(my full write up from 2017)
‘Cold, remote & desolate. If at first you don’t succeed…’
Extract from my 2016 attempt:
It was 04:00am and I needed to stop. I was hurting so much. I pitched my broken tent and rested, without setting an alarm, hoping to see if it was possible for me to continue in the morning. I felt done in, defeated, sorry for myself and just incredibly low– a feeling I had never experienced in the outdoors before.
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 and ankles were so stiff, swollen and painful it was an enormous struggle just to get my trainers on. At around 118 miles I had a further 182 miles to go and for the most part it was forest with small stretches on lakes from time to time. I made the decision, reached over and pressed the help button on my Spot tracker sending a signal to the race organisers that I had scratched. I fell back into my sleeping bag and slept properly for the first time in days. I felt total and utter relief that I was done.
At the time I couldn’t see it, but later, with perspective, I came to understand and appreciate that there are actually more lessons that come from failures than successes. To make that decision was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make, but as usual, in hindsight, it was the right one.
For my full report from 2016 including videos from each day click – here
It happened without me really realising it but I had signed up for the 2017 race with my friend Tom, as a Team support by my sponsors Montane and we had entered the bi-annual 430 miles! Tom is a good friend and a very fit runner, having done a few big ultra-races including the legendary UTMB in Chamonix. He also had a good CV for big cold mountains so I knew he could look after himself well and he was psyched – he was the perfect partner in crime for the worlds coldest and hardest ultra race!
In the months leading up to the race we talked freely of all the training we would do together and preparation we would put into the race but, with his family commitments and me being away all the time, we suddenly found ourselves with just weeks before the race and little of the training or preparation complete. I knew we had both been out training a little individually and I just hoped that with last year’s experience, and my general high level of fitness, that I had done enough not to let the side down.
We spent quite a few evenings preparing the kit and food and discussing calorie intake (Tom loving his spreadsheets) and me explaining what pieces kit we needed and passing on all the little details I had learned from 2016. As a Montane athlete (for mountaineering, not ultras!) I had all the kit I need but they kindly agreed to provide Tom with all his clothing too and we entered the race as Team Montane proudly matching our attire. We borrowed snowshoes and extra warm sleeping bags from friends, discussed stoves and clothing and doubled checked the required kit list to make sure we had it all.
The time came for us to leave for Whitehorse in Canada and I think we felt pretty ready. We had a shopping list for our arrival – bits and pieces to buy and sort, food to get, briefings to attend. An old family friend of Tom’s lived in Whitehorse and kindly put us up for a few days. The generosity and kindness shown to us from Peter and his family was above and beyond and made us both feel incredibly welcomed to the Yukon. We zipped around Whitehorse buying and collecting all our bits and pieces with our own personal driver (!) and then spent hours weighing out and separating the food and packing our sleds. Over a beer in their hot tub, we talked about the pros and cons of fixed bars versus rope for hauling the sled and I shared my experience from 2016. Unable to bear the heavy cumbersome plastic bars, we opted for the super light string option.
Pretty much all set, we joined all the 2017 athletes for the final briefings and group meal at the Goldrush Inn. There was an electric air of excitement in the room. I sat and chatted with Pat (who later finished the 430 on her bike for the second time! Incredible effort!) and Steve (who went on to win the 300 miles race). Tom disappeared for 30 minutes to sign up to a medical research project taking place and came back with huge arm band which he had to wear for the entire race. An admirable deed but nonetheless, I couldn’t help laughing at him for the monstrosity he now had on his arm. After lots of food, we headed back for some more faffing and an early night with one last sleep in a bed before the race.
Race Day – 4th February 10:30am.
We arrived early and positioned our sleds near the back of the start banner and disappeared off to Tim Hortons (a Canadian fast food place) for a breakfast muffin (think McDonalds). I devoured the burger and took two more as takeaway for the sled – ideal race food for the first few hours! Back at the start line it was a hive of activity and we had just missed the group photo – whoops, never mind! The countdown was on so I nipped around and wished luck to all the folk that I knew in the race. My friend Matt was back again having completed the 100 last year and was in the 430 this year. A chatty Scottish guy called Scott was also in exactly the same boat as Matt and a chap called Gavin (the medic from 2016 who had boosted my confidence after arriving into Dog Grave lake feeling very broken) was here on his Fat bike. There were a few others we had got to know during the past few days too and it was quite possible that I might not see them again during the entire race.
Tom, myself and our race friend Matt
Day One // Whitehorse to Rivendale (36km/21.5 miles) and on to bivvy spot at (52.8km/33 miles)
3, 2, 1 and we were off! We had discussed race tactics extensively and I was adamant that the first few hours and all of the first day we would take pretty easy. It was a busy start line with nearly 100 competitors across all the race distances (marathon, 100, 300, 430). We fell in line on the trail and strode out on the Yukon river and it felt fantastic! Pretty soon the competitors from the marathon had run off and the rest of the field slowly began to stretched out. We were in the 430 mile race so there was no need to start rushing off anywhere. It was a chilly day (around -22) and my hands and feet instantly felt cold. This was partly down to the Tim Hortons in my stomach stealing all the blood from my extremities and partly just because I had started exercising. I made fists within my gloves and wiggled my toes and soon enough my numb feet and hands warmed up and life was a whole lot better.
The route to Riverndall Check point at around 22 miles was normally on the river but due to bad ice the first 12 miles was in the forest to the right of the river and quite undulating. Just about enough that we got to test out the sledging potential of our sleds for the first time. Keeping with the same name as 2016, I was pleased to see that “Betty” was excellent at sledging once again! After some time, Tom decided to call his “Shackleton”, which provided some laugher. Matt had caught us up and we walked as a group of 3 for 5 miles or so until we dropped down a steep trail (superb sledge) on to the Yukon River and shortly after turning onto the Takini River.
The going was much easier from here and we picked up the pace a little enjoying the relatively flat, hard trail on the river. The evening sunlight was beautiful and just as night fell we arrived into the checkpoint. It was a hive of activity and with a little confusion we negotiated some hot food, water and a spot next to the fire. Yann and Thilo were the official race film crew and as it is a Montane sponsored race I felt obliged to give them the time they wanted to ask questions and see how we were getting on. Tom and I were in good spirits here but our self-designated 30 minute break soon came round and we descended the slope back onto the river and into the darkness for our first evening in the race.
We agreed to keep the first day sensible and I knew that after around another 10 miles we came off the river and headed into the forest. We agreed we would find the first sensible place to stop and bivi (sleep) for 3-4 hours. The temperature had plummeted since sunset and I could feel it still dropping. At some point we had stopped and put on our warm primaloft trousers, an extra top layer and warmer mitts. We darted around quickly putting the small single skin tent up and bundled inside. It was tiny and a real nightmare to put up right, and with two of us there was very little spare room. Once in, we tried to sleep but it was very cold and uncomfortable. I lay awake, face pressed against the inside of the tent, tired and chilly but unable to really sleep. This tent arrangement could be a huge mistake.
Tom in the middle of the cold -44 night pausing for some warm tea!
Day Two // Bivvy spot to Dog Grave Lake CP (48.2km/30miles) and to Hunters Cabin (8km/5miles)
At around 02:00 we got up and quickly packed everything away. Everything was frozen. We didn’t stop to eat or drink or rest and hit the trail to get our bodies going. It worked, as it always does, and we were soon much happier and warmer although it was still very cold so stopping wasn’t an option. Normally ‘dry cold’ doesn’t feel too bad but the air was incredible moist and this gets in your clothing and makes you feel much much colder. At around 5/6 o’clock in the morning we felt the temperature drop even further and we decided it must have been pushing -40 or more. I was desperate for a number two and after holding off and holding off I had no choice but to go. As fast as I could I went about my business but I had braces on my trousers which meant taking off my 3 warmer top layers to access them. Having spent a huge amount of time in very cold mountain environments the cold temperatures didn’t concern me too much – I knew I could look after myself well in these conditions – as we were both doing that morning. But by the time I was done and put all my layers back on I was quite cold and shivering and desperate to get moving again to generate some body heat. I wore everything I had and pretty soon warmed up again. Normally, in a high altitude mountain enviroment, you can expect the air to warm up once the sun rises or once you are back at basecamp – but not in this environment.
