To describe this race as life changing and mindblowing would be to do it a disservice – it is both of these things and so much more. By the time you line up at the start line you’ve already won a few battles – you’ve trained more than you thought possible, you’ve got your head around the monumental amount of kit that you need, you’ve sorted out all of the logistics of getting to the start line and hopefully you’ve managed to hold down a job, not cause the breakdown of your relationship and still have a few friends left…… And then comes 100 miles through the Yukon wilderness…..
Lining up on the start line I had the usual fears – never having run 100 miles before so how on earth am going to do it now, with a pulk behind me, in the frozen Yukon, being the major one. But when Robert set us off, it didn’t take long to forget about that and just concentrate on what I was doing and what was going on around me. Before we started the race Robert had told us several times that the trail might be very narrow so we shouldn’t expect too many overtaking chances so we should just relax into it for the first 10 miles or so. Relaxing into the start of a race doesn’t come naturally to me so of course I ignored his advice and, seeing a wide open trail, put in a bit of pace about 5 minutes after the start.
That’s not to say that I didn’t relax and look around. Travelling on the frozen Yukon river was a truly unique and special experience. It was basically a white wilderness and all I could hear was the sound of my pulk behind me – strangely, no birds or other wildlife of note, not that I noticed anyway.
The first 10 – 12 miles were along the Yukon before we turned left onto the Takhini river. There was a halfway checkpoint for the marathon runners just after we entered the Takhini which gave a nice boost as the volunteers all lined the route and cheered me on. Then it was just another half marathon to the first checkpoint at Rivendell Farm, the finish for the marathon runners.
Hot soup and a sandwich gave me a little pick-me-up but just as I was leaving the checkpoint I noticed that my SPOT tracker was hanging off by one tag, the other having broken – advice from the checkpoint was ‘just keep an eye on it’ which didn’t sit very well. I’m not sure I needed something else to think about given what I was already committed to doing so I stopped just outside the checkpoint to do a little repair job which will no doubt amuse all of my family who know I’m the least likely person to repair anything, let alone when it’s -5C. Stopping to do this very nearly cost me the race as I had to remove my outer gloves to do the repair and by the time I had finished I had no feeling in any of my fingers. Not a good sign. Thankfully my awesome PHD mitts came into their own an it only took 10 minutes of frantic wiggling and scrunching to get that horrible burning sensation that you get when your fingers thaw a little. Lesson learned – minimise time without your outer gloves on.
For the next few miles I ran with Rejean Moreau, a French Canadian who is doing the 300 mile race with a home made sled which looked like an old wooden rocking chair. He explained that he had designed it like that so he could both push it (in effect using it like a skateboard) or haul it. Either way, rather him than me…..
There were a number of dog-mushing teams sharing the ice with us as well which was awesome to watch. Well, the guys who knew what they were doing were awesome to watch, the Chinese tourists being led by the skidoo guide were just a little annoying as they weaved across the trail in front of me.
I pulled onto the Trans-Canada Trail just as dusk was falling. Stopping to get out my headtorch it occurred to me that this had been perhaps my biggest fear – getting lost in the dark, on my own. Thankfully a very bright moon and well marked trail negated both of these fears.
The distance to Dog Grave Lake was 37 miles and for the first half of this I spent of the time starting at the sky and the phenomenal view of the mountains around us. Frankly I was feeling that so far, things were looking okay. Things started to get a bit tough after this as I was running a bit low on energy and feeling tired. For the next 15 miles I played leap frog with Patti Clune (a Canadian who has completed this race four times) and another competitor. Just as I was reaching an all-time low I stopped for a chat with Patti who was getting something out of her pulk – in a moment of life-saving generosity she offered me half a bacon sandwich that one of her friends had given her at the start line. It didn’t matter that it was nearly frozen. It was still a bacon sandwich at 11.30 in the frozen Yukon. Hubba hubba.
Fuelled up we set off again to continue to Dog Grave Lake. The run in to DG had what felt like hours of energy sapping hill climbs and checking the elevation plan of the route it seems I was right. I had always planned to get to DG in one slog and then bivvy down if I felt the need. The walled tent with a wood-burning stove fuelled my desire so after some soup and a sandwich I went outside to setup camp….. and quickly came back in again. It felt like the temperature had just dropped by 10 degrees and the air had suddenly become very moist. There was no way I was bivvying in that, top of the range sleeping bag or not!
