Race #8: Arctic Ice Ultra – End of a Journey (Part 1)

The Beginning of the End

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Some time has gone by since our last race in the Arctic Tundra. As our World Record journey comes to an end, Paul and I have a chance to reflect on what had transpired. However, not everything has sunk in yet.  After all, our victory lap of sorts at the 121st Edition of the Boston Marathon awaits us in 4 weeks time! It still seems unbelievable even now that we have completed eight of the toughest desert ultra marathons on the planet in just under ten months.

Before the Race – What’s to Come

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What Paul and I experienced during those 5 magical days in IceUltra, where we had to snowshoe through 230km of snow and ice, will never be forgotten. The race started off 300km north of the mining town of Gallivare, Sweden (100km North of the Arctic Circle) and ended in Jokkmokk, where many tourists would visit during the summer months to watch the Northern Lights. As per usual, we arrived at Gallivare a couple of days before the start to acclimatize. Setting the tone for what was to come, we barely got any sleep on the night of our arrival. After picking up our check-in luggages from the carousel, we were shuttled out of the building and into a waiting area. Unfortunately, being the last flight into town, the airport crew began to dim the lights and lock the doors even though there were no taxis anywhere to be found! Accompanied by a fellow Canadian competitor, Kari on the same connecting flight from Stockholm, we immediately scrambled to locate a ride. With some broken Swedish and plenty of hand gestures, we somehow managed to get someone to call the local taxi company. Within 20mins of waiting, we finally got into a taxi to drop us off at our AirBnb Bed & Breakfast.

You would think our trouble is over right? Wrong! We flew in so late at night that our AirBnb host was already asleep by the time we arrived. It took us at least 20mins before we found a fellow guest to wake her up to give us access to our rooms. To make matters worst, everything in town was closed except for the Quality Inn Hotel, located 1km from our AirBnb. Because Kari was staying there, we went with her in the same taxi to get some food but we got lost on our way back!  On a frosty night when temperatures dipped below -20C (-4F), Paul and I spent more than one hour stumbling to find our stay.  It was embarrassing, to say the least.

With 7 races under our belt, there wasn’t anything that would surprise us leading up to the start line. From the 3hrs Bus ride to basecamp to Pre-race gear check, everything seemed to be in line with our previous race experiences. Except this time, IceUltra offers a different set of challenges.

Stage 1 – A Harrowing Start

To do it justice, we will provide two separate accounts of this memorable stage.

Paul’s Account

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We stayed at a teepee the night before.  It was around -15C, cold but bearable.  All we had between the snow and our sleeping bag was a thin piece of reindeer skin.  Perhaps it was self-delusion, but we convinced ourselves that it was warm enough.  Even though we slept outdoor, there was a heated shelter for us to prepare our foods and change our clothes.  Because daylight in the arctic is limited, we had to have an early start at 7:30 am to minimize the number of hours we had to run in the dark.  The stage is set for a 50K “warmup” to the Arctic Ice Ultra.  It was not a distance that I would like to start the race, but it seemed manageable.  Boy was I wrong!

The race started off furiously with the two leaders, Vicente and Andres from Spain, surging ahead.  Eric and I stayed within our comfort zone, trying not to sweat in the cold.  Unlike racing in warmer weather, running in the Arctic presents a hidden danger.  Once you start sweating, your body temperature will drop rapidly when your pace slows.  This is how one can develop hypothermia in a short period of time.  This is why both Eric and I only wore two thin base layers and a shell to avoid perspiration.  Achieving this balancing act was more difficult than we anticipated because temperature changed quite drastically during the course of the stage.  Kris King, the race director, had told us that we had to climb a few hills to get to the finish line.  What he didn’t say was that the hills turned out to be mountains.  After the initial 12km, our climb started in earnest.  Two hours into our run, we ran into the race photographers Mikkel and Ryan.  I was glad to see them because I hadn’t seen anybody since the last checkpoint.  “Don’t forget to look back!”, Mikel reminded me.  I was so focus on following Eric, who was less than 50m in front, that I missed what was going on in my surroundings.  When I turned my head around, I couldn’t believe what I saw: a spectacular frozen lake nestled in the valley of majestic snowy mountains.  It was an otherworldly sight to behold.

