh*t here, the most absolutely terrifying run of my entire because if you tripped to your right, you would die. Not “Oh, you could maybe die.” No, you would fall 300 feet and you’d be dead. The trail here consists of a 2 foot wide path of loose clay dirt and it could be possible it’s eroded and 190 pounds of pressure away from giving out and carrying you to your death. If you have vertigo, a fear of heights or are a sane person, do not attempt. Eventually you do cross a washed out section that isn’t deadly if you fall down it, but you wouldn’t be able to climb out of it if you went down it, which I almost did.
After descending this and getting to the bottom, the next section of trail is what appears to be overgrown deer track. The footing is completely overgrown so plants grab at your feed constantly and it’s impossible to see where your feet land so you just blindly plant your foot in hopes that there is flat ground there and not a rock, root or possible snake underfoot. I had gators on and I’m glad I did because there was a ton of debris that was grabbing at my ankles that wanted to pull me down.
After about 8 miles of this, it’s a gravel road run for about 7 more miles. The gravel road was nice and flat and eerily quiet, but I was unable to run any more at this point because I got light headed any time my heartrate went above 150.

 

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Photo Credit: Wes Peck. He takes awesome photos.

 

Pretty soon I was at mile 16, the run “midpoint” and last stop before certain death. I was at 5 hours on the run here and was feeling pretty confidant I could finish in sub 9:00, maybe sub 8:30 as long as nothing went wrong. Gawd, that was stupid thinking because things certainly went wrong. Now, if you ever do this race, and you get to this point, the aid station people are very nice but strangely guarded. It’s as if they know you are about to embark on the dumbest decision of your life and they’re just like “Err… welp. Good luck.” Had they given me the option at this point to return back the nearly 130 miles I’d already gone, or go through this 4.5 miles of hell, in hindsight, I probably would take the 130 miles I’d already gone through.
As I left to head into the 4.5 mile creek section a vehicle dropped off a pacer for another runner at the same time and I recognized another runner who had already finished. She yelled out the window “Good luck. It’s really overgrown in there.” She might as well of screamed “Are you prepared to meet your death!?” pulled on the Clown mask from “It” and peeled out in the gravel, shotgunning me with rock. I feel like that would’ve at least properly prepared me for what the hell awaited me within, because I had no idea.
I stepped into the gorge and immediately knew what she was talking about. It’s hard describe just how insane this terrain was, but it felt like I had paid someone money to try to kill me and they just kept throwing more insane sh*t at me. The rules of the creek section are “just go until you get out or die.” There are no markings, and you can’t see anything but heavy overgrown brush in this first two mile section. The creek we follow is unnamed but should be called “The Creek of a Thousand Broken Ankles” or “What are you doing stop this isn’t for running seriously stop this is such a bad idea to walk down this” creek.

 

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Some of the easy brush you walk through.  This is a photo of someone who had daylight and could presumably see.  I had no such luck.  Photo Credit: Wes Peck

Keep in mind it is now 2am, I’m hungry, thirsty and completely delirious. I am fighting off sleep as I stand up. I have arm warmers on and a jacket, but I’m still freezing cold and shaking. The best solution for said predicament, as everyone knows, is wading in water that is 50 degrees. The only way to traverse this trail section is to walk in the creek water. The grass is completely impossible to pass through and there are hundreds of trees down that require you to climb up, around and under. Some trees are solid and able to step on, others are mush and have wasp nests buried inside. I quickly discover that walking in the freezing water numbs my feet just enough to where I don’t realize the hundreds of shale chunks that have sifted into my shoes and are now under my feet.
I made it approximately one mile until this mess until I hit an “S” curve that was very confusing. I dubbed this section my Grass Cage of Emotion. I figure it was the size of my living room but that did not stop me from getting lost in it for over an hour. The water comes to a stop and eddies under some fallen trees and appears to stop. Somewhere else, the water continues in a trickle. When I came upon this section, there were wet footprints there so I had assumed I had already been through this part and got turned around. I looked down at the water, and through my tired eyes and the pure shallowness of the water, it appeared to be going in the opposite direction, uphill, so I turned around and looked for an alternate route. After walking around for a bit I came upon the section I had entered at. I was completely perplexed. I walked around some more. There was no where to go. This was a dead end, I was sure of it. I pulled out my gps and it was of no help. It didn’t have the necessary magnification that I needed to get me out. I got up on the bank and tried to look around. I walked 10 feet in and immediately got lost and couldn’t even find where I had entered. I walked some more and eventually found the bank and got back in the water. I knocked enough grass down in this section soon to resemble that of a battle royal between a herd of buffalo. After more than an hour I saw Scott’s light, and he was being paced by Megan. It was like two angels descending down to rescue me.  They asked me what I was doing and I said I was lost. Scott said “We’ll just follow Megan. She’s pretty good at navigating this stuff.” They literally took 30 seconds to find the exit (the one I found the first time) and got us out of there. I decided to walk with them for the next hour and half so that I wouldn’t die.

