Posted by: nextbigadventure | February 14, 2017

Yukon Arctic Ultra 2017


The Yukon Arctic Ultra is labelled ‘the world’s coldest & toughest ultra.’ Toughest, maybe. Coldest, definitely. Daytime temperatures around -20 degrees are considered ‘positively warm’ while overnight the temperature drops into the -30’s and occasionally crosses -40. 

The Yukon Quest is considered the toughest sled dog race in the world. 1,000 miles (about 1,600 km) from Whitehorse, the capital of Canada’s Yukon province, to Fairbanks, Alaska (the direction alternates each year.) 


Yukon Arctic Ultra competitors start a day after the Yukon Quest dog teams & follow the same course northwards, choosing to go to either the marathon distance, 100 miles, 300 miles or 430 miles. They also choose their mode of transport – fat bike, cross country skis or on foot. 

It’s a single-stage race. Everyone starts at the same time and the timer doesn’t stop until the finish line. Sleep, pace, time out to eat, drink & recover are all up to the competitors – there are no requirements of when or how long to stop. Everyone has a different sleep strategy, pacing & nutrition plan. 

Competitors haul all their food and gear on a pulk. Stove, medical kit, sleeping bag, tent or bivy, additional layers of clothing, a few days food, thermos’ with hot water and satellite tracking units are carried on the pulk. 


I left the start line at 10:30am on Sunday 5 February 2017. 300 miles of frozen Yukon ahead, months of planning, researching & training behind.

Getting to the start line is where most of the hard work and adventure lies, as is usually the case. Months of balancing work, life & sleep with an intense training program is probably the toughest part of the challenge. 


Then there’s countless emails, messages & coffee’s with others that have done the race before – or something similar – to navigate the way through what gear would be needed & try to get an appreciation of what your body may go through. 

I had an enormous amount of valuable feedback from others. However, even with all that, there’s no substitute for experience. There’s no way one can understand that cold environment from behind a cuppicino in Singapore; you need to be standing in it, breathing it, having it slice through you, before even an inkling of appreciation of what it is can take hold.  

I planned to get to the Yukon a week before the race start and attend a Survival Training Course. That would give me time to acclimatize while getting hands-on experience of using my gear while being exposed to that incredibly harsh environment.


Attending and getting to know the 12 others on the course turned out to be a highlight of the trip, possibly bigger than the race itself. An opportunity to swap stories about other adventures; from swimming the English Channel to rowing the Atlantic to desert and jungle ultra’s – everyone had an impressive CV of past experiences! 

Two items from the course would probably rank on my top 3 most painful experiences ever (alongside having antiseptic fluid injected into blisters on my feet – on a different event!) 

First, the river crossing. We needed to be prepared to deal with slipping into overflow (water flowing over the top of the ice along river beds.) The best way to prepare: do it, in a controlled environment. In small groups we walked across a knee deep stream. Not too bad while in the water (which is slightly above zero degrees). However, seconds after stepping out everything wet freezes & the temperature plunges to nearer -30. A very very fast clothes change is required, followed by (for me) an incredibly painful re-heating of my feet near a fire. Not cool. 


Second, my initial attempt sleeping outside in a bivy bag (that’s a waterproof shell for a sleeping bag, used instead of a tent.) Inside the down sleeping bag rated to -40 (temperature was -36 that night) was warm & toasty. However, getting from there to kitted-up & moving is not pleasant. My hands froze up, making operating zips or drinking hot water (to warm up) near impossible. I struggled though it and eventually got it right but needed a better process for on the race – it had been very painful & cost way too much energy. 


A couple more nights out bivy’ing and some process improvements (for example, flask with hot water in sleeping bag to get heat inside me quicker, or heat pads in gloves to warm hands periodically) changed the experience completely. By race day I was able to get out of a bivy and get moving much quicker, almost painlessly (although still not a pleasant process!) 

The Survival Course session on hypothermia put that cold environment into perspective. Our bodies are normally at 37 degrees. Drop more than 2 degrees to below 35 and you have moderate hypothermia; reduced conciousness, loss of use of hands and irrational behaviour. Around 32 degrees is severe hypothermia and very likely death. That’s only 2-5 degrees away from 37. Most nights the temperature is 70-80 degrees away from 37! 

The Yukon Arctic Ultra is really well supported and it seemed most the town were out along the first few kilometres of the course. I started near the front a set a comfortable pace, getting to the marathon runners’ finish line just before dark. Then pushed on until 1:30am to get a total of 84km along the course before my first sleep break. 


