Racing at 50 Below Zero

There are ultra races, and then there’s the Yukon Arctic Ultra. Mark Hines braves 700km of -50˚C temperatures, treacherous trails and killer ice in the frozen north.

It’s easy to claim that an ultra-endurance foot race is the toughest in the world. I’ve raced in deserts, jungles, mountains and the Arctic, and the organisers of pretty much every one of these races said theirs was the world’s toughest. Any race that involves running for hundreds of kilometres through a hostile environment is obviously extremely difficult. But I genuinely don’t believe there is a race harder than the Yukon Arctic Ultra.

The race follows the course of the Yukon Quest, a similarly tough dog-sled race that honours the men and women who risked everything in the 1896 Great Gold Rush across the Yukon Territory in north-western Canada. Racers compete on foot, on cross-country skis or on snow-adapted mountain bike, but there’s no switching between modes during the race. Competitors must drag all their equipment on a sled, or pulk, including their sleeping gear, stove, food and emergency equipment, although drop bags holding additional supplies can be left every 160km along the route. There are four distance options: marathon, 160km, 480km or 700km.

It’s this challenge, truly worthy of the name ultra — while the event is held annually, this extreme option is offered only every other year — that I’m taking on in 2011. The route takes the racer from Whitehorse to Dawson City, across frozen lakes and rivers, through winter wonderland forests and, in the final 260km, over the daunting Black Hills and the 1234-metre King Solomon’s Dome. The hills are the toughest terrain — but only a few make it even that far.

Heading for danger

Nobody finished the first 700-kayer in 2007; the closest was British racer Andy Heading, who was forced to stop by -60˚C temperatures  160km short of the finish. In 2009, participants enjoyed the best conditions the race had ever experienced, and nine racers made it to the finish. This year’s conditions threatened to be more like 2007 than 2009.

I’ve done everything I can in the UK to prepare — running up to 32km a night on consecutive nights and taking 160km walks over weekends. Last Christmas. I camped in the Brecon Beacons in Wales, taking my pulk along to get used to hauling it up hills and through snow. Because the Yukon Arctic Ultra is a single-stage race, you have to limit sleep as much as possible, and in February the Yukon has 17 hours of darkness each day. I did a lot of my training between 1am and 5am before getting up at 7.30am for work.

Despite this bizarre regime, I was feeling great physically and ready to take on the challenge — until the week before I flew to Canada, when I was hit by a horrendous viral infection just as I started my taper. Just one more challenge to add to the list.

Out in the cold

When I arrived in Whitehorse, the temperature was hovering around freezing, and the concern was that we would be floundering in slush and suffering trench foot. But by the start of the race, the temperature had fallen to -19˚C. At least trench foot wouldn’t be a problem.

The race began under a clear blue sky and I started at a run to avoid getting caught in a queue of walkers, my pulk weaving behind me. In the cold, clean and crisp air I felt in my element and made good progress to the first checkpoint, a marathon’s distance from the start. During the first night, as my pace slowed to a fast walk through the woodland, the Northern Lights provided a faint show up ahead. I camped just after midnight and slept for a few hours, before continuing to the second checkpoint where I discovered that the temperature that night had been as low as -32˚C.

I reached the 160km checkpoint, Braeburn Lodge, close to the frontrunners. I treated this as a real milestone in the race and had a long sleep, which helped me feel refreshed as I left in the morning.

The journey from Braeburn to Ken Lake, the next checkpoint, was a firm trail that allowed me to move fast. On arriving at the checkpoint after that — Carmacks, marking 278km — I learned that many of even the strongest competitors had already dropped out. Some of the lead racers from the 2009 race had left the race for various reasons, including frostbite, while one racer had succumbed to pneumonia. I also got the news that more snow was expected.

Jumble trail

I planned to use the next two checkpoints, Pelly Crossing and Pelly Farm, to recuperate some energy before heading into the forbidding Black Hills. But given the weather forecast, my extended rest at Pelly Crossing was a huge miscalculation. By the time I set out, the snow had covered the trail. I had to put on my snowshoes just to maintain traction to pull my pulk, but now the sled was ploughing through snow rather than sliding over it.

