We made it! £15,000 for the FCACT in completing "the world's coldest and toughest ultramar
“Let us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betide us,
Let us journey to a lonely land I know.
There’s a whisper on the night wind, there’s a star agleam to guide us,
And the Wild is calling, calling … let us go”
Robert Service, ‘The Call of the Wild’
It is 10:30am on Sunday 3rd February 2019. With a great friend, Angus Currie, I am standing on the start line of “the world’s coldest and toughest ultramarathon”, with 430 miles (690km) of snow-covered trail ahead of us stretching into one of the world’s great wildernesses: the Yukon Territory of North-Western Canada. 12½ days later Angus and I heaved our pulks over the finish line, 8th= out of a starting field of 40 competitors. We were exhausted, battered, drained but elated by having completed what I can safely say was the hardest sporting event I have ever done, in one of the most hostile, unforgiving environments I have experienced. This is the story of that race.
Where to start? Well to give some background – the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultramarathon (MYAU) is a mid-winter race following the old gold rush trail of the 1890s between Whitehorse and Dawson City. Every year, a field of international athletes compete in any one of four distances on either foot, bike or cross country ski: 26, 100, 300 and 430 miles (although the latter is run only every two years). The race usually starts in early February when temperatures are generally between -20 and -30C, but are highly variable (to give some sense of this, the day before we arrived in Whitehorse the temperature was +2C; when we started racing one week later, it had plummeted to -47C).
Angus and I entered the 430 mile foot race, for which there only two cut-offs: at a checkpoint called Carmacks, 170 miles in, which you need to reach within 4½ days; and the actual finish line which you need to cross within 13 days. From the start, the clock never stops and your race strategy is your own: sleep, eat and break when you like, administer yourself and medicate your own injuries as you need – it is your race. Although it is a largely self-sufficient event (i.e. you pull all your own equipment including food, clothing, tent and sleeping system) there are checkpoints averaging ~1 per day, although less in the later stages. Given the risk of frostbite, these are there primarily to ensure athlete safety: as soon as a competitor arrives, he or she must show their toes, fingers, nose, and ears to a medic who will check for signs of freezing – if there is any indication of frostbite, your race is over. Aside from safety, checkpoints provide athletes with a hot meal, a chance to have thermos flasks filled with hot water (which otherwise is done by melting snow over a fire whilst on the trail) and usually the opportunity to dry wet or frozen kit. Notably, the medics are not allowed to treat you if you have a problem: the ethos of the race is that if you are not sufficiently competent to fully look after yourself, you should not be out in that environment. Given the history and nature of the Yukon, this is entirely appropriate.
This is a hard, hard race – I don’t think anyone who has completed it would say differently. 12 athletes finished the 430 miler out of 40 who started, with dropouts due to frostbite (in one case so severe the athlete was helicoptered off the trail), exhaustion, illness, dehydration, injury and hypothermia. Without giving a blow-by-blow account, which in a 2 week, non-stop race would fill a book, I shall pick off some highlights.
In the MYAU you are primarily up against three things: the distance, the cold and the clock. Neither Angus nor I ever thought that we would quit – but equally we probably never had full confidence that we could physically do it: we had never pulled a fully laden 30kg pulk (sledge) over that distance, had never experienced the minus 40s for such a sustained period, had no idea what pace would be needed to make the cut-offs and the finish line in time. So we set off with our usual dose of shared optimism, but a real sense of stepping into the great unknown – a voyage of discovery into one of the most hostile environments on earth in a race where it had been made very clear that whilst there was a support system in place, it was very much at arm’s length.
At 430 miles the sheer scale of the race was at times almost incomprehensible. In practical terms this hit home when, for example, we made the one and only cut-off after 170 miles, but knew there were still 260 miles to go – so much further than either of us had ever covered on foot before. Or making the halfway point and thinking that there were still 215 miles left on the trail! In this kind of ‘non-stop’ race, in contrast to staged races like the Marathon des Sables (where the clock stops at the end of each day) you are always rushed, always having to move forward, always trying to escape the distance, the clock, the approaching night, the cold… It creates a relentless pressure to keep moving.
Ah, the cold… The cold in the Yukon is deep, threatening and inescapable – at minus 47C on the start line this meant we had to learn to survive in it fast, and there were a high number of dropouts in the early stages as a result. You never really know deep cold until you have experienced it: it made this the most hostile place outside of a war zone that I have known – the only other place where, albeit on a different scale, you feel that same constant sense of threat. In any other race, either in desert or in temperate climes, stopping for a rest means the start of the recovery process. In the deep cold it is different – stopping means your body starts to freeze. Even in thick mountaineering down gloves we would feel our fingers go numb whenever we had to take outer gloves off to cook, eat a snack, pour from a thermos – even though we were always still wearing wool liners at a minimum. To manage this you learn to tell the temperature from your body: at -20C, the moisture in your nose starts to freeze as you inhale; at -30C ice forms on your eyelashes, often restricting vision; at -40C, even thick down gloves will not protect your fingers for long. You always need to be aware, always alert – you can never fully relax.
