Friday, January 23, 2009

The 2009 Frozen Otter

I got 1st place in my division (6th overall)! It’s weird for me to be able to say it, but I actually won!
Here's a link to the offical results, event photos and more info about the race.

It was definitely another year to remember, and this is why I’m writing it all down. I don’t want to forget the details, and I know with how my memory is, those details will soon fade into the cold air along with all the painful moans and groans I let out on those last few miles! Warning here – this entry is going to be LONG. I get a little carried away with details. I gotta work on that.


There are two versions of the race:
Full = 64 miles in 24 hours
Half = 32 miles in 12 hours

There are 4 divisions:
Full-2 person team
Half-2 person team

In order to be considered an official finisher, you must hike into the start/finish at the Butler Lake Parking area within your time limit. The person to hike the most miles in the least amount of time is the winner.

I was signed up for the Half-solo division. I thought about signing up for the Full 64 this year, but I chickened out. I barely made the 32 miles under the time limit last year (only 3 minutes under 12 hours!!), so I was out to see if it was some sort of fluke, or if I had it in me to do that again. I always set a few goals for myself, the first being something I’m pretty sure I can accomplish. This avoids any ridiculous disappointments I might end up with. The second goal is one I’d really like to make, I have a chance to make, but I’m not too sure about it. The third is usually one I’m not too confident about making.

My three goals this year were:
Goal 1: Be an official finisher. Hike 32 miles in under 12 hours (note that within the first 8 miles, I was convinced this goal was already shot. The snow was SO deep and hard to hike through!)
Goal 2: Beat my time of 11:57 from last year
Goal 3: Hike an extra 8 miles if I have it in me (it wouldn’t have counted towards anything except my own pride)

I arrived at the Butler Lake area a little before 11:00 AM on Saturday. I was all by myself this year. Nobody wanted to join me on this insane venture. It would’ve been cool to have someone along to help work off some of the excitement-induced adrenaline “shakes” I had driving there. I actually felt kind of ill! And to make matters a little worse, I woke up with diarrhea! Sorry for the “too much information” comment there, but hey – it was part of the day, and I had to work in extra fluids before I even started! I drank a full Nalgene of water, took an Imodium and was good to go. Well, except for a few stomach-bubblies throughout the day.

I got signed in, got my Yaktrax and gaiters on, got my gear in line, got my backpack organized how I wanted it, and stood by the fire talking to Rod and some of the other racers. It seems like some were concerned about the snow depth, and some didn’t think it was going to be much of a problem at all. We aren’t allowed to wear snowshoes or use skis for this Adventure Race, and I think that’s a cool rule. It leaves us all on the same playing field, and doesn’t cause the back-and-forth, “should I bring snowshoes, should I not bring snowshoes…” The snow depth DID play quite a large role in the race, too. I know it really slowed me down, and I had to almost constantly remind myself to push my pace harder than what I comfortably wanted to hike, even jogging in some spots (or “fast-hiking” as I like to call it… it’s sort of a “hoppy” stride).

When we first started out, nobody really wanted to go first because there weren’t any fresh tracks, so the first person in line had to break trail. I took it on. I trucked up the hill out of the parking lot, and by the time I got to the top, I had already started sweating. Uh-oh. I had a looong ways to go with a sweaty shirt already! I actually took it a little slow to start, even though I was in front, so I could get some sort of feel for the trail, or a stride or something… then we came to our first road crossing, and I asked the guy behind me, Peter, if he would like to lead. He said he would, so I followed him for a bit. On the next road crossing, I started to feel pretty good. I was starting to get the rhythm, so I pushed my pace and took off. I had a few people pass me before the first checkpoint at 8 miles. I could hear them coming up behind me, so when they got close, I was sure to let them by. I admired their speed!

I checked into the first checkpoint at 2:58 PM. It didn’t take long for me to figure that one out. I had to keep the same exact pace the entire race in order to make it back to Butler Lake in 12 hours and be a finisher. That wasn’t the first time I thought it was looking pretty grim. But I stretched my IT band a bit against the truck, filled my water bladder back up (about 2-1/2 liters down the hatch already!), opened up a Clif bar, and took off 11 minutes later, eating as I went. A little further down the trail I remembered to take my electrolyte tabs and ibuprofen. I had enough so that I could take this little combo at each checkpoint. I don’t like mixing the electrolyte mix in my water bladder, so I opted for the tablets, and I freakin’ LOVE them things!

A little ways down the trail, I could hear the quick pace of someone gaining on me. I just kept going at my pace, trying to keep my footing strong and sturdy. Once the person behind me got really close, I turned around and told them to feel free to pass me up. It was Melissa, who 2 years ago completed the entire 64 miles within the 24-hour time limit. She is the only person to date who has EVER completed this race in its entirety. So it’s possible!

