”Everything is mental. It’s always mental.”
The bags were finally packed. “I guess I don’t need to worry about the fact that I’ll only get three hours of sleep since I can sleep on the plane. And I’ve got all next week to bank some sleep before the race.” I told myself that as I layed down to sleep at midnight knowing I’d be getting up at 3:30 for the ride to the airport at 3:45. As the Uber driver pulled out of my driveway, I envisioned myself returning in a few weeks a changed person and with a finisher’s medal from the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra, a 300 mile ultramarathon in the westernmost province of Canada. Hailed as the world’s toughest and coldest ultra, it would certainly live up to its billing. (At least to me) I always prepare extremely well for big races. This would be no exception. I had left no stone unturned. I tried to minimize the internal and external hype leading up to the race, but simply could not do so. I could not take for granted the challenges I’d be facing. My greatest challenge of course would be the long stretches of solitude. The longer the race, the more I torment myself. With my mind going at full speed at all times and by me being a by nature impatient person, all ultras force me to try to slow my mind as much as possible and to be patient. With notoriously frigid conditions and the ever present risks of hypothermia and frostbite that this race presents, I would need to be hyper vigilant. As a physician who works with his hands daily, frostbite avoidance would be of the highest priority. My second goal would be finishing. In the Whitehorse airport, I had the good fortune of meeting the race director who arrived on the same flight as me. I met a local ultra athlete and long time race volunteer, Tamara, who shuttled me over to my hotel. First thing in the morning, I met Jessie Thomson – Gladish who took me up to the Takhini Hot Springs Resort for the prerace safety course. I met the other participants and joined them for the teaching sessions around the kitchen table and for practical experience out in the bush. Led by course director, Shelley Gellatly, a MYAU 430 mile race finisher and hard-core Yukon resident, we practiced setting up our sleeping arrangements and lighting our stoves so as to simulate race conditions as much as possible. These exercises were of the highest benefit. I couldn’t imagine anyone tackling this race without first taking this course or having extensive winter ultra experience beforehand. On the last day, we took a 12 mile hike with our sleds over an early section of the course. It snowed a few inches but the temperatures were relatively mild. For me, things went perfectly. We hauled our sleds. We set up our sleeping system, prepared hot water by melting snow and prepared a meal. I lit a big and very warm campfire next to my sleeping bag. When done with these tests I was on top of the world with lots of confidence that things should go well come race day. On race morning, I of course was already awake when my alarm went off. I left the cozy comfort of my hotel room bed by kicking off the down comforter. At that very moment, I was struck with fear as I asked myself, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?!” I reminded myself that if things went well, I would not sleep in a comfy real bed again for about a week. With everything all set, I went outside and met up with a multi-year race veteran from Sweden, Peter Mild. I admired his calm confidence. For the most part, I was very confident also. But the uncertainty of what would come ahead was unsettling. We walked the mile or so to the race start where the temperature was approximately 28° below zero Fahrenheit. I was okay with this because my gear had me warm and because I knew the forecast called for warming temperatures each day. Once we were moving, I felt a huge sense of relief. I couldn’t believe I was now actually participating in the mythical Yukon Arctic Ultra. I settled into a nice and steady, brisk walking pace like everyone else. No one ran. Before long, we were traveling on the Yukon River. Within a mile, we were outside the city. The scenery was spectacular as expected. About seven hours later, we arrived at the first checkpoint, Mukhtuk Dog Kennels. I thought this was mile 26 but it turned out to be approximately mile 20. Here, we were forced to take off our mittens, boots and socks for a mandatory frostbite check by the medical officials. Because of the well-known yet horribly unfortunate situation of last year where an experienced racer ended up succumbing to frostbite leading to amputation, the race officials would be exceedingly cautious this year. While eating some beef stew with my right hand, a piece of bread was snatched out of my left hand, resting on my lap by a dog sneaking around under the table. ”Hey buddy. Get back here with that! I need those calories.” Back on the trail, I made great progress towards the next checkpoint. Thinking it would be 33 miles, it would turn out to be 39. Including the essential stops to eat and drink, this section would take an unbelievable 17 hours. Doing the math in my head, I realized this race was going to take a friggin’ long-ass time. I reminded myself of a mantra I told myself to repeat a million times for the race: “Patience and persistence.” Ultimately, I would end up running out of both, way before I thought I would. For any task, I noted that I really had to minimize my time with my mittens and gloves off. I tried to at least always keep my thin base layer liner gloves on but sometimes I needed my bare hands. Every