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24th February 2015

The Yukon Arctic Challenge 2015

extreme marathons, inspiring, endurance, endurance mind

300 miles across the Yukon Territory in Canada, pulling a pulk with all my survival gear, in temperatures down to -50 ° C, over a maximum of 8 days.

Billed as the “The world’s coldest and toughest ultra!”. It achieved both those objectives.

Quick summary - for those who want to know the end of the story without reading it all.

I completed the 300 miles in 6 days 19 hours in first place. It was by far the hardest thing I have ever done. I was tested physically, mentally and emotionally throughout the event. At the end I was drained on all 3 counts.

This blog is to share my journey with you!

Preparation

Prior to leaving the UK, I was manically trying to ensure I had every piece of equipment and spares that I would need for all weather conditions. This took weeks of preparation and ordering.

At the same time I was trying to do the training I needed to get ready for such a huge event. Many hours spent pulling a tyre around the local woods, canal paths and streets of the Chilterns.

Before I left the UK there was a lot of chatter on the event website about the temperatures and conditions is being too warm, and the risk of overflow (surface water on top of ice) being a real issue. Then as we got closer to the event, the talk was about the temperatures dropping to their lowest levels ever!! Very worrying for the inexperienced competitor – me.

Arrival in Yukon Territory

My friend Richard and I travelled to Whitehorse (capital of the Yukon) on the 3rd February. Richard was out there to crew the event and support me along the way.

When we arrived in Whitehorse the temperature was down to -35° C and painful to walk about in the open for to long.

Prep included going to the large outdoor supply store in town and basically buying all the gear that could not be purchased in the UK. Neo’s – large over boots that go over your trail shoes to help wade through overflow, snow shoes – for deep snow, and various other bits that I realised I would need in these extreme conditions

On the Friday before the event there was a compulsory training course for the inexperienced competitors. The afternoon was spent in the classroom learning about frostbite, hypothermia, trench foot and many other things that made me think about booking an early flight home.

Basically the risk of a serious incident was very real, and help could be more than 24 hours away because of the remoteness, inaccessibility and the ability of machinery (helicopters and skidoos) to operate in temperatures below -35° C.

The evening part of the training course consisted of us getting all our race gear on, packing our pulk and heading out into the woods, setting up our bivvies, lighting a fire, testing our stoves and spending 30 minutes in our sleeping bags.

It was a good exercise. It made me realise a couple of things that were important for the race. Firstly, to start a fire, you need to do it properly and not panic. Take your time, find the right wood, use your saw, build it correctly and it is fine. My first attempt was a disaster, second attempt was perfect. I learnt that you have to think before you act in the cold so that you do not waste time getting colder.

I also learnt that your feet get cold in your sleeping bag, so I made a note to ensure I had wool socks when I got in my bag to sleep.

Finally I learnt that tent pegs are useless in snow!! Your hands either get very cold clearing snow to find the frozen ground that is like concrete, or they just do not hold.

Better to learn this before the race!!

During the training exercise one of the Italian competitors spilt fuel on his finger and got frostbite within minutes. You can’t make mistakes in these temperatures.

The morning after the training, Race Director Robert stood up to debrief us. He started by saying – “if you perform the way you did last night in -40° C or lower you will all be in serious trouble – you have to be fast, start a fire, get your bivvy up and get in it”.

I was googling the BA number to see whether I could get an early flight back!!

We were told that due to the cold weather there would be frostbite checks at the 16 mile point and 26 mile point. Any sign of frostbite, or the start of frostbite, on fingers, noses, ears, toes and we would be withdrawn! My fear was that after all this work and preparation I could be pulled out 4 hours into the race!!

The night before the race we had dinner, and every one was very nervous, and anxious. Personally, I could not sleep the night before the start worrying about the cold, the distance, the terrain, the equipment, etc. To be honest I was scared, but when I have been scared before I find the best thing is to take a deep breath and step into it. So I just wanted to get started.

The Race

10:30 Sunday 8th February 2015 – Start line -35° C. Here we go……………..

I didn’t hear the start, but the people in front started moving and we were off. With a long line of people pulling pulks, which are 8 feet behind you, the procession was long and slow. I wanted to start quickly and get away from the people “faffing” about, so I pushed past several people, then found I had space and got into a good 3 – 4 mile an hour walking pace. I was sweating, which is a big “no no” in these temperatures because sweat freezes, so I was trying to undo zips, whilst still keeping all skin covered against the risk of frost bite.

