© Callum Jolliffe
This week the 300-mile Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra is nearing its 8-day cut-off point. Come tomorrow, the few racers who haven’t scratched will have been on the go for 7 days, and Canadian ultrarunner Jessie Gladish knows just what they’re experiencing. Jessie has completed the 300-miler once and is a three-time finisher of the 430-mile distance which runs every other year – last year becoming the first woman to finish it on cross-country skis. It took her almost 12 days.
Set in the frozen, snowy Yukon wilderness in Canada, the race is utterly brutal with temperatures sometimes reaching -50c. Competitors are self-sufficient and the clock never stops as they pull their gear, food, survival kit, bivvy and water behind them in a heavy pulk, sleeping by the trail in bitterly cold temperatures. Days are relentless and dark for up to 14 hours. Frostbite is a real danger. Fascinated by this race, I put some questions to Jessie, who has also completed the 300-mile Iditarod winter ultra in Alaska, on what draws her to the ‘world’s coldest and toughest ultra’.
You grew up in the Yukon. Were you active from an early age?
I was an outdoorsy kid, thanks to my parents who sought out an adventurous life in the Yukon. I was on cross country skis once I could walk and probably experienced my first race by the time I was 5-years-old. I remember being in the 8-12-year-old range, feeling competitive, experiencing race anxiety and a strong desire to win. I participated in ski racing until I was about 12, which took me to Alaska as a 10-year-old kid racing against 15-year-olds, who are much stronger. I felt very lost and was last every race, but it was good for me to push my comfort zone even though it was hard to appreciate it as a kid.
You did some pretty cool adventures with your parents too, is that right?
As a family, we went on multi-day canoe trips down several of the main rivers in the Yukon, and now having done them on my own as an adult I have a huge appreciation for the remote wilderness my parents were willing to risk taking their kids into. The rivers we did are by no means a whitewater feat, but having a 1-year-old in the middle of a canoe for a week with no outside world contact sounds adventurous to me.
In addition to canoeing, we did a lot of hiking. When my sister and I were about 6 and 7, we hiked the Chilkoot Trail (around 50km) with my parents and carried our own backpacks full of clothes and stuffed animals. We did it twice more as a family, including once with my Nana. I’ve done it as an adult now and again and appreciate the challenge my parents took on, along with the abilities of two young kids to battle mosquitos and boredom, and eat hiking food for 5 days. I remember being bribed with actual money to eat raisins!
Did growing up in the Yukon mean learning outdoor skills early on?
In elementary school, there was a strong focus on respecting the land, the people and the animals. We learned how to sew and do beadwork, how to skin a squirrel, how to build a good wood fire, and how to make ice cream from soapberries, to name a few things. I owe a lot of my appreciation for nature to my parents and to my elementary school teachers.
How did you get into trail running and ultras?
I started running consistently around 2008 while living in British Columbia. I had been working, doing some ski bumming, and had a failed first attempt at post-secondary education. I started with a 10km race, then half-marathons, and finally my first marathon in Vancouver, in 2011, I think. I ran with my mum, who had done a couple herself already. I loved the simplicity of running and the added challenge of racing to push myself to be faster and go further.
I can’t even remember when it morphed into trail running, but at some point, I started on trails and began running in the Dirty Feet Trail races, based out of Kamloops, BC, and got hooked. My first ‘ultra’ was actually a marathon but it felt way harder than any I had done so far. It was the Moab Trail Marathon in Utah, again with my mum. I loved it and wanted to try longer distances.
Jessie after finishing the Fat Dog 120-mile race
What made you sign-up for your first Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra (MYAU)?
Initially, it was a photo of three friends running the marathon distance MYAU, with frosty hair and huge smiles. I did some research on the race and discovered there was a 430-mile option to Dawson City on the Yukon Quest Trail. I didn’t want to sign-up for any of the shorter distances (there are also marathon, 100-mile and 300-mile options) in case I finished and then wished I was going further. Plus, it’s a lot of money, prep, time, training and mental space even for the 100-mile race, so I figured I might as well go for the whole thing. I’m actually surprised I didn’t discover the race sooner as it’s been going since 2003, and in my hometown.
Overall, it’s the location, time of year, and challenge that made me sign-up. That, and the fact the same trail is run by the sled dogs and their mushers, who I admired so much as a kid, and still do, for their impressive endurance over the 1000 mile Yukon Quest between Whitehorse and Fairbanks. I would love to travel the whole length of the trail.
Had you entered many ultra-distance events before you did the 430-miler?
