Michal Kielbasinski recalls how his heavily frostbitten fingers felt like they were “blowing up from the inside” when they were thawed, following his evacuation from the Yukon Ultra race earlier this week.
“Imagine a huge pressure, pumping your fingers like a balloon, and you think they’re going to explode at any time,” he says from his bed in Whitehorse General Hospital.
The 46-year-old says this is the last place he wants to tell his story from. “I should be in Dawson City by now,” he says.
Doctors are still trying to save the fingers on his right hand and one of his toes from amputation.
His fingers are individually wrapped in thick bandages, and it looks like he’s suffered a bad sunburn on his nose.
As of Wednesday afternoon, he didn’t know if he needed surgery.
He says he’s let his friends, his sponsors and the thousands of supporters back in Poland down.
“Really, this is a huge disappointment for me,” he said.
“It’s my fault, my mistake, my responsibility. I apologized to people on my Facebook page for letting them down but they told me “it’s OK,” but I don’t feel that.”
Kielbasinski remembers feeling euphoric as he stood on the starting line for this year’s edition of the Yukon Arctic Ultra, one of the longest and most physically demanding races in the world.
“I was brought back to my childhood, I was laughing like a kid,” he says.
“I’d been dreaming about this moment all my life.”
He thought he was well prepared for the race. A seasoned ultra-marathon runner, he won a 223-kilometre race in 2013 with a time of 35 hours. He’d even sought advice from 2011 Yukon Arctic Ultra winner Greg McHale.
And despite a mild Polish winter, he trained by pulling tires through the mud, simulating the 20-kilogram sled he’d be pulling all the way to Dawson City.
Last Saturday, Kielbasinski exploded out of the gate. McHale told him to keep a good pace at the beginning, knowing it would gradually diminish as the race went on.
Despite temperatures dipping to -35 degrees Celsius that day, and the wind factor bringing it down even lower to -45, he reached the first checkpoint at Rivendell Farm in great shape.
But once he got to Dog Grave Lake, about 100 kilometres away, he realized something was terribly wrong with his fingers.
“The first 100 kilometres was nothing,” he says.
In fact, he was leading the pack of 31 athletes taking part in the 700-kilometre race by a wide margin.
“My sled was light – I didn’t bring pictures of my friends. But something happened to my fingers.
“When I ate or drank something, I had to remove my big gloves and I wasn’t as careful as I should have been.”
That night, snug in his extreme-weather sleeping bag, he was mildly successful at warming his fingers up, he said.
Early on Tuesday morning, he finally decided to use his SPOT device to let organizers know he needed help.
“My life wasn’t in danger but I asked them to come pick me up, and I’d be there waiting,” he says, explaining that one of the buttons on the device was for that purpose.
A few hours later, he stopped a group of racers going by and asked them to look at his hand.
They noticed the frostbite and used their satellite phone to call for a medevac.
Doctors told him he made the right call. Had he kept going to the Braeburn checkpoint, he almost certainly would have lost his fingers, they said.
Kielbasinski says he was used to racing in temperatures around -25, but this was altogether different.
He wishes he had more time to adapt to the cold before setting off from Whitehorse, he said.
Race organizer Robert Pollhammer says guidelines have always been followed since the race began in 2003, and it wasn’t cold enough to postpone the start.
He also says racers are briefed on the dangers of extreme cold and the risks associated with it.
“That does include the warning that they can die if they make a mistake,” he wrote in an e-mail.
“Unfortunately, Michal ignored all the signs that indicated he is getting himself into trouble. And he did not listen to checkpoint staff.”
Pollhammer says organizers never received a distress message from Kielbasinski, but rather that his team checked up on him because they were afraid he wouldn’t warm up again.
“We really like the SPOTs and they help us a lot, but we will never just rely on SPOTs,” he wrote.
“As this example once more shows, technology can fail or the people using the technology can make mistakes.”
As a child growing up in the Polish city of Lodz, Kielbasinski’s father regaled him with stories of the Klondike Gold Rush.
For years, he dreamed of stepping foot in the Yukon and seeing the inspiration for Jack London’s tales with his own eyes.
As the first Polish citizen to take part in the Ultra, news of his hospital stay has made headlines back home, in the city of about 750,000 residents.
Kielbasinski hopes to race again, but he is uncertain about being able to find future sponsors.
“The first night I was at the hospital, I didn’t sleep at all, my mind was racing,” he says.
“I thought my running career was over. At around 3 a.m., I started thinking about what changes I’d have to make with my equipment to be able to race again.
“I’d love to have another opportunity but it’s not possible without financial help. If somebody would give me that chance, I’d start preparing for next year’s race as soon as I leave this hospital.”
Contact Myles Dolphin at