I had a strategy that I wanted to follow. Every 2 hour 30 minutes I would stop and have a hot drink, some food and sit on my pulk to rest the legs.

In the heat of the “competition” this was hard to do, but I forced myself. Whenever I stopped I got my big down jacket out, to stop me getting cold, which could happen very quickly in the temperatures we were experiencing.

Personally, I need a strategy to motivate me, so it was important to stick to it.

So, we followed the route of the frozen Yukon River until we got to the first checkpoint. This was at the marathon distance and I was really surprised to get there in 6 hours 20 minutes, much quicker than I expected.

I grabbed some soup, got my flasks topped up with hot water and hot chocolate then headed out.

It was interesting that even at the marathon mark there were people who were really, really cold and pulling out, and people with frostbite who were being pulled out……….only 6 – 7 hours into the event !!

I left checkpoint 1 and headed into the slowly fading light. The river section was fine and then we moved onto forest trails, which was when I realised that this is a tough, tough race. Pulling a pulk along tracks with small bumps, inclines and declines is rough going. The 30kg weight at the end of the 6ft long poles was constantly pushing and pulling against the harness. My speed slowed considerably.

The second checkpoint at Dog Grave Lake, was at 56 miles, so a 30 mile leg. Having completed the marathon distance in 6.5 hours I thought the 8 hours was reasonable – how wrong I was, and how much I had to learn.

I pushed on into the night and realised it was getting colder, although I was managing my temperature well.

My feet were in good shape and I was so thankful for my extreme weather Sealskinz waterproof socks and thermal liners. My hands were OK, and my core was managing fine with the different layers, although I learnt that it is important to have a non-down layer next to my base layer. Down is useless when it gets wet!

By 0100 I was starting to realise that the checkpoint was a lot further than I had thought, so I started thinking about finding a bivvy site.

I was still stopping every 2.5 hours and everytime I stopped realised how cold it was.

The cold was brutal. It froze everything rock hard. My snacks were rock hard. Cheese was like rocks, rolos like pebbles, and jelly babies like sucking on stones!! My zips froze; my whole outer shell was covered in frost. If my mittens were off for more than a few seconds my fingers got cold, and took a long time to warm up.

So the decision to stop was hard. To stop would mean getting cold, very cold, so I had to be quick.

I found a spot just off the trail. Used my pulk to flatten the snow, got my down jacket on and started putting up the tent. This went fine, I decided on no pegs. I got my sleeping mats and sleeping bag into the tent. Then I had my first problem. Because of the cold the sleeping bag material was like tissue paper and when I was unzipping it, the zip caught the baffle and ripped a small hole. There was an explosion of feathers!! Not what I needed. Nothing I could do, so I got into the tent and sleeping bag with feathers everywhere. Shoes off, into a dry bag and at the bottom of the bag (to stop them freezing). Jacket off, layers off, trousers down to ankles, and wool socks on. It worried me when I had to peel my frozen socks off. I put them next to my chest to thaw in the night. I got right inside the bag, sealed the top, blocked the hole with my down jacket and settled down.

I slept for about 90 minutes, just physical exhaustion and tiredness meant I needed to rest.

I lay there for a while just letting my legs rest, then at around 0430, I decided it was time to move.

I could feel how cold it was outside my sleeping bag and I had a minor panic attack. I was worried about getting too cold as I got up, and getting frostbite or hypothermia, by spending too long getting ready. I calmed myself and started thinking through from the bottom up. What I needed to do, what could I do in the sleeping bag, what order I would do it in. It was real survival thinking. I worked it through in my head, took a deep breath and went for it.

All went well, and I was packed and ready to go in about 20 minutes.

I walked fast to start with so that I could warm up, which worked well and I was soon stripping off layers.

What I didn’t realise at this time was the damage that night had done to many competitors who had not been able to cope with the cold.

Getting to Dog Grave Lake took nearly 5 hours in the end, so I had made a good decision to stop and rest.

When I got to Dog Grave there were 4 other competitors. 3 Italians who were in a bad way with the cold and withdrew from the race – I couldn’t understand why you would stop at such a remote location (38 miles from the nearest road!!).

I fuelled, rested, and headed off at 1200 midday for Braeburn, the 94 mile point (100 mile finish).

This section of the route was beautiful and I was loving it. It was sunny, we were skirting a lake, and the going was quite quick. I was tired and sleepy, but motivated.

I was determined to get to Braeburn to get a good night sleep in a bed.

What I did not realise is how far and how long it would take……………….. I pushed on with my speed and routine 2.5 hours moving 10 – 15 minutes stopped. It got dark around 1730, and I had no idea how far away I was, but I just kept plodding on. As the dark came in, the terrain became very boring and I started to hallucinate as I walked.

