Following my first successful completion of the Yukon Arctic Ultra in 2009, I returned in 2011 with the intention of pushing myself harder and finishing better. Considering nobody had finished the 430-miler (really 450-460 miles) prior to the 2009 race, I had focussed purely on finishing in that first year, whereas I permitted a greater level of recklessness when I returned in 2011.

 

 

The Yukon Arctic Ultra 2011

A New Journey to Dawson

 

By Mark Hines

 

"Every day you make progress. Every step may be fruitful.  Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey.  But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb."

-Sir Winston Churchill


 

As the race started I still had no idea for how long I should run. With the weight and resistance of the pulk it made sense to walk the majority of the race, but as we poured over the line such sensibilities were reduced to the merest afterthought in my mind. It was a cool nineteen below on the Yukon River, and the sky was its typically perfect, azure blue. The rocky hills that lined the river to my right were spectacularly beautiful, just as I had remembered them from before. All the wonderful memories came flooding back to me; the hills, the sky, the crisp air and the hard trail beneath my feet. This had been heaven to me before - one of the greatest times of my life. And now here I was experiencing it all again. And so I ran.

  I weaved through the throng, running past all but a few other racers in the first couple of minutes. Those ahead were running at a good pace; some of them marathoners, some hundred-milers, and one 430-miler (Greg McHale). I achieved my first goal of getting ahead of the main bulk of competitors.

   An echo in my mind kept telling me to walk. I could walk fast on this ground, perhaps at four-and-a-half miles an hour or thereabouts. Walking did not cause the same degree of stress as running, and in a 430-mile race it was getting safely to the end that was the first priority.

   The marathon runners carried only ultra-lightweight rucksacks with the minimum of equipment, and many failed to fully appreciate that I ran with a bulky and cumbersome sled in tow. Two marathoners had assumed that to allow me to pass would be sufficient, and it was not until my huge sled almost took their legs away that they fully grasped what was going on. I had been calling out during the approach, pointing animatedly behind me at the pulk as I passed them, but they simply smiled, nodded and waved me on. It was only when the sled clipped one of them at the heels, almost knocking him sideways, that he and his companion conceded to give me a little more room to get by. But I ran on, and I took in the sights and I breathed deeply the cold, crisp air, and I was loving every moment of it. I was back, and I was making progress once again towards Dawson City. It was still - as it would for some time remain - a long way off.

   After half an hour of running there was hardly anyone else around. The main contingent of racers remained behind me and out of sight beyond a bend in the river, and I attempted to settle into a strong walking pace. Such attempts were deemed too early in the day to last, and within five minutes I was running again. It was another half an hour before I tried walking once more, by which time I really had developed a sizable gap between me and the majority of other 430 racers, It did not mean anything, of course.

   Many would pass me during the night when I slept, if not before, and it would take days before we all settled into our individual rhythms. Sleep would be a huge factor, and we could win, lose or be scratched based upon the amount of rest we took each day. Places meant nothing at this stage, but I had simply enjoyed running free out here, feeling alone already and looking forward to more of the same over the days to come. It was still a very long way to Dawson.

 

 

* * * * * * *

 

 

That night the sky was treating me to an early display of the Northern Lights. In 2009 I had had to wait until the last night before seeing anything substantial. I kept my head-torch off so I would better be able to see the sky, but that meant having to work hard to stay ahead of other competitors. There was plenty of light on the trail from the stars, and I considered it a waste of batteries and experience to use a head-torch unnecessarily. Snowmobiles generate a phenomenal amount of noise and can be heard from miles away, and the light from their headlamps usually came into view long before the vehicles drew close. Had one approached, then I would have turned on my head-torch for mutual benefit, but in their absence there was absolutely no need. In fact, head-torches only illuminate the area close by, making the surroundings seems closer and lacking depth. During an event where motivation can be tested to breaking point, the more one can take from the environment the better, and I had been enjoying the depth of the woods and the green mists of the aurora.

   I never cease to be left agog and aghast by imbeciles who see nothing wrong with looking at someone else on the trail, when that involves directing the beam from their head-torch towards the other's eyes, thus bleaching out their night vision, and such surprise resonates with me as bumble clumsily along, waiting for my eyes' rods to come back to life following one such encounter.

   An Austrian competitor, Manfred, approached as I was having a break to take on some food. He was a hundred-mile competitor, and we had raced in the Marathon des Sables and Jungle Marathon in the same years. Out here he had been both surprised and amused that my walking pace was too fast for him to keep up with at a run. In fairness, he had caught up with me earlier in the day through a combination of walking and running, but at night his pace had slowed as I had increased mine to stay warm (and delay the need to put on my jacket). He confessed that he became too cold whenever he stopped, and so preferred to get through the hundred miles in one hit, rather than to risk cooling down during a 'wild' bivi.

   I let him know I would be camping some time between midnight and two, and there would be plenty of space in my mountain bivi if he wanted to jump in. Realistically he would be moving ahead of me, as my breaks would cause me to fall behind, but at least he knew if he became too cold he could double-back to me. I wanted to delay my sleep for as long as possible, but I had no intentions of pushing on to even the second checkpoint at Dog Grave Lake without rest. I hoped that I could get into the habit of resting for four hours each night, at roughly the same time, as this should help manage fatigue. I did not want to become too tired, only to have to compensate for it later on, sleeping too much and suffering from a diminished productivity. At around midnight I pushed my sled to the side of the trail and lay back on it for fifteen minutes, my jacket zipped up for protection against the cold, as I gazed up at the stars and drifted off. It was a pseudo-power-nap to give me the strength to push on further before sleeping for the night.

   At about half past one I was fortunate to come to where a dog sled team had slept the previous night, as the compacted ground meant it was easy for me to set up the mountain bivi and camp next to the trail. At thirty-two degrees below freezing I had one of the best short-sleeps I have ever enjoyed camping out, and by five o'clock I was once again on the move. I passed John within an hour, as he confessed his sleep has been disturbed and cut short to an hour. According to his GPS we were about five miles - as the crow flew - from the checkpoint. I reckoned on eight miles door-to-door and was not disappointed. The trail was easier than I remembered from 2009, and I spent about three-quarters of an hour at Dog Grave Lake, inhabited as it was by several other competitors, including my friends Marianne and the medical staff Diane.

   Marianne had been suffering with a cold and so I shared out my own medication with her. I had picked up a viral infection during the week before the race, so I had come along well-stocked in case I needed anything. We were not the only ones suffering, nor was it the first time I had succumbed to ill-health shortly before a big race, despite rarely being affected by colds during the rest of the year.

   In the lead up to the YAU my pressures at work had been immense, and as the time to leave approached, so my workload increased, whilst students concurrently became more demanding of my time as they knew it was their last chance for a while. The work stress joined forces with the physical stresses of my training, which had included sleep-deprivation, and my old run-down carcass was a ready home to even the most wheezy and exasperated of colds and flu. Had I begun my taper a week earlier then I might have avoided it, but the nature of my training is that I gamble heavily on having my physical capacity as great as can be, and accept that should I require psychological (or even immunological) recovery, then such things can all be fitted in before the start.

   I was not back to 100% good health when I left Whitehorse, but I was most of the way there, and whatever remained of the virus would simply have to work its way out. The stress of the event and the temperatures would not help, but to be entirely honest I saw it all as just another part of the challenge. It was nothing worth grumbling about as it was all my doing and resulted from choices I had already made. If I succeeded then it would mean all the more for the added hardships, even if they were somewhat self-imposed.

   Marianne took half my medication, in the hope it would do the trick of at least halting a runny nose. Whilst my first aid drybag was open I set about exposing my feet to tend to a blister. I had completed the first marathon with my shoelaces fairly loose, so as to permit a bit of swelling if my feet so desired, but a consequence of this was that there had been a certain amount of sliding going on. This had permitted the second toe of my right foot to connect repeatedly with the front of the shoe, which I had not really noticed early on, but by the time I was at the first checkpoint I realised what had happened and so tightened the laces. I had no further problems, but thought it best to dress the blister, so as to give it a spot of extra protection. There was no pain from it and it did not affect my gait, so there was no need to burst it and risk infection or creating a sore.

   I had some food, filled my Camelbak, and then moved on. About an hour-and-a-half later I past John again. He had walked straight past the checkpoint without realising it. Low on water, tired, dazed and confused, he prepared to set up his stove to melt snow for water, and I moved on.