She got up in front of me, and she had an awesome pace going, so I asked her if she minded I play garboon and dangle behind her for a while. She said that was fine, so I trekked behind her, step for step, for quite a ways. I had a really awesome time getting to know her, and it was very nice to have a conversation with someone for a while. One of the cons to going solo on this hike is the lack of human interaction. I seriously start talking to myself and God as I walk, which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but towards the end it gets a little weird when I starting talking to my toes, feet, and quads directly. It was a great time-passer having Melissa to chat with. She’s done quite a few Adventure Races, and I think I learned quite a bit from her in that short time period.

*Thanks, Melissa, for the company – and especially the encouragement! You are a super-respectful competitor! Thank you!*

When I arrived at the half-way point (5:32 PM), I was getting tired, to put it simply. My knees were starting to hurt, the bottoms of my feet were burning, and I was damp all over with sweat. It was dark enough now that I had my headlamp on, and I could feel the temperatures dropping what felt like every few minutes. With my sweaty shirt, the slightest breeze or stopping for even a half a minute chilled me, so my only option was to move. At the half-way point I again filled my bladder up (about 5-1/2 liters down, now!), took my electrolytes and ibuprofen, shot a Hammer Gel down my throat for energy (apple cinnamon ROCKS, by the way!!!), stretched a little, thawed my hydration hose mouthpiece over the fire and took off. My stop at the 16-mile (half-way) mark was 20 minutes. It would have been less if my mouthpiece hadn’t froze up after filling and forcing the bladder back into my backpack. The pressure must’ve forced some water back into the hose and it freezes in there almost instantly. Keeping that hose thawed is KEY. I managed to keep it pretty thawed out the entire race by drinking constantly.

The one time it froze up on me was while I was trekking the coldest stretch of the entire race. There is a section of snowmobile trail along Hwy P that we hike on for about ½ mile. The WIND!! Oh, I was nearly in tears. I started to jog along that stretch, painfully, might I add… just to keep warm enough to stand it! When I finally reached where the trail turns into the woods, I stopped for a second and just let myself feel the warmth (it felt like a heat wave without that brittle wind cutting at my face!). The tip on my right ear started to throb, so I think I had a case of frostnip. I stood there and sucked and sucked on my hydration hose, hoping to squeek through even the tiniest stream of water… finally I got some… it took a while, but I eventually had a good stream of water coming through. I caught it JUST in time. Even a minute longer, and I may have been without water until the next checkpoint!

I trucked on. Between that point and the 3rd checkpoint, I was still on pace to make 12 hours, but I didn’t have any luxury to slow down – at all. I had to keep pushing, no matter how tired I was or how badly everything hurt. This is when my mental state got the best of me. For maybe 10 minutes, I started going over in my head how I would explain to all my friends and followers why I quit at 24 miles, not that they would think less of me, or blame me! But oh, boy… the snow was deep, I was tired, my feet were cramping up terrible, it was cold, I was sweaty, etc, etc, etc. Then I stopped the thoughts. I stopped in my tracks for a moment, took a drink of water, bent my toes under inside my boots as my face scrunched up in pure pain, bent down a few times to stretch, and said out loud, “Just keep moving. You can do this. You are MORE than half-way!” I then looked up and kept moving at a steady pace.

Before I knew it, I was at the 3rd checkpoint with no desire to stop. It was 8:28 PM. This was when I knew I would make it 32 miles. But would I make it in 12 hours? The math added up. I thought to myself, “If I can keep up my pace, I’ll be good to go.” But I was hurting, and my steps were already getting sloppy. I really didn’t know, and I definitely wasn’t feeling too sure. I think deep down I knew I had it in me, I just had to prove it to myself. I didn’t waste any more time. 6 minutes after checking in at Checkpoint 3, I took my ibuprofen, my last electrolyte tab, opened my last Clif bar, and head out munching away.

I was getting so sloppy with every step. Each one slid me one way or the other on the trail. I was getting frustrated. But I just told myself to walk strong. So I’d lift my legs up a little higher each step and try to land with more precision. I thought through each step for a quite a while, and all of a sudden, DARK! My headlamp died!! It was pitch black out. There must have been NO moon because I saw some really pretty stars above me! It was gorgeous and completely still and quiet around me. I was almost saddened that I would have to make noise and be distracted digging out my extra set of batteries. I found them right away, next to a handwarmer in my hip-belt pocket. I was able to get the batteries switched out by feel, and I was pretty impressed with myself. I put the lamp back on my head, and turned it on – WAH-LAH! I could SEE again! I didn’t realize how DULL that thing had gotten! My steps weren’t as sloppy anymore, either. I just couldn’t see the definition in the snow anymore, and I wasn’t sure where I was stepping! I was still struggling, but not as bad.

