Race Report: Frozen Otter Ultra Trek

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

Published in: on January 22, 2012 at 8:06 pm  Comments (20)  

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20 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Nice race report. Frozen Otter is definitely a race I’d like to run again.

  2. […] decided to post a few pictures here as a teaser, but you’ll have to visit my other blog (CLICK HERE) for the full story. Rate this: Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  3. It wouldn’t be an adventure without a little pain. Good for you for finishing! This race sounds like fun…

    • It was definitely a fun race…most likely doing it again next year!

  4. Not to overspiritualize all things, but a person could actually learn tons about our faith walk with Christ in such an experience as yours–you had to drag along tons of stuff along yet not so much that it bogged you down–sound a bit like wearing the full the armor of God. You, like the man going to battle in Jesus’ parable (as well as the Boy Scout motto!) needed to “be prepared” for crazy and unexpected obstacles. It started out feeling great but…counting the cost as Jesus tells us to do in other words. You needed tenacity and endurance, as St Paul tells us to “run the race so as to win.” The list of parallels could go on and on.

    The bottom line is that each of our life challenges, whether sport or just daily living, have many such built-in moments where the voice of God is speaking to us and He attempts to build our character through them.. We just have to listen. And it sounds to me like you do! God bless and thanks for sharing this with your friends and readers.

    • “Not to overspiritualize all things, but a person could actually learn tons about our faith walk with Christ in such an experience as yours…”

      Quite true.

  5. Wow, I am impressed. I love to run and I love to race, but 32 miles in the snow?! Hope you have recovered!

    • Well, it’s mid-April now and I’m finally running again!

  6. Nuts …. rofl! By now you should know if the hips are permanent. And yes, next time you really do need to practice at the same gate you will do the race in – different sets of muscles.

    But, it was good for you to compete. And 8th place is a solid victory for a first year competition.


    • 2.5 weeks later, and the hips are fully healed. The knee is still kind of sore, but better every day.

      And yeah, I was definitely just thrilled to finish. Next time I plan to do more training, haha.

  7. Well done. Will you do it again?

    • Sorry for the delayed response – but yeah, I think my wife and I are going to sign up together for next year’s race!

      • WooHoo! That’s great.

  8. Nice work!

  9. Wow… So intense! That sounds amazingly challenging and rewarding. I have never heard of that type of race before. After my husband and I hiked almost half of the PCT, I started training for a half marathons, however, there was no snow to run through! I think there is definitely a connection between hiking and endurance races. Way to go!

  10. […] story short, I’d re-injured my IT band during the Frozen Otter race, which you can read about HERE. I’d been limping to class only two weeks before leaving, so for the first time in my life I […]

  11. I’m very impressed! Wow. What a race…sounds grueling. Glad you finished in time…such a great feeling to accomplish that. Hope your knee is doing well!

  12. […] National Scenic Trail I’ve hiked along in as many months (read about the other trips HERE and HERE). North Country Trail […]

  13. Incredible feat – but madness!

  14. […] leg of the course was a 6.3-mile stretch to Butler Lake (the starting point for last winter’s Frozen Otter race). None of the hills we faced were particularly large, but the trail was a constant […]

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