From the highest mountain to the coldest race in the world
ontane’s Jon Gupta switches from his usual mountaineering focus to participate in the foot category of the 300 mile Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra. His experiences of this incredible race are below.
In 2012 I turned back just 500m below the summit of Peak Lenin in Kyrgyzstan (7,134m). After 14 days on the mountain I had come so close but walked away completely empty handed and it really hurt.
My summit record was previously unblemished and foolishly I hadn’t even considered that we wouldn’t succeed on Lenin. During the days that followed I overanalysed all the ‘what ifs’ and ‘what could have beens’. Deep down I knew it had been the right choice (actually the only choice) but the feeling of devastation tearing me apart from inside was one I hadn’t felt before.
Immediately afterwards I couldn’t see it, but I needed time and perspective to understand and appreciate that there are actually more lessons that come from failures than successes. To make that decision took more judgment and chutzpah than pushing on.
With this more balanced mind-set and with a desire to branch out from my usual mountaineering disciplines, I put myself forward for the longest 300 mile category of the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra (MYAU) in January 2016. The MYAU is billed as ‘the coldest and hardest ultra race in the world’ – a label that was definitely an attractive challenge for me. I had been circling this event for a few years before actually committing and was ready to experience it for myself.
Thanks to my job and lifestyle I am relatively fit and able bodied. I have done my fair share of big, long days out in the dark, cold and at high altitudes. I know my stamina and endurance will hold up day after day. I feel that my winter camping, survival and self preservation skills are good and certainly transferable to the MYAU. So that leaves pulling a pulk (sled) and running a little.
In the UK to prepare for the MYAU I dragged tyres around which worked brilliantly for me. I would certainly do more of this should I re-enter the race. I also spent a week in Norway acclimatising myself to -20°C temperatures, limited daylight hours and running in the snow. These were ideal training conditions. Perhaps I could have added a sled into the mix to make it even more realistic and also gone out for longer training sessions, but those are ideas for a potential re-entry. Finally, I undertook a month of skiing and training in the Alps. I ran a little but mostly focused on big days out ski touring, ice climbing and general all-mountain skiing. We did a mini-expedition with a night out in tents at -35°C which was great…but then again, I am used to this!
I was happy with my training. My levels of fitness and mental strength going into the MYAU were good. In hindsight I would train harder in my soft trail shoes (the ones I actually wore for the race) and perhaps incorporate long beach training sessions and bigger back-to-back mountain walks.
It’s worth pointing out that all the images in my race report take you to videos documenting my MYAU experience. Click them to view.
04.02.2016 | Race start, Whitehorse
All race categories of the MYAU started at 10:30am sharp on 4th February 2016. This year, marathon, 100 and 300 mile distances were on offer. As with all the MYAU race organisation, everything was planned and executed smoothly, professionally and with heaps of confidence. All the athletes were excited and the atmosphere was really positive. I had made some good friends over the past three days in Whitehorse so I quickly ran to wish them good luck, knowing I probably wouldn’t see them again during the race.
I steeled myself for my first ultra distance race and as soon as 10:30am swung around, we were off! Filing out of the gate in Shipyard’s Park, the marathon distance runners immediately zoomed off and stretched out, closely followed by the fast 100 milers leaving us 300 milers to enjoy a more leisurely start. We had a long way to go and running off was not the best idea. Leaving Whitehorse behind, we soon started ticking off the miles as we followed the course of the frozen Yukon River.
04.02.2016 | Whitehorse to Rivendell Farm: total 26 miles raced
The first checkpoint at Rivendell Farm came sooner than expected. I had been moving pretty quickly along the Yukon and Takhini Rivers but had also been chatting away to a couple of folk on the trail, so the time had flown by. The conditions were unseasonably warm (around -5°C) and I was down to just a single baselayer, thin fleece and leggings for most of this section when moving. Still, in these temperature I would cool very fast so breaks were just short: quick drink, bite to eat and on my way. Just 3 or 4 minutes. My aim was to do this every hour but after 3 hours I changed this to every 90 minutes – mainly because the guy I was walking with (Matt, a young English lad in the 100 mile category) was on 90 minute breaks and it suited me fine too.
Because of all the excitement and build up over the past few days this part of the race was so much fun and it felt good to be out on the ice. Everyone was in a great mood and although it took time for people to spread out and find their own rhythm I still saw lots of familiar people during the day, all smiling and having the best time!
The warm conditions made the trail a little softer and slower than normal and I found this frustrating with the pulk. I wasn’t used to pulling a pulk much so this felt a little weird – it often had a mind of its own and didn’t always go where I wanted it too! That, combined with the slightly different walking stance I found I needed to adopt in pulling it (leaning into my stride more), made the short breaks even better as I could walk ‘normally’ for a few minutes, albeit not far! At this point I was feeling confident and happy with everything. I was moving well and efficiently and realised I must be in the top half of the pack.