I trucked along, checking my watch at each road crossing. I was actually staying on pace to finish in under 12 hours! I was starting to get so excited! I even smiled a couple of times and kind of cheered to myself. I recognized where I was, and I knew I had two more road crossings before there was a big clearing (which I feared the wind), then Butler Lake wasn’t far from there. When I got to the second-to-last road crossing, Kristin and Evan from the Fat Otter II Team were squatting down while talking to Melissa. I stopped for a second and whined to them something about everything hurting, and they were looking at the map. I was freezing up instantly as I stood there, so I stepped to the side, over the snow bank, and back onto the trail. I found out later that Melissa had gotten ill and was looking for the name of the road so she could call for a ride. We were about 2 miles from the 32-mile point. I felt terrible. I almost hope I was delusional at that point. I didn’t even ask if everyone was okay. I just assumed they were discussing how much further it was, and figuring that I knew how much further I had to go, and with getting chilled, I moved on. I suppose there wasn’t much I could’ve done at that point, but I really regret not even asking. Phooey. I learned from that experience.

The clearing was coming up, and I was really worried about the wind after that stretch along Hwy. P. I put my hat on over my balaclava, put my mittens on, and told myself I would stop and put on my jacket if it was bad like that again. When I got there, the wind wasn’t so bad! I sort of shuffled through the snow and jogged down the hills – only because I knew I was getting SO close! I could literally see the hill before the parking lot, and there was this orange glow beyond that. Was it the fire? Oh, I hoped, and smiled… my watch was reading very nice numbers back to me. Now I was SURE I’d make it under 12 hours, and I was pretty certain I could beat my time from last year. I very weakly, slowly and quietly said to myself, “Yay, you’re going to do it, Robin!”

I trekked up the hill, up through a stretch of woods, then my head bobbed up over a small ridge, and there it was. FIRE. CARS. PEOPLE. Burgers, hot dogs, hot cocoa, chairs, fire, warmth, my car, the finish!!

Yes, there were a few tears of joy – mostly because of that warm fire in my line of vision, and maybe a little because I was already dreaming of rest. Right before I head down the hill to the parking lot, I let out a mouse-like whimper, “I did it! I did it! I beat my time!”

I went down, checked in, stood by the fire, and started to feel warm. I was congratulated by the others there, as well as the volunteers! Rod handed me a medal for finishing, and it was all very low-key. I just didn’t have much energy to really let out any big hurrahs, let alone make any movements toward celebration. I was very excited, though. I was beaming inside!

I beat my time from last year by more than 1/2 hour! I knew I did really well, and I was really proud for that. I didn't realize until the next Tuesday morning how I actually placed! So I was glad to have reached my Goals 1 & 2, and even though I didn't reach Goal #3, I was happy. Winning my division was icing on the cake!

This is a great time to thank the volunteers, too! Rod does a great job putting this together, and his volunteers really go out of their way to help the racers. They help us get water, Hammer Heed, hot cocoa at the checkpoints… and anything else the racers might need. At the end they were making burgers, hot dogs, soup, cocoa… they wouldn’t let us get our own, and that was super-cool. So a BIG huge THANK-YOU to all of you volunteers for waiting on us!!

Sunday was recovery day.
I woke up early and went to church with Adam at 10:30. I was stiff-legging up and down stairs, but other than that and being tired, I wasn’t doing too bad. Want to know how crazy my mind is? This left me thinking, “I could’ve done more. I could’ve gone further.” Next year I am signing up for the 64 miles and my goal is to make at least 40 miles. After finding out that last year wasn’t a fluke, I’m feeling pretty confident that I can do it. I’m already mentally preparing for it, and I think that’s one of the biggest parts of it all. My 3rd goal was to go beyond the 32 miles. Problem there was that I was signed up for 32 miles. So when I hit 32 miles, I was done mentally, which meant I was done physically. My mind shut my body down. This is proof that sometimes you can overpower your physical state with your mind. And this is what I found I LOVE about this race. I love getting to that point where I have to make that switch.

So recovery went well. I drank lots of water, laid around a lot, ate a couple of burgers (for protein, of course!), had a Nalgene with electrolyte mix in it, and slept quite a bit. On Monday morning I walked the 3 miles into work and felt okay. Monday night I went to kickboxing class. Tuesday morning I got up and ran 30 minutes at the Y. Tuesday night I walked 10 minutes to class, and after that, head home for a 4-mile walk. About 2 miles into my walk home, my adrenaline high left me. It was like someone turned off a switch -- I was exhausted. When I got home I went straight to bed. Woke up the next morning and had Adam drive me into work. I barely made it through work, and went right home again that night. I took the whole day Wednesday off from physical exercise, as well as Thursday morning. Thursday during work I felt much better, and now I’m feeling like I’m back on track again.

Maybe next year I’ll have the hallucinations that I’ve heard racers sometimes have from lack of sleep and physical exhaustion. And maybe I won’t be able to even walk on Sunday. Yup, that’s what I’ll be shooting for! I wonder how many miles it will take to reach THAT goal!?

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