Thursday, February 9, 2012

Frozen Otter 2012

I was hoping to add my name a 2nd time, but 2012 wasn't my year. I am super proud to be on this plaque even once, though! Incredibly, 11 others were added this year!

Well, it’s taken me long enough to get my journal written up about my 2012 Frozen Otter Ultra Trek attempt. I think it’s mostly because I didn’t finish it, so I had to think more about why and what went wrong. I’m not upset about stopping early – I felt confident in the decision I made when I made it. I do feel a little disappointed because I feel there are some things I could’ve done differently before the race even started that probably would’ve made the full 64 miles a little more doable for me this year. And, as always, a lot of that is mental. Most of it is mental.

I planned this 64-mile trek almost the same way I did two years ago when I completed it. I figured it worked then, why wouldn’t it work again? Truth is, it probably would have, if I’d have prepped the same beforehand, too. I had all my clothing picked out for the race. I had my clothing picked out that I’d carry with me, and I had my clothing picked out for the 32-mile halfway point where I would have the chance to change completely if I needed or wanted to. I had my food lined up and ready to roll, all individually wrapped, separated into two nearly equal piles – one for the 1st half, one for the 2nd half. My gear was laid out and packed, and I had additional gear stashed with my extra change of clothes in case I needed to add or replace anything at the halfway point.

 Before the race start, staying warm in the car.

Gear, gear, gear...

To break it down, my clothing consisted of double-layer socks – a pair of Injinji’s with a pair of Smarwool liners on top. This is my favorite sock combo and it’s gotten me through every hike I’ve been on mostly blister-free. The footwear I chose were my trusty Merrell Moab Gore-Tex mid-height hiking shoes. Most people have moved on to trail runners for stuff like this, but I just didn’t want to change what’s worked so well for me in the past. (I realized after 40 miles this year that these boots need to be retired, even if replaced with the same exact boot. The poor things are just worn down.) I also had a pair of Yaktrax that help with traction in the snow, along with tall gaiters to keep the snow out of my boots. I wore a pair of Patagonia capileine undies and long underwear with hiking pants on my lower half, and my upper half was a random-branded sports bra, silk-weight Patagonia long-sleeve moisture-wicking shirt and a Patagonia R2 fleece over it. I wore cheapo cotton gloves and a simple beanie hat that I got at a local fun run. I was a mismatched hiker/endurance racer. That’s me! Along with me in my pack I had an extra set of long underwear (required gear includes a change of clothing), an extra pair of undies, Injini and Smartwool liner socks, my Patagonia Nanopuff down jacket and a rain shell. I also toted a set of mittens that I keep strapped over the hip belt of my pack in case my fingers get cold and won’t warm up quick enough. I learned from past experiences to not suffer with cold fingers. Get ‘em warm and be a happy hiker!

 Clothing laid out the night before.

My food was planned out the same way as I’ve done in the past for this race. After 4 years, one of the coolest and most important tricks I’ve learned is to be sure everything is cut up into bite-size pieces. That way if it freezes, you can at least suck on it until you can chew it. Full-size Clif bars are impossible to even nibble on when frozen solid, and they take way too long to warm up when you’re on the move and need fuel pronto. This year I packed more of a variety of food, as well as some Hammer gels in case my stomach got funny toward the end. Two years ago, on the way back from the 48-mile checkpoint, my stomach rebelled (just a little bit) and I didn’t want to eat any of the stuff I brought. So for this year, I thought the gels would be nice to just slam if I needed something quick. Specifically, I packed pretzels & cashews, peanuts & candy corn (tastes like a nut roll!), cut-up Luna bars, jelly beans, M&Ms, pepperoni & string cheese cut up into small pieces, peanut butter roll-ups (tortilla with peanut butter, ground almonds and walnuts with mini chocolate chips, rolled up and wrapped in tin foil to keep it’s shape), and egg salad sandwich. I had enough food to eat every hour, and I had enough for both halves of the race.

 Food all organized, ready to go... just had to cup up the Luna bars.

Cut-up Luna bar.

My gear was pretty minimal – it mostly consisted of what was required of us for safety. I carried a GoLite pack, a 70-oz. Camelbak water reservoir (bladder), trekking poles, hand warmers and duct tape (to heat up and tape to my bladder hose if my water were to freeze up!) cell phone, headlamp, extra headlamp and batteries (my main lamp is on the fritz, so it’s duct-taped shut – thus the entirely spare headlamp!) , lighter, fire starter, emergency shelter, heat blanket, mini knife, first aid kit with blister care and ibuprofen, chap stick,  whistle, map, toilet bag with TP, wet ones, girly items and NO trowel. The one time I don’t bring the stupid orange trowel……. Damn Murphy.

 Pack with all the gear that went in it.

