It’s not just marketing when organizers call the Yukon Arctic Ultra the toughest ultra in the world. After all, the marathon length of the race holds the record for the coldest to take place at any time worldwide.
Despite this, and after suspending the 2010 event, the ultra has returned with a record number of entries and what is believed by organizers to be a record number of Yukoners. Of the 12 Canadians entered, seven are from the Yukon, all from Whitehorse except Matthew Lewis from Carmacks, a first-time entry running the marathon distance.
“For Yukoners, it’s probably a record entry,” said race director Robert Pollhammer. “There is always a few marathoners, we never get too many Yukoners going for the long distances.”
That’s for certain. If all goes to plan, Whitehorse’s Greg McHale will be the first Yukoners to run in the 430-mile division between the starting point in Whitehorse and the finish in Dawson City.
“You don’t see too many Yukoners doing the longest trail – maybe that’s because they know what the trail is like, what the temperatures are like and they’re smarter than that,” said McHale.
“I’ve done the Yukon River Quest before, and I won that, so I thought I’d also go to Dawson on foot and see if a can win that. I’ve done it by paddle, so maybe now by foot.”
No stranger to distance events, McHale and his wife Denise have competed in about 20 multi-day adventure races around the globe. Both he and Denise have also won the men’s and women’s divisions at Yellowknife’s Rock and Ice Ultra the last two years.
“This will be the longest race that I’ve done and it’s just going to be a completely different race than NWT,” said McHale. “There’s no doubt this is a more difficult race.
“The race in NWT was cancelled this year, I was fit, so it made sense (to enter). I’ve had it in the back of my mind to do this for a while.”
Denise will also be competing in the event for the first time, entering the marathon distance race. The current national women’s 100-kilometre champion, Denise recently competed at the 100 Kilometre I.A.U. World Championships in November, finishing eighth and setting a new Canadian record.
The Yukon will also be represented in the 100-mile race by Shelley Gellatly, the only Yukon entry to have competed in the event previously. Gellatly, who is also a race co-ordinator, was the overall division winner – of both men and women – in 2007.
“The hardest thing is making sure you don’t make any mistakes – you can’t run it like a summer race,” said Gellatly. “In the past, the fastest runners have not won because they made a mistake on the course … like your water freezing up. You really have to be strategic in how you run the race. It’s nice because it flattens the playing field, that’s why women can go against men.”
Although entered individually, Whitehorse will also be represented in the marathon by a group of young ladies hoping to run the race as a team of three. Laura Wells, 25, Lia Johnson, 23, and Megan Brady, 24, have been training three times a week all winter in preparation for their marathon run.
“We signed up individually, and we’re sponsored by Total North – they decided to give us money for registration costs and some gear,” said Brady. “The three of us committed to running together three times a week and we picked the ultra as a goal to work towards. It’s been a good excuse to get together and run.”
While her running partners have completed marathons before, it will be the first for Wells.
“It’s hard to know what to expect,” said Wells. “I expect it to be hard and long. It’s definitely going to be a big challenge. It will be the longest I’ve run.
“The biggest challenge will probably be being dressed properly for the cold. It’s hard to find the right balance between wearing too much and not wearing enough.”
Surprisingly, Johnson feels the marathon will be easier than the one she completed in Waterloo, Ontario, during the spring, thanks to the power of teamwork.
“We’ll be out there for a while, but I think it’ll be easier than my past marathon because there’ll be two other people to keep me motivated,” said Johnson. “I think the conditions might surprise us, depending on what the snow is like – that’s going to be a factor.”
Other notable entries in the race include British rowing champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist James Cracknell, who will be cycling the 430-mile length. Also running the marathon is a blind man from Germany.
“I think it’s neat that we get to do the marathon race and start with all these extreme, experienced people going all the way to Dawson,” said Johnson. “I’m looking forward to being part of their group, even though we’re definitely not in their calibre.”
The Arctic Ultra, which also includes a 300-mile division, will begin the day after the Yukon Quest dogsled race on February 6, following the same trail. It is expected to take 13 days for the 430-mile competitors to reach the finish line.
The Discovery Channel and German national television will cover the race.
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