Exhaustion and solitude: Yukon Arctic Ultra runners kick off 690-km race

Forty runners have signed on to trek 690 kilometres from Whitehorse to Dawson City. The annual Yukon Arctic Ultra is tough enough to push the limits (and test the sanity) of any competitor.

Travelling alone, runners are sometimes so exhausted they hallucinate on the trail

Racers off and running at the Yukon Arctic Ultra

5 years ago
Duration 0:36
Racers in the 690 km Yukon Arctic Ultra took off from Whitehorse Saturday. CBC News was at the starting line. 0:36

Sled dogs and mushers aren't the only ones dashing down the trail to Dawson City this week.

The Yukon Arctic Ultra started in Whitehorse on Sunday, where the temperature sat at –19 C. 

Forty runners have signed on to the 690-kilometre race, which follows the mushers' path. But unlike the sled dog race, there is no prize money waiting at the end of the marathon. The only reward is the knowledge you finished the run that organizers bill as "the toughest ultra race in the world." 

Runners pull their own supplies on a pulk, a small low-slung toboggan, and have 13 days to complete the journey.

Some nights are spent at checkpoints, while on other nights, runners camp alone in the wilderness.

About 60 per cent of runners who sign on to run from Whitehorse to Dawson City make it. The number varies year to year depending on the weather. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Race organizer Robert Pollhammer says, on average, about 60 per cent of runners make it to Dawson City. Some try multiple times over the years before making it all the way.

Rejean Moreau of Quebec is attempting it for the third time. 

He's using a newly built sled — part kick-sled, part pulk — which he designed. It can be pulled or pushed as needed.  

"You have to be totally autonomous," says Moreau.

"You need food for at least 48 hours, you need your camping kit. Obviously some other clothing or something to change your gear. First Aid, a repair kit."

Competitors this year also come from Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Brazil and other countries.

Runners took off at -19 C in Whitehorse on Sunday in the Yukon Arctic Ultra trek. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Twenty-eight Yukoners have signed up, with most covering short distances, such as the marathon.

Some runners finished the marathon on Sunday, while others will travel 160, 321, 482 or the full 690 kilometres. In the shorter races, competitors can run, mountain bike or cross-country ski.

'At night the demons come out' 

Those running the ultra race face exhaustion, long hours and solitude on the trail. They often run overnight, with the way illuminated only by head lamp.

The combination of fatigue, repetition and shadows can play tricks on the mind, says Scott Smith. 

The 48-year-old runner from Scotland says that in a previous race, he began to hallucinate. Last year, he saw a woman in a summer dress on the trail.

"I thought, 'why is she here? She must be cold,'" he recalls.

"She was as real as you are standing there. But as I approached her, it turned out to be a small sapling covered in snow." 

Competitors pull their supplies on pulks. It's a tough balance to reduce weight while still bringing all the needed supplies. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

As Smith kept walking, he says, more frightening images started to appear from his dreams and subconscious. He saw a witch and a demon with horns.  

Even more strangely, he recalls seeing Woody, the cowboy from Toy Story.

"He stood on the trail, life size, hands on his hips just looking at me. That really freaked me out. It took me several minutes before I could sort my head out and get moving again."  

Smith says a wandering mind can be dangerous because runners need to trust their judgment. 

One risk is a dazed runner "falling asleep while walking" and collapsing in the snow, he says. 

Gavin Clark, from England, is riding a snow bike to Dawson City to raise funds and pay tribute to veterans who've lost limbs. He intends to ride his bike for 20 hours at a time with occasional breaks. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Medical team watching 

Many runners have suffered frostbite to varying degrees

Pollhammer says there's a medical team at every checkpoint, and team members have the authority to overrule a runner and take them out of the race if they are dazed or ignoring orders.  

"They have a look and talk to the runners to see if they are all right. They're here to help us avoid problems or deal with them right away."

Colourful tape is one way to ward off frostbite during the race. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

10,000 calories a day 

Runners will be eating rich food along the trail. The cold weather and exertion means runners consume more than 10,000 calories a day. 

"I've got sweet stuff, salami, cheese, porridge, all sorts of things," says runner Shane Mooney, who's from Ireland. 

Runners also carry ultra-light stoves to melt snow for drinking water.

Mooney says he travelled to Yukon precisely because the Arctic Ultra is so difficult.

"I think it's just the adventure of it, the cold, the isolation, the darkness that draws people. For me. I love the idea of that last section of the trail where there's less support," he says.

"It's a long way to come and I thought I'd go for the big one."

The runners follow the trail established for the Yukon Quest dogsled race. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)


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