There’s something really extreme about swimming 36 miles in the winding Red River of the North or getting lost in the Badlands and finding a way out in as little time as possible.
First, why would someone swim 36 miles in the Red River? There are better ways to find catfish. And why would anyone want to be dropped off in rugged country with limited supplies to use only their wits to find a way out?
It sounds a little extreme, and that’s the point. Extreme racing has a foothold in North Dakota, thanks mostly to the work of Andy Magness of Grand Forks.
“I like to see what the human potential is,” says Magness, who is the driving force behind extreme racing in North Dakota. He got involved in extreme sports while living in San Diego, Calif., and New Zealand. “Lots of events are really long and involve navigation. They aren’t marked courses because you go into the mountains or bush.”
Extreme racing is combining several elements into one gruelling event that makes participants challenge themselves in a number of ways. It’s not swimming laps in a pool, but swimming 36 miles in the Red River, around and under any obstacle that might be in the way.
It’s not just running trails around a few buttes and along the river bottom, but orienteering to know whether or not it’s beneficial to climb over a hill, or follow the trail an extra half mile around it.
These are exactly the kind of events that suit Magness, whose background is mountaineering. It’s one reason why he launched ENDracing (Extreme North Dakota Racing). “I got involved in it when I moved back to Grand Forks,” Magness says. “I had a twin brother who put on an event in 2007. In 2009, I took up the torch.”
He immediately saw the need for another event. “We really had to convince people to do that first race. We had 17 teams,” Magness remembers. “People had no idea what to expect. The market has been created in the last five years.”
Twisting things up a bit
Magness simply took existing interest in mountain biking and running, but not in the same event, and played on the success on triathlons. Then he just twisted things up a little bit and came up with some, well, twisted events.
For instance, everyone involved in extreme sports has heard of the Ironman Triathlon. The distances in the biking, swimming and running event are an industry standard.
Magness created the Wilderman off-road triathlon using a 2.4-mile swim, 26.2-mile run and 112-mile bike ride, all in and around the Pembina Gorge. “Most people will take 24 to 36 hours to finish,” Magness says.
Magness says he has just about reached the limits of summer events and is focusing now on making those on the schedule top-notch, like the two-day Halloween-themed END-TOMBEND and END-TRAIL events at Turtle River State State; the 36-mile open-water swim on the Red River from south of the city to Grand Forks; and the annual Mudd Run.
“We’re going to stay at eight events this year. Putting on each event is really difficult, especially if you want to run a good event.”
END-TOMBEND and END-TRAIL are held on back-to-back days. The mountain biking event includes 12 hours of riding in which riders complete as many laps as possible. The following day, runners take the same 6-mile course. Those into extreme racing can do – or try– both. Magness said of the 22 who tried to bike 100 miles on Saturday and 50 miles on Sunday, four finished.
The END-WET downriver swim race near Grand Forks is being billed as the longest open-water swim in the country at 36 miles. “It’s probably in the top five of the longest events in the world,” Magness says.
The Mudd Run is just a 6-K with 25 obstacles along the way. It is the most popular event in the series, drawing 700 participants last year. And in typical extreme fashion, Magness is adding an “ultra” class in 2014 to take the course for those who wish to try to 50-K with 200 obstacles. Runners will have 12 hours to complete eight laps.
Pushing athletes to their limits
It’s the challenge that pushes extreme athletes to their limits. Magness uses that same kind of drive to run a non-profit in Grand Forks called Ground Up, which tries to get youth active in adventure-based opportunities.
It’s a far cry from what Magness thought would be a life as a physics professor. He met his wife in Grand Forks in 2000 and moved to San Diego and New Zealand, returning when the family had a child and his wife wanted to be near her family.
Magness earned a master’s degree in physics, started Ground Up and END racing and taught at Northland Community College. “I had to make a decision,” says the 38-year-old Magness. “I wasn’t able to teach and do this (run the non-profit) well, so I decided to quit teaching.”
Stepping out of comfort zones
Magness is one of those people able to step out of a comfort zone to pursue something other than a nine-to-five job that brought home a steady paycheck. That has paid off in other ways, including success in Ground Up and landing what amounts to the Super Bowl of North American adventure racing.
The North American Adventure Racing Series National Championship will be held in October in the Badlands in and near Little Missouri State Park near Killdeer. The event rotates annually between a location in Central America and North America. Last year’s event was in Belize.
“I participated in a few races this year and reached out to series organizers,” he says. “There’s never been something like this in North Dakota.”
Magness says the location and the trails in the Badlands “are absolutely incredible. We’re going to have checkpoints all over there. Some place you’ve got 200 yards straight down or straight up, or three miles around the trail. You’ve got a choice and that makes adventure racing exciting. Little Missouri State Park is incredible.”
Turning it up another notch
Magness hopes to turn things up a notch next season with the creation of a series that will reward athletes who compete in every extreme event on the schedule. “We hope to have a series and challenge the nation’s best athletes to complete these in a calendar year.”
That’s a challenge 21-year-old Caleb Kobilansky took last season, and came within a few miles of completing.
Kobilansky, of Grand Forks, put his body through a wringer and went as far as the final day of the final events before bowing out. He biked the 100-mile course on the first day at Turtle River State Park, then made it 18 miles into the 50-mile run on the following day.
“It was the mental component,” Kobilansky says of why he entered the race. “I was racing just to say I had done the race. And that moment of questioning pushed me to the point where it stopped being fun, then it wasn’t worth going on. Quitting was quite disturbing to me because I had never experienced that before.”
What is it that makes a person interested in extreme adventuring? Kobilansky says it’s “a willingness to suffer, combined with a little bit of craziness and stupidity. Definitely the suffering portion and the mental mindset. It’s a spiritual experience. You definitely have to be in tune with your body.”
While other competitors try to compete in all the events, Kobilansky says he may not compete again. “I have other plans. I’d like to run across the state of North Dakota.”
Scooter Pursley is a Bismarck-based writer and a former sports editor for the Bismarck Tribune. He contributed a story about the North Dakota State University Bison football team that appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of North Dakota Horizons. Reach him at email@example.com.