I headed out of McCabe Creek in good spirits and seemed to cover the dreaded powerline section to Minto in much quicker time than expected. Again, it was a long night travelling alone, but I was enjoying this part of the trail, again distracting myself with planning things back home (some very mundane - at one point I had sorted all my washing in to different loads in my head!) and singing to myself.
There were three sections of overflow on this leg, so I stopped and put on my Neos overboots before going through each, I was pleased that I had taken the time as the water came well up my calf in the deepest section. I continued happily to move towards Pelly Crossing through the night and at a high section of trail, not too far out from the checkpoint, I heard an owl calling and decided it was time to have a sleep before covering the last section to the checkpoint. My bivy gave me a good rest as I drifted off to sleep looking at the stats and clouds in the night sky. Upon waking I packed up, had a cup of coffee and tried to set off down the trail. At this point the downside of a stop became apparent - having managed to get my shoes back on my feet, making them move in anything more than a shuffle/ hobble proved difficult and I started to think I had made a mistake resting on the trail. However after 20 minutes or so, my feet had loosened up and I was moving at a steady pace again and feeling very upbeat and happy to be on my way to the checkpoint.
I arrived at Pelly Crossing and again was greeted by friendly volunteers all looking to help me get rested and fed, again I gratefully received cups of tea and a hot meal. I then sorted the dressings on my feet and had a lie down to give them chance to air and dry before I dressed them once again. Leaving Pelly Crossing, I had a few hours of daylight to travel along the river and again it was an enjoyable part of the trail, watching the sun set behind the trees as I travelled. The trail came off the river just as darkness fell, so I stopped for a hot drink and to get my head torch set up for the night ahead. I knew the next section wouldn't be particularly quick as the trail winds up and down, but I also knew that at the end of this section was Pelly Farm with Sue and Dales legendary hospitality and lasagne! My journey was frustrated, however, part way along - as I climbed to one of the higher sections, I found myself in an ice fog and at this point my headlamp flashed warning me that the batteries were about to run out - this is not normally a problem and happens regularly when travelling at night. I went though my usual routine - get out the spare head torch, locate the spare batteries and change them, however, the new batteries didn't work at all - I've never had that before and I didn't have an additional set as there was a drop bag at Pelly Farm that I had packed batteries for the next section in. Just as I was thinking maybe I could make do with my spare head torch, that started to flash, telling me the batteries were low. With no more spare batteries I tried to travel without a light.
In the ice fog there was no moon and so the darkness was complete, even knowing where to place each foot was a challenge and I began to think I would never get to the farm if I couldn't move a bit faster. Eventually I decided that I would have to make use of the only batteries I had, and so, in the darkness, I managed to locate my SPOT tracker and remove the batteries and get them in to my head torch (apologies to all those who were watching and thought I had stopped!). Once again I was on my way and my spirits were lifted further as the northern lights gave a show as I moved on down the trail. After what seemed like a very long night, I found myself standing looking at the 'you made it' sign (I literally found myself there, I don't remember the previous mile or so of the trail at all), I felt relieved, but at the same time knew there was still some way to go to get to the farm. At this point my torch once again faded and I spent much time wandering round trying to get in to the farm - I couldn't pick out makers without a light and could barely make out buildings. At one point I unhitched my sled and went to look for the way, encouraging the dogs to take me home... this was a mistake, not only did the dogs not take me, but I couldn't find where I had left my sled! After some time all the barking caused Mike to come out and he guided me in to the farm.
As soon as I arrived (about 6am, I believe), Sue presented me with one of her famous lasagne and a pot of tea, I proceeded to demolish both! Following that I tried to get some rest, but my chest was really causing me problems - Sue was brilliant, making me endless mugs of hot lemon and honey and giving me something to lean up on to try to stop my coughing. I decided to get up at midnight and leave the farm at 2am to head for Scroggie Creek. The medics were at the farm and they agreed to drain and tape my feet before everyone went to bed - by now two of my toes were so blistered that the nails and whole nail beds were floating on a huge bubble of bluster that extended over the end of the toes and round the sides. In addition the original heel blisters had now lost more layers of skin and were wet with blister and blood. The medics were great and very patient with me as the toe blisters particularly were extremely sore to touch. However, it seemed I broke the medic, as in the middle of sorting my feet she fainted and had to be treated herself... I know my feet were a state, but I hadn't realised they were that hideous!
Following that incident the other medic finished off draining and taping for me and I again tried to get some sleep. As planned we got up at midnight and were presented with a fantastic Pelly Farm breakfast of pancakes, bacon and eggs. As we packed and got ready it became apparent that I may have a problem - with my normal socks on, my feet would not fit in my shoes no matter how hard I tried to force them. I found some very thin liner socks in my kit and tried again with these, now I could get my left foot in my shoe, but my right foot still wouldn't go. I decided that I should go outside and see if this would settle once I was moving - indeed I did manage to get my foot in the shoe after a little while walking on the trail, though the pain in both feet, particularly the toes which had been crammed in with all their dressings was intense.
