Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The 2011 Savageman Triathlon
America's Hardest Half

by Jack Mott

The Savageman Triathlon Festival is a two-day event located in the very northwest tip of Maryland in the Appalachian mountains. The name comes in part from the Savage River, which you descend down to at the start, and Big Savage Mountain, which you must climb up ... twice. Mostly though, this race is called Savageman because it is the hardest half in the world, with a bike course that Dave Scott, six-time Ironman World Champ and 6th overall this year, described as "the most relentless bike course I have ever seen."

Savageman is a much more intimate experience than your average WTC race. The field is very small at around 500 brave competitors, and the event is nonprofit, with all proceeds going to the Joanna M Nicolay Melanoma Foundation. Despite the smaller number of competitors, the race has first-class support. Every turn on the bike course is manned with volunteers and signs, and dangerous spots on descents are marked. The course is closed to traffic, except to a few locals who live on the route heading to church. There are fully stocked hand-ups with water, HEED, gels, and Coke all over the course. Two of the climbs even offer a real Tour de France experience with insane fans screaming at you in crazy costumes.

Every year there are a few big names that show up to take on this course, including uber bikers Bjorn Anderssen and Philip Graves (current bike and overall course record holder). This year we were all treated to "The Man," Dave Scott, who was taking the challenge at 57 years of age, as well as US Olympic medalist Susan Williams.

Savageman features a 30-mile triathlon on Saturday and a 70.0 event on Sunday. Participants who do both are recognized as having completed the Savage 100. Your trusty ATC embedded reporter was signed up for the main event, the Savageman 70.0!

The Swim

Luckily, course architect Kyle Yost has not yet figured out how to make the swim uphill, so the water was completely flat, making it the only flat part of the entire race.

The 1.2-mile swim takes place at Deep Creek Lake State Park. The course is a simple rectangle with a huge inflatable turtle and swan marking the two 180-degree turnarounds. The morning was a bit cool, about 50 degrees, so we stood on the beach shivering in our wetsuits, wondering if we were going to freeze on the bike. The water was cool but not at all uncomfortable in a wetsuit, however, and we found we were warmer in the water than we were out of it.

My wave was the third to go. The swim was uneventful for me, with just a single punch to the head, and no lake water swallowed – not bad! I got out of the water in exactly 30 minutes, a good swim for me and 8th in my age group.

The Bike

Holy $%!!& This is the most beautiful bike ride I've ever been on, the most fun bike ride I have ever been on, and the 2nd hardest bike ride I have ever been on (Austin's Tour Das Hugel has it beat, but only because it's twice as long).

Half a mile into the ride you get a taste of what is to come with "Toothpick," which is just a quarter mile long but steep enough to get your attention. Following that is about 5 miles of rolling hills where you can really hammer and take advantage of your aero gimmicks if you brought them. I went fairly hard here because I knew that coming up I would get a long rest on the roughly 10-mile descent down to the Savage River. This descent is very fast and fairly technical. There is certainly time to be saved by previewing the descents and being brave. You could also die, so be careful! Nothing in Austin can prepare you for descents like this, zooming through a tunnel of forest at 40mph, carving switchbacks at the limit of adhesion, figuring out ways to pass other cyclists without putting anyone in danger, all of it very thrilling.

Once you've descended down to the Savage River, you cross over the bridge and head into the town of Westernport, a tiny community much of which is out on the side of the road, or on their porches to watch the race (and the carnage).

As you turn left onto Rock Street, you get a clear view all the way up to "The Wall," and it takes your breath away. Stretching before you is about a quarter mile of smooth, steep road that has you in your easiest gear and your heart rate rising. Beyond that, the white surface of The Wall rises up in the distance, appearing completely vertical. The gradient, which peaks at 31%, is so ridiculous that even the road surface itself has been giving up over the years, making for a crack- and bump-filled surface that adds extra challenge. Go too slow up The Wall, and the bumps and cracks will take you down. One must also plan the approach carefully, so that no one is around to crash into you, a common occurrence.

Those who can clear the wall without falling off or walking their bike up are rewarded by having a brick engraved with their name placed into the road surface. Compact cranks and granny cassettes are recommended, even if your name is Dave Scott. The one bright spot here is the amazing Tour de France experience. Race spectators are bused in to Westernport and they line the road with cowbells and costumes and are screaming at you all the way up. Thankfully, a decent swim and speedy descent put me ahead of the crowds so I had a clear shot at the wall. I took it nice and easy on the approach then went straight up the right side as hard as I could – success! The Brick would be mine!

