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The Sully Side of Sports: Wildeboer conquers greatest challenge

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travis wildeboer

Travis Wildeboer checks in after completing the grueling Barkley Marathons earlier this month. (Courtesy photo)

Travis Wildeboer overcame his doubts and finished the Barkley Marathons.

Weeks after completing what’s arguably the toughest race of its kind in the world, parts of Wildeboer himself remained skeptical that he’d done the job.

“I think I’m scarred from it, though,” said the 33-year-old Cedar Falls High School graduate. “Most nights since the race, I have dreams that I still have one loop remaining.”

In this case, reality exceeded Wildeboer’s wildest dreams, past and present. On the third try, he did indeed complete the 100-mile Barkley Marathons in early April, becoming just the 14th man since the event began 27 years ago to succeed.

So ended a quest that had gripped Wildeboer. It was the latest step in a life dedicated to testing himself and his limits. He hiked the entire Appalachian Trail as a teenager and set a record covering the 272-mile Long Trail in Vermont a few years ago.

Now, Wildeboer says it’s time to take a step back.

He’ll no longer try events like the Barkley. Instead, Wildeboer will turn to sports like mountain biking. That’s not quite making him into a couch potato, but it doesn’t exact the kind of mental and physical toll that an ultramarathon can.

“I will always be an adventure junkie,” said Wildeboer. “But it will be a different type of adventure from here on out.”

Asked if he might reconsider, Wildeboer said, “No.”

He added, “It just takes too much time, resources and focus. It takes away productivity from all other aspects of life. I’m not sure if I can dig that deep again.”

And make no mistake. Wildeboer dug very deep. He wanted to quit, wanted to give it up badly, right in the middle of his 2013 race.

That’s what the Barkley Marathons does to even the toughest competitors. By admission of the man who created this 100-mile waking nightmare, it’s designed for failure, not success.

The race is part Freddy Krueger, part Rod Serling. Back in 1985, Gary Cantrell was inspired by, of all people, James Earl Ray. Cantrell learned that after escaping from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, the assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. covered just eight miles in 54 hours. Cantrell thought he could do better. From that idea came the Barkley Marathons in 1986.

It’s held in Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains. The Barkley Marathons consists of one 20-mile loop run five times, but it must be completed in 60 hours — or 2 1/2 days. In just one loop alone, there’s 12,000 feet of descent and 12,000 of ascent. Try finding that in a city park.

It may sound like madness in motion, but racers desperatly want in to a field that’s limited to 35. Here’s one more thing you need to know: When Cantrell lets in a competitor, that man or woman does not get a congratulatory note. No, he or she receives a “condolence” letter.

That’s the race Travis Wildeboer sought first to enter and then finish. Not win, mind you, finish. With the Barkley, winning isn’t everything, it’s nothing at all.

“In a race where usually only one person finishes, you don’t think about what place you’re in,” said Wildeboer. “You spend most of the race in survival mode.”

When he tried the Barkley for the first time in 2011, Wildeboer didn’t survive and didn’t get past loop 3. The same thing happened in 2012. Looking back, Wildeboer felt he’d been mentally defeated before those races even began. He was unable to deal with the lack of sleep in the 60-hour race.

Then, he decided to try it one more time in 2013.

“I didn’t feel right continuing to take up a spot,” he said.

So Wildeboer was in, and part of him fought to get out. He considered giving up before the race when knee and ankle problems dogged him.

His biggest moment of truth, though, came on loop 3 — again. Wildeboer sensed he was running out of time, that he wouldn’t get to loop 4 — new ground for him — before the deadline. As he put it in his post-race report, “I started feeling sorry for myself and starting thinking of all the reasons I would tell my friends and family about why it wasn’t possible this year ...”

His inner doubts were wrong. While still hiking, Wildeboer entered a mental state that he called a “daydream.” There he convinced himself he could get to loops 4 and 5 and go all the way.

“I never thought about stopping again,” Wildeboer wrote in his report.

Later he added, “I had fully made my mind up to quit. I actually considered slowing down so that I would be timed out instead of refusing to continue. Fortunately, I was able to experience the regret of quitting before it was too late.”

Wildeboer had to get past one bizarre interlude before the finish. While going through a darkened tunnel, he saw a head pop out of a hole on the side. Then another. And another.

Every hole held a head of a prisoner — or so Wildeboer thought. He had entered a tunnel that was part of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, the same place where James Earl Ray had served time. The prison had closed in 2009.

“It definitely woke me up,” he said. “But once I was out of the tunnel I was back to being focused on not making any mistakes.”

If Wildeboer made any errors, they didn’t stop him. Finally, he reached Big Cove Campground, then ran up to a gate. In his pocket, Wildeboer had 11 pages. To prove completion of each loop, he had to tear out one page from each of 11 books put on the course.

Wildeboer got to the gate. He handed the pages to Gary Cantrell. It was over.

A man named Nick Hollon finished in 57 hours, 41 minutes. Wildeboer made it in 58:41, about 1:19 short of being over the time limit.

“I have never prepared for any other event as extensively as I did for Barkley,” said Wildeboer. “There was a massive sense of relief knowing I was done and wouldn’t have to go back.

“This year, I was able to keep from thinking about the course being lengthened and not dwell on it too much. I focused on getting through the first three loops as efficiently as possible and fortunately had enough time remaining to complete the last two.”

So Wildeboer conquered the Barkley Marathons. He’s ready to hop on a bike and ride to the next challenge. When someone suggested that it would be a very long time before he considered taking up a sport like golf, Wildeboer laughed.

“That’ll be my latest obsession,” he said.


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