This toughest race in the world is not for the dogs

“Sleep?” Jessica Simon asks incredulously. “Hardly ever!”

This is, after all, the Yukon Arctic Ultra, a race that follows the trail of the world’s toughest sled dog race … without benefit of a dog team.

Running as much as 300 miles in five to eight days, these competitors will spend about three to six hours at a checkpoint and not much more.

Simon is an organizer on the Yukon side – the one who gets food to the checkpoints and “makes sure there are checkpoints at the checkpoints” along with many other duties – and she says this race requires triple the time to complete than if it were run in the summer.

Starting Saturday, Feb. 9, at 10:30 a.m. in front of the Old Fire Hall on 1st Avenue, runners will begin their 26, 100 or 300-mile run.

They could ski-jor, cross-country ski or use a mountain bike, but this year it is all runners.

Those running the marathon distance will have warmer clothes in a back pack as the temperature dips once they hit the Takhini River.

The longer-distance runners need to bring sleeping gear, emergency gear and food for 24 hours in case they can’t reach the next checkpoint.

The marathon ends just off the Takhini River. Simon says spectators can find it by going to the end of the Hotsprings Road, turning left onto Takhini River Road and looking for the signs.

The 100-mile race ends at Braeburn while the 300-milers continue to Pelly Farm and then back to Pelly Crossing.

Next year, when the Yukon Quest leaves from Whitehorse, the Yukon Ultra competitors will follow them, some all the way to Dawson City.

Billed as the “toughest ultra race in the world” since 2003, this event is drawing competitors from all over the world.

Simon lists them off: “Swiss, American, British, French, German, Australian – this guy is going to freeze – another from Spain – who is also going to freeze – and from the Netherlands.”

One runner, Steve Reifenstuhl of the United States, “is really driven to break the record set last year” says Simon. That record, for the 300-mile course, is 126 hours.

“But the nature of the race is anything can happen.”

Another runner, Thomas Wiget of Switzerland, already knows this trail as he is a former Yukon Quest musher.

As competitive as some of these runners are, Simon says this is also a race for beginners as there is a lot of support … besides the free meals and hot water at checkpoints.

Local athletic trainer Shelley Gellatly is holding a training course before the race.

She will take her “students” on a hike up the trail for a bit, build a fire and set up for sleep.

“There is a little glacier, a little hill, flat trail and it is run at night so they get the experience to get a feel for how the equipment works in the dark,” says Simon.

The participants will be able to see if anything is forgotten or doesn’t work as it should. They will then have a day to replace these items.

With over 300 participants in total and happening in the busy time of February, Simon says organizers are all the more appreciative of sponsors and volunteers.

“Pelly Farm and McCabe Creek pretty much open their homes to us out of the goodness of their hearts,” she says.

They also have a good relationship with the Yukon Quest.

Race Director Robert Pollhammer says a special thanks has to go out to the Canadian Rangers, too. They had the trail broke, marked and maintained weeks before the race was to begin.

And it is all for a good cause he says: “People who compete have the adventure of a lifetime and become ambassadors for the Yukon.”

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