Rivendell Farm checkpoint is the marathon distance category finish. After shedding our pulks, we filled up our bottles / thermos flasks with hot water, ate some soup and dried out by the fire. It had been warmer than usual on the trails so I took the opportunity to dry to feet for a couple of minutes and change into dry socks. This turned out to be a great decision as later on many competitors got trench foot and bad blisters from having wet feet.
04-05.02.16 | Rivendell Farm to Dog Grave Lake: total 59 miles raced
I re-emerged into the afternoon from the farm and got back to following the Takhini River. The evening light was breath-taking and I continued at a sterling pace along the frozen river. Just before dark I turned off the river and plunged into the first section of forest. This was a welcome change and I enjoyed the gentle ascents and descents, but I felt nervous about the long cold dark nights and wondered how I would find them.
As this point I was still racing next to (and chatting to) Matt. We forged ahead, wiling away the hours and miles, chatting at hourly stops. I had a small race chart printed out and calculated that from the speed at which we had completed the marathon distance to CP 1, we should expect to arrive to CP2 at Dog Grave Lake at around 12:30am.
As we dug deeper into the night, time began slowing down and the miles felt longer and longer – I began clock watching, willing the minutes to pass until the next break. My legs also began to feel heavy and tired and I knew I had to stop for the night. It was cold too, around -20°C and I was only just warm enough. With my buff, gloves and hoods all on and/or up, the cold was still creeping into my core and I had to stop to put an extra layer on.
At 02:00am after about 50 miles we still hadn’t reached the Dog Grave Lake CP. I stopped and put my small tent up, crawling inside feeling quite tired and disappointed. I later realised that the marathon category finish at Rivendell Farm was actually only 22 miles into the 300 mile race (the marathoners had done an additional 4 mile loop before finishing) and that CP 2 was actually a few miles further away than I had thought. We had around 10 miles of ground to cover in the morning. Throughout the night I heard other racers come past on the trail and I cursed myself for my mistake of pushing on the night before.
Once up and out of the tent I set off in pursuit of CP 2…and quickly realised that my feet were not in a great way. My pace was a lot slower and my morale took a dive too. Whilst I was confident and happy about many aspects and disciplines of this race, including doing 16 hour days, doing nearly 50 miles in that time was new and my body felt this. A few other racers came past and overtook me, but I couldn’t go any faster. I had never felt pain like this before in my feet and thoughts of having to give up already began to creep into my mind. I struggled to come to terms with the fact that, after all the training and the day before, I could potentially be broken already.
In the mountains I have a lot of factors to manage and other elements to take in to consideration, but here in the frozen landscape of the Yukon, life was simplified, this was different – it was me verses nature and not me working with nature. And right now, I felt like I was losing badly. As the pain increased and my pace continued to slow, I sat down on my pulk with head in my hands wishing it would all stop.
I staggered very slowly into CP 2. This was utter relief for me as the last few miles had taken an age. I relished the chance to drop the pulk and talk to some friendly faces. Gavin (one of the race medics) obviously noticed I wasn’t tip-top, so after asking how I was generally, we talked about the pain in my feet. He offered me some hot soup and gave my feet a quick once over. It didn’t take him long to diagnose me – I had the beginnings of tendonitis. After a gentle foot massage, some fresh socks and a change of footwear (I was carrying two different trainers) I felt much better, but Gavin’s words: ‘they won’t get any better during the race’ hung heavy in the air as I set off towards CP 3.
05-06.02.16 | Dog Grave Lake to Braeburn: total 94 miles raced
This part of the trail was my favourite. Occasionally open, sometimes tree-lined; the trails were generally pretty flat but overall just stunningly beautiful. A few others who had been at CP 2 were in front or behind me and I was now able to move at a much better pace. I carried on pulk hauling late into the afternoon and when the sun began to set at 6pm, I found a good spot to pull up. I disappeared into my tent not feeling too tired, but pleased to rest my feet.
Having a tent was amazing, so much better than a tiny bivi. I had room to relax, look at my feet, and get myself organised.
At midnight I was feeling good. I got everything packed away and was soon back on the trail with a full sky of stars overhead. It was cold and my muscles took a little while to warm up but once I was on the move I constantly had to regulate my body temperature. Zips up, zips down, hoods up, hoods down – all very similar to the world of mountains which I know so well. Sweating is not an option in these cold climates.
