Stumbling through the snow at –25C, I’d a vague recollection of a sleep survey saying that short naps worked best. Now, at 3am on Day 4 of the Yukon Arctic Ultra, it was time to test the theory.
Setting my watch alarm with frost-nipped fingers, I pulled my coat-hood tight and curled up on the trail.
It was –25C, and exactly quarter of an hour later I woke, shall we say, ‘refreshed’. Time to move.
THE Yukon Arctic Ultra is no ordinary ultra race. Billed as the world’s coldest multi-day event, it follows the same route as the Yukon Quest dog-sled race, offering marathon, 100 mile and 328 mile route options. Competitors haul essential kit on sleds, logging into remote checkpoints every 40 miles or so.
For rookies, a compulsory pre-race training course covers subjects like bear attack and fire-making, and tests competitors’ ability to spot the symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite. Race director Robert Pollhammer explains: “It’s vital that competitors know what sort of environment they’re going into. It’s an adventure that tests people to their limits, but we want everyone to come back with all their fingers and toes.”
Forty competitors, from the US, Canada, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the UK, line up on February 15th beneath the start gantry in Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon. It’s a balmy –12C, and everyone’s keen to get going on the 26.2-mile marathon leg to North Country Ranch, where there’s a 4-hour mandatory campout. The gun fires, and we snake out onto the frozen Yukon River. The hares clock 4:45, but most of us are long-haulers and pace ourselves at around 6:30. Checkers ensure we can light our stoves and have warm sleeping bags, and we’re back out at 9pm for the 37-mile leg to Dog Grave Lake.
The first ‘all-nighter’ sees me pull into Dog Grave at 11.30am in 4th place. It’s been a long night, but a couple of bowls of soup at the checkpoint tent revives the pace for the next 34 mile section. A blizzard descends as Braeburn Lake looms into view at 10pm, and the reflective marker stakes prove their worth. I grovel into the roadhouse at midnight with 97 miles under my belt and a couple of very sore shins.
Six hours sleep and one of Braeburn’s famous mega-burgers later, it’s time to chase Italian Stefano Miglietti out into the fresh snow. The 41 miles to Ken Lake cabin is on narrow, undulating trail with several long lake sections, plus a first taste of the dreaded ‘overflow’, which occurs when water flows above the frozen layer beneath. It’s a long, long day, and I stumble into the cabin after midnight in third place behind Stefano and German biker Thomas. News comes in that several racers have scratched, including one German runner whose camelbak burst inside his sleeping bag at –20C.
Soup and sleep revive me once more for the 34 mile leg to Carmacks. The sun shines on spectacular forest and lake scenery, but some fiercesomely steep climbs in the last ten miles are distracting. Its 10pm by the time I roll into Carmacks, where the community centre kitchen is gearing up its lasagne production-line. I dry ice-encrusted kit and try to elevate my swollen legs and sleep at the same time. Not easy.
Just three hours fitful kip and out by 3am, chasing Stefano the 43 miles towards McCabe. Not a good start when I’m directed the wrong way and spend nearly an hour trail-hunting before returning to the checkpoint. Have the first of several 15-minute naps between 4-6am to keep me going, but shun using my 40-below sleeping bag, knowing I’d sleep too long. ‘Small sleeping bag – big alarm clock’ goes the ultra-marathon mantra. Getting colder, nearly 30 below. Several sections weave through jumble ice on the Yukon, stepping round distorted slabs and skirting the swift-flowing sections of open water. A wonderful moment as I later cross the misty Yukon under a full moon.
Another ‘short-stay’ checkpoint – just four hours at McCabe and out before 1am as rumours circulate that Stefano is struggling. Trouble is, so am I, and the sleep monsters are out in force. On the boughs of fir trees, lumps of snow turn into zoo animals of every description, then start waving to me. Other competitors, I discover later, see unicorns and accordion players. I finally roll into Pelly Crossing at noon, to find Stefano gathering his kit for the last 60 miles. Fifty-five minutes after he leaves, I give chase – but we both nearly come unstuck when overflow on the Pelly River catches us out. We both go in up to our knees, but thankfully it’s a mild –12C and an increase in pace generates enough heat to stave off frostbite. As the temperature plummets, we both struggle on the 30-mile leg to Pelly Farm, but Stefano somehow opens the gap to two hours and takes off again as he sees my headlamp appear up-river. By the time I stagger in at 1am, he’s gone, and the race is over.
Four hours sleep should be enough, but sure doesn’t feel it as I sit zombie-like at the Pelly kitchen table trying to eat porridge. My feet are swollen and sore, and it takes several miles before I can walk/run in a straight line. By daybreak, I’m well into the infamous hills of the final 30-mile leg back along the farm road, and longing for a section steep enough to let me ride my sled for the first time in the race. Two swooping downhill’s give me chance to take the weight off my feet, but they also allow Thomas, the race’s lone mountain biker, to overtake. Finally, at just after 6pm, the finish line appears, marking the end of 328 miles racing and just over six days on the trail. I’m second runner, third overall, sore but happy. Time for a beer…
Race website: http://www.arcticultra.de/
Montrail Hurricane Ridge Goretex-XCR running shoes
Plastic sled (£22)
Rab Summit 5-season sleeping bag
Thermarest z-rest sleeping mat
Platypus 3-litre Water Chest w/ insulated hose
Rab Quantum down jacket
Mountain Equipment windproof jacket
Patagonia base layer, mid-layer and fleece tights
Polaris liner shorts
Smartwool liner and expedition socks
PHD down mitts
Berghaus Goretex hat
MSR Whisperlite International stove
MSR 2-litre titanium pan
Black Diamond carbon fibre trekking poles
Adidas Elevation Climacool glasses and goggles