Hardcore Aussies take on intensely cold ultra

BBenson WA ultra runner Bernadette Benson trains in near freezing conditions in Whitehorse, Canada for the 2016 Yukon Arctic 300 Miler. Image – Bernadette Benson.


Today sees the official start of what some call the world’s coldest and toughest ultra race – The Yukon Arctic in Whitehorse, Canada and while the majority of Australians will be basking in the summer sun over the next eight days, 34 hardcore competitors will take to freezing conditions in the northern hemisphere for a near 500-kilometre distance.

In three categories, racers will take to the course either on foot, mountain bike or xc-skis and while no Aussies have entered the marathon distance or 100-miler (160kms), three will compete in the 300-miler (482kms).

Hugo Smith from East Perth (WA) and AURA 2014 Female Ultra Runner of the Year Bernadette Benson from Kelmscott (WA) will battle the cold conditions on foot while Greenwood Village resident Tim Sommers hops on his fat-tyred mountain bike.

According to organisers situations, which under normal circumstances don’t cause any problems, can become absolutely life threatening in the dead of winter in the Yukon so competitors spend many months preparing as best they can.

Benson has an impressive ultra racing career, including holding the fastest known time for the 1,000kms Bibbulmun Track in WA, which she completed in 15 days 9 hours.

She told Runglobal before setting off for The Yukon Arctic that despite some trepidation in December and January, she felt at peace with the decision she’d made as soon as she landed in Whitehorse last month, where temperatures were predicted to reach -27 degrees.

“There aren’t any other places I’ve been to in winter where the locals are actually wishing for colder temperatures,” she said.

“After just a few days here, I can readily see how hardy a people the Yukoners are.

“Mild weather means less snow pack for sports and sometimes commuting transport such as skiing, mushing and snowmobiling; freeze/thaw conditions make roads and footpaths icy and treacherous so a layer of hard packed snow is better.”

Benson had been training intensely since mid-October by pulling along various types of pulks on trails and gravel roads in the hills of Perth as well as up and down beach sand from Trigg to Cottesloe.

She even trained over two 12-hour days in temperatures over 35 degrees, pulling from Mt Helena to Northam.

But once she got to Canada, Benson got to the opportunity to test out conditions properly with the gear she would be using, including an appropriate race sled that would carry up to 30kgs of mandatory items like a stove, food and sleeping bag.

“My two-hour session with my real pulk in real snowy cold conditions gave me a chance to test many things and make a few mistakes where the consequences would be less serious,” she explained.

“Or so I thought.

“My first mistake was to stop and build a very small fire to test my home made fire starter – a piece of mandatory kit for the race.

“My fire starter was just eye make-up removal pads covered with melted candle wax loosely wrapped in wax baking paper; I crushed small dead pine twigs over the top.

“The fire lit and I stood back feeling pleased so I took a swig of my mint tea, which had been sitting on the ground next to the fire.

“Unbeknownst to me a small twig had launched into the cup when I crushed the branches.

“I swallowed that twig and waited with bated breath to see whether I was going to meet an embarrassing end to my adventures right there!”

Only four women have ever completed the 482kms event, which started in 2003, and Benson had high hopes of becoming the fifth.

You can follow Benson’s progress, as well as other competitors’, via a live tracker at the race’s website here.


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