Another missed opportunity…in a really tough race
Well…here we go again. I didn’t finish what I started out to do: I didn’t finish the 2020 Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra. Since I returned, people have been saying things like: “Wow, the fact that you even started. That’s amazing.” “You went a lot farther than I could have gone.” Or, “You did your best.” Those all sound nice and might make some people feel better. But not me. I don’t compare myself to the general public. I compare myself to the standard I create for myself. I compare myself to other ultra long-distance athletes.
I always prepare really well for all my big events. But this one was over the top. Just a week or so after returning from last year, I started my preparation physically, mentally and logistically for this year’s race. There’s no question I was in peak physical condition. It may sound silly but I pretty much thought about the race every single day for the last 51 weeks. The Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra has a certain mystique about it. It’s hard for me to put into words. I’ve completed some very hard and long races. But for me, the MYAU provides the ultimate challenge. It checks all the boxes: The race is ridiculously difficult secondary to the extreme cold, the trail conditions, the fact that we have to pull a 65-pound sled magnified by the extreme isolation. Racers must be completely self-sufficient for up to a day at a time. In fact, two of the checkpoints are separated by 44 miles. Think of how far that is. Basically, the MYAU is eight ultramarathons back to back.
Several months ago, I thought it would be neat to film a documentary on my experience. Recently however it had morphed into something much bigger. The movie would be called 300 Frozen Miles. Initially I was going to be the central character, but it had now developed into a motivational film encompassing numerous other athletes. More so, the movie is about the power of the mind and mindfulness. I was concerned that filming might be a distraction but ultimately it ended up not really being the case. The producer, Aron and the film crew made sure not to impede or assist my or anyone else’s performance. This was of utmost priority. I’m so grateful for that. I’m also grateful that Aron chose to have me play a smaller role in the doc. I was never at peace with being the central character in the first place. The fact that so much good would come from the project and my competing brought me great joy. My doing these events is always so much more than just me.
Part of my mentality heading into the race was that I was seeking redemption for having DNF’ed (Did Not Finish-the worst letters in ultramarathons) last year. I had been given a second chance. That seemed pretty cool. Though it made for a good storyline in the movie, I wasn’t dwelling on that. I was looking to the future--not to the past. I had accepted last year’s outcome. I would do the same this year.
A few weeks before the race, the Yukon had experienced unseasonably cold weather, even by their standards. They were having temperatures of 40 and even 50 below zero. Fortunately, the forecast was for more moderate temperatures and I was greatly relieved. I’ll be honest, for future bragging rights, part of me wanted it to be super cold. Realistically though, for my safety and to make the race more manageable, I was hoping for somewhat normal temps.
Come race morning, I felt as if I had done everything necessary to have a very successful outcome. I had trained myself into peak physical condition. Over the years, that has been the easy part. I absolutely love training. Logistically/gear-wise? Check! Mentally? Now that’s a problem. That’s always a problem. More on that later.
Race day temperatures were moderate and forecast to be reasonable. I think it was around -15 at the start. I certainly had a bounce in my step. Fueled by optimism, a sense of gratitude for getting another chance at this and for all my amazing blessings coupled with my overflowing confidence, I couldn’t wait to get started. My strategy was to go out slowly and just work steadily towards getting to the mile 138 checkpoint at Ken Lake. One of my good friends, a multiyear finisher of the 430 mile distance told me, “Don’t try to win the race in the first hundred miles. “
I settled into a solid and reasonable pace to the first checkpoint--mile 20. I fought the temptation to jog slowly during these early miles. At the checkpoint, Muktuk Adventures, a working dog kennel, things couldn’t be better: I had dressed perfectly; my strategy for hydration by wearing a 3 L bladder on my back between my base layer and my other layers worked perfectly also. I stashed my battery chargers in the bladder pack to keep them warm. My sled and sled bag and waist and shoulder harness caused no problems. I had built a frame for the bag out of PVC tubing with nice dividers. Though adding weight, I felt that the improved organization would be worth it. The sled did seem surprisingly heavy though.
After a quick meal and a mandatory frostbite check of my toes and fingers by the medical staff, I headed back out onto the Takhini River. My untested but supposedly waterproof new boots so far had kept my feet dry.
Annoyingly, the trail had not been packed down much such that plodding through the soft snow these early miles made progress extremely difficult and frustrating. We were told to expect better conditions in the later miles.
Before long, daylight faded, replaced by some decent moonlight. I enjoyed a moderate snow shower. I prayed however that it didn’t come down any heavier which would make conditions even tougher going forward.
