Yukon Arctic Ultra 100 mile – Race Report

The first few steps of the Yukon Arctic Ultra 100 mile

After competing at the Rock and Ice Ultra in Yellowknife in 2008 and 2009, I have had a burning desire to run the Yukon Arctic Ultra. Rock and Ice gave me a taste of what is required to run a northern race, and I was able to use much of this experience with YAU100.

Training had gone about as well as I could have expected. I felt that everything I did in the 12 weeks leading up to the race was about as specific as I could get. Even though we didn’t have much snow in Yarker, I gained great strength from running while dragging a tire, running consistently high mileage, and getting in some good long runs. I feel that I got pretty lucky with being able to get some specific training sessions in while dragging the pulk in what snow we had and even lucked out with a 6 hour long run on snow during the coldest stretch of weather we had with it dipping to -23C one night.

The week leading up to the race was a bit hectic, with flight changes and travel. I went into the race feeling a little tired physically, but felt that mentally I was as strong as I could be and would take strength out on the trail from thoughts of family, among other things.

Thursday, February 2
I arrived in Whitehorse, after a quick overnight visit with my sister Deb and her husband Jack in Vancouver. I was tired upon arriving, but happy to be here. A few trips to Coast Mountain Sports helped me put the final touches on my gear requirements. I also picked up the pulk that I was going to be using from Greg and Denise McHale. I was disappointed that I would miss seeing them, but happy to be using Greg’s much talked about pulk. It’s sleek design was very impressive. After a short run to test out the pulk, I was feeling comfortable with my gear choices.

Friday, February 3
It was now time to really start thinking about the race. The day flew by with a pre-race trail briefing, gear check and pasta dinner. I enjoyed another short shake-out run. It was great to have David and Kim Bohn at the race as well, with David running the marathon. Being able to hang out with them, and draw off of their excitement and positive attitude helped me feel in a good place.

The pulk

Saturday, February 4
Race day arrived and we walked the 15 minutes from our hotel to the starting line. I remember saying it seemed like a long walk while pulling a pulk, then realized how silly this statement was since I was soon going to be starting to run 100 miles with it.

Lining up at the start line helped to put my mind at ease. I was interviewed briefly by CBC Radio North, and then had a quick chat with the brother of a clients friend. Even though I’d never met Brett before, he was very helpful with information leading up to the race and it meant a lot to see him there at the start. I found the people of Whitehorse to be very hospitable and proud of their city and the Yukon in general. The laid back approach to the start certainly added to this feeling as well.

My biggest two fears going into the race were overflows and the cold. From the weather forecast, it sounded like it wasn’t going to be too cold. We were told it might approach -20C, which seemed reasonable and very doable coming from Eastern Ontario. As for the overflows, we were treated to a nice one barely a mile into the race. I was running in 4th place with Justin Wallace when we saw the two early race leaders go through the overflow and both went down. They got up quick, but were a bit wet. Justin and I were able to avoid this by going around it. I had purchased Neos Adventurer Overshoes from Coast Mountain Sports the day before, just in case, but felt comfortable with just going with my La Sportiva Crossover Goretex trail running shoes, and would never need the overshoes.

The remainder of the run going into the first checkpoint was on the river and fairly uneventful. It was great hitting CP#1 and knowing that the race was now firmly underway. It was also exciting seeing David had run so well to finish second in the marathon, even though he’s been fighting a bad cold. Nice job!

One of the big things about winter ultra racing is that you want to avoid sweating. Overheating can be very dangerous. I had started off with too much clothing, but used the CP to strip down a bit while trying to get some extra calories in me too.

Justin was having a very solid race. I let him go in the earlier miles as he was running faster than I was prepared to at that point. I was hoping that I might be able to reel him in a bit in the later miles if things went well. After leaving CP#1, I felt recharged and full of energy. The trail continued along the river, with the views getting better and better. It was at about 50km, that I started to feel like pushing the pace to see if I could cut into Justin’s lead a bit. This might come back to haunt me, but I figured that I was taking care of nutrition and still running within myself. During this stretch I even put some music on and was rocking to the Dropkick Murphy’s, Headstones and assortment of other punk.

When we switched off the lake and onto the trail, I kept finding myself saying things out loud like ‘wow’ or ‘holy f#&% it’s beautiful here’. Things just kept getting increasingly remote and I was smitten. Winding through the trails, there were spruce on both sides, water below and mountains on both sides as well. Just before it got dark, I was treated to the sight of a wolf scampering off in the distance below the trail.

