A remarkable run

Greg McHale arrived in Dawson City at around 5 p.m. Monday night. He left Whitehorse eight days, eight hours and 15 minutes earlier, on foot.

Greg McHale arrived in Dawson City at around 5 p.m. Monday night.

He left Whitehorse eight days, eight hours and 15 minutes earlier, on foot.

It’s a record.

So why did he do it?

He doesn’t know, he said, chuckling while sitting in his car at a Carmacks gas station on his way back to Whitehorse on Tuesday.

“This was definitely the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

McHale was the first runner in this year’s Yukon Ultra to finish the nearly 700-kilometre trek.

The self proclaimed, toughest and coldest marathon in the world follows the Yukon Quest trail.

It’s a race for mountain bikers, cross-country skiers and runners. Of all three categories, McHale was the third person to arrive in Dawson and the first one on foot.

His time destroys the previous record, set by Enrico Ghidoni in 2009. McHale beat it by more than 20 hours.

McHale has nearly a decade’s experience in “adventure racing” and usually does an annual 250-kilometre race in Yellowknife, but because it was cancelled this year he signed up for the ultra, he said.

Right from the start, he pulled ahead and kept a decent lead.

He even stayed ahead of all the race officials.

From Pelly Farm to Scroggie Creek (approximately 100 kilometres) McHale had to throw on his snowshoes and break trail because the snowmachines hadn’t been through since the last snowfall.

When he arrived at Indian River, the promised wall-tent checkstop – the last on the stretch to Dawson – hadn’t even been set up yet.

“That happens all the time,” said Shelley Gellatly, a former race co-ordinator who volunteered and participated in the first part of this year’s run.

“It’s definitely not a race to be taken lightly. I love the race because of that. You have to be self-sufficient. It could be a concern, and it will be a concern if people don’t get it. But the great thing with Greg is that he’s a great athlete plus he’s also got the skills from adventure racing and he lives up here, so he knows what to expect.”

Compared to other, similar races, like the one in Alaska that follows the Iditarod trail, the Yukon Ultra is actually quite safe, she said, noting there are no on-course officials or spot devices to track the racers. There are only the people at the checkpoints. And they’ll only go searching if you don’t come in when expected, she said.

As well, Robert Pollhammer, this year’s race co-ordinator, has introduced new safety regulations including mandatory frostbite checks and the authority of officials to pull people out of the race if they feel continuing would be a risk to the participant’s health.

Trying to make the race as safe as possible is a goal, Pollhammer said, “but there’s no 100 per cent.”

When it comes to McHale having to set up his own checkpoint, Pollhammer said the race was actually stopped to rectify the situation, but McHale was in between checkpoints at the time.

A Ski-Doo was sent to check on him and he was fine, said Pollhammer.

And about McHale having to break trail, that was just logistics, Pollhammer said.

“We have more Ski-Doo guys than we’ve had ever before, but if the race is stretched out by 200 or 300 kilometres, it’s impossible for us to be everywhere at the same time and break trail, so we focus on where most people are and have a close watch on the spots (GPS tracking devices).”

McHale figures he lost eight or nine hours during that stretch.

While training, on paper he thought he could have done the whole thing in only seven days, he said.

But his record was impressive, said Pollhammer.

“There’s only a couple of people in the world who could probably beat that, and then they would need ideal conditions,” said Pollhammer. “His performance was just amazing.”

When Pollhammer saw McHale at the finish line in Dawson, he was obviously tired, but he still looked better than what they are used to seeing, Pollhammer said.

Because of a longer than expected six-hour rest early in the race, McHale spent most of his time running at night.

There were few northern lights, lots of wolves and the moon was amazing, he said.

The hardest part was the mental struggle he endured right before Carmacks, he said.

He misjudged the race and thought the checkpoint was coming hours before it actually did.

“It’s all in your head,” he said, adding with a laugh that in this race quitting would be even harder than continuing because of the wait for officials to come retrieve you. “But when you complete an event like this, it gives you something you cannot get from any other experience. Putting yourself through these harsh conditions puts everything into perspective.”

When asked whether he will do the ultra again, a quick and resounding “no,” came through the phone receiver.

Right now, he said, he is just looking forward to putting his feet up in front of the fireplace and having a glass of wine with his wife.

McHale’s closest competitor, Mark Hines, came into Dawson just after 3 a.m. on Thursday.

To date, over half of the 38 participants in this year’s race have dropped out.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

roxannes@yukon-news.com