I did the 430-mile MYAU in 2015 before I’d really built up an ultra resume; I don’t think I’d even done a 50k yet. After the 430-mile accomplishment, nothing seemed far enough. I did a handful of 50km ultras following it, and then my first true ‘100 miler’ (The Fat Dog 120 Mile) in 2016. I feel like I had a natural personal progression towards longer and harder races, but not the most conventional progression. I definitely had confidence that I could skip some of the recommended training programs to build from marathon distances up to 100 miles.
When I saw options between 40 miles, 70 miles and 120 miles in the Fat Dog, I couldn’t not go for the 120. I trained for it, but not as rigorously as I could have. I often depend on my mental strength and pain tolerance to fill in any gaps I may have in my physical training. I’ve also been lucky to remain relatively injury-free and have a good stomach for keeping up on nutrition during races. I ‘ran’ the Golden Ultra 120km in September, very undertrained and unprepared; I didn’t even know where the start and finish were until I started, and definitely didn’t study the route, which included 6000m of elevation gain and loss. I suffered for it though and ended up walking the last 40km because my downhill legs were shot. It was a classic case of winging it! I ended up on the podium still, in 2nd place, but it didn’t feel pretty.
How did you physically prepare for cross-country skiing 430-miles in last year’s race?
Last year I spent over a month in Dawson City during December and January training for the 2019 MYAU on skis. I set a goal to hike ‘The Midnight Sun Dome’ every day, which is a nice trail with 600m elevation gain over 3km, and then either boot ski/bum slide back down the steep trail back to the warm house, or make the loop a little longer by running down the road which made it about 10km total.
It was also -30c to -40C while I was there, so I had a lot of time in the cold to acclimatize to the possible temperatures of the race. I hiked the dome 34 times. In addition to the outdoor cardio workout, I tried to get out skiing with my sled/pack system a few times, and I wish I had gone on a few more longer ski excursions, but I felt happy enough with my set-up to give it a go for the race – winging it, in other words!
Prior to being in Dawson, I cross country skied on groomed ski trails a couple of times a week and went for trail runs in the snow. My focus for MYAU specific training is time on my feet. The longer I can move for, rather than being too caught up in distance and pace, is what seems to help me the most.
What’s the hardest thing about the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra?
The simplest answer is the cold… temperatures down to -50C, and often consistently in the -20C to -30C range. The hardest thing is keeping my hands and feet warm enough to use and never letting them lose dexterity because they are my lifelines out there, so I use chemical hand warmers.
It’s hard to explain the cold. Simple tasks like packing up my sled bag/sleeping system and doing up zippers/laces can cause drops in body temperature and dexterity. Maintaining an organised sled and an organised mind, plus being completely isolated for a lot of the time on the trail while also convincing my body to get up and walk for 14-20 hours mostly in the dark, continuously, day in day out for 12 days… all of the trail challenges would be more manageable and more enjoyable if it wasn’t so cold. The temperatures are the hardest part of the MYAU to deal with, second to the temperatures would be the challenge of the mind.
How much of the race is mental vs physical?
90% I bet. The body can’t finish without the mind, so to me, that means it’s more mental, provided the basic fitness is in place. I go in with high fitness for sure, but a lot of my training is time on my feet rather than a rigid training program. I do run a lot, I cross country ski, ride my bike, ski tour, and am generally active in my daily life and also have a very physically demanding seasonal field job which helps maintain a high level of fitness through the summer. But no amount of fitness will help if the mind and the gear and the systems aren’t strong, practised and ready for the trail’s challenges.
It’s a non-stop race. Do you have a sleep strategy during the 430 miles?
I like this race because it allows ample sleep time if you plan it well. My first couple days on the trail I like to sleep before I get too tired, and it takes battling your competitive edge to allow others to march on by while you’re setting up your bivvy (many of us sleep in a bivvy sac instead of an actual tent). I happen to love camping and while -45C isn’t ideal, I’ve actually had pleasant sleeps on the trail from 0C down to -30C. I’ve also woken up in -35C to-48C scared to pack up and let my sleeping bag lifeline go while I frantically get dressed and try to generate body heat as I transition from sleeping to walking.
If I was ever going for a record time or felt the need to beat my previous times, I would take a hit on my sleeping schedule and maybe would feel the effects more, but honestly, I’d rather finish the race healthy and wishing it was longer than completely broken and on the edge of frostbite or hypothermia. This is the race to experience as a journey, and it doesn’t need anything to be made harder – it is as challenging as it gets as far as ultra races go, in my experience so far.
© Joe Bishop
Have you ever hallucinated due to lack of sleep?
I get very tired on the trail, but I’ve never truly hallucinated that I’m aware of. I’ve begun to fall asleep while walking and napped on my sled, but I choose to do it when it’s safe. If it’s not, I’ll stop and make camp and properly rest. This race is set up to succeed; the time cut-offs are generous/do-able. Even though the days are huge (my longest day was 82km), they are possible at a consistent pace and with adequate sleep.