It was at this point we both began to feel very small niggles creeping in. My right calf was twinging a little and my left knee. For Tom, it was his ankles. When it is this cold, it feels like it gets inside your bones and joints and makes them ache – whether you’re exercising or not. We took some painkillers during a break and carried on. We decided to keep to our routine of a quick break every hour or so, but instead of sitting down for 5 mins, we stood, quickly opened the flask, had a drink, nibbled something and got going again. We were also both starting to feel a little rubbing and pain from our shoes (Hoka high top) so we stopped and swapped to our lighter, softer, warm weather trainers. They were so much more comfortable but then we both had to spend all our time thinking about and keeping our toes warm. The only way to get through the race is to be on top of your personal admin. The second you feel something is wrong, or you feel a hot spot coming on, you have to do something about it. If you wait, it is often too late. It can be frustrating stopping and starting at the beginning, but it will always save you time in the long run.
Periodically I swapped between music and podcasts – conscious of not wanting to use up all my podcasts this early on in the race! I am a huge fan of BBC Desert Island Discs and Tim Ferris’s podcasts. Desperate to reach the next checkpoint, Tom stuck his GPS on and found out how far it was to the remote Dog Grave Lake Checkpoint – and it wasn’t too far. This was such great news and we pushed the pace into the checkpoint, arriving around 15:00.
At the checkpoint we met lots of other competitors from both the 300 and 430mile races, the 100 mile racers should all be way ahead by now. Scott was just leaving and Jessie had arrived just before us, and 4 or 5 others sat around the open fire – including Jim, a legend of a guy at 71 years old and here, I believe, for the third time! I wasn’t to know it at the time but we would spend a lot of the race with these guys becoming a mini family ‘at the back’.
It had been really cold in the night and in these situations your ability to be forward thinking is somewhat diminished. I had let my only plastic water bottle – a 1L Nalgene – freeze solid, as had Tom. We handed in our Thermos flasks and our frozen Nalgenes for them to be defrosted and kindly filled up with hot water. One of the volunteers decided to come and educate everyone on how we should plan our water carrying better and it’s stupid to carry frozen water etc. We knew this of course, but it is sometimes easier said than done when its that cold and you know there is a check point coming up.
We gathered our flasks and re-packed our sleds and said a big thank you to the volunteers at the checkpoint. There were two large tents at Dog Grave Lake Checkpoint but only for staff or medical issues. We set off up the trail as the sun began setting – it must have been around 16:00. At the checkpoint Tom’s smaller down jacket got knocked too close to the fire and had melted a large hole in it. It seems that duct tape doesn’t work so well in very cold conditions so there were a few feathers on the trail that evening. From what I recalled from last year’s race, and confirmation from one of the skidoo drivers, I knew there was a small wooden cabin 5 miles out of the checkpoint. We aimed for this with hope and promise. The skidoo drivers were a huge part of the race for the competitors, often being the only friendly face you saw for hours upon hours or even all day. They are also our safety back up should we require assistance. By the sounds of it they’d had a busy day pulling people out from the race for various reasons including frost bite, hypothermia and lung problems. It had been a brutally cold first 36 hours but Tom and I were surprised so many had called it a day. Selfishly, it seemed to raise our spirits a little.
The cabin came into view and we couldn’t help ourselves. We shot up the short slope and went inside. Jackpot. Within minutes we had the fire going strong.We stripped off all our layers and hung them up to dry. It was only a small cabin and soon it was toasty warm – we both felt a million times better about everything. With bunkbed type wooden platforms we agreed to sleep until midnight before setting off again for the 100-mile checkpoint at Breaburn around 40 miles way. God it felt good to be warm.
The tiny hunters cabin we sneaked inside for a few hours!
Day Three // Bivvy at the hunters cabin to Braeburn CP (49.3km/30.8miles) and Braeburn to Cougland Lake sauna (29km/17.3miles)
We left the cabin around 12:30am (two other competitors had joined us through the night) and stepped into a perfect, calm, crisp night. We knew that most people would have probably pushed on further but would now be sleeping so it was possible we would pass them in the night. We were not bothered in the slightest about winning the race, simply surviving and getting to the end seemed like an insurmountable challenge at this point in time.
I remembered this section from last year and prepared Tom for a long 15-20 mile section that all looks the same before finally dropping down onto a lake near the checkpoint. We put our music on and our heads down. Around 07:00 we spotted a head torch in the distance and wondered who it was. It’s amazing how much it boosts your moral when you get to speak to someone new. Eventually we caught up with the torch and realised it was Scott! We exchanged a very welcome but brief hello and trundled off into the darkness. It was still very cold, at around -30. Scott never seemed to stop for a break so we leap frogged each other for a few hours before he then remained in front of us for a while. As with each day, the sunrise eventually came and by around 10 o’clock we felt the sun’s rays on our face. Tom and I stopped in a little suntrap between the trees and took a moment to enjoy this warmth before plodding on into the cold shadows once again. A short while later we bumped into Yann and Thilo which means we had to be close. Strategically they were filming just before the lake when most people are at their lowest point having just done mile after mile of the same long, straight forest trail. It was so good to see them and have a chat. They filmed a mini interview and Tom sledding down the steep hill onto the lake, which was hilarious and also made it into the daily videos they were making.
The flat frozen lake was a very welcome change after what felt like forever in the trees. The vast, frozen expanse disappearing in each direction as far as the eye could see and the sun bouncing of the flat, crystal white surface was magical and our moral shot sky high. I spotted Scott on the far side of the lake and decided to try and catch him up and walk in to the checkpoint together. The last few miles to the 100 mile checkpoint were through a forest characterised with lots of short sharp ups and downs, which caused both Tom and I some substantial discomfort in our legs. We practiced our technique of carefully dodging the sled so it didn’t slam into the back of our ankles on the downs and then running up the other side to try and make every inch of ground possible before it the weight of it slams onto your hips. This became a trick we mastered over the course of the race. At almost exactly midday, nearly 52 hours after starting, we crossed the finish line for the 100 mile race. I couldn’t help but think that I wished my race was complete here, but we were not even a third of the way…
One of the many incredible lakes we crossed during the 430 miles
It was busy at the checkpoint – a local cafe in Braeburn with legendary food – and most of the clothes drying spots near the fire were taken. We peeled off our layers and hung them up as best we could before opening our drop bags to see what we had. I’m not sure what I was expecting, as I had packed it myself, but I was a bit disappointed to see only 2 days’ worth of food, one pair of clean underpants and some pain killers. Since the second day, Tom and I had been taking some anti-inflammatories and pain killers when needed, so a resupply was crucial. Matt was here and a few others we knew. Check points soon became one of my favourite parts of the race as we got to catch up with everyone and see how they were getting on. I crossed the room to study the race sheet on the wall for a while, gobsmacked at the times of the front runners and interested to see how other folk in the race were getting on. A lot of people had scratched (quit) from the race and, after chatting with the medics, it seems the cold 48 hours had caused lots of people to withdraw with various injuries. We were now towards the middle back of the group but could not care less – our aim was to finish the race, if we could.
We devoured an enormous burger and went to rest and sleep for a few hours in the cabins around the back. Jessie was already asleep on one of the beds, so Tom kindly took the floor and I took the other bed. Although basic, it was a dream to have a snooze in a warm, dry room. My legs felt swollen and achey and I slept with them elevated and iced for a few hours.
Although we had time, there was always a pressure not to hang around too long. Up, faff, fill thermos, eat more, toilet, faff, and 6 hours after arriving we were ready to go. You can’t help but feel positive and upbeat when you leave a check point – all the volunteers and everyone in the race were always so helpful and generous it was just wonderful to be a part of it all..
I knew of another small cabin/sauna about 18 miles from the Braeburn checkpoint which was just under halfway to the next remote checkpoint at Ken Lake. Last year I had camped just 2 miles from it (without realising) before pressing my help button on the Spot Tracker and scratching from the race. We were going to aim for this for a short rest before carrying on (and perhaps a cheeky sauna!).