   I remembered the route well from Dog Grave Lake to Braeburn. Gently undulating would be the mot juste, with beautiful woodlands, hills and rivers to pass along the way. In the late afternoon a snowmobile driver approached from the front, and informed me I was ten kilometres from the checkpoint. I gathered my pace and pushed myself as hard as I could, determined to postpone the break I wanted until I arrived at Braeburn. Ten miles later I arrived at Braeburn lake, which was still a couple of miles from the checkpoint. I later learned I was not the only one to have been given staggeringly optimistic information from that driver.

   I was pleased to see Andy Heading at Braeburn, and half-jokingly checked he had no intention of staying only a couple of hours, before abandoning me in the night. Braeburn is the hundred-mile finish point, and the first checkpoint with a cut-off time for reaching it, and as such is something of a landmark within the race. I was tired and needed a good sleep before continuing on to the next checkpoint. Braeburn had proper beds and everything, and as such offered a luxury not to be sniffed at.

   The burger I was given there was as filling as in 2009, and as before I ate half and saved the rest for later on. I sorted my kit that night and settled into an often disturbed sleep, as others came in and out to make use of the other bed and some floor space. When morning came Andy was still about, and he left a few minutes ahead of me. Andy is an incredible athlete, and I have never ceased to be impressed whenever I have seen him at other races or heard his stories, always doing better than me. This was his second year aiming to make it into Dawson City, and in 2009 he had arrived far ahead of me. Knowing I was close to him now was a good confidence booster, but it was short-lived when I saw that his heart was not really in it this year. He knew he could finish this race, and for whatever reason his motivation was fairly low.

   The short undulating section that followed Braeburn was longer than I remembered it to be, but I was soon on the chain lakes and moving well over a hard trail. The sky was overcast, which created a dreary alternative to the brilliant blue skies I had enjoyed during my previous visit, but such was the nature of change. It was a long way to the next checkpoint at Ken Lake, and as the evening grew closer I hoped that each short woodland section between lakes was the final one. Such it never seemed to be. The trail across Ken Lake cut a different path to that of 2009, so when I eventually reached it I pondered for some time whether or not I was really there. My only real clue to its identity was the sheer vastness.

   As I moved along another competitor came into view, his pulk at the side of the trail and its owner pulling branches free from trees at the lake's edge. I halted next to Sam and he described his symptoms and suggested it could be pneumonia. He had pressed the 'help' button on his SPOT and was awaiting an evacuation, presently building a fire to keep himself warm until the cavalry arrived. As the call had gone out on his SPOT he needed to be left where he was, as any rescuers would be headed toward the location of that signal.

   I offered Sam my assistance in building the fire, in contributing a Dioralyte, and in providing some company, but all were gratefully rejected, as he kindly implied I should simply bugger off and contribute no more to the nauseating effects he was already suffering. After a few minutes more the possibility began to dawn that perhaps Sam did not need my help after all. I assured him I would pass on the details of his condition and location to the staff at the checkpoint, and, having concluded that sufficient goodness and light had been distributed, I continued on my way. I knew by now that this was Ken Lake, and that the checkpoint would be within three kilometres, as disorientated as I was due to the altered location of the trail.

  In the distance, amongst the trees a little above the level of the lake, a red light blinked. I stared, focussing on that point and wishing to see it again as I strode on, needing confirmation that it was a light from the checkpoint and not some figment of my imagination, or a fire that could have been indicative of anything. I saw the light again. I gathered my pace to a fast run and continued it all the way to the base of the high embankment. I remembered the climb from my previous visit, and knew it to be almost as menacing as the descent back down to the lake that would come later.

   I charged up to the plateau and began the rigmarole of deharnessing, as Kevin stepped out of the cabin to welcome my arrival. I called out that an athlete was in trouble and needed his help, and relayed the information regarding the symptoms, his location and the help message sent via SPOT. In all of this I managed to momentarily forget the athlete's name, but another athlete, David, was inside and between us we identified the competitor as Sam. As Kevin prepared to head out, another member of the support crew, Yann, made use of the satellite phone to call the headquarters and relay the message there.

   Although Ken Lake was the closest checkpoint to the athlete in need, the satellite phones were only switched on to make outgoing calls, as there was no reliable way of charging them and they had to last for days. In this case, yours truly had come across Sam on the trail, and relayed the information to the nearest checkpoint within minutes of his requesting help, and such was the way of things - a grander scheme was not required.

 

 

* * * * * * *

 

 

Ross was another member of support crew at Ken Lake, and David was sat by the door ready to leave. We enjoyed a brief chat before he departed, as I settled down to a freeze-dried meal, a slice of chocolate cake and some hot chocolate. Not exactly Palaeolithic nutrition in the purest sense, but sometimes we must remember our scavenger heritage and take whatever is available. It was evening now and David said he would wild bivi somewhere before the next checkpoint. I unfolded my legs and made myself comfortable, as I fell into conversation with Ross and psychologically dumped the baggage from the previous however many miles.

   Despite the pressures and so on of racing, and even of general survival out here, the event itself is wonderfully liberating, in both physical and mental senses. The body and mind are exposed to a grandeur of epic scenery, vast open landscapes, and naked wilderness. It is so far removed from my everyday life that there are no similarities for my mind to be drawn on. Instead I was able to enjoy a basic and fundamental pleasure, a selfish indulgence in which I can feel entirely guilt free.

   Out here, all I have to do is manage myself from one checkpoint to the next, and to that end all that has to occupy my mind is information about eating, drinking, resting and moving. It is the purest and simplest level of being, and I find it incomparably revitalising and life-assuring. When I then have contact with other people, whether racers, snowmobile drivers, or checkpoint support staff, I am able to fulfil a need for human contact that I am otherwise without. And from my new stress-freed persona, the value and real worth of such interactions is even greater. The support crews out here are far more important to many of us than they can possibly realise. Not least because they understand what we are going through, which means nothing really needs to be said about it, and we can just get on with the important business of unwinding in their company.

   Kevin returned with Sam, and between them they made Sam ready for a three-and-a-half hour slog on the snowmobile, to the nearest medical centre at Carmacks. Such time on a snowmobile requires good protective clothing, and so Ross lent Sam his over-trousers, and with that they were set. Sam then went through a step that many of the kindest racers go through when forced out of the event - he relinquished all the food he had on his person for the benefit of other racers.

   I scavenged myself a couple of snickers bars, thanked him, and wished him well on his way. Shortly afterwards two of the 300-mile racers arrived, Jorge and Luigi, and very shortly after that I made my way back out into the night. Luigi had seemed surprised by this, as it was a fair slog from there to Carmacks, but then it dawned on me that some competitors were genuinely apprehensive about sleeping outside at night. I wished everyone well and set off on my way.

 

 

* * * * * * *

 

 

Something else that had somehow escaped my memory since 2009, was how many miles remained along the chain-lakes, before getting into the woodland proper again. Perhaps the route in 2009 had led into the woods earlier, because I certainly had no recollection of there being so much left to do out on the lakes. I had survived the plummet down from the checkpoint, and had maintained a good pace over the remaining lakes, seemingly endless as they had been. By the time I entered the woods I was tired and ready to bivi for the night. I told myself to keep pressing on, and not to rest until some point between midnight and two o'clock, but then I suffered a minor disaster.

   I turned to check my SPOT was still flashing away - indicating it was in tracking mode - and I saw the device was no longer on my pulk. I removed my harness and found, with some alarm, that the strap I had secured to hold the kit bag on the pulk, and which the SPOT device had been clipped on and strapped to itself, had been torn free. During the climbs between the lakes since the checkpoint, or anywhere along the section since the last lake, it must have been torn off against a tree or low branch.

   I left the pulk where it was and started jogging back. I hated leaving my pulk and the survival gear, and I felt momentarily vulnerable without it, but that was just me being used to having everything I could possibly need within arms' reach. I actually carried basic survival kit on my person anyway, and could always get a fire going if mauled by a bored and early-awoken bear, or following whatever other disaster might have befallen me.

   I needed my SPOT. My family, partner and colleagues were watching it, and now it was not moving. If I could not find it then for several hours it would appear that I was stationary, which they would have taken as a sign that something was wrong. After a mile of heading along the trail I conceded defeat. It could have come off anywhere since the checkpoint, and there was just nothing to gain from wasting hours searching for it. I returned to my pulk and continued on.

