Post-MYAU Update! For those of you who read my race report, I talked about the joy of realising that the yellow ‘trail marker’ ahead was in fact a candle indicating I had almost reached the Ken Lake checkpoint, below is the photo I took that the time – you’ll see a trail marker first and the light of the candle beyond… it doesn’t look much, but it brought a huge amount of joy to me that night!
While out on the trail I recorded a few short video clips, mostly I think to distract myself from what I was doing and I had completely forgotten about these until several weeks after I got home. I have posted links to them here, some of them give an idea of what it is like on a few sections of the trail, though they are very short and wobbly!
YAU 2019 - My Race Experience As the start of the 2019 MYAU got underway we set off down the Yukon River, I was determined to stick to my plan and not waste energy passing people on this first section of the race, so although I was moving a little more slowly I stayed in my place in the line and waited for the field to spread out a little. By half way to the first checkpoint at 20 miles things began to spread as people stopped for food, drink or a wee (apologies to whoever it was that followed me off the trail and had to wait while I stopped for a wee – its not quite so easy for us girls!!). As I approached the first checkpoint my spirits were lifted seeing the sun surrounded by rainbow colours (known as a sundog). I was soon in and back out of the checkpoint at Muktuk having been checked for frostbite and given a bowl of hot soup and I headed along the river for another 10 miles to the Dawson overland trail, getting my head torch on along the route.
As soon as I climbed up from the river, I began to question my decision to take part in the race – on every incline it felt like a real struggle to pull my sled up behind me, I didn’t remember it being this hard when I was here 4 years ago and I was concerned. I began to feel tired and a little nauseous, so after a bit of debate I decided that I would have a lie down at the next opportunity even though it was only 11pm. That opportunity came very quickly as I spotted a patch of dog straw left by a Yukon Quest team the previous day. I set up my bivy and lay down for a couple of hours, it wasn’t long before another competitor joined me in my spot setting up his sleeping system on the next patch of straw. I felt better after a rest and set off for the next checkpoint at Dog Grave Lake, though I was still finding pulling the sled hard and I knew that there was one significant climb before I would reach the checkpoint.
I finally arrived at Dog Grave Lake at 8am snow falling steadily, again there was a frostbite check of fingers and toes to be completed before being given hot stew, bread and a cookie. I stayed a little longer than planned enjoying sitting by the fire outside, but eventually I headed off towards Braeburn with the plan to sleep again along the way. My bivy this time was during daylight hours, in steadily falling snow, I had a very comfortable rest and got up feeling refreshed and ready to push on to Braeburn.
Braeburn came a little unexpectedly – when I saw the trail turn down to Braeburn lake I was still looking for the 10k tunnel of trees which is notorious for being such at challenge at this point in the race, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed I’d been in it for the last 2 hours! As usual the drag up from the lake to lodge went on and on, sliding back down the steep little slopes, using poles and hands and kicking toe holds. On arrival at the lodge, I ordered the classic, giant Braeburn Burger, and proceeded to eat three quarters of it without a pause – the rest was wrapped up and finished off after a few hours sleep.
Setting out from Braeburn I knew that the next 78miles were less well travelled trail – the Quest hadn’t gone over this section because of a lack of snow – and was not sure what to expect. It started out well – the fresh snow making the going soft particularly on the lakes, however, trail conditions soon deteriorated and became increasingly difficult, the up-side was that it was a bright sunny day which lifted spirits and made my cook-out stop all the more enjoyable. While I was eating my noodles with sausage and cheese I re-boiled the water in my thermos to ensure I had plenty of hot drinks going in to the night. Soon after this Pat passed me on her bike, we had a quick chat and other than as a small dot on the 10k lake, I didn’t see her (or anyone else) until I reached Ken Lake. My plan had been to bivy on the way to the Ken Lake checkpoint, but by the time I started to look for a suitable spot to lie down the options were limited as the swampy ground was full of sharp sticks and twigs and was rough which meant risking damage to my sleeping system, the other option was to lie down on one of the many lakes – this I would reserve as final option as lying on the lake ice was always going to be cold. In the end, I didn’t feel too bad in terms of the need for sleep and I pushed on; I avoided getting wet at an open creek, opting to put on my overboots and try to manoeuvre my sled round the open water without either me or the sled getting wet, this was a bit of a challenge as there was only a narrow ledge to get across, but I made it in the end. On several occasions I looked around in the moonlight and thought to myself, I’m sure this is Ken Lake or just before, but each time was disappointed to find it wasn’t, I began to realise I was getting increasingly weary and decided that at the next lake/land point I would have a lie down for a couple of hours; something kept me moving though and on getting to the next lake I thought to myself, I’ll just get round this corner then I’ll stop. As I rounded the corner, the trail markers shone out across the lake, but the furthest one I could see was yellow, not white – I stood and stared and decided my eyes must be playing tricks on me, I moved off again, by this time counting trail markers to keep myself going… after 5 more I stopped and stared again at the yellow marker – this time I covered my headlamp and sure enough the yellow light remained… with a huge grin spreading across my face I realised that I had reached the Ken Lake checkpoint, and with my lamp still off, I looked up to see the Northern Lights dancing across the sky, the whole width of the horizon, it seemed there was a greater force out there guiding and celebrating with me and I headed for the checkpoint in high spirits.
