112 people started this race, but only 5 finished. I was not one of them. 24 hours to run 64 miles is a generous amount of time, but fresh snow combined with frigid temperatures made for a historically tough running of this event.
The Frozen Otter takes place in the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, approximately 45 minutes north of Milwaukee. The race is run on a section of the Ice Age trail, a path that winds across Wisconsin from Minnesota to Lake Michigan. The race starts at Mauthe Lake, with racers first running the northern section, a 46 mile out-and-back to Highway P, returning to Mauthe Lake, only to head out on the southern section, an 18 mile out-and-back to Highway H.
I discovered the Frozen Otter while researching the Tuscobia Winter Ultra, a 160 mile race in the dead of winter that requires pulling a sled of gear the entire time. To register for that event, you have to complete a ‘shorter’ winter ultra, not only to prove your mettle, but to prove that you won’t die attempting it. The Frozen Otter is one of those qualifying events.
I convinced two friends to do this race with me: Zach, an avid ultra-runner, who completed his first 100-miler a couple months ago; and Adam, a multi-time Ironman finisher, who has competed at the World Championships twice. Each would lead this race at certain points.
Mauthe Lake to Butler Lake (Mile 8)
I was unprepared for this race. A majority of my gear was put through it’s first test run the night before, and I was fastening my gaiters seconds before the race started.
I completed the first mile in 12 minutes. It would be my fastest mile of the day. The 6-8″ of snow that had fallen in the previous 24 hours made running much more difficult.
I quickly adopted a strategy of stepping in the footprints of those ahead of me, which helped, but was still slow moving.
My effort for the first 8 miles was too high. I was sweating in the first hour despite below freezing temperatures. I knew I was going too fast, but my ego got in the way of slowing down.
I was surprised to see Zach when I came into the first aid station. He was out of sight within the first mile and I had imagined he had pulled even further ahead since.
However, being in the lead and breaking the trail slowed him considerably.
Butler Lake to Greenbush (Mile 16)
Zach waited for me and we headed out. We walked a couple of minutes while I downed a cup full of ramen noodles, and then quickly caught the lead pack ahead of us.
For the first 20 miles of this race, the leader never broke away. Creating the first set of foot prints required a lot of energy, so most runners hung at the back of the lead pack.
I was already tired at the 13 mile mark. I knew I was in for a long day and got dropped by the lead group. I came into the Greenbush aid station as the lead pack was leaving.
The aid stations were fantastic. The runners manual made them out to be barebones outposts with just hot water and ramen noodles, but there was much more. Hot chocolate, oatmeal, Oreos, pretzel bites….perfect fuel to cancel out all the calories we were burning. And the wonderful volunteers! The kindness was like visiting Grandma’s house as a child. It was a welcome nutritional and emotional boost every couple of hours.
Greenbush to Hwy P (Mile 23)
At this point, I was reduced to walking large chunks of time. I didn’t complete a single mile of this section faster than 20 minutes, and got passed by numerous runner. The pity party was on in full.
The course, however, was a winter wonderland. It was calm and serene, in stark contrast to the raucous commotion in my mind. I felt like I was being taunted. Why do you feel so miserable when it’s so pretty outside? Can’t you get a hold of your mind and enjoy the beauty?
Hwy P was the turnaround point. I saw Zach coming the other direction, in first place! That’s cool, he could win this thing! Adam was 10 minutes behind.
Hwy P to Greenbush (Mile 30)
I was ready to be done at this point, and only 23 miles in! 41 more miles to go? Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.
The sun was far gone and temperatures dropped to single digits. I was miserable trudging along. Why do I sign up for these moronic endeavors?
The real trick in these all day events is to avoid the negative reinforcement loop. Negative thoughts lead to poor running, poor running leads to more negative thoughts. At that point, I was fully in the death spiral.
I spent over 20 minutes at the Greenbush aid station. I would have dropped right there if I had an easy way to get back to the start. I figured I might as well run instead of waiting in the cold for someone to drive me back. Completing 46 miles would at least be a respectable result.
I popped caffeine pill and an ibuprofen to make the remaining miles on my quitters road more bearable.
Greenbush to Butler Lake (Mile 38)
That’s when a miracle happened. Within two miles, I felt on top of the world. Calories + Caffeine + Ibuprofen = feeling much better. It’s not a complicated equation, but when I feel like shit I just want to give up rather than take the action to solve my problems.
A trench had been created by the procession of runners heading out to Highway P. It was if Moses had parted the deep snow we faced earlier allowing for some actual running. I took advantage of that and moved up in the field.
Butler Lake to Mauthe Lake (Mile 46)
It was 11 p.m. by this point and pitch black. Several times I thought I heard someone screaming only to realize it was just the creaking of the trees in the wind.
The same genetics that lead to a sunburn after spending 30 minutes at the beach also seem to do well in cold climates. I had more of an issue with overheating than getting cold, despite the temperatures approaching zero.
I made it Mauthe Lake in high spirits and downed an energy drink from my drop bin. 16 miles ago I was ready to give up and now I had been reborn. That’s a super dramatic analogy, but is reflective of how I felt in the moment.
Mauthe Lake to Hwy H
I headed out on the southern section tired, but highly motivated. I figured it would take another 6 hours to go the last 18 miles. Finishing was inevitable…until it wasn’t.
Only 26 people left the Mauthe Lake aid station to attempt the southern leg of the course. Based on the footprints ahead of me, I imagine I was somewhere in the middle of that pack.
Where the previous sections had been packed down and runnable, this new sections was lightly trodden and slow moving. Finishing in 6 hours quickly turned into not sure if I I’d finish before the cutoff in 9 hours. I was demoralized.
After 3 hours, I saw a trail sign indicating I had traveled 4 miles and had another 5 miles to get to Hwy H. At that pace, I (incorrectly) calculated I wouldn’t make it to next aid station by the cutoff time.
I called it quits right there, phoning Zach’s wife Katie who graciously picked me up at one of the road crossings.
What About Adam and Zach?
Adam made it to Hwy H before dropping. Frostbite was forming on his nose and he had no way to warm it up. Thankfully he dropped, because the frostbite on his toes was much worse. Had he continued on, he very well might have lost some little piggies. This photo was taken several days later after it was basically ‘healed’
Zach made it to Mauthe Lake in the lead, headed out on the southern section, got lost three times due to sparse trail markings, and returned when he started to feel hypothermia setting in.
First place finished in 21:55. Out of 112 starters, five finished, along with one relay team. Based on the previous results, it looks to have been one of the most difficult years of this event.
Wrap It Up
Not finishing at an event like this is very motivating. It’s such a binary result, and I failed.
Is it possible to feel like shit and still be in a good mood? I’m sure people with real adversity and struggles do it all the time. I want to obtain a level of fitness to complete events like this and a mindset to continue on when things get difficult.
DNF’ing this race puts me at 1 for 3 for completing ultra distance races in order to accomplish my goal of completing two of them for my 31 Before 31 List. I need to find another one of these dumb events before I turn 31.
EDIT: I found another one of these dumb events