One Helluva Race, or the Race From Hell: 700Km, -40, Nine Days, Little Sleep

The Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra may be a little milder than Siberia’s dreaded Oymyakon Marathon — just -40° instead of -55°C or so — but the Yukon race makes up for that by putting competitors through a much greater distance, coupled with sleep deprivation.

Among the several categories, a mere marathon is for beginners. Beyond that, the distances ramp up to 160km (100 miles) and 482km (300 miles). The most serious competitors cover 700km (430 miles) from Whitehorse to Dawson City along the Yukon Quest trail, the same route as the comparably grueling dogsled race.

This year, 24 participants registered for the marathon, a dozen took on the 100-miler, a mere six attempted 300 miles and an impressive 41 started the full 430 miles, including one 74-year-old.

Not surprisingly, the dropout rate in all categories was considerable. Only two of the six completed the 300 miles, for example. The winner, 47-year-old Marianne Heading from Derbyshire, England, finished in 173 hours — a little over seven days. She had participated in the race once before, in 2011; this time, she came in almost a day faster. Although most of her training took place in the green hills of England, Heading didn’t mind trekking in temperatures low enough to freeze mercury: “I’m good in the cold,” she admitted.

Marianne Heading, with poles, at the finish line. Photo:


Participants in the three longest races pull sleds laden with about 26kg of gear, including a polar sleeping bag and parka, compass, food, headlamp and stove. Although they are on a packed trail, drifting snow can cover the track and make navigation skills vital. Racers have food and other supplies sent ahead to checkpoints along the way. At night, they sleep in traditional canvas tents set up for the race. As the days wear on, lack of sleep becomes a major issue, as competitors minimize their time in the sleeping bag in favor of more hours on the trail.

France’s Thierry Corbarieu won the premier 430-mile event in nine days. His nearest rival, Christof Teuscher of the U.S., arrived in the dark several hours later, eyelashes heavy with frost and nine-and-a-half days of weariness etched on his face.

First-place finisher Thierry Corbarieu celebrates the end of the trail in Dawson City. Photo: Mark Kelly