An Ultra Experience

All I can say is this race has really impacted my life,” says Shelley Gellatly, a race coordinator for the Yukon Arctic Ultra.

The Yukon Arctic Ultra, which bills itself as “the world’s toughest and coldest ultra” is a self-propelled race along the Yukon Quest Trail in February of each year.

There are various distances for the runners, mountain bikers and cross-country skiers who participate to test themselves against: a marathon, a 100-miler (to Braeburn) and a 320-miler (to Pelly). Every other year the course goes all the way to Dawson.

Now in its ninth season, the race is the brainchild of Robert Pollhammer.

The German adventure racer participated in a similar race 12 years ago in Alaska and was disappointed with the level of disorganization. Dreaming of hosting a similar event with better organization led to a discussion with Fulda.

At the time, the German tire manufacturer was sponsoring the Yukon Quest and suggested hosting the race along the Quest trail. The rest, as they say, is history.

“People will think that you are absolutely crazy if you decide to do this,” Pollhammer laughs. “The way I look at it, people who have never faced such a challenge are a lot crazier.

“If you have done similar races previously, you know what I am talking about – the feeling of finishing such a race won’t be that new to you anymore. However, for you it will be a new and exciting challenge and an event you won’t want to miss.”

The event has also inspired some enthusiasts to take on other challenges. Gellatly highlights the story of Joachim Rintsch as an example.

“One of the most amazing stories was prompted by the race but didn’t happen during the race. One of the participants who’d attended several races decided to walk from Fairbanks to Whitehorse behind the Quest dogs two years ago,” Gellatly explains.

“He did the whole thing self-supported and took 31 days to do the trip. Many of the race veterans, including myself, had talked about the possibility of doing this trip, but Joachim actually completed it!”

Gellatly also draws on her own experience to illustrate the profound impact the event has on those who are up to the challenge.

“I had never even considered trying to run/walk 100 miles when I did the first race in 2003, never mind in the winter. I had no clue what I was in for and was ecstatic when I was able to finish.

“Then when I completed the 320-miler to Pelly I was almost disappointed to come off the trail after 6.5 days. It is such an intense experience that it was very difficult to share in words with friends, family, colleagues who hadn’t been out there,” she says.

“All you really do out there is focus on the basics of life – when to eat, drink, sleep, how to keep warm. I absolutely love having that time in my year where things can be so simple… perhaps it’s like those walking meditations that the Japanese monks do?”

Gellatly adds, “For me now, the race is all about the people and experiences a person has out there. I get huge satisfaction helping other people complete the trek. I really feel it is one of those life experiences that significantly affect a person and I’m happy to be part of that process.”

This year Gellatly is able to do just that. Four of the 34 individual racers registered come from Whitehorse and have been drawing on Gellatly for guidance in the lead-up to the big day this weekend.

Noreen Schaefer is taking on the 100-mile distance in her first attempt at the Yukon Arctic Ultra.

“My training has essentially been weekend warrior-style,” she explains.

“I’ve been pulling a pulk (a small, low-slung toboggan) filled with either a 50-pound weight or the gear I will carry during the race.”

Schaefer has also been getting extra sleep.

“I’m a big believer in appropriate recovery time,” she says.

“I’m feeling most nervous about appropriate pacing to go the distance and how my feet will handle the stress and punishment. I’m most looking forward to seeing how I will adapt to what Mother Nature will throw at us and just how much chocolate I can consume over two days!”

As for the race overall, she says, “I’m feeling excited, apprehensive and ready to push my limits.”

Schaefer will be joined in her trial by fellow rookie racer Verena Koernig.

Koernig was inspired to tackle the race by Team WHOA (Women Having Outrageous Adventures), of which Gellatly and Schaefer are both members.

“Every year they participate in the Yukon River Quest, run the Chilkoot Trail together, and a number of them take on the Yukon Arctic Ultra 100-miler. I ran the Chilkoot with them this year and they convinced me to sign up for the 100-miler.”

Koernig looks forward to the challenge.

“I’ve already learned a lot about gear, sleds, and myself during the training,” she says.

“It’s a long way to Braeburn, so hopefully I can keep my spirits up. I want to finish and still be merry at the end.”

This year’s Yukon Arctic Ultra begins in downtown Whitehorse at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, February 4.

Amber Church is a painter, writer and sports enthusiast. You can reach her at [email protected].

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