North

Racers rehash hallucinations, challenges during the coldest Arctic Ultra to date

Participants in the 12th edition of the 6633 Arctic Ultra marathon, which started on talk about the "brutal" challenges they faced while trying to complete the race. This year was the coldest year for the event since its inception.

'I was just desperately trying to warm up my body'

Grant Maughan, from Australia, has been named the winner of the 6633 Arctic Ultra long race. (6633 Arctic Ultra Facebook page)

When Andrew Worsely-Tonks woke up in -40 C weather after spending his first night outside in the Arctic, he remembers being wet and his whole body felt like it was frozen.

Then he got out of his sleeping bag and was uncontrollably shaking.

"It was impossible to stop," Worsely-Tonks said.

"At that point the only real option you've got is to try and move ... I was just desperately trying to warm up my body."

Worsely-Tonks was one of 12 contestants in the 12th edition of the 6633 Arctic Ultra. It's an extreme version of distance running races. The race runs through the Arctic Circle on the Canadian side starting in Eagle Plains, Yukon.

The shorter route, just over 193 kilometres, finishes at Fort McPherson, N.W.T., while the longer route, just over 611 kilometres, finishes on the banks of the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.

Organizers said it was a smaller group than usual with three of the racers competing in the shorter race, including Allan Benjamin from Old Crow, Yukon, while nine competed in the longer race.

The race runs through the Arctic Circle on the Canadian side starting in Eagle Plains, YK. The shorter route, just over 193 kilometres, finishes at Fort McPherson, N.W.T. while the longer route, just over 611 kilometres, the finishes on the banks of the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk N.W.T. (Owen Delaney/Waymarked Art)

According to the race website, only 37 people have finished the long race in 10 years. The race prides itself as "the toughest, coldest, windiest ultra on the planet" — though, in the organizers' "humble opinion," the race is "perfectly doable" for the willing.

This year's race kicked off just after noon on Feb. 27.

It requires physical and mental endurance, said Stuart Thornhill, operations director. And while the race is usually difficult, this year's weather conditions made it particularly arduous.

Coldest temperature for the race ever

The average temperatures throughout the race were consistently well below -30 C Thornhill said, while in previous years, it's been in the negative teens.

"It's been a particularly challenging year for all the contestants," he said.

There are safety checkpoints where medics assess whether athletes are fit to continue, but that's all, Thornhill said.

Participants are responsible for food, clothing, a sleeping bag and other items they'll need.

"The distance, the solitude, the mental rigour that you go through on this race" is severe, he said, adding some participants have even hallucinated along the way while racing. That includes visions of the London eye, chimpanzees laying on the snow, and racer's partners who are not really there.

He said the hallucinations may be the toughest part of the race.

"We always get large drop out," he said.

Vlad Pop was the winner of last year's 6633 Arctic Ultra race in the shorter course (about 93 kilometres). This year he tried again in the longer race (over 600 kilometres). (6633 Arctic Ultra Facebook page)

Hallucinations, keeping warm and equipment malfunction

Vlad Pop, from Romania, was the winner of last year's short race and opted to try again in this year's longer haul.

He said neither of those races came without challenges, including hallucinations.

In the first year, he saw trees become people, and started talking with them. He also saw the faces of his family and friends in the ice. This year he saw illusions of foxes and wolves nearby and at one point he thought there was a car following him. He attributed that particular vision to his fear that someone would force him to leave the race.

Steven Jackson, who's from Ottawa, finished the race on Saturday morning at 11:35 a.m. local time. (6633 Arctic Ultra Facebook page)

Pop didn't sleep at all the first two nights, he said. On the fifth day he ended up getting pulled out of the race by the organizers for his own safety.

"I was angry [at] myself," he said, adding he managed over 300 kilometres.

For Worsely-Tonks, who travelled from the UK to be part of the race, the end for him was after he hiked over a mountain, his sled — with nine days worth of supplies including food and water — in tow.

"You're literally going over a mountain and it's never ending," he recalled.

"It just keeps going up and up and every time you think you're at the top, you're not. And then it goes up for 15 kilometres. Just relentless."

He said when he did make it to the top he was hit by another "brutal moment" he didn't expect — getting "plastered" on the other side of the mountain by a chilly wind.

"That was pretty much the end of it for me there," he said.

The 6633 Arctic Ultra runs from Eagle Plains, Yukon to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T, including this section runs along the Peel River. According to the race website, only 37 people have finished the long race in 10 years. (Submitted by 6633 Arctic Ultra)

There's also a tricky balance between wearing enough layers to keep warm but not so many that will cause you to sweat, which could cause you to get very chilly, he said. He also had an equipment malfunction.

At one point, he said he put on his head torch and it "disintegrated."

"It just fell to pieces because of the cold," he said. "This is like top quality gear that you've obviously spent a lot [on] to make sure it's going to work."

He ended up being pulled out of the race at the second checkpoint by medics. By then, he had frostbite on his thumbs and on the tip of his nose. He made it about 114 kilometres.

Worsely-Tonks said being told to stop was hard to accept at first, considering everything he put into being there. He added he might try it again, but likely not next year.

Grant Maughan, from Australia, has been named the winner of the long race. Yves Garrigue won the shorter race.

The last racer, Steven Jackson from Ottawa, finished the race on Saturday morning, just before noon.

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