The ultramarathon so brutally cold that Mars scientists are studying it
© Mark Kelly / Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra
Bitterly frozen, rarely finished and seriously deadly, we asked participants what it's like to take on the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra.
On January 30, 2020, 21 athletes assembled in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada to race the 300-mile Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra. Only two finished...
Billed ‘the world’s coldest and toughest ultra’, the non-stop race stretches through the snowy, unforgiving and remote Yukon wilderness, sharing parts of the trail used by dog mushers on the Yukon Quest (a 1,000-mile sled dog race).
In addition to the 300-mile mile race which, on alternate years, stretches to 430 miles, there's also a 100-mile and marathon race option.
But this isn’t your standard race. To line up on race day, entrants must prove to race director Robert Pollhammer that they have the skills and experience to handle the raw Yukon temperatures and the vast unending trails. Suffering at this level requires a long mandatory gear list, completion of an online cold weather injuries course and a mandatory four-day skills course. Not to mention a predilection for solitude. “The unbelievable vastness of the Yukon wilderness can be hard on people, especially those coming from densely populated spaces,” says Pollhammer. “No one near, wolves howling in the background – that’s often not easy to digest.”
Despite safety precautions, including day snow patrols and SPOT trackers for racers, the temperature adds a difficulty that’s hard to comprehend. “It’s a different ballgame when it gets down to -40 degrees Celsius or colder. Any little mistake can have serious consequences,” says Pollhammer.
With temperatures as low as -50 degrees Celsius, frostbite is common and, in 2018, when only one person finished the race, it was so cold that the electronics and snowmobiles stopped working and the race was halted temporarily.
The winner of the 2020 event, Fabian Imfeld, from Switzerland, who had withdrawn from the previous year’s race due to frostbite, braved the cold and snow drifts up to his knees to cross the line after 162 hours and 43 minutes. "The most challenging thing about the race was definitely the changing trail conditions,” he says.
From amputations from frostbite to frozen eyelashes, here’s what you need to know about the world’s coldest and toughest ultra.
1. It’s so cold your eyelashes freeze together
“Temperatures down to -50 degrees Celsius are very hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t experienced it themselves,” says Jessie Gladish, who has completed the brutal 430-mile event an incredible three times. “Every task is harder. Stopping requires planning, layering and being efficient with whatever process you’re trying to execute.” Gladish uses chemical hand warmers “without shame” and constantly monitors what layers she needs to put on or take off. “It can be an annoying battle, but crucial to prevent myself from sweating too much and from dipping below a manageable level of chill – shivering is a serious sign to do something quick,” she says.
Former marine and ocean rower, Nick Griffith, who withdrew due to frostbite in 2018, adds: “It’s so cold that ice builds up on your eyelashes which stick together. You end up getting clumps of ice across your eyes which prevents you from opening or closing them.”
2. Frostbite is a constant worry
After being withdrawn for mild frostbite in his fingers during the 2018 race, when temperatures plummeted to -44 degrees Celsius, Nick Griffith’s feet froze up on the snowmobile ride off the trail. “It wasn’t until I got to the hospital that they confirmed the severity of the frostbite in my left foot; untreated, they said I would lose all my toes, if not the front half of my foot."
As it turned out, Nick had three toes amputated, including his big toe. “I’ve been able to adapt to things relatively easily without them,” he says. Not wanting his amputated toes to go to waste, Griffith donated them to the Downtown Hotel’s ‘Sour Toe Cocktail’ in nearby Dawson City – a famed drink garnished with amputated toes that have been donated to the bar. Nick’s toes are now served in the drink to customers mad enough to order it. “I went back to Canada in September and was the first person to ‘do’ my own frostbitten toe,” he says.
3. Sleep deprivation is a killer
Racers choose where, when and if, to sleep during the race. For 2020 winner Imfeld, he chose to push on through the night despite his body’s urge to sleep. “At one point, when I didn’t want to stop, I had to lean into my poles because I almost fell asleep walking. I hallucinated and saw many odd things on the trail,” he admits. “I got round it by eating loads of chocolate. And it started to get light which helped a lot."
