837Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone

Charlie Norton went from the baking terrain of the Marathon des Sables to the freezing hills of the Yukon. Everything was looking fine - until the snow set in.
Whenever I think back to the 2008 Yukon Ultra I still feel a bone-rattling shudder. I swore when I finished that I would never forget what I’d gone through and though I have forgotten the considerable pain of other ultra-races, when I think of those few days on the arctic trails near Whitehorse, Canada (down a section of the Yukon Quest husky dog race), it still sends a shiver down my spine. Looking back I can safely say it was one of the defining moments of my life. I had a done a few ultras and enjoyed parts of the Marathon des Sables and the Himalayan 100-mile stage race. I had conquered the heat of over 50ºC and the relentless gradient of thousands of feet of climbing and wanted to see how I would survive in the cold.The Yukon Ultra has three non-stop races: a marathon, a 100-mile race and a 300-mile race for the truly extreme athlete. I opted for the 100-mile and trained at altitude in a ski resort running up the slopes as skiers were coming down. I also did a lot of Pilates classes to improve my core and mimicked pulling a sledge (as we had to pull survival gear and a sleeping bag behind us as we ran). I even rang the Tesco press office to see if they had a giant freezer in which I could put a treadmill and train, but to no avail.When I arrived in Whitehorse in late February, a few hours from Vancouver by air, I got my first taste of the cold. It was -30ºC! Later that day I left the hotel to walk to the shops and within half a mile I was frozen to the bone, my uncovered face blow-torched by the icy wind. It was unbearable and I had to sprint to the nearest clothes shop to buy a balaclava. It was my first lesson.The survival course before the race was the next. We had to show we could survive if something went wrong in the race. Whenever you are still you become cold so quickly it was crucial to be able to light a stove and put on warm gear. A fellow competitor touched his stove with bare hands when he was trying to light it and moments later his fingers resembled blue sausages from frostbite. He had to withdraw from the race before it had even started.MR6-24'Hang on a minute, I forgot the loo roll'This petrified me and things took another turn for the worse at the start. There had been a massive dump of snow and the temperature had plummeted; it was -70ºC on parts of the course and the snow machines were not working. No running race had ever taken place in such low temperatures before. Race organisers looked to cancel but at the last minute decided to change the race format to four times up and down the marathon course. They had not had time to flatten the snow on the trail and I had not hired snowshoes.With the temperature at -44ºC at the start in Whitehorse - the coldest race ever recorded - we set off. I was wearing five layers of thermals, a Gore-Tex covering, a balaclava, a rabbit hat and a hood, inner gloves, and mittens with hand warmers. For the first few miles I was able to jog at a reasonable pace but then we hit deep snow. I slipped behind most people who were going along almost four feet above me in snowshoes. But the physical effort may have saved me; it was so cold now (around -60ºC with the wind chill) that the conditions were decimating the field. After I had been going for six hours in deep snow I finally saw a checkpoint which I thought must be 26 miles. Much to my disbelief it was only 13. The snow and the cold were grinding me down to a snail’s pace. The next 13 miles were the worst I can ever remember in a race. It got even colder and a blizzard started. Going to the toilet is a nerve-shredding experience anyway in these conditions, and in my panicked haste not to freeze anything crucial (a guy dropped out with frostbite on his testicles two years ago), my goggles and head torch fell out of my top pocket. Then it got dark, leaving me to shuffle along the trail as best I could.Even with a balaclava my face was now raw and I had to de-ice my eyes and eyebrows every five minutes or so to stop my face turning into a permanent masked sculpture. Even my Camelback had frozen so I was relying on snow and gummy bears for sustenance.I felt alone and ready to throw in the towel. Then the moonlight began to show me the way and I inched my way to the 26-mile mark. My legs had already gone and I had cramp deep in my hamstrings from dragging them repeatedly up from the snow. I suddenly realised it was not really a race; it was a matter of survival. I needed to ride out these terrible freezing moments and keep going. When I arrived at a warm fire after 26 miles, I found out that half the field of 40 or so had already dropped out and there had been eight cases of frostbite already. It was a racing apocalypse and I realised how lucky I had been. If I had survived this far surely it could only get better. So I joined up with two Ulster policemen and an English diplomat and we headed back down the course again in the middle of the night.The rest of the race is a confused, relentless blur. The trail got better as it got beaten down and I decided to set the pace, making the tracks at the front because I knew that hanging around would be fatal. We were blessed with warmer weather (-30ºC and above) and blue skies. But we also had to sleep twice for a couple of hours in zip-up body bags to relieve a little exhaustion. Matt, the diplomat, stopped again to sleep for a bit and then had to be rescued when he could not move himself from the side of the trail. Then Mike, one of the policemen, got pulled out of the race with black, frost-bitten toes.Kevin, the other Ulsterman, and I pushed on. On the third marathon I was hallucinating, seeing figures by the side of the trail and the bridge halfway down the course. But whenever I got to it, it was a shadow playing tricks on my mind.Endorphins flooded my body and my mind blanked out large periods of time so I could cope. I started saying to myself ‘machine not man’, and it felt like I had come out of my body and I was remotely controlling this human robot. But the real robot was top endurance athlete Steve Reifenstul from Alaska, who finished 100 miles after only 28 hours - an astounding achievement. We kept up a relentless rhythm for the last part of the race, now on our third day and two of only a few left in the race. In fact we were joint third of the six that finished the 100-mile race, only two people finished the 300-mile race, and that was almost a week later.There is nothing that compares to a cold ultra like this in terms of running. I fell over the line with back spasms and severe frost nip, In terms of my running demons I had faced my worst fears and survived.

Race Day 1

Temperature (-44 to -60ºC)Trail/conditions: Knee deep snow, wind, blizzardDistance: 26 miles to first checkpointTime: Over 10 hours

Race Day 2

Temperature (-35 to -25ºC)Trail/conditions: Snow little more packed, blue skiesDistance: 52 miles back to start and back to RivendellTime: 19 hoursSleep: 90 minutes

Race Day 3

Temperature: -20ºCTrail/conditions: Trail packed and icy, blue skiesDistance: 26miles to finishTime: 8hrs 30minsSleep: Two hoursFor race info go to: www.arcticultra.de

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