From Braeburn you cross the big Klondike Highway and it is about 10 miles of undulating track and forest trail until you hit the first lake. We sat on our sleds and tobogganed all the downhill sections including a really steep one and flew almost directly into the Italian 300 miles team of Laura and Roberto who were stopped chatting at the bottom!! We apologised then laughed, exchanged a little ‘ciao’ and headed off into the darkness. My memory was hazy here from 2016 but I remembered walking out across some huge lakes in substantial amounts of pain but having a really special moment watching the Northern Lights and hoped it might happen again. As with each new section the first 8-10 miles seemed to pass relatively quickly and then time simply slows down, or maybe we did, but it became a daily feature. The lakes kept on coming intersected with short pieces of forest. The changes were welcomed but personally I liked the open lakes as I got to look up and enjoy the views a lot more. I recognised almost all of the route well once I was there and kept telling Tom about what was round the corner or where I had camped the year before etc. I expect he probably didn’t care less but was kind enough to at least pretend to be interested. From Braeburn I had decided to use my GPS in order to make sure we didn’t miss or overshoot the cabin and by midnight we were closing in. Just as I recognised the final steep entry down onto enormous Coghlan Lake we came across a racer just getting in his bivi – it was Aussy Joel. He looked a little worse for wear so we stopped and asked if he was all good and apart from being pretty cold and tired he said he was all good and needed a good rest. We whizzed down the steep descent and with great excitement and confidence I told Tom ‘this was definitely the big lake with the Cabin…it’s just about an hour or so over there!’. As we walked out into the lake, we turned our head torches off, the moon was bright enough to see easily without it. Tonight it was almost full and cast our little shadows strongly on the frozen lake. It was beautiful. With Tom out front I often stopped momentarily to look behind me to take it all in – this lake is absolutely massive! Being stood in the middle of a 7 mile long frozen lake isn’t something I did very often and it felt weirdly exciting. Either the urge to reach the cabin or the fact we had just noticed 2 head torches (probably the Italian couple) at the entrance to the lake behind us we increased our pace a little and made good time marching across the lake. Nothing like a racer behind you to spur you on a little!
A quick break in the middle of the night. Eat. Drink. Move.
At around 1am we stopped and enjoyed a 5 minute break and Tom elbowed me and said ‘ey lad look up there’. Classic northerner. We stood in silence for a while as the green band grew stronger and danced freely across the sky in front of us. Over a period of 20 minutes or so it got better and better. I felt so lucky once again to experience this magical light show. Behind us the bright moon was so clear you could see the bumps and scars on its surface and all around the bigger stars were shining bright against the dark sky…and in front of us the Northern Lights! For a brief moment I was lost in a frozen paradise – a truly magical moment in the race I will never forget. Straight out in front of me on the edge of the forest I caught a glimpse of an outline that looked like a roof and knew it was the main cabin that we were aiming for. Feeling excited and slightly selfish at the idea of another possible fire in the small cabin behind it we kept our torches off so as not to let on where we were heading. There were 4 or 5 cabins but I knew the little one at the back was a sauna and should be unlocked….bingo! – we were in luck again! It was a pretty cold night again at around – 32, so as quick as we could we grabbed our stuff and got inside. My feet had got damp in the last 50 metres through the deep snow and were absolutely freezing numb. I wasn’t overly concerned for frost bite as long as I got them warm relatively soon. Tom got the fire going with a bit of huffing and puffing and we smiled at our good fortune. This was amazing!
On arrival at the cabins we has seen 3 other racers having a sleep out the front of the main cabin including Matt. It was clearly quite a well known spot! I really wanted to go and wake him but I expected he was pretty close to leaving anyway and there really wasn’t any room inside the tiny sauna. Morale went sky high again and we lay our sleeping bags on the floor for a few hours’ sleep. I attended to my feet and mentally noted how pleased I was that they were doing well, no blisters for either of us yet, just general swelling and pain.
Tom relaxing in the small cabin half way across Cougland Lake.
Day Four // Cougland Lake sauna to Ken Lake CP (42.7km/26.7miles)
In the morning we sorted ourselves pretty slowly, neither of us really wanting to leave the safety and warmth of the little cabin. Either that or I think the enormity of what still lay ahead had truly sunk in and we were both massively apprehensive about it. We were only 118 miles in and 430 miles felt a very very long way off. We ate a freeze dried meal, melted a little snow for water on the Jetboil stove and left the cabin clean and tidy as we had found it (minus a few logs). As we left I noted Jessie was now biving by the main cabin. She stirred as we passed so we said hello and I told her it was still warm in there! I think she had overslept again which is no surprise given she as the only racer who didn’t set an alarm during he race!
So much of this race is done in the dark and for most competitors in the race, alone. Tom and I talked about this often and how challenging we thought we would both find it if we had entered individually. I’m not suggesting being a team is easier, it comes with its own challenges and potential problems, but it certainly helped us reduce the mental strength required to deal with such long dark periods of time on your own.
Shortly after leaving we passed the place where I had scratched the year before. It was weirdly emotional and it felt great to walk straight past it. Whilst I was hurting substantially it wasn’t anywhere near the pain and discomfort I was in at that spot the year before. At this moment in time my right calf was hurting a lot and I had a sharp pain inside my left knee but they seemed to have reached a level for now. Tom seemed to be suffering too although I think his was more his achilles and ankles. The sun was soon up and we felt like we were making good progress but we had a long day ahead. Lake after lake after lake was the order of the day interspersed with short sections of forest. Every now and then we would come across a smiley face or a note to another competitor written in the snow. This small sign of human life was always great to see and made us feel better so we did some of our own from time to time for anyone behind us to see. As the sun descended and we entered the final 10 miles of the day Jim came marching through the forest looking strong. Jim was in his early 70s and had been in the race a few times before. At this point Tom and I had already discussed that anyone who does this race more than once must be nutter or a glutton for punishment. Jim seemed it such good spirits and was moving really well. We had a little chat and he carried on ahead of us. What an inspiration! A short time later he took a break and we pass him again. Before long he caught us up and I asked if he would like to pass. Rather sweetly he asked whether he could carry on just behind us for a while as it was nice to have some company. We were delighted.
Long cold days out on the beautiful trail with our sleds
One thing we learnt was it didn’t really matter how far you were hoping to go that day – the final 10 miles were always brutal and never ending. Today wasn’t any different. It was still cold, and the lakes seemed never ending, morale was pretty low as night fell and time kept on ticking by with no sign of the check point. A second wind was pushing me faster towards the checkpoint but I could see Tom was suffering and there is nothing worse than feeling like you are holding someone back. We were a team and I needed him with me to the end. Throughout the race we would both peak and trough with tiredness, love/hate for the race and general enjoyment. But simply having Tom there to talk to made such a huge difference to me and I hoped he felt the same.
A little broken we eventually crawled up the brutally steep slope into Ken Lake Checkpoint and straight into the big tent. Jim was already in there having left us during one of our regular breaks as he was part of the only 3 breaks per day club! We were greeted by a lovely volunteer called Bernard who actually owned the sauna we had stayed in the night before and already knew we had been in there! Thankfully he didn’t seem to mind and he joked about sending us an invoice for it! (it was a joke right Bernard?). We demolished our warm meal that the checkpoint provided (I’d have quite literary eaten anything) and hung our damp clothes around the tent as best we could hoping the log burner would do its magic whilst we rested. Sleeping was all outside and there were quite a few racers around. We had a compulsory foot and hand check before heading out to make our bed for the night. We were both pretty shattered so we just laid the tent down flat and collapsed into our sleeping bags on top of it.
Day Five // Ken Lake CP to Carmacks CP (56km/35 miles)
It was another cold night at around -25/30 degrees and pretty noisy around the checkpoint with some impressive snoring and general noise from other racers coming and going. Exhausted but unable to sleep I laid awake staring at the stars between the tips of the pine trees wondering how much further I could go in this race, I felt pretty broken. I managed a bit of snoozing I think, and a few chilly hours later I woke Tom and we set about getting on the move. Over the past few days I had developed some minor chaffing between my bum cheeks which needed some seeing to. Nothing that Sudacream couldn’t sort out…when the Sudacream isn’t frozen. I slung it in an inside pocket, resigned to having to do it on the trail later on. Everything in this environment takes forward planning.
