MT: Tell us about the race itself?
JP: The race took place on the 1st – 9th of Februrary 2018 in Yukon, on the course of the “Yukon Quest” – a famous 1000-mile dog-sledding race from Fairbanks, AK to Whitehorse, YT.
The “Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra” (MYAU) uses the same track but is 300 miles (500km) long, and once every two years you have the possibility to do the 430-mile course which is almost 700km. The race starts from Whitehorse and finishes in Dawson. It is semi-autonomous and there are 3 disciplines – backcountry ski, running and fat-bike. You have to pull a sled with your equipment the entire time. There are 7 checkpoints about 50-70km apart that serve as aid stations but you mainly go unsupported throughout the race. Only one aid station offers the possibility of a shower and sleeping arrangements. The others only provide one meal per participant and maybe a heater to dry your equipment.
Participants can also sign up for a marathon distance and a 100-mile course.
This was the 15th edition of the race and according to the organizing crew, it was the coldest one in the entire race’s history.
The first night we were 21 participants for the 300-mile distance and I remember that we slept at -52C. The next morning I woke up with frostbite on the fingers of both my hands…
Race participants are encouraged to help each other, especially in extreme and dangerous conditions. For example, if you find another participant in a dire situation you might have to build a shelter for them, make sure they survive through the night and press their rescue button for them. It’s an atmosphere of camaraderie and everyone is really helping and friendly.
In cases when you have to help someone like this, they will “credit” the time you spent helping back to you, so if or when you continue the race you would have essentially not “lost” any time. It doesn’t feel like a neck-to-neck competition at all.
There are regular participants who come back to the race for an 8th consecutive year. There are also people who have raced the 100-mile course, for example, and would later on return as volunteers and so on…it’s a bit like a big family and it’s really an amazing experience.
MT: What food did you fuel your body with during the race?
JP: I calculated my food intake before the race. For my height and weight, I had to consume 5000 calories daily in such conditions. At checkpoints it is allowed to have one meal per person, which is around 1000 calories – a huge burger, a very good lasagne, pasta or similar food. You aren’t allowed a second meal, but you can buy one if it is at all possible at that specific location.
While on the move, I depended on food I had prepared myself – mainly pieces of chocolate, cheese, salami and balls of butter with walnuts, stored in plastic bags.
I couldn’t use bars, for example, because they’d freeze. I tested various local bars before the race, and the CLIFF bar seemed to perform best, but even this would freeze below certain temperatures. And in such conditions, you can’t afford to eat hard food, because you might break a tooth and then you’d be in real trouble.
MT: What about clothing and equipment?
JP: Аs I was a beginner in extremely cold environments, I depended on a lot of advice by Roumen from Skisharki. Together we worked out what would work best in my case and assembled a very good clothing system for the race based on Fjallraven, Aclima and Hestra products. In terms of running shoes and equipment I relied on Altra and Raidlight. I started testing all the equipment about a month before the race and it was simply amazing. Even at the most extreme conditions I could run in an ACLIMA wool base layer, a midlayer and breathable shells over that. And I felt very light, well covered and protected. And the same system could be put to use in most seasons, especially autumn and spring. It’s amazing how the same clothing adapts to such a wide range of conditions. Also, the wool dries very fast and it doesn’t stick to your skin, so it is very appropriate and comfortable for my specific activities in the extreme cold.
I used a pair of shoes with Polartec’s Neo-shell membrane. But as they were low-cut shoes, and the track went mainly on or along the Yukon river, I also employed a pair of knee-height overboots to account for melted ice and deep snow.
If conditions aren’t cold enough for a week or two prior to the race, you might have some overflowing sections and the top layer of ice could melt and you’d either be wading through knee-deep wet slush or could end up with water above the knees in sections where the ice is thin enough and you break through it as you walk.
If ski-dooers had passed on the ice before you, you could easily tell you won’t break through, but sometimes you notice areas where the ice changes texture and color – it becomes thinner and you might break through it. In these cases you either wade through in your overboots or just circumnavigate the area via a drier and safer route.
I was really surprised by how you can easily judge the temperature, based on the different sound of your footsteps. Your steps just sound differently at -25, -35 and so on.
I used a balaclava during the race which had a velcro-sealed cover for the nose and mouth. At some point, the moisture from breathing caused it to freeze to my beard. It was really painful and I couldn’t take the thing off my face. At that point I was running alonгside a Spanish guy, so he took a pair of scissors to my beard and helped me take the mask off.
Prior to the race, I received advice from a fellow participant to trim my beard to a shorter length so it would provide warmth but wouldn’t freeze too much. A longer beard would accumulate a lot of frozen moisture. And since you can’t remove all of it, you would typically end up with a load of melted cold water right atop your chest area when you go inside your sleeping bag.
Before the race we did a little test on a small lake with Jeanne and Stewart Sterling. It was mostly frozen but there was a small area on it where the ice had melted a bit. We put a spare of dry clothes, a towel and some hot drinks on one side of the lake. We would then cross the lake, soaked up to our knees in melt-water and return to our spare clothes.
The temperature was 1C and in the beginning it was fairly OK. But it quickly became a bone-chilling experience. But we had to do it. We needed to know how it felt and how to react if we were overflown during the race.
Once back to our clothes we’d wipe our feet with snow – it wicks the moisture out and you dry quicker that way. We’d then get into our dry clothes and drink something warm. Even though it was just a training exercise in a very controlled environment -just 200m away from a hut – it was definitely a sobering experience.
In an extreme situation far out there during the race, something as little as getting your feet wet will force you to stop, setup camp, get into a sleeping bag and do everything necessary to warm yourself up and recover. And you cannot cut corners in a situation like this.