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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Frozen otter race report

Wow - what a race!  Grant and I ended up finishing tied for third, 32 minutes behind the lead trio and 37 minutes off the course record.  I'd spent much of the week leading up to the race worrying about it - but in the end the training had me in good enough shape to get to the point where mental factors take over and i'm more in my element.  This race was the longest i've pushed consistently for so hard - Abu Dhabi is a close second but in reality there we were already pretty worked by the time the desert came along and were already well into 'slow and steady' mode. 
Grant and I seconds off the line

By the looks of things there were some good athletes among the 80 that lined up to start the full course at 10:15 (the 30 half course runners were let loose at 10:00 which was nice because they'd pack some of the trail for us).  The faster folks were told to move to the front so that, in our optimism, is where we headed.  At the gun though, Grant and I unexpectedly found ourselves leading the charge up the 50 feet of stairs that led to the single-track hiking trail heading south along a ridge and through the forest.  Two other runners quickly caught us and stayed on our heels for the first 8 miles, Brian - one of the six people who had finished the full distance before, and JP - who'd won the half distance race a couple of years prior.  I got to lead most of the time as we passed all but two of the 32 milers by the first CP, just over 8 miles in. 

Our strategy was to only refill water at CPs and not stop and we stuck to it - catching one of the 32 milers still ahead of us shortly after leaving the CP.  Brian and JP had taken a bathroom break but quickly caught up as well and we ran as five until the 32 miler (a 10 time IronMan finisher) couldn't take the pace.  Through these first 10 or so miles we ran everything except a few hills that proved so steep that running conferred no speed advantage.  But the conditions of running through 3-8 inches of snow - which by now had been trodden by only one set of feet before ours - coupled with the tremendously hilly course and the fact that we knew we had a LONG way to go, had our average pace at around an 11 minute mile. 

Despite this seemingly leisurely pace, i felt the first twinges of cramping shortly after the first CP and Grant and I decided to return to our original game plan (which we'd predictably abandoned in the excitement of being at the front of the race) of walking any hills over a slight grade and only running the flats and downs.  This let JP and Brian pull away a little bit and they passed us heading back along the course about 5 minutes before we hit the first turnaround at 16 miles.  It also allowed one other pair of runners to catch and pass us minutes before reaching the 16 mile CP. 

Nearing CP 2 at mile 16.

We left the CP at the same time as this other pair and proceeded to swap places several times as we headed back to the 32 mile half-way mark where the morning had begun.  By now the definition of 'slight grade' had changed so that we were essentially walking anything that gained more than about a foot in a hundred.  we were starting to feel the fatigue.

Our hope had been to make 32 miles in 8 hours.  We made it in about 8 hours and 50 minutes.  Brian and JP had come in nearly 40 minutes earlier.  But we'd managed to pull out a bit of a lead over the other pair and they were just coming into the CP as we headed out for the second half of the race, which would take place completely in a soft white bubble of headlamp light.

From here, we walked.  I like to think that we 'power walked', but not sure our speed allows us to make this claim.  The trekking poles had been out since just before mile 16 and would remain out the rest of the race.  By this point, we were definitely experiencing time dilation - the mile markers which made brief appearances in our light bubble like clockwork every 20 minutes seemed to appear one right after the other. Unfortunately for us though, CP 5 proved to be some sort of 'time dilation nexus' and as we passed through and headed towards CP 6 (the final turnaround point), time stretched instead of contracted and i hit my low point of the race.  It took just shy of 3 hours to walk from CP 5 to 6 and the trail which had been pretty packed down to CP 5 deteriorated badly.  We became convinced we'd be caught by the pair chasing us.

filling water at a CP in the middle of the night
We weren't, though.  In fact as we arrived at CP 6 the volunteer, who was cozied up in the cab of his truck watching Spies Like Us (talk about surreal - to have hiked endlessley through the night in a coccoon of soft white light only to burst out of the forest to Chevy Chase and Dan Akroyd saying Doctor, Doctor; Doctor, Doctor...) informed us that the pair of racers behind us had taken a wrong turn leaving CP 5 that had cost them half an hour.  We breathed a sigh of relief, quickly filled water, and turned around.

Much to our surprise we passed the trailing racers after only 10 minutes.  They must have been moving fast to be so close behind despite our 15 minute or more headstart out of CP 4 and their wrong turn.  Damn.  I was determined not to get caught and told Grant the goal was to 'negative split' both the section to back to CP 7 (same as CP 5) and then to the finish (same as CP 4).  He thought this was a good idea until I actually picked up the pace.  We'd now been on our feet (never sat down once!) for over 14 hours and had exceeded Grant's longest ever effort at mile 32.  I knew he was hurting (although he wouldn't come right out and say it so directly) and wanted to slow down - but i didn't let him.

