Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra--LONG race recap February 2023
430 Miles, Whitehorse to Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada
WARNING: This recap is very long and detailed, hoping to give the reader the experience of actually being there with me in the race. There are also some graphic, raw descriptions.
The time had come. I started training physically and more so mentally about a week after having quit 54 miles into last year’s race. Here I was on the starting line for the FOURTH time of the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra, billed as the World’s Coldest and Toughest Ultramarathon. I had not finished the 300-mile distance three times. Though many people probably thought it was a fool’s mission to not only try again but to attempt the longer 430-miler, I just had to finish this bugger. It wasn’t to prove anything to anyone. It was for myself. I knew in my heart of hearts that I could… and I would. I wanted to test my personal limits and to see if I could truly maximize my full potential in this ultimate test in the harshest of conditions.
The physical training I had down: I tolerated innumerable 18-pound weighted vest runs over 16 hilly miles, taxing me tremendously. I had completed tons of lung-busting high-intensity strength workouts, hot yoga workouts, and cold plunges. I had lots of all-day runs, some on little or no sleep. I dragged a tire at altitude on snowy trails.
Around Mile 86 in the first year, I got spooked by the extreme cold and harsh conditions, only seven miles from a checkpoint. I was charging too much in a race that required great patience and discipline. I hadn’t eaten or drunk enough or rested enough. I started getting confused and scared. In a state of panic, I pushed the SOS button on my tracker, ending my race.
The next year, I overcompensated. I started slowly and stopped to rest too often and too long which put me behind time-wise. Thinking I had a great race going, approaching the Mile 138 checkpoint/Ken Lake, I was told I wouldn’t make the time cutoff at the next CP. I was devastated.
Last year I came back with a rather cavalier attitude, not truly ready to compete. At only Mile 53, I basically said “F*** it!” for petty silly reasons: my shoes were icing up, preventing me from getting good traction in the deep snow. I couldn’t find my iPhone charging cable so I’d have to do the rest of the race with no music, navigation or the ability to take photos or videos. I wasn’t living in the moment, allowing myself to spiral out of control, into a negative mindset. I knew the heavy snowfall would make conditions only worse.
This year I couldn’t have been more ready. My body was in peak condition. From a mental standpoint, I had done my homework. I had the mindset that the course wouldn’t break me. Moreover, I wouldn’t break myself! As an impatient person by nature (I’m an ER doctor, and we get shit done!) I would use the mantra of “Patience and Persistence.”
I was ALL IN and ready to go.
Chapter 1 – Pre-race
I arrived in Whitehorse, Yukon several days ahead of time to bank some sleep, assure my equipment (“kit” as Europeans would say) was all set and that everything would be perfect come the morning of the race. Mostly virgin, harsh, unspoiled wilderness, Yukon is the westernmost province of Canada, north of British Columbia and east of Alaska.
I enjoyed reuniting with other racers from all over the world, who I had met before (the long-distance winter racing, ultra-community is pretty small) and meeting other freaks new to this race. It’s amazing how similar we are! I formed a particularly strong connection with Henrik Benzon from Denmark, Javed Bhatti from England, Chad Barber from Canada, Kike’ Maravilla from Spain, Dirk Groth from Australia, Tommy Chen from Taiwan, and Joaquin Candel from Las Vegas (via Spain).
A few of us went out on a six-mile test run on the Yukon River, built a fire, and set up our sleeping system. Everything went great except that I sat too close to the fire, unknowingly and quickly melting a small section of my new race boots. What a fool I was! This required a quick trip to the store for some “Shoe Goo” to repair it.
For the next three nights, we further bonded during our nightly dinners. Though this was a competition, none of us saw it that way. We all wanted the best for other competitors and would help each other as much as the race rules allowed.
I suspected my low back might give me problems dragging my sled over the 430 miles, so when I learned that Chad was a chiropractor, I asked him to work on my chronically tight back muscles, specifically the quadratus lumborum. He performed his magic, and my back never felt looser. I was so grateful.
At the pre-race dinner, we all enjoyed a party-like atmosphere. The food was delicious, and it took discipline not to overeat. There, I finally met Kirsty Thomson-Gladish, the mother of legendary Jessie Howland. I had had quite a bit of online correspondence with Kirsty, who as a true “Yukoner” who lives up in Dawson City, gave me a card wishing me the best of success. She said she’d be at the finish line waiting for me with a plate of warm moose lasagna. Her coming to introduce herself and giving me the card really meant a lot to me.
