“A man’s got to know his limitations,” is what Dirty Harry said. This is the story of a time I didn’t. There are many things I like about my hometown, River Falls, Wis. It has a cookie factory and a brewery and the Kinnikinnic River – one of the cleanest trout streams in Wisconsin – runs through it. There is a university, a bookstore, a coffee shop and a wonderful singletrack mountain bike course.
What I like most is that when I want to share an interest, I don’t have to look far. Music concerts are at the college, there is a writers’ group and my strangely brilliant book club is always on call. When I want to bike or get outside, good company is easy to find, including a healthy representation of athletes from my demographic. A highlight is the Friday OMR (Old Man Ride). We have a good time chatting and pacing ourselves in our comfort zone.
Once in a while, I succumb to the temptation to ride with the stable of strong, fast younger athletes. This is about the time the “kids” got me in so deep in the heart of the North Dakota wilderness that a different Eastwood quote came to mind. “Do you feel lucky?”
By Dan Woll
All photos by Wes Peck
“…to provide top quality, challenging events that force people out of their comfort zone” – from the ENDracing Mission Statement”
The North Dakota adventure group, ENDracing, exceeded that goal with their Wilderman – a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile mountain bike and 26.2-mile savage run through the Pembina Gorge. Tucked up next to Canada, this wild river valley is carved through steep grey cliffs jutting out of a verdant forest of more than 12,000 acres. For my Wilderman, temperatures were hot enough that wetsuits were not necessary. Mosquitoes and ticks thrive in that weather.
My friend Jim likes extreme and strange and was the first to suggest a team. His sidekick, Paul, jumped on board. Paul is a school superintendent and father of three who harbors an internal fire to ride his bike on the edge of control, seeming not to fear separated shoulders and broken bones. Present at the discussion were also Fast Freddy, a responsible civil servant, and me. As seen at board meetings on community cable TV, Fred is a buttoned-down administrator, but an investigation into his past reveals a history of serial ultra runs and extreme races. However, Fred makes good decisions and is averse to hare-brained behavior. They looked my way. I’m much older than those aerobic engines and harbor a profound wish not to die in North Dakota. I opted for a safe bet.
“Only if Fred goes.”
Fred said, “Sure,” and I heard the sound of the other shoe dropping, the signature on my wilderness death warrant. This occurred three months prior to the adventure. The others are always in shape, but even they reasoned that extra training was necessary. I was starting from ground zero. There weren’t enough hours in the day to catch up. My goals would be no more ambitious than survival.
I went to the “Y” and swam, but I knew the sterilized tiles staring up at me were no preparation for the mucky bottom I’d be facing at Wilderman. It was a start.
Meanwhile, an odd series of communications began. Jim is well-educated, but language is not his strong point and becomes more garbled in texting. I received the following message, which I present verbatim:
“I was tired as hell I needed sleep. May train tonight. I think it’s just a ridge I think your Leg be just fine otherwise you can use your third leg!”
I ignored what I did not understand and continued my Walter Mitty training. We had hoped to reap immediate benefits, but the transition to long workouts had a downside. Fred hurt his leg, I aggravated my Achilles, Paul got Lyme and a purple rash. Jim went on a week-long ride in Iowa involving beer. No matter for the young guys. They could finish on crutches. I offered to drive alone in case I had to drop out or visit the emergency room. Fred was not having it. His text response:
“We leave no wilderman behind.”
At this point, the discussion began to show evidence of the stress of training. Jim continued to text indecipherable insights:
“Freddy! Is your wife going, or do I get to spoon with you in the camper?!”
I wondered why they call them smart phones.
I sought support from Alan, a fellow Medicare qualifier. I asked him to go.
“You’re nuts,” Alan explained.
The website informed that 28 people had signed up. We made up 15% of the field. If it were the Chicago marathon, there would have to be 1,500 of us to make that proportion. I asked why we were doing this. Jim texted:
“People don’t want epic and unknown… There’s no PR with wilderman. just the awesomeness of finishing.”
