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Part 1 of 2: Training for the Frozen Otter

The Frozen Otter is a bastard of a race. But don’t just take it from us. Instead, simply look at the finishing statistics. Each year 100 racers congregate in freezing temperatures in Kettle Moraine’s northern unit. Most racers opt for the 32 mile distance while a lesser few stare into the woods and imagine rocking the dog tags that come with a 64 mile finish. In reality, very few finish the race – that’s the hook! Do you have what it takes to be labeled ‘The Frozen Few?”

The pre-race meeting is an unofficial puffy party.

The pre-race meeting is an unofficial puffy party.

The biggest mistake one can make when approaching this race is relying on simple math – 64/32 miles in 24/12 hours.  Sounds easy enough, but it is much more difficult than the equation might suggest. Kettle Moraine is the love child of a glacial collision that deposited sediment creating the moraines and the subsequent rescission which carved out the kettles a mere 20,000 years ago.  Kettle is the largest moraine in Wisconsin and, by Great Lakes Region standards, is an insanely rugged and unforgiving terrain.  Worse yet, the January weather is deceptive and relentless. Temperatures have dipped to 30 degrees below zero. The daunting physical component is obvious, but when the body wears down, the race becomes entirely mental. Don’t be intimidated. In order to complete this race, whichever distance you choose, you only have to do three things well: (1) train your ass off, (2) pack the right gear and (3) develop and execute a sound strategy. With those three guiding principles in mind, we self-proclaimed veterans wish to offer some advice that would have been helpful four years ago. This article will focus on training while two subsequent posts will discuss (2) gear essentials and (3) strategy.

The saying is “slow and steady wins the race” but when it comes to the Frozen Otter, just finishing is winning.  It’s no secret that strong knees, hips and ankles are the keys to being a strong runner. Here, however, the snowpack, ice and never-ending ups and downs will grind on these joints. In order to set yourself apart, build on your base by incorporating a nauseating amount of squats, lunges, jump roping, resistance bands, push-ups, box jumps and planks into your already increasing mileage. For you city dwellers, don’t forget that the only flat terrain in the Frozen Otter is the parking lot.  Therefore, we recommend befriending the stairs in your apartment or office building and embracing parking structure intervals. Add as much variety as possible to simulate the beating the body will endure. For increased endurance, incorporate spinning, rowing and swimming. The benefits of this cross training will reveal themselves half way into the race when your shoes feel like cinder blocks and your sweat starts to freeze.

The author's in transition.

Eric and Tom in transition at CP 2.

Tom and Evan at CP 1

Arrival at CP 1 – still in good spirits.

At this point (five weeks out), we assume your base is solid and you are starting to think about simulating the race. Remember, this January death march requires that you are continuously moving for 12 or 24 hours. Plan two long distance slow runs or hikes in full gear. Hit your local trail system for an 8 hour hike for you 32 mile racers and 12 to 15 hour walk/jog for you 64 mile racers. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you have to run the entire distance.  Instead, focus on training the body to expect uneven terrain due to compounded snowpack or frozen mud, frigid temperatures, eating on the move and efficiently shedding or adding a layer.  For example, in order to start training to finish the 64 mole distance, I (Eric) started 12 weeks ago with several weekends of 3 to 5 hour walks in full gear at Palos Park and continue to increase the time and mileage each weekend. During the week, I primarily dedicate 1 to 1.5 hours 3 days a week weight training and running.

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Frozen Otter Base Camp

The mental training is the second key component. The race theme is accurately phrased “for the  love of misery.” If you do the full distance, you are guaranteed to at least flirt with hallucination, feel your eye lids freeze shut and know what it truly means to feel cold.  To put in perspective, we each have our own wacky stories:

Tom: Last year, I had a complete breakdown around mile 58. As far as I can remember, I started hallucinating while walking, fell asleep (still walking) and slipped, fell and yard-saled on a downhill slope. A full on temper tantrum ensued with me launching my trekking poles like javelins and slamming my pack on the snow followed by a fit of yelling that started from the gut. Nobody was around. I must say, it felt liberating to throw a temper tantrum in the woods. The year before was even weirder, around mile 46 I saw a beautiful woman in a red dress and heels.  As she continued to walk away from me (usual for women), her heels were making perfect circles in the snow – those circles were trekking pole imprints.  It gets worse.  Those same congested hole imprints (pole marks from all racers) staged a revolt and became jack-o-lantern faces.  No joke.

Eric: Two years ago I realized something was wrong at mile 34.  I made the difficult decision to backtrack to CP 4 at mile 32 (base camp) and revaluate.  I got back, felt worse, and started struggling to breathe. I jumped in my car and drove myself to the emergency room.  As it turns out, I was having a severe asthma attack brought on by walking pneumonia.

Finisher get dog tags and eye-cles.

Finishers get dog tags and eye-cicles.

Volunteers defrosting.

Volunteers defrosting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The beauty of long distance endurance is that at some unspecified point it is no longer about the physical, but rather entirely about the mental.  Convince yourself you can finish and it will be so.  This race, like any race, is about the experience.  Remember to stop, stare into the trees and breathe deep – Wisconsin winters are beautiful.

For the love of Misery.  It is a catchy slogan, no doubt, but can you embrace it for 12/24 hours?  You have five weeks until race day.  Go!

Finisher List as of 2011

By Eric Alvarez and Tom Hayes.

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Great Lakes Adventure Project is about embracing the active urban lifestyle. Our goal is to bring the often overlooked side of the Great Lakes regions’ urban outdoor culture into focus. Simply put, our mission is to help people find adventure in the most unlikely places, at possibly the most unlikely moments.