Attorney goes the distance in 'RacingThePlanet'

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

In terms of the typical summer vacation, a 155-mile trek through some of the most remote regions of Iceland may not pass the litmus test for those seeking refuge from the demands of the workaday world.

Yet, for attorney Doreen Hoffman, CEO of Trott Recovery Services in Farmington Hills, the opportunity to push herself to the “outer limits” of endurance was just the kind of summer respite she was seeking in a third attempt to complete a “RacingThePlanet” event.

Thankfully, the third time proved to be the charm for Hoffman, who overcame a series of painful foot problems and a near case of hypothermia to finish the six-stage event August 4-10 in 57 hours, 9 minutes, and 57 seconds, a time good for 215th place among the 270 entrants from 50 countries around the world.

“It was an incredible experience, one that is difficult to put into words because of how physically and mentally challenging the race was and how extreme the conditions were at times during the week,” said Hoffman, who returned to the States some 6 pounds lighter and minus a few toenails.

“So, was the experience worth it? Yes, of course. But it was also a lot of work and very painful at times, with many highs and many lows. More highs than lows. I saw some amazing things and places that I would never have seen if I had not come and I met some amazing people from all over the world. I think I like that best, hearing about their lives and their cultures, and what they do and what brought them there that we all arrived at this point together in our lives.”

For the 53-year-old Hoffman, a Marysville native who earned her J.D. from the former Detroit College of Law, it was a congenital heart condition diagnosed 15 years ago that spurred her into the world of long distance race competitions.

At the age of 38, and seemingly the picture of health, Hoffman paid an infrequent visit to the doctor after “feeling poorly.” An electrocardiogram (EKG) uncovered a congenital heart defect linked to a hole in the vital organ, a potentially fatal problem that was causing blood to seep into her lungs, according to Hoffman.

“In January of 1999, I underwent open heart surgery to sew up the hole, which also corrected a heart murmur that I had,” said Hoffman, whose son Tyler is a junior in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

Some eight months later, and with the blessing of her cardiologist, Hoffman entered her first sprint triathlon, a three-pronged event featuring a half-mile swim, a 20-kilometer bike ride, and a 5-km run. In 2001, she completed The Detroit Free Press Marathon, a 26.2-mile race that served as a stepping-stone to an Ironman Triathlon in Madison, Wis. two years later. The Madison event included a grueling 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run, and would be the first of six Ironmans that Hoffman has finished.

“The beauty of the Ironman, as compared to the RacingThePlanet event, is that it is a one day event as opposed to seven,” Hoffman said. “Even though an Ironman is unbelievably challenging, there always is the thought in the back of your mind that it will be over within the span of a day. Mentally, the RacingThePlanet event is more difficult because you are having to push yourself over successive days, where the weather can vary widely, causing all sorts of difficulties.”

RacingThePlanet was founded in 2002 in Hong Kong by American Mary Gadams, a former investment banker and strategist, who has completed more than 50 marathons, ultramarathons and wilderness competitions around the world, according to the event’s website. Its four deserts series includes footraces in the Sahara (Egypt), the Atacama (Chile), the Gobi (China), and the Antarctica, while this year’s event in Iceland was part of the annual “Roving Race” schedule.

Like other RacingThePlanet events, the Iceland race required all entrants to be self-supporting, carrying everything they need for the seven days on their back. The average backpack weighed 20 pounds, according to race organizers.

Hoffman packed a wee bit more into her satchel, some 25 pounds of food, clothing, bedding, and other essentials for a week in the Icelandic wilderness.

“It takes some doing to pack enough food for the week and the proper clothing for all the weather conditions that you might encounter,” Hoffman said. “I’ve learned from experience that every extra pound that you carry can take its toll over the course of the week. Some of the elite competitors have backpacks that weigh less than 10 pounds, which is truly amazing when you think of all that you will need in a week. The only things that are provided by organizers are a tent to sleep in each night, water, and medical care.”

Hoffman, a Michigan State alum, made use of the medics during her first  RacingThePlanet experience in 2006 through the Sahara Desert. A nasty infection in her big toe forced her to pull out of the race at the midway point.

It was déjà vu two years later in the Gobi Desert, when “horrible blisters” and a badly bruised foot sidelined Hoffman after the fourth stage of the race.

Her third try at finishing appeared doomed before the race even started, when a flight cancellation nearly derailed Hoffman’s trip to Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, forcing her to hop on board an earlier plane with a different airline. Needless to say, her suitcase didn’t make the connections quite as deftly.

“When my suitcase didn’t arrive in Reykjavik, I had to improvise, going from store to store to buy food and other stuff that I needed,” Hoffman said. “It was not exactly a great way to begin.”

