The Frozen Otter is an annual winter race on Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail. According to the event’s website:

“The Frozen Otter Ultra Trek is by far one of the toughest races in the Midwest and with roughly a 2% completion rate, possibly the country. Racers traverse 64 miles of Wisconsin’s hilly terrain left in the wake of the great Wisconsin Glacier. As if the sheer feat of conquering the mileage isn’t enough, racers must do it completely self supported, on trail, in the dead of winter.

Racers may participate as a solo only this year (although participants are encouraged to race with others) and must carry a variety of gear to ensure their safety during the event. For those who don’t want to commit to the entire distance, a 32 mile half distance option is also offered. Full distance racers have 24 hours to conquer the distance and 12 hours are allowed for the half distance participants.”

For those who know me, I don’t have a lot of experience with this sort of thing – aside from the occasional short backpacking trip. So needless to say, I signed up for the 12 hour, 32 mile race. I figured it would be a great way to test my endurance, and maybe build up to slightly longer races…like this one in Alaska.

Ready to go

Butler Lake trailhead

The half distance race started at 10:00 am, and was broken up into 4 sections of 7.42, 9.06, 9.06, and 7.42 miles (for a total of 32.96). At the end of each section was a checkpoint, where racers could warm up by a fire and fill up on energy drinks, hot cider, hot chocolate, and sausages. Since Allison was kind enough to come up and support me, she ended up volunteering at these checkpoints throughout the day.

During the first section of the race, I felt great. It was sunny, the temperature was up around 18°F, and I made pretty good time by alternately walking and jogging.

About half a mile in

One of countless small hills

After a brief stop for energy drinks at the first checkpoint, I took off at a trot for the next leg of the race. I made it perhaps another four miles before my right knee became painfully tight. I’ve had problems with my iliotibial band for years, so I decided to just take a couple Ibuprofen and keep moving. I also tried listening to some physiology lectures on my iPod…but that lasted about seven minutes before I flipped back to my music.

Yes, part of the trail was in black and white

Yellow Ice Age Trail marker

A lonely section of trail

The sun was starting to get low by the time I reached the second checkpoint, and my knee was definitely hurting a lot. I rested for probably twenty minutes or so, taking the opportunity to inhale some hot sausages and talk with Allison (who jokingly pointed out the icicles forming on my face and hair, and the frozen blood-cicle where I’d gotten a bloody nose).

Climbing more hills

The third section was pretty brutal. I was hobbling on my bad knee, making poor time, and I’d pretty much given up on finishing the race within the 12 hour limit. It also became dark after a few miles, so I had to strap on my headlamp and take extra care not to twist my knee on the more treacherous sections of trail.


Two Ibuprofens and a Hammer Gel later, and I was warming up by the fire at the third checkpoint. I figured I’d made it too far to quit, but I was planning to at least thaw out by the fire and change into some dry socks. Then Allison told me it was only 6:55 pm. That 10:00 pm deadline was actually in striking range…so I scrapped my plans and left as quickly as possible.

The good news was that my bum knee was less noticeable on the final 7.42 mile stretch. Unfortunately, that’s because it was eclipsed by periodic spasms of pain in both hips when lifting my legs. No real “injury” here, I don’t think…my legs are just horribly out of shape. The next time I attempt a race like this, my training program is going to consist of more than just a handful of 2 mile runs and a single 13 mile hike in the snow.

Anyway, I was able to keep my legs moving and finish the race at 9:30 pm. My time of 11 hours, 30 minutes was good enough for an 8th place finish (out of 29) in the 32 mile division.

At the finish line, cider in hand


Base layer: Reebok polyester shirt; Terramar polyester pants

Mid layer: Norsewear wool sweater; Nike polyester sweats

Outer layer: Marmot Gore-tex shell

Footwear: SmartWool socks; SealSkinz waterproof socks; North Face Ultra 105 GTX XCR mid trail running shoes; Liberty Mountain nylon gaiters

Other: Thinsulate waterproof gloves; Seirus balaclava; Polarlens G7 multisport sunglasses

All the clothing and gear


North Face Terra 45 backpack

Full change of clothing

Shelter (tarp; rope; stakes)

Maglite; headlamp; spare batteries

Emergency blanket; hand warmers; foot warmers

Lighter; fire-starter; first-aid kit

Camera; phone; iPod

Sandwiches; water; tons of energy bars