Extreme sports push

(First published in the March 16, 2019 issue)

It’s a new economic strategy for the Wausau area, and it kicks off this weekend


Tim Buchholz, center, and his wife Anna Nummelin (not shown), created the annual Rib Mountain Adventure Challenge race, and now have teamed up with Bill Bertram and now director, Andrea Larson (left) to create Ironbull, a new nonprofit events organization in Wausau.

When looking at job offers, Tim Buchholz and his wife Anna Nummelin could have moved to lots of different places in the U.S., even outside of the country. In Miami and having lived in Los Angeles, they were considering options in a few places, even New Zealand.

One of those cities was Wausau.

At that point seven years ago, Buchholz was a musician and music instructor a few years out of college. He grew up in Stevens Point, but didn’t know a lot about Wausau, other than the place to go for “the big mall” when he was a kid. He and Anna did some research. A lot of research, actually. They dug and dug, and finally found out how much Wausau offered in terms of outdoor recreation, including many of the things they liked to do. They decided to make the move, with him accepting a position at UW-Marathon County.

Their not-so-easy search into Wausau represents a problem some have pointed out for years: The Wausau area really is an outdoor playground but the word wasn’t getting out.

Fast forward several years. Buchholz created the annual Rib Mountain Adventure Challenge sports event (this weekend), in which teams navigate a course via paddling and hiking. It has attracted hundreds of participants, both the extreme sports kind and families. And now he’s helping Bill Bertram launch a new local events organization focused on extreme sports and a community-building mission: All the cool things around Wausau shouldn’t be a secret; people should be shouting it from the rooftops.

Ironbull, a non-profit aimed at bringing extreme sports to the Wausau area, is part of a bigger effort to get the word out about Wausau — that we have all these natural amenities, such as a world-class kayak course right downtown, a ski mountain and a series of mountain bike trails. The extreme sports events they’ll hold here will be sort of a window into that world, and it has massive support from local charitable foundations.

It’s all about putting Wausau on a new map.

Importantly, the extreme races will be surrounded by community events, with as many of the races as possible starting downtown on the 400 Block, to make sure that even those who can’t run 50 miles can participate, and so they’re visible to as many as possible.

There’s a broader idea at work, too. Under the guidance of a consulting firm from Texas, Wausau’s Chamber of Commerce developed a strategic plan to give Wausau a roadmap to succeeding as a community into the future. During a meeting at the Jefferson Street Inn, the consultant talked about Wausau becoming the Bend, Oregon of the Midwest.

What does this town in the Pacific Northwest have to do with Wausau? Turns out, Bend—a former logging town—is almost a perfect parallel to Wausau, in terms of where it was and where it could be.

The Iron ‘Sau

So what is IronBull? It’s a new non-profit aimed at turning Wausau into an extreme endurance sports mecca. The organization will achieve that by developing a series of races all under IronBull.

The series kicks off May 25 with Buchholz’s Rib Mountain Adventure Challenge, which is now under the IronBull umbrella.

The group will also feature two new events around Wausau in 2019: a 50-kilometer IronBull Ultra trail marathon in early October, and an Iron Endurance Gravel Ride later in the year.

In total, Ironbull hopes to organize as many as nine total races. Future plans include a winter triathlon, a paddling race (think distance, not whitewater) and an off-road triathlon, for example.

The idea initially came from Bill Bertram, a former executive with Marathon Electric/Regal Beloit, who conceived of the extreme race idea as a fundraiser for the Wausau/Marathon Co. Parks Foundation. The idea of an off-road triathlon had a lot of appeal. That turned into a bigger idea about a series of outdoor races, and when he and Tim Buchholz met for coffee, the idea solidified.

IronBull has major foundation support for its potential to be a game-changer for Wausau. Interestingly, Jon Roberts from TIP Strategies out of Austin had some of the same idea that Buchholz and Bertram did — that the area was an outdoor sports mecca but no one was promoting it in a cohesive fashion. When Roberts learned about the IronBull idea, it quickly was incorporated into the strategic plan.

IronBull’s significance in the chamber’s plan is obvious. IronBull recently hired a director, Andrea Larson, to start building the races in IronBull’s portfolio. Because these events are generally endurance-based over a variety of terrain, Larson has been meeting with leaders across the county to make arrangements. For example, she recently met with the county’s Forestry Committee to get permission for part of the gravel bike race to cross Nine Mile Forest.

The parks committee was pretty enthusiastic in its support of the project, and that’s been typical of the reception. “The funny thing is that a lot of the organizations, we haven’t had to approach them,” Larson says. “They’ve come to us.”

If it seems like a small niche to cater to — people who would run 50 kilometers or engage in a grueling all-day adventure race — there’s more to it than that. The foundations supporting the Ironbull idea wanted as many of the races to start at The 400 Block as possible, Larson says, and the idea is to make them community events. Each race will also have a non-extreme version — Buchholz points to the Rib Mountain Adventure Challenge, for example, which has a shorter 3-hour race that many families complete in. The ultra marathon, which includes a few loops on Rib Mountain, will finish at the 400 Block.

