Treacherous, icy, isolated, extreme. Along with the “world’s coldest and toughest ultra,” these words have been used to describe the Montane Yukon Ultra Race over the years. Despite its challenges and difficulties, athletes have continued to enter this unique race, year after year, since its inception in 2003.
Midwinter in the Yukon – Canada’s westernmost territory – is not for the weak-hearted. The intrepid participants put their lives on the line with every mile they travel, either on foot, by cross-country skiing, or by mountain bike (fat bikes), from start to finish. So what about this race attracts athletes from across the globe?
Let’s take a closer look at the infamous Montane Yukon Ultra Marathon…
- Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra: What You Need to Know
- Montane Yukon Ultra Race Info
- Winter Survival Training Course
- Challenges Faced During The Race
- Bottom Line on the MYAU
Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra: What You Need to Know
The event takes place at the beginning of February. There were only two years in the race’s history when it did not take place. It was suspended in 2010 and canceled in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. So, who thought of sending athletes into arctic conditions to race nonstop for days? None other than race director Robert Pollhammer.
Pollhammer left his regular job in the tourism industry in 2002 to start what he describes as “the world’s coldest and toughest human-powered winter ultra.” An adventure athlete himself, he was inspired to start this extreme race after being involved in a similar event in Alaska.
Along with running an online gear store in his home country of Germany, Pollhammer continues to organize the race with a capable team of medics, experienced adventure race volunteers, and even a search and rescue guide.
Before checking out the challenges facing the racers, let’s look at some of the basic race information.
Montane Yukon Ultra Race Info
The 2023 race begins on February 4 and ends on February 17. Both men and women can compete as individuals or in teams of two or more athletes. Athletes who enter as members of a team are also ranked as individuals. For obvious reasons, only athletes over the age of 18 years may participate.
Four distances are on offer. There is a standard marathon (26.2 miles), a 100-mile event, a 300-mile event, and an ultra-distance of 430-mile race.
The distance alone qualifies this particular race as one of the hardest Ultras on the race calendar. But then you have to consider the conditions…
All the events start in Whitehorse and follow the Yukon Quest Dog Race Trail, which also happens to be the world’s toughest Sled Dog Race.
The Marathon is from Whitehorse to Muktuk Adventures.
Starting in Whitehorse, the 100-mile event ends at Braeburn, while the 300-mile event continues to Pelly Farm, where they will turn around and return to Pelly Crossing.
In the longest of the events, the athletes push on until they reach Dawson City.
Time limits for the different events are as follows:
- 100-mile racers have three days to reach the finish line in Braeburn.
- 300-mile racers must arrive at Carmacks within four days and 12 hours and have to reach the finish line in Pelly Crossing within eight days.
- 430-mile athletes also must reach Carmacks within four days and arrive at the finish in Dawson City within 13 days.
Racers who don’t finish within the cutoff time will be evacuated from the trail. The racer must pay for the additional costs this evacuation incurs.
The list of twenty-three rules makes for interesting reading. Starting with the usual waiver each athlete must sign, it continues with mastering English so that all athletes can understand the race instructions. Athletes aren’t allowed to change their method of transportation during the race and can’t be helped by anyone except race officials.
It is made clear that the times are started in Whitehorse and stopped at the finish line. Time spent at each checkpoint is part of the overall time, so the more you keep moving, the quicker your time is. If you are attempting the 430-mile race, you will have twelve checkpoints to pass through, and you are expected to sign in and out of every one of them.
Furthermore, if you are completely exhausted and sweating profusely upon reaching the first checkpoint, or further checkpoints, you will have to remain at the checkpoint and rest for four hours.
A bonus to look forward to is that you will be given one, and no more than one, hot meal on arrival at each checkpoint and hot water. Restaurants and supermarkets are located at some checkpoints, so athletes are permitted to buy food there as well.
Much time is spent listing and describing the prescribed gear. Some gear, such as head torches, outdoor matches, winter sleeping mats with sleeping bags with a -45 temperature limit, down jackets, compasses, and whistles are mandatory for the 100 and 300-mile races. Racers are also expected to carry basic first aid kits, a small stove, pots, cutlery, and crockery. Participants are expected to carry all their essential gear over the whole distance.
Certain items on the list must cause anxiety amongst even the most experienced participants. These items include a small saw, an avalanche trowel, and emergency provisions to last 48 hours. Satellite-based communication devices are needed, and 430-mile racers must also have a GPS.
The race organizers are so serious about participants wearing insulating layers of clothing that if you forget any, you are penalized with a six to twelve-hour time penalty. You may even be disqualified if you lose your gear en route.
