Savageman Triathlon


“All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.” -Pink Floyd

When you hear athletes talking about their Savageman Triathlon experience (and if you’re talking tri, then it’s definitely going to come up because it has in turns been called the hardest, the best, the most fun and the most beautiful triathlon out there), they generally start out with the question, “Did you get your brick?”

fitness2xtreme-images-savageman-brick-sm-flIf you haven’t experienced the course for yourself you may think that the idea of having a brick with your name inscribed on it, built into a road that you successfully climbed, is a bit of a gimmick.

But the Savageman Triathlon, and the Westernport Wall that is its most famous feature, has become a sort of Mecca for triathletes who want to truly test themselves, and those who beat the wall have earned their bragging rights, as well as the permanent recognition of having successfully climbed a potholed, cracked, nearly vertical hill that few have been able to remain upright on, let alone climb.

First, about the name. You may assume that the use of the word “savage” is a description of the race’s brutality (and the unfinished surface of the Wall), and you’d be right, but only partway.

fitness2xtreme-images-savageman-b010-kyle-yostKyle Yost, the Savageman’s creator, named the race for his beloved Savage River, Savage River State Park, and Savage Mountain that he had spent years training on and through, and that the race traverses.

The scenery that the course takes you through is some of the best that the Appalachian Mountains have to offer, and the route has just enough downhills to let you catch your breath and appreciate the wonders of this far western corner of Maryland – at the same time that you’re gripping the handlebars and negotiating the hairpin turns that are found on every descent.

Ask Kyle what his reasons are for having started the Savageman, and he won’t talk about profit, or the thrill of creation, or even about the money that the race earns for the Joanna M Nicolay Melanoma Foundation.

He’ll tell you it’s about the place, that the area cried out to be enjoyed by athletes who were unfamiliar with it.

SavageMan was created simply because the venue, and in particular the roads and severe climbs for the bike course, were simply too wonderful for an event to not exist there, and as a passionate triathlete I strove to bring to triathletes that which they did not yet realize they were missing. –Kyle Yost

The Scenery

The landscape is dotted with fall colors that will take your breath away – not a great thing when a few short miles later you have to start climbing another of the several twenty percent grades you’ll be battling in between.

fitness2xtreme-images-savageman-b020-bike-trail-flRacers are strongly encouraged to drive the cycling course before the actual event in order to familiarize themselves with the 5900’ feet of climbing and falling they’ll be doing … that drive will take a good ninety minutes, and it’s an eye-opening preview of what lies ahead.

But before the cycling or any other part of the race comes the pre-race prep and, if you’re lucky, you’ll spend the night before camping out at Deep Creek Lake Campground, where the air is fresh and you’re as likely to be surrounded by other racers as by a troupe of Boy Scouts, and your helmet may come in handy as the acorns thunk down like hail in the middle of the night.

Veterans of the Savage rave about the check-in process and the overall atmosphere of the race, and even point out that you can tell the event is organized by athletes because every aspect that usually presents an annoyance has been addressed.

All paperwork in order, lots of volunteers and plenty of water stations on the course, no lines at the port-a-potties, and signs warning cyclists of dangerous spots ahead.

fitness2xtreme-images-savageman-b040-costumeAnd speaking of signs, those (and the costumed lunatics screaming encouragement from the sidelines) is another highlight of the Savageman … the locals and organizers bring cowbells and vuvuzuelas to the Wall and other painful points, and have erected signs – some ironic, some encouraging, some downright mocking – all around the course.

There’s nothing quite like looking up from climbing yet another nearly vertical ascent, lungs burning, and laughing to see a sign asking “”How is that aero equipment working for you?”

Many a Savageman alum has pointed to those signs, and the throngs lining the hill up the wall, as the things that kept them powering through both the utter impossibility of the unpaved incline, and the pain.

First Leg – Swim

Even for those who for whom swimming is not their strong suit, the first leg of the Savageman is the most straightforward – as one racer said,

…course architect Kyle Yost has not yet figured out how to make the swim uphill, so the water was completely flat. –Jack Mott

fitness2xtreme-images-savageman-b030-swim-flThe water is cold, but often not as cold as the air temperature, and after being greeted by a sign reading, “I SEE CRAZY PEOPLE”, the race is on, in well-divided waves.