   It was amazing how demoralised I felt after that. It was a real blow to my confidence that I could have been so careless. When I changed my pulk at Braeburn the new one did not have any straps on it, so I had cut them from my original pulk and tied them on. I had been tired at the time, and desperate to get to sleep, but I am good with knots and it was a real shot to the confidence to think that not only had the strap been pulled from the pulk, but in so doing I had lost such an essential piece of kit. My confidence was so knocked that I actually set up my bivi at eleven thirty, earlier than I had intended, but a reflection of my need to get my head into order before being able to press on effectively. These things do happen, but I was beating myself up because I should not have allowed it to happen, and ultimately it was my responsibility and my mistake, and I was giving myself a hard time as a consequence.

 

 

* * * * * * *

 

 

The next morning I rose shortly after four and continued on my way. The conditions were good and I made fast progress to Carmacks, where I arrived just before one in the afternoon. Luigi arrived shortly after me. At the checkpoint I organised my kit and then slept for a couple of hours. It is a tough decision to sleep during the light of the day, because daylight is precious when the nights last so long. However, the journey from Carmacks to McCabe Creek is over the toughest terrain of the first three-hundred miles, and I wanted to be strong for it.

   I ate well too, and enjoyed a brief chat with Murray - another of the snowmobile team - who informed me that snow was on the way. Another of the support crew informed me that my SPOT had begun moving at around eight in the morning, suggesting another racer had picked it up and turned it back on to tracking. I had wished that it had been passed over to a snowmobile driver, but for whatever reason it was coming all the way in on foot, and that would have to suffice. I let the support team know the story, and hoped they would be able to get it to McCabe Creek for when I arrived there.

   I gave a brief interview to one of the many film crews who were loitering at Carmacks, preying upon us in our most vulnerable and fragile of mindsets, and I soon discovered three cameras on me as I tried to prepare myself to leave. It was frustrating because I was fatigued and needed to concentrate, and the cameras seemed so intrusive and distracting. To add misery to insult, I left Carmacks full of confidence for getting over the hills before the snows came, whilst entirely unaware that I was leaving behind my mug, spork and stove. I was a total and unforgivable arse. I had never made such mistakes in 2009, and I did not know whether it was tiredness or the agitation of the cameras.

   I blamed the cameras, and I always found them incomparably irritating. Racing is such a personal matter, in which one is often required to bare the cries of the demons in one's mind, and to simply see someone going through the motions of the race is meaningless as it conveys none of that. Completing the Yukon Arctic Ultra requires a good level of basic fitness, but that represents a tiny fraction of what is actually required to succeed.

   The mental battle is the real proving ground, and the only people who really appreciate that are the other racers and support crews - people who know the land and the conditions, and what it can be like out here. To have someone point a camera as if it is giving some insight is horridly intrusive. I am hidden away within myself during the race, calling, when I have to, upon all the means I can employ to help me defeat my demons and keep pressing on. When I see a camera I no longer feel like that racer, but rather an artefact of other people's entertainment, and such thoughts really grated with me. It was that sort of annoyance, and distraction and intrusiveness that meant on every subsequent occasion someone pointed a camera at me, I was fairly abrupt in telling them to stop. I never suffered any further lapses in care after that, and I had a far better experience for it.

 

 

* * * * * * *

 

 

I had been considering the first few hours from Carmacks with some trepidation. In 2009 some fairly light but persistent snowfall had made the going tough, and even without the snow I was apprehensive about the effort required to get over those hills. This time, by stark contrast, I was over that initial section of bumps in what seemed like minutes, and was left wondering what all the fuss had been about. What had appeared to be hills before were really nothing of significance this time. The undulations in the trail were a little higher than the average of the first few days, and a little more spread out, but otherwise I was past them within an hour and looking forward to the flat ground through the woods and to the river.  

   A few hours later and it began dawning on me that all was not as it had been in 2009. More definite climbs had reappeared, and some were particularly energy-sapping. On reflection this may have had more to do with my expectations of flat ground along this part. The trail was entirely unfamiliar to me here. At the top of one particularly warming climb I found some compressed ground, where a snowmobile had detoured around the trail. I used it to set up my bivi and camp for the night. It was after midnight and time to rest for four hours or so. The flat ground that followed the undulations in 2009 had never appeared.

   I had a good night but when I woke I saw tracks along the trail, indicating that I had been overtaken in the night. It was not an issue, and I guessed it was Luigi, who had remained sleeping at Carmacks when I had left. I was on the move at about five, and it was an incredibly long slog into McCabe Creek. It was the sort of checkpoint that never seemed to come any closer, and every landmark and section I knew along the way took longer to pass. The trail was different to that of 2009, and far harder as we had remained on higher ground, rather than staying close to the river where the trail had led before. In any case, I arrived at McCabe Creek at around midday, and headed inside.

   I began removing my Camelbak and midlayer, and as I did so I had to tell one of the 'support' crew, Simone, to 'please stop doing that'. His personal camcorder was recording me undressing and preparing to dump the stresses of the last section before moving on. Once again my personal space was being intruded upon, and this time by someone who was supposed to be there to help. He apologised and ceased his home video recording, as requested, and sauntered off. What disappointed me was that his father, Enrico, had been forced to drop out of the race due to frostbite, and I had been looking forward to seeing Simone so I could ask how his father was doing.

   Enrico had won the foot category in the race to Dawson in 2009, and had returned this time to compete on skis. By filming me rather than talking with me, he was showing his interests were not with the racers, but rather this personal recording project of his. After I asked him to stop he then walked off, and I had to wait to talk with other staff to find out about Enrico.

   I rested up and ate some stew and chocolate cake, before moving off again, all within about three-quarters of an hour. Luigi was sleeping in the rather comfy beds there, but as I had rested up during the night it was important that I made good progress whilst the sun still shone. My SPOT had caught up with me, and when I inspected it I saw that the metal pin which I had secured a camera wrist loop to, as my back-up security to the pulk strap, and broken off. I found some string half-buried in the ice on the driveway of the McCabe Creek house, and used it to lash the SPOT to my drybag containing all my sleeping kit. I would notice if that broke free. I then clipped the SPOT onto my pulk bag, so had two good secure points and a reduced chance of losing it. I also told myself I would check on it regularly to ensure it was still in place and tracking correctly. I left McCabe Creek, heading for the next checkpoint at Pelly Crossing.

   My plan for Pelly Crossing was to have a good rest before proceeding along Pelly River to Pelly Farm. At the farm would be a mandatory eight-hour rest, but I did not want to arrive there exhausted and good for nothing but sleep. The food and company at Pelly Farm was second to none, and I wanted to be awake enough to enjoy it.

   The journey to Pelly Crossing began with a couple of miles along a flat that parallels a road, and is adorned with power lines running its length. After that came a section through woodland that was filled with overflow, after which was a climb. From there the rest of the route was woodland and chain-lakes. By the time night came I was going from one bend in the trail to the next, hoping that each would bring me into view of the lights of Pelly. I was tired, and the overcast sky had given me a day without the stunning views that did so much to spur me on. In 2009 I had had it so easy, not least because every day I had enjoyed a perfect blue sky and the most exquisite, picture-postcard landscapes from each moment to the next. This time I was having to dig just that little bit deeper without such an easy source of motivation, and it made me feel I was working for it this time.

   When the amber lights of Pelly did come into view I let out a cheer of celebration and promptly burst into song. Ten minutes later I had tired myself out and come to the realisation that Pelly Crossing itself was still a few miles further on. But I was getting closer, and soon enough, with the snow falling, the trail led me out onto the path by the main road, and I headed towards the checkpoint. Upon my arrival Werner, a local who was filming on behalf of a German company, pulled up in a car next to me just outside the checkpoint recreation centre. I called out for him not to film me, just as his door was opening, and he very kindly got back into the car.

   I accepted that the film crews were doing a job, and they were waiting up all hours and gambling on when and where to drive out to, and that I was being a real pain by being difficult, but I had invested a lot of training and a lot of money I did not have into being here, and the filming was ruining it for me. Only I knew how tiring and difficult that last section had been, and viewing it on television would simply show me walking along. Perhaps I really disliked the idea that people would see it and judge me, with no frame of reference or knowledge of who I am and the workings of my own mind in these circumstances. Possibly, but it did not alter the fact that the filming intruded on my personal space, and my experience of the race was made infinitely worse for that intrusion.

   A couple of women were tending to one of the vehicles used for transporting dog teams around for the Quest, and they applauded my arrival when they spotted me. I thanked them as I set about removing my harness and taking all my kit inside the recreation centre. Marina, a French member of the support team, helped and then provided me with some stew and hot chocolate. We sat and chatted for a while, and I learned that she was helping in order to get an insight into the race, as she hoped to compete herself in the hundred-miler the next time around.

