The Yukon Arctic Ultra bills itself as “the world’s coldest and toughest ultra.” And we’re not going to dispute that claim. For 15 years, it’s been held in Canada’s Yukon Territory, where masochistic competitors cross an unforgiving medley of icy streams, snow-covered fields, and even black bear habitats—at distances ranging from a standard marathon to 300 miles—by mountain bike, cross-country skis, or good old-fashioned feet.
This year the 300-miler began February 1 and ended the 8th—a day ahead of the cut-off—when the only remaining competitor crossed the finish line. The winner (and, technically, last-place finisher as well) was South Africa’s Jethro De Decker, an accomplished ultrarunner and adventure cyclist.
Why did the other 20 racers drop out? This year’s ultra was brutally—even dangerously—cold, with temperatures rarely poking above minus 40 degrees. And the results showed it.
In the standard marathon, all but one of the 20 who started the race finished, but things went less smoothly for the longer distances. Only half of the eight 100-milers finished.
And the real carnage took place in the 300-miler. On February 5, extreme temperatures forced race organizers to temporarily halt competitors’ progress. Frostbite was a concern—despite all entrants’ excellent wilderness survival skills, proof of which was required for registration—but so were cold-induced electrical generator and snowmobile failure.
Leader in this year’s 300 mile Yukon Arctic Ultra, Jethro De Decker from South Africa. One of 3 remaining competitors from a field of 21 starters. With temperatures consistently in the -40s Celsius, the conditions have taken their toll on everyone this year. #yukonarcticultra #ultra #montane #travelyukon #exploremag #opcmag #runnersofinstagram #ultramarathon #carmacks #arcticadventures #winteractivities #cbcnorth
A post shared by Joe Bishop (@joebishop22) on Feb 7, 2018 at 3:21pm PST
During the race, organizers posted daily blog updates on the event’s website with deadpan titles like “Challenging Times,” “Many Athletes Affected by the Cold,” and “Another Cold Day in the Beautiful Yukon.” These dispatches depict a harrowing scene in which runners, confronted with temperatures colder than minus 40 degrees (fun fact: minus 40 is the same in both Celsius and Fahrenheit), dropped out because of frostbite or because they failed to reach checkpoints in time.
In years past, despite miserable conditions, the Yukon Ultra has never seen attrition rates like these. Unlike the notorious Barkley Marathons, as one athlete pointed out on Twitter, the Yukon Arctic Ultra doesn’t aim to make itself impossible to complete—its cut-off times are slightly more accommodating. It just aims to make itself just very challenging.
In an Instagram post announcing his finish, De Decker said that before he could reflect further on the experience, “I have a calorie deficit to eat my way through first!” So congratulations to the impressively hearty De Decker on his unlikely finish—here’s hoping the post-race gorging makes up for several days’ worth of physical misery.