My strategy was to sleep 3 hours every 24, which had worked well on many of my training weekends. I slept around 2am to 5am and quickly got moving again. 90 minutes later I got to Dog Grave Lake check point, where I could get hot water for my flasks. A quick refill and I was moving again just as the sky started lighting up. Warmer temperatures (from -38 that night to above -30) would come with the sunlight. 


That second day went really well. I caught up to Enrico – a 63 year old race legend that has 7 finishes and a coupe wins already. This year he’s doing the 430 mile race then going on alone all the way to Fairbanks to complete the 1,000 mile Yukon Quest course! He’s still out there and hopefully he makes it. 

Below zero degrees moisture is the enemy! The face mask gets moist from breathing, some of that gets to my eyelashes and eyebrows; all of it feeezes. I also need to be careful not to sweat too much, that freezes too.  


I reached the checkpoint at the 100 mile race finish at 7pm, just after dark and a little under 33 hours since the start. I was leading the 300 mile race by then and not far behind the 430 mile race leader. Feeling strong I aimed for a quick meal and then to push on another 4-5 hours that night before getting my planned 3 hours sleep. 

I didn’t know it yet, but that 100 mile finish line would become my finish line too. 

Once inside the warm checkpoint I got a meal and removed my shoes to dry them & my feet near the fire while I ate. With the pressure of the shoes released my left foot quickly swelled up. I hardly noticed until I tried standing on it and the sharp pain quickly forced me back into my seat.

Calling a medic over to take a look I could see the redness and swelling spreading across the top of my foot. My shoes had been too tight (only 1 size larger than I usually wear) and with the thicker wool socks there had been too much pressure on my feet. I would only have noticed this once my shoes had been off for some time (the regular sock changes on the course were too quick for the swelling to come through.) 

The medic suggested I spend the night at the check point with my foot elevated and reassess in the morning. It would be too dangerous going out into the colder night temperatures anyway – I would be moving slower and therefore easier get get cold, making me more susceptible to frostbite. 

Waking up early the next morning I slowly lowered my foot to the floor and applied weight. Sharp pain. Not good. 

Really not good. 

I gave it a few more hours of elevating and icing, hoping that with time there would be signs of recovery. Still no improvement. Continuing with the race (another 200 miles) would very likely cause longer term damage to my foot and the chances of other issues like frostbite increase exponentially.

15 hours after arriving at the check point I decided not to continue. 

It wasn’t a hard decision at all. I knew it was the right one and was very happy with how far I had come. Leading the race meant that I had done everything else right – sleep & nutrition strategies, training, pacing and most importantly, adapting to the extreme cold. Just one tiny mistake with my shoes. Experiencing the northern lights, remote parts of the Yukon and creating lasting friendships are all worth way more than getting to the finish line. And I will get to the finish line too, just not in 2017. 

Happily back in Whitehorse after withdrawing at 100 miles

Of the 13 on the start line of the 300 mile event, 4 got to the finish and all within 24 hours of the 8 day cut-off. The 430 mile race is still going, but with only a very dedicated few of the 43 starters remaining. The biggest cause of DNF seems to be frostbite; incorrect gear is also up there and one competitor stopped after a very close encounter with wolves, which had been following him for 2 days. However, in such an extreme environment, one of a thousand tiny mistakes can easily lead to a DNF – or worse. 

Posted by: nextbigadventure | November 30, 2016

Denzil’s First Marathon

Four days to go to the Standard Chartered Marathon in Singapore. 42.2km dragging a 10kg tyre. 8 hour cut-off. Singapore heat. Can it be done?

I didn’t know when I first agreed to do it. That’s one reason I signed up. 

I remember convincingly explaining to a journalist that I could do it. Then, after the call, quickly checking the marathon cut-off time. Then checking my longest tyre drag to date at that point – which had been 4.4km at 12 minutes per km. That’s 5 km per hour or 40 km in the 8 hour cut-off. The marathon distance is 42.2km so I would be 2.2km short of the finish line when the race cut-off. The marathon would also be 10 times longer than my longest tyre drag! Better get training.  


Denzil would be my training partner. He’s a 10kg Yokohama tyre that didn’t have enough tread remaining to serve his former purpose. Like me, he was looking for a new adventure and excited to see if a marathon would be possible! We met one humid Saturday afternoon near the Singapore National Sports Stadium. The first thing I leant was not to meet on humid afternoons. It’s north of 30 degrees Celsius during the day in Singapore. Taking Denzil for a drag in those conditions is really tough. I would focus on building up the distance during the cooler evenings, then come back to dealing with the heat later.  