Feeling tired and feeling a bit low we descended the steep slope and hobbled slowly out on to a lake. We took the first few miles pretty steady to warm up the muscles that were sore and hurting. It was going to be a pretty big day miles wise but at the end was Carmax – the race cut off point at 22:30 that evening – and a community centre where we could get indoors and have a shower! The thought of a shower was incredibly appealing right now.
That morning was cold and tough and one look in Toms eyes told me that he was hurting as much as I was. Thoughts about quitting the race were swimming around both of our heads. I just couldn’t see how I could keep this up for another 250 miles or more. That morning Tom seemed to be struggling to manage his body temperature – getting cold then hot, then sweaty and unable to rest for long for fear of getting too cold. I told him to go in front and set any pace that felt comfortable. Classically he shot off at a great pace and held it constant which seemed to go the trick. It is such a small thing but ‘being at the back’ can have such a damaging effect on you physiologically if you feel like you’re struggling to keep up or not feeling 100%. In extreme environments it’s this small things that make a huge difference
It was another long long cold night and with both of our achilles hurting we were both wearing our lighter trainers which meant constantly having cold toes. Wriggling and a bit of leg swinging whilst moving brought them eventually back to life, but then we would stop for just a few minutes for a quick hot drink and bit to eat and they would get cold again. Neither of us were concerned for frost bite it was simply more of just a pain to keep managing them all the time but I couldn’t face the thought of putting my warmer trainers on as they seemed to hurt more.
After around 12 miles the lakes finished and so began a brutal 15 mile forest section along the left edge of the Yukon river. The weather had begun to turn too and it had got much warmer and began to snow too. As if our moods were not low enough today the snow simply makes the sled feel 10 times heaver with the resistance the fresh snow causes when pulling it along the ground. We passed a few racers sleeping which always makes you feel better, double checking their names but didn’t recognise them. Hour after hour passed and our speed had slowed down substantially and was desperately slow. The going was really tough. After what seemed an eternity of dragging the sled Tom and I sat down for a break feeling utterly deflated and done for. We joked about the race and how stupidly hard it was and how all we wanted to do was stop – based on how much we hurt and how exhausted we were. I told Tom that I wasn’t enjoying myself at all, it was type 3 fun, and I was being honest – I wasn’t, at all, at the pint. I have never wanted to stop doing something so much in my entire life, and I told him. He agreed completely and for the first time we vocalised our thoughts of actually scratching from the race. We also promised each other that no matter what happens if either of us ever said we were entering the race again we were not allowed to let them – and we shook hands on it. I never want to go through this again I laughed. I knew only too well that once the race is done my brain would do this wonderful thing of forgetting all the pain and unpleasant experiences and enhancing all the good bits.
As always the last few miles were mentally the hardest and I remember begging the checkpoint to come into view, banging my walking poles on the ice and screaming inside my head for the day to be over. A few miles earlier we had over taken Jessie who seemed in good spirits although she must have been going slow and I think she said she was hurting a bit too. She caught us up again and we walked the final miles in together (well, I tried to keep up hobbling). This girl is a machine I thought, and totally bonkers as this was the 3rd time she had been in the race and the second time in doing the 430!! Why would anyone ever want to come and do this race again, it’s insane? I asked her this exact question and she said the first of many wise things that helped both Tom and I through the race. ‘It will get easier and the best bits are yet to come. You’ll get used to the pain in a few days’ time’. This advice was hard to take in at the time, but true enough in the end.
Eventually we made it into Carmax and the hive of activity at around 17:30, with only 5 hours to spare! There were lots of competitors here and all sorts of things happening. We were now 175 miles in to the race and we had made the cut off point. As usual the staff were above and beyond kind and helpful and understanding that we were very close to breaking point. I sat down with Tom and said, let’s just take as much time as we need, shower, rest, sleep and make a decision in the morning. One thing I would suggest is always try and make the next checkpoint even if you think your slower than slow and never quit the minute you arrive at the checkpoint. Take some rest and decide in the morning.
Matt was just about to leave when we arrived so we caught up with him and wished him the best of luck. Both his ankles had tendonitis and were crackling when he moved them. It reminded me of last year but Matt is obviously much tougher than I am and seemed ready to head out in to the darkness for more suffering. After a pretty extensive faff and shower we sat down to a hot meal provided at the check point. It tasted amazing but I could have eaten it twice over. I made a conscious effort to rehydrate with tea, hot chocolate and water and then hobble up the stairs to try and find a space to sleep on the floor. Tom disappeared off for 30 minutes to do his medical science with the research doctors. It was warm but noisy and bright but I tried to sleep with my legs elevated on a chair and ice packs on my ankles. I moved the ice packs from my knees to my achilles and then round to the front of my left ankle. This seemed to help a lot with the pain and swelling but disrupted any sleep.
In the middle of the night I saw Jessie and Scott get up to leave and wondered if I would see them again in the race. Everyone seemed to be moving so much better than we did. I just couldn’t see how I could make it the end in my current state. After some light and broken sleep I woke at 4 and set about sorting my stuff. My knee and calf were in substantial amounts of pain and I felt really tired. I sat chatting to another competitor called Marcello who asked if I had taped it? Ermmm no? I said slightly confused. He convinced me it would help a lot and offered to tape my calf and knee. I couldn’t see how it would possibly help but I was willing to try anything. Robert (the race organiser) came over for a chat and his never ending positivity about the race picked up my mood. The time restraints are easier now he said, you can take your time a little and rest a little more at check points and still make it to the end in time.
Tom with his anti-frost bite tape on his face and his sleep recording medical research devise on his forehead!
Tom finished his medical tests and we had a chat. I was feeling super tired and after some research had found out that the local shop opened at 07:30 and we agreed we would leave then and buy some fresh goodies. Pretty much ready to go I just grabbed my sleeping stuff and hobbled back upstairs. It was now pretty empty – other than Jim who seemed to always sleep well – and I found a quiet dark corner and got an amazing deep 2 hours sleep. As I bent my knee it screamed at me, feeling a lot worse than before. I reached down and pulled the tape off and with it all the hair too. Strangely though my calf felt slightly better so I left that tape on. I hobbled down the stairs feeling broken and a bit low but rested.
Day Six // Carmacks CP to McCabe CP (64.5km/38.4miles)
We never really discussed what we were doing, we just got ourselves ready, said our thank yous to the volunteers, Robert and the medics and walked out into the darkness. It was not too cold and the stars were out once again. It was over 12 hours since arriving at Carmax and we were now the last people to leave the checkpoint, but we simply didn’t care.
From the shop we bought a small pizza and 4 sausage rolls and heated them in the shop microwave. This was possibly the greatest thing in the world at the time and instantly Tom and I had a smile on our faces. It was definitely worth waiting the extra few hours at the checkpoint for! We set off with a new bounce in our stride and disappeared into the darkness towards McCabe Creek 38 miles away.
The trail shortly turned into a snowy road so the going was easy enough and it seems after a slow mile or so to get warm both of us agreed our niggles and pains felt a bit better…although it might have been the drugs kicking in. After a few hours moving well we were surprised to come across Marcello and Borja (a 300 mile competitor) who seemed to be moving slowly but in really good spirits. We pushed on enjoying the relatively flat trail and the GPS slowly counted up the miles. Around 12 miles in it changed to a thinner forest trail but this was equally flat and the change in scene was very welcome. Heavily laden snowy branches drooped over the trail and occasionally I would bang one with my walking pole to release the snow and the branch would ping back upright. Pretty much from start to finish we stopped roughly every hour for a quick break, sometimes just a minute to grab a quick drink or a wee and sometimes of 5 minutes for a proper rest. I think this did wonders in the long term and meant we grazed on our 6000 calories throughout the day and kept our hydration levels up too. Looking back I think we did this perfectly throughout the race.
Beautiful but cold days on the trail through the old pine forests & flicking heavily snow-laiden branches
As normal the afternoon began to drag and as the sun went down and the temperature plummeted the miles seem to take forever. We had been going for nearly 14 hours and we we’re both keen to bivi down. The forest came to an end at the edge of a huge river which, unlike most we had seen, was a heap of jumbled ice blocks. With my head torch on its brightest mode I could count 10 markers reflecting out into the middle of the river through the ice. We looked about for a bivi spot but it was all overgrown a bit scrappy.