I talked through the options with Mike as a few things occurred to me - one was that my feet were far from warm as they were and I was fairly sure that I wouldn't be able to get thicker socks on for the rest of the race, another was that I would need to bivy on the way to Scroggie, and if I couldn't get my shoes on after that I would be stuck and the third was that the pain was going to mean moving more slowly and while it may ease and allow better pace with time, it was just as likely to get worse and treating blisters on the next section would be far more difficult. At this point I headed back to the farm to officially scratch from the race - disappointing, but without doubt the right decision.
Five days on my feet are still recovering, I have now lost the nails and all surrounding skin on my toes and they are now open and wet, but healing well, my heels are also still open but healing well. My extremely sore mouth is finally recovered and I can eat in comfort, but my cough and chest is proving more difficult to shake off.
Looking back through this account there are many things that I have missed and many people who I haven't mentioned by name - to all of them/ you, a huge thank you, this race is about so much more than getting from A to B and all of the people involved are what make for such a great event. Thank you to all, and thank you to all of you who supported me from afar, following my tracker every step of my journey - I definitely thought of you all watching a number of times when I was struggling to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and that image of you kept me moving :-)
A special thank you to my brother, Andy - I have never spent so much time telling myself, one foot in front of the other, just one foot in front of the other... even as I tried to leave Pelly Farm and was heading beck, I was telling myself one foot in front of the other... giving up is not an option! Thank you to you and Amanda for introducing me to such fantastic madness as this... unbelievable experiences that I never dreamed I could be a part of.
Mike is now packing and getting ready to head off to Alaska to take part in the Iditarod Invitational, having spent three weeks here supporting me and the race generally - thank you for everything you have done and for being here with me.
As you know I didn't make it to the end of the race, however, I was very pleased with my performance and stopping when I did was definitely the right decision.
Two days before the race I came down with a sore throat, upset stomach and aching joints and I was seriously thinking I wouldn't make it to the start line. In fact it was a good thing I had done most of my prep in advance as I spent most of the day before the race in bed. I managed to get up for the pre-race dinner, was able to eat a good meal, and decided I would make the start line and see how things went from there.
The start was pretty cold and a good number of people were caught out and scratched early on. I struggled with the first 25miles as I had a bit of a fever, so keeping warm and not sweating was quite a challenge. I managed to eat a bit of the soup provided at the 25mile checkpoint, but couldn't manage the sandwich or cake, and about an hour out of the checkpoint I was sick. This then set the tone for the whole night - every time I tried to eat or drink I would be sick, if I didn't eat or drink I would be sick every couple of hours anyway. This was a real issue in -45c and every time I was sick a chill went through my body. In the end I decided to get my head down, dig deep and make a strike for the 56mile checkpoint, Dog Grave Lake, where I could re-assess.
At the checkpoint I looked so rough that the staff decided I should not leave until I had eaten something and kept it down. I bivied there for a couple of hours, then got up and ate, very slowly. After an hour it seemed my stomach had recovered so I headed back out on the trail towards Braeburn and the 100mile checkpoint. It was another cold day and night (-49c as I crossed Braeburn lake), I managed to eat and drink a little on the way and was only sick once more, after I had stopped for a cup of coffee. Mike came out from Breaburn to meet me and walk me in the last bit, which was great, having travelled alone all the way so far. On arrival at Braeburn, I ordered food and ate about 8 spoonfuls before being sick again. At this point I decided that the smart thing to do was to lie down for a few hours rest and see how things were after that. On getting up, I was feeling much better and ordered a Braeburn breakfast which I demolished in record time! After dressing my blisters (right heal - open and wet and right little toe also open and missing some skin!), sorting my drop bag and packing my sled, I set out for Ken Lake.
On my way over the chain lakes, I had the usual feeling of being on a conveyor belt and not making any progress, particularly on the longest lakes which are up to 10k to cross. Darkness came quickly again and travelling alone in the dark, became a game to distract my mind from thoughts of sleeping. I came across glare ice, where overflow had frozen and started to carefully make my way across... only not carefully enough, as I stepped on to one section, having checked with my poles that it was solid, it turned out not to be all that solid and my feet went through in to the water below. I stopped immediate and changed my shoes and socks - although the overflow wasn't all that deep, it had gone over the tops of both shoes. I had a time enjoying the nighttime trail across the lakes, planning things back home in my head and happily singing to myself. The a further challenge arose as snow started to fall - the sparkling flakes making it hard to pick out the marker posts ahead and work out which direction to travel in. Looking down for the trail was no help either as the snow had not only covered all other tracks, but had filled in the trail completely. I ended up using my poles to locate the harder trail in between being able to see the next marker posts. This meant that progress was slower and I was getting more desperate to see the check point as it became harder to keep my morale up. Eventually, I thought I saw lights ahead, though I couldn't be sure at first... after some time it became clear that the checkpoint staff had come out to meet me - how fantastic it was to see them! I was fairly exhausted by this point and I'm not sure that I made it clear how great it was to see them, I was able to thank them later though and I think they understood! At the checkpoint, I sat in the wall tent with three other competitors and ate a fantastic chilli beef dinner and drank mugs of tea. I bivied out for a few hours and then set about getting ready to leave.By this point my sore throat had become a very chest cough and while getting my stuff together I was struggling with coughing fits that were leaving me with difficulty breathing. The checkpoint staff were brilliant and gave me a herbal tea and said I shouldn't leave until I had coughed up, so that they could see the colour and assess if it was safe for me to continue! Upon coughing up some dark green phlegm, I was given the all clear ('its ok, that's just infection, nothing serious', apparently pink or red and I would have been stopped), and I set out, knowing that the snow machine crew would be checking on me in a couple of hours as they headed for Carmacks.