And, Buchholz says, ultra athletes aren’t as small a niche as one might think. Buchholz says many of these athletes already reside in Wausau.

Larson is an accomplished ultrarunner, for example, finishing third at the Leadville 100 in Colorado. Former UW-Stevens Point runner Zach Bitter had set a record in the 100-mile lap race. Pro ultrarunner Timothy Olson is from the Amherst area. Super-Ironman Chad Esker from Mosinee has a slew of ultra endurance friends he trains with in the Wausau area. 

Eventually, Buchholz says, the Ironbull races will form part of a series that will award points for each of the races. Endurance athletes who are well-rounded and want to compete for the overall title will keep coming back to Wausau for each race. Maybe they’ll eventually decide to just move here, he says. But the bigger idea is that people will come from outside the area and see Wausau’s outdoor recreation opportunities. They’ll hear about the races, they’ll learn about the course, and the name Wausau will stick in people’s minds when they think outdoor fun.

Bend it like Bend, Oregon



Scenes from the last Rib Mountain Adventure Challenge, which this year, May 25, will be under the Ironbull banner.

Bend, Ore. came up at the local Economic Development Summit earlier this year. Wausau could become the Bend of the Midwest. But what do people out in Oregon say about that?

The similarities between Wausau and Bend are actually a little eerie.

Bend is a mountain town. It has great natural outdoor amenities, including mountain bike trails and kayaking. It has a growing craft beer scene.

And, like Wausau, Bend once had an economy centered on timber. But when that dried up, the city had to reinvent itself, says Visit Bend CEO Kevney Dugan. The city put an enormous investment into its outdoor amenities starting in the late 1980s and early 90s—expanding trail systems, building parks, and adding every kind of recreation it could.

But the second, and important, piece is that they talked about it. Through a partnership with business and development interests, just about everything that goes out to promote Bend emphasizes the city’s outdoors offerings. That’s the difference between other towns in Oregon, many of which have the same outdoor recreation. Bend has a unifying message that highlights outdoor activities for all ages and abilities. Mountain bike trails are accessible to every ability level; there are even handicap accommodations.

And since 1990, Bend’s population has exploded. What did that growth look like? I asked who came first, employees or employers. The answer was a bit more muddled: the process grew organically.

Bend doesn’t have a large, 1,000-employee business in town. It’s mostly comprised of small companies that have sprung up as entrepreneurial types left California and other parts of Oregon such as Portland, and started up businesses. It made a different, Dugan says. While other areas with the same cool outdoor opportunities are still small, Bend has grown to nearly four times its 1990 population.

Dugan says it sounds like Wausau could be poised for a similar success. An organization promoting extreme sports, such as Ironbull, is a good idea to get Wausau’s name on the map. But Dugan cautions that marketing broader recreation that people of all ages can enjoy is the best bet to foster relocation.

When Bend promotes its mountain biking, for example, it highlights the city’s diversity of trails — everything from elite level to those accessible to disabled individuals. Being as inclusive as possible is a key point in making the marketing work.

Ironbull organizers in Wausau seem to realize this too, making sure that while the extreme aspect is the central focus, the events offer shorter less extreme races for other folks. And, the races help draw attention to facilities that can be enjoyed at a more leisurely pace outside the race setting.

Credit goes to the Central Wisconsin Offroad Cycling Coalition, Ironbull organizers say, for building a variety of trails with the aim of becoming an International Mountain Biking Association Ride Center. Wausau would be the second in the state if that happened.

Why not Wausau?

That’s a question Gerald Mortensen asked roughly ten years ago. Mortensen, then founder of the marketing business Flapjack Creative, started a campaign that was somewhat similar in concept to what the Chamber is doing now. In an interview with City Pages at the time, Mortensen, who had then recently moved back to Wausau from Chicago, said that Wausau has so many cool things that too few people were talking about them. The campaign featured T shirts and a concert at Rib Mountain.

Though the campaign eventually faded, aided by two bad weather years for the Why Not Wausau? concerts, the idea still persists, and the selling points of Wausau have only grown stronger, Mortensen says.

“It’s not just me, many people have acknowledged that fact,” Mortensen says, of Wausau not fully promoting its selling points. Mortensen says he is hopeful everyone can get on board with the new economic development strategy, which will be the key to its success.

Something solid to connect to Wausau — maybe an endurance race series? — might help. The area needs it. Because right now, Wausau and Wisconsin are starting to lose people.

According to data from United Van Lines, more people left Wisconsin in 2018 (54%) than came to the state (46%). The biggest percentage of those moving to the state were Millennials (21.87%).

Meanwhile, Oregon is seeing quite an influx of residents. The 63.8% of movers were coming into the state, versus 36.2% moving out— the second-highest nationally. Of those coming to the state, 55% said they were coming for a job.

If Wausau is interested in growth, Bend might not be a bad place to imitate. Its population growth has been staggering. Bend was far smaller than Wausau in 1990, and then its population quadrupled to 94,524 in 2017. Wausau’s population now is just under 40,000.