Checkpoint #1

It was starting to get dark, so I grabbed my headlamp. The funny thing though was that I didn’t need it. The moon was shining so brightly that I was able to run without it turned on for a large portion of the night time running. I only turned it on when there were shadows from the trees affecting my depth perception.

From 50-100km, I pushed fairly hard and came into CP#2 tired. CP#2 was at a remote spot on the course that had no road access. Everything was snowmobiled in. It consisted of a tent heated by a barrel wood stove. It was also starting to get quite cold, so I knew that I really needed to take care of myself, since it was going to be about another 60km to the end and there were no further checkpoints for the remainder of the race. I was cold, and my stomach had stopped being able to handle my gel-blok-granola bar rotation. I underestimated the need for real food and specifically protein. I had a bit of soup and cheese sandwich, but had to deal with a ham sandwich and beef stew at CP#2. This was probably not the best thing for this vegetarian stomach, but you do what you have to do.

After some hot food and adding a few layers of clothing, I got back on the trail again and was running well again. I had a small thermometer with me and it read -30C. The tough part is that I was slowing down now and not able to run as hard, which in turn would help to generate heat. I slid a couple of instant hand warmers inside the built in gator of my Crossover GTX and that seemed to help. Any time I tried to eat something, my fingers would get terribly cold though. I finally resorted to pulling out Ray Zahab’s South Pole mitts that I borrowed for the race and they were a blessing.

The trail at this point was spectacular. The frost was dancing and sparkling off of the trees. I kept thinking that it was other runners or that I was coming into a town, but neither was the case. I heard after of other runners talking about wild hallucinations at this point too. To further add to the magic of the run, we were treated to a display of the northern lights. It wasn’t as bright as what Sara and I saw in Yellowknife, but was still very special to see in this environment.

I saw many wildlife tracks on the trail. Some I assumed were Elk or Moose, some wolves, but the one that spooked me the most was what I thought must be cougar tracks. After CP#2, I figured that Justin was maybe 30mins ahead of me. I had been able to see his footprints the whole time. The really eerie thing though was seeing a cougar footprint overtop of his. I’m sure that the cougar knew where we were, but we didn’t see it, though I did hear some rustling in the trees a few times.

Soup time

This part of the race was now getting difficult. I was very tired, not fueling with what I needed at this point and just in survival mode. Somehow though, in a very strange way, I was enjoying this. In a race like this, and at this point, things get quite raw. As strange as it sounds, the most important thing you need to look at doing is surviving. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s 25-35 miles between checkpoints, and you just need to look after yourself and do all the little things that will help you keep moving forward. This is also when your brain starts misfiring too. For hydration, I was wearing a hydration pack under my jacket. The warmth of my body and remembering to blow out the water from the hose after each sip would keep it from freezing. A couple of times I forgot though and had to deal with trying to unthaw my water. I was lucky to be able to do so.

If things had gotten bad, I had the equipment to bivy down for a nap or until I felt like I could move again. I just really didn’t want to do this though. The goal was to finish as fast as possible.

When morning came, I had a new sense of hope. I was still moving forward, even though slowly, but I knew that I was going to finish. Going into the race, I was thinking that depending on the conditions, 28 hours would be a strong effort. I now knew that both Justin and I were running solid times for the course. I let myself start thinking about 24-25 hours and I knew I would be very pleased with that. Then I started thinking it would be very cool if I broke 24 hours to complete the race within a full day of running. I snuck a peek at the map for the first time and thought this might still be a possibility.

The final section through the tall evergreens went on forever. I knew that once we hit Braeburn Lake, I only had another 30 minutes of running to the finish. Braeburn Lake just seemed to take forever to come though. Every corner I kept thinking that it must be around the next one. This went on for what seemed like hours. Finally with what was bordering on joy and the ultimate in relief, I saw the lake. A short painful drop onto the lake, and I was running hard to get to the other side. I had forgot that I still had a nasty little hill to climb off of the lake before finishing. The best part of the final few miles was when a happy dog joined me and showed me the way to the finish. The dog’s person was cheering from the lake and the dog seemed to feel it was his duty to usher me home.

Seeing Braeburn Lodge after running 100 miles while pulling a pulk was a very welcome sight. I crossed the finish line in 2nd place in 23 hours and 15 minutes. This was much better than I had expected going into the race. Good and fast conditions of course, but I was very pleased. A huge congratulations to Justin Wallace for nailing it and getting a new course record in 22:19.

River

Post Race
We had to wait at the lodge for a while before getting shuttled back into Whitehorse. Braeburn Lodge has big eats! I have never seen portions so large. Unfortunately, I couldn’t eat much at that point and preferred to curl up with my friend the siberian husky in front of the woodstove.

