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Running, and Winning, One of the Coldest Races of the Season

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With less than three hours until the start of The Yukon Arctic Ultra, billed as the “Coldest and Toughest Ultra in the world,” I am in panic mode.

The Yukon Arctic Ultra sees local and international adventure racers compete in one of four distances (marathon, 100 miles, 300 miles and 430 miles) in temperatures typically ranging from -12 to -25, however with wind, temperatures can drop another 10-15 degrees, as seen in 2018 and 2019 where temperatures dipped to -45 and -37. (For the record, the Arrowhead 135, in northern Minnesota recorded -46-degree temperatures with wind chill, making it a contestant for “The Coldest Ultra.”)

The first 26.2 miles is relatively flat and open, with the trail following the Yukon River. The trail follows the shallow side of the river where the current is slower, which does little to ease the mind. Opposite, are high banks which indicate deep water, strong current and thinner ice.

For those venturing beyond 26.2 miles, trail conditions are impossible to predict, however, you can expect slippery, bubbled-up river overflow with shallow open water, steep inclines with views of the mountains, and possible wildlife encounters such as moose, bison and wolves. While there are mandated checkpoints and volunteers checking the trail on snowmobile, racers are self sufficient and must possess some level of survival skills and be able to communicate in English. Due to the remote nature, racers should be comfortable being alone.

Resonating in my dreams were the horror stories of frostbite and amputations from the 2018 Yukon Arctic Ultra.

In 2018, only one athlete out of 22 completed the 300-mile distance and 2017 saw approximately a 60 percent DNF (did not finish) rate in both the 300- and 430-mile distances.

Today I am racing in the marathon, the same event I won two years ago, though I was ill-prepared and naive, having never run beyond a half-marathon. Inadequate layers, Saucony Kinvara road shoes and poor decision making with the storage of my hydration flasks and gels led to everything freezing solid.

Having run several marathons, 50 milers and two twenty-four hour races since 2017, I knew I could complete the distance under most normal circumstances, averaging 40 to 50 miles per week in training. However, this was the first time I had serious doubts, not about the distance, but about the conditions.

Resonating in my dreams were the horror stories of frostbite and amputations from the 2018 Yukon Arctic Ultra. Also, due to warmer temperatures, the ice on the local lakes and rivers had seen more people falling through. For safety reasons, athletes must follow the pink, wooden stakes in the snow that mark the trail.

I compulsively check the weather on several websites but they all read close to the same, -37 with the windchill. I arrive at Shipyards Park with 10 minutes to spare, which is enough time to get dressed and drop my dry bag. The warming station—a burrito restaurant with six round tables during the summer—is overflowing with athletes and support crews.

Outside, the starting chute is filling up: marathoners up front followed by the ultrarunners. The marathoners travel light with minimal layers, relying on generating body heat to keep warm. Some runners opt to cover their faces in duct tape or KT  tape to prevent frostbite. Ultra racers are dressed in heavy layers and pull sleds containing extra layers, first aid kit, body glide, sunscreen, cooking stove with fuel, headlamps, batteries, foam pad, bivy sack with vapor-barrier liner and food. Most racers seem to opt for coffee, chocolate and expedition, freeze-dried food. 

With two minutes remaining, racers check gear, hug loved ones and march in place to stay warm. I frantically search for the bag drop. I certainly couldn’t leave it in my car as it contained my cellphone to arrange my pickup, and more importantly: my post-race beer! I find Race Director Robert Pollhammer at the start, preparing to give his last words of encouragement before sending us on our way. I hand him my bag and hope it will meet me at the end.  

We leave downtown Whitehorse to the cheers of spectators and clicking cameras. The day before, The Yukon Quest, which is an international 1,000-mile dogsled race from Whitehorse, Yukon to Fairbanks, Alaska, left from this same location and we will be following their route. Due to the dogs, heavy sleds and cold temperatures, the trail was mostly hard packed and empty, aside from an occasional lost dog bootie.

Without them and their safety pins, I would have needed to call it a day.

I run at a hard pace over the first few kilometers in an attempt to generate heat. As to be expected, the cold quickly starts to have an affect. I stop to tuck my layers, which are circulating the heat nicely. My ski goggles, which I’d borrowed, have frozen on both the interior and exterior, making it nearly impossible to see.

One of the reasons I enjoy winter running is how my eyelashes look post run, but this is entirely different. No longer able to use the goggles, my eyelashes gather ice into heavy, unmanageable clumps. Trying to run to keep generating heat,  I alternate between covering each eye with my glove. These are minor problems, and are to be expected.

What is not expected is running the first half of the marathon (21 kilometers) to the aid station with one hand holding up my pants. The lady’s shell pants I wear (borrowed from a friend) continually fall down to my mid thigh. Not wanting to stop for fear of freezing out, I discard the pants at the aid station, located at the base of a bridge on the North Klondike Highway.

Within 400 meters I am doubling back, under the bridge. The fabric is thin but the difference in warmth is colossal. The aid-station volunteers act quickly to pin the pants to my more supportive base layers and check my extremities for signs of frostbite. Without them and their safety pins, I would have needed to call it a day.

From kilometer 21 to 30 I feel strong despite continued difficulty seeing the trail due to my damn lashes, but at least my pants are fixed. For the next few kilometers, I drift in thought as I run the meandering river trail in silence.

Somewhere between kilometer 31 to 36, things start to go downhill. I begin to feel the effects of dehydration and lack of food. Reflecting on my mistake in 2017, I keep my gels and water in my Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest, next to my base layer and my soft flasks wrapped in 8-hour hand warmers, which works well. Unfortunately, unzipping my shell and mid-layer means cold hands and breezes. In the outside temperature, away from my core, my gels instantly become stiff and no longer pliable.

With three kilometers to go, I’m operating in survival mode but determined to finish. I’ve developed two strategies when struggling late in a race. First, SMILE. Second, I repeat the phrase “No worries, I’ll make it” (in a thick Australian accent). The saying comes from a documentary on Cliff Young, a 61-year-old Australian potato farmer best known for his unexpected win of the Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon in 1983. I pass several other competitors. It is the first time I’ve seen another runner in hours. The second-place runner is a little over a kilometer behind and looks to have the energy I feel I’m lacking.

With 100 meters to go, the trail veers off the Yukon River and onto the property of MukTuk Adventures—the home of Yukon Quest legend Frank Turner, his wife Anne Tayler and their 125 Alaskan huskies that serve as tour guides and sled dogs. I pass several spectators who ask if I’m okay, to which I reply, “I just want this to be over.”

I arrive at the finish and stagger up the stairs of the cabin. Volunteers source my dry bag, help me rehydrate, feed me a delicious meat stew and continue to check on me while I snuggle up on the couch next to a retired sled dog.

Later, sitting in the front seat of our Toyota Sienna minivan, I look at my wife, wiggle my fingers, toes and nose and say, “Still got them.” After a hot shower, a few beers and good nights’ rest, I feel okay. Sure, I’m a bit stiff, but considering how it could have gone—how it has gone for many before me—I know I’m lucky and I am already thinking about competing in the 100-mile event next year.

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