I arrived in Whitehorse, Yukon a day later than intended, having missed my flight from Vancouver due to a delay on my flight from London. So the first night of my trip was spent in Vancouver airport passing the time until midday the following day when I could get the next available flight north. Fortunately, I had planned enough days for preparation and acclimatisation that this didn’t make me short of time.
The first couple of days were spent preparing and testing gear and acclimatising to the -30c degree temperatures. It was two days before the race that things started to go less to plan, when I woke with a sore throat and aching muscles and joints through my body. I struggled to sit through the race briefing and went straight back to my room to lie down when it was over. I slept most of the day and began to think that my race was going to be over before it had started. As the start got closer, I did myself a deal – if I could go to the pre-race dinner and eat a good meal, then I would head to the start line the next day and see how things went from there. Fortunately, I got out of bed in time for the pre-race dinner and felt comparatively OK, so I could now thing about getting to the start again.
On the morning of the race I woke up early and made tea, I sat in bed to drink mine while Mike got ready and headed off to carry out his role as a volunteer support crew member. I then had a shower, not rushing and making the most of it, knowing that it could be some time before my next opportunity for such a luxury. I had breakfast in my hotel room rather than going to the hotel dining room to avoid the possibility of added stress and to enable me to eat a plain breakfast at my own pace as I still wasn't feeling great.
The support crew will transport sleds to the start, but I opted to walk mine there, so I arrange to meet Philippa and walk down together. On the way we meet other competitors, including Nicole (who I met at the YAU in 2013 and became good friends with), so we join up and walk together. I’m feeling more nervous than excited and am pleased that one of the buildings at the start is open and there is a washroom we can use before we set off.
The call goes out for everyone to make their way forward for the start line photo, but on getting close I realise that there are too many people to get in to the space available, so I make my way back to my sled. The start line is crowded and everyone is getting prepared and organised before the countdown starts, then we’re off… well, once everyone in front has got organised and started moving we’re off! Very soon I’m walking down the river from Whitehorse again. The temperature is not as cold as had been suggested, but is still in to the 30’s below freezing and it will get colder overnight. The trail is hard packed and fast, I’m careful not to go too quickly on this first section having been feeling quite unwell the last couple of days, I don’t want to be pushing myself harder than necessary.
On the way to the Takini bridge (half way on the marathon route and where the trail moves off the Yukon river and on to the Takini river), I’m already wondering why I’m doing this again. I try to eat a granola bar, but find that I just can’t swallow it, it goes round and round in my mouth and the thought of swallowing makes me quite nauseous. Eventually, I have a drink from my drink bladder1 and manage to wash it down. I keep drinking from the bladder all the way along this section of the
1An insulated 3 litre bladder holder, with a water ‘bag’ inside, which I have made in to a backpack, with shoulder straps. I wear this over my baselayer and under everything else. It has an insulated pipe and bite-valve which comes under my arm and lodges under my layers against my chest. After taking a drink, it is essential to ‘blow back’ so that there is no water in the tube or valve that could freeze.
When I reach the Takini bridge Diane is there cheering everyone on, I guess I must not have been feeling great as I distinctly remember saying to her, ‘don’t ever accept an entry from me for this race again!’, not the best mindset about 12miles in to the race! Diane was very positive shouting her encouragement and I pushed on down the river.
By the time I reached the first checkpoint and marathon finish, I was very uncomfortable and as usual found the checkpoint did nothing to lift my spirits (there’s no problem with the checkpoint as such, but I seem to have developed a ‘thing’ about it and find it hard to be there and get back out again every time I do the race). The checkpoint is an outdoor only checkpoint with a fire for athletes to stand around while they eat.
Mike greeted me, and almost straight away the Japanese camera crew were filming and asking me about my journey so far, I found it all very confusing and didn’t really get why they were filming me (turns out it was because I was the first 430mile female to the checkpoint, but I had no idea and at 25miles in this is largely irrelevant). I stood by the fire drank two mugs of tea and ate most of a bowl of soup, I also had a sandwich in my hand, but I couldn’t manage to eat that.
Looking for the answer in a mug of tea at Rivendell checkpoint
I went back to my sled and decided I would have a change of top layers, so I took my smock and base layer off and changed in to a different base layer and several other layers that I had on my sled, ready for the night. I then decided it was time to leave the checkpoint so I left my down jacket off and packed that in to my sled bag too. Mike helped me to get my sled out after trying unsuccessfully to persuade me to eat more of the sandwich or have a cake to take with me. I didn’t need to fill my drink bladder or flasks before I left as I hadn’t used anything from the flasks or much from the bladder.
I headed off down the river with a plan to keep going until the trail brought me up off the river – having done this first part of the trail a number of times, I find it a bit uninspiring, but I know that as the race goes on the scenery becomes more varied and the racers get more spread out on the trail and life becomes more interesting.
