Arc­tic Ul­tra, Yukon

Re­defin­ing Ex­treme in the World’s Tough­est Ul­tra

Canadian Running - - DEPARTMENTS - By Rhi­an­non Rus­sell

Jen Stronge moved in the dark, pulling a wheeled sled piled with gear, her head­lamp il­lu­mi­nat­ing a nar­row swath of road in front of her. As she looked up, the light glinted off a guardrail and, in her ex­hausted state, she saw a tiger. It’s just a tiger, she thought. I’ll keep go­ing. It took her a mo­ment to re­al­ize that, first of all, she shouldn’t be so non­cha­lant about a tiger. And, sec­ond, there was no way that, out here, north of the Arc­tic Cir­cle, there could pos­si­bly be one. It was Stronge’s only hal­lu­ci­na­tion dur­ing the eight days, 11 hours and 46 min­utes it took her to fin­ish the 611-kilo­me­tre 6633 Arc­tic Ul­tra, which starts in Ea­gle Plains, Yukon, and ends in Tuk­toy­ak­tuk, n.w.t., on the edge of the Arc­tic Ocean. In March, she be­came the first Cana­dian woman to ever fin­ish the race, as well as the only woman to com­plete it this year. “It was con­sid­er­ably harder than I an­tic­i­pated,” says Stronge, 49. “Harder than any­thing I had done by sev­eral leaps.” She’s an ex­pe­ri­enced ul­tra­run­ner; af­ter com­plet­ing the Bos­ton Marathon in 2010, she sought greater chal­lenges and longer dis­tances. She’s since com­pleted the Cana­dian Death Race, the Sin­is­ter 7 Ul­tra and mul­ti­ple 50ks and 50-mil­ers. Based in Golden, B.C., Stronge trav­els to Inu­vik, n.w.t., for weeks at a time to work as a nurse. Last year, an Ital­ian cou­ple cy­cling through Inu­vik told her about the race. “I was like, ‘what? There’s an ul­tra up here and I didn’t know about it?’” The 6633 Arc­tic Ul­tra, which bills it­self as “the tough­est,

cold­est, windi­est ul­tra on the planet,” draws a small group of com­peti­tors from all over the world. Rac­ers have a choice be­tween the 193-kilo­me­tre dis­tance, which ends in Fort McPher­son, or the full 611 kilo­me­tres to Tuk­toy­ak­tuk. In the past, an ice road linked Inu­vik and Tuk, but this year, rac­ers tra­versed the new all-weather high­way con­nect­ing the two com­mu­ni­ties.

Stronge and her friend Marie-Josee Mar­tel de­cided they’d train to­gether over the win­ter. They’d get off work, ex­hausted, then head into the dark­ness to run. For nearly 30 days ev­ery win­ter, Inu­vik is shrouded in dark­ness.

To ac­cli­mate to sleep­ing in the cold, Stronge camped a few times in bliz­zards. “I think hav­ing the cold and the dark­ness to train through just gave us huge men­tal tough­ness train­ing,” she says. Once it was time to race in March, day­light had re­turned to the re­gion.

Stronge was re­lieved to find rel­a­tively mild tem­per­a­tures on the course. With the ex­cep­tion of one bit­ter-cold -36 C day, the mer­cury hov­ered be­tween -15 C and -20 C – much warmer than the Mon­tane Yukon Arc­tic Ul­tra the month prior, which saw many com­peti­tors drop out due to frigid weather. Two rac­ers suf­fered se­vere frost­bite: one lost three toes and an­other had his hands and feet am­pu­tated.

Stronge aimed for 80 kilo­me­tres each day, set­ting up camp in the dark­ness af­ter she hit her goal. “In the begin­ning, I just re­fused to let my­self think about the big pic­ture, be­cause as soon as I started to think about how much far­ther I had to go, my brain would just go, whoa,” she says.

Mar­tel dropped from the race early into her fifth day due to a painful hip in­jury. Stronge pushed on solo. She ques­tioned at times why she was do­ing this – why did she keep sub­ject­ing her­self to bru­tal races? When she started trav­el­ling on the ice road be­tween Fort McPher­son and Aklavik, the sur­face was too slip­pery for the Steger Muk­luks she’d been wear­ing, so she changed into a pair of Ice­bug shoes. The trac­tion was much bet­ter, but the shoe’s tongue pressed un­com­fort­ably on the base of her an­kle, caus­ing some nerve com­pres­sion. “I sort of no­ticed it, but it didn’t seem that big of a deal un­til all of a sud­den it was,” she says. Now, months later, she’s still do­ing phys­io­ther­apy, wait­ing for it to heal. For­tu­nately, it doesn’t af­fect her abil­ity to run.

De­spite the pain and the soli­tude, there were high points. “I had mo­ments where I was just, like, lov­ing life,” Stronge says, “look­ing up at the north­ern lights and you’re shar­ing a cup of tea with a stranger from Zim­babwe who’s out there in the mid­dle of the Arc­tic as well. It’s sur­real.”

One day, two rac­ers left a check­point ahead of her, and in the snow on the side of the road, they drew smi­ley faces and scrawled “Al­most there!” and “Cof­fee ahead!” Stronge was touched.

As she trav­elled north, her mind wan­dered. She thought about how lucky and grate­ful she was to be able to tackle some­thing like this. And she ad­mired the scenery. “You think, oh, it’s just f lat, white noth­ing­ness, but it’s a re­ally beau­ti­ful place,” she says. “There’s a lot magic out there.”

She and Mar­tel may not have crossed the fin­ish line to­gether, but they did ac­com­plish an­other goal they’d set: rais­ing money – more than $7,000 – for Inu­vik ’s warm­ing shel­ter, which pro­vides shel­ter and sup­port­ive ser­vices to per­sons in Inu­vik who are home­less or near home­less. Rhi­an­non Rus­sell is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in White­horse. Rus­sell has writ­ten for The Walrus, the Globe and Mail and Maison­neuve.

ABOVE Three-time 6633 Arc­tic Ul­tra win­ner Ro­ma­nian Tibi Useriu heads for the fin­ish line on the Inu­vik–Tuk­toy­ak­tuk High­way

BE­LOW Jen­nifer Stronge gets ready to hit the road af­ter camp­ing out nearby Mid­way Lake on the Dempster High­way

ABOVE Stronge on the fi­nal day of the race on the Inu­vik–Tuk­toy­ak­tuk High­way

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