I ate and dried off some gear at Ken Lake while I had a lie down outside, I had an expedition meal before leaving the checkpoint and set off across the lakes once again, successfully negotiating more open water between lakes. My mood was lower as I set off though I wasn’t sure why, I just wasn’t feeling refreshed at all – later I would realise that hormones were probably to blame as before the end of the day my period had unexpectedly begun adding another challenge to the trail. As I climbed off the last long lake I came across the photographers and skidoo guides, stopping for a chat with them really lifted my spirits, though looking at the video clip they recorded I was pretty tired and fed up of the tough trail.
Not too long after leaving the photographers, I decided it was time for a mood boost, so I stopped and made hot food and drink; at this point I was still thinking I may bivy once darkness came, but in the event my energy levels returned after dark and I decided to push on for Carmacks.
On arrival at Carmacks, the first thing I noticed was stepping off the river on to the road to the checkpoint, the ground was so hard – I hadn’t stepped on anything that firm since Braeburn and my feet and legs didn’t seem to know how to walk on it! I remember being greeted at Carmacks by Robert and Diane and saying to Robert, ‘that was really hard… but that’s the nature of the race, there’s something every time that makes it harder and not knowing what it is and being able to manage it is the challenge’.
Having made it to Carmacks over some of the most difficult trail I have experienced, I gave myself an extended rest period before I headed back out on the trail towards McCabe Creek, I felt sore and battered and my feet were swollen as I headed out but knew this would ease as I got going. The first section of the trail here joins a ‘road’ and climbs steadily, compared to the previous section from Braeburn to Carmacks the going was relatively easy and I was able to progress along the trail comfortably. At approximately 15 miles in I decided to stop for my usual hot meal boost – I set up the stove and was very soon eating noodles with sausage and cheese. I packed everything away, got in to my harness and went to set off… only to find that I couldn’t. Each time I tried to move forward and the harness pulled on my right hip, rather than stepping forward and pulling the sled, my back collapsed and I found myself in a folded heap. I realised that if I took the weight of the sled on the trekking pole in my right hand and pulled the weight with that arm I could stay upright and move; however, I also realised this was not a long-term solution as my right elbow had been uncomfortable since before Ken Lake and I was intermittently getting stabbing pains in the elbow. I took my harness off and held it in my left hand dragging my sled as I thought through my options, I came up with three:
Bivy and press help, though as it was now getting dark I would expect to wait for morning for help, therefore this wasn’t an immediate option, and as always I would prefer to find an alternative as apart from this issue with my back I was feeling good;
Bivy for a few hours and see if I can move better then – seems like a good idea, but doesn’t resolve the issue and my back will likely get worse over the course of this section as it is a long slog to McCabe;
Find another way to move my sled along the trail – this would be my best option, but how do I do this? I gave some though as to what was causing my problem and decided that it was the side to side jolting on my hips that was twisting my back so much and had been all the way over the rough trail the days before, therefore I decided I need to find a way of reducing the sided to side jolting.
I stopped again and this time got out my ‘repair’ kit, I removed the crossed poles that I was using to pull my sled and replaced this system with a rope only option made from my spare hauling rope – I tied this together to make one central line and clipped it to my harness. I set off again and was immediately impressed by how much more smoothly the sled ran behind me with a lot less jolting… and I’m off again, not too much time lost and a lot more comfortable.
However, the relief was short lived and very soon my back and arm were bothering me again and I had to re-start the thinking process. This time I was trying to think if I could pull with another part of my body or maybe even push the sled… eventually, I decided the only option was to try to rig my harness to pull from my shoulders. After some time making adjustments and fiddling with the harness, I had it sorted – the hip belt now round my ribs and the shoulder straps pulled tight with the karabiners attached directly here rather than to the belt. Cautiously I put the harness on and took the weight of the sled – immediately I felt it pull back and down on my shoulders which felt such a relief, stretching out my back and forcing me more upright – I’d cracked it, this would at least get me to McCabe! I set off again feeling pleased with my latest invention.
