Only woman to finish this year's Arctic Ultra shares her secrets to success

Jen Stronge, 48, is one of six people to finish this year's 6633 Arctic Ultra. Around 70 per cent of those who enter the race end up dropping out.

Only 6 out of 26 people finished 611-kilometre foot race last weekend

Jen Stronge loves long-distance races. She guesses this is the 10th ultra race she's done. (Submitted by 6633 Arctic Ultra)

Jen Stronge describes her ankles as swollen, like an "elephant lady."

But that makes sense — she's just accomplished a feat few others in the world can lay claim to.

The 48-year-old is one of six people to finish this year's 6633 Arctic Ultra, a 611-kilometre foot race between Eagle Plains, Yukon,and Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. She originally entered the race with her friend, Marie-Josee Martel, to raise money for Inuvik's warming shelter. Martel was unable to finish due to an injury.

On March 16 at around midnight, Stronge became the only woman to finish this year and the only Canadian woman to finish — ever.

Every year, around 70 per cent of those who enter the race drop out, and this year was no different — 26 athletes were at this year's start line.

Although Stronge estimates she's finished about 10 ultra races, this is the first time she has done this particular race, which she says is "several steps up as far as difficulty."  

The 6633 Arctic Ultra runs from Eagle Plains, Yukon, to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. This section runs along the Peel River. (Submitted by 6633 Arctic Ultra)

The race is indeed grueling. Stronge's days started at 3 a.m. Then, she would pull a small sled by foot until midnight, make a little makeshift camp on the side of the trail, wake up the next morning at 3 a.m. and do it all over again. She did this for nine days, until she finally reached the finish line.

Afterward, she had a modest celebration with a small group of friends.

"I basically sat with my feet up and moaned and cried and they handed me things like, 'Here do you want some water or some pizza,'" she laughed. "And we had a little bit of champagne."

Good planning, good equipment

More than anything, Stronge credits good planning and trust in her gear for her ability to complete the race. She mapped out a goal of about 80 kilometres each day.

"I knew my sleeping bag was good, I knew my systems were good, I trusted that. I wasn't scared to sleep," said Stronge, who described her sleeping bag as "toasty."

"I woke up so warm and comfortable one night, I didn't even know where I was. And then I remembered — oh yeah. I'm on the side of the Dempster and I have to run another 80k."

Martin Like, who comes from the UK, created the 6633 Arctic Ultra 10 years ago. An ultra athlete himself, Like says he's run through jungles and deserts, but this race?

"Oh it's a bugger, an absolute swine," he said.

He described a number of factors that make the Beaufort-Delta region attractive to ultra athletes — the northern lights, ice road, the new Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway and the Peel River valley.

"You've got such variety," he said.

"Once I saw it, and now we've lived it the past number of years, it couldn't be more perfect."

Romanian racer Tibi Useriu finished first in the 6633 Arctic Ultra. After he finished, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis offered a congratulations. (Submitted by 6633 Arctic Ultra)

Like said he wants to keep the race small — only 30 participants are allowed to register each year. Most come from Europe and Africa.

Stronge is from Golden, B.C., but has strong connections in Inuvik — she works regular stints as a registered nurse at the Inuvik Regional Hospital.

She came in fifth out of those who finished the race — the winner was Tibi Useriu, a Romanian ultra athlete who received a personal congratulations from Klaus Iohannis, Romania's president, on Facebook.

After this, Stronge plans to make a leisurely drive back down to B.C. She hasn't decided what's next.

"It would be nice to be somewhere warm," she said.

"Get the legs loosened up with the bikes. It's so great because you can stay active, but it's not so impactful."

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