It slowly got worse as I walked into the night. At one point all I could see in front of me was a movie screen with the trail and trees ahead and around me. I stopped, shook my head, then tried to reach out and touch the screen!! Crazy, but real.

I decided I needed to do something to keep myself sharp – or sharper. So I started singing. Anything that I could remember the lyrics of, or even just some of them. The 2 songs that I seemed to remember most were “Nellie the Elephant” and “Two Little Boys”……….. I also tried to work through as many Elvis and Queen songs as I could remember. Good job I was on my own.

The route to Braeburn seemed to take for ever, and I was regularly passed by Skidoos going both ways – to and from Dog Grave – I did not realise why at the time.

To cut a long story short, I finally got to Braeburn at 0130 on Tuesday 10th February. I was totally exhausted.

I had some chilli, sorted my kit, got in bed and set my alarm for 6 hours later.

I got up to a lovely sunny, but very cold (-40 °C) morning. When I went into the restaurant area I started to realise what had been happening behind me. During the first night many people had got very cold and serious frostbite, so when they arrived at Dog Grave Lake they withdrew from the race and requested recovery to Braeburn. I am told more than 40 people withdrew at Dog Grave Lake, some with awful frostbite.

After a good night’s sleep, teeth clean, full English breakfast and several coffees I was ready for the long 44 mile leg to Ken Lake.

My plan was to push hard on this leg to get to Ken Lake for a short sleep before the next leg to Carmacks and a longer rest.

Another competitor who I had met on the trail the previous night and I set off at 1000. We set a reasonable pace, with regular stops. After about 4 hours I looked behind and Daniel was not there. I assumed he had stopped so I pushed on anyway. The route to Ken Lake covered many frozen lakes so I knew it would be quick going. The links in between the lakes across land meant some interesting climbs up the banks, and running down the descents.

The going across the lakes was quick. The trails were well worn by the dog sleds and skidoos, and it was of course flat. One of the lakes was 9 miles long! So it took nearly 3 hours to cover it.

As I progressed across the lakes, I noticed all the animal foot prints in the snow. Hooves and paws of varying sizes. I then saw my first wolf tracks. They were very large dog-like paw prints. I knew they were out there, but did not think we would be sharing the trail together!

The other thing about the lakes was the cold. They were a good 5° – 10° lower in temperature than the land around them.

Day turned into night and I kept pushing forward. As with all these legs, the ends seemed to take hours more than you first thought, which was mind numbing.

I eventually made it to Ken Lake at 0100.

Steep climb up to the little hut and heated walled tent. I wanted to sleep for a couple of hours so I put up my tent, had some hot chilli, a hot drink and got into my sleeping bag. It was about -35°, I was exhausted and drained. I got out the sat phone and called Anna. We spoke for a short while, she told me how proud she was, and this helped lift my spirits before I fell asleep.

3 hours later – I got up, packed my gear, had a hot drink, a freeze dried meal, filled my flasks, and camelback (which came from a bore hole in the lake and was brown!!) and set off across the lakes into the darkness of the morning.

As I walked across the first lake I heard a low “Booming” sound……… I couldn’t work out what it was and then realised it was the ice booming under my feet!

Most of this day was pretty much the same – a few lakes, and then hours walking on a trail through a burnt forest. I met up with Joel en route, who was a crazy competitor from Catalonia. Lovely guy, very experienced ultra runner, but mad.

We passed each other on and off all day.

Later in the afternoon I came across my first experience of jumble ice. This is basically where flowing lumps of ice get jammed together as the winter approaches, creating this huge area of solid frozen ice shapes, some the size of houses. Making progress through these ice fields was slow and painful with the pulk pushing and pulling at the harness. Throughout the late afternoon and early evening we had to go on and off the river through the ice, and then onto a trail with some big steep ascents before we made our way into Carmacks around 2100.

Carmacks was a huge recreation centre with great facilities. An opportunity to sort out all the kit in the pulk, dry off wet clothes and eat and sleep.

I slept 6 hours (or lay flat for 6 hours, which was the most important thing to get the rest my legs needed), and left at 0600 the next day.

The route to McCabe creek started with a long climb up a mountain road. Good going, the pulk slid easily over the ground. On making the summit I sat down, had a break and had a chat with a local trapper who was collecting his traps.