As we ascent higher and higher, I realized that my traction was getting worst and worst.  The relentless hills were starting to take their toll on my quads; they seized for a moment.  I knew then that I had to put on my snowshoes or I would risk muscle cramp.  In preparation for Ice Ultra, we have been told that snowshoeing is an absolute must for this race, except for the first 12km. Eric and I began the day without using snowshoe, but we need them unquestionably right about now. After spending some time putting my on snowshoes, I lost track of Eric.  He was giving chase to the Japanese competitor, Takao, ahead of him so there was no time to waste. By the time I reached checkpoint 2, fatigue had set in. This had never happened to me before so early in the 1st stage of a race. Without delay, I immediately took in 2 gels to refuel and pushed onward. Usually, such quantity of sugar will boost my energy level almost instantaneously but something was amiss this time around: I kept craving for food! By the time I reached the 4th and last checkpoint, I had already consumed more than 1500 calories and there was still 10km to go! To make things even more hairy, the temperature had dropped from -8C to -18C over the course of the past 8 hours. When I entered the checkpoint tepee, I noticed that a runner was receiving some serious medical attention.  He seemed to be in pretty bad shape as the medics wrapped him in a thick down jacket and a sleeping bag. Much to my surprise, it was Andres, one of the leaders that took off early in the race. Apparently, he had suffered hypothermia as well as frostbites on his hands. I was beyond shock that a runner of his caliber had unceremoniously succumbed to the harsh Arctic environment. No one is immune from DNFing in this race. Realizing my own vulnerability, I ingested my last remaining 2 gels before setting off when Kris informed me of a ‘small’ climb ahead. “There is quite a bit of wind up there too”, he cautioned.  I wanted to ask him how the other runners are doing, but a part of me didn’t want to know. All I could think about was getting to the finish line as quickly as possible.

With a sense of urgency, I kept running until darkness came without warning and a blizzard engulfed the area.  The strong wind that I had barely tolerated before has by now developed into a frightening mountain storm.  I was almost toppled over sideways many times!  As if things couldn’t get any worse, a massive climb awaited me head. Having neither competitors ahead nor behind, I was all alone in the desolated mountain. It goes without saying that my pace slowed drastically from that point on which caused my core temperature to drop dramatically. “This is not good”, I whispered to myself, “I better get to the end soon!”.  As my strength fade in an alarming rate, I knew that I was in deep deep trouble. Usually in such dire situation, I would consider raiding my next day’s stash to get me through the day but taking in nutrition is next to impossible in a blizzard storm. Not wanting to risk having my shell get blown away, I also decided against putting on my mid layer to stay warm. Truth be told, things got bleaker and bleaker as time goes by although I desperately tried to stay positive. For the first time in the 8 Deserts Challenge, I feared that will power alone would not be enough.  Prior to the race, we had all been given a Iridium GPS tracker that we can use to communicate with the race staff.  In a life-threatening situation, we can press a ‘red’ button to request emergency evacuation. If there ever was a time to consider pressing that red button, that time was now. The next hour was a blur to me as I staggered through the snow up and down the summit. I was a dead man walking, fighting not to collapse in the frigid Arctic. Just when all hope was lost, the finish line miraculously appeared out of the corner of my eye. I summoned my last bit of energy to make it to the end and the medical staff tended to me almost immediately. Eric helped take my snowshoes off and carried me into our overnight cabin. He remarked that I resembled a ghost who had survived a harrowing escape.

In the aftermath, we were told that a storm warning was in effect up the mountain and wind speed had reach 50mph or more near the submit.  A total of 4 competitors were pulled from the race at the end of the day. This was as close to DNFing a race as it gets for me up until this point. Welcome to Stage 1 of the Arctic Ice Ultra!

Personal Account

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The course description provided by Kris, the Race Director, calls for a 50km Stage One consisting of 12km of fast running trails (no snowshoeing required!), follow by several hilly climbs up and into a protected wilderness areas before reaching our first camp.

Our usual start time for each stage is 7 am, but unsurprisingly, with the logistical hurdles associated with winter races, we were instead sent off at around 7:30 am. In the opening kilometers, Vicente and Andres from Spain led the front group. The blistering pace they both set was unsustainable for me, so I latched onto Takao, a formidable runner from Japan who just finished 4Deserts Last Desert race in Antartica this past November. With some winter running experience under his belt, he will be tough to beat. We held a steady pace for about 75mins heading into the first checkpoint. Things were going well up to this point. Although Paul stumbled through some equipment malfunction and was left a few minutes behind, he was more than capable of holding his own.