   Mark Gillett was there too, and it was great to see him, although regrettably he would be leaving the Yukon sooner than expected due to a family emergency. This was such a long way from anywhere, especially when he needed to be close to his family. Another man was resting on a sofa - either a snowmobile driver or photographer - and the bandages over his fingers were indicative of some fairly severe frostbite. Mark cheered him up by telling him they would need to be amputated, which was doubtless a great comfort to him.

   Once my head had been sufficiently cleared of the last section, I took my sleeping bag and insulating mat to another room, and settled down to sleep. I knew that other competitors would pass me in the night, and racers ahead would increase their lead, but I needed to avoid accumulating excessive fatigue, which could risk my progress through the Black Hills beyond Pelly Farm, as I moved into the toughest terrain of the race.

   The next morning I was greeted by Marco, an Italian competitor who was the best of men, but who had been forced out due to injury earlier on. He had remained to assist as support crew, and one of his first good deeds was to furnish me with his stove as mine was still in Carmacks. Our common ground was a mutual love of P.G. Wodehouse, and as I had sneaked the occasional reference into my own published works, Marco held me in far higher esteem than I deserved, and enjoyed playing up to this.

   I discussed with Marco how I reckoned I was between four and four-and-a-half days from Dawson City, based upon my timings from 2009, and that if all went well I would see him in Whitehorse before he returned home. What was to follow, unfortunately, was for me the most arduous and testing part of the race.

 

 

* * * * * * *

 

 

I knew that my long rest at Pelly Crossing would have put me back a little, but I gambled that the recovery time would be the best thing for me. I would have eight hours at Pelly Farm to fill up on Lasagne and take some more rest, and the journey there would be straightforward and far from a drain on my energy stores. From there I would push myself hard to Scroggie Creek, to Indian River, and on to Dawson City, back to my usual four hours of sleep a night. That would be the toughest part of the race, and by starting it comparatively fresh I would enjoy the challenge of testing myself in the hills and mountains.

   It was still dark when I left and headed down the road and onto the river. The snow was still falling, heavier than the night before, and as I started walking the trail along the river, I knew that I was in for a long day. Thomas, a German cyclist competing in the 430-miler, had left in the early hours of the morning, as had Luigi. They had both arrived and left as I slept, but I had anticipated that. David and Jorge had left Pelly Crossing shortly before my arrival, so by now they would be at Pelly Farm. The trail had sign in it from the pulk of only one athlete ahead of me, so I supposed that had to be Luigi, and I would probably not see him until I reached the Farm.

   It was pleasing to see the cabins that lined the river close to the crossing, but as the day dawned the overcast sky left the river, the hills and the sky a mishmash of varying and dull greys and white. I had enjoyed an easy time here in 2009, on account of the firm trail, good weather, and cerulean sky. Everything I could see and feel had been a motivator, and I had thrived on it and enjoyed every moment. For whatever reason, although disappointed that I would not be basking in the views and easy trail of two years before, I did not regret that this time around I would have to work harder. Had I known how adversely the snow would affect the trail, then I would have only rested at Pelly Crossing a few hours, but I could not have known it would be this bad.

   My feet were sinking into the trail, and the pulk felt heavy as it sank into the snow and ploughed its way along, rather than sliding over the surface as it did on the clear, hard trails. I paused to fasten on my snowshoes, more to improve traction for pulling the sled than to save my feet sinking into the ground. As the hours passed the trail disappeared, and where the uneven surface of the lake left inconsistencies in the depth and feel of the snow, so I lost the ability to sense the trail beneath my snowshoes. All I could do was follow the sled-tracks left by Luigi, and hope that when he had passed here there had been a trail to see. When the tracks brought me close to the occasional trail marker my confidence improved, but I wished there had been more markers.

   How many markers are going to be needed for a section will vary according to how easily the trail can be felt underfoot. If the trail disappears and can no longer be seen or felt, then out in the open we have to rely on the markers. This is not the case in woodland, where the trail is more obvious, but in bad weather on the exposed lakes and rivers the markers become so important. The worst conditions are snowfall at night, when the descending snowflakes reflect the torchlight, making it impossible to see beyond the closest part of the storm. It the trail cannot be seen or felt then it can become necessary to bivi and wait it out. At least along the river I knew where I was heading, but without a trail the going was slow and energy-sapping, and at the time I had no idea just how much open water there was around me.

   In one area I was descending through snow up to my knees, despite the tracks being only a couple of inches deep and left only a few hours before. I hoped anyone behind me was in snowshoes too, but even wearing them I was still falling down into the soft snow. Without them I would have needed either a snorkel or to sit on my sled and row. Blocks of ice a couple of meters square were appearing and creating obstacles along the way. In places even Luigi's tracks had disappeared, and I found myself following any contour in the hope it was indicative of the trail, yet it never seemed to be. Then I reached the canyon.

   The canyon was an area of jumble ice around an island in the river. Some of the ice blocks were the size of small cars, all crammed in tightly in a haphazard and disjointed fashion, most of which were hidden beneath a covering of fresh snow. The trail led through it. To slip could mean trapping a leg or sustaining an impact injury as I fell, but there was a limit to how careful I could be - I had to keep moving, after all.

   On the riverbank to my right, perhaps a few hundred metres or so away, was a cabin, and someone stood there calling out to me. Maybe it was the breeze or perhaps I had too much snow in my ears, but I could not make out a word. I assumed it was the owner trying to convey the message I should not go on. I shouted back that I was headed for Pelly Farm, and then I took a few steps further on. I stopped repeatedly to assess the ground ahead, and take the time to ensure I was picking the best route, but I was only guessing. In the deep snow I benefited from a rest every few paces anyway, as by now it was reaching up to my thighs and ploughing through it was hard work.

   To my front I saw a trail marker between two deep lumps of jumble ice, and there was no way a snowmobile driver had placed it there. It was about a metre lower than the main surface level, and sticking out at a jaunty angle. It must have fallen, or else the ice had moved. The jumble ice was too tightly packed for a snowmobile to have driven between the blocks, and I doubted that I could even fit my sled through the gap. I had no tracks at all to follow now, and the location of the trail marker hinted that the way continued behind the island. All I could see there was more jumble ice, and it was just becoming too dangerous. At some point my luck would run out and I would fall down the side of an ice block and get into trouble.

  This was a dark moment in my race, fleeting though it happened to be. I asked myself whether or not it was reasonable to continue. There were not enough trail markers for me to see where to go, and that meant I had no real direction. My GPS only indicated me key waypoints, and could not be used for navigation as there was no track inputted into it - the trail changes year to year and the waypoints were all we were given. For the same reason the maps were only to give us a general idea of bearing, as the trail marked on it was an historic one and not necessarily the actual one we were following. The trail changed according to depths of ice along the rivers, and was made according to the safest route each year. Without a detectable trail or trail markers I did not know the right way to go.

   Give me any weather, I told myself, and I would do all I could to work my way through it. But I have to know the way. I wondered what it was that I had paid for: a self-supported race along a given trail from Whitehorse to Dawson City. Right now I did not have that trail, so why should I continue blindly struggling on? But then, of course, I gave myself the counterpoint. What happened when the sled dog teams of the Quest encountered bad weather. Did they defiantly halt and wait until a trail was marked out for them before continuing? Of course not; they pulled themselves together and got through the challenge, and that was all I had to do too. No petty excuses. I would feel better for getting through it because of the problems, and that was the truth of the matter. It was an adventure race, after all.

   I was about twenty metres from the island, and its far end was about a hundred metres further along. Saplings marked the nearest extent of the lake, and I knew, although deep in snow, at least there would not be the ice risk if I kept between those saplings and the visible bulk of the island proper. It took ten minutes or so to reach the island, and perhaps half an hour or more to reach the other side. On more than a few occasions I had sunk down to my waist, or fallen and had to save myself with my trekking poles. I had even tried going back to the river with its jumble ice at one point, but I had quickly changed my mind. I was using the snowshoes correctly but the snow was phenomenally soft and I simply had to plough through it.

   From the far side of the island I found a trail marker but, having walked around it, there was no discernable trail to feel beneath my feet. The next marker was on the far side of the river, and there were masses of jumble ice in between. I switched on my GPS and found that I was more than eleven miles from the checkpoint, and I had been on my feet for more than ten hours. It had taken ten hours in 2009, but now I was barely two thirds of the way there. Eleven miles was the straight line distance, and the trail weaved along the meandering river, meaning the actual distance was further still. It was frustrating that I was not closer, but I had the bit between my teeth and the next trail marker was in sight. I was separated from it by jumble ice, but I made my way across and was not disappointed when I reached it.