Chapter 2 - Race Day
I went to bed at 9 pm but slept fitfully as I had already banked lots of sleep in the previous days. I woke up at 7 am, bursting with energy. After a small breakfast, I noticed I had a reassuring sense of calm which gave me confidence. My state of mind couldn’t have been better. Physically, I felt strong as an ox and fit as an Olympian – I was ready for battle.
We all loaded up our pulks (sleds) to be taken to the start, and a group of us then walked the mile to the location. I felt like a racehorse bursting with energy.
The race chaplain, my good friend Pat Cooke-Rogers led a group prayer at the starting line. At “Yukon Prayer” a few days earlier, attended by about 25 people, she told us to “embrace the Race.” I would end up doing just that. What great sage advice, Pat!
At just after 10:30 am on February 4, 2023, at Shipyard’s Park in Whitehorse, we were off. I settled into a brisk, steady pace on the Yukon River. Before long, I reached the Takhini Bridge, the first sign of significant progress. Here we would make a left turn onto the Takhini River. Peter Mild, a former racer from Sweden who now volunteers his time as a race official, pointed the way to the first checkpoint. I love that guy!
At CP #1, a dog kennel named Muktuk Adventures, we had our first and customary frostbite check by the medics. We were given a meal that consisted of some stew, a hot drink (cocoa for me), and a cookie. We topped off our thermoses with hot water and headed back on the river for the 35-mile stretch to Dog Grave Lake.
Chapter 3 - Muktuk to Dog Grave Lake (Mile 59) 35 miles
I left the kennel with my old friend Kike’ Maravilla. We shared a special bond as we both were multi-year non-finishers. (He and I had a score to settle!) We enjoyed some fun conversations on the Yukon Overland Trail as it turned into nighttime. We made good progress in what had now become true backcountry wilderness. What a difference a year makes! I had a rough time the year before through here but this time things couldn’t have been better. I was thriving and I had a good feeling it would continue. I chose not to sleep until mile 75 or so.
Kike’ slept earlier than I wanted to, so I just carried on. At Dog Grave Lake CP #2, I attended to some developing blisters, inhaled about 1500 calories, relaxed by a blazing campfire, changed from a combo of Injinji toe socks and wool socks to a singular Sealskin neoprene, waterproof yet breathable socks. This ended up working perfectly.
Chapter 4 - Dog Grave Lake to Braeburn (Mile 93) 34 miles
Carrying on, I met up with John Nakel, an engineer from Ohio, with two young daughters. We had a lot in common. John and I decided to make an attempt at sleep halfway to Braeburn: we both failed.
I “woke up” earlier than he did, not able to get much actual sleep. Just lying in the sleeping bag was restful but I needed sleep, not just rest. The more I laid there awake, the more frustrated I became. I packed up camp and made strong headway to Braeburn. Long, straight stretches seemed never-ending, challenging my mental strength and discipline still less than one-fifth of the way into the race. After what seemed like forever, I made the turn and steep descent onto Braeburn Lake. In a mile, I endured a quad-busting climb up the other bank onto the windy, hilly one-mile trail into Braeburn Lodge. I was way ahead of schedule, as I noted the time of day. My plan was to charge up all my electronics (cell phone, In Reach GPS device, headlamps, and Power banks, while I would try to get a solid four-hour block of essential sleep.)
Here, the owner made me a 1500-calorie meal of eggs, toast, and sausage. After absolutely grossing out the medics with my nasty, blistered toes and squirting out a pint of fluid (a little exaggeration!), I redressed my feet with duct tape and moleskin.
I shared the sleep room with eventual winner Matt Weighman though he said he had trouble sleeping as well. The doorknob to our cabin was broken, basically locking him in. It took him a few minutes to get out. I was going to make a joke that it was a trick on my part to slow him down so I could catch up with him but we were so bushed that neither of us had the energy to be silly.
Once again, I couldn’t fall asleep as my heart pounded and raced. Still having not taken caffeine, my HR hovered around 110 at rest. What the hell was going on I wondered. I tried breathing exercises, medication, [A1] and prayer all of which helped only a little. Out of four hours, I probably only slept one.
So I decided to quit wasting my time and head back out.
Chapter [A2] 5 - Braeburn to Mandana Lake (Mile 145ish) 52 miles
Coincidentally, John and I were ready to leave at the exact same time. He too had continued sleep issues. But I wouldn’t let the length of this notoriously cold section intimidate me. A few years ago, I slept here in negative 46 F weather, not knowing at the time what the actual temperature was. I really wanted to get this section behind me. Somebody offered me a liter bottle of Coke which I decided to guzzle down. It went against logic to take caffeine but being logical wasn’t working anyway so why the hell not, I thought.