time I did so, it would take five to ten minutes for my hands to warm back up again. Along the way to Dog Grave Lake, Checkpoint #2, I was thriving. Moving at a good clip, I enjoyed a very successful and positive mindset. I appreciated the scenery. I enjoyed the rare interactions with other racers. I felt incredibly physically strong. My physical training had been perfect. Basically, everything was going as planned. After what seemed like an eternity, including a two hour rest/nap in my bivy sack/sleeping bag along the trail and a nice 20 minute break for a 1000 calorie meal next to a really nice fire I had built, I finally arrived at the mile 59 checkpoint. Here, a race official inspected my hands and feet and gave me the A-OK sign. No frostbite. I warmed my socks next to the wood-burning stove inside a big tent. On a cot, I stretched out my back and core muscles. After a brief visit to the outhouse where the skin of my butt seemed to freeze to the seat, I was back out on the trail for the 35 mile stretch to the next checkpoint. I felt super strong and mentally very solid. Leaving here without taking a good solid sleep would turn out to be an absolutely gigantic mistake. My plan was to charge on to Braeburn, the mile 94 checkpoint. There I would sleep four to eight hours for what would then be a ridiculous 44 mile slog to the Ken Lake checkpoint. After that, there would be another 35 mile push to the Carmacks checkpoint. Here my brother Jake and my Mom would meet me. I was really, really looking forward to seeing them. It would be a huge pick-me-up. Things continued to go well for the next 10 to 12 hours. I was even able to have a little fun and ride my sled down some gradual down hills. I felt like a little kid again. But correspondingly, some of the climbs were long or steep or both. On these uphills, the weight of my sled made it feel like I was dragging a cruise ship behind me. Early in the second night, I joined my new friend Daniel, a 430 mile finisher from Denver. We enjoyed a nice meal. Afterwards, he pulled out his satellite phone and chatted with his family. He offered me the use of his phone but I declined. I really had no reason to call anyone in that things were going so well. I was hell-bent on getting to Braeburn, and as quickly as possible. About four hours later, my spirits had seriously dropped. The now slow pace at which the miles were passing coupled with the falling temperatures in this now the second night started to take their toll. The trail just seemed to go and go and go and then go some more. I started to really feel the effects of having slept for only a total of about two hours in the last 40 hours. And, I was getting really hungry and thirsty. Though trying hard to do so, I wasn’t getting enough calories. I started to feel a little foggy. I was having trouble keeping my eyes open. I tried to push as hard as I could to get to the damn checkpoint. I knew I needed to stop and sleep and/or eat. However doing both was such a pain in the ass that I continued to just charge ahead. But doing that seemed to make things worse. I debated in my head whether to continue to push to the end of this section or stop and eat and then rest. Eventually, I chose the latter. I set up my bivy. By now, I started to feel much colder than I should have tolerated. My dexterity was horrible, made worse by having to keep on my mittens. I had a hell of a time inflating my air mattress. It seemed to take about 15 minutes when normally it should take about two. I fumbled around with the inflate valve. Then I had trouble getting out my sleeping bag that had been stuffed tightly into its sack. I felt like a complete invalid trying to put the support poles in the top of the bivy. “Why is this all so frigging difficult!?” I asked. I took off my running boots and disrobed to my base layers only, then hurried into the sleeping bag. I zipped up the top, leaving only a small opening to allow me to breathe fresh air. Exhaling into the bag would cause condensation which would then build up frost in the bag. After only about 30 seconds of lying on my back, I noticed how cold the backside of my body was. Unbelievably, the weight of my body had blown open the inflate valve of the pad, allowing all the air to escape. I had not closed it tightly enough. After all of this ordeal, I now realized that I was basically lying on the frigid ground without any layer of insulation. The thought of having to reverse what I had just done and go back out into the cold was infuriating. To make matters worse, I had forgotten to pee in my rush to get into the bag. So now, I couldn’t fall asleep because of #1 being cold but also #2 because my bladder was gonna explode. In about an hour, my friend Daniel came by after he had taken a bivy just previously. Knowing that he was wearing a GPS watch, I asked him how much farther to the checkpoint, thinking it was only a mile or two. When he told me it was 7.7 miles, I was simply crushed. Doing the math in my head of my recent pace, I realized that if I started going again, it would be almost four more hours before I reached Braeburn. It was at this point where I started to question my desire and to a degree, my ability, to go on. I reminded myself of the fact that not only did I have nearly 90 miles before I saw my family but I had 210 miles to go to the finish. All these negative factors piled up. And, I was a little foggy. I ended up making an emotional and not a logical decision… to hit the HELP button on my GPS tracker. Hitting that one small button, officially and irreversibly ends one’s race. To