   For the first time since the morning I could feel the trail again. The trail was still covered by deep snow, but the surface was consistent enough for me to be able to feel it underfoot. I moved on with pace, and as one foot descended deeply into the snow, so I recognised that this was a sign I had stepped from the trail, and I corrected my direction accordingly. In this way, with small and repeating corrections as one foot or the other came off the invisible trail, I was able to gather pace and make solid progress toward the checkpoint. Darkness was falling now, and it would be close to midnight before I reached Pelly Farm.

   As the trail seemed to rise the sight of a faint white light came into view. Soon it became larger and was accompanied by the sound of the snowmobile's engine. The driver pulled up alongside me and stepped from the vehicle, removing his mitten and shaking my hand, "Dale Bradley." he said as he did so "Have you been going around in circles?"

   I grinned and began weighing up the merits of a good laugh against a hearty sob. I was so pleased to see Dale that I was beside myself, although embarrassed by my slow progress and so attempted to explain the jumble ice. His son was with him as well, and to add to the celebrations another snowmobile pulled up too, having arrived from the direction of Pelly Crossing. Gary explained the nightmare of jumble ice, and we were both relieved we had not been the only ones crying out for our mothers when around the canyon. He graciously thanked me for breaking trail for him, and I dismissed his gratitude as no trouble at all on my part, grateful as I was to have been useful for once in my life.

   The last time I had seen anyone on the trail was before one o'clock in the afternoon, two days before, just prior to my arrival at Carmacks. I had passed through McCabe Creek, Pelly Crossing and most of the way to Pelly Farm since then, and this was the first contact I had had outside of the checkpoints. I could have enjoyed their banter all evening.

   Dale confirmed that I was now eight miles from Pelly Farm, and the two snowmobiles headed off there ahead of me, breaking trail to give me the easiest possible journey from where I was. It was midnight when I arrived, and those eight miles had felt like twelve, but eventually my feet carried me up the riverbank to the farm buildings, where Sue came outside and gave me a welcome hug. I was exhausted, tired and hungry, and I had been dreaming of reaching Pelly Farm since long before flying out to Whitehorse. I was here at last, and it was time to take a rest.

 

 

* * * * * * *

 

 

Sue stayed up talking with me, as I happily and contentedly enjoyed some lasagne. It was great chatting with her about the race, but I was tired and soon my bed for the night called to me. Thomas was snoring for Germany in the same room, but nevertheless I was asleep in seconds.

   In the morning I dressed and had my fill of a good breakfast. Luigi had arrived in the night. He had been the figure at the cabin, having darted off to safety ahead of the worst of the jumble ice. Gary had then gone to see him, and a help signal had been sent on the SPOT devices. Robert, the race organiser, had been in the area and went with others to the cabin. Having spoken with Gary it was deemed too dangerous to send other racers along the river, and Luigi and all subsequent competitors were sent along a road route to Pelly Farm.

   Sue had been concerned that the other racers would all be having an easy, ten-hour time of their journey, implying that my sixteen-hour stint was worthy of compensation, but I conceded it was simply bad luck. I would not have wanted a single competitor to follow my route along the river, and I was all for the athletes having a fair stab at finishing the event, and that section would really compromise such chances as well as personal safety. Everything was out of our control when it came to the conditions, and whether or not some of us were forced to work harder in sections that before or after were easier-going was simply a matter of luck.

   My supporting the notion of other racers having a less challenging time than me was not altruistic. The next best thing to finishing this event is having others to share the experience with. There are so few who finish the race, and those who do share something that is difficult to adequately explain to those who have not struggled, cold and tired, through such conditions. I wanted as many friends to have a drink with in Dawson City as possible. I would also sleep a lot easier without the thoughts that others could become injured by navigating the jumble ice by night, or else discovering the open water which I had avoided by chance alone.

   Sue seemed to enjoy observing that I was a different person to who I had been in 2009. I did not know what it was that she was picking up on, and could only reflect that I must have appeared more in control and nowhere near as anxious and apprehensive as I had been back then. This time I just organised my kit, enjoyed my food and water, and prepared myself efficiently to leave. I could have worked faster, but I wanted to work at my own pace, and I was interested to hear about how the other competitors were doing. I found John Quinn's drop bag and wrote him a note to wish him well. I had been reluctant to ask how he was doing, but eventually caved and was relieved when Sue assured me he was still doing well.

   I had asked about the other racers at various points during the race, but when it came to John I had been apprehensive about enquiring, entirely out of fear of bad news. I was enjoying my focussed little bubble, and John was my best friend, and had I heard anything at all was wrong, then it would have given me a real knock for the worst. Hence I had tried to shield myself from news of him, yet thought of him constantly, always hoping that I would see him in Dawson City for a pint after our arrival. It was great news to know he was still doing well.

 

 

* * * * * * *

 

 

The trail to Scroggie Creek was apparently soft and unbroken, although a trapper had gone out that way on snowmobile the day before. Two support drivers, Glenn and Spencer, would be heading over to break trail in the coming hours, but there was no point waiting for them to go on ahead of me. I had not come out here for the luxuries, and expected to see them somewhere along the trail. I thanked Sue for all her wonderful hospitality, wished Luigi well for finishing off the 300-miler, and bode Thomas a farewell, expecting to have him pass me somewhere along the trail to Scroggie. With that I left.

   Before two hours had passed the sound of snowmobiles filled the air. Glenn and Spencer came along from the rear, stopped to chat for a few minutes, and then headed on to Scroggie Creek. They had compressed the trail but it remained fairly soft. My feet sank deeply into it, and I was pulling the pulk through the snow rather than other it. The temperature was forecast to keep dropping for the next week, so before long the trail would harden up once again.

   The terrain between Pelly Farm and Scroggie Creek comprises the Black Hills. There are two big climbs Between Scroggie Creek and Dawson City, and it is these combined with the Black Hills that gives the 430-racers a different perspective on the race to many of the other athletes. The ground between Whitehorse and Pelly Farm is relatively flat compared to that which follows the farm. It always alarms me more than a little when people complain about steep hills during the first hundred miles. If it takes less than a minute to climb, then it is not a hill, however steep it might be. I have learned that, depending on how the trail lies from year to year, that sometimes there are reasonable climbs between Carmacks and McCabe Creek, but they are not really hills. I only ever felt that I was really putting work into climbs after leaving Pelly Farm.

   I went into the night and found a bivi site on a level area of ground at the top of a climb, where a snowmobile had detoured off the trail, giving me a head-start on setting up. I fastened on my snowshoes and further compressed the area adjacent to the trail, broadening it and ensuring there was sufficient space for my bivi. Once set up it did not take long for me to fall asleep. I had not been cold in my sleeping bag, but drips had fallen on my face in the night which I assumed came from the opening of the bag, where I might have been breathing against the opening and having the moisture cause condensation. It was not until I awoke and looked up that I saw the inside of the bivi was a sheet of white frost.

   It must have been a cold night; all the heat I had generated had mixed with moisture from my breath and sweat in the air, and created an ice layer on the inside of the bivi. The whole bivi was warming on the inside the longer I was in it, hence some ice melted and fell back onto me. Had I foreseen this I could have unzipped the entrance a little to let the moisture escape. It was a new experience for me, so I deduced the night had been unusually cold, and should I face the same again, then more ventilation would probably be in order.

   It was still dark when I moved off, but that was very much the norm when out here. With seventeen hours of darkness it was never a good sign to have slept so late that one wakes in daylight. It was to be a long day, but I imagined arriving in the late evening. The trail conditions had improved since the day before, but in calculating timings based on my previous race I was overlooking a few things. I was still tired from my stint along the Pelly River, and I was not pressing the good pace of days prior to that. This was coupled with the soft trail conditions that persisted from the farm, and the combined effects on fatigue contributed to a reduced pace of which I was not aware at the time.

   The hills continued and when the trail eventually dropped towards the creek, I felt compelled to check the remaining distance to the checkpoint. My heart momentarily sank when I discovered I still had the best part of a half-marathon to go, and as it was already midnight my timings were dismally left wanting. It was not until three o'clock in the morning that I arrived at the new cabin at Scroggie Creek, but as might have been predicted the relief was incredible.

 

 

* * * * * * *

 

 

I put my head in the door and permitted the rest of me to follow it into the warm. A quick check with the heads that responded confirmed that I just needed my sleeping kit, and with such information I retrieved what was required from my sled and returned into the comforting, restoring warmth of the cabin.

