2022 Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra
When was the last time you’re really wanted to turn back time? Well for me that was when I was back in my warm hotel room in Whitehorse, Yukon Canada after having failed again at completing the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra. Feeling warm, dry and still quite fresh, I so badly wanted to go back out to the point on the course where I elected to stop/quit. But it was too late. Of course, it was a ridiculous thought. I had my chance. In fact, as I will discuss much more later, this is my third and (likely final) chance. Now, the disappointment in myself and the frustration was irreversible. All I could do was accept it and move on.
I had prepared ideally for this event. My confidence couldn’t be higher. I had confided in a few people that I thought I would have the race of my life. My mindset could not have been better. As usual, I had achieved a very high fitness level. From a mental skills standpoint, I finally had arrived at a very good place. My coach prepared me perfectly. Now I just needed to execute. (Easier said than done!)
The pre-race chatter among the participants of warmer than usual temperatures coupled with predictions of excessive snowfall barely bothered me. Everyone thought the conditions would make for an even tougher than usual race. And that is saying something for an event that is billed as the “World’s Coldest and Toughest Ultra.”
Boy did they end up being spot on and boy did I end up being completely off the mark.
I arrived at the Whitehorse airport late on Monday Feb 3. Waiting for our luggage, I finally met up with Daniel, an experienced ultra-racer who had finished the 430 mile distance of this event previously. He was the real deal. Three years ago, he unfortunately got pulled from the course because of frostbite.
We shared a taxi ride to the hotel. I spent a great deal of time with him in the days leading up to the race and in fact walked to the starting line with him. At our prerace breakfast, we decided to work together the whole race unless one of us was really struggling or one of us was really excelling.
The next morning, he had some online business to take care of, so I went down to breakfast myself but then was invited over to the table of Alex and Mark, two very experienced ultra-marathoners and adventurers themselves.
Mark was nursing a very sore foot making it difficult for him to walk 20 feet. Certainly, he was concerned about finishing a 300 mile extreme ultra in Arctic conditions. Alex’s resume included summits of K2 and Mount Everest! After this race, he would be going to Sweden for the Lapland Arctic Ultra, as I was planning. Between now and then though he was planning on doing a solo summit of Mount McKinley/Denali in Alaska. Then unbelievably after Sweden he planned on doing a fully unsupported crossing of Greenland. I felt like I was in rare company.
Later that day I went to buy final equipment as well as more trail mix and chocolate. That evening all of us including Daniel went to dinner and stuffed ourselves including a few local beers. Somehow before leaving San Diego, I forgot to buy my favorite electrolyte energy powder, Tailwind which works great for me. I couldn’t find it anywhere in Whitehorse, so I had to settle for good old Gatorade.
The next morning, we had our official prerace meeting, online. Then I completed my mandatory gear/safety check. I went out for a two-mile test of my sled/harness set up. Everything was perfect to this point.
We all had an early dinner again and I ended up retiring to bed early. Tomorrow would be race day. All systems were go.
Race morning, Daniel and I had breakfast. We both had a skip in our step and our energy was palpable. Honestly, I was nervous up until two days ago, but this was not replaced by confident excitement. We walked the one mile to the start line arriving 10 minutes or so before go time. After a few photos and media interviews, we were off.
I maintained a brisk pace, even passing the marathoners and hundred milers who had started before us. About 5 miles in, I stopped to pee, and Daniel pulled ahead. Surprisingly, I wouldn’t see him again until the first checkpoint, around mile 25. I could have charged to catch up with him but it would be silly at this early stage.
Before long, the snowfall started. I loved it. Despite the temperature being between zero and 10 above, I noticed I was working up a light sweat and my lightweight puffy jacket was getting wet as well. I unzipped all the way and untucked my two wool base layers allowing better ventilation. Perspiration in these cold weather events can lead to hypothermia later when one slows down or stops. That’s one thing I love about ultras: having to solve problems… and quickly.
Surprisingly, I encountered a section of soft mud, flowing from the riverbank. We had no choice but to go through it, having been told repeatedly by the race staff not to go off the established trail on the rivers and lakes. This mud would freeze on the bottoms of my boots and for some reason became extremely hard to remove.
At Checkpoint One--Muktuk Adventures, a working kennel for sled dogs, I changed into a water repellent down jacket and completed the medical check. The staff looks for signs of developing frostbite or excessive sweating. Fighting off the innumerable hungry free-roaming dogs, I scarfed down the provided meal of stew, a roll and a delicious fudge brownie. As I was just about to leave, Stephan from Germany asked if he could head out with me because his teammate from Germany decided to drop at this point. This seemed like a great idea because Daniel had pulled ahead of me.
For the next 15 miles, he and I worked together great. We enjoyed nice conversations but also long stretches of connected silence. Soon we passed Daniel who had pulled off the trail and was firing up his stove to have a hot meal.
A few miles later and much earlier than I wanted to, Stephan decided to pull off and sleep for a bit. It’s called “taking a bivy,” which is short for bivouac. (Means resting in a temporary camp without shelter) Since I felt so strong and I had no issues, I decided to continue alone. (I would later regret not following their plan.) Two years ago, I rested when not tired and ate when not hungry, choosing to join other racers in an attempt to pace myself carefully. I ended up not making a time cut off at of the checkpoints which ended my race. I didn’t want that to happen again this year.
