Yukon Arctic Ultra: 'World's coldest and toughest' ultra race starts today

63 participants hit the trail in Whitehorse on Thursday, to run, ski or bike in the Yukon Arctic Ultra — billed as the 'world's coldest and toughest' ultra race.

63 participants registered to run, ski, or bike the remote backcountry race that started Thursday

The Yukon Arctic Ultra race began in Whitehorse on Thursday morning, with 63 people participating this year. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

Fabian Imfeld arrived in Whitehorse almost a week ago, and he was ready to hit the trail.

"Yeah, I can feel it. I want to go," he said on Wednesday.

Imfeld travelled from his home in Switzerland to compete in a race that bills itself as the "world's coldest and toughest" — the Yukon Arctic Ultra. It began Thursday morning in Whitehorse.

Sixty-three people registered this year to travel either a marathon distance, 100 miles (about 161 kilometres), or 300 miles (483 kilometres) through the remote Yukon backcountry. Most will run or walk the trail, but some have registered to compete on skis or bike.

On alternating years, there's the option to race all the way to Dawson City. But this year, the furthest race is to Pelly Crossing.

Imfeld is going to try to finish the 300-mile race on foot. Last year, he attempted the longer race to Dawson but was forced out by frostbite.

"For me, it was nothing basically — it was just a little blister on the little toe. But it was enough, obviously, to get disqualified," he said.

He's made a few changes this year — different shoes and socks, and a willingness to wear more layers. 

'I just try to enjoy it. I mean, it's not about winning for me,' says Fabian Imfeld, a competitor from Switzerland. (Steve Silva/CBC)

He was bitten by the Arctic Ultra bug a few years ago, when he found himself in Pelly Crossing at the same time as the race.

"I saw all those people, how they barely could walk sometimes anymore. But they seemed to be really happy," he said.

"I just try to enjoy it. I mean, it's not about winning for me."

Variable conditions

Some years, winning can seem beside the point for anybody — it's enough of an achievement to just finish in one piece. Past competitors have lost digits and limbs to severe frostbite.

Last-minute preparations on Thursday, before hitting the trail. (Kiyoshi Maguire/CBC)

At –8 C, it was a relatively balmy start on Thursday, but competitors said they're bracing for colder weather throughout the race. 

"If it gets cold, it's really intense and, at times, it can be quite frightening," said James Binks, who is from England. At 75, he's this year's oldest competitor. He's done the race several times before.

"I've been an active athlete all my life, ever since I was 16, so I just want to keep going. I mean, in 10 years' time, I could be in an old peoples home or dead, so I want to keep going, physically and mentally," Binks said.

Patrick Sumi, who's from Switzerland, is walking the 300-mile event with his three friends. It's an outdoor activity, but he said there's an element of inwardness.

Patrick Sumi of Switzerland, centre, is doing the race this year with some friends. 'It's a deep experience, personal experience, but also a friendship experience,' he said. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

"You know, you go deep into your body, your mind. It's a deep experience, personal experience, but also a friendship experience because we're going to share hard moments, and we have to motivate each other," he said.

Sumi said he's raising money for an organization that helps young people play sports.

On Thursday, there was a concern about waist-high overflow on the Yukon River, which is part of the trail. The trail was altered to go around the problem areas, said race director Robert Pollhammer.

Off they go, down the Yukon River. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)


With files from Steve Silva


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