I was proud when I weighed my pack in the morning, with 70 ounces of water and enough food to eat every hour for the first 12 hours, it weighed just under 13 pounds.

So, before the race… what the hell happened? I can come up with a million excuses, and a million reasons why maaaaybe things didn’t work out like I wanted, but it all comes down to one simple thing: I wasn’t mentally prepared. For my own opportunity to whine about all that went wrong up until race day, I’m going to go for it here.

 Me and Anthony at the start line

I was really on a roll with training and feeling pretty awesome. I was doing double workouts with some seriously hard stairs and I remember telling myself, “If I keep this up, I’ll definitely feel ready for the Kettle Moraine hills!” I think it was my next workout, and record-fast, cold outside run, when I broke my little toe. I know, I know… it’s just a little toe… but it hurt really bad!! I took a week off to let it heal (probably should’ve been more), and during that week my mental preparedness went on a downward spiral. I actually started feeling depressed not being able to work out with the intensity I was getting used to. After a week I said ‘screw it’ and started running again, with my last two toes banded together with a hair tie. I realized that the weekend of the race (plug your ears boys, shut your eyes, whatever), I was going to have my period, which is always an energy-sucker and just a plain pain in the ass when doing anything outdoorsy. In addition to these few things, my diet fell apart for whatever thousand reasons, and I started to lie to myself. “I’ve done it before, so it's no biggie.” I took the stress off of myself that usually fuels me. Honestly, I knew that if I had to quit early this year, I wouldn’t beat myself up about it, since I had already finished the full 64 miles before, but telling myself that before the race even starts isn’t like me. I already had that ‘quit’ in me. See? All mental!

This lack of mental preparation put me in this strange “I’m invincible/I don’t care” mode. Not good. Friday night before the race, at 5:00, which is happy hour, Adam and I joined the girls for drinks. I even joked that I was “just carb-loading!” After three absolutely delicious beers and no dinner I was feeling very smiley and very hungry. Adam and I headed home and ordered sloppy, greasy Papa Johns delivery. I hammered down enough pizza to make me feel ill and passed out on the couch watching TV. I moved to the bed and tried to get a good night’s sleep on a grease-filled stomach... the night before the race! (Stupid!!)

Now to be fair, I normally have butterflies the morning of any race day, accompanied by frequent trips to the bathroom. It happens every single race I do. 5Ks, 1/2 marathons, full marathon, frozen otter… doesn’t matter. So when we arrived at Butler Lake and I had to take a pre-race hike down the trail and into the woods I wasn’t really surprised. One interesting side note… I did learn that a window ice scraper can double as a poo trowel, in case you were wondering…

So skip ahead 32 miles and two “into the woods with an ice scraper” trips later, then skip ahead again to about 35 miles and yet another “into the woods with an ice scraper” trip later (this time just a little more urgent and unexpected), I stupidly wondered what went wrong. I now think back and blame the beer and Papa Johns pizza situation. However, if I had been properly mentally prepared, that wouldn’t have happened. My guts gave out on me at the 32-mile mark. I pushed past that hoping it just needed to do its thing, but an hour past the 1/2 way mark I realized this was an issue that wasn't just going to go away. I was no longer tolerating any of the variety of food I brought with me. Sweet, salty, mixed, gel… my stomach was having none of it… and when the body blatantly asks for fuel, and you just can’t fuel it… well, you fall apart. And I did.

I forced down a peanut butter roll-up (my favorite snack), drank some water and felt another small burst of energy. I called Adam, who was waiting at the next checkpoint, to let him know I was going to turn around when I got there and head back to Butler lake – the thought of it almost brought tears to my eyes. Me? Settling for just 48 miles when I came here to finish 64? Oy. But once I told him my plan I felt happy. It was the right decision. I hung up the phone and my burst of energy lasted about another mile or two. My next swig of water started to come back up and so did the next. And the next. Then the burning in my throat was too much and I stopped drinking water all together for the last mile. I was stumbling like a drunk on dark, snowy trails, lit only by about a 4-foot diameter circle of light from my headlamp. I tried singing out loud to help time pass, but the last few miles to that 40-mile checkpoint just dragged on and on and on. Somewhere in there is when I decided I was done at 40 miles. I knew what that meant, too. It meant a “DNF” next to my name, which means “Did not finish.” In order to be a finisher, I’d have to hike back to Butler Lake. Another 8 miles, and that’s it -- but not being able to tolerate food… or even water… I knew I was done.