John and I worked well together all the way to Mandana. We took brief re-energizing naps on top of our sleds, donning our expedition-weight, down parkas which kept us warm enough. We knocked off 15 miles before dawn. The gorgeous Yukon sunrise really perked up our spirits. All seemed right in the world: we were challenging ourselves to the max and absolutely thriving. There was no motion, and no noise, except the crunching of our feet on the crisp snow. We were safe and with like-minded companions doing what we loved. Except for coveting elusive sleep, we couldn’t have been happier. Fresh wolf tracks on the trail were the icing on the cake. Someday, I hope to see a wolf up close in the wild. A few years ago, I saw an all-black one in this same area, but it was far away, running across the lake.
Later, as an added bonus, the heavens treated John and I to the first of many, absolutely glorious Northern Lights/Aurora Borealis light shows. We couldn’t believe how widespread and vivid the green dancing lights exploded in the crystal clear sky.
The five to eight mile long lake crossings surely tested our patience. At Mandana Lake, we were told to expect the checkpoint to be at the northernmost end. A few miles away, John made out a tiny strand of smoke, spiraling skyward, giving us hope that the checkpoint would come. As always, as we neared our target, it seemed like it was being moved away continuously. The mind can play cruel tricks on us, especially in ultras.
After a day and a half of continuous, hard, diligent work, we finally arrived. And after a refeed, frostbite check, filling our thermoses with hot water and organizing our pulks, John and I STILL couldn’t sleep well in the relatively warm and very sunny conditions. Neither of us wanted to waste the coveted daytime hours.
I heard a commotion during a brief period of sleep. It was John, packing up already. He said “Russ, I just can’t sleep. I’m gonna get going.” I really liked John and we shared some good times together, so I decided to head out with him too.
While laying down at Mandana, I noted my $250 XPed sleeping pad wouldn’t hold air from an obvious leak. I checked the inflation nozzle which wasn’t the source. I was pretty sure I must’ve stepped on the pad with my shoe spikes. Thank goodness the race rules required a second sleeping mat, so I stacked up my jackets in one so my torso had more insulation from the frigid arctic tundra.
Chapter 6 -Mandana Lake to Carmacks (Mile 173) 27 miles
During the late afternoon, we crossed a large, previously burned area. With the setting sun behind us, we enjoyed gorgeous, 360-degree views of the horizon.
Along the way, we saw a snowmobile heading toward us. It was my good friend and race photographer, Mark Kelly. He captured some great shots, also allowing us the excuse to take a little break for rest and food. A very positive and resourceful guy, Mark gave me a boost of confidence as he has always been very supportive and helpful.
Though I wanted to linger with Mark a bit longer, we had a race to complete. I stretched my increasingly achy back muscles, and John and I were on our way.
During this section, the lack of sleep started causing serious problems. I needed SLEEP badly. I so appreciated John’s patience as he allowed me to take periodic ten-minute sled naps. They were tremendously restorative. John handled his sleep deprivation stoically. I could tell he was hurting but he never complained. When we did talk, he did so slowly with a little slurring and with droopy eyelids. He was a warrior, and I tried to feed off his strength. The tiredness started manifesting also as diffuse deep back and chest wall pain, which I’ve had before.
We suffered on our way into Carmacks. I’ve been absolutely destroyed before with fatigue but this time it was at another level. I had no choice but to power on and block it out of my mind. I would close my eyes to a squint and march like a robot, periodically weaving off the edge of the trail, falling into waist-deep snow.
A group of other racers bunched up entering the “big city.” I noticed that none of us were talking. At Carmacks Community Center, I did a full “reset” hoping to get a solid eight hours of sleep in addition to all the usual tasks.
After getting a decent but much less than desired four hours of solid sleep, I headed downstairs where I joined the walking wounded. I finished a large bowl of beef stew, and while we ate, race director Robert mentioned that he was 100% sure I would finish this year. I loved his confidence in me. At the time, I didn’t want the added pressure but deep down, I knew it was good for me.
We had cell service so I checked in with the family reassuring them that things were going very well, relatively speaking.
Chapter 7 -Carmacks to McCabe (Mile 211) 38 miles
It turned out that my Danish friends, Henrik and Michael, were heading out with me at the same time, right at daybreak. Outside, they were interviewed for Danish television. I noted the extreme cold, it felt around negative 25 F or so. All of us racers would take those temps as it sure could’ve been much colder. After just five steps or so, I turned back to check if I forgot anything as I almost always do, and noticed my hiking poles leaning against the building. Phew… I dodged a bullet there.
