"The goal is to become the unique, awesome, never to be repeated human being that we were called to be." -Patricia Deegan

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Dog Days of Winter

Four women. That’s it. Since the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra (MYAU) shouted its first “Go!” from the edge of the Yukon River in Whitehorse, Canada in 2003, I count only four women having completed the 300 mile event.

I’d like to make that 5.

Some of my essential pre-event reading
MYAU, though billed as an ultra marathon, seems much more like an expedition to me. I've spent far more time studying wind chill charts, the merits and styles of waterproof overboots and alpine bivy bags, and learning about the conductive and convective properties of air and water than I've spent calculating rigorous checkpoint splits and paces!

MYAU follows the trail of the 1,000 mile Yukon Quest sled dog race and runs at the same time. In odd years (like 2015), the sled dogs travel from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, to Fairbanks, Alaska. Runners, skiers, and fat bike riders start just behind them, aiming to complete one of the courses (marathon, 100 mile, 300 mile, or 430 mile). In even years, like this year, the mushers and their dogs start in Fairbanks and head towards the human-powered athletes. 300 Mile MYAU competitors have to be off the trail within 8 days (192 hours), partially to avoid head-on “interactions.” Thus, in even years, there is no 430 mile option. Darn ;)

A couple of dogs, dreaming of trails and pulling.
As an athlete, my strengths include (in my own opinion, at least), mental fortitude (a nice way of saying I'm good at suffering) and organisation (you should see my crew sheets for a “simple” 400 metre 24hr track race!) These two skill sets should serve me well in the Yukon. Compared to many people, I also do not-too-badly at sleep deprivation in events. Having done the 1,000km Bibbulmun Track in record time over 15 days, I have had opportunity to dance the fine line between functional sleep deprivation (e.g., zombie shuffle-running) and dysfunctional sleep deprivation (e.g., crying meltdown hissy fits by the trail).

Race records are not emphasised by the MYAU organisers. The trail distance changes slightly each year, as the track is set with consideration for that year's rivers' and lakes' ice freeze and snow conditions. Temperatures, snow pack, and precipitation during the event affect athletes’ rate of travel. Given the multi-day nature of the race, athletes can spread out quite a bit along the trail and actually experience different weather and terrain over the 5 to 8 days it takes to get from A to B. Storms, heavy snowfalls, extreme cold or slushy snow and melting ice sections are several of the challenges Mother Nature can offer up. This year it's looking like overflow (slush/water that surfaces over cracked ice) will be a major issue, due to overly mild January temperatures. We've been warned of long, slippery, side-sloping slushy areas! What we actually need is more cold and snow.

Given the overflow reports, I tested fit of Kahtoolas over NEOS. Just!
My own personal goal is to travel the 300 mile course as fast as possible. But I don’t know yet what that will be. There are far more variables impacting speed than simply my strength and the weight of my pulk. I know from online results that the speed range has been between 118 hours (4 days 22 hours) and 195 hours (8 days 3 hours). One year, there was only 1 finisher (2009 - 12 DNF). Another year saw 19 finishers (2006 - 14 DNF). Glancing at results suggested a trend for more 430 milers to finish than 300 milers some years...could pacing be an issue? The four women who have finished the 300 mile race ranged in time from 159:40 hours (6d 15hr; 2004) to 191:07 hours (7d 23hr; 2011). Before 2008, the race included a 4 hour mandatory rest and gear check (that's included in Shelley's 159:40 finish time).

Starting on Thursday February 4th at 10:30 am Pacific Time (UTC -8:00), My SPOT tracker is supposedly going to keep me visible to the world, though I'm not yet sure how that will work. In very cold temperatures, battery operated electronics fail. The only way to prevent this is to keep batteries warm by keeping the item against the chest. SPOT trackers work by having their antenna facing the sky, unimpeded. Those two things seem mutually exclusive! But I'm sure I'll find out the answer to this mystery at the pre-race survival/training/safety camp day.
The Head (my new running mate) checks out my logistics info
Though my main race goal is a competitive one and I fully intend to take some risk with sleep deprivation and long days of pulling, my overriding goal is to come home with all the functional body parts I left with. I have my own “sled team.” My brain may be the musher, but my 9 “dogs” (hands, feet, ears, cheeks, and nose) have to get the brain to the finish! We need each other. I'm hoping this mental image helps me remember that. Just like a musher lovingly monitors and feeds his dogs, I need to regularly check on and care for my feet, hands, cheeks, ears, and nose. Rather than thinking I'll deal with a niggly foot “problem” later, thinking of it as an obstacle slowing my progress down, I want to see it as one of my team members needing a little extra “food” to get the Brain to the finish line J