4. Conditions are so tough, scientists are studying it for future Mars missions
So extreme are the conditions of the Yukon's biennial 430-mile race that scientists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Center for Space Medicine Berlin are jointly studying its effects on competitors with future Mars missions in mind. “The ability for humans to not only survive but thrive in extreme environmental conditions is vital to extending our opportunities in space," says Robert ‘Trey’ Coker, co-principal investigator at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Remarkably, the MYAU athletes cover great distances under arctic winter conditions and negative energy balance without losing their mental resilience or skeletal muscle; we study changes in neurological, autonomic endocrine systems responsible for their success in this harsh environment."
5. You can run, bike or cross-country ski it
Unlike most ultras, you can choose whether to run, bike or cross-country ski the varying distances. “Cross-country skiing is definitely the hardest option,” Pollhammer reveals. “The trail isn’t prepared for it and the cold causes some very specific challenges for those on skis; their feet get cold more easily and gliding can be an issue when it gets extremely cold.”
Biking has its own challenges in snowy conditions, too. “Your feet get cold rapidly because you’re not moving them like you are on foot, so you have to get off and walk every now and then to keep them warm,” explains Briton Pat Cooke-Rogers, a multiple-time 300-mile finisher who scratched from this year’s race due to a heel injury.
6. Competitors carry everything they need for the race
Food, layers, bivy, sleeping bag (with a mandatory temperature range), survival gear, stove, water – there's a lot to pack. Runners and skiers haul their kit behind them in loaded pulks, self-sufficient for the duration of the non-stop race. Although strict rules are enforced and guides patrol the trail during the day, the reality is that racers are totally self-reliant and may not see another human for much of the day.
7. Self-care keeps you alive
“It’s the number one priority on the trail,” says Shelley Gellatly, a multiple race finisher and co-organiser of one of the race’s mandatory four-day courses, who abandoned cross-country skiing this year’s 300-mile race after being unable to warm her feet up. “There is no-one out there to help you, other than your fellow racers who you may or may not see. Ask yourself: do you need to eat, sleep, drink, slow your pace? Being super-vigilant and doing a ‘body scan’ as you’re moving is critical."
8. Racers consume 3500-7,000 calories a day
Aside from one glorious hot meal at each checkpoint (between 26 and 44 miles apart), staying fed and watered is your own responsibility, and when extremely fatigued, mistakes do happen. “I once forgot my food at a checkpoint and got through the next 70 miles on a couple of dehydrated meals and a few chocolate raisins,” says Cooke-Rogers.
During the race, some racers go through up to 7,000 calories a day, but Gellatly estimates she consumes around 3,500. “I try to drink a lot of calories and then go with regular snacks of chocolate, jerky, nuts, bacon [and] shortbread cookies,” she says. “Then I have mini meals every few hours – mainly dehydrated potatoes, ichiban noodles, oatmeal. I add extra calories to the base food via sausage or cheese, put it all in a baggie, and then when I’m ready to eat, I dump the food into a 500ml wide-mouth thermos, add hot water, walk until it rehydrates and then eat on the go.”
9. You need to an iron resolve to finish
Racers slog it out for 14-20 hours a day, mostly in the dark, alone on beautiful but repetitive trails in minus temperatures that make every movement arduous. “Personally, I believe it’s 90 percent mental strength that gets participants to finish,” says Jessie Gladish, who has learned to “compartmentalise pain, physically and emotionally” on the trail. For Imfeld, who felt “enormously happy, almost for the entire race”, it was thinking about his sister’s upcoming wedding that kept him going. “It gave me an unbelievable boost various times on the trail," he reveals.
Meanwhile, multiple race finisher Gellatly’s advice is to consider the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra an experience, rather than a race: “There is absolutely no guarantee that you’ll make it to the finish line, so ‘Why am I doing this?’ is super-important. It has to be more than just ticking a race off your bucket list."
10. Many racers are glutton for punishment
Even those who ‘DNF’ describe their experience as positive, and many racers return multiple times either to race again or to volunteer. “It’s a great event and you meet likeminded people from all over the world,” says Griffiths. “It’s a race but you get the feeling everyone is looking out for each other. If I get the chance, I’ll return and have another go at it – I just need to convince my family that it’s a reasonable and sensible thing to do.”