A 2013 Yukon Scorcher

 

 

Having completed the 450ish-mile Yukon Arctic Ultra in 2009 (to finish) and 2011 (to race), my return in 2013 was really just for training ahead of an Arctic adventure I had hoped would follow.  Ice conditions on the sea ice would later dictate otherwise, and that trip has now been postponed.  My plan was simply to manage myself through the race, to enjoy the journey with good friends in a part of the world I happen to adore, and to improve my sled-hauling-specific fitness. 

 

   Staying with friends away from town, my first training session in the Yukon involved facing temperatures of around -40 Celsius, with snow and aggressive winds.  It was only a half-marathon with the sled, but over a poorly broken trail the going was tough.  Training at 40 below is a unique experience, as so much of the process is focussed more on protection against the elements, with the typical factors such as maintaining physical effort taking second place. 

   This is mostly because it is so important to guard against frostbite and hypothermia.  Exposed skin will freeze in minutes, and the hands are frequently exposed to obtain food and fluids, both necessary not only to maximise overall performance but to help prevent hypothermia too.  As a first day of training it was certainly a reawakening to the realities of performing in an extreme environment.

   Following that first training stint I had time for three other sessions before the start of the race.  Each was of a little more than a half-marathon, and each was slower than I had hoped.  I switched to using the race trail for the sessions, from where I was staying to the start location of the race, which mostly involved using a trail along the Yukon River to Whitehorse.  My slow pace was due to super-soft trail conditions. Since my first session out in the real cold, the weather had warmed to between -5 and -10 C.  Those temperatures are sufficient to warm the trail and soften it, causing the feet to fall into the trail as opposed to what happens at -20 C, when the feet remain firmly above the hard trail and the sled slides effortlessly along the top.

   Unfortunately the 'warm' conditions persisted throughout the race this year.  The first 120 miles of trail were hard-going for all of us. Usually what happens is that half the competitors withdraw during the first 2-3 days due to frostbite.  This year frostbite was of minimal risk due to the balmy temperatures, but the soft trail increased the incidence of overuse injuries, such as tendinitis and shin splints. Aware of that risk I held back, relying on my experience to help maintain progress, rather than pushing myself physically and tempting injury.

   I began the race running to get into my space, and then settled into a good rhythm to hold onto my position.  I completed the first half-marathon in half the time of my Yukon-based training sessions, and my time to the marathon checkpoint matched that of my 2011 race.  I made a point of giving myself a good 4 hours of sleep later that night, and I finished the first 110 miles in about 36 hours, again matching my 2011 timings.  I had an opportunity to take the lead at that point, but held back, partly because the goal was to finish injury-free, and partly because so much of my clothing and sleeping equipment was wet because of the relatively warm conditions. So, I took an extended rest on that second night and fully dried out my kit.

   When I left that checkpoint at 5 in the morning, it was to a brief spike of cold weather (about minus 30), and to astonishing northern lights.  The temperature went back up to about minus 15 C within a few hours, and the trail remained soft for another 20 miles.  After that the conditions were the kindest I have ever experienced for the race, and lasted until the end.  I left the 110-mile checkpoint in second place, and was able to manage myself in that position for the remainder of the race, and without really having to push myself.  Achieving this was simply a matter of consistency for the next 100 miles, after which I was able to ease back, enjoying the journey this time and spending time with my friends at the checkpoints along the way.  I rested a little more, took more time to talk to people, and ensured all my clothing and kit was in order before proceeding.

   When I competed in my first Yukon race, in 2009, I had not seen any wildlife aside from the occasional raven.  In 2011 a lone wolf came up to my bivi and sled as I was sleeping, the sound of its sniffing and pawing around waking me.  I had remained in my sleeping bag out of an unwillingness to introduce myself to the thing eye-to-eye.  On the final day of that race I had been charged by a moose, and was fortunate enough that it changed its course and headed up into the hills in preference to flattening me.  This time I came across a huge bull moose on the trail on my final day, just as I began my way up the last mountain of the race.  The moose was in the trail and I had had to give it some time to head off, as these animals can be defensive and they are not the sort of thing to argue with. 

