McHale breaks Arctic marathon record

If the Yukon Arctic Ultra is the toughest ultra-marathon in the world, as proclaimed on the race's website, it's fair to assume its marathon length is no walk in the park.

If the Yukon Arctic Ultra is the toughest ultra-marathon in the world, as proclaimed on the race’s website, it’s fair to assume its marathon length is no walk in the park. Considering the wintery conditions that make it like no other trail race, who better to win it than a Yukoner?

Whitehorse’s Denise McHale did that, and then some on Sunday. Not only was she the first woman to win the marathon division of the ultra since first being offered in 2004, she also set a new course record, completing the journey from Whitehorse to Rivendell Farm, following the Yukon Quest trail, in three hours and 14 minutes.

“The trail was pretty good,” said McHale. “Surely, it’s not like running on the road. With the warm weather last week, and with all the sleds across, it was pretty good actually.

“The amount of people was pretty amazing – around 80 or so. I think there were only about 15 marathoners, so you have 60 people going 100-miles or longer. That’s not an easy thing to do, to run that far in the Yukon in February.”

McHale, who was in the race for the first time, broke the 2009 record time of three hours and 57 minutes set by German Markus Exner. (The only other Yukoner to win the marathon is Whitehorse’s Keith Thaxter in 2008, a year that saw such harsh conditions he was the only one to finish.)

Finishing second was Kelowna’s Chad Ulansky, who signed up for the race just the night before, coming in just 10 minutes behind McHale. After trailing for most of the race, McHale overtook Ulansky near the 17-mile mark as he dealt with a frozen water supply.

“I’ll wear a thin shirt, put on my camel back (water container) with insulated hose and then put all my stuff on top,” said McHale. “When you drink you have to blow the water back through the hose or it freezes.

“Chad is from Kelowna, so it doesn’t get that cold there. He had the insulated hose but not under his jacket so it froze up.

“I gave him some water, but then I just kept going.”

The current national women’s 100-kilometre champion, McHale recently competed at the 100 Kilometre I.A.U. World Championships in November, finishing eighth and setting a new Canadian record. She also won the Rock and Ice Ultra out of Yellowknife the last two years.

With seven locals competing in three divisions, this year’s ultra saw a record number of Yukon entries.

Arriving just 35 minutes behind McHale was Carmack’s Matthew Lewis, a first-time competitor, taking fifth overall.

Also in the marathon distance were three Whitehorse runners – the youngest in the ultra – who decided to train and run the race together. Crossing the finish line in five hours, 40 minutes, and outpacing three racers from Germany, were Lia Johnson, 23, Laura Wells, 25, and Megan Brady, 24.

“It was amazing; I don’t think there would be anything I would change. Maybe we wouldn’t have all the extra supplies we took, in case it wasn’t nice,” said Johnson. “The weather was great and we had fun the whole way. It was warm enough that I didn’t feel cold at all.”

Not only will the three consider doing the race again next year, they might even move into a longer division in the future.

“It’s been a couple days and we’re still really excited about it, so I think we’d definitely do it again,” said Johnson. “I think we are also looking at the 100-miler, so we’re working towards that – probably not next year but one year down the road.”

McHale’s husband Greg, the first Yukoner to attempt the 430-mile category ending in Dawson City, reached Carmacks Tuesday afternoon with a considerable lead over his competition. (Like his wife, Greg has also won NWT’s Rock and Ice Ultra the last two years.)

Whitehorse’s Shelley Gellatly, running in the 100-mile category, scratched from the race 10 kilometres from the finish line at Dog Grave Lake due to a medical issue. Gellatly, who was the overall winner of the 100-mile division in 2007, was not disappointed with her performance, she said.

The goal all along was to help her friend, Toronto’s Patti Clune, who finished third overall.

“My goal was to accompany Patti Clune this year; (I had) no time goals for myself,” wrote Gellatly in an e-mail to the News. “She did great and was strong right until the end, so I was really happy with that effort. Given I’ve seen the trail three times before in previous races and had about another three hours to go – I was just fine to take the snowmobile out when it came by! It felt like I had a great time on the course and didn’t want to remember it in too miserable a light.”

Contact Tom Patrick at

tomp@yukon-news.com