Yukon Arctic Ultra: ‘World’s coldest and toughest’ ultra race starts today in northwestern Canada

Competitors in the 2019 Yukon Arctic Ultra race set out from Whitehorse. This year’s race begins Thursday at 10:30 a.m. PT. (Philippe Morin/CBC)
Fabian Imfeld arrived in Whitehorse almost a week ago, and he’s ready to hit the trail.

“Yeah, I can feel it. I want to go,” he said on Wednesday.

Imfeld travelled from his home in Switzerland to compete in a race that bills itself as the “world’s coldest and toughest” — the Yukon Arctic Ultra. It begins Thursday morning in Whitehorse.

Sixty-three people are registered this year to travel either a marathon distance, 100 miles (about 161 kilometres), or 300 miles (483 kilometres) through the remote Yukon backcountry. Most will run or walk the trail, but some have registered to compete on skis or bike.

On alternating years, there’s the option to race all the way to Dawson City. But this year, the furthest race is to Pelly Crossing.

Imfeld is going to try to finish the 300-mile race on foot. Last year, he attempted the longer race to Dawson but was forced out by frostbite.

‘I just try to enjoy it. I mean, it’s not about winning for me,’ says Fabian Imfeld, a competitor from Switzerland. (Steve Silva/CBC)

“For me, it was nothing basically — it was just a little blister on the little toe. But it was enough, obviously, to get disqualified,” he said.

He’s made a few changes this year — different shoes and socks, and a willingness to wear more layers.

He was bitten by the Arctic Ultra bug a few years ago, when he found himself in Pelly Crossing at the same time as the race.

“I saw all those people, how they barely could walk sometimes anymore. But they seemed to be really happy,” he said.

“I just try to enjoy it. I mean, it’s not about winning for me.”

Variable conditions

Some years, winning can seem beside the point for anybody — it’s enough of an achievement to just finish in one piece. Past competitors have lost digits and limbs to severe frostbite.

Race director Robert Pollhammer speaks to participants in the 2020 Yukon Arctic Ultra on Wednesday, the day before the racers hit the trail. (Steve Silva/CBC)

The weather promises to be relatively mild at the start of the race on Thursday, but race director Robert Pollhammer says that’s not necessarily great.

“Conditions are going to be challenging because they’re variable. We’ll start out with a very warm day … but then it will get colder,” he said. “I would expect that we get down to the –30s, maybe even –40s as well.”

As of Wednesday, it wasn’t even certain where the race would start from.

Typically, it starts at Shipyards Park in downtown Whitehorse, but Pollhammer said there’s a lot of water overflow on the Yukon River. One option is to move the start line further up the trail, at the Takhini Hot Springs.

Mandatory safety gear, ready to go on Wednesday. (Steve Silva/CBC)

“It would shorten their distance, but we’d rather deal with that than overflow,” Pollhammer said.

“In this case, [the overflow]’s quite long and it’s quite deep. It’s up to the hip in some places.”

He said any change to the race’s start line would be posted on the event’s website. The race is scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m.

With files from Steve Silva

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: France’s Thierry Corbarieu wins Yukon Arctic Ultra race in northwestern Canada, CBC News

Finland: Ice fishing World Championships latest in Finnish series of odd sports events, Yle News

Norway: Swedish musher wins Finnmarksløpet, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: Alaskan Pete Kaiser wins 2019 Iditarod dog sled race, Alaska Public Media

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