Things changed for me about an hour and a half out of Rvendell (CP1), when I suddenly felt very sick and vomited, only just managing to get my frozen facemask and buff out of the way in time. I continued a bit further as night fell, feeling quite unwell and eventually, having climbed up from the river and away from the coldest spots, decided the thing to do was bivy for a few hours and hopefully I would feel better. However, having set up my bivy and got in, I was feeling extremely nauseous and became worried that if I vomited in my bivy I was going to be in trouble, so I got up, packed my bivvy away and set off again. Very soon after I vomited again, this time a wave of cold followed through my body and I quickly moved off to get warmed up again.
During this time I was leapfrogging Peter Mild on the trail and at first I was able to say hello each time we passed, but soon I was feeling so bad I was simply concentrating on keeping myself going in a safe state. I did later apologise for my anti-social behaviour, and again apologies to Peter, nothing personal, just the circumstances and finding a way to manage myself.
Once I was comfortable that I was warm, I thought about my options. It was, as predicted a cold night, with temperatures of -40C and lower. I decided that the best thing for me was to get my head down and push on to Dog Grave Lake and the 65mile checkpoint. Along the way, I was vomiting each time I tried to drink or eat and when I didn’t try to eat or drink it was about every 2hours, each time a wave of cold went through my body. I spent the time making myself keep moving, changing my mitts as my hands got cold or warm, making exaggerated foot movements if my feet were feeling cool and concentrating on what my body was telling me while trying to put the nausea to the back of my mind.
I arrived at Dog Grave Lake in the morning, just before sunrise. I was absolutely exhausted and my first action was to sleep for three hours. After that I crawled out of my sleeping bag and made my way to the wall tent where Jessica and Mike were serving food. I must have looked pretty rough as Jessica immediately quizzed me and I explained what had happened on the trail since Rivendell. We agreed that I would not leave Dog Grave Lake unless I could eat the meal on offer and keep it down. I started eating very slowly a little at a time and eventually made it through the soup. I then went and sorted my sled, thinking that the movement would prove the food was staying where it should. When I came back I ate the sausage and eventually a cake square too. All seemed well, so after another hour I got ready to set out for Braeburn and the 100mile checkpoint. Shelley was also getting ready to leave, so we decided to leave together. However, I was ready and hitched up first, so to avoid getting cold I set off and Shelley said she would catch up down the trail.
As it turned out I didn’t see Shelley again until Braeburn, she wasn’t far behind but she didn’t catch up. I stopped regularly on this section, initially to change my layers having got moving in daylight and a little warmer temperatures, then to have a little drink of hot apple from my flask (one flask, the cup had frozen to, so I just left that and used the other flask (not putting the cup back on), and my bladder). As the night began, I added another layer set up my head torch and kept moving.All my stops on this section were only a few miniutes, to avoid getting cold, and again I spent a lot of time keeping myself going and reacting to what my body was telling me by putting on layers, removing layers, swinging arms, making exaggerated movements etc. It was good to know that at all times I had additional layers of tops, trousers, mitts, hats etc available on my sled, should I need them. This part of the trail is over land, initially through trees and then over more exposed areas, where in the night, the temperatures really began to fall and I was looking forward to getting back to the shelter of trees.
I was extremely pleased that I was only sick once and that was immediately after a drink so there was something there to come back. I spent some time working out the mileage and what time I could expect to be at the ‘tree tunnel of doom’2 and 10k or so later Braeburn lake and then the checkpoint. I was still on the exposed section and had just calculated that I had about 8hrs to go to the checkpoint when Gary came towards me on the snow-machine. I would not normally ask distances as this is not the function of the support team, but I was keen to be back in the shelter, so I asked how far it was to be back in trees. Gary’s response was that it was about 11k, this was not good news, so I said, ‘11k to get back in to trees?’, his response gave me a huge boost as he said, ‘no, 11k to the checkpoint!’, I couldn’t believe it and was very pleased and relieved (I have no idea what I had calculated, but it was clearly not what I intended!), soon I was on my way and found myself in the ‘tree tunnel of doom’.
2The ‘tree tunnel of doom’ is a 10k long section of the trail that is straight and goes through seemingly identical trees on both sides, giving the impression that you are not making any progress along the trail… maybe I’m on some king of conveyor belt… It comes just before the 100mile checkpoint, when you are tired and ready for a Braeburn burger and some warm shelter.
As usual, this section seemed longer than expected and my pace soon dropped back to normal having picked up after speaking to Gary. After some time I started to catch up with another racer and at first I thought they were looking round behind them regularly, but after a while I realised there was also a headtorch coming towards us on the trail. My initial thought was that someone was in trouble and coming for help, so I kept watching and thinking of possible scenarios and solutions as I got closer (it was by now a very cold night). The headtorch paused at the racer in front of me, but fairly quickly moved and kept coming towards me, which I thought was odd. As it came closer I realised it was Mike who had come out from Braeburn to cheer me on, another great boost and surprise especially as it had now got really cold. For the first time I had some company on the trail, although we actually didn’t communicate very much as we continued. When we eventually dropped from the trees on to Braeburn lake, I could feel the temperature drop (it was -49C on the lake), and I moved quickly across the lake and then started the long and winding climbs to get to the checkpoint.
On arrival at Braeburn my first challenge was to remove my balaclava, hat, face mask and buff which had all frozen solid and also frozen to my hair where it had escaped from under the hat.