   In the darkness of that last night, whilst moving along Bonanza Creek Road towards the finish line in Dawson City, a black shape revealed itself in the trail. About the size of a large dog but rounder in shape, I could not make out what it was as I approached.  My sled harness was over one shoulder so I could jump free of it if I needed to, and my trekking poles were held out ahead of me.  I made plenty of noise so as not to startle the animal, and as I approached within the final 20 yards it literally disappeared in a flash.  I have never seen anything move that fast - it was as clear as could be, then as it moved all I could make out was a grey blur, and then it reappeared another 20 or so yards further along.  It reminded me of Taz, and until it settled into its new position I could not even be sure in which direction it was headed.  It stayed in the trail for a while, and each time I drew near it flashed off and reappeared further along.  It played that game for a couple of miles, before eventually moving off the trail. 

   The animal was a wolverine, and I was phenomenally lucky that night.  Wolverines are the only animal a bear will not fight with, and they have been known to scare bears off their prey.  They are an incredibly aggressive animal, and had I realised it was what was ahead of me when I first saw it, I would have either stayed put or else put on my snowshoes to give it a generously wide berth.  Encouraging it to keep moving along the trail was something I did because I did not know what it was until I was so close it moved off the trail.  I can only put my luck down to appearing so big and alien because of the kit, the poles and the sled, and to quite possibly being the smelliest and noisiest thing this animal had ever encountered.  I mean, I had been banging those poles together and singing at times.  I had wondered why it had been so unfazed when I tried sprinting at it - it could have torn me to pieces if it could have done so whilst simultaneously pinching its nose and covering its ears. 

   I had begun the race with a hope of completing it in single figures, but not wanting to push much harder for fear of injury.  I finished the race in about 9-and-a-half days, which I was perfectly happy with.  The final night of the race involved about 20 miles of road beneath the most amazing display of northern lights I have ever seen.  It was an easy finish this year, and could not at all be compared to my trials in the 2011 race.  When I first completed the event in 2009, it had been during the best conditions the race had ever seen. 2013 conditions trumped those by miles.  For those who finished the race this year for the first time, it is important to stress the achievement of logging all those miles and doing so without injury, but it is also important to appreciate that the Yukon was exceptionally kind this year.  We had no high winds, no snowfall and no real cold.

   One very important factor to consider, despite all the emphasis on how kind the race was, is that I find it far easier to suffer with frostnip in warmer editions of the race.  In 2009, for example, I finished with minor frostnip across my cheeks.  In 2011, with temperatures down to around -50 Celsius, I had no cold injuries whatsoever, save a brief issue with irritation to my throat.  In 2013, I actually suffered the most with frostnip, when compared with the 2009 and 2011 races.  This was only frostnip - a very superficial freezing of the skin - and not more serious frostbite, when deeper layers of tissue freeze.  Frostbite leads to superficial nerve and blood vessel damage, and more severe levels freeze muscle tissue too.  Frostnip, by contrast, is an illustration that more care should have been taken, but is typically recovered from within a couple of weeks.  When it affects my face, it blisters, causing me to look like a teenager with acne, albeit a particularly hairy one. 

   The reason that the frostnip is more likely to occur at -10, rather than -50, is that at -50 I am fully protected against the elements.  At -10 it actually feels quite warm, especially when heat is being generated by movement.  As a consequence, it feels claustrophobic and uncomfortable to be covered-up, and any protective layers contributing to this are typically removed.  I did much of the 2013 race in a baselayer, with trousers and a loose-fitting mid-layer.  Any more than that and it felt too hot to move quickly.  As a result, I left myself exposed to minor cold-damage.  Even comparatively warm years in the Yukon are not to be taken too lightly. 

   Having made it such a comfortable second-place finish this year, I ought to move on from this race.   In 2011 there were 6 of us who finished, but only half of us did so without considerable outside support, on account of the conditions that year. But I have one more trip to do out here.  In 2015 I will return for my final Yukon Arctic Ultra, and then I will be racing to Dawson along with many friends, before continuing in the pawprints of the greatest ultra-endurance athletes in the world; the sled dog teams that travel for over a 1000 miles from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska in the Yukon Quest.  Our human race only goes as far as Dawson City, so I'll be continuing on to complete that route outside of the race. Bring on 2015, when I can expect a return to proper Yukon weather, and one of the greatest adventures of my life.

   Although I have now completed the Yukon Arctic Ultra on three occasions (and plan to return in 2015 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.

 

 

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