Joining the Frozen Few
Updated: Mar 23, 2019
During my all too frequent exploration of winter races, I stumbled upon something called the Frozen Otter Ultra. Instantly I was fascinated with the details. Entering its 12th year, the 64 mile race averaged a 19% finisher rate, one of the lowest in the ultra world. Being in upper Wisconsin during mid January, the weather promised to be rugged (often -20*F at night). It appeared that self-sufficiency was necessary as no outside support was allowed. In fact, it sounded like the volunteers were there to discourage continuing, as the website stated:
“Just to add to the mental challenge (and to keep track of the racers), volunteers are posted at roughly 8 mile intervals along the trail and provide a haven with a warm fire, hot water, and the option to take a shuttle back. This is where racers begin to drop like flies!
Historically, by the third checkpoint nearly 50% of the participants have chosen to throw in the towel and return to the comfort of their warm cars. Those racers that complete the entire 64 mile course within the 24 hour cutoff become part of the 'Frozen Few' and receive a set of dog tags for bragging rights.”
In other words, it sounded perfect, so I signed up.
The crazy weather that hit New England this winter was also seen in Wisconsin. I landed in Milwaukee as the rain streamed down in 43*F temps. Shortly after nightfall temperatures plummeted to 0* (-18*C) with high winds. Friday afternoon I went to register and have my kit checked at Mauthe Lake, the starting point. Luckily the race director had sent an email prior to my departure informing us that, “The latest forecast for the forest has wind chills down to around -10F, which does NOT put the extreme gear requirement into play (is that 135 sighs of relief I hear?). I cannot stress enough that the conditions are still extremely dangerous if you are not properly prepared, so I encourage everyone to make sure your gear will allow you to survive in the case of an emergency.” As I was hoping not to pack my winter sleeping bag and tent, I did breathe that sigh of relief.
Endurance racing has confirmed one aspect of myself that I always believed true: I can be an idiot. Race day saw me arrive at 9:00 a.m. for a 9:30 mandatory race briefing; I am unsure why. The rapid drop in temperature after heavy rain made the trail feel like concrete with patches of ice. With a high in the single digits (-12*C) and low of -6*F (-21*C), I weighed what to bring in my pack and what to put on my feet. Here is where my idiocy showed once again with a couple rookie mistakes. I switched my Altra trail shoes for less cushioned but insulated and spiked Ice Bugs and carried far too much unnecessary weight in my pack. In my defense, one of the race’s mantras was, "This is the one race everyone has to do once, just so they know how to do it right the NEXT time". Apparently of the 19% who finish, few are first-timers.
The race kicked off Saturday at 10:00 a.m. under a bright blue sky and 1*F. The weather remained terrific all day, reaching a high of 9*F (-13*C). The bright sunlight highlighted several stunning lakes that looked perfect for wild skating. As I ran by I longed to have my boots and blades, although skating mid-race probably would have been a poor idea. The first check-in arrived around mile 8 at which point I realized that I was likely carrying too much water, food and clothing. For the first 32 miles I wore a thin Rab wool t-shirt, non-insulated long sleeve Sugoi race top and a non-insulated stretch Reebok hoody. The biggest key to successful winter racing, I feel, is avoiding sweat buildup so it is one area on which I spend a great deal of time. Despite some frostbite on my right fingertips, my temperature management went well.
Every 8-9 miles is a mandatory check-in staffed by ever-positive, enthusiastic and instantly helpful volunteers. My insulated bottle would be filled with hot water while I was asked if I wished to continue. As you entered the checkpoint you were required to call out your number; upon departure, it was mandatory to inform them you were departing. The reason for this becomes clear as those remaining when the sun sets become spread out. Sometime around midnight I stopped, turned off my headlamp and looked up to a brilliant sea of stars. It had been about an hour since I had seen another racer and the quietness reminded me of how fortunate I was to be competing in such a beautiful environment with a silence that only a deep winter night seems to bring. Shortly after that I heard howling, tried to remember if Wisconsin had wolves (they do) and decided to resume running (like that would help).