the best of my ability, I tried to talk myself out of it. Finally…I did it. I hit the button. But wait. Nothing happened. I hit it again, thinking the button was frozen. Again, nothing. I told myself “Maybe God doesn’t want me to drop yet.” But I pushed it harder. Ugh. Nope. I even tried breathing hot air on to it to thaw it out. Still nothing. I had done what I thought was quite a bit of mental toughness training for this race. This included working with my mental skills coach, Brian Alexander-- a former Olympic athlete, who I thought prepared me perfectly. I listened to motivational podcasts. I did imagery exercises. I tried to learn to meditate. I even had been listening to a sports motivation channel on Spotify in the months leading up to the race. But unfortunately and ashamedly, I did not tap into those tools during the last hours of my race. All that stuff basically went out the window. I was so frustrated, so negative, so cold, so hungry, so irritated and so disheartened that I ended up succumbing to my emotions. And, I kept thinking about all my family and friends chirping in my ears not to jeopardize my well-being. After 30 minutes, two more guys came by. I told them I wanted to drop and that the help button wasn’t working. They showed me that there’s a little cover on top of the actual button to protect it from being hit accidentally. Moving that cover out of the way, it flashed a series of lights as soon as they hit it. Now, my race was officially over. Once it’s hit, one can’t undo it. My first reaction to the flashing light was that of sheer and complete disappointment… in myself. My second reaction was that the madness of this situation would end. The guys left me and continued onward in their race while I sank into a stew of different emotions. I considered packing up my bivy and continuing towards the checkpoint. However, I was so destroyed mentally that I just layed there wallowing in my negativity. I felt as if I had wimped out more than at any time in my life. There’s nothing I could do about it now. So I just waited and waited for the rumble of a snowmobile coming up the trail. As dawn broke, I could hear the sound of several snowmobiles coming up the trail. At this point, all my negative emotions suffocated me. The ride into the Braeburn checkpoint was torture. There’s certainly no shame in not completing a race or for that matter any goal that one sets. However in this case, I felt as if my decision was made for the wrong reasons. Sure I had exercised good judgment in terms of avoiding potential self-harm. But I just feel that if I had been mentally tougher and had the wherewithal to tap into my nonphysical resources, I might have been able to carry on. I hope this doesn’t sound conceited. I really was not taxed much physically to this point. I was really proud of how I had conditioned myself physically for this race. I did all the right things. But, it came down to mental! I find myself always telling everyone that ”Everything is mental. It’s always mental.” And sure enough here in the throes of the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra, this was the case as well. That’s why it’s known as “The World’s Coldest and Toughest Ultra.” Walking into the checkpoint dressed up in layers of warm clothes provided to me, I felt as if the eyes of everyone were staring at me. I sat down and buried my head in my hands. Again, I was overcome with emotion. The reporter from the CBC asked if he could interview me. I told him it would be okay. I composed myself and tried to answer his questions as honestly as possible. My wounds were pretty raw at that moment which probably made good television. However, I really wanted to run away and hide. I was happy for the other racers who were carrying on. I really wished I was one of them. My self-regret for having dropped was overwhelming. I sent a text message to my wife and brother to let them know that I had dropped. Fortunately, Jake and my mom had not left California yet. I would have felt even worse if they went to the hassle of coming all the way up to the Yukon under these circumstances. I sure didn’t enjoy the ride back to town. I stared out the window wondering what might have been. I had the same feeling while driving back home after having dropped out of the Badwater Ultramarathon on my first attempt. It’s horrible. If there ever was a case where I wanted to turn back time, this was it. Back in Whitehorse, my new best friend Tamara let me stay at her house until I could get my flight changed to return to San Diego. She treated me basically like royalty – – as if I had won the race. I told her I didn’t deserve to stay in such a nice place and to be treated so well. It was a wonderful place for me to collect my thoughts and I’m forever grateful to her. Back home in California, my wife cooked my favorite post race meal, lasagna. To tease me and to help make me laugh, she and my daughters said I could only have one third of a piece because I had only finished one third of the race. If that’s not tough love, I don’t know what is! I knew then that things were pretty much back to normal. I was with my loved ones – – all safe and sound. I would live to fight another day.
In an interesting twist of fate, the quote on my calendar the day of my return said “A failure is only a step on the way to your success” – – Yogi Bhajan
That’s right, baby. I’ll be back. Maybe not in the Yukon but I’ll recover from this setback.
Never give up.
Thanks to Robert Polhammer, Race Director and all the race staff
and volunteers for all their hard work. We are all so grateful.