Cold Hard Competition
It’s lunchtime on a Tuesday in late January, and one of the bland, blank-walled meeting rooms at Whitehorse’s High Country Inn is full of tall, lean men in colourful Gore-Tex jackets. Some are bearded, others clean-shaven; they appear to range in age from 20-something to 50-something, and on a second scan of the room there’s a handful of women scattered among them, too.
At the front of the room, a thin, fit woman leads the group in a discussion of their fears and concerns. “If you don’t have any fears,” she says, “then there’s trouble. You should be afraid.”
The men and women in the room begin to open up, slowly at first. They’re afraid of getting lost. They’re afraid of frostbite, of damaging or even losing fingers and toes. They’re concerned about calorie management, layer management, and sleep management. They’re scared of bears and moose. They’re worried about keeping their water thawed and drinkable, worried about their headlamp batteries freezing solid. They circle back to fears about their feet, over and over: they’re afraid of sweaty feet, wet feet, frozen feet, blistered feet, injured feet. Some wonder if it’s true, what they’ve heard, about the hallucinations.
The racers must have some compelling reasons to go through with this. But, when you ask them why they’re here, no one can come up with much of an answer.
In a couple of days, this group will gather at the frozen start line of the Yukon Arctic Ultra, an extremely demanding cold-weather ultra-marathon that has taken place in Whitehorse and the surrounding backcountry each year since 2003—with the exception of 2010. The Ultra uses part of the snow-packed wilderness trail built by the Canadian Rangers for the Yukon Quest, the legendary long-distance dogsled race. It’s choose-your-own-adventure: Yukon Arctic Ultra participants can opt to run a 26-mile marathon, a 100-mile race, a 300-mile race, or—every second year—a 430-mile race, all the way to Dawson City. They can also choose to go by cross-country ski, or by fat-tired snow bike, but most of them stick with their feet. Hence the fears.
The marathoners will be done in an afternoon, but the rest will run around the clock, some of them for days, harnessed up and dragging sleds loaded with survival gear behind them. Tonight, they’ll trudge from the hotel out to frozen Hidden Lake to test that gear, setting up bivy bags and inflating down-filled sleep pads under the supervision of race officials. They’ll have to demonstrate that they can successfully start and stoke a campfire on the ice. A few years ago, temperatures during the race dropped below -50 C, and racers had to hunker down and wait for rescue. No one has ever died on the Yukon Arctic Ultra, but the possibility is always hovering over the event. Parts of fingers and toes have been amputated. (One racer purposely hid damage to his finger from the medical team until after he’d finished, so he wouldn’t be scratched from the race. It was later partially amputated.) Trench foot is a regular problem, due to racers having their cold damp feet in boots for hours or days on end.
It’s days of physical exhaustion in the extreme cold, with the possibility of losing fingers or toes or much, much more. The racers must have some compelling reasons to go through with this. But, when you ask them why they’re here, no one can come up with much of an answer.
The Yukon Arctic Ultra draws a mixed crowd: some racers are elites, with sponsored gear and names that are recognizable in the small world of extreme ultra running, while others are unconcerned with their finish times and only in it for the adventure. (The 2014 race features two especially high-profile racers: Simon Donato and Paul “Turbo” Trebilcock, the Canadian stars of Boundless, a reality TV show about adventure racing around the world.) Nearly all of the racers, though, are veterans of the global ultra-marathon circuit: they’ve run the Marathon des Sables, a 150-miler held in the Moroccan Sahara, or the Gobi March in China, or the 170-mile Grand to Grand, a race from the Grand Canyon in Arizona across Utah to the Grand Staircase.
“This is just an experiment in stubbornness and the limits of my body. It’s cool to see how far you can actually go in a day, if you just keep moving.”
A handful of racers are Canadians who have flown in from Vancouver or Ottawa or Canmore. Most, though, have come from much farther away: Italy, Spain, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark. Many had no opportunity to train on snow, even once, and almost all of them have never experienced—let alone run hundreds of miles in—anything close to the temperatures and conditions they’re about to face. (One fat-biker from England says he trained in a friend’s industrial-sized walk-in freezer.)
The exception to that rule is the smattering of local Yukon runners. They aren’t ultra-marathon junkies: many sign up for the Ultra as first-time racers. When Whitehorse residents Justin Wallace and Verena König signed up for the 100-mile foot race in 2012, neither had even run a regular marathon before. “I was like, ‘How hard can it be?’” Wallace recalls, laughing.