Do any race moments stick out as being particularly challenging?
I’ve had many challenging moments that stick out. Notably, from my first race in 2015, I struggled with uncertainty more than anything. A great fear of the unknown and in desperately cold temperatures of -48C. My headlamps didn’t work properly (I now know which brands/styles are the best for the cold), I couldn’t pack up my tent with my cold hands and I just folded it onto my sled and didn’t set it up again until days later, sleeping in my bag with a thin cover over it as my ‘tent’.
I cried for hours while walking one night when I thought I’d passed the checkpoint or was going the wrong way. Turns out I was just too much in my head thinking I was closer than I was. I now track my kilometres and keep a very realistic handle on where I am and where the checkpoints are. It’s really hard to be realistic when the pace is slower than a regular ultra; 10km can take nearly 3 hours at the end of a long day.
Last year you did it on skis which are said to be the most difficult option. How did it go?
Gliding in -35C is impossible, and the Yukon experienced a low snow year as well, so sections of the race were twiggy, grassy, and hummocky. I had to take my skis off and on a lot, which is hard on the hands and the mind. I was terribly paranoid about frostbite in 2019 – more so than any other year – and felt like I never got a break from the cold. That really wore me down over the 11.5 days. Finishing in Dawson City last year was the most emotional finish I’ve experienced; I was so done with my ski system and wished I had made some changes before the race with my set-up, but I often just deal with stuff and make it work, and that’s what I did for 430 miles. I was also emotionally heavy with personal life stuff, which added to the challenge.
It took you 12 days of continued effort to finish. What kept you going?
The moon, the trees, the stars, the deep darkness, the first rays of sunshine at 10am after having walked a lot of the night or for many hours waiting for the daylight. The tracks in the snow from wolves and rabbits and lynx and fox and all the creatures. The people at the checkpoints and on the snowmobiles checking on us, the friends and family cheering for me at home. A hot meal and a safe place to sleep at checkpoints. The confidence I find in myself after each successful day on the trail and after problem-solving or helping someone else in some way, whether it’s mechanical, like fixing a sled, or emotional like sharing our suffering or shifting someone’s perspective and brightening their day.
The only way to finish is by moving forward and making decisions, and the only way to enjoy it is to notice moments and appreciate the many good ones between the many hard ones. Often they are one and the same. I love being alone, yet I love the volunteers more than anything out there. Having the contrast of the isolating miles of wilderness against the comfort of indoors and company just highlights the best of both worlds. I need both and that’s what I’ve come to value the most out of the solo adventures and races; a connection with myself and with others.
What is it about the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra that has you come back for more?
I was born and raised in Whitehorse, which is where the race begins, and I have family who live in Dawson City at the finish line. I work all summer in the Yukon, and my ties to the people and the wilderness are strong. There’s nowhere I feel a stronger sense of belonging. All of the returning participants in the MYAU agree on the ‘something special’ and I love being surrounded by people who can feel that and who want to be immersed in it for days.
The MYAU has become like family to me. So the combination of the place and the people are what keep me coming back. The race is so well organized and the RD cares about the Yukon locals and how his race is perceived, presented and executed. The respect for the trail, the volunteers, and the racers is easy to sense.
What inspires your endurance adventures in the wilderness?
I grew up wanting to work hard and be connected to nature. My family billeted Yukon Quest dog mushers for a couple of years, and the dogs and the mushers and the stories of the Yukon Quest trail seeped into my psyche and never let go. The dogs’ strength, endurance and willingness to just run and run and run really inspired a desire to push forward and go for it, get excited about simple yet challenging tasks and appreciate the sleep when it is time to rest.
My mum set out on several month-long ski expeditions while I was a kid as well, and my dad cross country ski raced and coached and took us on canoe trips and multiday hiking trips. I’m sure a lot of what I do has been inspired by both of my parents’ dedication to getting outside and moving under their own power, simply to see what’s out there and also to see what we are capable of.
What are you currently training for?
I’ve started training for the 2021 Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra on my fat bike, and have a long way to go before I’ll feel ready. I need to learn how to deal with mechanical issues on a bike in the cold and how to best outfit the bike to hold my gear and be comfortable to ride. New challenges! I’m really excited to practise my biking systems over the next year and tackle the challenge of peddling – and definitely pushing at times – my bike towards the Dawson City finish line.
When I’m not training, I like to hike, canoe, ski tour, snowboard, bike, camp, read, paint and write.
You can follow Jessie’s preparation for next year’s race on social media: www.instagram.com/jessiegladish.