The next section for most of the day followed a tree lined avenue. It was steady going, not easy and very repetitive. It just went on and on and it felt like I was not making any progress. I met up with Joel again during the evening and we pushed on together to the checkpoint. We finally arrived at 2300. A long, long, mentally and physically draining day.

The checkpoint was in a wood shed. It was warm, welcoming and the food was great.

Sleeping bag out, 3 hours sleep. Got up, freeze dried food, filled my flasks and Joel and I headed out about 0400 for the 28 miles to Pelly Crossing.

The morning was not cold, temperatures were around -15° C and there was a fresh dusting of 2 – 3 inches of snow. Which looked nice, but it was hard, very hard, to pull a pulk through. We started off on a road then moved to a trail. We missed a turning where the route markers had been knocked over, which added about 1 mile on our trip and was very frustrating. We then came across our first experience of overflow. This is basically melted snow that has refrozen, but is still very soft on the surface so you can fall through. We managed to work our way round each overflow as we got to it. The snow was making the scenery very picturesque. With the trees all hanging over the trail, it looked like a winter wonderland, but slow progress. We were lucky to do 2 miles an hour.

As we approached Pelly Crossing – which once again took much longer than we were expecting – the markers disappeared and packs of loose dogs appeared to bark their welcome to us!!

After asking a few people, we found the recreation centre at around 1500. Another great welcome, good food and a big hall to sleep in. My plan was to get 6 hours sleep and leave around midnight.

My alarm went off at 1130; I got up, had some food, sorted my kit and headed out at 0030. Again it was about -15°, not too cold and the going was good.

The first 10 miles followed a frozen river bed, which I covered in 4 hours, and then we were taken up onto the road. This was quick going for the pulk, although the hills were big long climbs, and it seemed to go on for ever. I got out my iPod put on my music and started singing my head off to keep myself motivated and pushing forward. I was even dancing along the trail – I was finally going mad!! On the down hills I decided to sit on the pulk and sledge down the hills – what a relief on my poor legs.

After what seemed like a life time again, I finally got to the long driveway that led me into Pelly Farm around 1230.

Pelly Farm is a famous checkpoint amongst Yukon competitors. It is a family home. I was welcomed in, my wet shoes and socks taken off to dry, given a large lasagne, drinks, and an ice pack on my feet. Very relaxing. I had known throughout the last few days that I was leading the 300 mile race; I knew I was about 12 hours ahead, but as I got to Pelly Farm I was told that Daniel in second place was already 4 hours on his way to Pelly Farm. I was planning on staying for 5 hours, so that would mean 9 hours only, giving me a 3 hour lead! I was worried but tired, so I decided to get some sleep and leave in 3.5 hours time.

I was led to one of the family bedrooms where I climbed in between the sheets and fell asleep. I woke at 1700, was offered some more food, so I had soup, got my flasks filled and headed off at 1730 for the final 33 miles and 12 hours back to Pelly Crossing the finish.

I started strong. Pushing hard. I wanted to get as far down the trail as possible before passing Daniel coming out on his way to Pelly Farm, I would then know how far ahead I was. It was about 2030 when I passed the others on their way to Pelly Farm.

I pushed on into the night desperate to cover the miles and finish the race. It took forever; I sledged down the big hills, and pushed on up the big hills. I was so tired that I was falling asleep while I walked. I broke the hours into 15 minute slots. I walked for 15 minutes, then rested / slept on my poles for 1 minute, then pushed on and did the same. I still stopped every 2 hours for a 10 minute break sitting on the pulk. I started seeing wolf tracks in the snow and was reminded of what the lady at Pelly Farm had said – there is a problem in Pelly Crossing of wolves attacking and killing dogs, I was worried they might fancy something a bit bigger; limited in flexibility by a harness and pulk!

By 0400 I was exhausted and really needed to sleep, but I knew I was only 90 minutes away from the finish. So at 0400 I sat on the pulk for a 10 minute rest with my down jacket on. At 0417 I woke up!! I had been flat out.

Finally I could see the orange lights of Pelly Crossing. I pushed on until I finally made the finish line. Everyone was fast asleep, so it was a personal celebration. Before I got in I woke up one of the checkpoint staff to help me.

I was totally drained physically, emotionally and mentally. I had been so focused on holding it together for so many hours and days that when I finished I sat in a chair with my head in my hands for a good 15 minutes.

There is no question this is one of the toughest races on the planet, and definitely the hardest event I have ever done. I was delighted to finish, and as I write I could not imagine doing something like this again…………….. time will tell………….

Neil Thubron

Previous Post

23rd February 2015

February 2015 ‘Tipping the Scales’