Arctic Ultra, Yukon
Redefining Extreme in the World’s Toughest Ultra
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