All went well following my adjustments, until I hit the river for the first time and started moving through the jumble ice – I immediately realised I couldn’t use the set up I had as every lump and bump in the river ice was yanking at my shoulders which would very quickly be in the same state as my back if I continued. Initially, I wrapped the rope behind me round my had and pulled the sled along – this worked except that it cut in to my hand and stopped the circulation which was not good especially in this cold. Another idea came to mind and I stopped once again, this time taking my saw out of my pulk and cutting a piece of the tubing from my now defunct poles, threading with rope, and attaching to the new pulling rope, thus giving me a handle to grab to pull the sled along on the jumble ice. This final adjustment worked well and got me the rest of the way to McCabe Creek checkpoint, though it made for an even longer leg than planned in terms of time taken!
Once at the checkpoint, talking to Laura who always pulls with rope rather than poles, she explained that what I needed was a shock absorber. I gave this some thought while I rested and eventually realised that I had 2 bungee cords on the top of my sled that I used just to keep it compact and to hold on an additional layer and snow shoes etc. I managed to rig one of these with the help of cable ties and duck tape again from my repair kit and with this set up I finally had a system that worked and I no longer needed the handle I had created earlier. I continued the rest of the race with this set up and pulling my sled from my shoulders.
I got some rest at McCabe checkpoint, again I was there with Laura and Pat and we had a ‘Girl Power’ photo taken there – they are both amazing women and I was proud to be there with them representing the women in the race, all supporting and encouraging each other.
Setting out for Pelly Crossing, I knew that despite this being one of the shorter legs, I was going to find it tough – I always find the long section along the pylons a struggle and the soft trail didn’t make it any easier. I played cat and mouse with Pat for a little way before she eventually got ahead gaining advantage on the lakes on her bike. I plodded on, doing some minor ‘faffing’ with my sled, though more for an excuse to stop than out of necessity – I even put my sled in front of me on one of the lakes, pushed my trekking poles in the back and pushed the sled along – not a very efficient way to move, but it made a change! Rounding the bend and dropping on to one of the last bigger lakes, I came across Gary on his skidoo, a quick encouraging chat and I set off again in higher spirits. Before too long (and on this race that means less than 5 hours for example!) I got the first glimpse of the lights of Pelly Crossing, I took it steady, knowing too well that there are still hours to go at this point. One of the highlights again for me was being met on my approach to Pelly Crossing and walked in by volunteer Julie – always encouraging, always smiling, it was a great boost in to the checkpoint, thank you Julie!
As always the checkpoint at Pelly Crossing was chaotic, initially I felt a bit lost in all the noise and chaos, but then got myself together and started getting sorted – eat, sleep, sort drop-bag, eat again and go!
Heading out of Pelly Crossing, I knew there was five miles to cover on the river before the trail joined the Farm Road – I decided I would try to get these ‘easy’ miles knocked off as a bonus start to the day – it was always going to be a day of high spirits if for no other reason than that I was heading to the farm and in my mind I was already imagining being greeted with a big hug from Sue and then being ushered in to the house and fed lasagne and generally be looked after until I was ready to leave again. Soon after getting off the river and climbing on the road the sun came up and the landscape was stunning, I stopped for coffee and biscuits and to enjoy simply being there in such a beautiful and vast wilderness. As I continued I saw a number of crew through the day – more than I had seen on any other stretch of the race; Yann again stopped to chat and it was only at this point when he asked me how I felt about leading the 300mile race, that I realised I was! It was hard to know how I felt about it – I had come here having challenged myself to complete the 300miles and to do it within the time limit with a focus on eating well and resting well, winning the race had never crossed my mind until this minute. As it turned out, I couldn’t get fired up about the possibility of winning, there were still a lot of miles to go (40+), I didn’t know how close the next competitor was and I was certain that I didn’t want to cut short my visit to Pelly Farm!
I arrived at the Farm in good time, well ahead of where I expected to be – I had moved along pretty consistently all day and it had knocked a couple of hours of my estimated time of arrival. I again had to compose myself as I passed the ‘You made it’ sign at the farm entrance, I couldn’t believe I had made it and was still feeling good. As planned I ate, chatted and slept for five hours – the best sleep I had had on the whole race. I set off in the early hours of the morning knowing that I just had to complete the next 30miles and then I could stop… forever! The thought of stopping was what kept me moving all day and as I dropped back on to the river for the last five miles the thought that I was going to complete this challenge I had set myself and complete it better than I ever imagined I could became a reality and I had to stop to wipe away the tears and compose myself. As I got closer to the finish I was met by the photographers and things started to get even more real; again Julie came out to meet me and gave me a hug, she walked for a little way then disappeared off so I could walk in on my own, again I paused to compose myself as emotions took over. I thought I should get prepared to lift my arms in the air as I crossed the finish, but on giving this a go I realised that I still couldn’t move forward without my poles on the ground and therefore lifting my arms led to stumbling forward and stopping! I decided I would just have to go for the understated crossing the finish line and sitting down option! In the end I was greeted by Robert and Diane along with other crew members – I love the photo of me on the finish line with the whole gang that were there… though it shows just how sore my back was as I am so folded over I appear to be much shorter than everyone else!
