Magazine article Geographical

The Coldest Race on Earth: Every Other Winter, Northwestern Canada Plays Host to One of the World's Toughest Races, in Which Competitors Trek 700 Kilometres through Snow, Ice and Temperatures as Low as -60[degrees]C--all under Their Own Steam. Andy Heading Describes the Equipment That Kept Him on Track during the Yukon Arctic Ultra

Magazine article Geographical

The Coldest Race on Earth: Every Other Winter, Northwestern Canada Plays Host to One of the World's Toughest Races, in Which Competitors Trek 700 Kilometres through Snow, Ice and Temperatures as Low as -60[degrees]C--all under Their Own Steam. Andy Heading Describes the Equipment That Kept Him on Track during the Yukon Arctic Ultra

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Looking down at my battered shins at the end of the inaugural 430-mile (692-kilometre) Yukon Arctic Ultra, I was convinced that what I saw was simply another hallucination brought on by the sleep deprivation experienced by every multi-day adventure racer. Taped to each leg, just below the knee, was a perfect row of ... tampons.

Wow, I thought, this even beats meeting the Pope during a bike race across Alaska (sat on a snowbank, he offered me some chocolate biscuits, which I refused on the grounds that they were milk, not dark). Blinking hard, I prodded at my leg, expecting it to morph into an elephant, a fridge, or another hallucinatory bathroom item--a hairy rubber duck. perhaps.

'It's okay,' a voice quietly explained. 'the tampons were attached on day six to ease the pain in your shins. They were the only things we could find to make a rigid splint. Don't you remember?'

Eventually, of course, I did remember; first, the excruciating pain in both legs caused by trying to run hundreds of kilometres in deep snow with under-prepared calf muscles. and then a vague recollection of a race medic rummaging in a kit bag, a long 'Hmmm, I wonder ...', and then the unmistakable sound of duct-tape strips being torn off a roll.

SECRETS OF THE ULTRA

Pre-Google, these ultra-race tips and tricks were the stuff of legend, swapped among those in the know and often fiercely guarded from newcomers. On an early trip to cycle Alaska's infamous Iditasport. I had swapped faxes with the race headquarters in the vague hope of gleaning nuggets of information on kit requirements. Advice wasn't forthcoming, possibly because of the organiser's hope that some poor novice would die in his race 'to help publicity for next year'. Now. anyone with access to the internet can plunder the countless race reports, event blogs and forum postings for the latest hints and ideas on everything from kit to tactics.

Fast-forward to the Yukon Arctic Ultra (YAU). I had had the benefit of email contact with race veterans and arrived reasonably well prepared for 430 miles of sub-zero racing in an event that proclaims itself 'the world's coldest and toughest ultra'.

This biennial chillathon, held in February of odd-numbered years, traces the route of the Yukon Quest dogsled race, one of the two longest dog-mushing events in the world. Like its Alaskan counterpart, the Iditarod, the Yukon Quest has its roots in the gold rush of the late 1890s. when prospectors from across the world descended on the town of Whitehorse now the starting point for both the YAU and the Quest--before rafting and paddling down the Yukon in home-made boats towards the goldfields of the legendary Klondike.

For prospectors, the prize was the fortune to be panned from the creek beds: for us. it was simply the satisfaction of crossing a snowy finish line in Dawson City, a town established purely because of the gold found in its backyard. The place is now a ramshackle collection of dirt streets dusty saloons and rickety wooden sidewalks.

In my quest for Dawson, I would be swapping the bike for running shoes, a simple harness and a plastic sled. But it became apparent that the ultra-lightweight habits ingrained by snow biking would be difficult to shake off.

PREPARING FOR SNOW

When cycling on snow, every gram can make the difference between your bike floating on the snow's crust or sinking through it and forcing you to walk (and push). Now, count up all those metal zip tags, manufacturers' fancy labels and even the long handle of your toothbrush. A frenzy of chopping, sawing, slicing and cutting is what's needed. The end result is a satisfying pile of offcuts.

I applied the same mindset to preparations for the Yukon, starting with the means of dragging all my kit. Should I use a full harness and pulk, or a kiddie sled on a length of rope? My thinking was simple: keep the overall weight down and the latter would suffice. …

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