   David got out of bed to join me at the table, as Jessica set about organising me some food and a hot drink. She had made a fresh, herbal tea over the stove, and I was beside myself as I could not have dreamed of anything better. Jessica graciously put this down to delirium on my part, possibly because the cold had affected my brain, but I assured her there was no cold severe enough to inhibit my enjoyment of a nice cup of tea.

   Mike was there too, and it was great to see everyone, and wonderful that they all seemed keen to chat. I discovered later that the night-time temperatures had dropped below minus forty, and the race had been halted for more than twelve hours. It was partly because the lead runner, Greg, and myself, had been making fair progress through it that the race was deemed safe enough for everyone to continue. I enjoyed some food and the human contact, and shortly thereafter set up my sleeping kit on the top bunk at the far end of the cabin, and went to sleep.

   When Mike and Jessica went outside for a while, David confided in me that he had frostbitten fingers, which he had been hiding from Mike and Jessica, knowing they would withdraw him from the race. He informed me he could not wild camp, and he could not go on alone, and asked if I would stay with him. 

   It is an unwritten code of ultra-runners that we help each other, and I did not question this at the time, although I should have done. David was somewhere safe now and could be medevac'd from the course, whereas if he deteriorated whilst out on the trail with me, he put both of us at risk. Further, he was now asking me to compromise my own progress to help him finish, which was a selfish thing to do, but I agreed because I thought that was what we ultra-runners did, and I did not question it at the time. Really, a racer has a responsibility to look after someone in trouble and to get them to safety. Helping them leave safety and taking on responsibility for their health is not appropriate, and I learned my lesson later. 

   Mike and Jessica returned into the cabin and asked us when we would leave. I was anticipating an early exit, but David suggested midday, meaning we would lose the first few hours of daylight. I assumed this was because he wanted to give his fingers the best chance to recover, and begrudgingly conceded midday would be fine. It was not merely about leaving later and not wild camping that bothered me, but my kit was as light as possible, and that meant the minimum of food to get me to the finish, based on my previous race experience. If my progress is significantly slowed, I stand a chance of running out of food, in which case I jeopardise my chances of finishing, and become a burden to the support crew that has to get me out when I tell them I do not have food to see me to the end. All this because a racer wanted to go on, when he was not fit to continue unaided. If only I had known then what I do now!

   In the morning Glenn and Spencer came in, and we all enjoyed some tea and breakfast together, before the time came for us to move on.  Mike, Jessica, Glenn and Spencer saw us on our way and wished us well. The trail went along a river for a few miles before entering woodland. I had been delayed on the river for a few minutes due to a call of nature, and when I reached the woods I had to deharness and go off running along a snowmobile track. The trail had gone right and a snowmobile, perhaps belonging to a trapper, had gone left. David had chosen the wrong way, so I had to run after him and call him back. It took a good few minutes of running to get within sight of him, as he had not responded to the shouts I had given out along the way. With his attention arrested he then turned around and followed me back to the proper trail and my pulk. I could not believe that so close to Scroggie Creek David had taken a wrong turn and caused such an unnecessary delay. The main trail had clearly gone to the right.

   I took the lead from there and pushed a good pace. David had been ahead of me until now, essentially because I rested longer than he did, and his consistent plod had kept him moving ahead as my regular breaks generated a dead time for me, during which I happily put my feet up and permitted some recovery (or at least cessation of the otherwise continual pounding). Now I was better-rested and able to move quickly, using my breaks to allow David to catch up.

   The trail was beautiful, and the deep blue sky attenuated the stunning nature of the hills and our surroundings, drawing my gaze to the lines of the hilltops. For at least ten miles there were clear wolf prints along the trail. We were passing the mining installations now, and they created that reminder of what this trail and this race was all about - the history of those who had taken the overland route into Dawson City, in search of their gold and riches. I had warned David about the climb up Eureka Dome before Indian River, and suggested there would be a likelihood I might want to bivi before starting the climb. At this point David reinforced that due to his frostbite he could not wild camp. With this being the case we were on the lookout for a welcoming cabin, and shortly after nine that night we found an accommodation block that would suffice, which belonged to a nearby mine.

   This was far from ideal, as we were stopping three to five hours earlier than I usually would, and had already left so late, but in the spirit of the day I conceded it as part of the adventure. I had been averaging between 18 and 20 hours of effort a day, from Whitehorse to Scroggie Creek, and due to David's frostbite and late departure time this would be a 9 hour day. I thought about how little food I had and whether I would end up getting into my emergency rations. Half days from Scroggie Creek to Dawson City would not be feasible for me, so I set my sights on seeing David to the Indian River checkpoint. In 2009 (and on my next race in 2013) I did the stint between those to checkpoints in a single day, so it would be twice as long with the casualty.

   Within the block we found a room spacious enough for us to bed down, and we got a fire going in a makeshift stove. Unfortunately, due to the cold and heavy air, the smoke did not rise to the open window, and we proceeded to kipper ourselves in smoke, as I lay pondering how much damage I was then doing to my lungs. With the room's door wide open, and the window open too, we were receiving no warmth from the fire and would have been better off with both closed, no fire, and the warmth generated from our own heat giving us far greater benefit.

   It was light when I tried to wake David and started getting ready to leave. It had been the longest rest I had taken all race, and I had been far from comfortable. My preference would have been to sleep in the comfort of my bivi bag much closer to Eureka Dome, but such a contingency would have required telling David he was on his own. It was the reason I did not like being with other people out here, because had I been in my bivi I would have slept late, woken four hours later, and then started moving again. I had lost seven hours on top of my usual rest time, and it caused me feelings of guilt and annoyance.

   I had no concerns regarding the conditions, because I had confidence in my equipment and had no cause to consider anything would fail so far into the race, or rather that if it did I was confidence in my plans for such contingencies. David's frostbitten fingertips were a concern, and for that I reflected it might have been my own selfishness encouraging me to seek solitude once more. But David must have felt a similar way, for he also preferred his own company, and he seemed capable of taking care of himself, despite the frostbite. I became confused because I could not understand why we were not simply focussing on our own race. To work through the hardest terrain with a partner diminished the requirement for self-reliance and self-management, which were such a huge factor in this event, and contributed to the huge sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing it. I feared that such might be diluted by continuing in company, and from conversations with David it appeared that he subscribed to the same philosophy.

   I stuck with David until we were halfway up Eureka, but he was at an all-time slow and I was strongest on the climbs. I called on him to stop and asked if everything was okay, explaining that his pace had dropped and I was concerned he might have needed food or water. He acknowledged that he had not really been aware, and I chose to take the lead for a while. This made the rest of the climb easy for me, because I could just get stuck in and get it done. David naturally caught up with me during my breaks, but I was happier this way. I preferred to push myself hard and then have a good recovery feed every few hours. I was beginning to feel strong again now for the first time since before that nightmare along Pelly River.

   I continued the lead along the many climbs and descents that eventually brought us to the descent proper. At the base was a vast mining installation, and as I took a break I explained to David that previously it had been a little over five kilometres from there to the checkpoint, but as this time it would be in a cabin I had no idea if it was closer than that or much further on. I also checked my food, and established that because it had taken me so much longer to get this far than I had anticipated, due to the slow progress to Scroggie and the half-day wasted on rest, that I had been eating as usual and depleted my stocks. When I explained this to David he tried to tell me not to focus on the negative, but I returned that this was not a negative to me, but simply an issue that needed to be resolved. I needed to gather my pace and work at my usual, fast speed, and with that I would require fewer breaks, less time and less food to reach the finish.

   Having explained all that I moved off, and I moved quickly. After about five kilometres I came across a sign informing me it was five kilometres to the checkpoint. I paused to write an exclamation in the snow, utilising a trekking pole for my instrument, and with that carried on. I thought it might bring David some minor amusement when he arrived there. The sign had been just before the site of the original checkpoint in 2009. I crossed a bridge over Indian River, and the trail led up a mild ascent on the other side. I turned back to see David coming along just a little way behind. I would not see him again for hours following that moment.

   It was a long five kilometres to the checkpoint, on account of the changes in terrain. Some parts of the trail had climbed around a hillside, and some had been along a flat with mines and cabins dotted around. Having given up on the thought of finding the checkpoint, and reached the assumption I must have passed it somewhere and not noticed, I was committed to carrying on regardless. It was then that the air was filled with the sent of a wood-burning fire. It disappeared for a few minutes but then returned. To my left, having already concluded that I was entirely mad and smelling things, I saw the checkpoint cabin, its windows lit with candles.