We trudged on until we started to notice the shadows of the sleep monsters becoming more frequent as we cast our lights along the trail - time for the secret weapon.  We split a tube of Power to Go Energy mix and kept at it - relentless forward progress.  The mix did the job - at least initially - and Grant's mood improved.  We managed the negative split to CP 7 by four minutes and the end was starting to actually seem near.  Nevertheless - i was still constantly looking over my shoulder - absolutely convinced that we'd see a pair of headlamps suddenly crest the hill behind us and herald the arrival of our chasers.

It never happened.  Despite one or two wrong turns that could have proved disasterous and one more brief and half-hearted campaign by the sleep-monsters, we began to taste the end.  The sky grew a smidgen of a shade lighter.  We crossed the last road before the finish and started down the final section of path.  Although the last mile stretched out far longer than it should have - we could look far back down the trail and see no one behind us.  We knew our place was secure.  And then, all at once, the ridge ended in stairs and we were exactly where we'd started a little more than 20 hours before.

Talking with Brian and JP, the race winners, moments after Grant and I's third place finish.
All in all it was an epic, well run event with a great atmosphere.  As finishers of the full course we were pretty much treated like celebrities with volunteers reaching out to shake our dazed hands and congratulating us on becoming part of the Frozen Few.

Below are a few highlights/thanks that i want to offer - random thoughts that didn't make the race report but that bear recording....
  1. We had a great trip overall - awesome company on the way out and back in Bonnie and Mike.  These two only made it 32 miles, but considering how Mike was feeling at mile 12, not to mention that their packs and boots weighed at least twice ours, this is incredible! Way to go guys...
  2. Sausages at CP 16 were fabulous!  So were the cinnamon candies I brought - particularly during the last half of the race.
  3. Feeding Grant - Grant, was using borrowed trekking poles with rather slim 'leashes'.  As a result he had a hard time getting his hands in and out of them. To make matters worse, he wore fleece mittens which provided little dexterity.  As a result, every time we stopped to eat, i'd end up feeding him - he couldn't open the ziplocs of chips, the FRS chews, etc.  It provided some comic humor for us deep in the night.
  4. Brian and JP - the guys who ended up winning - were super cool to run with, at least as long as we could keep up with them.  Awesome job.
  5. Gear - we took some calculated risks when it came to gear and opted to run the race in a style not used by anyone else.  there's a lot of good stuff to report on here that others might find useful, so i'll put it in a follow up post in the next couple days.


  1. Nice to read that JP and I were not the only people compulsively looking over our shoulders, stretching our peripheral vision to its limits, and often veering off course balance challenged from fatigue because of concern over invisible racers somewhere in the darkness behind. It’s curious that this urge never seems to dissipate, but rather intensified as the race played out in spite of increasing fatigue. I believe these two activities to be inversely related. Logic all too quickly takes a back seat to ones focus on forward momentum. As if a racer is going to somehow traverse hundreds of yards or more in mere seconds to pass you without you knowing it. I couldn’t help but think of that dog in that animated kids movie (I think its “UP”), who is always distracted by thinking it sees a squirrel. For me it was “light” …and I had to look. I feel fortunate that the Frozen Otter played out at much slower speeds, and even more so to come out in the lead with a great guy like JP. Somehow, none of the spectators or volunteers ever comments on the slow motion extra short gait “run” we racers resort to through the night. Rather, they love it at any speed and we were indeed treated like celebrities. How cool is that. Great event, it was a pleasure to meet (and race) you and Grant, I hope we meet and suffer together again.


  2. Incredible effort! 20 hours on the move is a feat even in the best conditions; slogging through snow the whole time must seem endless. How long do expect to take to recover from this?

  3. Brian - you guys were inspiring - wish we could have kept up. i love your description of being balance challenged and veering off course... seems like everytime i risked a glance behind me the trail would suddenly jog and i'd be in the powder.

    Mike - i'm not sure. i swam today (easy) and will resume regular training on tuesday, but will probably notice that i'm not 100% for at least another week

  4. Nice work, Andy! Sounds like you did a great job planning your gear to be able to race as light as possible. Looks like about a 14% finishing rate this year for the full distance? 3rd out of 80 starters is pretty impressive stuff!