After a few miles, the “Great Danes” were pulling away from me. I wanted to stay with them and certainly could have but I thought it best not to press things. I reminded myself to “run my own race.”
While eating some chocolate-covered almonds, I suddenly bit into what felt like a rock. “Uh oh!” I said. I immediately knew what it was. A recent new crown that had just been re-glued on one of my upper molars the week before the race, came loose. I even told myself to avoid chewing with that area but it still happened. Now, I had to make sure I didn’t lose that little thing because it cost nearly $2000! I put it in the plastic bag containing my driver’s license, cash and credit cards then kept it in the same pants pocket for the rest of the race.
Along here, I leapfrogged with Canadian Brian James who looked as strong as ever. He too pulled ahead. With dogged persistence over miles of ”jumble ice” on rivers, I arrived at the next CP, McCabe. Similar to ski moguls, the jumble ice made for slow and very annoying progress.
Here, I dried out my socks and shoes, put in as many calories as allowed, and was finally able to get some adequate sleep. Upon awakening, I re-taped my feet with duct tape. Aussie Joel Rennie, an ER/ICU nurse, graciously offered his skills to do a much better job than I did. I jumped on the offer.
Joel had a rough start to his race, succumbing to GI distress causing him to stop his race at the first checkpoint. He had to drop out and then recover in his hotel in Whitehorse for a few days. With the blessing of the race director, he was allowed to rejoin the race later but now unofficially as an “unranked” athlete. He spent so much time, effort and money to participate and he had brought his girlfriend, mother and father to come be with him so he wanted to salvage as much of the race experience as possible.
We learned that we had quite a bit in common. He said, “Hey Russ, I think I’ll head out with you.” I was delighted as I would love his company.
We ended up pretty much doing the remainder of the race together.
At McCabe, I had to address two potentially serious issues. Foremost was that my heart rate was fast, preventing me from sleeping well. I could hear my pulse in my temporal artery while trying to rest. Having had issues with a slow HR while exercising since my Covid booster last spring (yup, I’m going there!), I was very sensitive to my heart. I was cleared of any definite diagnosis by an athlete cardiologist after a full workup many months ago.
The other issue was that I was retaining fluid, from taking in too much sodium, primarily from my Tailwind electrolyte/energy drink. I had also been eating lots of bacon. I stopped both and indeed the issue would later resolve. I love being able to solve problems in races.
At McCabe, I witnessed the emotional devastation of my friend Michael from Denmark. He had to drop out of the race because of severe pain and swelling of his ankle from what appeared to be tendonitis. It had become swollen twice the normal size and had turned black and blue. It actually looked fractured.
I tried to encourage him to head out with me to the CP, knowing it was a short segment. I asked if he was 100% sure he couldn’t go on. He replied sternly “200 %.” I felt horrible for him. He had a great race going having invested so much time, energy, and money to get to this point. People don’t realize what it takes to get to this level of racing. These long winter ultra’s are the extreme of the extreme. Most racers are older as it takes years to graduate to this level. The mental toughness takes a long time to develop, honed by experiencing success and lots of failure through other demanding races along the way. For the MYAU, many athletes have failed five times or more, yet still come back to fight to achieve their goal.
Michael was “broken.” I’ve been there before. I wish I could’ve helped him but couldn’t. I had no choice but to carry on, feeling as if I was climbing Mt. Everest and I was leaving him on the side of the mountain to die. Though it may sound overly dramatic, he seemed to be dying inside.
Chapter 8 - McCabe to Pelly Crossing (Mile 239) 28 miles
In the late afternoon, Joel and I took off at a strong power-walking pace. We covered seven miles every two hours over punchy, soft-snow trails. He suggested a strategy of two-hour pushes followed by a feeding stop no matter what. I loved that because it broke things up nicely, allowing us to eat up some miles with brief respite rewards along the way.
Just after sunrise, we arrived at Pelly Crossing. Joel’s girlfriend (an ER doctor like myself, of all things) met us on the trail and escorted us in. I didn’t know she would be there. Joel sure perked up when he saw her.
In a small room of the local school, I gobbled up food, charged my electronics and made a few short phone calls. It was a busy and noisy area making sleeping nearly impossible, as much as I needed it.
On my way to the bathroom before heading out, I passed the teachers’ lounge where I saw two nearly full, open boxes of fat, juicy donuts, with not a soul in sight. My self-discipline was tested in that moment. (You’ll have to read the pay version of my race recap to find out what I did!) What would you have done?!