It was at this exact point I felt my left foot twinge exactly like it had the year before and my heart sank. I had come to terms with the pain of my current injuries and seemed to be managing them and I’d really hoped that the tendentious on the front of my foot/shin wouldn’t come back again. I told Tom and felt despair spread through my body as we descended down on the river, I couldn’t believe this was happening again. I expressed my concern and we agreed to look for the first good bivi spot. The river stretched out and I could vaguely see an island of land which I hoped would provide a good bivi spot. It is always much colder on the ice so we really needed to be in the forest if possible. Eventually we reached the island but it was pretty clear there was nowhere to bivi. I really wanted to stop and rest. We had no choice but to keep going and keep going until eventually we came off the river again. The GPS suggested it was around 6 miles/10km to the checkpoint from this point and just as we were looking for a suitable bivi spot, suddenly out of nowhere, Marcello appeared at 100mph looking startled and clearly a little confused exclaiming that the check point was here, or at most 1km then shot off into the darkness! We were pretty convinced it was around 10km further but the seed of doubt was sown and we carried on a little just in case. After another half an hour someone had scribbled 6km in the snow. We stopped and had a good 10 minute break and took on some food and water and decided to keep pushing to the checkpoint. I ate all the sweets I had left. It was a long, desperate and challenging 2 hours, but I am really pleased we did push through in the end.
As we crawled into the checkpoint – once again totally broken – we were greeted with warm, friendly and welcoming hugs from Trish and Sarah. What a difference this makes when you are at the end of your tether! An amazing lasagne, cinnamon bun and two hot chocolates later and we both felt much better about life. I don’t even like cinnamon but in this situation I enjoyed all of it. Everyone whispered at this checkpoint to try and not wake those who were sleeping which was quite entertaining. The room was lovely and warm and 5 competitors including Scott, Jessie and Jim were sleeping at the back. I quickly hung up anything that needed drying and brought in my thermos’s and sleeping stuff. The medic had a chat with us but there was very little they could offer either of us and I set about my evening routine of icing my knees and ankles for half an hour whilst elevated on a chair before crashing out for the best 3 hours sleep I had had in the entire race.
Day Seven // McCabe to Pelly Crossing (44.5km/28miles)
We left feeling generally better about everything. It really is amazing how a little human interaction and 3 hours sleep can make you feel so much better! The trail straight out of McCabe was a straight 6 miles trail following the pylons. I didn’t enjoy this section as it was perfectly straight and it never feels like you are getting anywhere. After a while it changed to quite pleasant forest and we seemed to holding a pretty good speed.
After around 6 hours in the weather started to change and it began to snow quite a lot. Although the trail was still obvious, hauling the sledge instantly becomes much harder work. The day seemed to slow down substantially and the changing lakes and forest seemed to go on for ever. I was trying desperately to remain positive and upbeat but finding it hard. I was reaching my limits both physically and mentally. In the late afternoon my legs begin to feel like they are really swollen, describing them to Tom as one long fat sausage. When we paused for a break I laid on my back with my legs in the air and watched the snow fall silently from the sky. It was quite beautiful and hypnotic and although I doubt it was happening it felt like the fluid in my legs was draining out with every second a laid there upside down. I repeated this a few times though the afternoon and it seemed to help a bit, at least it made us laugh!
Lying on my back ‘draining my legs’ when ever a had the chance!
Our pace had slowed down substantially and even Glen and Spencer the father and son Skidoo team were struggling to raise our spirits. I really wanted this day over but I knew we had miles and miles to go. Mentally I just didn’t know if I had it in me, so I began talking to myself, sort of interview style, which made me smile and passed a few minutes.
So far on our journey we hadn’t seen a single animal but we had seen foot prints and signs of elk, moose, hares and wolves. I was pretty keen to see a wolf and knew that Marcello and seen some the day before and apparently they were back again tracking him today. We nicknamed him wolfman for now as I kept forgetting his name. Earlier in the day the trail had an inch of fresh snow on it so all the foot prints were covered but there was a fresh set of wolf prints on the trail. They must have been only minutes old which we both thought was really exciting. But we had no luck in spotting the elusive wolf.
Sometimes the sense of solitude was overwhelming – which is what some people enter the race for.
Darkness engulfed us once again and so did the desire to sleep. To keep me awake and moving forward I shouted out loud every now and then, usually some sarcastic comment about how I’d rather be nowhere else in the world right now, not even on a beach, or simply make some silly noises that would give me a sudden boost of adrenalin. As with every day the final miles dragged on and eventually we saw the lights of the town and the main road leading in. The markers had been moved by locals so we guess it was straight on and as we looked about for any signs of markers Glen and Spencer came out to great us before shooting to check on Marcello somewhere behind us. It was always the great feeling to hear these guys coming in the distance during the days, and I had grown to really enjoy our chats with them. Usually we would see them twice a day throughout the race and sometimes more if we were last as they were removing the markers once they were no longer needed.
The medical research team Adriane and Mathias came out to greet us with warm smiles and we walked and talk the last 500m into the checkpoint together. The gym was a busy place. The new HQ of the race was set up here and I sneaked on Robert’s wifi to send a quick message home. We sat around for a while unwinding and laughing about the day and enjoying some warm tasty food, which again I could of devoured 2 or 3 times over. Tom managed to blag some extra bread rations which felt like a small victory. Even still, as good as it was, it wasn’t the Macdonalds we had spent the last 2km fantasising about! We decided to take a reasonable rest as it seemed most other folk were too and we set our alarms for a 5 hour sleep. There were quite a few racers at this checkpoint when we arrived including Mal Smith (who I had met in 2016) and another nice guy called Alfredo who had both planned to fat bike the 200 mile race from Pelly Crossing to Dawson City but had scratched already. I chatted to Mal for a while and then blagged a bit of his food he no longer needed. It wasn’t that we necessarily needed more, I was just keen for something different! Like Jim, it seems Mal was hoping to survive purely on Babybell Cheese – so we kindly accepted a few of these and tucked them away in the sledge!
Day Eight // Pelly Crossing to Pelly Farms (51.2km/32miles)
One big sleep later and I felt much better. I am not sure if it was something in the food or a good sleep but we both felt a little more positive. Much to our surprise Marcello had found the continual close wolf encounters all a bit too much and he had reached his limit and decided to scratch from the race. We were really disappointed for him as we liked him a lot, but equally found it a little amusing (sorry Marcello!) as we had previously nicknamed him the Wolfman as he seemed to have loved his encounters the previous day! As we went to leave in the morning I noticed a sign on the wall that said 232 miles…and it suddenly dawned on me that that was all we had done! We had another 200 miles to go! This race was insane. That’s not even possible. I pointed it out to Tom who just shrugged and in his usual wonderful banter, said ‘come on big lad, lets go.’
This day turned out to be not only the closest day I considered scratching from the race but also the turning point for the whole race getting better for me. It was snowing heavily when we left and my ankles and knee were refusing to loosen up. The pain in my left foot was there from the off and I simply couldn’t go any faster. It was supposed to be a straight forward day – a 32 mile road all the way to an incredible place called Pelly Farm – but there was no firm trail and just deep snow to drag the sled through. The only way I can describe it is like tying a 20kg tractor tyre to a rope, trying it around your waist and dragging it along the beach, in the dark and cold for hour after hour. Soul destroying. In the night we passed Steve who we had met at the pre-race dinner who went on to win the 300 mile race and seemed to be flying along but a little disappointed he wasn’t in the 430. After reading his race report I see that he also seemed to suffer a substantial amount earlier in the race. We were both really chuffed for him as I think it was his first time in these sorts of cold winter conditions.
For a while we followed another racer’s foot prints in front of us. It was clear the sleep monsters were getting the better of them as they wandered and zig zagged all over the place. Eventually we came across the culprit having a much need sleep at the side of the trail – it was Scotty! The pace was slow for me today and whilst the hours passed the miles didn’t and I felt awful as Tom was clearly having to wait for me all the time. By the middle of the day it was a really pleasant temperature and for the first time in the race and I was down to just 2 layers. On one of the really long hills Robert came past in his truck and said hi. I expressed my feelings and he kindly brushed them aside and told me to keep going. Trying to find the hardest surface to walk on I zig zagged a little mostly staying in the tyre tracks that had now compressed the snow a little.