My nutritional and hydration strategy was thrown off as I was trying to chase down Takao. I had to admit, competition got the best of me. Takao barely stopped at the checkpoint to refuel, if at all. In the heat of battle, I made a rookie mistake of forgoing my race/fuelling strategy so I wouldn’t lose contact. With the limited time I had to train for Ice Ultra, I didn’t have sufficient practice getting my nutrition down while on the run in sub-zero temperatures. Ingesting ice cold gels with gloves on wasn’t as easy as I thought. Taking my gloves off for more than 30second made my fingers go numb. Oh well, suck it up I say! With each checkpoint (CP) spaced approximately 10km apart, I just had to wait for the next checkpoint to fuel up, so I thought. Talk about a colossal mistake. As I found out from racing in the Arctic, every mistake you make on the course will haunt you later on in the race. There is simply no margin for errors out in this unforgiving and hostile environment.

The course got progressively more difficult as I ran over snow covered forests and hills, but I made another strategic mistake of not switching to my snowshoes at the right time. I spent significant amounts of energy slipping and sliding in the soft snow while other competitors from behind started to close in. In the heat of competition, putting on snowshoes wasn’t quite as smooth a process as I had practiced with my limited training. The delicate nature of the straps require that I take my gloves off. All my fingers went numb after fumbling through my backpack and getting my snowshoes securely strapped on. Life in the Arctic Circle definitely has its own set of challenges, unlike any other deserts I had previously tackled.

Between CP2 and CP3, I approached a snow covered creek with a trickle of water flowing through it. Since I only ran past the course marker by a mere 10 meters where I should make the crossing, it seemed silly to double back right? WRONG. As I took the penultimate step across the creek, something was terribly amiss. I had lost control of my left foot and started to sink deep into the soft snow without my say in the matter. I frantically tried to pull myself out of the situation but to no avail. A gush of icy water rushed into my running shoes and put me on high alert. Code yellow suddenly turned to code red. A lot of thoughts raced through my head in those precious seconds. I knew that if I don’t make the right decisions right there and now to get myself out of this bind, the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish) will be my fate and my World Record attempt will come to an abrupt end. Hypothermia and frostbite suddenly became a real possibility.

My first instinct was “I dug myself into this sink hole, so why not make the hole bigger!” I got down and started using my right hand to scoop out as much snow and icy slush around my left foot as quickly and efficiently as possible. Being left handed, I figure if I could no longer use my right hand, I still have my good hand to take care of things! By the time I made a big enough hole to feel confident I could free my left foot, my right hand was frozen solid and my glove was drenched in icy water.

As soon as I freed myself from the abyss, a rush of adrenaline came over me. I had one simple mission: getting through this day in one piece! It was pretty clear at this point that I had grossly underestimated the challenges set forth by this race. I took a step back and realized how silly of me to think I can overlook this race. I didn’t give the respect this course deserves and I almost paid the ultimate price. I reminded myself that I need to step up my game and shape up, or I’ll be flying back to Canada empty handed. It was obviously clear to me that I didn’t do sufficient preparation to compete on this course, so a more sensible thing to do was to shift my focus to making sure the course doesn’t beat me to submission! Survival was now my highest priority.

One piece of equipment that I brought with me that I can confidently say saved me from impending doom was my front pouch. I strategically brought it along for multiple reasons: to allow for quick access to my winter mittens in case my lightweight gloves got wet or when I sense a drastic temperature drop and to hold my stash of daily in-race nutrition. There was no doubt in my mind that if I hadn’t switched gloves after my ordeal, it would have been the end of me. Fumbling through a backpack full of food and equipment in -20C temperatures isn’t the most convenient thing to do and I would have been too tempted to just tough it out. Other pieces of equipment that I was glad to have with me were my Black Diamond Gortex Gaiter and my double layered Merino wool socks (IceBreaker Multisport Light Crew and Injinji Outdoor Midweight Crew).  They kept most of the icy water out and my feet stayed relatively dry. Although my left foot was frozen by the end of the day, the alternative could have been much worse. I’ll take cold feet over frostbite or amputation any day of the week!