As the race approached, we gained an ally. Jim’s wife, Megan, an accomplished endurance athlete, agreed to help. It was time to pack Paul’s RV. If Chevy Chase drove an RV in National Lampoon Vacation, it would be this. It rattled, shook and made odd noises. Riding along at the table behind the driver, I felt as if it were ten feet tall and two feet wide, balanced on the edge of the highway, always at risk of tipping over.
I brought along a book with the ominous title, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Fast Freddy is not a fan of obscure Spanish novels, but the alternatives were extra-terrestrial conversations with Jim, or Paul’s music featuring bluegrass versions of SnoopDogg. Fred asked to share the book.
The drive across Minnesota was like third grade. Long and boring. The sun was setting when we finally got to North Dakota. We made the mistake of thinking we could shop north of Grand Forks. Thirty miles later, the lights disappeared. Our phones started getting messages that international rates applied. We drove through Walhalla and found a campsite. Fast Freddy and I had tents. He set up a hiker’s tent in minutes. I had a big erector-set deal. After an hour, I had a spacious wobbly shelter filled with bugs and left over tent parts.
The next day we drove to a town for race food. Not subscribing to a regimen of gel packs, we bought sausages, bread, cheese, tuna fish, ramen, bananas and nuts. I requested a stop at a book store. A local told me that I might find a book in the pharmacy. He winked. The store looked like my grandmother’s Indiana farm house. There were furniture and clocks. Stuck in the middle was a modern drug counter, but no books other than religious and inspirational titles. I was feeling neither religious or inspired, so I retreated to a restaurant and pilfered discarded newspapers. I read the news and decided I would rather get lost in a bug-infested hellhole than learn more about what mankind is doing to itself.
That led to river practice. In shallow water, you can ride across or tiptoe on stepping stones. We rode to the first crossing. Holy Huck Finn! It looked like the Mississippi. We had no way of knowing how deep it was. I was not about to get my shorts soaked. It was the middle of nowhere. I stripped and waded in, bare butt exposed, which became common knowledge when Jim took an unauthorized picture and put it on Facebook. I could barely balance in the current while holding the bike. The others decided that rather than look ridiculous, they would get their clothes wet. Soon we were all wandering in the river.
Back at camp the young guys had beers with some other racers. I packed my supplies and hid my personal belongings in a trash bag, set it in the RV and went to bed. Race day dawned. We organized gear, and cleaned the camp. In the rush, people needed places to put trash. They used trash bags. Like mine. Paul gathered up all the bags and threw them in the dumpster, where my wallet, blood pressure pills, contact lenses, etc., would find a new home until they turned up missing twenty-four hours later.
Soon we were swimming. After a while, the others were way down the lake. Well, not quite. Over by the shore was a white swim cap. I was ahead of him. I treaded water to get a look. He was on his back! I was being paced by a guy doing the elementary backstroke, frog kick and all. I pulled ahead and kept breathing on my right to use the shoreline as a guide. My arms hit weeds and then bottom. I had followed the shoreline into a shallow bay. I swam back to the middle and resumed.
Almost two hours later, I was done. At the start, the beach was crowded with bikes. Now they were gone. It brought back memories of sitting in the empty classroom where the nuns kept me after school. I pedaled off. The race director yelled. I had not been biking one minute and had taken a wrong turn. This would not be the last. Meanwhile, Jim and Paul were careening on their bikes, annihilating the field. Fast Freddy was not far behind.
I was in sight of a few riders. I tried to catch a woman who disappeared around a bend. Had she accelerated or turned on a suspicious side road? I followed the side road. No woman. At least I had a good map. I took it out, verified my location, then slipped the map back into my pocket. I came to the first rest stop. Another rider came up. She said, “I found a map.” I patted my pocket. My map was gone.
She felt in her jersey and came up equally empty. “Oops. Guess I dropped it.”
No map. I did have an android with GPS, but I had never used it.
We forded the river and crawled up the greasy bank. The trail was hilly and serpentine. There were baby heads. This unfortunate terminology describes rocks about the size of, well, baby heads. On the first descent, my bike took a terrific jounce. There was an explosive “crack.” My saddle erected itself in a position designed by Vlad the Impaler. I dug out the allen wrench, swatted bugs, and adjusted. More baby heads. Another “crack.” More time off bike. From then on, I slowed down every time I came to baby heads.
