The Wilderman Triathlon And The Story Of A Pesky Beaver

In July of 2018, 4 of us stood in Lake Placid, NY, watching the Ironman and discussing a little race called “Wilderman”. I had never heard of Wilderman, but it sounded intriguing: an off-road iron distance race – 2.4 mile swim, 111 miles of mountain/gravel biking and a 27+ miles “on foot”.  

Fast forward to this past weekend, July 2019, and I intimately found out why they title the last portion of the race “on foot” vs calling it “the run”.

Oh Wilderman!  You certainly are better, harder and, wilder, just as your motto suggests.

Two of us actually made it to Wilderman (the other 2 of the original 4 conveniently had something else to do).  The two that did make it were Tim Snow, QT2 Training Services Director, and myself.

But let’s back up a bit. Wilderman is in northern North Dakota. Think Canada.  Like in the race meeting they told us we’d be close enough to the border that we might hear the border patrol planes.  I said a little prayer that I wouldn’t end up lost in the Canadian wilderness.  Tim and I decided we would drive to North Dakota.  From Boston. The trip was already epic from the drive alone, and the race hadn’t even started.

The pre-race meeting was also epic.  First, it was at 6:30 pm the night before the race.  So up until about 12 hours prior to the race, I had no idea what was actually going to happen the next day.  Wilderman isn’t a big race.  There aren’t extensive course maps and tons of previous Garmin files to study.  Really and truly, only a handful of people have finished the full distance (there is also a half distance) so there really aren’t even others to ask about the race.

So…pre-race meeting. I went into it concerned about getting lost and just not being able to finish the distance.  I left the meeting still very concerned about those two items, but now also worried about ticks, mosquitos, my clothing choices, having to filter river/creek water to drink, becoming overly cold during the run (in the dark), and well, a few others that I’ve already forgotten.

What exactly had we gotten ourselves into??

The next morning dawned and we were on our way to the race.  I had a very “well, we just need to get started and take it as it comes attitude”, as did Tim.  That was all we could do at that point.

The swim is the most “normal” part of the race.  Not too many ways they could make it more challenging than a normal IM swim.  It was two loops.  You could wear a wetsuit if you wanted, but neither Tim nor I did (I actually forgot mine back at the hotel).  They took role call at the start (only 28 people started including full, half and relay athletes) and then they basically said “GO”.  Well okay then!  

Tim was kind enough to pull me through the swim.  I no longer train like a professional triathlete so my swim volume was, well, a bit lacking. Still though, on Tim’s feet (he was backstroking at times waiting for me), we swam a 1:03 pretty easily.  When we got out of the water, he said to me “let’s go for a bike ride!”.

Indeed, let’s go for a bike ride.

The thing about Wilderman is it is an insanely laid back race.  You can really do whatever you want, so long as you cover the distance. You can even pick the distance you want to do, in a sense.  For example, some people did the full swim, the half bike, and the full run.  The race is much more about going out and challenging yourself in whatever capacity you feel like doing so, and having fun along the way.  That was probably one of the most enjoyable parts of the entire experience.  

The ride – both Tim and I chose to ride mountain bikes.  And I’m certainly glad I made that choice.  I have a gravel bike and some did ride gravel bikes.  But there were definitely sections of the ride that a gravel bike would have been above my skill level.  Most notably rutted downhill sections.  Loose gravel.  If you had skill, you’d be fine.  Suffice it to say, Tim and my skill levels dictated a mountain bike and while certainly slower on some of the dirt road and paved road sections, 100% worth it to better enjoy the ride.

I’ve never ridden 111 miles on a mountain bike.  That’s a LONG time on a mountain bike.  This ride also has what I would consider a lot of climbing – over 6500 feet with some steep punchy climbs and some longer sustained climbing.  And a river crossing that was actually pretty cool.  I mean this is the stuff you tell stories about for years to come.  And each time you tell the story, the river you crossed gets deeper.  ;)

The bike is two loops and Tim and I rode much of the first loop together.  I don’t descend very well so he’d get ahead of me at times but we’d group back up eventually.  On the second loop, he got ahead of me for good around mile 85 and I didn’t see him again until T2.  I was toast and in a bad spot.  So it was probably good for me to ride by myself for a while – ride my tempo and have my own pity party.  I also started, at that point, to eat everything I had in my camelback vest to try to revive myself.

I almost forgot about the wind!  North Dakota – you have some legit wind.  And long straight roads where you can see forever. And the wind on those roads? Well, it can crush your soul if you let it. So riding back into T2 by myself on the 2nd loop, I tried to keep my head positive and mostly wondered if Tim was waiting in T2 or if he started the run without me.

He was waiting.  And eating All. The. Things.  I wasn’t even thinking about running a marathon.  I was only thinking about not biking anymore. And not wearing my bike shoes. Because my feet really hurt.  

Link to bike Strava file HERE.

I changed my clothes, ate nearly an entire bag of chips, and then tried to start thinking about the 27+ miles left in this race.  

And so we started off on the run course.  Here’s the thing.  We STARTED the run at 6:30 pm.  I’ve never gone over 11 hours in an Ironman and most of my racing was done closer to the 9:30 range.  So that means I was usually done with Ironman at 4-4:30 pm.  And now here I was STARTING the marathon at 6:30 pm.  This was hard to wrap my mind around.  

Plus, the thing Tim and I couldn’t really figure out is why the previous years run times were so slow. The run course record was close to 7 hours and most years, the FASTEST run times were in the 9:30 range.

What the what?

We were soon to find out why….