At 5:30 AM, I had become sleep tired and decided to “bivy” as well. About two hours into my nap, I was bumped into by the passing sleds of Daniel and Stefan. I thought I had pulled far enough off the trail but when turning over in my sleeping bag, I must have slid back into the center of the trail. I woke up briefly from my deep slumber and should’ve pulled my butt up and carried on with them. I woke up at 9:30 and noted that faint daylight had arrived. I slept longer than I wanted but I must have needed it. The snow was coming down pretty hard now and the temperature had fallen quite a bit. It ended up taking me roughly an hour to be on my way again. Packing up all my stuff in these conditions always challenges me. One end of my sled bag zipper had become stuck and I couldn’t fix it. Therefore, I had to open my bag from one end every time, complicating things. My fingertips got painfully cold and white after only 20 seconds or so at a time of exposure to the cold air. I had no choice because I couldn’t stuff my sleeping bag back in its pack and couldn’t fumble with clasps with gloves or mittens on. Every two minutes or so, I wasted a few minutes warming up my fingers to prevent frostbite.
I took the time to eat about a thousand calories and hydrated up. Noting that my cell phone was almost dead, I spent about 20 stupid minutes looking for my iPhone charging cable but to no avail. Either through really bad luck or random oversight, I must have somehow not packed one. This crushed my spirits me when I realized I would have to go at least another six days without music, audiobooks, navigation or being able to take photos and video. In my prerace planning, I had color-coded with tape all my different electronics and cables. Often, I over organize and can’t find something as a result. At this point, dwelling on this issue accomplished nothing positive. It only made me angrier. I had to carry on.
While I slept, the snow had accumulated such that I could barely see Daniel’s and Stephan’s tracks. The miles became much more difficult and my sled seemed to double in weight. To make matters worse, my boots were still caked with a combination of mud and ice such that I couldn’t get any traction. And of course, of all places, this coincided with the long climb to the next checkpoint. With the increasing steepness of the climbing and the deepening snow, my pace plummeted--- along with my attitude. Despite my greatest use of all my mental skills preparation, my spirit was breaking.
I fell victim to my personal greatest trap in ultras: thinking about how much further I had to go in these conditions. I had told myself repeatedly to stay in the moment and focus on the here and now. I told myself to break down sections to very small chunks. This tactic had worked great in many of my previous races including the brutal 350 mile Iditarod Trail invitational which I proudly finished last February. That accomplishment had given me great confidence entering Yukon.
Despite great efforts, I started listening to my emotions and stopped acting logically and rationally. I felt like I was being sucked down in quicksand. My mindset had become all negative as a result of all these factors:
1. knowing that conditions would be getting worse with more snow in the forecast
2. not being able to find my iPhone charging cable and knowing that I had seemingly endless hours of no stimulation and/or distraction
3. thinking that I would still have 241 miles to go when I reached the next checkpoint
4. having to use Gatorade instead of Tailwind as my electrolyte/energy drink
5. slip-sliding with every step because of built-up snow and ice on my boots, causing ridiculous frustration
6. thinking about the stupid broken zipper on my sled bag
7. kicking myself for not having stopped to take a nap when Stephan did or stopped to have a warm meal like Daniel did
Even with my horrible defeatist mindset, I soldiered on a few more miles. The incessant climbing was breaking me. It seemed like every time I thought the trail would level out or go downhill, I would be faced with another long climb. I couldn’t take it anymore. I got down on one knee and told myself I had to dig deep, like I’ve never done before. But today, I just didn’t have it. After five minutes of deliberating, I made my decision. I actually said out loud ”F#CK IT. This is futile.”
I laid on my sled five more minutes. I simply couldn’t talk myself back into the game. I hit the non-emergency help button on my GPS tracker and waited for a snowmobile ride to the checkpoint.
About 30 minutes later three trail guides arrived. Gary who I befriended from my previous trips to the Yukon asked” Russ. Is that you?” I said “Yup. And I’m done.”
It’s certainly not his responsibility but looking back, I so much wish he would’ve encouraged me to carry on because I probably would have. With a little nudging and encouragement, I probably would’ve changed my mind.
Before I knew it, my sled was secured to his trailer then I hopped behind him on his snowmobile for the four mile ride to the next checkpoint, Dog Grave Lake. I’m going to change the name now to “Russ’s Grave Lake.)
We passed Stefan and Daniel who were only about three miles ahead of where I quit. It seemed like they gave me funny looks as I rode past them. My guess is that they thought” what the hell happened to Russ?!” Since they hadn’t pulled very far ahead, they must have struggled mightily also.
After eating some spaghetti and meatballs, I warmed up and changed into different clothes for the snowmobile ride back to the closest road. Another competitor who had to stop because of frostbite on his feet joined us on the caravan along with a third trail guide. He would pick up yet another competitor along the way who had scratched many miles behind me.
Around 11 pm, I was back in my hotel room, trying to process everything. At this point in my life, I wasn’t concerned about any potential hit to my ego or concern about what other people thought about my third DNF/scratch in this race. I was overwhelmingly just disappointed IN MYSELF.
I just didn’t have it this year for Yukon. The first year, I did well, making 86 miles and experienced easy to make mistakes and learned from them. The second time, I did great also, performance-wise and made it 138 miles in dangerously cold conditions but just made tactical errors of going too slowly, putting me too far behind in the race against the clock.
This year… I still don’t have a good handle as to how this all came to be. It’s one of the toughest or perhaps the toughest sport I know and the known challenges are daunting. With the unknown challenges there’s virtually no room for error.
I have great respect for all who toe’d the start line and especially the five people who finished the run division and for Jessie, who won the race overall on a fat-bike.
After having been kicked in the gut at Yukon, I plan on attempting a new sister-race to Yukon—The Lapland Arctic Ultra, in Sweden in a few weeks. There should be more snow but I predict a much better trail. I’ll be damn sure not to make the same mistakes over there!! (And I’m gonna pack about ten iPhone charging cables!!)
My mode of thinking going into the Sweden race:
“Fall Down Seven Times. Get Up Eight”