Cold and crisp through soft deep snow – the twilight hours between Pelly Crossing and Pelly Farm
After what felt like an eternity of constantly going up all the time and dragging Betty behind me, the terrain seemed to begin descending. We passed Laura (one half of Italian team who we had nearly crashed into near Coghlan Lake) who was heading to the 300 finish and she confirmed that it was mostly downhill all the way to Pelly Farm but it was still about 20km. I wanted to cry. At some point in the afternoon it was time for some more drugs and a descent break. I took 10 minutes and ate a ton of food and drank some tea. I asked Tom if I could go in the front. As I’ve explain before this can help a huge amount. The later part of the day was quite beautiful – the huge pine trees bowing heavily under the weight of the fallen snow drooped all around us and the sunset was cutting its way through any gaps in the forest. It really was a beautiful place. At around 6 miles out of the check point I began to feel a bit better, my legs seemed to be feeling ok and I decided to just give it some beans and see what happened. Tom was hurting to but seemed good to keep up so I opened up the tank and stormed off at full walking speed. It felt absolutely incredible to be smashing down the road pretty much as fast as I could walk – at around 4 miles an hour. We stopped briefly as per normal but otherwise with music on we practically smashed out the final miles feeling unstoppable. We passed Robert heading back out again and he confirmed it was just over 2 miles left. My legs felt swollen and over used but I wasn’t going to stop now we pushed on together into the most beautiful and inspiring location for a house I had seen in a long time. At the end of the road, far far away from anywhere, perched on the edge of a huge frozen river was Pelly Farm.
On arrival we parked our sleds amongst 4 or 5 others and were ushered into the warm and welcoming home of Dale and Sue. All our wet frozen kit was taken away from us and kindly hung up to dry. A huge lasagne and a cold beer was placed in front us and for a brief moment everything seemed all ok. Chief medic Dianne was around and was her usual upbeat and happy self, Scott was relaxing in a very comfortable looking arm chair and Jessie was heading out to grab some sleep. All the racers had a compulsory 8 hour stop here and I could see why some people stay longer. After food we were taken to a small cosy cabin with a huge log fire in it which housed 5 or 6 beds, most were taken with other racers but we found the spare ones and crashed out. I noticed all our frozen kit was drying nicely hanging up around the fire.
For the first time in the race both Tom and I slept really well for around 5 hours and felt much better for it. At home I regularly sleep 8-10 hours and need it, so I had no idea how I was able to operate out here having had practically none since the start. After the breakfast of champions (pancakes and eggs!) we collected our thermos flasks, bean burrito from Sue, bid farewell and trundled off into the darkness. My calf had now all but stopped hurting thanks to the magic tape from Marcello and the discomfort in my knee had also substantially reduced. The achilles were still sore so I had no choice but to wear my lightweight low cut trail shoes as this put less pressure on this area and with the warmer weather this was just fine, but I was concerned that if it got cold when we headed into the mountains I would get cold toes.
Day Nine // Pelly Farms to halfway to Scroggie Creek (61km/36.3miles)
Dale at Pelly farm had talked me through the route from here to Scroggie Creak (66 miles away) and it sounded generally fine. I knew that most of the first day was all generally up hill with a major hill at around half way. Going up suited me fine as it reduced the angle on my ankle and it almost didn’t hurt at all. Continuing in the theme of the final miles yesterday I went out front and set a blistering pace up the gently inclined trail. I checked regularly to see if Tom was still with me and he was right there – boom, we were finally flying again and it felt so great! We stopped from time to time, but with music on and the cold early morning temperatures dropping before the sunrise we pushed on and clocked up the miles. Tom took a nature call and disappeared off for a few minutes so I slung my huge down jacket on and sat down to rest my legs and tucked into the bean burrito which was quite possibly the best thing I ate during the entire race!
As we blasted around a corner at 13 miles we bumped into Jessie and Scott much to our surprise. They had left a few hours earlier and I wondered if they were both ok? We sat and enjoyed a break in the sunshine with them for 15 minutes before moving off at our newfound pace. Clearly Jessie and Scott were not having any of it and very soon Scott ‘I don’t stop’ Smith came flying past and off into the distance. His gate was very short considering he was pretty tall and we joked around trying to walk in his foot prints. For what felt like the first time in the race Tom and I seemed to be actually enjoying ourselves on the trail, it was forested but open enough to look around and it felt remote and untouched. We could see mountains all around in the distance and I wondered which ones we might have to go over. As climbers and mountaineers both Tom and I were looking forward to this final mountainous section.
We decided that in the light of our good pace and spirits, we would try and break the back of the day and keep pushing to around 20:00 – about a 17 hour day. So at lunch time around 26 miles done we found a little suntrap and stopped for a good one hour break. We made a fire, had a freeze fried meal and dried our feet out. Moral was sky high and we joked about the race as normal. Jessie soon appeared and joined us for a while by the fire, bouncing along in a great mood as always. I know she had said on numerous occasions that she relished the opportunity to spend time alone on the trail and generally enjoyed the race this way but I’m sure deep down she enjoyed having some company from time to time. I know that Tom and I enjoyed having her about as her words of encouragement had made the race seem possible for us in the earlier days, and I was grateful for that. Glen, Spencer, Yann and Joe (race photographer) all came along on their Skidoos and the atmosphere picked up a level! Glen informed us that Jim had scratched from the race with achilles problems and we were gutted for him. Over the past 4 or 5 days we had got to know Jim a little and enjoyed our short but frequent chats with him on the trail. He was an inspiration to many in the race and I knew he would be really disappointed. This meant that we were now the back of the remaining pack but Tom and I honestly couldn’t care less – we were finally having a great time!
Day 11 – a 50 mile push with a 1 hour break in the middle. Drying our feet and socks out with a moral boosting fire!
The afternoon passed with relative ease as the 3 of us made steady work of the trail. Jessie told us about a 4km hill we were about to do which took us roughly to the half way point and Tom and I smiled at each other. Heads down, music on we set to work on the hill and with one short break half way up before we knew it we’d reached the top. Scott had caught up with a really lovely German chap called Uwe, and they had set up their tents for a rest here, but we were pretty good to carry on and stick to our plan, and more importantly it was downhill from here!
We had mastered the art of sledging by now and I smiled at Jessie as we pulled our sleds forward and sat down. She had fixed bars on her sled which meant it was a bit more time consuming and faffy to sled down but I had no doubt she would catch us up…she always did. It didn’t matter how short or slow the sledging was it always felt like we were winning but this was something else – it was steep and fast and absolutely amazing! Steep descent after step descent continued around each corner and we zoomed down effortlessly for what seemed like ages! Tom had adopted the kneeling up position which seemed faster but less stable and I chose the sitting down version with my feet in front of me. On the steepest section we reached a top speed of around 20 miles per hour (according to my GPS) and when I hit a bump on the trail my entire sled was fully airborne for a brief moment, but as the groove in the trail was quite deep it remained straight and I fired off in pursuit of Tom! Finally our sleds came to a stop and we lay there laughing – it felt so good to have zoomed along the trail for a few miles and we marched off feeling on top of the world.
This part of the forest was my favourite of the entire race. An ancient untouched pine forest with huge high trees bending and drooping under the heavy weight of the snow. Every now and then I would whack a heavily laden branch with my walking pole and watch the branch spring back up right as the snow came cascading down sparkling under the light of my head torch. As the hours drew on my body began to feel the effects of the long day, I was tired and we agreed to begin looking for a bivi spot at around 20:00. The temperatures were very pleasant, probably only around -5 and I didn’t even need gloves on whilst we set up out little camp for the night. I slept out in my bivi and Tom in the tent. The moment I lay down on the soft snow deep inside my monster sleeping bag a could feel my body shutting down. Fighting against the inevitable I forced my eyes to stay open just a little longer to enjoy the magic of the forest, the silence and watch the stars above sparkle against the black sky. A shooting star tore across the small patch I was watching. It was perfect.
