The Yukon Ultra was recently held this month in the Yukon Territory. It was the coldest official running race ever recorded. Unsurprisingly the field of athletes in different races of 26, 100 and 300 miles was decimated in the Arctic wilderness. Charlie Norton was one of the lucky ones. Here’s his story… (written by Charlie Norton and published in the UK Telegraph)
During our pre-race course we had to spend two hours proving we could survive out in the open at -35deg C and light a stove and fire. This was a frightening eye-opener. It’s easy to panic when your hands go numb and I was jumping around like a grasshopper trying to stay warm. Decision-making is crucial and I burnt my fingers getting too near my stove.Much to my horror one poor competitor got sickeningly severe frostbite on his fingers in the space of half an hour and was out of the race before it even started. As we were told: “It’s worth being afraid of the cold.”And I was. The next day saw temperatures on part of the race course hit -60 and there was a last-minute decision to change the race or it would be too dangerous. For me, as a 100-mile racer, this meant going back and forth down the marathon course four times and not following more of the route of the famous Yukon Quest husky dog race. We were told the bears were hibernating but one hungry one had appeared last year and eaten supplies at a checkpoint.
Race Day 1
Temperature: -44 to -55
Trail/conditions: Knee-deep snow, wind, blizzard
Distance: 26 miles to checkpoint
Time: Over 10 hours
Gear: Sled smooth, frozen balaclava, lost head torch and goggles, CamelBak (water supply) frozen
State: Almost hypothermic, exhausted leg muscles, utterly demoralised
It was -44 at the start – making this Yukon Ultra the coldest running race ever recorded. So after a delay to get the snow machines working, I started at a slow jog, getting used to pulling a sled with my food, extra clothes and safety gear but we quickly hit terrible snow conditions. The only eventual marathon finisher, Keith Thaxter, said: “For the first 12 miles, every step, I sunk in to the knees. After about five kilometres, I’d have paid someone a thousand bucks for a pair of snowshoes.”
Also without snowshoes, I watched helplessly as half the field came past me. I had to bite my lip knowing I could have hired them for £5 a day, particularly when I knew I had a £50 stove I knew I wouldn’t be able to light. Then a blizzard appeared, my eyebrows and eyelashes froze and I realised I was not wearing enough for the cold.
But every time I released my harness to get extra layers (I was already wearing five layers of thermals, a Gore-Tex covering, balaclava, rabbit hat and hood, inner gloves, mittens with hand warmers), I got too cold to get them out of my sled so I had to get back in the harness and move quicker to warm up and try again. One racer had to drop out after spending too long zipping up his sled after only eight miles and he had come back after failing to finish last year. Other racers dropped out after 13 miles utterly dumbfounded by the conditions. I was at my wit’s end thinking I must have done at least 26 miles after six hours – but the bridge was only halfway to the checkpoint. I thought I would try to get to the first checkpoint at all costs and see how I felt.
At some stage I lost my goggles and my head torch out of my top pocket. I think this was while I had to wee by the side of the trail when I was paranoid about frostbite on such a precious extremity and was worried about the animal traps set around this area. I stumbled on, cursing in the dark, following the tracks by moonlight, desperately sucking a ball of gummy bears for moisture because my CamelBak had frozen. I finally fell in to the checkpoint at Rivendell, having to rip my balaclava off my face because it was glued to the zip of my jacket. I was ready to throw in the towel.
Race Day 2
Temperature: -35 to -25
Trail/conditions: Snow little more packed, blue skies
Distance: 39 miles back to Rivendell
Time: 19 hours
Gear: Extra jacket, sled harness starts pulling my back, hat frozen
Sleep: 90 minutes
State: Little refreshed to utterly exhausted, sore Achilles
It was hard to gather your senses at this stage. There was no way I could go through that four times. But we were told it was going to warm up to -30. I warmed up by the fire, had some soup and felt like a human icicle rather than a dead one.
I then joined up with two police officers from Northern Ireland, Chief Inspector Kevin Smith and Sergeant Mike Patmore, who seemed to have a great sense of humour, which was all we had left by then. We laboured back to the bridge to cover 39 miles.
Here at about four in the morning we had to have a rest. It was a darkly strange moment, waking up inside what looks like a body-bag. I had managed to forget where I was. But the sun came out and our spirits were lifted.
I managed to lead the way through the snow all the way back to Whitehorse, along the winding frozen river, past beautiful mountains with the forests finally visible again after 14 hours of darkness.
Here the top endurance athlete, Steve Reifenstuhl from Alaska, whose secrets included surviving off Haagen-Dazs ice cream in his waterpack and wearing surgical gloves, finished 100 miles after only 28 hours, barely stopping at all – an incredible performance.
We caught up with another runner, Matt Freear, taking a tough break from his work at the British Embassy in Afghanistan, but sadly we lost Mike. He took his shoes off to reveal a black toe and was pulled out with frostbite. He was one of six to suffer the same fate, and a German athlete was in danger of losing her big toe.
Another 10 miles back into the darkness of the second night we lost Matt as well – he was so cold and exhausted he had to ‘bivvy’ and was found 15 hours later almost frozen by the side of the trail.
So Kevin and I battled on, hitting a relentless rhythm -pole, step, pole, step to try and get it over with. My sleep-deprived mind kept on thinking it saw small creatures running around in front of me in the dark. We were cross-eyed with tiredness back at Rivendell at 1am on Monday.
Race Day 3
Trail/conditions: Trail packed and icy, blue skies
Distance: 26 miles to finish
Time: 8 hrs 30 min
Gear: Sled harness killing my back, food all frozen, one thermos working
Sleep: 2 hours
State: Back spasms, leg agony, shin splints, sunburnt nose, near despair to natural high
After two hours’ miserable sleep, we struggled on with only 26 to go, constantly stuffing frozen nuts, wine gums and chocolate to make a dent in the 7,000 calories a day we were burning, while taking Brufen to keep off the pain. This in itself was a painstaking process of mitten off, unzip pocket, hand in, out, into mouth, back into mitten and then forcefully warm up.
After the bridge Kevin and I could barely talk – our conversations limited to incomprehensible mumbling, such as: “Mint, Kev?” “No idea, maybe 10 miles to go,” he might reply.
It felt colder than any other day because we were so tired. But our minds were now shutting out distance and there was a feeling of ecstasy/agony for the last two miles. We were third of the six who finished the 100-mile race and only two competitors finished the 300. They inhumanly finished almost a week later.
I am still recovering from the 100, finding it difficult to feel the keys under my frost-nipped and blistered fingers writing this – but knowing that finishing this peculiarly twisted race was the hardest thing I may ever do.
For race info go to www.arcticultra.de/en.php