Sometime around mile 20 I tore my left meniscus. I will blame it on choice of footwear, concrete-like running surface, having just finished antibiotics for bronchitis after having the flu, blah, blah, blah. In reality, it was likely poor foot placement as I ran downhill or some previous imbalance gone uncorrected. By mile 30 my downhill running resembled the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. After mile 40, Ian Curtis singing “She’s Lost Control” came to mind as I spasmodically descended the hills. I was most thankful for my trekking poles as they saved me from more than a few faceplants. With the exception of my left knee, I felt strong. While it’s probably helpful to have an operating left knee, the extra work my right leg took on never became an issue.
The Ice Age Trail was largely runnable with nighttime temps only reaching -6*F (-21*C) and the checkpoints providing manageable goals. It is, however, a race that should be taken seriously. It is possible you will leave a checkpoint at night and not see anyone for an hour or longer; an injury here may become of high concern. The weather can vary massively (even if this year it was relatively steady) with sweat during the day turning into hypothermia at night. While the race officially concluded at 10:00 a.m. Sunday, by 8:00 p.m. a snow storm came barreling in dropping over half a foot of snow.
Before reaching the midpoint check-in, I ran with an interesting gent who told me this was his 9th time running the Frozen Otter (only one person has run it more). “How many times have you finished?” I asked. Turning a serious face to me he quickly replied, “Oh, I’ve never finished. I made it to mile 48 once.” This certainly caused me to pause but appreciate even more the brilliance of the course. At the third checkpoint at mile 24 there is a van waiting to easily shuttle racers back to their autos. For those electing to continue, you head back on the same trail knowing you have 40 more miles. The real mental challenge hits at the 6th checkpoint at mile 48 as runners exit the woods near their cars knowing there’s a roaring fire and hot food at the cabin where the race began. Immediately upon checking in at mile 48 the volunteer asked me if I planned to continue. The abruptness of the question caught me off guard but after replying, “Yes, it’s only 16 more miles, right?” he looked at me and said, “Makes sense, you have plenty of time before the cutoff.” I asked him what he did if runners arrive at this point just prior to the 24 hour cutoff and still wish to continue. He informed me if it looks unlikely that a person has left enough time to successfully complete the final 16 mile southern loop then he does not allow them to continue.
Around 1 in the morning as I approached the last paved road crossing, I was surprised to see headlights so waited just off the trail head. As the SUV slowed to a stop in front of me I wondered if it was some Saturday night partiers suddenly seeing some new entertainment. It was, however, a police officer. Rolling down his window he informed me that, “It’s really cold out tonight.” As I tried to reply that it was fairly nice but the temperature was dipping, I was surprised that my lips worked poorly. Pleasantly continuing on, he asked me what I was doing out here. While frustrated with my puzzling lack of speech control, I briefly explained there were a bunch of us running a race on the Ice Age Trail. “How long is the race?” “64 miles,” I replied. Staring incredulously, he wanted to know where I slept each night. “Oh, I am not sleeping at all and hope to be done before the sun rises.” Once again he reminded me that, “It’s really cold out tonight.” I agreed and said I appreciated him being on duty tonight. I finally crossed the road and headed back into the tranquility of the woods.
The last 16 miles saw undulating hills, some headlamp issues and more than a few near catastrophic whiffs on the bottom of those hills. It was a pleasure to run with Glenn the final 8 miles, as he provided both company and added motivation to finish strong. Exiting out of the woods as the sun started to rise, I asked the volunteer across the road if the race ended down by the lake a half mile away. “No. You’ve officially finished." Jogging (lurching?) the final 30 meters (hey, you have to at least fake looking strong at the end, right?), he handed me my Frozen Few dog tag, shook my hand and said congratulations. I thanked him, looked around, and walked with Glenn to the cabin for a beer.