On route to Scroggie Creek – Tom living the dream in our little single skin tent (I was in my Bivi & very happy)
Day Ten // Bivvy to Scroggie Creek CP (43km/25.6miles)
The next day was more of the same – big beautiful old pine forest with tracks and trails of animal life everywhere. Even though we were now 10 days in I always got a little pang of excitement when I saw wolf prints. This seemed like the perfect place for them to live and Dale from Pelly Farm had told us that the first was full of wolves! Shortly after starting my left ankle began screaming at me and I couldn’t believe it. The pain rapidly increased to the point of which I was using my walking poles to try and alleviate as much of the pressure as possible. I stopped and faffed with socks and trainers to make sure there was nothing odd going on but tried to push on. It was absolute agony and I couldn’t understand why. I relished the slight inclines as it felt heaps better but flat or down hill it would bring me crawling down to snail’s pace. I apologised over and over again to Tom saying I’m sorry, I can’t go any faster. I hobbled the best I could and over time it seemed to ease a little and with additional drugs I was able to walk a little better in the afternoon.
The final 10km to Scroggie creak was utterly spectacular. The sun was up, cutting its way through the trees and onto our faces. It was warm and pleasant as we followed the edge of the winding frozen creak. For the very first time in the race, we reached the check point and we hadn’t been in total despair during the final few hours and desperate for that day to end. What an amazing little place! Seemingly in the middle of absolutely nowhere, Scroggie Creak was just 2 small cabins and an outhouse toilet. We were warmly welcomed by Jessica (Checkpoint staff), Sue (medic) and Robert (Skidoo guide) and sat down to enjoy some hot chocolate and a gossip. Dinner was big and delicious and Jessica proudly informed us it was an Antoinette’s Chicken Curry from Whitehorse. This was served with a rock hard bread bun which made me chuckle when I tried to break a piece off with my teeth and nothing happened. A little soaking in the curry juice sorted out it! There were no other racers here yet but Jessie, Scott and Uwe would not be far behind. The usual faffing took place, hanging kit, sorting thermos’s, planning our leaving time etc and the daily icing routine before sleeping. It was noisy and hot in the hut so neither of us slept particularly well but the rest did us good. I’m sure I must have snored too but Scott and Tom were making the beds vibrate! Scott had kindly offered us some of his KT tape and the last 6 pills of his Ibuprofen so Tom and I covered our achilles and my left foot in the tape hoping it would help. I was so grateful for the drugs as I was running very low and it was really helping me a lot. More to the point – how did he not need them?
Day Eleven // Scroggie to Indian River CP (80km/50miles)
The next leg to Indian River was 50 miles and we decided to smash out 6 hours, take a short bivi then push through the check point. Jessica very kindly allowed us a second meal before we left as so many racers had scratched and she had extra – leaving a checkpoint with a full stomach was such a bonus. We literally devoured it. Boiling water here was a little slow going so we offered to have warm water in our Nalgene bottles from the pot on the fire which had been warming the packaged meals. This was a terrible idea as when we came to drink it on the trail it tasted absolutely horrific and almost made both Tom and I vomit. We poured this away and had some piping hot tea instead to disguise the taste. Jessica’s husband saw us off in the dark (around 21:00) and down a very steep slope on to the Stewart River. I realised that my ankles were not screaming at me and the first 10km along the flat river were really enjoyable. Once in the forest we kept a good pace but it seemed Tom’s achilles were causing him some discomfort so he went ahead and we stuck together.
Suddenly out the corner of my eye something startled me – 4 huge JCB diggers sat silently just back from the trail! I was so confused as I called out to Tom. We looked around and could see a number of cabins, old disused caravans, and forgotten about cars and trucks. We guessed it was part of the old gold mining times but none the less in the night time it looked pretty scary and we decided not to hang around. It looked like the perfect place to film a terrifying horror movie or murder mystery drama. 03:00 came around and we were pleased with our distance of around 13 miles covered so we quickly bivi’d down next to the trail. I was stupidly excited about bivi’ing again since our night in the forest 2 days ago. I found that I never slept well in the checkpoints, either too warm or noisy but slept really well out on the trail. Once again I lay there watching the sky, it was an amazing display of stars but the moon was bright and hiding the millions of other stars from view. I felt my body relax and sink deep into the ground and I was gone. In the night I faintly heard Jessie, Scott and Uwe pass us having left a few hours after we did and going to Indian creek in 1 push. I was pleased with our tactics and relished the chance for another hour of warm cosy sleep.
Fresh wolf prints bigger than my hand – these beautiful beasts were always close but we never saw them!
We woke and natured called, I had now got this process down to an art, pre warming my wet wipes and sudacream and ensuring that I didn’t get too cold in the process. Today we knew we had to make the huge climb of Black Rocks Hill and it was going to be uphill for most of the day….but then a huge downhill on the other side which only meant one thing…sledging!
Shortly after leaving we came across Scott biviing at the side of the trail – I knew he had trouble with the sleep monsters (staying awake) on the trail in the early mornings and a quick hour’s nap seemed to sort him out well. I had struggled with the same thing the year before but hadn’t had any this year and wondered whether it was partly due to having Tom around. The trail followed the old mining roads and we passed dozens of old diggers and machinery and dilapidated buildings throughout the early morning. Scott caught us up and we travelled as a 3 for the most of the day. Gradually going up and up the trail seemed never ending but enjoyable (I was still preferring the up hills) and I was waiting for the zigzags I had heard so much about. Finally at the base of an obviously long step climb someone had written ‘send it’ in the snow. I knew instantly Jessie had done this as we had previous discussed our love of skiing and my recent trip heli-skiing in Canada with the same company that she used to work for. I doubt she realised how much I would enjoy reading it but it made me smile before putting my head down and pushing on. These small signes of humanity made such a huge difference to me during the race.
With a reasonable amount of mountain experience Tom and I were both looking forward to getting in the mountains and whilst we joked about these being small hills the incline was long and steep and took hours. It was a really unusually hot today, maybe even around 0 degrees and pushing hard up the hills was sweaty work. We both relished the chance to push our heart rates high and feel our legs screaming as they worked hard pulling the sled up the long steep incline. By the time we reached the top we were both down to just leggings and 1 base layer! Uwe, Scott, Tom and I all reached the top around the same time which was quite sociable and Jessie was just out ahead. The views were breath taking and all the hard work rewarded with spectacular 360 views across Canada’s vast empty Yukon wilderness.
With layers back on quickly we headed across the top ridges of the mountain for a few miles before the first big descent came into view. Tom called his wife from his sat phone and she told him about her 20 week scan and they were having a little boy! Tom was obviously delighted and a tad emotional but this news lifted our spirits even higher. Excited from sledging we knew we were in for a treat as Indian River check point was at the bottom of the valley. The initial descent was outstanding and we reached new personal best top speed of 23mph according to my GPS. It seemed to go on for ever and ever and was probably in the top few moments of the race. Mile after mile seemed to race by and on every corner the trail just carried on descending into the distance. I could hear Tom laughing in front of me and I to had a grin from ear to ear, this was amazing!! Scott was just behind me and Jessie and Uwe behind him and at one point we all sat together laughing and re-living the toboggan ride – these were the really great parts of the race I thought. When you get to share the experience in the moment with other racers.
Tom finding out “its a boy” and Jessie, Scott & myself enjoying a break after an epic sledding section before Indian River!
We bumped into Yann and Thilo and off-loaded all our exciting tales of the summit and the descent. It was always so good to see these guys, but I knew we had another 4 or 5 hours ahead of us before reaching the checkpoint. I know they hate us asking how far it is to the check point but you just can’t help yourself. They confirmed it was as far as I’d feared but it didn’t matter, it was warm and sunny and we had had such a great day.