One of my biggest fears is doing something stupid due to extreme fatigue. Stories abound of athletes' mistakes: leaving gear behind when they pack up after a bivy, spilling fuel on their fingers (immediate frostbite), laying down on their Camelbak (burst water in sleeping bag) - and this one: hallucinating a cabin and laying down in the snow! Just yesterday, whilst alone out on a trail, testing my homemade fire starter, I unknowingly snapped a small pine twig into my nearby cup of mint tea. The fire lit and I stood back and took a swig of tea. I felt the twig go down and time paused in my world. There was utter clarity of thought. Is this how I'll die? By such a stupid thing? Fortunately, my next thought, equally clear, was to stay very still and calm so my esophagus could work out how to manoeuvre and start to digest a twig.
Nice fire, Smarty-Pants-Chokes-On-Twig

And the race hasn't even started J

Yes, I have that competitive goal. But I also have a reverent respect for Mother Nature. I know she will dictate the rules. And she may change them at any time. Though bargaining will be futile, I'm sure the Brain will try! I have a healthy (that is, small) dose of fear going into the event, mixed with my usual focus, determination, and stubbornness. I look forward to the moments of equipoise that await me, when my need for physically straining challenges meets my love of silence, solitude, peace, beauty and tranquillity in wilderness.

Here are some details for those who like them:

Number of entrants in 300 mile "foot" event: 31 (+ 3 MTB'ers)

Countries represented: 15 (+ 3 more countries if I include 100 mile entrants)

Pulk weight: Estimated weight including pulk and attachment poles plus 3 litres of water onboard (3 more on my back) and 2 days of food = 27kg

Gear: To list all my gear seems a bit daunting, yet I know I found it really helpful to read others' gear lists when I could find them. So here goes, for those who might find it useful. In my post-race report, I'll highlight anything I thought didn't work well, I didn't need, or things I didn't bring I wish I had! This list isn't totally exhaustive, but includes the bulk of it.
  • Rented Carinthia ECC Expedition 1200 sleeping bag (rated comfort -27C/extreme -65C)
  • Exped vapour barrier liner
  • Thermarest Zlite Sol sleeping pad
  • OR Alpine bivy
  • Rented Northern Sled Works Siglin 5 foot pulk and 250 litre Snowsled pulk bag
  • Silva Trail Speed 400 lumen headlamp (battery pack runs on a long cord so it can stay on chest)
  • Backup lamps: LED Lenser SEO7 & Petzl e+Lite
  • MSR Whisperlite International stove, plus pot & spoon
  • Evernew Ultralight Titanium double wall mug with lid
  • Leki Cressida poles (my old buddies, Nearer and Further, from Bibb FKT days!)
  • Primus Trailbreak vacuum bottle - 1 litre x 2
  • Nalgene 1 litre bottle plus insulating bag
  • Camelbak insulated 3 litre bladder (in a dry bag, held in an Osprey Talon 11 pack)
  • SPOT tracker
  • Timex Expedition Shock watch plus a loud digital kitchen timer (for waking when really, really tired)
  • Garmin eTrex with waypoints loaded
  • Kahtoola Microspikes
  • Julbo category 4 sunglasses. Ski goggles in case of extreme weather
  • Head: Montane Featherlite Mountain Cap, Montane Balaclava, ColdAvenger with neck gaiter
  • Hands: Mountain Equipment Redline Mitt (for extreme cold), Montane Extreme Mitts, Montane Resolute Mitts, Montane Prism gloves
  • Leg layers: Montane Primino 140g Boy Shorts, Montane Primino Long Johns, Montane Power Stretch Pro pants, Montane Terra Thermo Guide pants
  • Chest layers: MEC Merino T2 Zip (180g), Montane Extreme Smock, Montane Black Ice 2.0 jacket
  • Feet: Injinji Performance Liner Crew socks, Icebreaker Mountaineer socks (alternate socks: Woolpower 400g & 600g)
  • Shoes: Inov8 Roclite GTX (one size big, extra insoles to help them fit until feet swell). Backup shoes in drop bag at 100 mile point: Hoka Tor GTX.
  • Overboots: NEOS Adventurer (for crossing water/slush/overflow)
  • Extreme weather outer & for stops: Montane Prism pants & Montane Deep Cold Down jacket
  • Wind weather outer: Montane Astro Ascent eVent trousers & Montane Direct Ascent eVent jacket
  • Misc includes: compass, folding saw, sunscreen, scissors, teatree foot powder, SportShield towelettes, space blanket, antiseptic wipes, multi-tool, cable ties, duct tape, whistle, windproof lighter, waterproof matches (several, stored in multiple locations), fire starter, Sea to Summit dry bags and stuff sacks. Food for 48 hours at a time (approx 9,000-10,000 calories, which is supplemented by 2 aid station meals).
All smiles on my first pull with the real pulk on a very mild winter's day
P.S. For a National Geographic explanation of the "dog days of summer" saying from which my post took its title.


  1. YOU MADE IT!!!!
    hopefully you're recovering well by now :)
    Well done!

    1. The recovery is definitely longer than the race! Very foggy still, indeed!