As we started down the trail, Tim said “if you would have come into T2 and said you didn’t want to run, I was ready to grab the car and get us to Sporty’s (local bar in Langdon, ND where we were staying).”  Which is unfortunate because I had been thinking “I REALLY REALLY don’t want to do this run, but I can’t let Tim down”.  Dang – we should have gotten our stories straight a little earlier.

Nonetheless, we started this thing, time to finish.

The run is hard to explain. It’s like NOTHING I could have imagined. Multiple times I thought “what sadistic mind even came up with this course!!”.  HA!  It started fair enough but quickly dipped into a creek bed.  A creek bed that was still filled with water.  So really, just a creek.  That section was 2.5 miles of hopping from rock to rock, sometimes just trudging through ankle or knee deep water.  And mud.  Oh the mud. But it was relatively early and our spirits were still relatively high.  We got through that first creek section which led to the next 6 miles of overgrown, hilly (think STEEP up and downs with some bushwhacking) trails.  That was slow going for me and Tim got ahead.  I had some dark moments there.  I didn’t do a lot of running and some of the trail was on a cliff side and I’m SCARED TO DEATH of being up high on cliffs like that. I feel so unsteady and like I’m falling, dizzy, etc…. I started to doubt my ability to get through this.  This was hard and getting harder.  I felt alone (as you can imagine, with this size of a field, you spend the entire day by yourself) and I wanted to get my phone out and call John (my fiancé) merely to have someone to talk to.  Definitely a low point.  

BUT, these trails eventually dumped us out onto dirt gravel roads that were runnable.  YEA!!!  I was so happy.  Like a flipped switch my attitude improved greatly.  I started jogging, thinking I was moving around 11:00 pace but which really ended up being 8:30ish pace.  I was smiling from ear to ear.  Keep this up, and we’ll be done in 6 or 7 hours max!

On this section, I found Tim again.  He was walk/jogging and waiting for me.  Now I was really happy again.  I wasn’t alone, we were running, it was still light outside, we were making up ground.

And then the 14 mile aid station happened.  A happy volunteer fed us coke and refreshed our water and THEN Tim asked what the rest of the course was like.  And this led to my next low point.  She informed us we were about to enter the hardest 8 mile section of the course. No. No. NO!!!  How could it be harder than those first 8 miles?

More creek bed, that’s how. The next 4.5 miles were hard creek bed. Deep water at times.  I was tired.  It was getting dark.  The difference between doing the creek running in the light vs the dark was significant.  More dark times.  

THANKFULLY I was with Tim. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure I would have turned right around when I got into that next creek section and asked for someone to take me home.  Navigation was tough.  It was getting cold.  It was a struggle to see.  Oof.

That section seemed to take forever and indeed, it took us quite some time – close to 2 hours for a little over 4 miles.  We finally saw the way out though!  And that brought a high point.  We ARE going to do this thing!  

From there, we crossed a river, walk/hiked/jogged through some fields and then, then, that lead us to the very last creek section.  This creek section was only 1 mile though!  We can do this!  

What ensued was the lowest of the low.  Because what happened is, this creek section included a beaver dam.  OH THAT BEAVER!  I cursed that beaver multiple times.  Because what his dam did was, create a really deep section of creek. We were routed around the very deepest of part of the dammed up water, but when we entered back into the creek, it was still REALLY deep.  Tim went up to his hip at one point.  I felt like I was going to cry.  We weren’t sure if we were in the right spot.  Now I was shivering.  It was 1:30 am in the morning and I wanted someone to rescue us and get us to a warm hotel room, but the problem was….there was nobody that was going to rescue us. There was no choice but to keep moving forward.  But was forward the correct way?  We thought we had missed a marker to get out of the creek so Tim went back to look (in the pitch black darkness, of course) to see if he could find a missed marker.  I stood in the cold water and felt bad for myself, waiting.

We decided to go forward a bit more and low and behold – the exit to the creek was literally only 50 yards ahead!  Ironic, of course.  And most definitely a metaphor for life’s challenges.  Just keep going because the solution isn’t far away.

This is what my Strava section directly around the beaver dam looked like.  That mile took us close to 1 hour.  Lost and cranky and cold. We eventually found our way out!  Still cursing that beaver though...

My joy for getting out of that last creek section KNOWING we had no more creek sections, was palatable. It was the first time I felt like we really were going to find that finish line.

The next 6 miles to the finish were trails, dirt roads, overgrown fields and lots and lots of walking.  At that point, although some of that last miles were runnable, we walked.  And talked. And I admired the HUGE, beautiful moon and revealed at the fact that something had brought us to the point of walking through a rural grassy field in northern North Dakota.  You never know where life is going to take you, right?  

At 3:44 am, Tim and I walked up the steps to the Frost Fire lodge and turned off our watches.  The run had taken over 9 hours and 20 minutes. And I really don’t think I could have gone a ton faster.  Two volunteers greeted us. Told us we had won the men’s and women’s full distance. Gave us each two slices of warm, amazing pizza, and then we got in the van and drove back home.  

And that was that.

Link to run Strava file HERE.

Wilderman was such an experience.  A TRUE experience!  I’ve done what I would consider to be, a lot of tough racing in my life time.  And this was definitely the toughest single day event I’ve finished.  It’s 100% not about racing or the glory of a fantastic finish line.  There is no grandeur.  There is simply the satisfaction that we started down a very tough path and we saw it though until we were finished.

I will probably never do Wilderman again.  But I am so, so thankful that I did it.  Thankful to Tim, too, for seeing it through until the end with me.  And thankful that my body allows me to do this, after all these years.

If you ever get the chance, take the Wilderman challenge.  We can compare beaver dam stories and embellish for years to come.  

~Beth Shutt - Run Formula Operations Director



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