Popped back into the tent to sort out my feet and change the batteries in my head torch and Garmin and then set off back along the trail. Made it for about an hour before I realised that I had fallen asleep on my feet – not a good sign in my book so pushed my adopted shandy drinking southern tendencies aside, flattened myself some snow and rolled out my bivvy and sleeping bag and climbed in, with most of my outer gear on for warmth. Not the best 45 minutes rest I’ve had as all I could think of was that I eventually had to get back out again, put my shoes back on and carry on running.
The 4-5 hours after I started again have to rank as what I described in an earlier post as a trough of despair. A very deep trough of despair. 4-5 hours when I questioned what the hell I was doing here (I know, most of you were wondering the same thing), how the hell I was going to complete this thing, how bloody far was it to the finish anyway, and 4-5 hours when I came up with several interesting and painful ways that Robert Pollhammer was going to meet his end – the last one is admittedly a bit harsh but hey, anything for motivation I say!!!!
I planned to stop at 11 o’clock for some hot chocolate and something to eat. Stopping during a race isn’t something that comes naturally to me so I guess I must have been in a bit of a dark place. 11 o’clock came and I made myself a hot drink and prepared one of my wonderful self-heating meals. Or not so wonderful self-heating meals as rather than heating up to piping hot like they’re supposed to, I ended up with tepid chicken casserole with herb dumplings. Better than nothing though.
Back on the trail it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen another competitor since I left the checkpoint nearly 6 hours previously. It was to remain that way until 17:30 when I caught up with Noreen about 4 miles from the finish. The only people I saw on the trail were the trail guides on their skidoos – these guys did a brilliant job tearing up and down the trail all day checking up on everyone.
I went through my full bag of motivational tricks – thinking about home and the great things I can do when I finish, thinking about how good it will feel to reach the finish line, breaking the distance down into smaller chunks to make it seem more manageable (just get to that corner and then stop for some chocolate), thinking about the first post race beer, imagining how embarrassing it would be to get this close and then not finish, and of course, coming up with more torturous ways to dramatically shorten the life of one Mr R Pollhammer.
The two best methods of motivation were listening to an audio book about James Cracknell and Ben Fogle’s Race to the Pole (they were in a whole lot worse situation than me) and playing Beatles Karaoke from their ‘One’ album. Thank god I went back to office for my ipod – thank you Tom and Ellie!!!!!!!
The final stretch of this stunning, beautiful, challenging race was a series of long straight paths through deep woodland. Each straight promising a change of scenery only to make a loser sign at you at the end as you turned a corner to see yet another long straight through deep woodland. Eventually one of the long straights was broken by the sight of someone with a pulk in front of me – well, what looked like someone with a pulk but I had seen that sight so many times in the preceding 12 hours only to blink a few times and it disappeared into the snow….. But no, having blinked lots of times it was another competitor. A turn of speed brought me level with Noreen just as the snow mobile guides came past on one of their runs along the trail – we only had 4-5 miles to go.
And what a 4-5 miles. We dropped down onto Lake Braeburn, having skirted along it but been unable to see it, with the moon in the sky right in front of us. Truly breathtaking. The motivation issues I’d had earlier in the day paled into insignificance, the pain of blisters stopped registering and I started to reflect that I was within spitting distance of completing the toughest, coldest ultra in the world at the first attempt. Stunning, stunning, stunning.
The trot across the lake became a sprint and then it was up through the woods on the other side for a few miles before I could see the lights in the Lodge and people coming out to cheer me in.
Braeburn Lodge. Burger the size of my head. Beer. Medal. 31 hours 58 minutes – dead chuffed.
I might sound hackneyed but I feel truly privileged to have been able to do this race. The Yukon is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been and to be able to travel 100 miles through it essentially self-supported makes me a very lucky man. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of Judith and Erica who both came to terms with the fact that I would have to disappear for hours on end to train for the race before I disappeared for a week to Canada to complete it – thank you x
Thank you all for the supportive messages before during and after the race – they really meant a lot.
- 100 miles
- 31hrs 58mins
- Minimum temperature -25C
- 45 minutes of ‘sleep’
- 12 hours without seeing another competitor
- Best bit of kit – PHD mitts (everyone should have a pair)
- Scariest moment – realising I had fallen asleep on my feet about an hour after checkpoint 2
- Number of hallucinations – too many to count……