© Callum Jolliffe/Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra
Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra racer Shelley Gellatly is one tough cookie. The 56-year-old Canadian has finished the race – billed as the ‘World’s toughest and coldest ultra’ – multiple times across several of the ultra distances, including second-place finishes overall at both the 100-mile and 300-mile races more than a decade ago.
The non-stop race is self-supported and runs through Canada’s snowy Yukon wilderness, sometimes reaching temperatures as low as -50C. Having undergone chemotherapy for Stage 3 breast cancer, Shelley has to be especially careful not to develop frostbite as she no longer feels the cold in her extremities like she used to. Last year, she was forced to retire when she developed mild frostbite in her fingers. This year, she attempted the 300-mile distance on skis for the first time (racers may compete on foot, skis or bike) but sensibly withdrew after being unable to warm her feet up.
Shelley rocks and I’m very happy to bring you this Q&A with her which covers her many Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra (MYAU) race experiences, including a handful of DNFs which don’t bother her one bit.
What was your childhood like – were you sporty?
I didn’t do any organised sports growing up. We lived on a farm, with 20 acres of woods as well as a small river running through the property. As kids, we spent all our free time outside exploring. In the winter, I’d lead my younger brothers and cousins on treks down the river in search of bigger snowdrifts, AKA tobogganing ‘slopes’.
At 12 years old, I got it in my head I wanted to buy a 10-speed bike. Not very practical for a farm area with gravel and dirt roads, but I saved up my money and bought one. The first day I road 16 miles cross country to my grandparents’ farm. I took no water or food and it was hot. By the time I arrived, I was quite dizzy and parched, but was amazed to accomplish such a feat!
When did you get interested in endurance sport?
In university, I started cross country ski racing – mainly because a guy I was interested in skied! Then I joined a cycle touring club (same reason, ha!). In 1982, I saw the Hawaii Ironman on TV, where Julie Moss collapsed just before the finish line. I said out loud, right then and there, ‘I am going to do an Ironman’, and I eventually finished one in 1987.
Leading up to my first Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra race, where I did the 100 miler, I had never run anything longer than a marathon. I had always been active and would do some physical activity every day – e.g. a snowshoe, swim or jog – but I wasn’t really interested in racing. All my longer ‘events’ were cross country ski loppets or tours, paddling and hiking trips.
You co-run one of the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra’s pre-race courses with fellow female race veterans. Can you tell me a bit more about this?
Yes, this has been a really exciting and inspiring addition to my involvement with the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra! For two years now, I’ve had the privilege of hosting a pre-race workshop with three other MYAU veteran racers: Jessie Thomson-Gladish, Gillian Smith and Marianne Heading. We’ve all been in the race several times, had successes and failures, but most importantly have a strong bond and appreciation for the event, the racers and volunteers. I think the race has had an important influence on each of us personally, and we are all keen to share our experiences.
The workshop is held over 4.5 days prior to the MYAU, at which time we reinforce the skills a racer will need to successfully participate in the race – for example, lighting a wood fire, being able to light your stove in cold temperatures and make food and water, setting up your bivy and/or tent, and learning how to manage your clothing, food and drink systems.
Jessie Thomson-Gladish put together a fantastic trail description based on her four successful finishes of the 430-mile and the 300 miler. During the workshop, we review the trail description and share our own experiences. I think this is a huge advantage for participants as they can prepare themselves mentally for what to expect on the trail. It’s also an advantage for me, as I always learn something from the other racers.
Our hope is that everyone has a very positive experience with the race as a whole, regardless of whether they actually finish their respective distances.
The race has reached -50C temperatures before. How do you personally cope with the cold and how does it affect decision-making and general race tasks?
I’m much more cautious in cold weather now than when I was younger. A few years ago I had a bout of chemotherapy and can’t quite feel the cold in my fingers and toes anymore, at least not in the same way I used to feel it. As I result, I suffered frostbite on both my thumbs in 2019 at about 200 miles into the race. This was the first time I had frostbite like that, despite doing some pretty foolish things when I was young.
It was interesting to me to learn that a person can have tissue/nerve damage even without frostbite if you’re cold for a prolonged period of time. Now I’m always monitoring my toes or hands. Do they feel different? If so, what do I need to do to warm up? Usually, that starts with eating, drinking and sometimes resting. Sometimes I need to pick up my pace for a bit or change socks or mitts to ensure everything is dry.
What’s your advice to people doing extreme cold races like the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra?
My advice is to practice being quick and organized with all your tasks. This includes decision-making. There can be no dicking around in the cold weather. If you suspect you might be a pokey person, you may have to time yourself on certain activities and just see if you can get faster e.g. putting up and getting into your bivy.