In that room was a massage chair of all things. Oh, the mental torment! What would you have done here?
Chapter 9 - Pelly Crossing to Pelly Farm (Mile 272) 33 miles
Joel and I headed out early in the a.m. after he was able to spend some quality time with his girlfriend and mom. I was so happy for him. We passed Kike’ who had left a few hours earlier.
The temperature had dropped again, feeling around minus 30 F to me. Joel and I slept about halfway through this segment, forced to do so on the frigid river ice. I set up just off the edge of the trail but must’ve slid into the trail as I was awakened by some other racers making a comment about having to go around me.
As I had started to use caffeine and hydrate well, I awoke several times needing to pee. It’s unfairly torturous to have to wiggle out of the cozy, warm sleeping bag in these frigid conditions and to try to dig my guy out from under the four layers of undies, thermal layer, and two layers of insulated pants, and blindly so, in the dark. I had to do a one-armed plank while stretching out my peter with my other hand to prevent peeing into the sleeping bag, all while not hurting myself. I cursed my Creator for not having endowed me better which would’ve made it a lot easier to pee past the edge of my sleeping bag. Try doing this at home and see how hard it is! From then on, I remembered to have a pee bottle with me in the sleeping bag.
As dawn broke, I suddenly experienced a wave of strong assurance that I would finish this race. Up to this point, I still had occasional doubt that I was able to stifle with positive self-thought and confidence in my training and abilities. This moment brought tremendous relief and empowerment.
In a few hours, I saw Pelly Farm off in the distance. It came sooner than expected. I pulled ahead of Joel, pointing out the farm to him. There we knew the race rules required us to stay a minimum of eight hours, which would all but ensure I would finally sleep, sleep, sleep.
Pelly Farm is an oasis of pleasure among the cold, dark, starkness of the Yukon wilderness. The Bradley’s open their home to strangers, treating all as family members.
I might’ve eaten the most delicious moose lasagna of all time before sleeping for six hours. In the a.m., I devoured a stack of the best pancakes and eggs before leaving for the next segment. I put about a half inch of butter and a gallon of maple syrup on them!
Knowing I absolutely had to get at least six hours of quality sleep, I asked if they had any whiskey, which I knew would work. Again, you’ll have to buy the paid version of this recap to find out what happened!
We were escorted to a sleeping cabin away from the main building where I dove under a thick blanket on a couch next to a wood stove. I slept like a baby among several other loudly-snoring racers. I overslept my alarm which didn’t bother me a bit, knowing the sleep would pay huge dividends.
I prepared myself for the dreaded 65-mile stretch to Scroggie Creek CP. To me, this was “the race within the race.” But at Pelly, I learned that the CP after that (Indian River) was moved 19 miles [A3] further making that segment 69 miles!! I was crushed.
I had to dig deep into my mental skills toolbox. This was exactly what I had prepared for. Imagine the situation: leaving a cozy, warm couch, deep asleep, knowing I had to go out in the dark Canadian wilderness for a 65-mile stretch, followed by a 69-mile stretch, after having already covered 272 miles. I had no other choice but to attack it. I compared it to having to go tell an ER patient some devastating news that they had widespread cancer and that they likely only had a few months to live. There was no alternative other than to just GO DO IT.
Chapter 10 - Pelly Farm to Scroggie Creek (Approx Mile 360) 65 miles
In the still dark a.m., Joel and I took off, chewing up miles quite rapidly. The old cliché of “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time” applied here perfectly. The same with a long segment in an ultra. How do you attack a 65-mile then a 69-mile stretch in an Arctic ultra? One mile at a time!
My mental skills coach, Brian Alexander, had taught me to use anchoring techniques with mantras. In these long stretches and throughout the race, when I was struggling, I chose to repeat occasionally: “This will end.” “Patience and Persistence.” “Remember all the training you’ve done.” “Embrace the Race.”
I also prayed. One of my favorites: Proverbs 3: 5-6: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; Acknowledge Him in all your ways, and He will make your paths straight.”
I also actually laughed at the ridiculousness of the ordeal. I would purposefully talk to the trees by saying “Look at this goofball out here going 430 plus miles in these conditions. How stupid is he?!” I would sing made up verses that if heard by others would put me in a mental institution. I couldn’t sing too loudly, or Joel would’ve freaked out.
Over the 429-ish hours, I also listened to music, a few podcasts, and some audiobooks by Cameron Hanes, David Goggins, Tony Robbins, and Tim Grover. My favorite Spotify channel helped tremendously: Fearless Motivation. Mostly though, I enjoyed the silence and solitude.