Arrival at Braeburn checkpoint - the 100mile point - it was -49C just prior to arriving.
Once I had removed all my layers and put my frozen buff, facemask and hat to thaw and dry, I sat at one of the tables, ordered some food and enjoyed the warmth. When the food arrived I started to eat, but after about eight spoonful’s, I had to rush to the washroom where once again I vomited. At this point I decided that the best thing to do was lie down and sleep and re-assess the situation when I got up again. I slept in short bursts and in between I drank water and nibbled on a piece of plain bread that had come with the food earlier.
By the time I decided to get up I was feeling much better. I checked my feet knowing that there were a few blisters and found that my right heal and little toe were the worst with the skin having rubbed off both leaving them wet and tender. I dressed and taped these and taped other areas that are prone to blisters, then ordered a cooked breakfast and started getting my drop bag organised.
The breakfast was fantastic and I ate it all without any problem. Eventually, I had all my stuff together and I set out for Ken Lake, expecting that it would get dark somewhere around the first of the chain lakes.
Setting off from Braeburn to head to Ken Lake
I was enjoying being on the trail, having had a good sleep and feed at Braeburn, and I made sure I continued to eat and drink as I moved along the trail now that I could. Just before dropping on to the first very long lake, I added a mid-layer top and set up my head torch for the night and decided to get my MP3 player out in case I felt like music in the hours of darkness (as it turned out, my choice of headphone was poor and I could only get one in at a time, so either left or right and it was less than comfortable with the other one jabbing the side of my head. Additionally, this night I found it was too cold for the MP3 player to work, so I found one of the chemical hand warmers on my sled and wrapped it round the MP3 player, which solved the problem). It is a long 10k to cross the lake and at times it feels like despite putting one foot in front of the other you’re on a conveyor belt and not making any progress, especially when its dark and you can’t see the edges of the lake. I promised myself that when I got to the other side I would stop for a hot drink and some biscuits and this along with singing, thinking about the house that we had moved in to the day before flying out to the Yukon and imagining friends and family watching my dot on the tracking website, kept me going across the lake.
Having enjoyed a hot drink and biscuits, I continued dropping on to and climbing off lakes, the temperature was now rising. I came across some overflow, but on testing with my poles it seemed to have frozen in to glare ice, so I made my way across. There were several patches and each one I tested before crossing. One was a bit slushy on top, but it was just the top so I crossed, the next seemed fine, so I stepped on, only for my foot to go through the ice, my automatic reaction was to put the other foot in front to get out of the water, but that foot went through too. I quickly moved myself forward, out of the water and over the remaining ice. The water hadn’t been deep, but it was over the tops of my shoes, so I stopped and changed for dry socks and my spare shoes.
Frozen overflow - the ice is extremely slippery to negotiate and, as I was about to discover, is not always as thick as it seems!
Sometime after this, it started to snow as I continued to cross lakes and exposed areas of scrub. The snow posed a few problems that slowed me down. Firstly it very quickly covered the tracks of the cyclists ahead of me that I had been following, and then continued to fill in the trail altogether. Secondly, the snow sparkling in my head torch light made it difficult and sometimes impossible to pick out the next marker on the trail and therefore to know which direction I should be heading. I spent some time using my poles to feel for the compact trail under the snow and a number of times I stepped off the trail and in to the deeper snow.I began to wish that I had bivvied before I reached the open, exposed part that I was now on, but equally, I knew that I was not too far from the checkpoint.
Eventually, I thought I saw light ahead – at first I thought my eyes were playing tricks with the snow sparkling in my head torch, and at least once I switched my torch off to see if it was a light as I knew it wasn’t where the checkpoint should be. Sure enough as I got closer it became clear that there were people on the trail and when I got to them, I found it was the checkpoint volunteers who had come out to meet me. I was fantastic to see them and we walked on to the checkpoint together, I realised later that I was pretty quiet walking with them – I think a combination of relief that I was almost at the checkpoint, tiredness and weariness from looking for the markers filled my mind and there wasn’t room for conversation!
Once at the checkpoint, I made my way in to the little wall tent and found three other competitors in there including Pat. They had all been there some time and had eaten already. I sat quietly (except for the coughing which had increased since coming in to the warm tent) in the corner and enjoyed a bowl of chilli beef with cheese on top and bread. I debated with Pat whether I would sleep here (there was a fire and a platform of branches covered in canvas outside for competitors to sleep on if they wished), or whether to continue on towards Carmacks. Once the other competitors had gone I decided to sleep and got my sleeping bag out and settled down.
On getting up, I found that my cough had got worse and while I was in and out of the wall tent trying to get my stuff together and get ready to go, it was really causing me difficulties. I decided to go in the wall tent and make an expedition meal before I set off, and the checkpoint crew brought me a herbal tea bag for my cough, so I made and drank this too.