Once on the move again, my chest settled down and my feet settled in to my shoes, though by now they were getting quite tight and uncomfortable to get on. Crossing the last big lake, I could hear the wind as I approached and indeed it was a very cold windy crossing, where I pulled everything out of my hat and buff bag and put it on my head to protect from the wind! The trail guides passed just as I was getting towards the end of the lakes and I gave them the thumbs up and they headed on their way. Once again, it got dark very quickly as I headed along the trail towards Carmacks. The thought of the luxury of the community centre and seeing Mike at the checkpoint kept me going through the night. The ups and downs on the approach to the river, proved challenging on my feet which were now blistered on both heels and several toes. It was a huge boost when I saw a light coming towards me and realised it was Mike who had come to meet me... it was a disappointment to hear that there was still over two hours to go to the checkpoint, though. It was great to have company for a little bit of the trail, as I continued to travel alone between the checkpoints, but I was aware that my pace had slowed as Mike had to wait for me at regular intervals. Eventually, I pulled in to Carmacks, and Philippa (volunteer) presented me with a most welcome cup of tea!
Carmacks was a luxury stop, as expected, I ate well and got some sleep, however, I was struggling to sleep with my cough, which had come back in a big way since I was indoors. I was aware that lying in the sleeping area coughing was likely to be disturbing other competitors and so I got up a few times to get a drink of water. I had cleaned all my blisters and left them open in the hope that giving them chance to dry out a bit would be good for them. However, each time I got up to move the dried out blisters particularly on the backs of my heels cracked and bled. Eventually, I dressed all my blisters, got my drop bag sorted, packed my sledge and made a move to head out on the trail again.
This was one of the hardest sections for me to set out on, I struggled to squeeze my feet in to my shoes, with the blisters and dressings on my toes making it very tight and uncomfortable and I knew it was a long and tough section that lay ahead. I stood outside the checkpoint wondering why I was setting off again, given that at that moment the best I could do was a kind of shuffle and hobble down to the river. I managed to pull myself together and set off, though my mood was low as I left Mike and the other friendly faces behind. Soon I was moving more easily and was making my way along the trail in the dark, my mood lifted by memories of previous years on this section of the trail. The first 10 miles passed in good time, and I enjoyed being out there once again. Things changed as the trail dropped on to the river ice - the freeze this year had formed very jumbled ice and the trail was very difficult to negotiate and to haul a sled over. With sore feet it was difficult to manage as each footfall landed at a different angle - this caused me to twist my knee and fall, after which I was even more cautious of the jumble ice trail and I knew that the trail would drop on to the river at least two more times. Again, as the night progressed it became more difficult to keep control of my mind as a combination of sleep deprivation and pain tried to take over. I decided that as soon a daylight came and one of the trail crew passed I would scratch from the race and get a ride to the checkpoint. Eventually daylight came and I knew I was just a couple of hours from the checkpoint, again my pace had slowed and I couldn't pick it up at all because of the pain in my feet and toes, equally, I couldn't stop because getting going again was so painful. Eventually, I arrived at McCabe Creek, and on entering the check point I announced that I was expecting to scratch here, but that I would eat and sleep before making the final decision.
After I had eaten and slept at the checkpoint, the medic there and Philippa helped me to drain and dress my feet and once again I felt good to continue - what a difference a little sleep, a good feed and some caring support staff can make (and of course an additional boost from Mike who had arrived at the checkpoint to work soon after I arrived)!
I headed out of McCabe Creek in good spirits and seemed to cover the dreaded powerline section to Minto in much quicker time than expected.
To be continued...
Marianne Heading discovered winter endurance racing in 2007, while working as a volunteer for the Yukon Arctic Ultra. This experience inspired her to take up running and go back to the Yukon as a competitor. Since 2007 she has been back to the YAU 6 times, completing both the 100 and 300mile versions. In 2011 she became the first European female to complete the 300mile YAU! Events are not a regular feature, but other races she has taken part in, include the Semi-Raid Reunion, Roveaneimi150, Four Inns and a number of LDWA and other local events - recoding those taken part in since 2015 here. Being outdoors and enjoying the countryside and wildlife are a higher priority than being fast... luckily! Training runs and walks are often prolonged by a break to do some foraging or to take in the scenery!