During really tough times, I thought of what I would do after finishing. I thought of how I would cherish my long, warm post-race shower in the hotel; how I would lay on the soft hotel bed and stare up at the ceiling saying “I did it, after failing three times;” how I would love the shuttle drive back to Whitehorse with the other racers; how I would embrace my wife and daughters back in San Diego; how I would savor sitting in my hot tub back home; how I would savor my before-bed huge bowls of Breyer’s vanilla ice cream, smothered with chocolate syrup and peanuts; how I would delight in a relaxing massage post-race.”
Don’t get me wrong. I mostly absolutely loved doing the race. I cherished long periods of thriving in these conditions. I noticed and appreciated that the majority of the time, all seemed perfect in my world. I had made unquantifiable sacrifices to get here. I was in peak condition doing what I loved with like-minded people in my kind of paradise. Though maximally challenging, things couldn’t have been better, for me. This is what I live for!
Joel and I slept out on the trail around 40 miles after Pelly Farm. Previously, we had a long rest after building a decent campfire so Joel could dry out his wet socks. Kike’ from Spain was with us. We stayed here longer than I wanted but at this point, I didn’t care at all about how long it took me to finish the race or my place in the standings. I didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize my finish. I certainly could’ve gone faster. My euphoria grew with each mile. I wanted to cherish the experience. I reminded myself that I was in The Frickin’ Yukon, man, doing one of the most extreme events in the world and I was with two like-minded friends from the other side of the planet. How fortunate was I?!
To be honest, I hated sleeping out on the trail. It was such a hassle setting up and getting into and out of the sleeping bag. Also, fumbling with stuck zippers in a tight space and in the dark presented a very annoying challenge. This time, I remembered to bring my smallest thermos to pee into, taking care to keep it angled up so it didn’t spill out. Imagine how horrible it would be if I had to sleep against a frozen ball of my own piss in my sleeping bag for the rest of the race?
As the race went on, my sleep became deeper and more restful. However, between Pelly and Scroggie, I made an inexcusable, stupid, potentially life-threatening mistake.
In my sleeping bag, I noticed I was deeply hyperventilating. After a touch and go ten minutes, I realized what caused this. With the snow coming down into the open end of my sleeping bag (I should’ve turned it around 180 degrees), I had fully closed the zipper, to protect my head from the incoming snow. This forced me to rebreathe my expired carbon dioxide, while basically suffocating from lack of fresh air and therefore oxygen. I had surely become hyper-carbic with increased CO2 in my system in my body. Reflexively, my respiratory system attempted to compensate, manifesting as hyperventilation. As soon as I realized this, I opened the zipper. A minute later, my breathing normalized. Crisis averted. At least it would’ve been a peaceful way to go. Death by suffocation while sleeping. Good thing I had an ICU/ER nurse with me unless he would’ve checked on me too late.
With dogged persistence, we arrived at Scroggie Creek earlier than expected. Both of us had run out of water, Joel had us stop to melt some snow with our stoves. Just after starting the process, he called his girlfriend on his satellite phone to check in and learned we were less than a mile from the CP. Elated, we stopped the melting, quickly packed up and took off, knowing we would reload at Scroggie.
Approaching a bunch of lights, some festive music and the smell of campfire, we first encountered a slightly tipsy volunteer for the co-existing dogsled race, Yukon Quest. He jokingly said, “Only ten more K to your checkpoint. This is a timing station for the Quest.” He burst out in laughter as he reveled in my disappointment. After watching me suffer for a few seconds, he said, “Just messing with you, man, it’s that tent on the other side of those trees. “I wanted to hit him with my hiking pole for tormenting me but then immediately wanted to hug him.
At Scroggie, we could sleep inside on a warm bunk with a blanket. We could dry our clothes but only my socks were a little damp. We were given a meal and hot chocolate. Joel and I stayed there for around five hours. I loaded up on toilet paper having used up my supply a few stops ago, having had to raid my foot care kit to use gauze bandages, then later, spruce boughs (branches.) Hey, it’s an ultramarathon!
Chapter 11 - Scroggie Creek to new Indian River CP (Mile 406-ish) 69 miles
My spirits were sky-high leaving Scroggie. I had tackled what was going to be the hardest section for me. It went very well. Now, I reminded myself that I had “only” 100 miles to go — a 69-mile stretch and then the “victory lap” of a mostly downhill 31 miles to the finish.
