Most people consider a DNF (Did Not Finish) a blot on their race record. After calling it quits halfway through the Yukon Arctic Ultra on Sunday, Feb. 9, I was just happy to be alive.
An extreme endeavour? Certainly, but when my older brother suggested we do the race together this year, I was game.
Both of us had run several marathons, Joel had completed two Ironman triathlons, but a race in the winter would be a good challenge. Training consisted of Sunday long runs in the -15 to -20 range and figuring out a layering system that kept me warm without overheating.
Yukon Quest reports described a well broken trail … things were looking good.
And then it got cold. Very cold.
The challenge faced by the organizers of this year’s event was huge and quite a few racers had Robert Pollhammer and his team to thank for doing the quick reorganization that enabled the race to take place while still providing the athletes support that ensured their safety.
The start line saw a temperature of -41. Huddled in the White Pass building with the rest of the runners on the morning of the race, talk was animated and optimistic, despite the fact that one runner had already scratched due to frostbite suffered on the training course two nights before.
The start was delayed for an hour as the trail-breaking snowmobiles weren’t working properly because of the cold.
Once we were running on the packed trail along the river, the going was easy … for about a kilometre.
Then we hit the river and opportunities to actually run became non-existent as the snow became deeper. It reminded me of that football drill of running through tires, only we had miles of it before us.
So I put my head down and ploughed away at the distance. Joel forced me to stop and eat some cookies, which I did, but any energy I got from them was used up pretty fast trying to get warm again.
Keeping moving gained new urgency as it was the only way to stay warm.
The only way I could feel anything in my hands was to hit them against my chest. At least it kept my attention from the frustrating and exhausting task of trying to walk in the post-holed footsteps of men at least six inches taller than myself.
Step, beat arm against my chest, step, beat other arm, flounder six steps in snow over my knees, flail arms wildly to regain balance, step, step.
I had to keep moving, otherwise I would lose what little body heat I was generating and my new goal became the Takhini River Bridge where I could at least hitch a ride into town.
The trail made a sharp left at the Takhini River and I looked up in surprise, at the bridge ahead of me. Joel’s blue jersey appeared through a collection of crystal formations on the edge of my toque. He was on the pullout beside the bridge and he yelled, saying there was a fire set up by some volunteers and that he was calling it quits.
I told him I had decided the same thing about an hour ago!
The fire kept us warm until race volunteer Shelley Gellatly shuttled us up to Jessica Simon’s house nearby. Jessica warmed us up, along with fellow marathoner Al Tingley, with hot chocolate.
In removing my shoes I discovered that my socks had frozen to the inside.
Only Keith Thaxter was remaining in the marathon and he was eating snow to hydrate himself. Keith later finished almost seven hours later, the only one to complete the marathon in YAU 2008.
My first DNF. And I was still smiling as I drank my hot chocolate, albeit with shaking hands, in Jessica’s kitchen.
Next year? Maybe. But I’m doing it in my Yukon parka and wearing my Sorels!