Around mile 45, I took my first sleep break on the trail. Though I didn’t feel like I needed it at the time, I knew for long-term benefit, I had better get some Z’s now. Of the two hours I was in my comfy sleeping bag rated to -60, I probably slept for about an hour. I hated stopping to sleep on the trail because it’s such a production. Setting up my sleeping pads inside my Bivouac (“Bivy”) sack then stuffing the sleeping bag in that then making sure to stash my layers, mittens and boots in the right places is such an ordeal. I had to sleep with my bladder on as well to prevent my electrolyte drink from freezing. I had to be extremely cautious that it didn’t leak when I turned over in the sleeping bag. If the tubing came loose from its attachment at the base, it could spill liquid all over which would be an absolute disaster in these conditions.
Though comfortable despite the frigid temperatures, it’s hard to get good sleep. Turning over with a hydration bladder on in a mummy/tight sleeping bag stuffed with clothes makes for a fitful and annoying situation. Also, I had to make sure that kept my mouth out of the sleeping bag because the moisture from my breath would freeze on me and my gear.
After what seemed like an eternity, I arrived at the second checkpoint/mile 59/Dog Grave Lake. Here again, things were on point except for a large blister that had formed on my left big toe. It had unroofed the toenail. I attended to it by ripping a hole in the skin by pinching my thumb and index finger nails together then squeezing out a large volume of blister fluid. I then applied some gauze and some adhesive tape. I knew that nail was toast. I had lost it and re-grown a new one about five times now in my ultra career.
An awesome race volunteer filled my thermoses with hot water and reloaded my hydration bladder with 3 L of luke warm water then I added five scoops of my electrolyte drink, Perpetuem. After a bowl of delicious beef stew and two cups of hot chocolate by a wonderful fire, I headed out towards the next checkpoint, 35 miles north. I noted that I was leaving more than six hours later than last year. I didn’t worry because I went out fast last year but slowly this year.
Hoping to make up some time, I had my first Seattle Gummy High Energy Mocca Shot gummy. Within minutes, I felt invincible and as if I had been injected with some magic serum that caused euphoria and boundless energy. Man that stuff is good! I was tempted to use these more and use them more often going forward. Being still early in the race though, I decided to save these "bullets" for the many miles of battle ahead.
I continued onward with a positive mindset. Physically, I was as strong as I could be. I noted however that the miles were passing slowly. The soft snow made progress difficult. About halfway through the section, I thought that my sled seemed to be much heavier than it should be. I realized that I had stupidly placed my heavier stuff towards the front of the sled causing a snowplow effect. I moved the heavy thermoses to the back and moved the lightweight things to the front. I was so mad having been so careless. I thought of how much extra energy I had expended for the last 75 miles or so. What a careless doofus!
Similar to earlier, I took another two-hour break but ended up probably getting a total of one hour of true sleep.
At one point, I passed a couple local guys who looked as if they were getting ready to go out hunting or trapping. They were coming out of a cabin off to the side of the trail and were warming up their snowmobiles with heaters so they would start in the extreme cold. They asked if I wanted some chocolate and I told them that I could not accept any outside assistance. As they threw a couple chunks of chocolate next to my sled, I resisted the temptation. However, I could do the same with the bottle of whiskey that they covertly propped in the snow next to my sled as I took a break. I gulped down a couple mouthfuls. I don’t remember much about the next two hours other than I was pretty happy and probably a little bit drunk. This certainly is the first time I’ve ever been intoxicated in a race!
Soon I passed the point where I quit the race last year. I didn’t make a big deal out of it because I was focused on the here and now and not what transpired last year. Alistair, one of the camera operators asked me how I felt to reach this point. I responded “Great but that was last year. This is now!”
Because I was making such slow progress, I became increasingly impatient which seems to always be a problem in my ultra-long races. I struggle with staying in the moment despite great efforts to do so. I probably have the worst possible mindset for an ultramarathoner. I am very forward-thinking, a necessity in my profession as an ER doctor. It’s an absolutely constant challenge to basically turn my brain off and just move forward pretty much like a robot. I always get trapped with the negative question of “How much further?” When an expectation of time or distance doesn’t arrive, I get even more negative. I basically end up fighting myself. I feel if I can fix this issue, I would perform much better and experience much less mental anguish. I truly feel that I will “breakthrough” to a new level. Easier said than done, however. Over the next six months I’m going to focus tremendously on this subject.
By plodding forward, I eventually would reach the mile 94/Braeburn checkpoint. I considered it a victory just reaching this point having not done so last year. I remember being taken here via snowmobile from my quit point last year. It was the “Ride of Shame” as I call it. I noted that the temperature had really dropped. It was bitterly cold by now. I laid out my socks and gloves by the stove then consumed a couple thousand calories of food and drink. The medic Gavin checked my feet and noted that the blister fluid had re-accumulated. He lanced the blister fluid and applied some really high-quality dressing. I couldn’t find my own foot care kit. He called the race director to make sure that I would not receive a penalty for us not using my own medical supplies. We got the A-OK. But sure enough after he was done, I found my foot care kit buried in my sled bag.