Taking my first big swig of water from my thermos after the CP, I noticed a really unpleasant taste that I’d never had before. It was yellow and it tasted like urine. Aghast, I realized that I carelessly didn’t fully pour out the pee from the thermos I’d used in the sleeping bag the last time I slept. It had frozen while in my sled then thawed out at the CP while I was sleeping. The person who filled it before leaving the CP didn’t look to see that there was my yummy piss in it. I had drunk my own urine! Oh well, nitrogen is good for me, right? Nothing I could do about it now! I bet no one will ever take a drink from me again.
After knocking out around 30 miles, if I remember correctly, we had a never-ending climb of around five miles. As far ahead as we could see, it was uphill. What looked like a flattening ahead ended up being a turn into another long climb when we got there. Because of the prolonged and very hard exertion, Joel developed serious issues with sweating even with stripping down to only his base layer and outer layer. Then when we stopped for rest and feed breaks, he would get extremely cold. His base layer became wet, the kiss of death in winter ultras, putting him in a dangerous situation. I convinced him that he had no choice but to change into his backup base layer, though he wanted to save them for an emergency. I told him “Joel, this is an emergency.” He reluctantly agreed.
The weather turned scarily precarious with winds and drifting snow blowing at us on an exposed climb. We put on our down parkas while he called race HQ to let them know of a possible “situation” and for some advice. In my opinion, this was the roughest time of the race. We were late in the race, it was night, and we were completely exposed to the elements. Poor Joel started “jackhammering” as he stripped down to bare skin in negative 30-degree temps in blowing snow with no wind protection. I couldn’t imagine his suffering. He balanced precariously atop his shoes as he changed out of his wet socks. I jumped off from resting on my sled to hold him so he wouldn’t tip over into the snow. Even in my parka, I started to get very cold. We had to get moving ASAP.
He considered sheltering in place here and climbing into his sleeping bag to warm up. I thought of carrying on alone but told him “I’m not gonna leave you, Joel.” He had helped me so much to that point, I just couldn’t leave my wingman.
We were on our way and after 30 minutes of continuing the ridiculous climbing, he warmed up, another crisis averted. By the grace of God, the trail leveled off about an hour later, giving us a reprieve from the tough conditions. Physically, even these hard miles never tested my fitness. Internally, I said “C’mon, man!? Is that all you got? Bring it to me!” Mentally though, it sure was a test of patience and resilience. I passed that test.
We entered a huge mining district, passing gigantic equipment, bulldozers and dredges, idle this time of year.
Like an angel appearing among the white snow, Gary Rusnak, the main race snowmobile guide, approached us on his way out from the next CP patrolling the course. He knew these trails like the back of his hand, telling us we had almost exactly 50 miles left. Joel and I thought we had 60 left so we couldn’t believe the good news. We took a lengthy rest and feed break and enjoyed chatting with Gary. We thanked him for all his hard work over the years on behalf of all the racers.
We got into the final CP a few hours after dark.
At this last checkpoint, we were truly on “Cloud Nine.” Joel and I agreed to get five hours of sleep so we could attack the arduous climb up the famed “King Solomon’s Dome.” Legend has it that this mountain is the source of all the gold in the Yukon Territory. We knew that at the summit, the race was effectively over as the course proceeded gently and pretty consistently downhill.
We gobbled up as much food as Jim and Phil, the race volunteers would give us. We had to sleep outside the wall tent here. I set up shop immediately next to the tent, somewhat protected from the elements. However, melting snow from the heat of the wood stove on the roof, dripped down on me periodically, waking me. I made sure to keep the zipper open this time so as to not asphyxiate myself like during the previous sleep. I overslept my alarm, meaning I got a good amount of quality sleep. We had plenty of time to make the finishing cutoff so I didn’t give a whip about anything. I couldn’t be happier. I wanted to cherish every mile and every remaining moment of the event. Joel and I had a little tiff here as the young rascal wanted to leave ASAP. As the sage old man, I told him to chill out and enjoy this situation. He probably wanted to punch me, so I admire his patience and discretion, among many other of his traits.
I have a lot of respect for Joel. He chose to re-enter the race despite having to drop out early because of an illness. It takes a big man to jump back in knowing he wouldn’t get an official finisher’s medal. He helped me a lot in my race and I will be forever grateful.
Chapter 12 - New Indian River CP to Finish (Mile 437) 31 miles
We worked hard heading up the Dome. As the sun rose behind us, we reached the true summit, feeling like we were on top of the world. I sure felt that way emotionally. We could see 100 miles away in all directions with indescribable beauty in the harshest, most stark environment possible. The heavy snow up here smothered the branches of the scarce, hardy spruce trees that could survive up here. Though Joel wanted to keep moving, I insisted we take some photos and savor this opportunity. We couldn’t wait too long, or we’d get very cold, very fast.