He and König trained together for the event, and when race day came they set their sights on Derrick Spafford, an experienced racer from Ontario and a favourite to win. They paced themselves off him from the start, and when he stopped to remove a layer of clothing, Wallace passed him and put on speed. Through the night, Wallace tried to stay out of sight of Spafford—he wasn’t sure how far back the other man was, but he didn’t want to offer his back as a visible target to chase down. He completed the race and crossed the finish line in 22 hours and 41 minutes—a new course record. (Later, for days after the race, he coughed up blood from the damage the cold had done to his throat and lungs.) Spafford followed, finishing in 23 hours and 18 minutes, and König crossed third at just under 28 hours.
König returned in 2013, again finishing third overall and first among the women—this time in a tie with her running partner, another local. For the 2014 race, though, she took on a different role, mentoring local racer Karl McEwan, the lone Yukoner—apart from those running the traditional marathon distance—to enter the race. McEwan is a tall, lean 26 year-old, and a frequent hiker, paddler and skier—he doesn’t call himself a runner. Like König and Wallace before him, he’d never signed up for an organized race before putting his name down for the 100-miler. He knows both his predecessors socially—they move in the same circle of backcountry skiers and outdoorsy types, and in the summer of 2013 he and König ran the Chilkoot Trail together. (The four-day backpacking trip from Alaska to the Yukon is an increasingly popular informal ultra-marathon; runners tackle its 50-plus kilometres in one long day.) König, from Austria and a Yukoner since 2010, is the one who put the idea of the Arctic Ultra in his head.
“This is just an experiment in stubbornness and the limits of my body,” McEwan said before the race. “It’s cool to see how far you can actually go in a day, if you just keep moving.” His de facto coach, König, hopes McEwan will prove to be another Justin Wallace, a local runner who dominates the more experienced pack. She thinks he has a shot at breaking the course record Wallace set two years earlier. McEwan’s not so sure. “I don’t have any hopes of going that fast,” he said a couple of days before the start. “If things went perfectly… Maybe 24 hours.”
START DAY: Thursday, January 30th. It’s been a hectic few days leading up to the race. A weird winter so far and a mid-January thaw mean that the ice on the Yukon River isn’t safe to travel over, so the course has been re-routed. Reports have come in that the thaw has awoken slumbering bears in the area, and some of the runners are anxious: one of the few advantages of running through the Yukon wilderness in winter, rather than summer, is that you aren’t going to come face to face with a grizzly. Meanwhile, a series of snowstorms down in the Lower 48 has stranded the racers’ SPOT units—emergency beacons that use satellite signals to communicate with rescuers—in North Carolina, and they arrived with only hours to spare.
All the unknowns of the race feed the nervousness of the non-local racers—in a briefing where the race officials explained the re-route, these competitors were noticeably rattled, peppering organizers with questions about adjusted distances from point to point. They got no perfect answers: measuring trail distances from the driver’s seat of a moving snowmobile is an imprecise art.
The start itself is charmingly informal. There is no starting gun. The racers band together for a ragged 10-second group countdown. Then, they’re off.
Because of the re-route, the Yukon Arctic Ultra starts out at the Takhini Hot Springs, northwest of Whitehorse, as a 26-mile out-and-back. This is where the marathon ends too. But the 100- and 300-milers will carry on north, through hilly treed country dotted with small lakes and rivers, to a wall tent checkpoint 59 miles away at Dog Grave Lake, with a campfire maintained by a volunteer who got there by snowmobile. Some will sleep here, some will continue on through the night to Braeburn Lodge, where the 100-mile race ends. From there, the hills get bigger, the land emptier, as runners, fat-bikers and skiers get farther away from the well-used trails around Whitehorse.
It’s a beautiful morning: the low winter sun filters through the trees, and temperatures are moderate, hovering around -15 C. Racers fiddle with their sleds and harnesses, fuss with their layers. Everyone gathers for a group photo behind the start line banner.
The start itself is charmingly informal. The 60 racers line up, ready to head down the narrow trail. Someone gives a two-minute warning, then one minute. There is no starting gun, no one shouting into a megaphone. Instead, the racers band together for a ragged 10-second group countdown that culminates in a slow surge forward and onto the trail. They’re off.
