Wausau 24: Spend All Night at Home
Riders have been racing mountain bikes all night in Wausau since 1999, an age when headlamps were heavy and weak. And no one had considered riding through the woods for 24 hours straight until future MTB Hall of Famer John Stamstad entered the four-person relay with himself — and his three pseudonyms.
Randy Lackman, owner of the shop just down the road from Nine Mile Forest, had his single speed and Rib Mountain Cycles colors on the trails from the beginning. His daughter, Lauren, was just three days old on race day in 2000. By age 10, she was ripping it up on a 6-hour duo team called Candy Canes and Broken Chains. At age 13, she decided to enter the 24-hour solo race. She made it look easy and said as much: “You don’t have to be fast. All you have to do is not stop.”
By nightfall, the adult women were asking her mom if she’d ever take a break. That break didn’t come until she had time in the bank as the sun came up. 186 miles made the young lady an overall champ. Lauren has since taken her Wisconsin roots to Grand Junction and a 2021 omnium national championship for Colorado Mesa University.
The elder Lackman has raced through the night at Nine Mile — 15 times — and his son, Jack, is already getting in on the fun by joining a team of five 12-year-olds that made the local veterans sweat. Lackman will be back again for the memories and the cozy festival atmosphere. It’s an event drawing a crowd that doesn’t often race.
Meet the People
You’ll run into someone you know at the party and catch a glimpse of the fast racers out on the trail where spectating is best. With a plethora of categories and an abundance of hours, it’s rare when riders meet their actual competition out there on the flow lines and rock gardens. The camaraderie builds and the traffic lightens as time passes. Everyone is in it together.
Brett Stepanik was working at Rib Mountain Cycles back in 2004 when Lackman introduced him to single speeds and pushed him out the door for a long, long ride. He rode for days and entered the Wausau 24, his ultra-introduction. Since that baptism, Stepanik has become a bikepacking legend, with the single speed triple crown of Tour Divide, Arizona Trail, and Colorado Trail. Last January, he became the first to complete the 375-mile Ozark Gravel Doom loop. So many miles in so many places, but he still comes back to Wausau for a climb up Mount Everest via Rib Mountain, or an all-nighter at Wausau 24. Last year, Stepanik had 2nd place sewn up and could have stopped, but he pressed on into overtime to reach equal mileage with the leader.
The Wausau 24 had long been a home-away-from-home for the Gryphons, a team that brings ten riders up to Wausau to spend Friday to Sunday camping together. You’ll see their colors and you’ll hear their chicken. Rubar Chicken was born 14 years ago when Julie Phelps was looking for a cow bell to support the Gryphons, but could only find the dog’s chew toy left in the car. For years I’ve looked forward to Phelps squeaking the chicken at random places near Red Bud Road, and now Rubar Chicken has joined the race seat-belted in with a few zip ties.
Phelps doesn’t mind too much that she gets recognized all over as the Chicken Lady. At least they don’t call her Worm Woman for handing out gummy worms in non-COVID times. She’ll be back with her husband, Nate, and the rest of the Gryphons who fill a variety of team categories. Teammate Bob Calloway likes the 6-hour solo because it allows more time for pizza and Red Eye Brewing Company beer, while his wife, Diane, will join a female duo.
The Wausau 24 really came home last year when a local trail couple got married and decided to adopt the race. As this giant event’s fourth director, Rebecca Tuley had a lot of pressure and some nervous moments, but with her husband, Jahn Martin, on the microphone and the support of numerous others, the race turned out amazing and as fun as ever.
Beginning July 29th
The weekend festivities kick off with the Friday night’s Wausau Trail Run. Live music from bluesman Aaron Lee Kaplan accompanies the 5K, 10K, and half-marathon. Mitch’s Texas Tacos will be there all weekend and Milky Way Coffee with be parked near the start by morning. Polito’s Pizzas will show up Saturday night about the time Red Ben and the Missing Miles start playing bluegrass.
Lackman reminded me that a race this long is one of those competitive eating contests. Racers should resist the temptation to turn it into a drinking contest and just stay hydrated.
Competition aside, the weekend is supposed to be fun, which is why Stepanik tries especially hard to relax through the first lap. He’ll probably be the one in the tuxedo for that lung-busting run to the bikes just so he can relax through the prologue of a very long ride. He might change into a button-down shirt after a few laps, but he won’t be stopping for long. His stops will be quick and well-planned, with high energy nutrition. After all his years of riding, Stepanik’s discovered sunflower butter, which burns fast and consistently; because it comes from a seed instead of a legume, it doesn’t cause the inflammation that peanut butter does at times. Others may keep pickles or chips on hand for the heat of the day, and real maple syrup will be available for those seeking to sample the unprocessed sugar and antioxidant nutrients that come from Wisconsin trees.
Tips to Take
A successful solo ride is all about staying in motion, while a duo team may suit those who want to hurt almost as much. Riding a duo requires stretching and nutrition routines between laps. There’s not much time to relax before a brief tag and an hour alone on the trail.
On my most recent duo race, my teammate and I relied on a support crew to communicate strategy because we were too jacked up to understand each other during the exchange. Well-paced single laps gave way to multiple lap efforts after dark so we could catch a nap. Night is when gaps open and races are won.
This year, I’m looking forward to a return to the most fun format in Wausau: the four-person team, which means there are always two teammates to hang out with in camp. There’s time for pizza and tacos. Time for naps. Time for a beer, depending on how competitive your buddies want to be. Just make sure you’re all on the same page and enjoy those fresh legs every time your turn comes up.
Darkness is just one variable that keeps those 24 hours interesting. In 2015, every team got a lap in the rain, while other years it’s the midday sun or the chill of early morning that lets some teams shine through. Manage those rock gardens efficiently and lay off the gas when a hard corner is coming. It’s a long race and hitting the brakes just burns your candles. Get your batteries on one of the ample charging stations and keep a bag of spare clothes handy.
As Lauren said, all you have to do is not stop.
Eat, drink, and ride is your whole agenda. Admire the efforts of everyone you meet on the singletrack, whether an exhausted solo, an elite team rider, or a weekend warrior out for their only race of the year. While endurance racing nationwide may have evolved to other formats, the Wausau 24 still gives people what they need.
They’ll be coming back home at the end of July. To learn more and register, go to: wausau24.com.