And this is precisely why the decision I made is okay with me. I knew it was what I had to do. And I’m happy that I made it 40 miles. I’m proud of that. I will not deny the disappointment and frustration, either, though. There’s a lot of feeling and crazy crap that goes through your head during something like this, and I pretty much reached the gamut this year. I had some super-awesome friends from our local backpacking meetup group volunteering for the Frozen Otter this year, so they were at the 40-mile mark to support my decision to stop and smother me with compliments for enduring what I had already endured. They made me truly feel as though I deserved it. 40 miles is still a whole helluva lot of miles! Also waiting there was Adam and one of my newest awesomest friends, Anthony, who hiked a lot of the first half with me until I totally bailed on him… maybe I went too fast and would’ve done better if I’d have taken it a little easier – see? I will be questioning this experience over and over again!

I sat there in front of the nice warm fire with great friends, cheering on other racers as they came and went, and settled into my new, never-before-reached “DNF” ranking. That may sound sarcastic, but it is kind of cool. Why? I’m one of those annoying people that tries to find something positive in everything. It helps me cope with my own self-pity. A “DNF” is something I haven’t had before during the Frozen Otter. So that’s a first… firsts are always cool. But most importantly, the Frozen Otter broke me. I know that sounds bad, but it’s totally not. I love the crap out of this endurance race because it forces me to push myself beyond what I normally think I can do. Two years ago when I finished the full 64 miles, there was quite a length of time where my body was shut down and my mind was running everything full-throttle. It’s almost like there’s a switch, well, maybe it’s more like one of those little dimming dial thingies. Your body starts to shut down on you, and you slowly switch it over to your mental state. I have, in more than one occasion, talked to my legs directly. “Listen here, legs… you have to keep moving… and if you want to stop, I am going to make you keep moving… so you might as well cooperate with me.” Then once I get to where I want to be I say, “Thank you, legs, for sticking with me and putting up with me. You rock!”

And so, as it turns out, it wasn’t my legs that did me in, it was my stomach. And I wasn’t able to reason with it. Who knows, maybe that’s my next challenge… to see if I can get past that if it happens again. Or… maybe I just won’t down 3 beers and sloppy pizza the night before a race!

 Line of racers making their way up the hill at Butler Lake.

After all that “what went wrong” stuff, what went right? Well, the first half went right. I started off with a great hiking partner, Anthony. He followed behind me for most of the first 16 miles, but I kept getting these crazy bursts of energy and would shoot up ahead. I eventually lost him in the pack of racers, and we ended up about an hour apart at the 32-mile mark. At one point I was following behind a group of hikers that were talking constantly, very loudly, and they had an uneven pace for me. On the downhills and straight stretches it was fine, we’d all jog along at a good clip. Then on the uphills, I’d try to keep my steady pace, which I practiced, and those in front of me would slow to a near-crawl up the hills and I’d almost be stepping on their heels. So the next straight-stretch was short, but I took the edge to pass. There was a nasty hill coming, but I only had 2 or 3 more people to pass. I took a jog up the hill – and boy, what a bonehead move! It totally wore out my legs and I huffed and puffed to keep my pace for quite a while after that. So looking back, I enjoyed the bursts of energy, but I sure wish I hadn’t taken the hill pass and lost the company of Anthony on the way back from the first 16 miles. It’s incredible how quickly your mind gets lonely in the dark on a single-track hiking trail when your feet and muscles start to really hurt.

 Watching the group of 32-milers getting ready to start.

I stuck to my plan to not take much time at checkpoints. I flew through the first 8-mile checkpoint where my friends were volunteering, and at the 16-mile checkpoint, I filled my water, went in the woods for a pee, ate my egg salad sandwich (which I learned is awesome trail food!!), checked out and hit the trail feeling great. I was actually smiling for some of the next 8-mile stretch. The weather that Saturday was freakin’ gorgeous, too!!!  It started out cold, but warmed up with a clear blue sky and shining sun. My gloves were off for most of the race, and I had my fleece zipped down as far as it would go… and I was still a sweaty mess. There wasn’t too much snow, even though it was a slippery mashed-potato consistency. But, again, this could always be worse! A few years ago we had drifts that went all the way up to my hips! Nobody finished the 64 miles that year. Another year that was dangerously cold – nobody finished. This year? 11 finishers. Almost doubling the total in the last 5 years. Needless to say, weather makes a HUGE difference in this race. HUGE. And this is another reason why it’s so freakin’ cool and hard core. Because you just don’t know until the day of the race what’s going to happen.

So in the end of everything, I’m taking a lot home with me, and trying to decide if this is something I’d like to attempt again next year. I’m very unsure. I’d like to try to fix this year’s mistakes and redeem myself, but at the same time, I’d like to retire and enjoy the volunteering aspect. That was a whole different endurance challenge last year, and I certainly wouldn’t mind doing that again. So we’ll see.

Until then, I think I’m cutting down on the “carb-loading.” It doesn’t work. At least not my version of it. :)

 Rachel holding her breath to pose for a photo next to my nasty, pruney feet after 40 miles. Brave, brave girl!

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