Yukon Arctic Ultra 100 Mile – Race Report

Thursday, February 14, 2013

To say that the Yukon Arctic Ultra 100 miler didn’t go exactly as planned is somewhat of an understatement. I guess it comes down to you can’t tame the north, but the north can sure as hell tame you.

I had felt reasonably good going into the race with some solid training in the past few months leading up to it. I had been dealing with an achilles tendon injury, but due to some great physio in the months before, felt that it was almost 100%. I was also hoping that having the confidence from doing the race the previous year would help along the way.

Just like last year, arriving in Whitehorse was a magical feeling. There is something about the Yukon that really speaks to me. The mountains, the cold, the snow, the people, what was in store for me, all had me feeling excited about the race. The view of the mountains coming into Whitehorse did little to dampen my enthusiasm.

I had been preparing for really cold temperatures for race day and was somewhat surprised by the unseasonably warm weather that greeted me upon arrival. The good thing would probably be that I wouldn’t require as much clothing, however I was a little worried about how soft and slow the trail would be.

Yukon Quest Dogsled Race

The day before the race we had the wonderful experience of seeing the start of the Yukon Quest Dogsled Race. The Quest isn’t as well known as the Iditarod Dogsled Race, but is well regarded as being considerably more difficult with tougher terrain, and longer between checkpoints. It was inspiring to see many of the mushers starting the race who you could tell might not have had the money or resources to have the best equipment out there, but they were living their dream and doing the Quest. I got goosebumps.

Race morning arrived and I was itching to get going. I remembered thinking last year that the race really didn’t get underway until you got off the river and onto the Dawson Overland Trail after about 50 km. It was apparent early on though that it was going to be very slow going. The temperature on race morning was 0C, the trail was soft and it had been chewed up substantially by the dogs and sleds from the Quest the day before. The snow was very punchy and we had to deal with many overflows. It was a strange feeling to step in water on the river and sink down substantially. Everyone was going to be facing the same problems though, so all you could do is try to manage your effort and not go too hard in the early going.

With the softness of the snow, the heat of the day, and pulling a sled, I soon found myself sweating profusely only a few miles into the race. Sweating is something that you want to avoid at all costs in a winter race, as once the temperatures start to drop later on, you can run into major problems. I did everything I could to moderate my body heat by venting and eventually stripping off clothes. I ended up getting down to running in an unzipped t-shirt and rolled up tights, with no hat or mitts for much of the first 5 hours of the race. No matter how slowly I went, I still could not cool down and was drinking a ton of water.

Rivendell Checkpoint

I continued to try to keep a steady pace and just focused on looking after myself, and not think about racing, as it was far too early. With the soft trail I switched in and out of snowshoes a few times, while trying to find the most efficient means of travel. I saw that the two Italian runners Stefano and Davide were running well ahead and leading, but I was content to let them go.

With ideal conditions during last year’s race, it was a bit disheartening to realize how much slower I was running this year and how much harder I was working early on. There are only two checkpoints in the race at the 26 and 59 mile mark. I arrived at the first checkpoint at Rivendell over an hour slower than last year, but was hopeful that trail conditions would improve soon. I took a few extra minutes at the checkpoint to switch out of my socks that were drenched in sweat, change into dry clothing, eat some soup and fill up my water.

Heading back out on the course left me feeling a little concerned about the first 5 hours I had just completed and what that took out of me, but I was also excited about the most beautiful section of the course that I was about to see. With the marathon competitors now having completed their race, things got a little sparse for company, but that’s the way I like it. I enjoy the time on the trail and being able to think and enjoy nature.

Maybe I was feeling sorry for myself for going so slow, and what was inevitably ahead, or maybe I just wanted to talk to someone, but I had this strong desire to talk to family. I was thrilled to discover that we still had cell reception, so I did something that I didn’t think that I’d ever do…I sent a couple of text messages during the race. I sent Brennan and Heather a quick message and like any teenager they were quick with replies that boosted my spirits more than they’ll ever know. I was also able to get in touch with Sara briefly, and hearing back from her put me in a really good headspace to get on with the race.

Rivendell break

Arriving at the Dawson Overland Trail is magical. The view of the surrounding mountains is spectacular as you head into the trees and narrow trail. To my surprise, the footing of the trail had firmed up a little and I was actually able to run at a slightly faster pace than I had been most of the day. My stomach wasn’t feeling particularly well at this point, but I was continuing to hydrate and fuel as best as I could. The drawback to turning off the river is that you now hit some long climbs. The hills weren’t particularly steep, but they went for a long time….90 minutes up, 90 minutes down, then almost 4 hours gradually up. There were a few steeper sections and a couple of times my pulk almost slid backwards when I unclipped to get more food and gear out of my sled bag.