Once again, I started to get my sled ready to leave the checkpoint. This time, my cough was even worse when I went out to my sled and twice I had difficulty not to panic as I coughed so much that I couldn’t breathe in, my chest and throat were really gurgling and it felt like it was bubbling inside as if there was a fizzy drink stuck down in my lungs. Eventually, it was suggested that I shouldn’t leave the checkpoint until I had coughed up some of the phlegm to check the colour. This was not easy for me, but eventually I managed it and was pleased to hear that dark green was fine, just infection, so I could go on, had it been pink or red I wouldn’t have been going any further. By this time the snow machine crew had arrived and they said that they would check me on their way to Carmacks in about 2hours and if I was still having difficulty they would take me in on the snow machine.
Ken Lake checkpoint is high on the bank of the lake and there is a very steep climb up and drop back down which is extremely difficult when pulling a sled, so it was great that the checkpoint team helped us up and down. Prior to leaving, it was good to have a change of layers once again as the temperature continued to climb, in the daylight before I set off the temperature was reading -12C, a complete contrast from the first two days, this was the first time I wore my hat without a balaclava underneath. Once again I was on the trail and within a short time my cough had improved and I felt much more positive.
On the way to Carmacks there is one more very large lake to cross and it was still daylight on this section of the trail. As I approached the last big lake I could hear the wind whistling, so I stopped in the trees, did up the zips on my smock and my trousers, pulled my hat tight over my ears, and made sure my mouth and nose were well covered by my buff. I dropped on to the lake and the wind bit in to me, before long I could feel my left ear getting colder and starting to throb, knowing that the trail across this lake was 10k and not wanting to stop moving, I reached in to the glove and buff bag that I have attached to my harness and pulled something out. As it turned out it was a powerstretch neck gaiter, so I pulled the elastic at one end as tight as I could and pulled it on to my head as another layer over my hat. I must have looked quite comical, but I didn’t care, it had an immediate effect and once again I was comfortable. A little further on I similarly added another layer of mitts and spent a little time swinging my arms rather than using my poles until my hands were warm again. When the snowmachine crew caught up with me, I was happily moving towards the end of the lake, confident that I could make it to Carmacks under my own steam, so after a quick chat, they left me and headed to Carmacks themselves.
Once off the lakes, the route to Carmacks is a tree lined trail again, the sun set while I was on this section, and I was again happy travelling along the trail on my own through the night. Again, I had short stops for hot drinks and food as well as drinking from my bladder and nibbling from my ‘grub bag’ as I went along. Eventually, I dropped on to the river and it soon became apparent that the trail was taking a different route from previous years because of the jumble ice that had formed at freeze up this year. This section seemed to be very long and very slow as I was again getting more and more tired. The trail goes on and off the river and there are some extremely difficult, short, but very steep ups and downs which I found really hard to negotiate. Getting enough grip to pull the sled up was difficult, I couldn’t kick toe holes as my toes were very sore now and going up was pressing and rubbing on the blisters I now had on both heels. I struggled, using my poles to help me get up them and then had the challenge of getting down the equally steep slopes the other side. At one particularly bad and slightly longer one, I stood at the top looking at it debating whether to unhitch my sled and let it down in front of me (the sensible option that, I now know, I should have taken!), and decided that I would be OK as I could control my sled behind me. Of course, as soon as my sled crested the hill and started to push me from behind, I realised this was the wrong option - at first I started to run as it pushed, but soon I was doing ‘a superman’ – arms out in front, full length as I hit the ground and my, still attached, sled pushed me down the hill. Luckily for me, the fresh snow was soft and at the bottom I got up and brushed myself down checking there was no damage to me or my sled, I laughed to myself (I suspect out loud), having learned a lesson and been temporarily distracted from my very sore feet!
The sun setting through the trees between Ken Lake and Carmacks
As is often the case, it was further to the checkpoint than I remembered, and I started once again, to wonder what I was doing and why I was doing it, this wasn’t helped by my feet which were now very sore and extremely uncomfortable. The thought of arriving at Carmacks and being able to remove all the dressings and tape from my feet, wash them and let them air for a while, was keeping me going. I passed another racer, who was sitting on his sled under a tree, so I paused briefly to check he was OK and have a brief chat.
By the time I again dropped on to the river I was getting slower, lacking energy and motivation, but when I saw a head torch coming towards me, my spirits lifted as I felt sure it must be Mike come out to cheer me on. Sure enough it was and I was greeted with a big hug, lifting my spirits once again. I was slightly disappointed to hear that I was still 2hrs from the checkpoint, and even more so when Mike set off, with me following and I realised that I couldn’t anywhere near keep up with his pace, so it would be far more than 2hrs to the checkpoint at my pace. It was nice to have some company as almost all of my travelling I had done by myself so far, we didn’t talk much, partly because talking made me cough and by now both my mouth and tongue and my throat were very sore, we moved quietly one behind the other gradually shortening the distance between us and the checkpoint.
I was feeling tired and grumpy (as evidenced by the photo Philippa took below) and my feet were very sore by the time I got in to the checkpoint at Carmacks. However, once I had taken my shoes off and got out of my layers, Philippa brought me a cup of tea and some very welcome hot food and I felt much more cheerful again despite the chesty cough building up again since I had been in the checkpoint. I was able to remove all the tape and dressings from my feet and clean them thoroughly, I left them uncovered and prepared for a sleep, this ended up being very broken as I couldn’t control my cough and worried that I was disturbing others who were trying to sleep. I got up a number of times to get a drink of water and each time I did the open blister on my heel which had dried out too much cracked and started to bleed – it was painful, but I was too tired to think about covering it at this point.