   I was greeted and welcomed into the last checkpoint of the race by Yann and Kevin. I let them know David was probably just a few minutes behind me, and I proceeded to make myself comfortable, or rather they did. Yann and Kevin were incredible at taking care of me, helping remove my gear and hanging it to dry close to the stove, and then going through the cupboards to furnish me with whatever food and drink they had lying around. After about three-quarters of an hour we had agreed that Kevin needed to go out in search of David, and off he went. It was more than half an hour before he returned. Apparently David had approached the checkpoint, but in thinking he had already passed it he turned around and backtracked all the way to the bridge at Indian River - the last place he had seen me. Kevin caught up with him there and David was now walking back towards the checkpoint. The temperature outside was minus forty-five degrees.

 

 

* * * * * * *

 

 

It was good to see David again, but heart-wrenching when he was then scratched from the race. His shoes had frozen to his feet, and when they were eventually removed the front outside quarter of his right foot, including those three outer toes, were purple from frostbite. That night, as I slept next to him on the floor, he spent hours writhing in agony as frozen tissue thawed and pain receptors sent continuous signals to his brain that they were damaged. None of us slept much that night.

   I had told Kevin I would want to leave by six in the morning, but when I arose I was told I would not be leaving for some time yet. The outside temperature was forty-six below, and as the snowmobiles would not start there were concerns I had no back-up if I needed it. I took my time getting ready, and eventually negotiated an exit from the checkpoint at eleven-thirty, almost six hours later than I had hoped. David's feet had recovered surprisingly well during the night, and with that he had been permitted to continue, although concerns still existed that if his feet re-froze then he would be in real trouble, and be at a huge risk of losing toes. David reckoned he would leave about an hour after me.

   This was it now; all I had to do was finish the thing off. There were fewer than fifty miles between the cabin and the finish line in Dawson City. Even though it was as good as finished I was pushing myself harder than ever. This was partly because I could, having recovered from my previous exhaustions along the Pelly River and the soft trail to Scroggie. I wanted to work hard and compensate for the long break before Indian River too, and the pace afterwards which had been far too slow on the ascent of Eureka Dome. I think in every race except the MdS I have spent time with other people, and it has always caused me to reflect afterwards that I was not pushing my own pace throughout.

   I could not help but ponder what that might tell me about myself, and what I might need to do to always ensure satisfaction in future endeavours. During the jungle marathon I had spent a day with someone for the sake of pacing myself through the long stage, only to realise I should have run my own pace after all. During my first attempt at the YAU I had spent the first three days with a friend, and loved almost every second of it, but then that was one of the reasons I had felt I had to return. This year it was imposed, for the alleged sake of safety, but it cost me several hours, and considering it as a race that aggravated me a little. But then again, I reflected that I had worked hard in hard conditions, and I really had nothing more to prove.

   I also wanted to reach the summit of the final climb, King Solomon's Dome, whilst there was still some daylight. In 2009 it had been in the middle of the night that I arrived at the top, amidst a horrendous blizzard and with winds buffeting me from every direction, as I waded almost lost through deep snow up to my waist. This time the ground conditions were perfect, the weather was fine, and if I could complete that part of the mountain whilst still able to see where I was going, well then that would just be a luxury.

   Nor was my finishing this race going to happen too soon. On the basis of my estimations at Pelly Crossing, I would now be finishing a day and a half later than I had intended, and that smarted a little. To add injury to insult I had noticed that there was some blood in my spit. It was only a tiny amount, and it only persisted for a few hours until the early afternoon, but it highlighted the challenges of exercising out here.

   With a temperature within my respiratory tract of thirty-seven degrees, and an air temperature coming in at more than forty degrees below freezing, my respiratory tract had an eighty-degree difference to deal with. The mucosal lining had dried out and the blood would have come from some inflammation or capillary damage. I could have avoided it by covering my mouth to warm the air that passed through, but as I was exercising I preferred the feel of cold air, and positively avoided the warming effect brought about by a covered mouth. Such were the compromises, and had the race continued for longer then I would have had to make allowances for this and pulled my balaclava down over my mouth and nose.

   At around four o'clock in the afternoon I turned a bend in the trail, and the full glory of King Solomon's Dome came into view at the end of the valley. I stopped briefly to capture the moment on camera, before putting my head down and going all-out for the summit. The climb was nowhere near as bad as that up Eureka, but then there was a long flat section before the trail switched back and led finally up to the summit. My pace was compromised by an overwhelming need to keep stopping to take recordings of the surrounding valleys, and the way the disappearing sunlight moved up the mountainsides and caused the white surfaces to change colour through a range of pinks and reds.

   As I had so dearly hoped, I reached the summit in good time to enjoy the sunset. Despite the cold I sat down on my pulk and relaxed and savoured the moment. I treated myself to a well-earned break as I ate and prepared for the thirty-mile stint down to Dawson City. There were still a few bumps on the way down, but it was mostly downhill from here and all the toughest parts of the race were now well behind me. I savoured the view, which was entirely magnificent, and I looked back over the valleys through which I had travelled. I was staggered by the beauty all around me, and it felt all the deeper for the efforts I had made this year. The wonderful conditions at the summit were blissful, particularly by comparison to the almost harrowing ones of two years before. It was the greatest moment of the race for me, and with that I smiled and then returned to my harness. Just a long and quick jaunt downhill and it would all be done.

   The trail had its mixture of ups and downs, but true to previous form I was wishing I was back at Indian River. I had enjoyed the warmth and loved the company, and more than a little I enjoyed the anticipation of a good trail and a few exertions in this beautiful land ahead of me. All that remained for me was to finish this race off, and as eager as I was to get it done, had Gary turned up on a snowmobile and offered to take me back to that last checkpoint, then I would have felt conflicted. I suppose I really wondered what it would be like for this to be over again. It had taken four hundred miles, but Melancholy had caught up with me at last. Fortunately I had the cold with me to keep my mind in check and focussed on getting to safety proper. A warm, comfy bed in a cosy hotel room awaited, as well as all the food I could eat.

   It was a fair way to go before I reached the descent proper, and although that continued for what felt like the longest descent I had ever made, when I reached the flat so that continued seemingly without end too. There was an abundance of glaciation and overflow, but fortunately it was too well-frozen to require me to waste time pulling on the overboots. I did not wish to repeat my misfortune of 2009, but I was anxious to pick my way carefully rather than lose precious minutes in the cold sorting kit. I believed and was right that the colder temperatures had hardened the surfaces sufficiently to carry my weight.

   I passed the road junction where I had been hoping to see Diane in a car out to meet me, but as I saw she was not there I took it that it was too cold for the car. I continued down Bonanza Creek Road, with all the mining installations closely packed together on all sides, when something big and black ran out from the darkness just in front of me and to the right of the road, and then sprinted off into the blackness ahead. I was moving quickly and it did not even occur to me to stop and check the tracks to see what it was. It was cold and I did not want to stop unnecessarily. All I wanted was to reach the finish line at Dawson.

   The black beast appeared out of the darkness once again, out of thin air, and sprinted towards me. My head and body were tense as my trekking poles and feet pounded the road beneath me. If the creature had continued along its course I do not know if I would have been shaken from my trance and reacted, but in any case I was relieved the moose veered off to my left and disappeared away from the road.

Not long after I passed an entrance to a mine and a couple of dogs came out to give chase. The first time they remained at a respectable distance, as if just going through the motions of doing their job, but for whatever reason they then warmed to me and decided to come closer. Each time I stopped and turned towards them they backed off, but then each time after they resumed their pursuit and came closer. They were almost alongside me on the final time, at which point I chose to introduce the two mutts to my voice and prepared to wallop each with a reliable trekking pole, and with that they decided to cease viewing me as a reasonable and like-minded companion.

   With such excitement over car headlights came into view. I was not sure upon which side of the road cars drove in Canada, because such thoughts of normality had been removed from my mind for some time, but I was convinced I must have been on the wrong side. I veered to the left - the side I ought to have been walking on, as luck would have it - and when I noticed the vehicle slow I commenced the laborious action of winding up my brain for the dizzying heights of conversation with others.

   Robert was in the far side drivers seat with Diane in the passenger seat. Simone and Scott, both involved with the race and both heavily armed with camcorders, went for their rear seat passenger doors as I conveyed the message I did not wish to be filmed. At my appearance, clad as my face was with a minor glacier of thick ice, Diane requested to take a photo. I had no objections to still shots, for which I could either smile or grin inanely for anyone; it was purely the video camera intruding remorselessly into all my moments to which I held the greatest issue. I gave Diane an imperceptible grin and she went about arranging me a hot chocolate.

