You competed in the Yukon Arctic Ultra in Canada in February this year, tell us about the event!
The Yukon Artic Ultra (YAU) can be completed on either foot, bike or skis. It is an ultra-distance race of either 160, 480 or 690km. It starts from Whitehorse and follows the Yukon Quest dog sled race course, which is a very popular 1600km race for dogs and their drivers. It is held in February where temperatures can drop to -50˚C and possibly below. The YAU is a self-supported race where the clock never stops. Time requirements mean that you have 3, 8 and 14 days to complete the 160, 480 or 690km races respectively. Food and sleep is possible at some checkpoints but mostly you will sleep and eat outside. Compulsory gear requirements mean that if you are on foot or skis you will be pulling a pulk or sled, whereas all bike participants carry all their gear on the bike. The trail consist of hard packed snow that traverses mountain ranges and frozen lakes. It is promoted as the longest and coldest endurance race in the world and while each ultra-distance event is tough I would place it high on the list as the toughest around.
How do you train for something like this?
In NZ it is not possible to train in the extreme conditions that exist in the YAU, even most freezers don’t go down to the temperatures required. I spent a lot of time pulling tires up and down hills to build strength around the hips and shoulders and to get used to the sled harness. During winter I spent two separate weeks down at the Snow Farm in Wanaka walking the trails and camping out. Even at this elevation a low of only -15˚C was experienced, but I did experience long days pulling my sled over snow.
If you were to do the same event again - anything you would have done differently?
I am going back again in 2018 to compete and the most important thing that I will do differently is to relax in the environment. In the cold everything is difficult. Moisture freezes instantly, gear failures are just a part of the race due to the extreme temperatures and on top of that you need to be aware of the clock and to keep moving towards your goal for the day. All of this can make your body be constantly in a ‘stressed mode’ mentally and physically. Once it gets on top of you it is a downward spiral and you will likely not finish. This happened to me in 2017 and it caused my body to start rejecting food and water and causing my mind to go into a tail spin, with my withdrawal shortly before the 160km checkpoint. Next year I will be taking more regular breaks, lighting fires and generally trying to relax and not let the event get in my head. The competitors who finish are the ones who do this well. In my experience this goes for any endurance event but in the YAU frostbite and other cold related injuries can happen quickly if you are not aware of the signs.
We know you as you have made sports massage a regular part of your recovery and maintenance regime - what benefits would you say you get from this?
I have done endurance or ultra-events for over 15 years and had the typical NZ male attitude towards the pain my body felt during training. If it hurt I am making my body stronger, rest is for the weak. But I started to get regular injuries in knees, ankles and hips. I tried all sorts of ways to return to running as I had. I then made a decision get a regular sports massage. Due to the fact that I had not done any maintenance on my body for years it was a very painful experience, but over a number of sessions I noticed that my injuries were not occurring and I was feeling better in my running. I have learned throughout the years to train smarter which includes quality rest and regular body maintenance. You can only get the best out of your body if you listen to it and push your ego to the side.
What else do you for recovery and keeping your body well and free from injury? Any tips for our readers?
There are many was that you can contribute to the health of your body:
1. Nutrition: Learning to adjust your lifestyle to a more healthy diet makes you feel better mentally and physically. I'm not talking about a short term diet but a long term adjustment in your diet and lifestyle. Don’t be a monk - treat yourself once in a while.
2. Rest: Quality rest is vital. Switch off your phone, disconnect your thoughts of work or other stresses and just relax. The body and mind need time to recover or you will simply burnout. With most people’s lifestyle, trust me it is not as easy as it sounds.
3. Strength or Cross training: Get a qualified person to assess your technique whatever your sport. This will highlight the muscles you are not using or a weakness in your technique. Strengthening these weaknesses takes the stress of other parts of the body that are taking up the slack and prevent injuries.
4. Gear: In particular if you wish to run for long distances go to a shoe store that can fit a shoe for your foot type and running style. It costs a little more but it makes the difference to getting to the start line or not.
What are your top tips for someone who has never run an ultra-distance event before, but is thinking about it?
Anybody can complete a long distance event, do not hesitate. It is 15% physical and 75% mental. Unless you are elite it is long, slow distance runs that you need to build up to. You need to have a meaning to why you are going to do it, as it will get tough at more than one point and you will need to think about why you are putting yourself though this. You can train with others but I suggest that you learn to run by yourself for long periods of time, as during these events you may not see anybody for hours. Some people find it easier than others. I have meet some amazing people in events over the years, that have done incredible things, and they are just normal people just like you and me. What sets them apart is their sheer will, desire to just keep going and mental toughness. If you have the desire you are 75% there already. Sign up you will not regret it.
And lastly, tell us what (else) you love doing when you are not running? :D
Hard question as with training for long distance events there is little time for anything else! When I wasn’t running I was thinking about running. I used to work and train all the time and only recently learned that I need time to switch off. I tried to make the most of everyday and fill it up as much as I could. Getting up at 3am, training, working and all the other stuff that goes into the day. After years of this my central nervous system started to shut down and I was getting sick a lot. So I spend my down time researching and prepping for events, and reading and learning how to relax as I find it quite difficult - but if I wish to continue towards my goals it is a must.