I followed the tracks left by another competitor, but after a while they disappeared. And as if things weren’t tough enough, I soon reached a section where jumble ice — blocks the size of small cars — presented an alarming opportunity for serious injury.

With no visible trail there was a huge risk of taking the wrong step, and slipping down an ice block and getting a leg trapped or injured.

I discovered later that there was open water too, hidden beneath a layer of snow, which would have spelled disaster had I fallen into it.

This was by far the toughest part of my race. Ploughing through such deep snow and being in such danger was physically and mentally exhausting. I was forced to stop every few metres to rest, and there were insufficient markers to show me the way. It even occurred to me that this might be the end of my race.

But I soon realised it was inconceivable to quit here. I could hardly give up on the grounds that the race was hard work. It was meant to be the toughest race in the world, so what else was I expecting? It was unbelievably tough, but that would make persevering and arriving at the finish line all the more rewarding.

All I had to do was keep placing one foot in front of the other and, however slow my progress, I would make it to the end. If I could keep moving, I could finish.

It was the right decision. Before long, the consistency of the surface improved, allowing me to feel the trail beneath my feet. I arrived at Pelly Farm exhausted after 16 hours to find that all the other competitors were re-routed along a road to the farm, since the river route with its jumble ice was too dangerous. In essence, it had taken me 16 hours to complete what should have been a 10-hour section.

Brush the snow out of your beard and it'll be back in minutes.

Blood runs cold

After two days of soft trails — into which my feet and pulk sank — and a tricky climb on the Eureka Dome mountain, I arrived at the Indian River checkpoint. Only one section of the race remained, but this included King Solomon’s Dome. Fortunately, I had recovered well from my trials along Pelly River and was able to move quickly, enjoying the pace and looking forward to conquering the mountain.

With the air temperature now at -45˚C, a mind-boggling 82˚C lower than my core body temperature, my windpipe had soon dried out. Every now and then I had to spit grainy, blood-filled saliva onto the trail, and I knew that if I were to continue another day I would need to cover my mouth or suffer worse problems. At least bending over to spit gave me the chance to see large, fresh and clear wolf prints in the snow.

“With the air temperature now at -45˚C, my windpipe had dried out. Every now and then I had to spit grainy, blood-filled saliva onto the trail.”

I reached the summit of the Dome at sunset and sat on my pulk to enjoy the sight of the hills changing colour from white to a light pink and then a deepish red. Then the night came, and with it temperatures of -50˚C. My next and final break, a few kilometres from Dawson City, was a real test in itself. When I removed my outer mitt to hold a cup of hot chocolate, I felt the fluid in the joints of my hand begin to freeze, even though I was wearing base-layer gloves. But I needed the drink both to fuel my progress and to generate heat. The fluid quickly became like treacle with ice crystals in, and I didn’t pause long before continuing to the finish.

Mark celebrates reaching the finish - he was one of only four foot-racers to make it.

Bitter end

I arrived in Dawson City at 3.25am, 10½ days after leaving Whitehorse. A local competitor, Greg McHale, had arrived before me on foot, and two English cyclists before him.

Two others on foot arrived after me. Of the other 14 runners, cyclists and skiers in the 700km event, none made it, although two were evacuated from the Dome by snowmobile when they ran out of time just 27km from the finish.

Plenty of races are tough. But in the Yukon Arctic Ultra, the constantly changing conditions and falling temperatures make it virtually impossible to conceive of how tough it is until you’re out there.

As far as I’m concerned, it takes the title of toughest and it won’t lose that title any time soon. Despite everything, though, it was an incredible event. I hope to return in 2013 to do a bit better. Depending on the conditions, of course. 

Mark Hines is a lecturer on exercise physiology at the British College of Osteopathic Medicine in London. He is the author of a number of books on diet, fitness and ultra-endurance adventure races, including books about the Yukon Arctic Ultra and the Marathon des Sables, which are available from Amazon. His blog is at markhines.org.