Yukon Arctic Ultra racers welcome milder temperatures this year

Seventy-one people from 17 different countries are ready to hit the trail today in Whitehorse, to compete in the Yukon Arctic Ultra - 'the world's coldest and toughest ultra race.'

71 racers to leave Whitehorse Thursday in 'world's coldest and toughest ultra' race

It may be the only ultramarathon race in the world where temperatures of -10 C or -15 C are considered pleasantly mild, even balmy.

"I think now is the summer, OK?" laughs Domenico Barbalace, one of 71 competitors in this year's Yukon Arctic Ultra race, which began Thursday morning in Whitehorse. 

The race that bills itself as "the world's coldest and toughest ultra" follows the Yukon Quest sled dog trail through Yukon's vast and remote back country, in the dead of a Northern winter. 

Racers typically pack light, bringing only the essentials for back country survival - tent, sleeping bag and mat, food, water, a medical kit and emergency supplies. (CBC)

Racers choose whether to undertake a regular trail marathon, or try something longer — 160 kilometres or 480 kilometres, by foot, ski or bike.

This year's relatively mild weather forecast is in stark contrast to last year, when racers had to contend with temperatures sometimes dropping below -40. One runner ended up in hospital, in intensive care, with severe frostbite. 

Race organizer Robert Pollhammer welcomes the gentler weather this year, but said it has brought its own challenges — for example, some sections of the remote trail are wet with overflow from rivers and creeks.

"The trail is in an OK condition, I would say," Pollhammer said.

"Of course, it could be much better, but we would rather have a trail that is not perfect than -40 degrees when we start."

'It's magical'

'The trail is in an OK condition,' says race organizer Robert Pollhammer. (CBC)

The race has become a Yukon winter tradition, but many of the competitors travel across the world to take part. A majority of this year's competitors are not Canadian, representing 17 different nationalities. There are Australians, Americans, Britons, Japanese and Mexicans. 

"Some people just enjoy it so much, they come back and back again," Pollhammer said.

"It's almost like a family feeling. Some people have been here two, three, four times."

David Hirschfield from Montana is an ultra aficionado but he's never done the Yukon race. He's running the 160 kilometre route. 

"I'm actually scheduled to do the Badwater Ultramarathon [in California's Death Valley] this same year, which is the hottest on Earth. So I thought I'd do the hottest and coldest in the same year, before I quit," he said.

'Probably the mental challenge will be the toughest here,' says David Hirschfield of Montana, who's running the Yukon Arctic Ultra for the first time this year. (CBC)

Hirschfield expects the greatest challenges in the Arctic Ultra will be mental — there are few aid stations along the rugged trail, so racers have to be self-sufficient, and will have plenty of time alone with their thoughts.

"There's always the tendency to talk yourself into quitting, but you can't let your mind go there," he said.

Virginia Sarrazin of Whitehorse has run the marathon before, but this year she'll tackle the 160-kilometre route for the first time.

"It's magical," she said of the race. 

"I just hope I can finish it and be in good spirits when I finish it, [and] make sure that I have all my limbs. No frostbite!"


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