McHales win diamonds in NWT ultra race

If running a marathon is a cakewalk to you, try the Rock and Ice Ultra. Starting and finishing in Yellowknife, NWT, the Rock and Ice Ultra is a six-day, 225-kilometre race over ..

If running a marathon is a cakewalk to you, try the Rock and Ice Ultra.

Starting and finishing in Yellowknife, NWT, the Rock and Ice Ultra is a six-day, 225-kilometre race over … well, rock and ice.

Whitehorse couple Greg and Denise McHale not only competed in the ultra, held March 20-25, they won it.

“We essentially run a marathon a day,” said Denise. “And then you sleep on the ice and the next day you get up and run.”

Greg crossed the finish line after 29 hours of trekking. Denise, competing in the women’s division, finished in about 33 hours, just behind the runner-up in the men’s. The women’s runner-up came in a half hour behind her.

“The guy that was second beat Denise by I think 10 or 15 minutes,” said Greg. “Denise was in second (overall) until the last day.”

About 30 competitors split between the men’s and women’s divisions took part, with the bulk going in the men’s. However, with fierce weather the opening day, numbers didn’t take long to shrink.

“We did have good weather, but the typical temperatures were between minus 20 to minus 30, and it got colder a couple of days with the wind chill,” said Greg. “Day one … the weather was cold and by the end—there’s a lake called Prelude Lake—and typically the conditions on that lake haven’t been very good. As soon as it’s windy it really kicks up and there’s whiteouts, and that’s what happened this year and it was really cold. It was probably minus 35 with the wind chill.”

“It weeded quite a few people out after day one,” said Denise. “It’s tough if you’re not used to those temperatures, you don’t know what to expect.”

Each night racers arrived at stations with tents already set up for lodging. However, for safety reasons, competitors were still required to pull an emergency shelter and a long list of other emergency gear in their ski pulks.

“You had to be prepared to be self-sufficient under any circumstances,” said Greg.

Greg and Denise would spend about four to seven hours a day trekking over the ice and rock, managing to stay ahead of the competition, who often would spend much longer on the trail.

“We’d get in mid-afternoon, but there were people coming in 10, 11, midnight,” said Denise. “It’s not really fast conditions because you’re wearing snowshoes and you’re certainly not running quickly, but obviously, the quicker you get there the more time you have to rest, eat and get ready for the next day.”

Greg also won the race last season in the event’s second year, but at the time there was no women’s division, so Denise raced against the men in the three-day event, the K-Rock Ultra. She finished third.

“I did the three-day event because I knew I wasn’t going to beat Greg,” said Denise.

For their efforts, Greg and Denise each received a diamond, donated by one of the ultra’s sponsors, the EKATI Diamond Mine.

“First place is a diamond because the EKATI Diamond Mine sponsors the event, so there’s only first place and then there’s nothing,” said Greg.

Last year’s prize was just over a karat, worth about $13,000. This year both Greg and Denise received 0.7 karat rocks, worth about $7,000 each.

As part of their prize Greg and Denise were flown into the EKATI Diamond Mine for a tour of the facility.

“It’s about an hour-and-a-half flight from Yellowknife and they took us down into the mine and showed us where our diamond came from,” said Denise.

The McHales have a long history of marathon, ultra and adventure racing—even organizing the Yukon Adventure Challenge in past years.

In May 2007, Denise became the Canada’s National Women’s Ultra running champion. In November 2006, the McHales (on the same team) finished second at the Extreme Adventure Hidalgo in Mexico and, in the same year, finished fourth in one of the world’s biggest adventure races, Utah’s Primal Quest.

Last year, Greg competed in the Adventure Race World Championship in Brazil while Denise ran in the 100K World Championship in Italy, both finishing in the top-quarter of their respective fields.

At the start of May, Denise travel to Victoria, BC, to race in the 22nd Annual Island Runner Elk/Beaver Ultras in the 50-mile event.

At the end of June, both Greg and Denise will hit Alberta’s Best of the West, an expedition adventure race in which they will be part of a four-person team.

Contact Tom Patrick at