I went around back and had a basically worthless attempt at sleep. I really couldn’t get comfortable and I felt that I was just wasting time. So, I went back to the Braeburn Café and noted that my mother and brother had arrived after having driven up from Whitehorse. What a great emotional boost. After some hugs, words of encouragement and more camera interviews, I got dressed up to attack what would be an absolutely brutal 44-mile plod in the bitter cold. I popped another Seattle Gummy High Energy Mocha Shot but left with great trepidation expecting this to likely be the most difficult segment of my life.
I am a man who is fueled by confidence. Leaving the checkpoint in nearly -40° temperatures in the dark knowing I might not see anyone for the next 24 hours and without adequate sleep struck fear in my heart. My bro escorted me across the parking lot to the point where the trail entered the bush. After some of his great words of encouragement, I was on my way. I told myself to suck it up and just go baby. I had heard some people describe this section as “Where souls go to die.” That’s a perfect description.
I planned to cut the 44 miles into four 11-mile sections. I hoped to average 30 minutes a mile which included down time. That meant it would take me a ridiculous 22 hours! About six hours in, I decided to get some sleep…or at least try to do so. I found a nice spot on the side of the trail. However, doffing my layers down to my base layer and getting into the sleeping bag, I was struck by how bitterly cold it was. I skipped building a fire and lighting my stove for a prepared camp meal. It was just too much of a hassle in these conditions. I ate some Pop Tarts, some more trail mix, about five slices of bacon (three pounds of which had been prepared for me by the mother of Mark, one of our cameramen) and several handfuls of high-fat chocolate covered almonds. Together, this provided about 1500 cal. I guzzled down about 10 mouthfuls of my Perpetuem as well. I decided to get up and charge on. While in my sleeping bag, I was passed by Patrick and Paul, two very positive and jovial Irishmen.
Many miles later, I was passed by Phil, Gareth and Lee, three great guys from the UK. They told me that everyone else who had been behind us had dropped out of the race. This included a trio of Swiss guys who looked thoroughly prepared previously. That meant that I was in last place, a position I had never been before in my life. Though the field had been cut in half, it was very disconcerting to me to be in this position. I told myself that at least I was still in the race and that that was huge, considering the circumstances. The Irishmen and the Englishmen and I would leapfrog each other to the next checkpoint.
At around noon the next day, I joined the English guys for lunch in an absolutely spectacular setting. Though still frigid, the sun had come up and we were in a very bright open area. They had started a fire and were heating up some camp food. I didn’t really need to stop here but I couldn’t resist joining them. I shared my satellite phone with each of them so they could call their loved ones overseas. I told them that I was absolutely honored to be sharing this moment with them. I told them I thought it was super cool that we all came from different parts of the globe and had such varied backgrounds but were joined by such a common love of the experience. They said they felt the same way.
We ended up mostly sticking together for the next 10 to 15 miles crossing long lakes and going down long stretches of river interrupted by steep climbs up into the bush and steep descents back down to the frozen waterways. Though usually less than 30 feet, they sometimes were so tough that I had to plant my boot in the snow sideways and push myself up with my pole on the opposite side taking 6-inch steps at a time. With the additional burden of having to pull up my 65 pounds sled attached behind me, I found that my previous upper body strength training saved me at these points. And in all honesty, though my heart was pounding at the time of these climbs, my cardio fitness was never tested.
I pulled quite a way ahead of the English trio. I stopped at a point on a lake to eat and drink and take care of business. In doing so, they caught up to me and we enjoyed a brief chat. I soldiered on while they stopped to eat as well.
As nighttime came while crossing a windy lake, Lee casually dropped a bomb on me stating that we almost positively would not make the time cut off at the next checkpoint. In a semi-altered state, I initially didn’t grasp the significance of this news. In the first stage of grieving, I was in denial. I asked him repeatedly if he was sure. He said it was virtually impossible but that if I went really, really fast, there was hope. I was absolutely devastated by this info. It put me in a major funk. I absolutely could not believe that I was in this position. I thought that I was running a nearly perfect race. Had I known we had time restraints, I would not have taken as many breaks and wouldn’t have stopped at all at certain points. I also would’ve maintained a faster pace. Now, ironically my casual race strategy had backfired on me.
