The Yukon Arctic Ultra is called “the world’s coldest and toughest ultra”. It happens in early February on the trail for the Yukon Quest, a sled dog race. As an eastern Canadian the Yukon has captured my interest, with its pristine beauty and mountain ranges. Shortly after discovering my love for running mixed with my love for winter, I heard about this race and have secretly been keeping it on my bucket list.
There are several distances to race: the marathon, 100 mile, 300 mile and every other year 430 miles. Temperatures and trail conditions can vary greatly to create challenging situations. Robert Pollhammer is the Race Director and an adventure racer.
Kelly: What inspired you to create a race in the Yukon?
Robert: I was inspired by my participation in a similar race in Alaska. At the time this race was in decline and I decided to start something myself. Having gone to High School in Canada, I did not need to look too long before I found out about the Yukon Quest and the trail the dog teams use.
Kelly: Can you tell us about some of the extreme conditions athletes can expect to face out there?
Robert: Loneliness, long nights in the middle of nowhere, and of course the extreme cold are big challenges. Add lack of sleep and changing trail conditions and you have one of the toughest races on earth.
Kelly: How do you check that the athletes have the basic survival skills needed for this environment?
Robert: Those who do not have prior cold weather experience have to do our training course.
Kelly: There are several distances to race, the Marathon, 100mile, 300mile and 430mile. Which one is most popular?
Robert: Surprisingly, it is the 430 miles that now gets the most participants.
Kelly: You have a team of people that help make this race happen, can you tell us a bit about them?
Robert: Yes indeed. Without these people the race would be impossible to put on. There are local volunteers who help me at checkpoints. We have a crew on ski-doos travelling the trails and a medical team. It is hard work for everyone involved but they all enjoy it and come back year after year.
Kelly: What kind of feedback from the finishers have you gotten?
Robert: They all loved it. Well, of course there were times when they were down or would have killed me if they met me on the trail. But they finished and of course are proud, happy and thankful. It is very inspiring to see these amazing athletes – also those who may not have finished but gone a long way – and very rewarding to get the positive feedback afterwards.
Kelly: What are some of the things that can take athletes out of the race that they normally wouldn’t expect?
Robert: I think they know most of the threats. There are the “usual” problems like old injuries coming back, blisters, knee or foot problems. Then there is frostbite and simply exhaustion. A surprise for me this year was that we had some people with a cold virus. That was really a shame. The one thing that is hard to train for though is the overall mental challenge. Often it’s not a physical problem but the respective athlete just can’t get his or her head around it.
Robert: It depends on what distance you want to go for. If you do the 100 miles you “only” need to be a strong hiker to make it within the 3 day time limit. And it helps if you like the cold. For the 300 miles you should have already some experience in this type of environment and for the 430 mile race you definitely need to have done some challenging adventures in the extreme cold.
Kelly: Is there anything else you would like to share about the YAU?
Robert: The one big thing to me is the family-like atmosphere that we always have. At the YAU the number of participants is limited. We get to know the athletes pretty well and they get to know us. That is also why we have so many people coming back. It’s just something that is hard to find in other races and places. This and the fact that the crew is the best crew ever!
Derrick Spafford a member of the La Sportiva Running Team and owner of Spafford Health and Adventure shared his experience at the YAU.
Kelly: Why the Yukon Ultra?
Derrick: I’ve always been intrigued by the north. I first ran the Rock and Ice Ultra (3 day stage race) in 2008 in Yellowknife and while it was the toughest race I’d done up to that point, it changed me as a runner, and not to sound dramatic, but as a person too. I started searching out other northern races to consider and the YAU really spoke to me. The landscape, the people, the distance and the logistics. Having done some dogsled racing in the past, I liked that this would also allow me to think like a musher…but without the dogs.
Derrick: We didn’t have a ton of snow in Yarker, Ontario, where I live, before the race, but did get periods of adequate snow to help prepare for dragging the pulk (sled). I was also testing gear by running on lakes and ponds when frozen if we didn’t have enough snow. I was also dragging a tire in training to help prepare before we got snow, however I had to limit this as I injured my achilles tendon, which bothered me for the final few months of training. Overall, my training was decent going into the race and I felt fairly well prepared. We did have some cold winter days too which helped to acclimate and give me confidence.
Kelly: Is there one section of the course that’s your favourite?
Derrick: I really like the middle 50 km of the race. You turn onto the Dawson Overland Trail off of the river, you then begin climbing, get closer to the mountains and really feel like you are experiencing something very special being out in the middle of nowhere. Just very raw, powerful and beautiful.
Kelly: How does it feel being out there completely surrounded by pristine nature?
Derrick: It is an incredible feeling. There are only two checkpoints…one at 26 and one at 59 miles, so you are really out there. If you run into trouble you have to be able to take care of yourself, because it could be a long time until help arrives and you’re very exposed and vulnerable. Again, a very raw and primitive feeling and brings things back down to it’s most simple and pure form. The beauty of the trails, mountains, and landscape is just spectacular.
Kelly: Did you have any really difficult moments?
Derrick: Oh yes! I had some major stomach and GI issues. Reflecting on it now, I’m pretty sure it was due to the heat and footing over the first 5 hours. The temperature was very warm around 0 degrees at the start. The trail was soft and chewed up by the Yukon Quest Dog Teams. This made us all work very hard and overheat…even while hydrating and taking in electrolytes. I tried to moderate my effort early on, while stripping off as much clothing as possible, but I was still overheating and sweating excessively…far too much. This caused me to eventually not be able to keep food in me and I got very weak. I decided to bivy on the trail and sleep for a while and settle my stomach. This changed it from a race experience to more of an expedition type of event.
Kelly: Reading your blog post before you left for the Yukon, you had a different feeling going into the race this year than last year. Was it a different experience this time around?
Derrick: Yes, very much from a practical sense. The trail was very hard packed and fast running last year. This year with the soft snow and higher temperatures the running and pulling was much more difficult. I kept having people tell me before the race that they were happy for me that the weather was going to be mild on race day, but in reality I wouldn’t have had the problems I had if it had been ?25 or colder. Just going into a race again after doing it once things are bound to be different. The good thing is that the stomach issues changed it from a ‘race mentality’ to a long slog…which opened my eyes to what it might be like to do a longer race at some point.
Kelly: If you could describe this race in a couple words what would they be?
Derrick: Wild, remote, unpredictable, beauty. While the challenges of this race are intense, the rewarding feeling shared by those who have experienced it and the pure essence of nature at it’s best make this race uniquely special to those who have the desire to explore Canada’s great north.
~Kelly Wald is The North Face Trail Ambassador for Ontario