We headed out most evenings for a drag. Shorter drags would be around Marina Bay and the Barrage, longer ones out along the beaches of East Coast Park towards Changi Airport. Over time the distances got longer (I still remember crossing 10km for the first time) and I learnt to walk at a consistent, faster pace. 

We also made new friends. After being featured in local media (the Straits Times, TODAY & Yahoo) other runners would come up and ask if the tyre was the “Denzil they had read about”! Many of them were also out training for the 2016 Standard Chartered Marathon, so hopefully we get to meet again along the route this weekend. Denzil is kitted out with both South African and Singaporean flags now so should be easy to spot in the crowd!


There are no rules about how far, or how fast, someone should be able to drag a tyre. No limits have been set and I chose not to look for them. Instead, I focus on preparing myself to get to 42.2km within 8 hours. If that can be achieved then I’d have a new baseline to work off (up from the 4.4km!) 

My next adventure will need another 10-fold increase in distance. The Yukon Arctic Ultra is a 485km non-stop race across the frozen Yukon in February. I’ll be there with a pulk containing all my gear and food in tow.   

That, in turn, takes me another step closer to going South (all the way South.) To be continued.

YouTube – Destination Yukon, by Jacques Palluel from Trip In Asia

Photos by Jeri Chua 

Posted by: nextbigadventure | August 29, 2016

The Haute Route: Across the Alps


The sign read Col de Prafleuri 2,987m. We had chased the last rays of sunlight up the rocky scree to the summit. Now only an orange glow came from the south-western horizon with darkness settling down the steep descent to the east. We allowed a few minutes to get our headlights ready, knowing we wouldn’t reach the overnight refugio before we would need them. The refugio still wasn’t in sight; the weather & temperature could change quickly after dark near 3,000m. I wouldn’t say we started to panic – we’re both experienced enough not to & had the gear we needed to be out there at night – but certainly settled into a more determined pace as we dropped down the Col into darkness. 


We knew when we had set out that morning from Champex Lac that 40km & 1,000m’s of climbing across scree, ice & snow would make for a very long day. A short diversion plus a few additional km’s around noon (and a detour to get better maps!) had pushed our ETA out to past sunset. 


About an hour before we started the climb up Col de Prafleuri we had passed a group of 4. The first guy we caught up to was holding a map & said that the ladies ahead were upset. We asked if he had a headlight, food & warm gear, he said he did & that we should let the refugio know they would be in late. When we pass the ladies ahead they quickly explained why they were upset – they had spent most the afternoon going down the wrong valley. Map-guy was clearly not too popular at that point. 

The group was moving slowly but seemed to have the right gear & enough food when we passed them. We would next see them climbing out of a rescue helicopter at the refugio many hours later. 

That was day 2 of our 6 day fast-packing adventure across the Alps, from Chamonix in France to Zermatt in Switzerland. Arriving in Zermatt we would have accumulated over 12,000m of ascent along the 190km route. 


The first day started at Le Tour, just up the valley from Chamonix (we had hiked the valley earlier in the week so this still counts as EFI from Chamonix!). Col de Balme climbed out of the Chamonix valley, and out of France, into Switzerland. After a second high mountain pass the first day ended in the town of Champex Lac – also a significant checkpoint on the UTMB route. 


Day 3 took as away from Col de Prafleuri across very remote valleys & freezing cold lakes. We stayed above 2,500m most the day, eventually climbing back to near 3,000m up a set of ladders bolted to the rock face via Pas de Chèvres (‘Pass of the Goats’). I’m not sure goats could get over that climb. 


We next intersected civilisation – and decent coffee – at the town of Arolla, on the valley floor other side of Pas de Chèvres. A short diversion to Lac Bleu & then onwards down the valley to a good nights sleep & the best pizza in the world in Les Hauderes! 


Another two big days take us over Col de Torrent, past the massive Moiry dam, over Col de Sorebois, through the small town of Zinal, over Forcletta across the Gruben valley, then up the huge Augstbordpass and down into the bottom on the Zermatt valley, to the town of St Niklaus. 

