Three young Yukon women discovered a way to tackle winter head-on this year: take up training for a winter marathon, and voilà, there you are outdoors several times a week.
Megan Brady (24), Lea Johnson (23) and Laura Wells (25) are not alone in their dedication to cold trails.
They’re joining about 50 other racers, mostly from Germany and the United Kingdom, in the Yukon Arctic Ultra race that starts in Whitehorse on February 6. It follows the Yukon Quest trail, after the mushers have gone ahead.
For these three friends, who all went to Porter Creek High School years ago, it all started with a casual conversation. They were at a Yukon Avalanche Association film night when Brady mentioned that her roommate had entered the Yukon Arctic Ultra the year before – days after returning from México.
Brady had a few marathons under her belt, Johnson had done her first in the spring, and Wells had joined the Klondike Road Relay that fall.
So the three started up a training plan in November, just after Whitehorse received an unusually heavy snowfall.
“Some of our first runs were along the Millenium Trail, and we felt like we were jumping around like rabbits,” says Johnson.
Many Saturdays before they headed out, they would confess their hesitations to each other.
“We’d call each other up and ask, what’s our temperature cutoff and can we start a little later in the day,” Johnson laughs. “But we didn’t cancel. I trained for my marathon on my own and I was just so amazed at how different it is to run with other people.”
“The best part for me has been those early weekend mornings with Lia and Megan,” adds Wells. “We talk and laugh a lot, I think sometimes wondering what we’ve gotten ourselves into.”
Each outing was a chance to get comfortable with the gear they will need for hours on the wilderness trail in subzero temperatures.
Wells tested a platypus-style water carrier, for example, and the water froze through the hose, as expected. What works? Waist belts that hold 250 mL bottles, worn under the jacket.
Now in its eighth year, the Yukon Arctic Ultra includes four races for runners, cross-country skiers and mountain bikers.
Each race demands increasing endurance. Brady, Johnson and Wells will do the marathon leg together, as a team, even if it means walking part of the way.
The marathon finishes at the Takhini River. The 100 mile race ends in Braeburn; the 300 mile ends at Pelly Farm; and those who commit to the entire 430 mile ultramarathon tough it out all the way to Dawson City.
Shelley Gellatly, who handles the Whitehorse side of registrations, has run checkpoints at Pelly, Carmacks and more. She completed the 100 mile leg several times, starting with the race’s inaugural year.
“A big thing for the racers coming from Europe is that many think they’re going to run this race, and they’re not going to,” she observes. The trail won’t be firm the whole way, and in the winter, one mistake can put an end to the race.
“If you come off of some land and onto a lake and you’re not thinking about overflow and you get wet – sometimes people get freaked out and can’t figure out what to do next to carry on, so they take themselves out of the race.”
As an exercise physiologist, Gellatly also presents workshops before the race: a slide show about the trail, followed by a trek into the bush where racers start a fire, light their stoves and test their sleeping bags. It’s a great way to meet the athletes.
“Each year I am awestruck by someone,” she says. “One year the descendents of [explorer Sir Ernest] Shackleton came to prepare for a trip to the south pole in honour of the 100th anniversary of his voyage. And this year there is a blind athlete running the marathon.”
Other Yukoners are joining in the Arctic Ultra, but names were not available at press time. The race officially ends on February 19, but Brady, Johnson and Wells will be warmed up again long before then.
Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.