I felt good with all this, but I couldn’t stop the pain in my feet. I was starting to hobble a little and this was putting added strain on my right hip. I put my music on and pulled my little world in tight. Head down, I pushed on as fast as I could manage through the early morning hours. By sunrise I had covered a good distance. I was pleased with my pace, but the ground had been flat and hard.
The sunrise triggered my body’s natural circadian rhythms so I felt much more awake. However my stomach also woke up – dried fruit, flapjack and sweets all went in washed down with warm tea. I felt fine, in fact I felt great…except my feet.
There are two moments in the MYAU that I will remember for a long time to come. One of them happened next.
After hours and hours in tree-lined forests, a steep descent takes you down to a huge frozen lake and into the sunshine! This felt incredible; almost like being released from a cage. I had my music on and I sang my way to the middle of the lake before stopping to take it all in and make some short videos. The next checkpoint at Braeburn was only 2 miles from here and the promise of hot food was very enticing. I was in a really good mood.
I stayed at CP 3 for nearly two hours eating, sorting and chatting with Diane the head race medic. My feet were now swollen and painful, as well as my hip and behind my left knee. The latter had come on as a result of over-compensating for my feet. She took a good look and we spoke more about the remainder of the race. After 30 minutes of elevation and ice on my feet I got up and prepared myself, put the pulk harness back on and set off once again into the afternoon light.
06-07.02.16 | Braeburn to Lake Coghlan: total 130 miles raced
This next section was really tough for me and it began instantly with long ascents and some very difficult forest sections which can be described as similar to corrugated iron but with 3m peaks across 1ft troughs. I pushed and pushed into the afternoon with my speed much slower than I would have liked. These forest sections were killing me, grinding me down.
Eventually I’d had enough. It had been a long day and I set up camp at 19:00pm as the last of the colour left the sky. Flopping into my sleeping bag I fell asleep instantly.
At midnight I was up again feeling alert and ready. My feet however…the pain was awful. I stumbled on to the trail and began once again in the cold night, trying to drag my thoughts above the level of incessant pain to block it out. It was really cold, perhaps around -30°C. I soon came out onto a huge lake (Coghlan Lake) where the evenness of the frozen underfoot conditions meant I could start to walk a little faster. The lake was over 8km long!
07.02.2016 | The best moment of the MYAU
At 02:00am I stopped for my hourly break, slumping down onto my pulk and pulling my headphones out so I could listen to the silence. I relish the chance to listen to pure silence. It’s such a special thing that we don’t get to experience very often. Unzipping the pulk bag I reached in for my thermos and something to snack on – my body was craving some energy.
In doing so I looked up…previously in my determination to get across Coghlan Lake and block out the constant pain from my feet, I had totally wrapped into my own little world. As a result, I had neglected to notice that the night sky was alive with a fantastic show of Northen Lights! Green and purple lights flickered across the sky, constantly moving and dancing. No one else was around – I had this all to myself. Dark, cold, silence and my own private viewing of the best natural aerial display in the world. Needless to say I extended my break for 20 minutes and enjoyed every second of it.
An hour later I reached the far side of Coghlan Lake and looked in to the dark forest ahead. My heart sank. The first section was a steep incline. I looked back to the huge flat lake and turned into the forest.
Instantly the change in angle and steepness sent pain shooting through my feet. Why was this happening to me? Just moments before I had begun to believe that maybe I could push through this and the race was still on…but within minutes my body and mind had done a full 360. Now just the thought of having to do another mile of forest like this was unbearable. Desperately hobbling my way along the trail I became frustrated at my pulk as it occasionally slid down a small down section and bashed me in the back of my ankles. It hurt too much to try and quickly step out of the way or nip ahead of it. My feet now felt like foreign lumps attached to the end of my legs. I couldn’t bend them or tense them without it hurting. I pushed on, gritting my teeth and frantically trying to block out the pain with my thoughts until I tripped over a concealed tree stump and fell to my knees, shouting out loud in the process.
It was 04:00am and I needed to stop. I pitched my tent and rested, without setting an alarm, hoping to see if it was possible for me to continue in the morning. I felt defeated, sorry for myself and just incredibly low– a feeling I had never experienced in the mountains before.
07.02.2016 | Game over: total 130 miles raced
I got myself out of the tent at 08:00am after a four hour sleep and knew instantly that my race was finished. My feet were so stiff and swollen it was an enormous struggle just to get my loose trainers on. At around 130 miles I had a further 170 miles to go and for the most part it was forest with small parts on lakes from time to time. I reached over and pressed the help button on my spot tracker sending a signal to the race organisers that I had scratched.
I felt total and utter relief that I was done.
Read more about the Jon Gupta here.
Read more about the Montane Yukon Arctic ultra here.
Read the 2016 Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra report from race organiser, Robert Pollhammer, here.