Things started to get really rough on this section for me. My stomach was now rebelling more than it ever has in a race. It’s not uncommon for me to have stomach issues and puke on occasion in ultras, but I have never had GI issues…until now. Not the most fun thing to deal with at the best of times, but during a race like this, was considerably more challenging. I knew that I needed to keep fueling and hydrating, but anything that I took in would either come right back out or go right through me.

I marched on with the short term goal of getting to the Dog Grave Lake checkpoint at mile 59. I thought that if I got there, maybe a brief stop to warm up and sip on some soup might help. Getting to Dog Grave Lake seemed to take an eternity, but I was beyond relieved when I finally arrived. I unhooked from my pulk and went into the tent to get soup and water and change into drier clothes.

The temperature was starting to drop now and I was moving very slow and unable to generate much body heat. I must have spent over 30 minutes at the checkpoint trying to take care of myself, before coaxing myself back out onto the trail. The thought of curling up and sleeping for a few hours rest in front of the campfire was appealing, but I just really wanted to keep moving and try to collect more miles. I left Dog Grave Lake and tried to run as much as I could, but it wasn’t too long before my woozy stomach had me stopped along the side of the trail again.

A happier moment

I’m not exactly sure how far I got past Dog Grave Lake before realizing that things were getting worse. For a moment, I had considered returning to the modest comfort of the checkpoint, but realized that if I did, I expect that my race would be over and I would not end up finishing. In my mind, the only option was to bivy along the trail, get a little sleep and hope that my stomach settled down.

With the Yukon Quest Dogsled Race having run the trails the day before, there was a lot of straw where teams had taken a break. I decided that this was going to be a suitable spot for me, so looked for an area with a large amount of straw to bed down on for some rest. I quickly pulled out my sleeping bag, put on my down jacket, pants and booties and hunkered down for some rest. I made sure to keep my hydration pack and shoes in the bottom of my sleeping bag to prevent them from freezing.

A few people went by as I was settling down and asked if I was alright. That’s the great thing about this race is that you look out for each other and help if needed, as next time you could be one needing the help. It was tough knowing that Sara, friends and family would be watching my SPOT satellite tracker from home and not see it moving, but there was nothing else I could do. I didn’t set an alarm as I figured I would drift in and out of sleep. The temperature was getting colder, but I was comfortable, possibly too comfortable as I didn’t realize until later that I had been sleeping for almost 4 hours. I woke up still feeling very weak, but my stomach wasn’t quite as bad as earlier. The toughest thing was hauling my butt out of the sleeping bag while it was still dark in the morning, but realizing that by the time I potentially finished the race it would be getting dark again at night, so I’d better get moving.

Takhini River with mountain views. Watch out for the overflows!

Again, I considered briefly going back to Dog Grave Lake and dropping from the race, but I really didn’t want to not finish this race, probably more so than any other race I’ve done. My thoughts had now shifted though from thinking of this as a race to looking at things more so as an expedition, which momentarily helped to put a positive spin on things in my mind.

Heading off down the trail I was feeling very weak and still not able to keep much food in me initially. I tried not to look at my watch to figure out how long I’d been out, or how long I still had left to go, but it was difficult not to. The lowest point probably came when I realized that at this time last year, I was already at the finish line. However, I still had 50 kilometers to go to reach the finish in Braeburn and I was moving very slow. It was then that I lost it, broke down and wept like a baby. That was one of the many moments of deep despair that I had during the last third of the race. Just put one foot in front of the other and you’ll get there I kept telling myself…eventually.

Last year when I was running well, I remember laughing at all the gear that I took, and even questioned if I should have lightened the load this year. During those long final hours, I was very glad to have everything that I had though, and could have used more of certain things.

As bad as I felt after my bivy, it never really got any worse. I felt I reached as low as I could, and there was something about that knowledge that was comforting. I continued trying to sneak some food into my upset stomach. I also had to stop regularly and melt snow for drinking water, which is something that I wouldn’t have needed to do had things been going well.

Pulling

The one thing that I did try to take out of those final daylight hours on the second day was enjoying the beauty of trail. Much of the trail I was on during this time I had seen during night time last year. There were many occasions when I just stopped to rest, sitting on my sled bag and looked out at the surrounding beauty. I wouldn’t say that I was necessarily enjoying this, however it was nice to take a mental snapshot (camera was frozen) of this to remember for later.

There were a number of times that race volunteers checked in on me on their snowmobiles and asked how I was doing. I’d usually mumble, ‘not well, but I’m okay’. Each time after they left, I would weep again and wonder why in hell I didn’t ask them to pull me from the course and take me to the end.

As nightfall came the second time during the race, I began to get very cold and a little scared. I hadn’t really planned on requiring a headlamp and batteries for two nights and I was worried I’d have enough light to find my way. Luckily, I remembered the extra headlamp I had brought, just in case.

