While dog mushers battled whiteouts and glare ice on the north end of the Yukon Quest trail, adventure athletes challenged the south end in the toughest and coldest human-powered race on earth.
Montana runner Andrew Matulionis broke all records to win the 515-kilometre Yukon Arctic Ultra in 126 hours at 8:15 p.m. Thursday.
Sixty-two runners, cross-country skiers and mountain bikers bushwhacked out of Whitehorse for distances of 42, 160 or 515 kilometres.
This year’s 515-kilometre roster was heavily weighted with 34 contestants as a result of a pair of pacts made at the 2005 Marathon de Sable.
There, in the midday heat of the Sahara Desert, 10 adventurers vowed to do the Arctic Ultra ‘06, all the way to the finish.
From the shot of the starter pistol at 10:30 a.m. on February 11, Matulionis led the field, at one point building his five-kilometre-per-hour walking pace into a 28-hour lead.
This year saw the introduction of skijoring to the disciplines, and Matulionis paced the single skijorer, Whitehorse’s Jonathon Lucas and his three-dog team, for the initial 160 kilometres.
“His strategy seems to be that he’s not sleeping,” said race organizer Shelley Gellatly.
“I walked part of the trail with him, and he’s not moving all that fast; it’s just that he’s not stopping,” added Gellatly, a past champion of the Ultra.
This winter’s unseasonably warm and dry weather has left meager snowcover and stretches of fist-sized gravel in the first 96 kilometres of track.
And, like all the competitors, Matulionis sloshed through overflow that rose from ankles to knees to thighs over the course of the day.
By Braeburn, blisters and trench foot had taken their toll, leading to the first wave of dropouts.
Over the Klondike Highway, where the Quest trail crosses 60 kilometres of lake-studded land, gusts of wind erased all the trail markers and scrubbed the bare, black lake ice clean.
Lead runner Matulionis stayed on course overnight and notified race officials of the conditions when they arrived at the Carmacks checkpoint.
For challengers in this no-purse event, finishing is the grand prize.
Two of the nine marathoners did not start, and four of the 19 who tackled the 160-kilometre section scratched.
Of the 34 long-distance starters only 19 saw the finish line.
For all its hardships, the trail did provide rewards, such as crystal-clear nights under a full moon.
“That was the best outdoor nighttime experience I have ever had,” said Matulionis of his first overnight leg.
“Not a soul around, not a sound, and it’s so bright, I didn’t even need my headlamp.”
Next year, brave competitors hoping for such an exalting experience can join Welsh athlete Martin Like on the 756-kilometre route.
Like put off entering this year’s Ultra, opting to volunteer at the checkpoints instead.
In anticipation of the inaugural run up to Dawson, the past YAU finisher plans to scout the route with local organizers in a post-race snowmobile excursion this week.