Arriving at Carmacks feeling rather grumpy!
Pat was at the checkpoint when I arrived and I was very grateful for a tube of ‘skin food’ moisturiser that she gave me as the skin all around my nose and mouth was extremely dry and flaky and was getting quite sore. We had a chat as Pat packed up and prepared to get back out on the trail.
Pat and I at Carmacks following food, drinks and rest
It was early afternoon by the time I got up ready to think about leaving and heading towards McCabe Creek, and the next checkpoint. I had a good breakfast and spent quite a lot of time patching up my feet which were now well blistered on both heels, both little toes and the next toe on my right foot. I prepared my sled from my drop bag, filled my flasks and started to move towards getting back out. This took some time, as I really didn’t want to get back on the trail as I knew putting my shoes back on was going to be very painful and it was going to be very uncomfortable and I knew the stretch to the next checkpoint was long. I had a history with this section being tough, and had turned around in 2011 after heavy snowfall, when I didn’t see the trail markers. Eventually, I got out and Mike waved me off – it didn’t feel good setting off, but by the time I pulled up off the river and on to the ‘road’ that goes to 10miles, my spirits had lifted – my body had loosened up again, my feet were manageable again and this first section had good memories from 2013, where Mike, Karl and I had set out from Carmacks together and had stopped 3hrs out from the Carmacks for coffee and biscuits, the images from the photographs (we have one framed on the wall at home) and my memory cheered my up and I decided to try to get to the end of the road section before I had a stop.
Part way along the road the snow machine crew passed and checked on me; by this point I was happy and gave the OK. As soon as they had passed I questioned myself, am I OK, should I be continuing? etc, but I told myself to get a grip and get on with it and I continued on my way. The road was hillier and windier than I remembered, but I was still in good spirits as I travelled along in to the night once again. The next section of the trail, through trees again, but different from the previous tree sections, being less regimented and having more variety, went more quickly than I expected (this was the section where in 2011, I had turned round as I hadn’t seen any markers for 9k, since the turn off and I was worried I might have gone the wrong way). Sooner than expected I dropped down on to the river for the first time. It was now well in to the night and finding that the trail on the river was cut through the jumble ice made my mood plummet once again. Every step was uncomfortable with shooting pains through my feet, on the rough ice and the sled had to be pulled every step to get it to move over the lumpy ice. I fell as I put my foot on an uneven bit of ice, twisting my knee. At the time this was painful and I was concerned that I had done some damage, I fell another two or three times on the ice blaming my knee, and I began to think I might not make it to the checkpoint after all.
Jumble ice on the river, the trail was cut through as best as was possible.
Each time I climbed off the river I would stop and have a hot drink, I was on the trail in the trees, thinking that I really couldn’t go on. My feet were now extremely painful and it was excruciating getting going when I’d stopped, even where it had only been a 5minute break. And now I had a sore knee to add to the mix. I considered pressing my ‘help’ button more than once, but thinking it through, remembered that I had promised both Mike and my brother Andy, that before making the decision to scratch I would sleep and eat. I had the opportunity to do both of those things now – I could bivvy and cook up a hot meal, however, if I did that and then decided to go on, getting my shoes back on and getting going again was going to be very challenging. In the end I decided that, as I was able to move, however slowly and uncomfortably, I would keep going and when the first snow machine crew came in the morning I would go out with them.
I spent the next time (I have no idea how long) telling myself, ‘one foot in front of the other; one foot in front of the other, that’s all you have to do, come on, one foot in front of the other’; then I would have an imaginary conversation with Mike and I would rehearse the conversation I planned to have with the first snow machine crew in the morning. Sometime later as there started to be some light in the sky, I started to recognise where I was – another tree tunnel of doom, but I questioned myself as I hadn’t seen the light at Minto and this, I know, comes before the tree tunnel. After some thinking, I became convinced that I was in the tree tunnel and that I had missed the light due to the low cloud there had been in the night. This meant that there was only two hours or so to the checkpoint (longer at the pace I was now doing due to my sore feet), and I may as well carry on even if a snow machine did come past. Another racer passed me in the tree tunnel and I realised just how slowly I was moving, but I kept eating my jelly worms (one of the best trail nibbles for me as I can almost always enjoy them) and drinking from my bladder and kept trudging slowly onwards. Again the trail dropped on to the river and it felt like I was almost there, the trail then wound all over through the jumble ice and it soon started to feel like I was never going to make it to the checkpoint. My feet were now so sore that they were making me wince almost every step, so when I finally saw signs of life and a 10min to checkpoint message scraped in the snow I was very relieved – of course, my pace had dropped, so it took me 20min to get to the checkpoint! On entering the checkpoint, I said to someone (I can’t remember who!), that I thought I would scratch here, but I would eat and sleep before I made the decision.