Needless to say, the participants entering this race will already have a vast number of miles under their belt running in winter conditions.
There is a strictly applied no-littering policy. The way human waste needs to be disposed of is also described in detail: not to be left on the trail, and toilet paper must be burned. This is another offense that’s punishable by immediate disqualification.
Should it be necessary, athletes may be evacuated by snowmobile at their own cost. Medical insurance is also mandatory. There are regulations for the use of drop bags too.
Winter Survival Training Course
The race organizers are very clear about the athletes’ prerequisites to enter the Montane Yukon Ultra Distance Race. Novices are expected to attend the winter survival training course held shortly before the start of the event.
This is not necessary for experienced winter athletes, although every participant must supply a medical certificate proving they are fit to participate in this grueling event.
Challenges Faced During The Race
By reading the detailed rules, you can tell this is no ordinary adventure race. Abiding by the rules ensures survival in these events, raced in freezing conditions that test an athlete’s physical and mental strength.
“You cannot train for what’s outside there now at -30 C. You just can’t,” said Jim Ryall, a participant in the 2021 race. “I don’t live in that kind of climate, and short of spending a winter in Sweden or Norway, that’s impractical.”
Race organizer, Pollhammer, admits, “It’s dangerous under any circumstances, but when temperatures reach the – 40°C or even lower, any mistake can be fatal.”
The Threat Of Frostbite
In the 2018 race, British athlete Nick Griffiths had to abandon his 300-mile race due to severe frostbite. While he was being treated in the hospital, Griffiths remembered an advert he had seen in a local Canadian hotel. It was appealing for the toes people had lost due to frostbite.
The hotel in Dawson City served a rather gruesome drink named Sourtoe Cocktail. Griffiths decided he would make the most of having three toes amputated and duly sold two of them, which ended up floating in a glass of whisky and enjoyed by a Sourtoe enthusiast.
“We don’t normally get frostbitten toes. Mostly, they’re from diabetes or gout, or chainsaws, lawnmowers, or accidents… to get frostbitten toes is phenomenal,” stated Terry Lee, the resident toe expert.
The Exhaustion Is Real
The exhaustion that these ultra-athletes endure is phenomenal. Firstly, they must carry all their camping gear and extra clothing, food, and water on sleds, which they must pull behind them.
In this environment, you can imagine how pulling all their essential belongings behind them adds to the strain of running, walking, cycling, or skiing.
Add to exhaustion the effects of sleep deprivation. Considering the race’s extreme conditions, athletes must keep moving at night to finish within the cutoff times. They are fortunate if they can get a couple of hours of sleep before having to move on.
A participant in the 2019 race, Ahmad Fathi Junaidi, got only two to three hours of sleep a night. He stated, “I am just so tired. It’s been tough. The trail seems like it’s going forever.”
Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that many contestants report hallucinations becoming part of the Yukon experience. Seeing snow creatures and non-existent tents can be distressing for some, understandably.
Others manage to appreciate the beauty around them, despite sleep deprivation and fatigue. Australian Scott Thomson enthused, “This place is a stunning frozen paradise, very different to where I’m from. With this type of solo event, you’re alone day and night crossing frozen lakes — That sense of solitude and peace is a beautiful thing.”
Pack On Those Calories
It’s crucial to consume enough calories per day. For some, this means between 3,500 – 4,000 calories a day, while for others, it could be as much as 7,000 calories in 24 hours.
Shelley Gellatly has completed the race multiple times, finishing in second place overall in both the 100 and 300-mile events. She admits to putting on weight before the race to ensure extra reserves.
“Being very disciplined and making yourself drink and eat is crucial,” she says while admitting that finding the right food is not always easy. “My biggest challenge is finding calorie-dense food that includes protein, fat, carbohydrates, doesn’t freeze, and is palatable.”
Choice Of Transportation
A few dedicated Montane Yukon Ultra athletes haven’t been satisfied with trying the different events just once. They have returned, attempting to complete the race by skiing one year and then cycling the next. Comparing the various modes of transport, some feel that skiing is the most difficult.
“For me, skiing was slower than walking, and it made it harder to keep my feet warm, but I enjoyed it more than walking,” said Gellatly.
To combat the extreme cold bikers feel in their feet, many take regular walks to heat them up.
Bottom Line on the MYAU
This extreme race certainly presents many challenges to those brave enough to attempt it. But for those who do and who actually manage to finish their race, there is a sound sense of satisfaction.
Founder and organizer, Robert Pollhammer, has the final word, “This race makes us feel so alive and – while the MYAU is completely exhausting – it allows us to recharge our batteries.”