Yukon Arctic Ultra – 100 miles by Mountain Bike
Whitehorse to Braeburn, Yukon Territory, Canada
Feb 3rd 2013
As night fell the temperature dropped rapidly (to -30 I discovered later). It was becoming harder to eat as my body started to declare it had had enough. A passing snowmobile guide told me I had 12 miles to go to the finish. My head-torch was fading again and I was riding less and less. It wasn’t the riding that was a problem but the mounting and dismounting for the hills I couldn’t cycle up (or couldn’t see to cycle up). Because of the load on the back of the bike I couldn’t swing my leg over the back, but had to lean the bike towards me and thread my leg through over the crossbar – not too bad until you’ve done it hundreds of times. So I pushed on – muttering ‘keep walking keep pushing’ constantly to myself – and asking why the God who could still the storm apparently couldn’t remove a few miles from the trail! My cold-induced asthma had returned with the drop in temperature, and I was now also feeling very sick. I had taken myself to my physical limits.
Then I saw the Northern Lights up ahead – the sky alight with shifting patterns of green and purple. And as those faded I caught a glimpse of crossed reflective markers – the drop down onto Braeburn Lake just before the finish.
I crossed the lake – slowly – and met the sting in the tail – a vicious mile of steep ascents and descents before the finish. More ‘push and wait’ – but with longer waits to recover from the asthma. The last ‘sting’ was so steep I had to unload the bike, push it up separately, then go back down for the bags and panniers.
But eventually the welcome sight of Braeburn Lodge and the finish. Medical Officer Diane came out to meet me, and I collapsed onto a chair on the porch. I’m sure the bike sighed with relief too.
The bike, a Surly Pugsley Neck Romancer with 4.7 inch tyres, was attracting a lot of attention in the hotel reception area. Fully laden for the race it weighed about 40kg. Strong, sinewy athletes milled around, preparing to tackle hundreds of miles of Yukon wilderness in the heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures. ’Whose is that?’ they asked each other. ‘It’s mine’, I whispered. They looked at me, disbelief showing on their faces. How was this middle-aged, matronly woman in an old cycling jacket going to ride that bike 100 miles through the snow? How indeed.
Six weeks earlier I’d asked the experts, Al Sheldon holder of the 430 mile YAU bike record and Andy Heading, holder of just about every other record in this race, whether they thought I should try it. The answer was a definite ‘no’. I thought about it for a few days, prayed, and then decided to try anyway. Al and Andy were superb; giving advice, reassurance, loaning me kit and then still more advice and reassurance.
There were two major problems as I started that race. One was my health and fitness. Since Christmas I had been plagued with infections – laryngitis, sinusitis and heavy colds. Thankfully my chest was clear but I was still only part-way through the latest course of antibiotics and recent training was non-existent. The second problem was the weather. Fifteen inches of snow had fallen in the Whitehorse area a few days before, then the temperature had soared to just a few degrees below freezing. Add in a strong wind and the trail was soft and heavy going – the worst possible conditions for cycling.
The bike was winterised by local bike shop I-cycle in Whitehorse – who also offered useful advice. I collected it from them and rode down the trail onto the river. And stopped. The wheels, and my feet, were breaking through the snow. This was definitely going to be a bike push.
At the start I met the only other biker in the race, Aldo, a tall fit-looking Italian with an impressive list of cycling achievements. I wasn’t going to be any competition for him but it was reassuring that he was also planning to start at the back expecting to push.
Suddenly we were off. Thank God my biggest fear, falling off in front of all the spectators at the start, was not realised and I rode at the back the quarter-mile or so until we dropped down to the river. Then I stopped, dismounted and started the big push.
I had not realised pushing a bike could be so hard or so draining. The sleds pulled by the athletes on foot made an 18 inch wide channel through the snow, cut up by their footprints. The bike and I couldn’t both fit in the channel so I pushed the bike along the channel while I walked in the snow at the side. It was like walking through churned up snowdrifts. Each step might go down to above the knee or to just an inch or so. It might be onto ice, lumps of hard snow or through powder snow. The bike bounced up and down through the footprints like a bucking bronco. And it was warm. Al and Andy’s advice rang through my head ‘Ventilate ventilate ventilate’. I was constantly stopping to zip/unzip, remove or replace my jacket, remove or replace gloves and hat, remembering to eat and drink whether or not I felt like it.