Memories
This race and the Yukon has really spoken to me. I loved everything about it. The event, the rugged wilderness, the people, the test. The scenery that I experienced in that setting is by far more beautiful than anything I have ever seen. The next day I found myself teary when thinking about it, and even when walking around Whitehorse. The people of Whitehorse seemed larger than life. The lifestyle seems plain and pure with no fluff. From Sam the shuttle driver, to the hotel staff, to a momentary friend I met at the grocery store, everything seemed so Yukon.

Race Strategy:
As mentioned, I missed on the fueling a bit. I was great up to 12-15hrs with my race fueling plan, but I needed more protein and fat. I guess I thought there might have been peanut butter sandwiches at the aid stations, but it was my fault for not bringing some in a wrap. As for effort, as mentioned, I may have pushed a little hard for the middle 50km, but I don’t think it really affected my race much.

Gear:
I think I did well in this department. My layering system worked well, and after a small adjustment early on, I don’t think I could have improved on this.

Shoes – La Sportiva Crossover GTX
Socks – Wigwam Merino wool knee high sock (added Sugoi wool sock at CP#2)
Lower body – GoLite 1/2 tights + OR Vert pant (added winter weight tights under pants at CP#2)
Upper body – Start to CP1: Mountain Hardware LS Hoodie, MH Jacket. CP1-CP2: GoLite Wisp Jacket, MH Hoodie, CP2-Finish: IceBreaker SS zip, MH hoodie, Sugoi Heavy Wool 1/2 zip, MH Jacket.
Mitts: Varying combinations of Icebreaker gloves, Icebreaker mitts, Stonehaven string mitts, Ray Zahab/Richard Weber perforated mitt and breathable mitt.
Hats: Start to CP2: Buff. CP2-Finish: Balaclava, PolarBuff
Headlamp: Petzl Tikka XP

Starting to get into some more remote places now. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get any more photos because of darkness.

Fuel:
Clif Shots
Clif Bloks
Honey Chews
Honey Waffles
Granola Bars
Aid Station food
~ Started off alternating every 30 mins with shot, blok and nola bar, but then switched to every 20mins. Was good to 12+hrs.

Hydration:
2 litre Nathan pack under coat
2 x HydroFlask bottles
Filled up at each CP & drank a lot there

Electrolytes:
S-Caps – 1 cap x 1.5-2hrs

Traction:
Hobnails – brought, but didn’t wear due to overflow concern.
MicroSpikes – in bag, didn’t wear
Dion 121 Snowshoes w/Deep Cleats – brought, but didn’t wear.

Remainder was mandatory gear from list mostly.

Thank you very much to race director Robert Polihammer and his crew for putting on an amazing, well organized event that everyone will remember for a long time. Hope to return again very soon.

Dawg tired. Sharing a nap with a friend shortly after finishing.

 

Comments

  1. Totally awesome job Derrick!!! You should be very proud of yourself. I’m envious that I wasn’t there. Beautiful place that Yukon isn’t it.

  2. You ran an amazing race and nailed it from beginning to end. Congratulations on and incredible performance. I am looking forward to feeding of your experience. Your description of the Folks of Whitehorse ” The lifestyle seems plain and pure with no fluff” was perfect. They are wonderful and welcoming and we can’t wait to get back there either. Recover well.

  3. Thanks for a great read and for putting the race into a human perspective other then the one I had of your “Spot” moving up and down the elevation map which btw was incredible to watch.

  4. Great, great read. I had heard bits and pieces of all this already, but still, reading it all together is such a great story. Inspiring to see how well prepared you were for this race, and how it all played out perfectly. Looking forward to going with you next time!!!

  5. Congrats on an awesome adventure Derrick ! cool run and entertaining report of an incredible physical & mental challenge, relieved that the weather remained balmy by northern standards.

  6. you had us cheering all the way…great feat..and awesome account..thx

  7. Oh my gosh Derrick I want to go see the Yukon now I will probably not race I will leave that to the professionals like yourself. It sounds so beautiful and I can understand your reluctance to leave. I can see you and Sara living there in a tent with your family, meaning the ones with four legs, and probably having many visitors of the two leg variety.
    That was such a great read Derrick I loved it I could actually feel your emotions and picture the trail and the thoughts racing in your head.
    Thank you so much for sharing this with us. Congratulations on a great race and excellent time. Congrats to Justin. Wow awesome time.
    I see many more Northern Ultra Races in your future. Next time Sara will definitely be there I am sure of that, especially after reading this excellent article. All your preparations paid off.
    Good job and welcome home. B

  8. Corey Turnbull says:

    Great Report Derrick, I was following you and cheering the whole way. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  9. Thanks all! I’ll be reliving the race and experience for a long time!

