Ever since my failed (cancelled) attempt at Rock & Ice, I have been yearning to participate in some form of arctic race. I have been fascinated by the ruggedness of running in such conditions and have been looking forward to training and racing in the great north. Back in October when Kim was unfortunately diagnosed with pleurisy, we were forced to cancel a planned trip to NYC in November and we needed to re-book our flights or lose the AirMiles. Well, one thing led to another and before I knew what happened we had changed to fly to Whitehorse so that I could take part in the Yukon Arctic Ultra Marathon. The marathon was being run as part of the 100mile & 300mile race event, and as I told people who thought me crazy, I was one of the sanest racers.
After the JFK50 in November, I pretty well took the rest of the year off training. I still ran almost as frequently, but only to burn off the Mexican Beer and the Christmas treats. January saw me ramping up my mileage again, as well as trying to get out whenever it was cold to acclimatize and test gear. The marathon was totally self-supported so I tried to train by practicing real racing experience with both food and water. My endurance seemed to bounce back fine, but my speed was just not coming back. Truly I wasn’t too worried as I couldn’t imagine this being a hard foot race (wrong, I was).
The other draw for this race was that Derrick Spafford (Coach and Friend) was running the 100mile. I was looking forward to being able to spend some brief time with Derrick before and after the race, provide any support I could and also learn from him as I hope to be able to return and run the same 100mile race in a couple of years.
About 10 days before the race, and just as I started my taper I started getting the dreaded scratchy throat, and Kim was getting it too. Taper Flu? I was hoping was all it was and it would be well and gone come race day. Wrong! No matter what we did, pills we took, nothing was shaking the cold, cough and flu systems we both were feeling. Oh well we said as we headed to Whitehorse on the Thursday, it will be better in the next two days after a little R&R. That never happened.
We arrived in Whitehorse early Thursday afternoon, dropped off our bags at the Hotel and headed out to explore the city.
It really doesn’t take long to explore Whitehorse. End-to-end is likely a 20min walk so within 5 minutes we were in the city centre. We stopped in at Costal Mountain Sports to see if there were any last minute items we “needed” and at Shopper’s to pick up snacks, water, and more cold medication (yeah this stuff will get rid of it for sure). We met Derrick for a quick dinner and a couple of long overdue beers and headed for bed.
Friday morning, we woke up feeling no better (okay THAT stuff didn’t get rid of the cold either). I attended the trail briefing and then Kim and I went for a short shake out run. I had been training and planning on racing in temperatures around -15C or colder and when we headed out we were greeted with +3C and showers. We ran the trail to the start and the snow was soft, mushy and wet, far from ideal – this was not looking good. Returning from that short jog, I was exhausted. My energy levels were way down and I was starting to doubt that I would be able to complete the Marathon. We spent the rest of the day with our feet up, napping and taking it easy. We attended the pre-race dinner which was very good, and then called it a night.
With the later morning sunrise in Whitehorse, and allowing the longer distance racers time to prep their gear, the race didn’t start until 10:30 in the morning. This allowed for a relaxed pre-race which I desperately needed. My night had not gone well, a number of times I woke up feeling very feverish and nauseous and for the first time ever was having serious doubts about my ability to complete the race. I was having the same “scared” feeling I had when trying scuba diving for the first time, and to be honest I was terrified. But as with anything it was just time to suck it up. The worst that could happen is I would be walking back after 10km and if I didn’t try I’d regret it forever. Onward!
We met Derrick and his stealthy pulk in the lobby and walked the 15min to the start line together.
We did a group picture, all got in line, brief countdown and we were off.
The weather at this point was perfect for a winter race, not the stupid cold I had been hoping for, but a nice -5C, sunny and light southerly breeze. With the drop in temperature the trail had frozen somewhat and was no longer the mush we had run on the previous day.
The course for the marathon is pretty straight forward. Run up the Yukon River, hang a left a the Takhini River, run up that until the turnoff for CP1, run a short out and back from CP1 and you’re done. I lined up and started at the front of the racers, hoping I would be faster than those pulling pulks, and from the start I was in the lead.
Sick but still competitive, I figured it didn’t hurt to see who was serious about this race. I wouldn’t say I started out fast, just at a nice steady pace. I was pretty well by myself for the first km, but I soon heard the foot falls of another runner. So I wouldn’t be alone. I had a brief chat with Johann but soon found talking and running was just too difficult and we just ran along in silence taking turns in the lead. I was feeling him out to see if he was serious or just being too aggressive but after 17km and almost 1:30 he was still hanging on running strong. It was here that I had to make the decision, I knew on a good day I could keep up this effort, but being sick and my low energy levels, and the fact that every time I tried to eat or drink, and still another 24km to go, it was best I let Johann go and hope that he would hit a wall and I could catch him. So, just before the turn on to the Takhini, I pulled up for a quick nutrition break and let him go. From here, I was running on my own, as it turned out until the finish. I finally took the time to enjoy where I was and what I was doing. Racing up a river in the Yukon, surrounded by tree lined cliffs and mountains off in the distance. It was peaceful and beautiful and the real reason I wanted to be here. I hit the ½ way at about 1:50 and thinking that there is no way I could run an even split race, I figured that a 3:45 marathon was quite achievable.
For the next 1:15 , it was just me and the river enjoying the day, but feeling tired and out of breath every time I ate or drank – damn cold. Just before the 34km mark (on my GPS), the course turned off the river (through some of the THE worst sugar snow I have ever tried to run through) and up the river bank towards CP1. Eh? I thought I still had 8km to run. Coming on to the road leading to the CP, I passed a girl who said “almost finished”. Me “The Marathon? Really?” Her “Yes, just to the top of the hill and back”. I was confused.
As I arrived at the CP, Robert the race director started running beside me re-iterating what I am been told. “How far to the turn?” I asked. “About 1.5km” he tells me. Okay so off I go up the hill. So, as it turned out, it was just almost 2km to the turn, and it was uphill all the way. It was a nice treat after running the flat river path for so long. I passed Johann as he was returning, looking strong and happy – he ran a good race. Hit the turn (a painted line across the road) and headed for the finish – all downhill from here. Hit the finish in 3:23, but unfortunately only 38km on my GPS.
Shortly after I finished, Kim arrived (she had rented a car and had her own adventure getting there) – we chatted and waited for Derrick to come in.
It wasn’t long till he arrived looking strong and happy – we did what we could to help and then sent him on his way
before heading back to Whitehorse.
Sunday we spent anxiously waiting for updates on Derrick’s race, and then finally waiting for his return to the hotel. We enjoyed long overdue Pizza and Guinness with him hearing his tales and celebrating his amazing race. Monday our adventure was over, and it was time to say good-bye to the wonderful folks of Whitehorse and Robert and all his amazing volunteers.
This was not the race I had hoped it would be on a number of levels, but it was huge in that is gave me the experience of the YAU and great knowledge of the process and what the first 50km of the 100miler is like. It scares me to think of going back for the 100mile, but there is a draw to the beauty of the Yukon wilderness that will be hard to shake. I will be starting construction of my first Pulk soon and hope to get a couple of runs with it before the end of the season. And thank you to my wonderful wife for sharing my adventures and supporting me all the way.
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