The Yukon Arctic Ultra means very different things to the local and the outside racers. Justin Wallace likes the idea of adventure racing, he says, but he can’t really imagine flying halfway around the world to compete. Since his 2012 race he’s also entered the Yukon River Quest, the long-distance paddling race from Whitehorse to Dawson City, and he’s considered trying the Ultra again. “What I really like about the River Quest and the Arctic Ultra,” he says, “is that they’re here.” König agrees. “It’s your home, and it’s just special,” she says.
“I’m sure I was hallucinating at that stage, but it was almost as though the Lights were putting their arms around me. I’m not one of these fluffy type of people, but it was a very personal moment. It was just me and those lights."
For most of the outsiders, though, the Yukon Arctic Ultra often seems like it’s just another stop on the global circuit—another challenge met, another experience bagged. “We came here because it’s here,” one 100-mile finisher said as he sat in the Braeburn Lodge after the race. “And we wanted to do a cold race, and this is where the cold race is. There aren’t very many cold races.” Some Ultra finishers return year after year, sometimes increasing the distance they decide to tackle. With many, though, you get the sense that they won’t likely ever visit the Canadian North again. If racing through the frozen Yukon backcountry has changed them, changed their perspective on the world, or tied them to this place in any way, most of them are keeping their revelations to themselves.
One 300-mile finisher, 50 year-old Brian Bell from Ireland, is an exception. Like most of the rest, he says he won’t be back: “I’m target-driven,” he says, a couple of days after finishing his seven-day, 300-mile journey from Whitehorse to Pelly Crossing. He could never put in the same effort and drive to do the race again. He does, however, seem to have made a more lasting connection to the place than some of the others.
Bell recalls that he left the last checkpoint, Pelly Farm, at midnight, and hit the trail for the final leg to Pelly Crossing. It was -41 C, and as he ran the sky above him filled with the vibrating lines of the Northern Lights. “I’m sure I was hallucinating at that stage, but it was almost as though the Lights were putting their arms around me,” he says. “I’m not one of these fluffy type of people, but it was a very personal moment. It was just me and those lights. It just seems to cut through all the crap in the world.”
The 100-mile course finishes at Braeburn Lodge, a classic North Klondike Highway roadside stop about a hundred kilometres north of Whitehorse, en route to Dawson City. Braeburn’s claim to fame is its giant cinnamon buns, each one the size of a large adult’s head. Its sandwiches and burgers are similarly supersized. Race officials and fans drive up to the lodge, pulling into the parking lot out front. Racers arrive from behind the building: with roughly three kilometres of trail left, they drop down a steep hill onto frozen Braeburn Lake, then cross the ice and wind through sparse trees for the final stretch, circling around the building to collapse in front of a banner that reads: “FINISH.”
No one is there to see fat-biker “Turbo” Trebilcock finish, though. He pedals into the parking lot on his snow bike in the pitch darkness at 3:36 a.m., hours before he was expected. He has completed the race in 17 hours and 6 minutes. The other two cyclists will arrive more than 10 hours later.
The sun rises into a red sky over Braeburn Lake while Turbo is still sleeping in a nearby house that’s been offered up to finishers. The ice creaks and pops in the morning quiet; it’s marked with the perfectly formed frozen paw prints of wolves who traversed the lake while the ice was softened during the thaw two weeks earlier. Verena König and a friend walk across the lake, following the trail markers left by the Rangers, hoping to meet Karl McEwan and urge him on to the finish line.
Finally, just before 10 a.m., McEwan appears at the top of the hill. With the end in sight, he sits down on his blue plastic sled and rides it down to the lake in a rush, then hauls himself back to his feet. He and König cross the lake slowly, side by side—they’re nearly across and into the trees when they look back and see Simon Donato, on skis, plunging down the hill and onto the ice behind them. McEwan has run nearly a hundred miles, pulling a 50-pound sled behind him, in less than 24 hours—he’ll be damned if he’s going to get passed in the final five minutes.
With König pacing him and urging him on, McEwan covers the final two kilometres at the closest thing he can manage to a dead sprint. He hits the finish line at 9:58 a.m.. König is elated. “I’ve never seen anyone finish that fast,” she says.
“I probably would have just given up if I’d been alone,” McEwan replies. He’s smiling, but he claims he isn’t a new convert to ultra racing: “My immediate reaction is: I don’t need to do that again,” he says, minutes after finishing.
His official time is listed at 23 hours, 28 minutes. His feet are okay—a couple blisters, but no frostbite. He poses, smiling for a few photos, then goes into the lodge, orders a burger, and soon falls asleep on a table.