I thought I was doing well until I came to a familiar sign post. Like Pooh Bear, I had gone in a circle. I hurried past ATV traffic on a jeep trail and came out on a road. I had not seen markers for a while. I dismounted and tried to orient myself. While I was thinking, a van pulled up with two older fellows. “Are you in the race?” the driver inquired. “You are miles off course.”
“What would you think of driving me to where I went wrong,” I asked.
They helped me load the dirty bike. The driver explained that he owned a cabin in the mountains and had left it open and stocked with drinks and goodies for racers who would pass that way on foot later that night. We found the spot where I had gone astray. He considered, “It wouldn’t be cheating if I drove you a ways to where you woulda been.” That sounded good. We came to a check point. He spoke to the officials.
“This fellow went off course on an honest mistake. I drove him back. He has not gained an advantage.”
I finished the loop where I again met the director. He said, “You have a decision. I don’t think you should start the second lap. I will let you and the guys behind do the run. We’ll call it the short course.”
Two Tasmanian dust devils were approaching at high speed. Paul and Jim tore into the aid station. They had finished the 112 miles with a fearsome lead. They looked at me.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m in the short course,” I happily replied.
I jogged after them. My Achilles fired up. I went back to Plan B. I had all night to cover 26 miles, even if it was in mountains, weed fields and creek beds. The trail went down a dirt road and veered into the woods. I was on what Wisconsin hunters identify as a game trail. Brush tore my sleeves and bugs buzzed as I descended into a rocky creek bed. The instructions said, “Go until you run into tape.”
The creek bed was sometimes okay for walking, others, not so much. There were downed trees, deeper water and mud. A tall, thin kid came up behind me. He wore only bike shorts and a T-shirt. He said, “Do you have any bug spray? They’re lighting me up!” He had angry welts and weals all over. I sprayed him as he danced around slapping bugs and then he rushed off.
The creek ended and the trail went up a steep section. At the top there was a panoramic view of an immense wild valley. It was near dark. I stepped to the edge and dropped a stone. It fell free for seconds until I heard a clatter. This was no place to make a misstep. Fast Freddy dubbed this section Groundhog Day, because as he topped each crest, it seemed that the same climb would appear before him to do over again.
Night fell. I took out my GPS. Lo and behold there was a little blue dot. Me! I walked. The dot moved the other way. I couldn’t figure this out. I turned the phone around. The blue dot still moved in the wrong direction. Then I walked in the other direction and the blue ball rejoined the trail. This operational discovery saved me.
My Achilles felt like someone was jabbing it with a soldering iron. I needed a break. I was looking for the cabin when I heard a voice. Fast Freddy. He had done two full laps of biking and was passing people on the run. Being a nice guy, he slowed and walked with me up to the cozy cabin. There were cookies, water and ice cold Cokes on the table. I sat. Fred sipped water and looked at me.
“You go, Fred. I need to collect myself.”
A nap was tempting, but I knew if I did, I might wake up a bearded Rip Van Winkle. I bargained with myself. In return for continuing, I would allow myself to quit at the next checkpoint. A quarter-mile down the trail, I saw another runner. His friend was throwing up. I showed him the way to the cabin. He asked me to inform someone. Now I had a reason to keep going.
Eventually, I saw the checkpoint. A woman runner passed with fresh information on the sick racer. I did not want to bother, but I needed to know something.
“Can I get a ride?”
The director said, “Why don’t you walk to the next check point. It’s only five miles.” I hated that answer, but it made sense, so I shuffled off. The moment of truth for many of the racers occurred at this point.
Megan, no stranger to endurance suffering, was aghast at the bonked athletes. Despite that, she joined in, in shorts, and paced Jim through the last miles of ugliness. Jim once again put the race in perspective. According to Megan, his words were:
“The race director is crazy! The views on the ridge were amazing! If you want to go on an insane run you will never forget… let’s go!”