The path meanders up the Zermatt valley on the final day, day 6. A late start, a relaxed early lunch to devour what remains of the 2.5kg of cheese & sausage we left Chamonix with, some ice cream & a not-so-cold lake swim, finally a glimpse of the Matterhorn & suddenly we’re on the main strip of Zermatt. 


The transition from quiet mountain path to busy shopping street couldn’t have been more abrupt. It felt like stepping through a one-way mirror. From the one side we could see the trail ending & the chaotic street scene ahead. Once we had stepped into the street there was no looking back to the trail. It had suddenly become a memory, an epic experience that will last a lifetime, but one we couldn’t step back to. We were part of the chaos on the street now, and could only look forward to the next adventurous exit from it. 

Posted by: nextbigadventure | March 7, 2016

Baikal Ice Marathon, Siberia

Its white in all directions. No indication of where the frozen, snow-covered lake ends and the sky begins. The only hint of which way to proceed is the line of small red marker flags hanging onto the snow while the icy headwind points them sharply back towards me. Alongside the flags the footsteps of the runner just ahead are quickly filling with snow. Progress is much slower than I had expected.  
The start of 12th edition of the Baikal Ice Marathon had been delayed by over an hour. A huge crack in the ice opened up about 3km into the course and parallel to the coast where we would start. Going around it wasn’t an option. The solution was to park three hovercrafts, which were there to support the race, on top of the crack. Runners could then climb up and over the hovercraft to cross the crack. 

We waited nervously in a small club house on the Eastern shore of Baikal while the hovercraft were positioned. A guy that had come all the way from Rio was still deciding between legging options and asked my opinion. I let him know that I’m South African and had never been anywhere near -20 degrees, nor tried to run in it (I did suggest adding the wind proof shell.) A US marine, based in Moscow, looked calm and clearly knew what he was doing. As did a Russian guy from further east who commented that he’s used to -30 so he wasn’t going to wear too much gear today. The Japanese guy I met at the airport still looked as confused as he did when I met him. 

  
The hovercraft were in position and the race ready to start. We exited the building one by one, pulling masks and gloves safely over the last pieces of exposed skin, and lined up at the edge of the lake. Seconds later it began. 

The first few kilometres were easy running but uncomfortable for me. Adjusting zips and straps, trying to find a balance between warm and too warm. In these conditions you cannot afford to sweat, which would instantly freeze between your base layers. Slowly I settled into a rhythm. 

The rhythm was to be short lived as the wind picked up and the layer of snow deepened. Suddenly there was no easy line to be found – some steps would land on hard pack ice, others would vanish calf-deep into snow. Following footsteps was the best strategy, but those were quickly covered by snow drift.

  
Support stations served hot, sweet tea. Along with frozen raisons, frozen cheese, frozen nuts and frozen chocolate! I learnt to use the hot tea to defrost what I wanted to eat. Water bottles handed out had to be consumed within seconds, before they become blocks of ice. 

The finish line lay on the Western shore of the lake. What started around a 3:30 marathon time would eventually end up just short of 5 hours for me. Hot showers and a huge dinner waited a few hundred meters further. And lots of vodka, of course.

  
Staring into the vast whiteness, struggling to put one foot ahead of the other in deepening snow, experiencing conditions I had only read about, I was was exactly where I wanted, and needed, to be. I didn’t go to Siberia to run across a lake. I went to start experiencing and learning what racing in these conditions would be like. 

There are no red flags marking the way to the where I really want to go, the headwinds will be much worse and the temperatures somewhat lower. However, at some point one needs to step out of reading the accounts of other adventurers and start getting the experience yourself. This trip to Siberia was just that for me, and there’s much more to come. 

Posted by: nextbigadventure | February 21, 2016

Gearing up for Lake Baikal, Siberia

I read The Long Walk almost 15 years ago (thanks Ciaran!) Its about a group of prisoners that escape from a Soviet labour camp in the winter of 1942. They walk South out of Siberia, along Lake Baikal, across the Gobi desert and Tibet and over the Himalayas to safety in British India. The book has since became a film (The Way Back) and the accuracy of the account challenged.

Wether true or not, its inspired me over the years to push boundaries further than I may have otherwise. It also put Lake Baikal on my map. A place I’ve wanted to visit ever since. And now – in less than 2 weeks – I will finally do so.

Fitting, maybe, that I will be there towards the end of a Siberian winter. The lake will be frozen over and temperatures can drop below -20 Celsius. Baikal is the deepest lake on earth (over a mile deep.) It lies in Siberia near the city of Irkutsk, just north of the Mongolian border.

