Whoever comes with the best plan finishes,” said Andrew McLean, Canada’s ultramarathoner of the year at the start of the 2007 Yukon Arctic Ultra.
But even the best plans can be thwarted by unpredictable weather.
What started as the Braeburn Bustle for the first 160 kilometres at minus-20 Celsius slowed to the Scroggie Creek Crawl when the multi-discipline endurance race froze in its tracks at 60 below.
Forty-two runners and skiers shot downstream from Whitehorse at 10:30 a.m. on February 11.
Many athletes were back to finish what they started last year.
Some, like McLean, used the event to fundraise for charity, and others, like Jersey runner Mark Allen, were drawn by the Ultra’s reputation and route; it follows on the heels of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
The trail, built during a season of heavy snow, was the best in the event’s five-year history.
Overflow was glacier solid, open gravel was minimal and the base was firm.
First across the marathon finish line at the Takhini Hot Springs was Germany’s Richard Malz-Heyne at 3:02 p.m., followed five minutes later by Keith Thaxter on his fourth marathon in six weeks.
At 4:46, local skier Claude Chabot came in third.
After a four-hour layover, nine 160-K runners joined a dozen 480-K contestants and eight intrepid 700s.
On a moonless night, they struck out by starlight.
Leading the no-purse event was McLean on the 700, women’s 160 title holder Shelley Gellatly, and the 480’s Italian team of Stefano Miglietti and Enrico Ghidoni.
Behind them, midfield runners bivouacked on piles of dog straw left behind by Quest mushers who had plunged out of the starting chute the day before.
Pulks became brittle and holes wore through several toboggans.
Snow filled the loads and blowouts created impossible drag.
Snowmobile crews sped along the trail with replacement parts and checked on the athletes.
Hardest hit were the 700’s skiers Sam Taylor of Britain and Scotland’s Jim Groark. Along with defective equipment, Groark developed problems with his wrists and the pair withdrew before Dog Grave Lake at kilometre 100.
By Braeburn, nine contestants scratched, including McLean.
His stellar start ground to a halt when a stress fracture in his foot felled him at the 160-K mark.
Northbound, eight 480 runners and five distance trekkers remained.
Favoured to win the run to Pelly Crossing, Miglietti and Ghidoni didn’t disappoint.
Team Terraz tore through the wilderness at a steady four kilometres per hour.
“We never stopped on the trail,” said Miglietti, who shaved 20 hours off his 2005 time.
In 126 hours they shattered American Andrew Matulionis’ 129 hour record set in 2006.
Equally noteworthy was red lantern winner Sean Brown, who developed shin splints halfway into his third attempt at the toughest and coldest human-powered race on Earth.
Taped and determined, he hobbled over the finish line right on the cusp of the eight-day deadline.
Beyond Pelly, English adventurer Andy Heading led the way a full 36 hours ahead of German veterans Joachim Rintsch and Tom Wolter-Roessler, Austria’s Klaus Schweinberger and Ireland’s Pearse Allen.
At 9:59 p.m. on February 19, Heading reached Scroggie Creek, deep in the heart of Jack London’s Yukon.
By then the daytime high was minus 35; nights were doubly bitter. Heading took a 24-hour time credit to wait out the system, but prospects worsened.
After two days at a standstill, Heading’s body relaxed from race mode.
It was apparent he would not see Dawson.
For the rest of the pack, what started at a trot slowed to a plod. Stove fuel wouldn’t vapourize, zippers froze, and metal canisters seared double-gloved fingers.
In a daily grind of wood gathering, fire building, and snow melting, the troop’s average 80 kilometres per day dropped to 50, then 30, then nothing.
Trail crews struggled to keep their machines operational and extracted Schweinberger and Allen overland.
Rintsch and Wolter-Roessler, shepherded into Scroggie Creek, met Heading on February 21.
With no chance to reach the elusive finish by the 13-day limit, and with the mercury frozen in the thermometer, race director Robert Pollhammer called the 700 at Kilometre 540 and all three participants were flown to Whitehorse.
Although the elements defeated everyone’s plans, the attempt counts toward future success in 2008.
On parting, McLean said the experience “made it easy for me to decide to come back.”