The participants seem to throw a minimum of inadvertent punches and death-kicks to the head, and those are pretty much only at the 1.2 mile race’s start.

The swimmers’ path is a clear-cut rectangle that is marked at one turn by an enormous floating frog and at the other by a swan – no real explanation of why, except that the swim takes place in Deep Creek Lake State Park, and they may just be full-time lake residents for the amusement of the tourists.

From the swim the triathletes are off to T1 and on to their bikes, and though their minds may be on the Wall, first-timers will soon find out that for all its mystique and misery, the Westernport Wall is just a warm-up for hours of battling hills.

Second Leg – Bike

The bike portion of the Savageman starts out pretty uneventfully – about eighteen miles of rolling hills, just long enough to get you warmed up from the swim and totally psyched (or spooked) for the Wall.

fitness2xtreme-images-savageman-b050-town-uphill-flOnce you hit the town of Westernport, the incline begins almost immediately, as does the carnival, Tour-de-France type of atmosphere of people – some dressed as devils, some ringing cowbells, all cheering and screaming and holding up ridiculously funny signs – all standing eight and ten deep on either side of the street.

Of course, street is a term that is used very loosely. For the first portion of the race, the roads are paved, and race organizers have thoughtfully scrawled both disparaging and encouraging remarks for you to read as you roll up the 12 percent grade.

But soon you hit the meat of the hill – 31 percent grade, hard to go up without a granny gear in the first place, but add cracks that look like they rival the San Andreas Fault, and craters that look like they could swallow a bike whole.

Riders to your left, right, in front and in back are flipping and tipping, and the most that can be done is to concentrate on what is directly in front of your front wheel and concentrate while trying desperately to maintain balance.

The Wall – how do you describe coming around the corner in Westernport and seeing a mass of humanity cheering at the top of a long hill? What stood out initially was the multiple wheel sets which were in contact with the air and not the ground. Yes, you can see that all the way from the bottom. My race plan allowed for taking in the devils, the horns, and all of the spectators, but I have to admit that by the time I hit the unimproved section, my world view was reduced to the line 8 inches or so in front of my front wheel.-Greg Z, Ashburn VA

Beyond the Wall, whether you’ve made it without falling or not, there are still another twenty some miles to go, and you have the second-steepest, though not necessarily second toughest, hill just ahead of you. .. the Big Savage Mountain.

The hills just keep on coming, interspersed with monkey-suited spectators, signs that would make you laugh out loud if you didn’t want to cry, and sharp downhill S-curves that will keep you alert … just in case the cowbells weren’t doing that for you.

Final Leg – Run

Finally, the second transition, T2, brings the run. A half marathon on legs that are likely cramping, definitely jelly, and this course has a real need for having put on plenty of miles in preparation, including lots of hills and trail runs.

The course is a double loop that starts with a few miles of relative flat terrain around the lake, then progresses to rolling hills followed by runs up steep rocky trails that look like dried up river beds.

fitness2xtreme-images-savageman-b070-run-finish-flWhat goes up ends up coming down again, and plenty of runners slow to a walk here to avoid falling and twisting an ankle.

More rolling hills, then back to the flat to do the entire loop again, all finished off by an ambitious sprint to the finish line for those who have any adrenaline or gas left in the tank.

The Finish

Though the race is a full seventy, with a 1.2 mile swim, a 55.7 mile bike and a half-marathon distance run to finish, it is the cycling that earns most of the superlatives that get used to describe the race.

The bike course, combined with the landscape, the race’s meticulous organization, and the amazing hordes of spectators that are bused in wearing full devil-horned savage regalia to urge you through every aspect of the event all combine to create an event that is so much fun, while still being so ungodly tough, that its five hundred spots sell out every year just moments after registration opens.

If you are just starting out, you may first want to try out for Savageman 30 (0.93 mile swim, 22.9 mile bike and a single loop 10k run).


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