    Sara…There was just one thing missing!

  10. Hey Derrick,

    The Yukon sounds so pristine, what an adventure! Happy you had a great race and overall experience.

  11. Thanks Kelly. Was really nice to meet your friend Brett at the start line.

  12. Spaff, your story brought tears to my eyes: so wonderful thanks.

  13. Great report. Sounds like you had a fantastic time. It was great following you on the map during the race!

    Another one on the to-do list…

  14. Awesome race Derrick. Thank you again for letting me go for a pulk run with you. It really helped drive home how hard this race would ahve been for you. Greta work.

  15. John McAlister says:

    Great race, Derrick. Glad everything came together for you. It’s going to be a good year!

  16. TexaasSpirit – That’s the way I felt out there and thinking about it after. Otherworldly place.

    JD – Thought of you a lot out there and about how much you’d love it.

    Keith – Thanks. Different sort of beast, but I really enjoy this type of running.

    John – Feels very good to be healthy and looking forward to what’s next.

  17. Dad and Mom says:

    We enjoyed following you all of the way through your difficult and challenging race. We know it was extremely tiring but you were ready for it and we are so proud of what you did. You certainly earned that rest at the end with your new-found four-legged friend.

  18. fantastic write-up.. what an experience that must have been, and how lucky are you to have been able to take so much out of it. well done.. you’re a total inspiration!.

  19. Huge congrats Derrick! It was very special being able to be there to share parts of your experience with you. David and I loved Whitehorse and the wonderful people there as well.
    This is the 2nd time that we’ve been fortunate to be part of a 100 mile race where you have broken the previous course record. That’s just huge! It was fun to watch your SPOT during your race.
    You are so strong Derrick and you have such an amazing attitude towards your big challenges. Must have been so cool to use Ray Zahab’s South Pole mitts and to bring Greg’s super sleek pulk on your journey.
    We really enjoyed the pre-race meal with you and the post-race meal and memories sharing. So much better to hear all the details in person.
    Also, so happy that I could be there to capture some of the special moments.
    Looking forward to your next adventure.
    You should be so proud Derrick.
    Cheers,
    Kim :O)

  20. Mom/Dad: Thanks for everything…especially setting an example for a love of the outdoors. And, the Stonehaven made fleece mitts were awesome!

    Jude: Thanks. Just found your blog and will enjoy following.

    Kim/David: Was so great (and needed) to share some time before and after. Pizza and Guinness in your room after the race was heaven. So glad I didn’t have to walk anywhere.

  21. Dave Markotich says:

    Nice job Derrick. Thanks for the story. What a remarkable accomplishment! Enjoy the memories… and the recovery!

  22. Thanks Dave. Just an amazing experience.

  23. That’s beyond incredible…truly. Congratulations. Well done and 2nd place to boot!

  24. Wow Derrick what an amazing journey. I am so happy that you made it safely and enjoyed your time in the Yukon. I was unaware that you are a vegetarian, I myself am a vegan and have always wondered what would happen if I gulped down some chicken soup or such on course out of necessity.

    Hope you are recovering well!

  25. Aliza,
    I did think twice about it at the time. Actually I asked if they could take off the ham at the first checkpoint, but at the second one I knew I had to put that aside and just consider it fuel. I think if it had been a warm weather race, but stomach would have revolted more, but in the cold and with only two aid stations, my body burned through it fairly quickly. I should have been a little better prepared with real food in my pulk and will be next time. The thought of it now makes me queasy.

  26. Many congratulations, Derrick!! It is always something to go sub-24 at a 100-miler, but your time is especially impressive considering it was in the snow and -20 (plus the windchill!!). I guess there is something to that training of pulling around a tire ;-)
    It was wonderful to read about how inspiring the journey was through the arctic wilderness, it must be truly spectacular up there. I’ll have to make the trip myself one of these years.
    Congrats again, I’m sure your family is very proud of you.

  27. Thanks Bruce! It is amazing there. You’ll definitely have to put it on the list.

  28. Actually executing a winter race in a remote are like that more or less according to plan is huge! One to remember! Congratulations!

  29. Thanks Steve. Was pleased, but as the time goes by you always dwell on the things you could and should have done differently. Next time. Can’t wait to go back.

  30. Derrick
    Expreso de los Andes starts this weekend
    Did Ray Zahab get his mitts back ??

  31. Ha…talked to Ray this week and fortunately he said he didn’t need them for it. Will be interesting following along his expedition at http://impossible2possible.com

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