Once the real race began on Sunday, Aug. 4, the weather took a decided turn for the worse, welcoming competitors with “rain, howling winds, and frigid temperatures,” causing organizers to abandon thoughts of two water crossings along the 28-mile first stage of the event. Despite another bout with blisters, Hoffman was more inclined to reflect on the beauty of the Icelandic countryside.

“The scenery is very beautiful,” she wrote that day in an e-mail to family and friends. “Stark and more barren than I expected. But the air is crisp and clear. There are wild Icelandic horses and wild goats that just roam the land.”

Each night, Hoffman bunked in a tent with seven others, a mix that would make the United Nations proud. The group included four Italian men, two women from Scotland and Lebanon, and a South African man.

“The eight of us look like hot dogs on the 7-Eleven hot dog roller,” Hoffman quipped in an e-mail after the second stage of the race. “Very cozy and the men are still gentlemen and let us girls sleep in the middle.”

Day two, another 28-mile journey, wasn’t without its mishaps, however, including a slip and fall along a treacherous mountain trail that aggravated her foot problems.

“Yes, I said a few . . . okay, I said a lot of very bad words,” Hoffman wrote of the stumble. “But I guess I fared better than others, as two men have stitches on their face with one in the middle of his forehead and the other man above his eye. Also heard that three of front runners fell and broke ribs.”

In stage three, Hoffman encountered more foot problems along the rocky terrain, bleeding through her running shoes. But despite the pain she was experiencing, Hoffman chose to focus on the bright spot – “a sunny Icelandic day” and the “dizzying effect of the mountains, blue sky, green moss, lava rocks. Stunning actually.”

Her outlook turned during stage five, when a series of mountain climbs in frigid and windy conditions caused her core temperature to drop to dangerous levels.

“The direction we were headed on the road was into the stiffest headwind I have every been in and I could feel my temperature dropping,” Hoffman wrote of the gusts that topped 60 mph. “We were headed to the ocean, yes, the Arctic Ocean, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.”

Several other competitors offered Hoffman comfort along the way.

“The two girls from Iceland even offered me a hat and they put me between them to warm me up. They said they could feel how cold my body was through my clothes.”

Her salvation may have come from elsewhere, however.

“I changed to dry gloves, took four Advil, and ate half a Snickers bar,” Hoffman said. “What a difference.”

The highlight of the stage, she said, were the lava rock cliffs that lined the Icelandic shores.

“They did have Icelandic Search and Rescue out there as we travelled two kilometers on the cliffs and have to say I thought it a little dangerous,” Hoffman wrote. “The tide was coming in and the waves would crash and spray us. The wind was still an issue and with my get-up of garbage bag and poncho, at times I felt like a balloon that could easily be picked up. But it was so stunning I tried to focus on that.”

Hoffman finished the fifth stage around 12:45 a.m., some 16-1/2 hours after she began it, doubting the wisdom of continuing.

“They moved camp to a community center, which was a 20-minute bus ride,” she related. “When we arrived, it was so hard to get down the bus stairs. And I was shivering. And my feet were now very painful. I got into the center and just began to cry.”

By next morning, a designated “day of rest” after the longest stage of the race, Hoffman put the difficulties of the day before in the rear view mirror, nursing her foot injuries and enjoying the opportunity to chat with new-found friends as they prepared for the finale.

“Of course the race course director could not resist torturing us one last time and we had to climb a little bit of a mountain on a rock path,” Hoffman said. “But I saw a beautiful birch forest that was planted in honor of a celebrated woman who did a lot for women’s rights in Iceland. Then we got on a path that took us to the Blue Lagoon. It was a nice finish line and they had hot soup and the freshest bread imaginable waiting for us. I think I did the last stage (5.8 miles) in less than two hours.”

Which is double the time it takes Hoffman to travel to work from her home on the southern edge of Ann Arbor. She and her husband, Herm Ulloa, a veterinary research scientist and a partner in Integrated Nonclinical Development Solutions, moved there last year after getting married. The couple met in 2003 at the Madison triathlon and share a love for travel, adventure, and all things fitness. They spent their honeymoon biking through Tuscany, and regularly seek out long distance bike rides through Michigan and various neighboring states.

Hoffman, who grew up on a farm and has one sister, Rae, spent 17 years of her legal career as a litigator with Muller Muller, a debt collection firm based in Birmingham. She was named CEO of Trott Recovery Services three years ago, helping launch the debt collection services of the firm.

“Anyone involved in collections work, knows that it is a tough business,” Hoffman said. “But we take pride in the professional way we conduct our business, treating everyone with the empathy and respect that they deserve.

“I try to speak regularly to students and consumers about how to avoid the debt trap, the importance of keeping to a household budget, and how to maintain a good credit score,” Hoffman added. “These are topics that I’m passionate about, and the payback for students especially can be great if they learn those lessons while they are still young.”

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