The distance and the clock meant that we moved for on average 18 hours a day. We would look at days of 30, 40, 45 miles pulling 30kg pulks and break them down, take shifts in the lead, have breaks on the hour to give it some structure. But sometimes you just had to look ahead into 18 hours of pulling and believe you could do it. Terrain was mixed: over frozen lakes, where the trail sometimes ran for miles, it would be flat and we could move fast, sometimes up to 4.5mph; through woods on single tracks, especially in the early stages approaching Carmacks, tree roots and hummocks would be coming through the snow impeding our progress and there could be steep, short, sharp hills slowing the pace down to sometimes just 1 mph. But generally the trail was pretty good – flattened, clearly marked, and our average pace tended to be 2.5-3mph.
Surrounding us was the raw, wild scenery of the Yukon. At night the stars were like something I have never seen before – so pure, so far, so clear. And the silence was absolute – no wildlife, no humanity, no noise at all. Sometimes we would stop and turn off our headlights and just watch and listen – once witnessing the majesty of the Northern Lights sweeping over us, dancing in green waves across the night sky as we left Pelly Farm checkpoint late in the race. And then we would have to move again – you can never stay static for long.
For me, the race really unfolded in 3 informal ‘phases’, roughly equivalent in distance:
PHASE 1: This ran from the start in Whitehorse, the largest town in the Yukon, up to the checkpoint at Carmacks, a community hall 170 miles in where we got to sleep indoors and have our one and only shower of the race (luxury!). This phase took us just over 4 days. Looking back, this was really the time when we were adapting to the Yukon environment, learning the pace we had to maintain to stay in the race, getting into a routine of getting up early (2/3am), collapsing camp by head torch, warming water for food over the open Primus stove, pulling through the day, and then either arriving at a checkpoint to rest (sometimes indoors, more often outside) or finding a place to camp after nightfall. My biggest concern here was to not make a foolish mistake – touch a piece of metal in the minus 30s, leave a piece of skin uncovered - anything that would take us out of the race early. We felt we had the robustness and mental discipline to at least cover the 170 miles – what we didn’t have was the experience to know that we wouldn’t make an error when we were cold, sleep deprived and physically exhausted. Aside from one instance at the Braeburn checkpoint (100 miles) when I picked up a shovel with no gloves on and immediately felt the metal sticking to my skin – luckily with no lasting consequences – we had no such instances and arrived at Carmacks in generally good shape.
PHASE 2: Arrival at Carmacks meant that we were ‘in the race’. There was a high level of attrition before this point from those who were unlucky or unprepared – now the only cut off that remained was to make it to Dawson City within the remaining 7 ½ days. This middle phase was a bit of a heads down, get the miles under our belts period – running from Friday morning to the following Monday evening. We were becoming slicker in our drills – faster to set up camp, disciplined in how long we stopped for, better at packing and unpacking pulks. We would still pass others on the trail, even be in and around habitation at some of the checkpoints, which often felt strange.
PHASE 3: The last phase was the ‘final’ 160 miles from Pelly Farm to Dawson City. By this stage, all non 430 mile athletes were off the course and we were down to the last 12 competitors from nearly 100 who had crossed the start line together 270 miles further south. Anyone who got this far had proven they were a credible adventurer – indeed we would sometimes go for whole days not seeing anyone else. This also meant that if something had gone wrong, we knew help was many hours away. There were only two checkpoints remaining and they were real ‘off the grid’ wilderness sites (a wooden hut at Scroggy Creek and a tent at Indian River). We were truly in the wild.
The final 100 miles from Scroggy to the end included two of the biggest climbs of the race, culminating in the ascent of King Solomon’s Dome, a hill that stands at the height of Ben Nevis. Climbing this alone from a standing start on an English summer’s day would give one a sense of achievement. Doing it after 400 miles and 12 days on the trail, pulling a fully laden pulk, averaging 3 hours sleep a night, on dehydrated rations and in the depths of a Yukon winter felt pretty special. We had to dig deep at times, cajoling and supporting each other, always moving forwards, leaning into the hill against the strain of the pulk, onwards, onwards – but we crossed the Dome at 5am on the final day and swept through into Dawson City to a rousing reception, medals, beer and the famous ‘Sour toe’ cocktail in the Downtown Hotel bar (which is a story in itself…). We were done.
The MYAU is an epic race: it requires physical fitness of course, but much more than that it requires physical and mental robustness, self-discipline and a high level of effective personal administration to survive and thrive in the conditions imposed by both the Yukon environment and the race pressure. But there was a massive sense of achievement in crossing the line after 430 miles on the trail. Would we do it again? I’m not sure. Maybe…