After a monster of a day we arrived into Indian River pretty tired and exhausted but in good spirits which was quickly squashed by a strict military welcome to camp. What I really needed was another McCabe Creek hug and a pat on the back but we got quite the opposite having completed the biggest day in my life. The camp was very remote and really quite impressive, they had clearly spent some time making it as plush as can be with pine needles covering the snow floor etc. We did our best to tip toe around the tent and only dry the essentials before crashing out in our bivis outside the back of the tent. As we settled down for a generous 4 hour sleep, I turned to Tom and said that we only had 1 more day left. It felt strangely odd and almost sad saying it but equally there was nothing I wanted more than to finish this race. It occurred to me at this was the very first time in the race that I thought we might actually finish it. I had mostly been in too much pain, physically or psychologically, and couldn’t comprehend finishing it, that I hadn’t allowed myself to think much about it. It was still 50 miles away and I knew people had scratched during this last leg previously so knew it was going to be a huge pull over King Solomon’s Dome and into Dawson.
Day Twelve // Indian River to Dawson (82.5km/49miles)
We left just before 03:00am with Scott and left Jessie and Uwe sleeping feeling confident about what lay ahead but also in a completely different mind-set. It felt weird and I don’t know how to describe it but knowing that we should finish the race at the end of the day made us both feel completely different.
My memory goes a little hazzy through these early dark hours but I remember following a lot of wolf prints on the trail that morning, and for the first time seeing the bike tyres from Pat. Whether it was the change in mind-set or simply 12 days taking its toll but I was really struggling to stay awake and much to the amusement of Tom and Scott I kept wobbling across the trail as I momentarily lapsed in consciousness. I fought against the sleep monsters like I had on previous days with music and singing but they kept coming for me. I forced sweets and hot tea into me hoping the sugar and caffeine would help and just managed to keep moving forward. It must have been like watching some who was really drunk trying to walk and staggering home!
The sun rose as did the temperature and once again it was a beautiful warm blue sky day. Tom and I both agreed that if you had to do this section in -40 and deep snow it would super tough going. We spotted King Solomon’s Dome a few miles out and upped the pace towards the main climbs looking forward to the inevitable long steep slopes to the top. Like the day before we put our heads down and went into auto pilot smashing the main climb out in one huge blast. I can’t remember but it must have taken 45 minutes or so. The view from the top was incredible and we noticed an entire mountain range in the distance we hadn’t seen before which looked more alpine and covered in snow. But from here it keeps going and going on, a gradual uphill and huge switch back until finally you reach the crest of King Solomon’s Dome which felt absolutely amazing. Then from here it was simply along the ridges for a while then down down down all the way!
Incredible scenery during our final mountains section before descending into Dawson City
Knowing we still had 25 miles to go we decided to stop and take a long break and have a freeze dried meal. During our stop all the skidoo drivers appeared and the film crew and we enjoyed some company and banter for a while. It was these little scenes that I will remember for a long time and the kindness and friendliness of everyone involved in the race. We did our bit for the cameras and shot off in hot pursuit of Scott who had carried on when we had stopped. It was a truly beautiful afternoon as we crossed the undulating ridges from one side to the other of this mountain range – it almost felt like being on a winter summit in Scotland as the afternoon light begins to fade.
Over the next 5 miles we did our best to sit on our sleds and sledge the winding trail down the mountain but with the warm temperatures the snow was very sticky and was disappointingly slow. I used my poles to push me along and this kept me going at around 5 mph – still much better than walking. At points we sat and zoomed down effortlessly at 12mph screaming and laughing out loud wishing it never to stop until finally it levelled out completely! The GPS said we had another 13 miles to go and after a quick chat with a passing Skidoo we understood it was 3or 4 miles to a road and then 10 or so down there to Dawson. We calculated this at around 4-5 hours, which doesn’t sounds like much but felt like a lot at the time. As we neared the road head we passed thorough more old mining buildings and a huge dredger frozen in the river. It looked so odd just sat there covered in snow in the middle of the Yukon.
The final leg was easy enough, an open flat road for miles and miles. We spotted some lights in the far far distance and hoped they were Dawson. Walking side by side for a change we chatted away passing the time reviewing the race and reliving some of the highs and lows. It’s amazing how quickly your mind chooses to forget some of the worst bits and already they didn’t seem ‘that bad’!! We joked about how much someone would have to pay you to turn around and go all the way back to Whitehorse and settled on £500,000. Further down the road we checked the GPS in case some miles had magically disappeared and discovered it was still over 6 miles as the crow flies so probably around 7 or so. Marching with a slight hobble we continued towards the finish line following Scott’s hilariously short strides again. Trying to walk fast in his footprints made us laugh for some reason – he was walking 4 paces for every 3 of ours. A few miles out we stopped and turned our head torches off and lay down on our sleds. High above us the green Northern Lights were back and dancing across the entire sky. The race was done, and we knew we would finish in a few hours and trying hard not to well-up I took this chance to thank Tom for being a total legend for the last 12 days. I was absolutely adamant that I wouldn’t have pulled through to the end if he hadn’t been there to push me though and visa versa. We enjoyed the moment for a short while and then headed off with another hour or 2 to go.
We were all but out of food having eaten absolutely everything we had, including pain killers. My ankle had start up again on the road but I didn’t care and tried to ignore it the best I could. As we turned into Dawson the slow realisation of finishing the endurance event began creeping through my body as I thought we were almost done. I hadn’t realised that we then turn off and head back into the darkness and up a river for 3km to the other end of the town! My heart sank and desperation set in as I tried to walk fast and faster. Why was the last few miles of everyday the hardest? Half way across the river I stopped and realised I was being stupid. I drank the last of my tea and ate my last shot block and decided to walk normally into the check point – it can’t be that far.
One of the racers came out to meet us a few hundred meters out and as always it was so good to see a friendly face. It was past 22:00 and quite cold but the end was in sight. We snaked around the back of a large building and down on to the main road and there it was just 100m ahead – the finish! Tom slung his arm around me and said he wasn’t let go until the end so I slung my arm over his shoulder too. About 15 or so people were around and I was overwhelmed by them being there, I hadn’t thought anyone would be there or care that we were finishing but I was wrong. This is the exact moment where I would normally well up a little but I think I was simply beyond exhaustion and dried out of any emotion.
Crossing the finish line and taking the harness off for the final time was the most wonderful feeling. Tom and I hugged each other – one of those big rib breaking ones which says a thousand words. We had endured 12 and half days of the hardest and coldest ultra-race in the world, and every step of it together. I am forever indebted to him for his patience, determination and ability to inspire me to keep going when all I want to do was stop. I wanted to say all this to him but knew i’d just choke up, but he knew anyway. It has been an absolute privilege to have done the race with him.
The matching pair – Team Montane at the 430 Mile finish!
Someone had kindly arrange a pizza and a beer for us which was simply perfect and we sat around chatting to new friends and familiar faces for while in the warmth of the town hall. My friend Matt had come in many hours before us and seemed to look fresh as a daisy, and Scott an hour or so ahead of us. Jessie and Uwe were still out on the trail but moving well by all accounts. I could feel my body shutting down fast and autopilot taking over closing me down. I was totally and utterly done in, but we had done it. We had pushed our bodies to the absolutely limit and then some more and then some more. I crawled into my room and collapsed. Done.
Total 436miles/697.6km in 12 days, 12 hours & 5 minutes.
‘…pick yourself up and try again’
As with all events like this its very difficult for me to truly explain the feelings we went through during those 12.5 days. The race is life changing, or life defining perhaps and I still struggle to find the words to articulate what it truly feels like to do something like this – to push yourself to such extremes.
This race is special – mainly thanks to the director and volunteers continuously going above and beyond and to every race competitor being like friends instead of opposition. The Yukon Arctic Ultra slots straight into the top slot of my greatest personal achievements and I am phenomenally proud to have finished the race and to have become the first team ever to completed the 430 mile category.
The race is easily the hardest thing I have ever done. It mentally and psychically pushed me further and harder than anything I have done before or since. It has set a new bench mark in my world for how far I can psychically push my mind and body and opened new possibilities to what is truly achievable if you really want it. The answer of course is almost anything 0 you simply have to want it.
Lastly – the race would not have been the same with out all the people who were part of it from Peter and his family, Robert the race organiser and all the volunteers and medics, continued support from Montane and all the competitors and of course the one and only Tom Sutherland. You my friend are a Legend.
Race Website – http://www.arcticultra.de/en/
Race Facebook Page – https://www.facebook.com/groups/40662499911/