I was relieved to reach the final checkpoint after approximately 7hrs of running. My GPS watch had already failed me long ago during my previous desert races, so I wasn’t too concern about the exact timing. After seven desert races, exact timing isn’t important because it’s all about nailing your own internal clock. My trusty watch simply kept track of the time of day and that was all I needed. Upon arriving at CP4 for a short rest and some refueling, I saw Andres, one of the leaders of the race, inside the checkpoint teepee in terrible condition. He had succumbed to frostbite and hypothermia and was being treated by the medical staff. My heart sank. This stage is going to eat many competitors alive.

Just as I got settled into my space inside the teepee, Kris peeked his head into the tent and warned me of strong winds up ahead in the remaining 8km of the stage. I was told that all that separates me from the finish was a steady incline up the mountain side and a gradual descent to camp once I crested the summit. No biggie right? I ate some nutrition and got myself ready for the final push. Fatigue was starting to set in as the adrenaline from my frostbite scare was starting to wear off. Running on fumes, I left the checkpoint without delay. I just want to get to camp and rest!

What happened next was beyond shocking.  Never have I been through such dire circumstance in a race. With temperatures dipping -20C, a howling crosswind gusting upwards of 50mph blew relentlessly to the right side of my face. Comparing this to the first stage of MdS (Marathon De Sables) wouldn’t do it justice and that says a lot! Visibility was near zero. I wouldn’t dare look too far ahead in fear that any exposed skin meant certain frostbite. The wind blocking ability of my Patagoina Houdini Jacket was put to the test. There was nowhere to hide so the only way to get through this stage was to put one foot in front of the other as quickly as possible. It was simply unwise to stay in this precarious condition any longer than necessary. As tired as I felt, I knew I had to keep going. Working towards the home stretch, I was relieved to have finally escaped the windstorm as I descended down the mountain. Never have I been more grateful to finish a stage in one piece with all my body parts intact!

As daylight faded, I grew increasingly concerned after a couple other competitors staggered into camp. Paul was still nowhere in sight and that got me worried. The worst case scenario started to play out in my head. Could this be it? The course condition was only getting worst as temperature continued to drop. After 40mins of waiting, Maritz, a strong runner from South Africa, stormed into camp and brought with him some welcoming news. “Does anybody know where Paul is on the course?” I asked. “Paul is not far behind and is coming in”, Maritz said. With great anticipation, I patiently waited. As 6 pm approaches, I was about to eat my dinner when I heard footsteps approaching our cabin. It was Lara and Georgie from the medical team and they were accompanying Paul.

I dropped everything and went outside to check up on Paul. He had a face of a distraught man. In fact, he looked like a trauma victim that just went through hell and back. I rushed to his side, took his backpack from him and unstrapped his snowshoes so we can get him inside the cabin where it’s nice and warm. I’m no doctor, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he was in the early stages of hypothermia. Shaking uncontrollably and unable to think clearly, Paul refused to put on his winter jacket to stay warm. “I’m ok. I just needed some rest and let the doctors take a look at me”, he insisted. For that brief moment, I looked into Paul’s eyes and saw the face of a man facing real adversity, but unyielding to his circumstance. Fear, confusion, and uncertainty spoke to him that night. Not wanting to interfere with the doctors who were looking after him, I took the initiative to unpack his sleeping bag, lay out all his gear on his bed, make dinner, hang all his wet clothes above the cabin fire to dry, and give him some warm fluids to get him settled in as swiftly possible. This was the moment I had to seize control of the situation. To get the both of us out of this race in one piece, we have got to start paying attention to small details.

Once the medical team cleared Paul for hypothermia and frostbite, he was treated for freeze burns to his face and nose. By the time he regained his faculties and got a meal down his belly, it was well past 9 pm. Only then did I realized that I was completely spent and my dinner was still on the table. With the 68km stage starting at 7 am next morning, the 5:30 am wake-up call meant little time for rest.

I spent the entire night tossing and turning, unable to sleep because I was still so amped up from everything that happened. There was just so much to take in. Under these circumstances, we had to scale back our ambition for this race. I would be ecstatic if Paul and I come out of this competition injury free. In a race like Ice Ultra, you are always one mistake away from the edge of disaster, as I experienced and witnessed first hand.

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