Arctic Ultra goes the distance

For five years, Yukoners have hosted more than 200 athletes from 21 countries including Guatemala, Slovenia and South Africa, for adventures of 42,…

For five years, Yukoners have hosted more than 200 athletes from 21 countries including Guatemala, Slovenia and South Africa, for adventures of 42, 160 or 483 kilometres.

Now, for the fifth anniversary, the Yukon Arctic Ultra is going the distance — 740 kilometres, Whitehorse to Dawson on the heels of the Yukon Quest Sled Dog race.

From 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, 41 runners, cross-country skiers and mountain bikers have three days to complete a 160-kilometre trek.

Others have eight to finish 483 kilometres.

And, for the inaugural 740 Whitehorse-to-Dawson slog, which is the equivalent of 17 back-to-back marathons, athletes have 13 days.

“It’s not that the racers move all that fast,” said organizer Shelley Gellatly, “it’s just that they don’t stop.”

This year, competitors should be able to make good time with little effort. Trail conditions are excellent.

Overflow is glacier solid, there’s minimal open gravel and the snow pack is firm.

The first group to finish will be the dozen marathoners who run down the Yukon River and up the Takhini to the hot springs.

Three visitors from southern Canada and Germany join seven local runners, Whitehorse skier Claude Chabot, and 2007’s lone mountain biker Danielle Daffe.

Chabot has home advantage.

For example, he knows that, since there’s limited opportunity to skate ski on the Yukon’s skinny bush trails, a robust pair of rock skis, the kind used to hang on to the season from one snow patch to the next, are called for.

Even better, he’ll use a well-tested pair of wooden boards, whose natural fibres fluctuate with the temperature.

From the marathon, nine runners from five nations carry on along the Trans-Canada Trail to Braeburn.

Whitehorse’s Shelley Gellatly is the remaining Yukoner in a field of newcomers, veterans and scratched athletes determined to finish this no-purse event.

Gellatly holds the women’s 160- and 483-kilometre records, and managed to fit this race in between organizing the event and co-ordinating athletic therapy for the Canada Winter Games.

Past Braeburn, it’s a man’s world. No women will challenge the northern legs.

The 12 Canadians, Britons, Danes and Italians who entered the event are all on foot to Pelly Crossing.

Favoured to win is record-holder Stefano Miglietti, whose 2005 time of six days, 2.5 hours remains unbeaten.

Beyond Pelly lies the toughest portion of trail, previously known only to dog drivers and the Canadian Rangers.

Eight adventurers have five more days to trek through the heart of the Yukon, crest the Quest’s highest point on King Solomon’s Dome and descend to the finish line in Dawson.

Seasoned cross-country skiers from England and Scotland are expected to lead the pack, followed by 483-kilometre veterans Joachim Rintsch from Germany and Ireland’s Pierce Allan.

Rookie Andrew McLean, Canada’s ultramarathoner of the year, carries our torch.

McLean, from Winnipeg, is a paramedic with Canadian Forces 17 Wing search and rescue squadron.

Responding to distress calls from the high Arctic gives him plenty of cold weather experience, and that’s his edge.

Ultras not only keep McLean in “operational capability,” they allow him to promote goodwill efforts.

He’s dedicated this race to initiate the Canadian Paralympic Committee’s Soldier On program.

Modeled on the American Paralympic’s program, Soldier On uses sports to rehabilitate injured Canadian soldiers, whether they are troops returning from Afghanistan or those disabled on home soil.

He’s hoping to raise $100,000, or about $1 from every member of the Canadian Forces.

The funds are earmarked for specialized sports equipment for athletes.

Hockey sledges, for example, are up to $3,000 a piece and a sports wheelchair or running leg costs $30,000.

“I would like to do my part to help injured soldiers get back in the game — running, biking, skiing, whatever it is they want to do,” said McLean. “These soldiers are young and have full lives ahead.”

“We see this as an ideal way to promote Paralympics in Canada,” said committee president Carla Qualtrough.

“Our aim is to develop a sport system for people with disabilities that encourages participation at all levels, from recreational to high performance.”

High performance is what McLean will need.

Trail scout Mike Simon noted that in the final 96 kilometres through the Black Hills, “athletes have to climb slopes with clear avalanche sign. It changes every year, so route-finding skills are essential.”

McLean admits he has a 50-50 chance to cross the line in Dawson, due to the unpredictable weather, terrain and unfamiliar environment.

He plans to run for time, rather than distance.

“Regardless of how far you go, it’s consistency that’s important. Over time it’ll get you further,” he said.

And like the Quest mushers ahead of him, he’ll “make a plan and stick with it. Whoever comes with the best plan finishes, and cheers to anyone who does.”

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