The checkpoint at McCabe Creek is also used by the Quest and is a fantastic workshop with a huge wood burning stove in the middle of the floor. I was very pleased to be there and while I was given tea and food, I got my shoes off and hung my gloves, mitts and buff to dry. I think it was after I had eaten that Robert arrived at the checkpoint and I told him that I thought I might scratch here – he told me to eat and sleep before I decided, which was, of course, what I planned to do. Mike and Philippa also arrived with Robert to take over running the checkpoint from the other volunteers. I got my sleeping bag and laid down to get some sleep, before this, the medics, Page and Luke, who were at the checkpoint gave me some paracetamol and codeine for the pain in my feet. Once again my cough was a problem and I was up and down for drinks to try to control it.
When I got up Page, (Luke had left with Robert) offered to drain and dress my blisters as the compeed dressings that I had been using were not really working as they were turning to a slimy mush with all the moisture coming from the blistered, raw skin. After draining those that still had skin over them and realising that they were a number of different depths, so needed to be drained in different places to get all the layers of blistering. She left us with some different dressings and Phil helped me to get them sorted ready to go back out on the trail. I also realised that my spare shoes were bigger than those I had been wearing the last few days and were therefore far more comfortable, so I swapped and put the others on my sled.
On one of the sections covered at this point (and neither Pat or I can remember where it was – though I think it was between Braeburn and Ken Lake!), I was watching Pats tyre marks on the trail in front (I had come to recognise which were Pats as they were different from the other bikers around her) wondering how far ahead she was and how she was getting on, when they became broken by animal prints. It was immediately obvious that these were wolf prints and I paused briefly to see if I could see or hear them in the area. Sadly I couldn’t, but when we compared notes at the checkpoint, Pat had had the same experience with the person in front of her on the same part of the trail. The trail makes for easier travelling for animals as well as humans, so no surprise that they use it when there is no one around.
I left McCabe Creek to head towards Pelly Crossing at, once again feeling upbeat and ready to be out on the trail. On leaving the checkpoint, the trail goes up the farm road and then drops off and under a tunnel beneath the highway. There was a lot of overflow under the tunnel, but I picked my way through, bending as I went up to the wall to avoid the deeper parts. Following this the trail goes for some distance following a power line up towards Minto and parallel with the highway, although most of the time, you wouldn’t know that. This is one of the less interesting parts of the trail and at night it is just a case of getting up past it and on to the more enjoyable parts of the trail. To encourage myself to get past this section I bribed myself with an interesting looking pink sweet that I had spotted in my grub bag, telling myself that if I kept moving without any stops for three hours I could have that sweet! It worked, because I was very surprised how quickly I seemed to be past this section!
Soon after I came across overflow again, this time I did not hesitate to unhitch my sledge and put on my Neos overboots, and I was pleased I had when the water came up my shins as I walked through it. I took my overboots off once I was clear at the other side and continued. I repeated this three more times on this section of the trail, but it was well worth the time that it took just to be confident that I wasn’t going to get wet again. I was still feeling good travelling along the trail on my own again in to the night, stopping briefly for food and hot drinks and progressing towards Pelly Crossing through burnt out woodland, lakes and marshes. There was a lot of animal activity on this part of the trail evidenced by a large quantity of prints, mostly hare, but with others in the mix too.
Again, as with most days at this time of night my morale started to wane and again I started to wonder what I was doing and why – the trail was now more open with lakes and scrub land and I did a few times wonder if I was going round in circles as much of it looked the same and I was certain I’d already passed some of the features earlier. I knew this not to be the case when I looked down as there was no sign of my distinctive innovate shoe prints over Mathieu’s ski tracks on the trail. As I got to a slightly more sheltered part of the trail I heard an owl call and decided that this would be a good time to bivy, I recognised where I was and knew that I would soon start moving down towards the checkpoint. I found a good place and set up for a sleep, I didn’t bother to zip my bivy bag right up as it was not too cold and I didn’t want to get condensation inside the bivy bag. This had the added bonus that when I lay down I was able to look at the stars and sky – one of my favourite things out in the Yukon. I laid there thinking that I was never going to get any sleep and after a little while I decided I may as well move on, I looked at my watch and was amazed to find that two hours had passed so I must have been asleep after all.
On putting my shoes back on and packing away my bivy, I began to think that this stop had been a mistake, my feet were again sore as well as stiff and swollen to be tight even in these bigger shoes. I set off at the old hobble/ shuffle and wished I hadn’t stopped, however, after 20 minutes or so, things had loosened up and I was on my way again and not only on my way, but feeling great and in good spirits. I had worked out roughly when I would be coming in to Pelly Crossing and knew that the sun would rise before I got there, this gave me an additional boost and as I moved along this part of the trail, I was singing to myself (good thing no one was around, especially as I couldn’t think of any actual songs, so was making it up as I went along!) and feeling really good.
There is a long undulating and winding tree section on the trail here and this eventually leads to the side of the highway and in to Pelly Crossing and the community centre where the checkpoint is. By this point I was moving well and enjoying knowing that I would be at the checkpoint soon. I was surprised to be met at the highway by the Japanese camera man, and I greeted him with a cheery, ‘Morning!’, which I think surprised him a bit! He then filmed and asked me about the trail, he seemed surprised when I said I had bivvied by the trail earlier, so was feeling refreshed. I kept up a good pace in to the checkpoint and was greeted with a hug from Nicole, followed quickly by a chat and a cup of tea.
