Having already covered over 108 miles, the pancake flat final 7.5 miles to the finish at Fort McPherson should have been an easy victory dance. However two hours ago with the lights of my goal twinkling tantalisingly in the distance, the Canadian Arctic had shown me why it demanded respect and now I was suffering. One misplaced stride on a patch of ice had sent me tumbling, I’d fallen awkwardly, twisting my knee and snapping both of my trekking poles. In the ten minutes it took me to sort myself out, I’d managed to wet my inner gloves on the snow and, despite down gauntlet outer mittens, my hands were now wooden, frozen and useless. It took me another ten minutes to get my down jacket on and, with my hands jammed under my armpits, the painful throb of circulation began to return to my digits. In twenty minutes the brutal -30C temperature had reduced me from a strongly striding race leader to a frozen, hunched over hobbling wreck.
Thirty-seven hours ago I’d taken my first tentative steps of the 120-mile 6633 Ultra. The brainchild of experienced ultra runner and online gear retailer Martin Like www.likeys.com . The race is so named because it’s the only ultra that crosses into the Arctic Circle and the latitude of that line is 66 degrees and 33 minutes. The race follows the Dempster Highway, a glorified gravel track that penetrates the far north of Canada’s Yukon and North West Territory.
Leaving the Eagle Plains Hotel, address Kilometer 371 - Dempster Highway, the temperature was a “mild” -20C. With our pulks behind us, laden with all the food and equipment we’d need for the duration of the event, running wasn’t an option and we strode away accompanied by the sound our footsteps squeaking on the freshly fallen snow and the rhythmic clicking of our trekking poles. On the start line were four of us taking on the 120-mile race and seven certifiably insane masochists who’d be attempting to cover 350 miles in eight days.
My first objective was the Arctic Circle twenty-two miles away. I quickly settled into a routine of taking a sip of water every 15 minutes (remembering to blow clear my CamelBak tube to prevent freezing) and a bite of food every half hour. Lumps of cheese, mini spicy sausages, dried banana chips, energy bars and chocolate covered raisins fueled my effort and, with each 15-minute chunk equating to a mile, this gastronomic passing of time and distance established a pattern that’d last for the majority of the race. The race medics had drilled into us the importance of not sweating because of the danger of moisture freezing next to the skin. This called for constant adjustment of clothing and pace as the course continuously undulated and I strived to maintain the desired feeling of slight chill.
I reached the Arctic Circle checkpoint first in five hours and forty minutes. The race support crew was there and, after posing for a couple of photos, I refilled my water bladder and headed straight off. We were allowed a maximum of 72 hours to complete the 120 miles and, never having experienced racing in the far north, racing this far or having to pull a pulk, I had no idea how long it’d take me. The first checkpoint with shelter occurred at 69 miles and my plan was to move continuously to there in 24 hours where I’d be able to rest before tackling the final 51 miles. Allowing for fatigue and slowing down, I hoped therefore to finish in 48 hours allowing a 24-hour margin of error should “Mr Cock-Up” pay me a visit. I was up on my schedule and feeling good but it was still very early days, there was a long way ahead, plenty could still go wrong and heading the field had me constantly questioning if I’d gone off too fast.
My next objective was the unofficial checkpoint of Rock River at 47 miles before crossing the Richardson Mountains and Wright Pass. Snow was falling hard and, as night approached I strapped on my headtorch. The dancing flakes and glistening trail caught in its beam took on a magical quality. The wonder and isolation of the environment totally overwhelmed me. I felt incredibly small and humble but, at the same time, privileged to be there. Just as I was wallowing in my own emotions, a white rabbit came bursting through a snow bank ten yards away startling me as much as I startled it. However, it had more pressing matters than me on its mind as a lynx bounded over the bank hot in hot pursuit. Such moments are why I take part in these far flung and extreme events and, as the rabbit jinxed and escaped, I was able to forget about the pressure leading or even being in a race and simply enjoy what I was doing.
A couple of hours out from Rock River though my enjoyment ended. In a stupid mistake brought on by fatigue I fetched some water out of the thermos in my pulk and got snow on my inner gloves. They instantly froze up, the pain and numbness in my hands drained my energy and for the first time I was battling myself and the environment. Eventually I reached Rock River and never has the heated front seat of a pick-up been more welcome. After going through the agony of rewarming my hands and feeling every pulse as a nauseating throb as the blood flow returned I rehydrated an apple custard desert and made a sugary coffee. As I thawed a couple of racers from the 350-mile race joined me in the car but, to my relief, none of my 120-mile rivals. Although I hadn’t planned a significant break here, almost twelve hours on the freezing trail had taken their toll and I dozed off for an hour.
