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Endurance athletes gear up for the Yukon's cold — and this year, slippery — wilderness

An athlete on the Yukon Arctic Ultra trail in 2019. This year, competitors in the long-distance backcountry race will be dealing with some icy, slippery conditions after warm weather earlier this week.  (Philippe Morin/CBC - image credit)
An athlete on the Yukon Arctic Ultra trail in 2019. This year, competitors in the long-distance backcountry race will be dealing with some icy, slippery conditions after warm weather earlier this week. (Philippe Morin/CBC - image credit)

While many Yukoners hunker down in the bitter cold this weekend, some athletes will be setting out on a 482-kilometre run across the wilderness.

The Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra — often billed as the coldest and toughest race in the world — starts on Sunday.

It's sticking to its planned start line at Shipyards Park in Whitehorse, despite severely icy conditions that have forced another major event, the Yukon Quest, to move its start line this weekend.

Athletes and spectators for the Yukon Arctic Ultra are being encouraged to pack footwear with spikes and studs.

Race organizer Robert Pollhammer said each year brings its own set of challenges, and this year's is the fluctuating weather. Earlier this week, many parts of the territory saw temperatures well above zero, with rain.

"It's been incredibly warm ... but on race day it'll get cold again. We're expecting –35 possibly the first night," he said.

"People can handle those temperatures. It's just that leading up to it, I mean, I've never seen that much rain in Whitehorse at this time of year, so that's been a bit challenging."

Race organiser Robert Pollhammer says the Yukon has a "reputation, a ring to it" for extreme athletes.
Race organiser Robert Pollhammer says the Yukon has a "reputation, a ring to it" for extreme athletes.

Race organizer Robert Pollhammer says the Yukon has a 'reputation, a ring to it' for extreme athletes. (Katie Todd/CBC)

This year marks the 20th edition of the race.

Pollhammer said 46 hardy athletes are signed up to compete in the marathon (42 kilometres), 100-mile (160 kilometres), and 300-mile (482 kilometre) events.

In previous years, there's been a high attrition rate, with athletes forced to drop out due to extreme cold or frostbite. Some have even had to have frostbitten limbs amputated.

Pollhammer felt the Yukon was developing a "reputation, a ring to it," for people looking to push their limits.

"It's the wilderness, remoteness, and you have the cold. Although as we all know, that's been changing...it's part of the game now for the athletes that they can handle both the warmer and the cold," he said.

Pollhammer said this year's competitors include a blend of international arrivals and locals.

"We're seeing more Canadians and people from the United States, which is great, but also still Europeans...we've got a marathoner from Mexico, I think that's kind of cool."

And they're off! Competitors begin their journey in Whitehorse.
And they're off! Competitors begin their journey in Whitehorse.

Competitors set off from Whitehorse in the 2019 Yukon Arctic Ultra. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

He said one athlete to watch is Jovica Spajic from Serbia, who is trying the Yukon Arctic Ultra for a third time. Spajic was thwarted by cold and frostbite on his previous attempts.

"He's since done many other exciting races and won most of them, so now he is here to settle the bill with the Yukon, see if he can finish the 300 miles," Polhammer said.

'On your own, for a long time, in the dark'

While most of the competitors will be taking on the trail on foot, three will be on cross country skis, and two will be on fat bikes this year.

Yukoner Ric Horobin is in the latter category. The first-time 100-mile competitor is an avid biker, and said he'd been eyeing up the race for a while.

He expected the cold and isolation would be the toughest parts of the race.

"You're out on the trail, on your own, for a long time, in the dark. You get kind of focused with your headlamp on and you've just got this white beam in front of you and it's quite, sort of, mesmerising after a while. But doing that for a long time, particularly on your own, is difficult," he said.

"Getting up in the morning at 7:00 a.m, 6:00 a.m., when it's really cold, requires some motivation as well."

Ric Horobin is a Yukoner taking on the 100-mile challenge for the first time, by fat bike. Sunday will mark the culmination of months of training. "I know it's not been easy for my wife over the last few months of me hacking off out into the hills at all times of the day and night."
Ric Horobin is a Yukoner taking on the 100-mile challenge for the first time, by fat bike. Sunday will mark the culmination of months of training. "I know it's not been easy for my wife over the last few months of me hacking off out into the hills at all times of the day and night."

Ric Horobin is a Yukoner taking on the 100-mile challenge for the first time, by fat bike. Sunday will mark the culmination of months of training. 'I know it's not been easy for my wife over the last few months of me hacking off out into the hills at all times of the day and night.' (Katie Todd/CBC)

He said that motivation comes from the people who've supported him.

Horobin is competing to raise funds for the charity Parkinson's UK, and for Yukon Search and Rescue. He's closing in on his goal of raising £2,000, and $2,000 for each, respectively.

"I have a family member who was diagnosed with Parkinson's not that long ago, so it's a cause that's close to me. It doesn't get as much funding as other kind of more obvious diseases like cancer," he said.

Horobin said his wife is a member of Yukon Search and Rescue.

"I know that they they're always looking for funding. I know they do a fantastic job. Both in looking for people in the backcountry, but also in supporting the emergency services in searching for people lost in and around town. They're all volunteers and they do it out the goodness of their own heart and I have an enormous amount of respect for that."

Horobin said he's grateful to his wife for "a few months of me hacking off out into the hills at all times of the day and night."

"I'm just really looking forward to getting started now. Slightly nervous, but excited."

The race begins Sunday at 10:30 a.m. in Shipyards Park.