During a pre-race meeting last Friday, Yukon Adventure Challenge organizer Greg McHale issued a warning to the field of mostly green competitors as he handed out the course maps and checkpoint co-ordinates: “It’ll be fun — but there’s going to be some hard times.”
Hard times, indeed.
Thirteen teams set out at 8 a.m. Saturday morning in the first Yukon Adventure Challenge; only seven made it back to Rotary Park on Sunday to finish the race.
After a LeMans-style running start carrying all their gear to canoes, the 46 racers paddled down the Yukon River to Policeman’s Point.
Some teams had bad luck from the get go. Team Valhalla broke a paddle 12 minutes into the race, a calamity that eventually forced it to withdraw.
After dumping canoes for bikes, the teams rode 14 kilometres up the North Klondike Highway to Grizzly Valley loaded with gear strapped to their backs.
Snowshoes were a last-minute addition to racers’ gear list, thanks to this year’s cool spring temperatures.
Many teams were thankful they had them when they had to navigate through late-season snow on their way up Flat Top Mountain, and down into Golden Canyon.
During that 27-kilometre trek, several teams lost their way and pulled out of the race.
Map-reading skills were crucial.
“The tough navigation in that section was probably within five kilometres of checkpoint four,” said McHale, a professional adventure racer based in Whitehorse, who designed the course with his wife and race partner Denise.
“And the teams that struggled with navigation — it got them.”
Even the frontrunners had trouble finding their way down from Flat Top.
“We followed a frozen creek down the other side, crossed a horse trail, but we made a crucial mistake following a road, which led to all kinds of woodcutting roads,” said Stephen Waterreus of team Air North, who would eventually finish first with partner Scott Fraser.
“Had we stuck to the trail, we could have saved an hour and a half. Sometimes you take gambles, if this road goes the right way, we could save time.”
The leaders arrived at the fourth checkpoint, a 48-metre rappel down a rock face in the Golden Canyon area, about 12 hours into the race. Some flew down, others inched.
Hopping back on bikes again, the teams pedaled along Takhini River Road, eventually putting their cycles into canoes, crossing the Takhini River, and then riding to the Ibex Valley.
As the sun set, the race’s second half began — an 86-kilometre bike through Jackson Creek, along Fish Lake Road and the Copper Haul Road to MacRae.
If the earlier navigation didn’t get them, then the grueling night ride was the toughest they faced.
“That section was pretty physically demanding, I put that in there to separate the wheat from the chaff,” said McHale with a grin.
Much of the course was too rough for riding, and bikes had to be carried, along with backpacks holding food and water.
“There was a lot of cursing the McHales at that point — we expected that,” laughed Denise McHale.
“Every team that made it to that section completed it. It shows that they have the navigation down and the physical ability to push through and make it.”
The final transition came at MacRae. There, bikes were abandoned for canoes again, and teams paddled to Schwatka, portaged past the dam and floated to the finish line at Rotary Park.
Waterreus and Fraser beat the 24-hour mark by 12 minutes, arriving at 7:48 Sunday morning. They travelled 130 kilometres by human power in 23 hours and 48 minutes.
“I felt great at the end, the last hour was the easiest, we knew we were there and got a second wind,” said Waterreus, an avid cross-country skier and triathlete.
“It’s a mental game, the whole thing is. It’s not necessarily the team in the best shape — it’s the team that makes the least mistakes, and keeps their mental edge.”
Yukoners must be made of strong stuff, said Denise McHale, who has raced all over the world.
“I was surprised at how well they looked at the end, sometimes teams come in looking pretty grey and defeated.”
The next team to finish, Gartner Lee (another two-person team — Forest Pearson and Jean Francois Roldan) crossed the line nearly 90 minutes later. It posted a time of 25 hours and 28 minutes.
“I’m glad I got that out of my system,” said Pearson, swigging from the ceremonial champagne bottle. “I won’t be doing that again any time soon.”
Eleven minutes later, the first four-person team arrived, the Far From Home squad.
“None of us trained for this,” said Tony Painter. “We were expecting the red lantern.”
The big prize for the four-person winners was a free entry to another adventure race in the south.
One team member was heard to say, “Can we trade this in for something else?”
Maybe in a week or so, when they’ve rested up, they’ll change their minds.
Are Fraser and Waterreus interested in defending their title next year?
“When I was out there I was thinking, ‘No chance, I’ll never do this again,’” said Waterreus at the race banquet Monday.
“But now the memory is starting to blur, so I’m thinking it’s possible.”
Next year’s Yukon Adventure Challenge promises to be bigger and better, after the success of this year’s inaugural event.
“This year we wanted to keep it small, local, to see if we wanted to do this again before we got too ambitious,” said Denise McHale.
“I think a lot of these guys will come back, and, probably, a lot of new Yukon people too — and we’ll advertise Outside a little bit more.”
“People really want to see another one,” said Greg McHale. “For some, it’s too early to start thinking about it, but some of the teams that didn’t finish came up to me saying, ‘You’ve got to do it next year!’ They want another chance, another shot at it.”
If you’re considering entering next year’s race, the Whitehorse Adventure Run, scheduled for June 11, may be a practice event to consider, as it also includes navigation and trekking.
For more information check out www.athleticsyukon.ca.
With the Yukon Adventure Challenge out of the way, the McHales are focused on their own competitive season, with their first race June 9 to 11, in Boise, Idaho.
After that, they head to Salt Lake for the Primal Quest, an 800-kilometre, seven to 10 day grind.
“That’s the biggest race we’ve done,” said Denise, “I’m a little nervous heading into that.”