After two hours at Rock River I was still alone in the 120-mile race and, with the 9-mile climb to Wright Pass looming, I packed up and headed out determined to build on my advantage. I was joined by the leader of the 350 mile race for the start of the climb but, with my longer stride and lighter pulk, was able to pull away as the gradient picked up. The rest had done me good and I felt super strong. A combination of cycling, gym work and hill reps towing a tyre were paying dividends and I piled on the power. Martin the Race Organiser had warned me that the 990m Wright Pass was best attacked in the dark when you wouldn’t have to face the psychological onslaught of the seemingly endless road disappearing into the clouds. Unbeknown to me, my decision to push on would prove decisive as the rest of the field chose to overnight at Rock River. The final couple of miles of the climb cruelly steepened and the wind started to blow. Martin was waiting at the top in his truck and I stopped make another cup of coffee before taking on the descent and “Hurricane Alley”. It lived up to it’s name and, while not the 90mph winds of a year ago, the 40mph battering still gave the feeling of being in a blast freezer. Eventually the slope and wind abated and I reached the snow plough depot that signified the 69 mile checkpoint of James Creek.
Twenty hours had elapsed on the race clock as I prepared a dehydrated chili-con-carne, checked my feet and changed my base layer. I then managed to get my head down for a couple of hours but was shocked on waking to find a rival in the 120-mile race Tony Gilmour arriving at the checkpoint. Although slower on the road, he was adopting a minimal stop strategy and was looking fresh and strong. I tentatively enquired how long he planned to be a James Creek and his reply of only an hour blew my plan of an extended break out of the water. I quickly made a coffee, got my kit together and headed back out. As I looked back Tony was tucking into a meal and I reckoned, by the time he’d finished eating and sorted his kit out, I should be at least an hour down the course. My confident side knew I was faster over the ground and better refueled and rested but there was still the nagging doubt that any more stops would see him reel me in.
With the exact race distance at 116 miles (Martin had felt the need to round it up!), I had 47 miles left to cover and resolved to complete it in a single hit. As well as the win, top UK ultra-runner Andrew Murray’s course record of 39 hours and 7 minutes crept into my mind but I tried to banish both thoughts and concentrate simply on finishing. The day was stunningly clear and the mountains surrounding me breathtaking but I was on a mission and strode out focussing solely on the meters ahead of my feet.
During the remaining daylight hours I worked well and was confident that I would have gained distance on Tony. However as night fell and I started to lose height, the temperature began to plunge and mental and physical fatigue swept through my body. My mind started to wander, I forgot to eat and drink and, without regular attention, my CamelBak froze solid. I was left with one 500ml flask of coffee to hand and, although I had 4 litres of water in my pulk, cold and fatigued driven apathy ensured it stayed there. My decline was startlingly fast. I plodded on like an automaton and a carelessly placed foot on a patch of sheet ice deposited me on my backside and ensured the final two hours of the race would not be an easy run in.
Looking more like a hunchbacked old lady rather than an ultra runner leading a race I finally reached the ice bridge over the Peel River. A sign on the far bank announced 12km to Fort McPherson and I staggered on. I barely noticed the support car pull up beside me but Scott the race medic’s announcement that I only had a couple of hours to go spurred me into life. “Two hours to cover 12km” I thought “screw you, even in this state I can go quicker than that.” The next ninety minutes all got a bit trippy. I was convinced my dog Moses was with me and dark patches on the road morphed into giant scurrying badgers at the periphery of my vision. In reality the sky above blazed with neon green as the Aurora Borealis put on what felt like my own personal show. I swung madly from minute to minute between elation to abject misery, from the drudgery of my to step to wonderment at the sights above and from exhaustion to strength as my energy ebbed and flowed. I was convinced I saw Tony’s headtorch behind but all competitive thoughts had gone and all I wanted to do was finish.
Eventually I crossed the line in 38 hours and 59 minutes, in first place and eight minutes inside of the previous course record. My overriding feelings were relief and pure fatigue. Genuine deep sleep would have to wait as my legs restlessly twitched in a perpetual march for the next 48 hours but, as I lightly dozed, a satisfied glow filled me and I congratulated myself on a job well done.
Finishers in the 2010 6633 Ultra
1st: Nik Cook 38 hours 59 minutes
2nd: Tony Gilmour 43 hours 25 minutes
3rd: Andy North 58 hours 47 minutes
1st: Chris Todd 6 days 21 hours 58 minutes
2nd: Sean Brown 7 days 1 hour 39 minutes
Nik would like to thank.
Torq Fitness www.torqfitness.co.uk
Snowsled Ltd www.snowsled.com
Marc Laithwaite www.theendurancecoach.com