A welcome hug from Nicole as I arrive at Pelly crossing
Chatting with Nicole in the checkpoint at Pelly Crossing
The Pelly Crossing checkpoint is in the community centre and so is comfortable and has luxuries such as flushing toilets and running hot and cold water, as well as a great team of volunteers with hot food and drinks to offer. It was quiet when I arrived at the checkpoint, so after eating, drinking and chatting to the volunteers, I took the opportunity of some more sleep. Lying on the gym floor on my foam mat was not as restful as my earlier bivy had been, but I still stayed longer than I planned and eventually, I decided to have another meal before packing my sled once again and leaving the checkpoint to head for Pelly Farm.
This year the trail to Pelly Farm started on the river as normal, but after about 10miles it cut up on to the ‘farm road’ which it followed for the remaining 20 or so miles to the farm. I worked out that I should be able to reach the turn off the river before dark and so with that plan I set out. Christoph, one of the volunteers who had scratched earlier from his race, walked me out to the trail and I dropped down on to the river and under the bridge, using the promise of a hot drink and biscuit stop on the farm road as an incentive to cover the river section of the trail. The trail wound across the river from one side to the other in a seemingly random manner, which made progress feel slow. However, I thoroughly enjoyed watching a hazy sun set behind the trees high on the river bank. The turn off the river finally came, rather later than I expected, though it was only just dark, so I had the promised stop and refreshments and sorted out my head torch ready for another long night on the trail.
A hazy sun, soon to set over the Yukon River on the way to Pelly Farm
The farm road is not as its name suggests a road in the sense you might imagine, it is the route in to and out of Pelly Farm, providing you have a high four wheel drive vehicle (true in both summer and winter) or a snow machine. The road winds up and down crossing creeks and climbing over the undulating landscape. In 2011, when I completed the 300mile race, I had my most difficult night on the trail here, and memories of that came back to me; I put these out of my mind and tried instead to remember the good time on this section of the trail in 2013, when a number of us had leapfrogged each other all the way along including Nicole (now a good friend) who had teased us ‘Brits’ for our ‘afternoon tea breaks’ on the trail!
At some point Robert passed in his vehicle and paused to just long enough for him and Mike, in the passenger seat, to call some encouraging comments!
As I moved along in the dark of the night, I climbed one of the hills and entered an ice fog, creating an eerie atmosphere. It was here that my head torch flashed warning me that the batteries were about to run out – this is a normal course of events when travelling at night as I had done for much of the race, and I carry a spare head torch and spare batteries so that I can have a light while I change the batteries in my main head torch. Having gone through the process of getting my spare head torch and batteries out of my sled bag, swapping torches and replacing the batteries I found that the new batteries did not work at all, I checked that they were in the right way and tried again – still no sign of light. I rummaged in my bag and found one more set of batteries, and tried those even though I knew they were already used, and of course, there was no light from them. I decided that as it wasn’t too cold I would be OK using my spare head torch (my main torch has batteries in a separate battery pack which I keep in a chest pocket close to my body to keep warm and extend the life of the batteries; my spare has the batteries behind the light and so exposed to the cold) and after packing my sled and harnessing up again I set of feeling a little fed up at having spent so much time sorting this issue.
It was only a short distance further when my spare head torch faded and on stopping and taking it off I found the battery warning light was illuminated indicating that these batteries were also about to lose power as well. I decided to just keep going and make do as I felt I really had no choice. As the light faded it became harder to see where I was going and once the torch went out completely I realised just how dark it was out there. I found I couldn’t really see the ground in front of me and as a consequence my feet would hit the trail harder than expected, which was really quite painful and demoralising. I also had no idea where the trail went next, not being able to see any markers or even the route ahead – is it up or down, is that a bend or does it go straight. If only the moon had been as it had earlier in the race, when it was casting fantastic shadows on the trail, it was so bright. One thing that did lift my spirits at this time was a showing of the northern lights and I stopped briefly to watch the waves of green light dancing across the sky. But on trying to proceed I realised just how slowly I was moving without a light and thought about options once again. The only working batteries I had were in my SPOT tracker and these would only fit my spare torch not my main one. I thought about the people at home watching my tracker and also race HQ and after a little more time I decided to remove the batteries from my SPOT and put them in the torch. I reasoned that race HQ would know that I was on a familiar part of the trail, and similarly, I decided that enough of the people at home would realise this was a familiar section to me. With the light, I was once again able to move more easily, but as I got to the early hours of the morning, where I always get caught by sleep deprivation I began to wonder if I would ever reach the farm. Finally, I came to a familiar bend in the trail and knew it was not too much further to the start of the fields and flat trail leading in to the farm.