Unfortunately your reward for clearing the wall is another 2.4 miles of climbing at 6% average gradient to the top of Big Savage Mountain, with the last bit kicking up to 21% just for fun. Following this is another 25 miles, alternating between harrowing descents and vicious climbs. Many find the hardest stretch to be Killer Miller, a 1.3-mile slog peaking at 22%, coming at mile 40 after your legs have already died. But the crowds and costumes line the road once again for extra encouragement! Along the way the roads are dotted with sarcastic signs such as: "How is that aero equipment working for you?" placed on a 20% pitch.

Around mile 45 the serious climbing finally ends and you get a beautiful stretch of rolling hills where you can put your tri bike and aero helmet to good use for the first time in about 2 hours. I had paced things well so far and still felt good here, so I pushed hard up the rollers to keep the speed up and came into transition with a final bike split of 3 hours, 17 minutes, 8th in my age group once again.

The Run

All of my attention and planning had been focused on the bike course, so all I knew is that the run had some hills too. I wasn't sure what to expect. The run course is two loops, and each loop has two steep uphill sections. The first is asphalt that loops around the park campgrounds, and the second is a rocky trail, Fire Tower Road, that goes straight up, turns around, and straight back down.

I kept a sustainable pace and just kept jogging. Running is my weakest event and I don't think I actually passed anyone except a few people who blew up and had to walk. So at least I had pacing going for me! The downhill portion of the trail run is a bit tricky, so I was careful not to fall or snap my ankle. Around the middle of my first lap, Dave Scott runs up alongside me on his second lap. "Hey Dave!" I said. After our hellos I welcomed him back to racing, and he simply replied, "It's painful!" and then he motored away from me to finish 6th fastest overall. It was surreal to be running alongside "The Man" for a moment, as if I was part of the "Iron War."

I started feeling pretty worn out on the second lap and any uphill sections were almost as slow as walking, but I kept on jogging. The final half mile I managed to put in a strong kick to finish in 6 hours and 6 minutes, 12th in my age group. Everything went perfectly for me, and I was thrilled to get my brick and make it through the race safe and strong. I immediately found my way to the free ice cream. Never before have I eaten an ice cream cone so fast!


I cannot recommend this race highly enough. It is simply perfect. This area of Maryland is beautiful, the atmosphere of the crowd and athletes is amazing, the volunteers and race management are top notch. Savageman is not an easy place to get to, being a 2-hour drive from any major airport, but if you ever travel to do a triathlon, this should be the one you do. Big thanks to Kyle Yost for creating this event and helping to keep it alive. More thanks to all of the volunteers who kept us on course and fed, as well as the fans who cheered us on.

Bike Setup

This is one of those races where people will argue endlessly about whether a tri bike or road bike is the best option. Take note that the course records and overall winners for men, women, and masters have consistently been athletes riding with full aero gear, including disc wheels, aero helmets, and tri bikes. The rolling sections and downhills absolutely allow you to gain time. The cool temperatures mean that aero helmets have no overheating penalty (you will appreciate the lack of vents). The one caveat is you need to be comfortable descending and climbing on your tri bike. If you are not, bring the road bike, and play it safe. Narrow front tires are not a great choice here due to the cracks and bumps on The Wall and the technical high speed turns on descents.

Most importantly, bring appropriate gearing. Even if you win Cat 1 road races a 39x25 setup is going to slow you down. True studs that can break the hour mark for 40k with a hangover and a road bike might consider standard cranks with an 11-28 cassette. Everyone else just go ahead and get some compact cranks with a 34 inner ring, and the 11-28 cassette. I'm glad I did. My bike setup is detailed below and I am 100% happy with the choices I made.

  • Frame - 2011 P3C 58cm
  • Wheels - HED Jet90 clinchers with a wheelbuilder disc cover
  • Tires - Zipp Tangente 23mm, latex tubes
  • Skewers - Zipp aero skewers
  • Crankset - Shimano 105 compact, 50x34
  • Cassette - Shimano Ultegra 11x28
  • Cockpit - Vision aluminum aerobars with vision brake levers
  • Hydration - Single cage between the aero bars
  • Helmet - LG Aero Helmet, vents taped
  • Bike Weight - 18.9lbs
  • Power - 206 watts for over 3 hours (WKO file)

Thanks to ATC for building up the bike, it worked beautifully climbing, descending, cornering, and braking!

Links and Info


  1. Not bad for having crashed not too long ago and not being able to train..I'm super surprised at how you didn't have any extra clothes on at all going up the wall. I'm giving myself another minute due to flapping vest, arm warmer and knee warmer drag. Nice report and congrats on a great race.

  2. I agree! It's damn near perfect. In 2009 I raced to 6th overall and loved every painful of it! Even camped right of the run course. Glad you loved it. Don't tell too many people, I'd hate to lose the amazing vibe!

  3. Congrats on earning the brick! This is definitely on my list of races that I need to do.