We traversed through the weeds, over and under brush. Eventually, we emerged out of the really thick brush were we couldn’t see and into just downed trees and heavy mud. Like, suck your shoe off calf deep mud. I got stuck once and thought I was going to rip my calf clean off my foot. Take my foot, shoe, whatever. I don’t care mud. Screw you. Fortunately I just lost a shoe. After the mud it turns to boulders. This section was especially fun because you get your shoe nice and wet and full of mud and then try to jump from smooth boulder to smooth boulder, all while praying you don’t slip and break a leg or land on your face. Scott fell once hard in this section and landed on his hip. He laid there for a bit but was fortunately okay. He asked us what we’d do if he had broken a hip. I guess the only logical answer is “I don’t know… put you down? We can’t rescue you or get any type of vehicle or anything back here. You’re basically screwed in this part.” Eventually the path cleared up a bit and I continued on alone until I got to the campfire and the river crossing. I believe this 4.5 mile section ended up taking me approximately 3 hours. That’s right. I averaged 1.5 miles per hour. RACE PACE!
I warmed up by the fire and was told I was about 5 miles away. That was a lie. I was 7.5 miles away. Which normally isn’t much, but at my pace that meant 50 more minutes of walking. The next section was a steep up hill climb on an old ATV track. It wasn’t terrible, it was just covered in dewy grass and pretty dang cold. I shivered my way to the top and through another one mile creek bed filled with large boulders before coming to the last aid station. From there, it was 4.5 miles up a “trail”. This was really just a washed out deer like path where if you stepped right you were fine, but if you stepped left there was an 18 inch gully that as good for blowing out your knee. This part wasn’t terrible, other than it went nonsensically took up this insane climb that went up and up and up and about 1 mile out of the way, approximately the distance over what the full marathon distance should be.

Eventually all the nonsense ends.. .well, almost. You drop out into the bottom of the gorge one last tie and climb up a mile long 400 foot climb to the finish. I can say, I’ve never been more glad to see a mile long climb in my entire life.


Total finish time 25:10. I give my effort a “C”. I did a poor job of picking the right gear for my bike and I ended up having a horrible run.   Regardless, I was still able to finish on a tough day and ended up 2nd overall. As Sarah Cooper had said after her RAAM finish this year, “Would you rather have a perfect race and maybe set some records along the way or would you rather endure the struggle, and this is one where I am glad I definitely endured the struggle.” I can say that I definitely enjoyed enduring the struggle this day. I’ve done a lot of stupid sh*t in my life, including an Ironman, riding across Iowa in a day (twice), some trail ultras and a couple other 100+ mile long gravel rides. This race treats all of those like a warm up. Along the way in tough races, I like to compare where I’m at mentally to where I was at when I completed RAID in 2013, what I had considered my toughest race.  I thought 16 miles into the run that maybe RAID and this would be about the same difficulty. Playing that game keeps me motivated. “Hey, you did RAID. You can do this.” However, that all changed as soon as the creek running happened and this race blew that notion out of the water (literally. HA!). If you’re up for it, it is a great challenge but there is literally nothing I’ve ever done that could prepare me for that run. The best advice I could give you is this:
Good F*ing luck. You’ll need it. You’re probably going to die.

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Photo Credit: Wes Peck

 

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