A local surgeon and frostbite expert advised MYAU racers this year, that if you are ‘cold’ for more than 30 minutes and can’t warm up, you need to start thinking about what your options are. He also advised that we all need to think about how we use our hands and feet, besides participating in these type of events. Permanent damage is really not worth it.
I came off the trail about 14 hours passed Braeburn this year after not being able to warm up either of my feet, despite bivying, eating, drinking, speeding up and changing clothes. It was a good decision in my mind, as I suffered no frostbite and I’m able to think about hiking trips for this summer as well as the 2021 MYAU!
What are the challenges of keeping on top of your nutrition during the race?
This is probably similar to any other long-distance event, maybe amped up due to the cold. Being super-disciplined and forcing yourself to eat and drink is critical. Once you get behind on your calories and fluid intake, you will be colder and it is unlikely you’ll catch up.
The biggest challenge for me is finding food which is dense in calories, includes fat and protein as well as carbohydrates, doesn’t freeze solid and is palatable. I try to ensure everything I consume has some type of calorie count. This is something I train for prior to the race – for example, eating when I don’t feel like eating. However, knowing I will never eat as many calories as I need – around 3500-4000 per day – I try to gain some weight before the race so I have extra reserves.
How different was skiing the race this year compared to your previous experiences on foot?
I loved skiing. Definitely there were extra challenges, such as getting into [water] overflow and having my bindings freeze shut, and having to walk up and down some steep hills, but it felt easier on my body. Jessie had told me this and I was very happy to find it to be true.
Skiing was slower for me than walking, and it was harder to keep my feet warm, but I would have to say I enjoyed it much more than walking. For the first 45km or so of the race, the snow was quite soft and punchy, so at that point, I was happy to be on skis and avoid all the extra energy expenditure.
What were the highs and lows of your 2020 MYAU experience?
For me, the highs were seeing people on the trail that were in our pre-race workshop or who I had met in earlier MYAU races. The northern lights and stars were stunning. The trail was beautiful.
The only real low came when I realised I had no more tools in the tool kit to try and warm up my feet and that I would need to come off the trail. I worked hard not to panic and then made my plan i.e. push the ‘help’ button on the SPOT [tracker] and keep moving and eating so I could keep generating heat until the snow machine guides arrived.
Did you have any problem with sleeping or sleep deprivation?
This was the first year I have ever fallen asleep while walking. When this happened, I knew I had to regroup, so I stopped to rest, eat, make coffee and continue on, which seemed to do the trick.
How did you physically prepare for this year’s event?
My coach is Shawn Bearden from Science of Ultra. He has helped me for a few years now. I appreciate his perspective and advice on training, given he is an exercise physiologist, like me. It’s super-important that whoever prepares my [training] plan understands the science and art behind it. For example, how the medications I take affect my ability to adapt to the physiological stress of a training session, as well as how much variety I need in my program to stay motivated.
Having someone else focus their attention on the details of the physical training allows me to focus my attention on the other systems we’ve already mentioned, and the mental training.
How do you approach the race from a mental strength perspective?
I’ve had many problems and learning opportunities on the trail over the years, and I can always take something forward into the next race. I try to listen to others about how they solved their problems, in case I can pick up some tips.
The biggest challenge for me over the years has been learning how not to go down the mental and emotional black hole. The first few times I did the race, I was scared, but not because I knew what to expect. I was scared of the unknown. Now I’m nervous about what I know can happen out there! It will never be a walk in the warm park!
I have learnt that it’s a privilege and a gift to be able to enjoy the trail and the event, even if it is difficult. Life is too short just to head out on a sufferfest. For me, the event is so much more than a race. My fastest days are over. One day I won’t be able to do this anymore, so I need to have fun now!
I love how you stay positive even when you’ve had to scratch. Over the years have you learnt something different from each DNF?
Yes, definitely. Nowadays, I never feel like a DNF is a failure. I love being involved with the race, doing the pre-race workshop, being out on the trail, prepping for the event. There are so many things that can go sideways. I really think the participants who are the most successful are not always the ones who finish their respective distance; I think people who can take in the entire experience and feel positive about whatever happens are the real winners. It is a privilege to be able to participate in the event and to experience the trail and the wilderness.
What kit do you find indispensable for the MYAU?
A solid bivy system, so I can be comfortable when I rest, even if I don’t sleep. A rock-solid stove – MSR Whisperlite in my case. Injinji toe socks. Bridgedale waterproof socks. Neos Overboots. Merino wool base layers. Woolpower clothes.
Shelley isn’t on social media, but you can find out more about the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra by visiting www.arcticultra.de.