There is a long stretch of trail with tall evergreens on both sides that seems to go on forever. I’d asked the last race snowmobile patroller how much longer, and he said eight kilometers to Braeburn Lake; which meant only another few km’s past that to the finish. While eight kilometers doesn’t seem that long when you’re moving well, it still meant that I may have a couple of hours still to go. I could however get my head around this and for the first time in a long time, I felt that I might just finish this thing afterall.

I hadn’t seen anyone for a long time, so was surprised to come up behind Ignacio Prat from Spain on the trail. He had stopped to make a snack and hot drink, and asked if I’d like to join him. I wish that I’d had been in the place to enjoy this thoughtful gesture, however I told him that I really just needed this to be done, and kept on going.

Finally, I spotted the steep downhill that goes out onto Braeburn Lake. Crossing the lake was very cold and my feet were really feeling it at this point. Both the lake and the final few kilometer climb to Braeburn Lodge were taking much longer than I remember. I was surprised too how steep some of the hills were as I had to go on hands and knees up one section. I was amazed to think that a dogteam could manage this section of trail.

Dawson Trail Darkness

The sight of Braeburn Lodge and the finish line was one of overwhelming relief. This time I wept with tears of joy with finally putting an end to this long ordeal. It was so different from last year when I had this huge sense of joy. This time it was all about just being done.

Looking back now 10 days after the race, I’ve had a bit of time to reflect on things. The big question was why did I have GI issues? While I suspect there was some meat in the soup, I don’t think that was the problem. I just think that I got pretty dehydrated in the first 5 hours of the race in the heat and tough pulling conditions and was not able to recover properly from that.

The race certainly didn’t go as planned (over 11.5 hours slower than last year), and not something I’d want to repeat, however there were a few things that I did get out of the experience. One thing was that I had the chance to bivy on the trail and sleep during the race. This is something that I’ve been a little concerned about doing in the past, but now that I’ve done it can see being able to do it again if/when I decide to attempt a longer version of the race.

I guess the main thing that I got out of this year’s Yukon Arctic Ultra was that I didn’t quit when I was feeling like I had no other option. This was a great lesson for me to see what I was capable of both physically, and especially, mentally. I’m sure that this will help in races to come.

It was by far NOT my best performance in a race, but one that I’m possibly most proud of for gutting it out. Definitely the toughest thing I’ve ever done.

Time to start thinking about what’s next!

Thank you to…
La SportivaSUUNTOClif for great gear and products.
Jack Judge – for making an awesome custom pulk.
Sara, Brennan and Heather – for kind words, support and love both on and off the trail.
Family and friends who followed along in the race.
Duane Ramsay – for joining me on the trip and picking me up in Braeburn.

Gear List:

Footwear & Clothing:
Suunto Ambit watch (GPS which tracked for entire race)
La Sportiva Crossover GTX trail shoe
La Sportiva Lux jacket
La Sportiva Synopsis Jacket
- La Sportiva Sfaira winter weight toque
- Shell Pant
- Winter weight tights
- 1/2 tight
- Merino wool 1/2 zip t-shirt
- Merino wool 1/2 zip long sleeve
- Heavier merino wool 1/2 zip long sleeve
- Merino wool briefs
3 pairs of Drymax socks (Cold Weather 2 pairs, Trail Running Sock 1 pair)
- thin Merino wool gloves
- Merino wool mitts
- Stonehaven Fleece mitts
- Extreme weather mitts (heavy)
- Balaclava
Buffs (3)
Native Sunglasses
- Gaiters
- Down jacket
- Down pants
- Neos Overshoes
- Down booties
Dion 121 Running Snowshoes with Deep Cleats
- Kahtoola MicroSpikes

Mandatory Gear:

- Headlamp (Petzl NAO w/backup battery packPetzl Tikka XP2)
- Spare batteries (3 lithium AAA)
- Windproof lighter
- Matches in waterproof container
- Fire starter
- Sleeping pad
- Sleeping bag rated down to -35 or lower
- Bivouac bag
- Emergency whistle
- Compass
- Extensive First aid kit
- Mini Stove (Pocket Rocket) with butane/propane fuel (since temps weren’t going to be extreme)
- 1 litre titanium pot
- cup
- bowl
- Spork
- Saw
- Enough emergency food provisions to last 48 hours (my food included Clif gels, Clif bloks, Wraps (Peanut butter, jam and Nutella), Nuts, Cheese curd, 2 x instant camp meals, some pringle chips, and some soup from checkpoints.
- Pulk (custom made by Jack Judge with frame, skis, belt and pole system)

Other:
S!Cap electrolytes
- Advil
- electrolyte drink mix
- repair kit for pulk including duct tape, screws, rope, buckles, etc…
- Ski wax and cork
- lip balm
UltrAspire Surge hydration pack with 2 litre insulated bladder (worn under coat)
- insulated water bottles (x3)
- iphone (used as camera until froze)
- ipod (playlist including plenty of Irish punk)

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