Deeper into this night, the bitter cold returned. Up ahead I saw a bright light which turned out to be a pretty strong fire that had been started by a snowmobile guide. He had come down from the Ken Lake checkpoint to take out one of the Englishmen who had now succumbed to severe frostbite of seven of his fingers. To fend off further damage, I gave him my warmest mittens and several chemical heat packs. The other guys were fighting off frostbite of a toe and a finger respectively. I also gave them some chemical heat packs. Though I probably should’ve just busted my ass onward to try to salvage my race, I stayed behind, filling my thermoses with melted snow and eating some camp food. I didn’t want to leave my new comrades. We were all in a bad way, them physically and me emotionally. They set up their sleeping arrangements, yet I continued on.
Fourteen miles out from the checkpoint, I had become extremely sleep tired and was left with no choice but to sleep on the lake. I was too far from land where the temperature would be at least 10° warmer. Once again, I had great trouble sleeping but the rest seemed somewhat useful this time. I decided to be cute and sleep on top of the frame I had built for my sled bag. Using my two sleep pads as a mattress, I rested precariously on this delicate PVC tubing frame. Of course, I initially fell off into the snow adjacent to the trail. I cursed as I wiggled myself while in my sleeping bag back on top of the sled bag frame. I had to be extremely careful so as not to disrupt my hydration bladder which could spill its contents into a disaster of a situation. After I had made my decision to leave the safety of my warm cocoon, I had a little accident requiring me to wash my hands. Left with no choice, I had to clean them in the snow. Already hypervigilant about avoiding frostbite, I rinsed my hands in the snow as quickly as humanly possible. I dried them to the best of my ability and stuff them in my warmest mittens. I clapped my hands together about 100 times to restore maximal blood flow. This was a seriously dangerous situation. I singularly focused my attention on this task and fortunately was able to avert disaster.
I made very good time the next few miles. Every 10 steps or so my foot would punch through the windblown crusty snow down to the lake ice impeding my progress. I fought off the ever-present temptation to get annoyed. I told myself I couldn’t change the conditions. I could only change my response to them. I had no choice but to move forward. The English guys passed me while I had rested during my last stop. We leapfrogged quite a bit. Along the way Lee pointed out the Aurora Borealis/Northern lights. I couldn’t believe my eyes. They were as amazing as advertised.
I caught up to them again four miles from the checkpoint. They decided to sleep until daybreak. Thinking my race was over anyways because of the time issue, I decided to join them. Yet again, I really couldn’t sleep in these conditions. After an hour, I packed up and was on my way. I pushed on to the Ken Lake checkpoint and was greeted by Trish, one of the awesome, enthusiastic race volunteers/medics who had come over from England.
She and Sarah, another fantastic English medic escorted me up the ridiculously steep embankment to the wall tent containing a nice wood stove and a respite from the cold. The checkpoint captain, Bernard, provided amazing hospitality. While waiting at this checkpoint for my snowmobile ride to Carmacks, I developed a strong connection with him, a rugged yet very friendly hard-core Yukoner.
I confirmed with them that it would be virtually impossible for me to make the time cut off at the next checkpoint at Carmacks, 35 miles away. I had dug myself too deep a hole. In a sleep deprived and emotionally broken zombie state, I succumbed to the intoxicating warmth of the fire and a hot meal. After 30 more minutes, I could then fully comprehend my state. I now would not finish the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra for the second year in a row. Going 44 miles further than last year and eventually learning that only two of 21 starters would finish was small consolation.
I cannot describe how painful the feeling of self-disappointment and missed opportunity has affected me. Sure my ego has taken a hit. But that’s actually a very small part of it. I know I can do better. I hold myself to a very high standard. In a race of this difficulty, one can’t make mistakes. Yet here I was making different and easily correctable mistakes this second year: I had gone out too slowly. I stopped too often. I didn’t load my sled correctly. The silly PVC tubing frame had added unnecessary weight. I had taken way too much extra stuff. And, I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t even know of the time cut off at the Carmacks checkpoint.
Sure it was dangerously cold this year. Sure the soft snow/course conditions made the pace slower than usual. Sure it cost me some time to stop and help fellow competitors. But I wouldn’t change the latter for anything. I probably could’ve received a time credit from the race director for helping them had I asked. But in my mind, I have now fully accepted my outcome. There’s nothing I can do about it except learn from it, grow from it and come back stronger. As one of my Swiss friends said after the race, “We win some and we learn some!” So true. So true.
I felt the same “pain” last year but not nearly as badly. Now, should I choose to attempt this beast of a race again, I’ll have to wait an entire year.
Training and preparing for the 2020 MYAU has been fantastic. I met some great new friends from other parts of the world. I saw some amazing scenery. I’ve encouraged and inspired others and this brings me great pleasure.
As I say all the time, my not finishing is a “First World Problem.” I have so many amazing blessings, many of which I don’t deserve.
I truly am so grateful.