Most of us were alone. Paul felt solitude was a mixed blessing. Earlier, he had stressed to catch Jim because he enjoyed the company, but there was a blessed relief in dropping back, no longer required to match pace. I was regretting that I had not quit. Suddenly, I was blinded by powerful approaching lights. A truck, hoisted up on big tires, roared up the forest road and pulled over. I put my elbows on the window and leaned in, surprising the driver. He now had a dirty, bug-bitten mug deep in his personal zone. I opened the conversation.
“What do you want?”
“Do you need anything?”
I thought about what he was doing driving around with no shirt on like an extra in Urban Cowboy at 2:00 a.m. in a souped-up truck listening to Toby Keith.
“Not unless you have a beer.”
He handed me one and drove off, rethinking what kind of people he should allow near his truck in the dark. The beer was bath-water warm, but, if you will forgive the tautology, it was the nectar of the gods! I felt a little buzzed and turned off my light. My eyes became accustomed to the darkness. The moon-lit gravel appeared as a white landing strip in the blackness. I strolled along, sipping warm beer, thinking things were not so bad. It was a beautiful night in the woods. By the time I came to the last checkpoint before re-entering the dead zone, I had achieved serenity. I approached the entrance to the infamous three-and-a-half mile creek section, and entered the abyss. I began to hear voices. Many times I would stop to see who was coming. No one. Only the sound of the creek, and bugs, and my pack squeaking.
There was no escaping. The banks were steep and impenetrable. The only way to come out was to slog through the water, mud, wet gravel and occasional septic-deep potholes. There were downed trees and brush. Grass grew so tall that you could not see the creek, in which case you pushed through the best you could until you came to a dead end or rejoined the main flow.
Time has passed, but when I shut my eyes at night I can still see my hands balancing upon two boulders as I navigate between them in the dark canyon. All details are indelible. At one point, I stepped over a log and my flashlight illuminated a small red board on the bottom of the creek. One step out of a million in the dark, and yet when I mentioned it to Paul, he said, “I remember that board.” I remember the little frogs I startled, my flashlight shining and reflecting over the tops of the weeds as I held it high overhead scanning ahead.
Finally, a strip of dawn appeared. It grew and illuminated heavy ground fog that covered the valley and up ahead, the river. There was a tent and a smouldering fire belonging to a volunteer. He was asleep. This river crossing was wider than the others. There was a stirring, and he crawled out. I asked, “Where do I cross?” He pointed. “Down there,” and headed back to the tent. Down there was ten miles of river. I interrupted his retreat, “Would you give me a hint?”
“There’s a glow stick over there. But you can’t see it now.”
I had gleaned all the information possible from this sleepyhead. I waded into the river. When I got across I entered an endless weed field. The stuff was shoulder height. I pulled out the phone and let the little GPS ball lead me through the grassy jungle to a dry jeep path.
It was time for a treat. I allowed my Camelbak and gravity to tumble me back. I rolled over, unzipped the storage pocket and took out a dry, clean, soft pair of socks. As I pulled on the comforting fleece, I let out the involuntary groan of pleasure my Bernese mountain dog makes when he lowers his hundred pounds on the floor. Only a few miles to go and I had dry socks. I walked around the bend.
Another creek! Like a hundred orphans at Christmas, I was awash in the sad deprivation of even a small gift. This creek was shorter, but in minutes my feet were soaked. At the head of the creek there was a volunteer. He waved.
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
“Gee. I’d have hurried if I had only known.”
We chatted and then I headed down the homestretch. It was anticlimactic. We were warned of dangerous potholes in the final miles. They were there, but it was daylight. Toward the end, a woman caught me. We walked up the final hill chatting as if we were coming back from Starbucks.
I crossed the finish line and for the first time in 26 hours, unburdened myself. The others had finished and slept. I joined them for breakfast, where Paul confessed where my valuables might be. We drove to the dumpster and found some of them. When we returned, awards were underway. Seventeen people had managed to finish. My companions were first, fourth and sixth.
There are some who say the mysteries of the night in wilderness, the half moon shining through trees, the little frogs hopping in darkened creeks are nothing more than the random turning of nature’s wheel. I close my eyes and see that night, and know that there is a deeper purpose to it all. Sixteen other people know it too.