The whole thing of winning the 300 mile MYAU still seems very surreal, I’m not yet convinced that I didn’t dream it all – once finished, a lift was waiting to take me back to Whitehorse, so finishing didn’t sink in and I didn’t get to see any of my fellow competitors cross the finish line. I spent a few days in my hotel room in Whitehorse convinced it was a dream, though my body was certainly telling me I put it through something it would have preferred not to go through!
Arrival and preparations The journey to Whitehorse went very smoothly and I arrived at the hotel with all my luggage, ready for a good nights sleep after a loooong day travelling. Of course, my brain hadn’t tuned in to the 8hr time difference and after only 3hrs sleep I was wide awake and by 4:30am I was unpacking my gear and waiting for breakfast to open! It was good to catch up with YAU friends at breakfast, and standing in the High Country Inn, chatting to Nicole it really felt like coming home. It was quite a battle to stay awake all day on Wednesday, but I managed to have 3 meals at relatively normal times and get to bed after dinner. I slept well, though I was awake and up early again, so by the time I went for breakfast I had already planned my day including what I would have for my breakfast!! Preparation for the race is now underway – I’ve had two trips out to the shops and I now have a lot of food to get sorted in to packs for my sled and my drop bag, I will then assess and draw up a list of additional shopping! I have also made a few adjustments to my race kit, once again putting my sewing skills in to practice… it’s a good thing that my work needs to be strong rather than pretty… I will never make a good seamstress!! The weather here is changing, I arrived to find it unusually warm at -1 and yesterday snow fell for much of the day. Currently it is -20 bright and sunny, it is due to be -29 tonight and -36 by Saturday, so much more the norm. On Saturday the Yukon Quest, 1000mile dog sled race, sets off from Whitehorse and the first of the dog trucks have started to arrive in town – its great to see the dogs sticking their heads out to see whats going on! The start of the Quest will be one of the highlights of the trip and I’ll be out watching them head off on the trail that we will be following the next day. Now I must get back to sorting my trail food and making notes of all the things still to be done before the race starts…
The training and preparation is complete and the adventure begins!
Training for the MYAU kicked off this year with a trip at the end of August to Austria to run the 33mile Karwendelmarsh in the Alps; training continued through the Autumn, with a mix of running and walking in the Peak District and also included the 3 day Druids Challenge in early November. Kit checking and preparation went on throughout, with some upgrades being made to my usual kit – some to meet the new MYAU rules, such as a higher spec down jacket than the one I’ve used for the last 12 years (so probably due for replacement) and additional thermos flasks to meet the requirement. My focus on this years event is to sleep better and fuel better than I have in previous years, so I have also invested in a winter sleeping mat to go with the bivvy that Mike gave me for my birthday earlier in the year… hopefully a bit of ‘luxury’ will help me manage the sleep deprivation!
As always life created some disruptions to my training plan, so it has at times felt like I haven’t done as much training as I would have liked, but I have learnt both to plan more than I think I need knowing that things never go to plan and also not to get too hung up on the quantity of training, doing what will fit in with the rest of life and making sure to have time for other preparations is just as important.
Yesterday, I had one last run through my kit and got it all packed, only to find that the large holdall I always use had two large tears round the handles! I don’t know how I missed this before Christmas when I got it down from the loft, however, there was no way that the bag containing 32kg of my clothes and kit was going to survive 4 flights… as it was by this time late morning on Sunday and I was due to leave home on Monday I was wondering what alternative I could come up with, luckily Mike came to the rescue giving me his bag as he doesn’t set out for Alaska for a couple of weeks so will be able to buy a replacement bag… first hic-up successfully resolved!
Today, I spent a lovely couple of hours out walking with Tahra on the hills at home, bright sunshine and frosty ground and trees – reminded me how lucky we are to live where we do. Following a bit of shuffling of gear between luggage to get under the weight limit, I then loaded my holdall, sled box, rucksack, shoulder bag and overnight bag in to my car and headed South to London Heathrow. I am now checked in to the hotel at the airport hoping for a good night’s sleep, ready for the rest of my journey tomorrow, first to Vancouver and then on to Whitehorse… let the adventure begin!