When we turned off the Yukon river onto the Takini river I was pleased because it ought be more rideable. It was, but by now it was dusk and the wind was getting up – a head wind of course. But at least I could ride more and was gradually overtaking people.
At last the first checkpoint – Rivendell at 26 miles. I looked at the climb up from the river to the checkpoint – and decided the bike could stay at the bottom. The blazing fire and hot chocolate and the checkpoint were welcome and seducing – it would have been easy to stay but I knew I needed to make the most of the colder temperatures on the trail at night.
After 33 miles I turned off the river and started to climb. I rode where possible but was wary of taking too much out of my legs too soon - there was worse to come. So I pushed and rode and slid and stumbled through the night. It started to snow again, and my head-torch was becoming dim. It was hard to see what was up and what was down other than by feel. The night was dark and felt very long. Eventually about 6am I gave up the battle to see where I was going, got my sleeping mat out and down jacket and trousers on and lay down to sleep. After an hour I was woken by another athlete going past. Still snowing, but the sky was becoming lighter.
More riding and pushing until I got to the big hill I remembered all too well from previous races. Long and quite steep, going up and up forever. The trail was still very soft and heavy with snow. I pushed the bike as far up as I could, jammed on the brake, and waited for my heart rate to subside. Then another push, and wait. Sometimes only 10 or 20 yards before I had to stop. But I could hear a voice ringing in my ears ‘come on, give me another one, you can do it’ – John the ex-military trainer who runs a boot camp I attend. Gradually, it became easier and I’d made it to the top.
Still climbing ...
It was a joy to reach Dog Grave Lake checkpoint (63 miles) at lunchtime on the Monday. The hot chocolate and soup was very welcome but I daren’t stay in case the trail got worse so after an hour I was off again.
For several miles I could ride and it was bliss. The sun came out and the scenery was magnificent – God’s handiwork in all its glory. But the sun also made the trail softer, and the closer I got to Braeburn and the finish the deeper the snow became. So eventually I was back to the pushing/riding/slithering combination. Downhills were the most scary because it was impossible to see how steep or how bumpy they were – I would just let the bike run and pray I’d stay on. I only fell off once, but I came to a sudden halt in snowdrifts several times.
With grateful thanks to:-
God – who got me to the start and the finish
· Mike and our children – who encouraged me to race
· All my friends who have prayed for me and supported me
· Al Sheldon and Andy Heading for their invaluable support and advice (www.racekit.co.uk)
· Charlie the bikemonger who supplied the fatbike (www.charliethebikemonger.com)
· TFN Nottingham who stripped the bike down (www.tfn.uk.com)
· I-cycle Whitehorse who winterised the bike and fixed the rack (www.icyclesport.com)
· All the guides out on the trail but particularly Glen, Spencer and Gary
· All the wonderful volunteers
· Those people in Whitehorse who were an answer to prayer (whether they knew it or not!) – Nicole, Chris (and the bolts), Glen (and the batteries), the High Country Inn maintenance men and Kevin with a message from God.
· Robert Pollhammer for putting on this race (www.arcticultra.de/en.php?Welcome)
Distance: about 100 miles
· Elapse time: 42 hours 10 minutes
· Time spent moving approx 37 hours
· Time at checkpoints about 3 hours
· Sleep: 1 hour plus catnap
· Approx 50% walked 50% ridden
Food + drink
Drink: approx 7 litres water, 5 cups hot chocolate
· Trail mix (dried fruit, chocolate, nuts, jelly worms, jelly babies)
· 4 bowls soup
· Sandwich + cake
Surly Pugsley Neck Romancer fatbike with Big Fat Larry tyres. Front brake and large chain ring removed. Rear rack, two panniers and handlebar bag. Frame bag and bar mitts.
· Bike tool including chain splitter, fast links and spare links
· Spare inner tube, tyre levers + pump
· Cord + duct tape + spare straps
· Spare bolts for rear rack
· Knife, scissors, saw, compass
· Stove, pan, bowl, mug, spoon, fuel bottle
· Waterproof matches, firelighters and cotton
· Dehydrated meals + porridge
· Trail mix + snacks
· Down over-trousers and jacket, mitts and boots
· Spare clothes
· Sleeping bag + mat
· Spare hats, buffs and gloves
· Medical kit + suncream
· Spot tracking device
· Goggles and sunglasses
By... Pat Cooke-Rogers , 10 February 2013