Soon, the descent began. Our sleds felt weightless behind us. We clipped off miles rapidly now. Next came Upper Bonanza Creek Road, along which were many gold mines, inactive these winter months. I easily could’ve run ten-minute miles all the way in. Instead, we power-walked around 4 mph. I had to stop many times the last 50 miles though having developed some “gastrointestinal issues.”
Around 15 miles from the end, Joel’s girlfriend and dad, who had arrived from Sydney, Australia, met us on the trail and walked with Joel a few miles. I wanted them to have some time together, uninterrupted by me. Twelve miles out, we all stopped, and Joel and I took an extended break and our last trail snack, enjoying the company of his family and Gary the snowmobile guide who came out again to check on us. Conflicted about wanting to keep moving to finish before dark, I told myself to chill and enjoy the moment. I reflected on all the previous miles and that I was only a few hours from achieving a long-awaited goal after three failures.
Once moving again, I felt fresh as a daisy, amped up by caffeine and sugar. We were on a wide, hardpacked mining road, going slightly downhill. The nine miles passed effortlessly. When I had asked him earlier about how to manage the finish line, Joel told me to go ahead and cross alone. Not at peace with his answer, since we had shared so much time together and since he helped me so much, I decided to just continue on. As I got closer, my pace quickened. I felt like running but settled for a very fast walk.
Just outside Dawson City, the trail went on the Yukon River again. Soon I met my good friend Jessie on her bike, who told me I had about 4 Km left. Soon, I saw a bright headlamp coming toward me. It was her mom, Kirsty, who then escorted me toward the finish line. We went up the steep riverbank, where I could see the bright lights of the “big city” and the long-awaited finish banner.
I can’t put into words the true euphoria and satisfaction I experienced. I trained for, prepared for, and awaited this moment for years. It had finally come. In a flash, I then became overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for all the people who helped get me to this point and for all the wonderful blessings I have in my life.
Race Director Robert placed the coveted Finisher’s Medal around my neck, and I gave him an uncomfortably long hug of appreciation.
Joel then crossed, sharing the occasion with his family. I offered him my congratulations, respect, and admiration.
After pictures and videos, we headed inside to the Dawson Visitor Information Center where I was treated to Kirsty’s delicious moose lasagna, pizza, chicken wings and cold beer. I took a big swig and almost immediately got buzzed in my depleted state.
Chapter 13 - Post-race
I passed my final frostbite check. With a full belly and in an intoxicated state, I bummed a ride from Tommy and his film crew to the Eldorado Hotel a few blocks away.
I collapsed on the hotel bed and stared at the ceiling, thanking God for everything. I fell into a sleep-like trance, seemingly dreaming but aware of everything.
I savored the delightful, warm shower, the most enjoyable one I’ve ever had.
Climbing into the soft, comfy bed, I devoured ten more huge bites of Kirsty’s moose lasagna. I turned out the lights, fluffed the pillow, pulled the comforter up, and melted into the bed.
Other than being with my family at that moment, I couldn’t have been more content.
Life lesson (s)
Don’t ever give up on chasing your goals.
Failure isn’t not achieving your goals. It’s giving up on chasing your goals.
If you think it’s possible to achieve a goal, you probably can. First, one has to make the decision to set it. Then, make a plan. Finally, one has to work towards it. The most important step is making the choice to go for it.
The individual is the greatest limiter of one’s success. Moreso, the individual is the greatest asset leading to that success.
Work towards having no regrets!
Some ridiculous estimations:
Steps taken: 1,135,200 (estimated average 2 feet steps) for 430 miles
Calories consumed: 214,500 (estimated 500 calories per hour)
Fluid consumed: 32 Liters/8.5 gallons (3 liters per 40 miles)
Energy bars eaten: 50
Bacon eaten: 3 lbs
Chocolate covered almonds: 500
Pees taken: 50
Times prayed: 30 (not enough!)
Epilogue 2 My “Why?”
Perhaps my most asked question, people want to know WHY I do these extreme races. Well, I direct them to my “Mission Statement”:
“With focused and unrelenting drive, I will strive to maximize my athletic potential while demonstrating to others, through example, the value of proper behavior, self-sacrifice and discipline.”
In a nutshell, that’s what it’s all about. I love training. I love being fit. I love being outside.
But perhaps more than anything, I love inspiring others to chase their own personal greatness. I’m just an average guy with average abilities but way above average drive and discipline. If I can do it, others can too.