   I advised them that the temperature here was practically balmy compared to what I had experienced at varying points during the descent, which suggested lows of minus fifty or thereabouts. Diane poured me a hot chocolate from a Thermos flask, but with my facial glaciation there was no clear route to negotiate it's safe passage to my mouth. I had removed my mitten to hold the cup, meaning my hand was only protected by the thin inner glove, and it took a full two minutes before the heat from the drink melted the beard-ice sufficiently to permit ingestion.

   I declined a second cup and asked Diane to help me pull my mitten back on. She was not happy that it did not seem to fit properly, and so pulled it off to have a second go. She had to pull the glove on properly first, and I could see that the others in the car were looking somewhat concerned. I had asked Diane to help because I had my mitten on the other hand and I thought it would be quicker this way, but there was no denying that my hand was not in good order.

   Diane managed to get the mitten on, and informed me the problem had been that my thumb had been getting in the way, and with that I bode them farewell and let them know I would see them in Dawson very soon. They drove off and as I walked on I was shaking my hand and slapping it against my leg and chest, trying to encourage blood flow back into it. The fluid in the skin between my thumb and index finger, and in the joints of my thumb, had begun to freeze, and it felt like treacle with ice crystals forming in it. I was cursing myself as I went that I had managed four-hundred-and-twenty-five miles fine and then put myself at risk of a cold injury in the final five.

   I was angry with myself that it had happened, but it had been a two-minute mistake. Whenever I had taken breaks I had kept the food in my mittened hand, and kept the unmittened hand within my mid-layer and in my armpit. That removed mitten would be placed inside my jacket, were it could remain warm next to my torso. I had taken a ten minute break during the descent, at a point when it had been even colder than this, but I had managed myself safely and effectively. At forty-five below I had left it exposed for two minutes around a warm cup, and I had put myself at real risk. I was relieved it took fewer than ten minutes for my thumb to begin feeling normal again.

   Whenever it had been particularly cold I had been flexing my fingers around my trekking poles, so as to promote blood flow and keep them protected. I had done everything to take care of myself and yet this one error had really knocked my confidence. It was the first time I had truly felt vulnerable, because I had learned how such a brief mistake could so severely limit my capacity to set up my bivi or get a fire going. Still, it was a lesson and I was safe now. I suppose I felt grateful it had happened and I had had the experience.

   The lights of Dawson City grew closer, and soon I reached the end of Bonanza Creek Road. I turned left and the trail took me passed a series of hotels, before I arrived at the Yukon River for the final time. The trail led me down and I walked along in the mists that descended from the ground higher up. It was cold again here, just as it had been for a few moments during the descent from the Dome, but I was nearly done. The section was longer than I had remembered it, but that was the standard manner of things out here, and the trail then took me up onto the riverbank, and I knew I was within a hundred metres or so of the finish. I arrived at the finish line at just after three in the morning, and was welcomed there by Robert and Diane. I was a little shell-shocked, unsure of what to make of things now there was nowhere else to walk to, and they both led me inside and sat me down.

   Diane was so kind to get me some food and take care of me. I sat for a while and chatted for a bit, mostly apologising for my poor form in arriving at such an uncivilised hour, after which I elected to get some rest in my sleeping bag for a few hours. I wanted to remain at the visitor centre, which the race was using as a base, because I wanted to be around for David's arrival in a few hours' time. Diane woke me when he came in, and David and I chatted for a time, and then I once again returned to my slumber.

   In the late morning I checked into the Downtown Hotel, and from then commenced a cycle of eating a full meal every two hours and then sleeping. I walked around the city for the sake of staying active, and not wanting to let the experience pass me by unnoticed, but more than anything else I ate and I rested. The following morning Jerym arrived, disappointingly the last competitor to reach the finish line in Dawson, as John and one other racer later ran out of time, whilst slowly coming down from the Dome.

   Jerym made use of the second bed in my room, and the following night we went to Gertie's gambling hall for some food and music, and whilst there began discussing the next big thing. As ever, the challenge ahead had to be greater than that just completed, and as I thought about how wonderful it was to share this time with someone else who thought the same way, I reflected just how deeply and truly I love this life.

   It had been a struggle to get to Dawson City this year, and this year in general was shaping up to be just one more year of struggles just like the one before. There were some things I would change if I could, and some things I would never change. The struggle is the glory and all that. On the whole though, with the world's petty stresses a world away, I knew that here and now I was living my dream, and I already longed for the next opportunity to feel this fulfilled, this satisfied and this good. Our only concern was that there were just not any runner's events that could be considered a step up from this. Jerym and I were having to think about testing our endurance in ways beyond the typical ultra races.

 

Postscript:

Following my return to the UK I received a request to accept a third place finish, rather than second. David had requested that he be given a time deduction for being held at Scroggie Creek. The time I was held at Scroggie Creek and Indian River was not taken into account, and there was no way of proving that I had been slowed because of David's frostbite (although my 2009 and 2013 race times for that section show I was at least 24 hours slower when I was traveling with David).  I also considered leaving Scroggie as late as we did, having to run after him when he went off course, the extremely slow progress when he was in the lead in the Black Hills, and my requesting Kevin go to rescue him when he had turned back before Indian River.

   Thus, David decided that my sticking with him and going hungry, in preference to doing the race at our own pace, was to be overlooked in favour of his claiming second place, in a race he would not have finished if he had not hidden his frostbite from Mike and Jessica, and if I had not conceded to stay with him to Indian River. To me, this flew in the face of the spirit of sportsmanship, and this was acknowledged by other racers aware of what had happened. It taught me that I needed to be honest with myself and others, and appreciate that to help another racer is to help them to safety, not to put myself and my race at risk for the selfish ambitions of another.

   It also later transpired that the winner of the footrace had been receiving outside assistance during the race.  In an unsupported race such as this, such behaviour should warrant disqualification, or some penalty at the very least (i.e. an untimed, unplaced finish).  It was apparently known amongst some of the support crew that he was not carrying the required kit, which allowed him to travel faster than the rest of us.  If this was the case, he should have been withdrawn from the race, or at the very least heavily penalised.  Us racers carry what is required because it is in the rules and regulations of the event.  To compete without the required equipment is therefore cheating.  Allowing racers to compete outside of the rules the rest of us race by, unpenalised, is extremely unfair, especially when their actions allow them to finish ahead of those of us racing by the rules.   I do not imagine I would have won had the winner been dragging the required kit, but it is simply unfair on all racers if some do well by deliberately ignoring the rules.  By not carrying the required emergency equipment, they put themselves at risk, and may require support crews to get tied up with a rescue, putting other racers at risk if they also need support.

   Overall, the YAU 2011 was one of my favourite races due to the challenging conditions along Pelly River and from Pelly Farm to Scroggie Creek. The stint in the Black Hills and up King Solomon's Dome was beautiful, and I was pleased to finish despite the set-backs and the challenges from the cold on the last day. I had not requested a time compensation for the delays along Pelly River, where all other racers behind me were diverted, because I believe it is simply a matter of facing the conditions presented and accepting them, and would not have wished anyone to have followed me on that section. I do not recognise the validity of David's claim to a place ahead of me, because I so clearly recall how my race was affected when he asked me to join him and help look after him.  I was also extremely disappointed to hear the allegations against Greg, particularly as they came from a number of support crew and racers.

 

"Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.

You must travel it by yourself.

It is not far. It is within reach.

Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know

Perhaps it is everywhere - on water and land."

- Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass)

 

 

The full account of this epic, incredible race can be found in Mark's original book on the event, available via Amazon and Waterstone's, and Mac's Fireweed Bookstore in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. The book includes an in-depth review on the science of exercising in the extreme cold.

Although I have now completed the Yukon Arctic Ultra on three occasions (and plan to return in 2016 for a 1000-mile journey along the full Yukon Quest route), my 2009 race was the most important. My book on that race reflects the psychological and philosophical journey that it was, as I became a more well-rounded endurance athlete, and was able to observe the similarities amongst those who finished, and what appeared to be common reasons for others to drop out.

 

 

I give lectures and courses around the UK on subjects relevant to endurance athletes, coaches, personal trainers and therapists.  Details of these can be found here.

 

 

The Books

 

My books are available from Amazon as ebooks and as printed versions.

 

         

 

 

 

 

The content of this website is provided free of charge, and I hope it is of value to those reading it.  Anyone wishing to donate to help support me is welcome to do so here.  I am extremely grateful for any and all support received.

 

 

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