I was happy to be at this bend and I remember thinking to myself that I just wanted to be at the ‘you made it’ sign at the start of that last stretch in to the farm. Worryingly, the next thing I remember is standing trying to bring that sign, nailed to a tree, in to focus. I had no recollection of the trail from that bend to there or how far in distance or time it was, I must have been walking while sleeping! I can remember thinking to myself, ‘don’t get too excited, you know its always further than you think from here’ and then setting off along the trail again. Almost straight away my head torch started to fade and soon it was such a dim light that I could no longer pick out the trail markers. I couldn’t see any light coming from the farm buildings and only realised I was close when the dogs started barking and eventually came to me. I talked to the dogs and encouraged them to lead me to the farm, which I could now make out some shadowy shapes in the darkness, but I think they thought I was playing some exciting game and they ran off then came back too quickly for me to follow.
Having tried a couple of routes in which led nowhere, I was getting quite cross with myself – how could I be so close and not be able to find my way in, especially as I’d been here numerous times before? I undid my harness and decided I would go without my sled to find the way and then come back for it, however, I realised my error when on returning from the first failed route, I realised I couldn’t see my sled in the dark! It took some time to locate and when I did I hitched back up to it so I wouldn’t lose it again!
The dogs started barking again and again I tried to follow them in, this time, I suddenly saw movement and was able to make out the farm house outline, they had realised there was someone outside and had come out to greet me. I eventually got in to the farm at about 6am and was presented with a pot of tea and one of Sue’s famous lasagnes. Sue told me it had been over an hour earlier that the dogs had first started barking, but as there was no light to be seen outside, she assumed it was something else they were barking at. It felt incredibly good to be inside the farm enjoying the legendary hospitality. The only downside was that my cough was getting worse and the warm, dry air inside wasn’t helping.
I tried to lie down to sleep, but I just couldn’t stop coughing,so I got up and went to a chair to sit up and sleep, Sue made me mugs of hot lemon and honey which really helped, soothing my throat and temporarily easing my cough. I went back and tried again to sleep, wedging myself up a bit to try to reduce the coughing. Eventually, after a discussion with Mike I decided to have a really good rest here and to get up at mid-night to set out on the trail again at 2am.
During this time I had removed all the dressings from my feet and discovered that another two toes had blistered – this time it was the whole of the end of both, which included right round and under the nail, leaving the nail bed lifted and floating on a bubble of blister. Both medics were at the farm, and they offered to drain and dress my feet before I went out again. We decided to do this before I went to lie down again and so I sat with my foot in Page’s lap while she was draining the blistered toes and heels. It was during this procedure that Page commented that it was hot, and when I looked up to respond, I saw how pale she had gone, luckily Luke moved quickly and with Yann and others round the table she was caught as she fainted and gently laid down and legs lifted.
Once she had recovered and was sitting in a chair resting, Luke took over dealing with my feet, and I couldn’t help thinking to myself, ‘I can’t believe I’ve broken the medic, how am I going to explain that to Robert!’. They did both assure me that it wasn’t my fault, but I did feel rather guilty about the incident.
As planned, we got up at midnight and we were presented with a fantastic Pelly Farm breakfast of pancakes, eggs and bacon and more hot tea. I soon demolished this and we prepared to go back out on the trail. I had realised that my feet had swollen while I rested and that the multiple dressings I now had on both feet had increased the bulk, but I hadn’t appreciated how much. It was only when I went to go out to my sled to prepare it, that it became apparent that my feet would not fit in my shoes. I tried changing my socks to no avail and after some discussion with Mike I decided that the best option was to go out and walk down the trail a short distance and see if that helped my feet to loosen up and the swelling to reduce. I got a pair of very thin liner socks out of my bag and with nothing more than those on I could just squeeze my left foot in to the shoe, but my right still wouldn’t go and the pressure on the blisters was uncomfortable to say the least.
We set out and walked a short way along the trail, as I walked I just managed to squeeze my other foot in to the shoe, but could barely hobble or shuffle as the pressure on the blistered heel and toes was extremely painful with any movement of the shoe. I thought through what I was doing as I moved very awkwardly and slowly along the trail. I stopped and talked through my thoughts with Mike, as far as I could see, my options were to carry on and hope that the swelling reduced and didn’t get any worse or to scratch here at the farm. Factors for consideration were; I would definitely bivy at least once on the way to Scroggie Creek, the next checkpoint, and would I be able to get my shoes back on after that? If not, what would I do? I definitely didn’t want to be brought out by snow machine if I could avoid it. Also, as I only had very thin liner socks on, my feet were already quite cold and I was unable to employ my usual tactic for warming them up, which was to make exaggerated movements to flex the feet and toes more and keep the blood flowing well – the pain of the blisters and lack of space in the shoes didn’t allow me to do that. Along the trail from here, tending to my feet and the dressings was going to be more difficult, but it would also be essential to get through this long remote section, was there a way of managing that?
After some time, I made the difficult decision to scratch from the race and we made our way back to the farm. It had been a really tough decision to make, but I know it was the right decision and I couldn’t be too upset about not making the finish line as I had completed the race to this point so much better than I ever thought I could, and I had such a fantastic set of experiences with such amazing high points… and some really challenging lows (these I dealt with and always came out the other side feeling stronger), a real roller-coaster. I was really pleased with my performance and happy that I had done as much as my body would let me do at this time.