The Baikal Ice Marathon is an annual race across the lake, coast to coast, while it is frozen. Another really good reason to be in Siberia in a couple weeks. Running in these conditions will be a first for me. As is often the case, the real challenge is getting to the start line (not between the start and finish lines.)

Working out what gear I need, having never attempted anything like this, is one part of getting to the start. Getting hold of a Russian visa also no easy task. Visa seems sorted now and, with some careful stickman planning, (appropriate?) gear has been accumulated. Certainly more appropriate gear than the Soviet prisoners had, so I should be OK.

Whatever happens there will be a lot for me to learn. I don’t know what I don’t know. Soon I will. And that will be the first step of my next project – to go South – all the way South. But more on that one later. Siberia first.

 

Posted by: nextbigadventure | October 22, 2015

Diagonale des Fous

  
The Next Big Adventure starts tonight in St Pierre, Reunion, at 22:00 (that’s 20:00 in SA.) The ultra marathon crosses the island of Reunion diagonally, over a number of volcanoes & along crater rims, to the northern town of St Dennis. Some call it the Grand Raid, the French call it Diagonale des Fous (‘diagonal of the insane.’)

163km forward and about 10,000m of climbing (& descending) makes it one of the toughest events of the Ultra Trail World Tour. Over 2,700 runners will start on Thursday evening and we have until Sunday afternoon to reach the finish line. Sleep is optional. 

Follow me live via this link, bib number 982: http://www.grandraid-reunion.com/?page=mobilec&lang=en

The only thing insane about this Adventure would be to not attempt it. 

  

Posted by: nextbigadventure | May 15, 2015

The North Face 100 – Australia 

    

100km in the Blue Mountains. Starts 6:20 Saturday morning Syndey time (that’s 22:20 Friday night in South Africa.)

Track me, search my name or race number (153) here:

http://tnf100au.livetrail.net/coureur.php 

  

Posted by: nextbigadventure | April 14, 2014

The Cederberg has been Traversed!

My white shirt is mostly black, arms and legs are laced with slashes of coal markings delivered by the burnt-out protea bushes and fynbos we’ve been running through all morning. 22km since we chased our headlights off the top of Pakhuis Pass; 8 more kilometers and the Krakadouw Pass until our lunch stop. The sun is almost overhead and it’s well past when we were hoping to already be at Heuningvlei for our first meal. Traversing a large part of the mountain that had recently burnt made for tough navigation and much slower progress. The extreme heat and hot wind didn’t help either.
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Posted by: nextbigadventure | April 9, 2014

(The inaugural) Cedarberg Grand Traverse – 100km of Adventure

The Cedarberg 100 Trail is a 7 day hike through some of the most spectacular regions of the Cedarberg. Clanwilliam is the base for this adventure, around 200 km north-east of Cape Town. The trail begins on the famous Pakhuis Pass just outside Clanwilliam.

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Leaving the pass the trail runs south through the Cedarberg, climbing technical trails and dropping into small villages along the valley floor. Hikers can pre-book basic accommodation and meals in each village. The last village, Langkloof, is at the foot of Gabriel’s pass. Leaving Langkloof the trail climbs the pass, makes a detour to the Wolfberg Arch and then descends to the finish at Driehoek. Driehoek is around 100km from Pakhuis.

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Posted by: nextbigadventure | January 6, 2014

Andes Adventure: The Conclusion

A month since I turned my phone off, instantly feeling isolated and cut-off from everything at home, and boarded a flight to Buenos Aires. No more access to bicycle shops for last minute spares, or chemists that spoke English, no more time to plot potential cycling routes south from where I would land, no more time to plan anything. The spreadsheets, maps, conversations and planning become reality the moment my phone’s screen went blank.

The adventure started.

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I cycled from Puerto Montt south through Chile to El Chalten in Argentina and then hiked the circuit of Torres del Paine. However, very little of the adventure went according to how it was planned from my ‘base camp’ in Cape Town – behind a computer screen in a first-world apartment a continent away.

Fortunately, I wouldn’t need much of the medical kit and nor the bicycle spares. Things I thought could break didn’t. Those I thought wouldn’t break did. The route I’d take would be altered by ferry-crossings, winds and luck. Some days would be easier, some would be impossible. The weather would be as expected, but ‘7 degrees with rain’ when you’re 73km away from the next shelter and food is very different to ‘7 degrees with rain’ on an iPhone screen when you’re sipping an americano in Cape Town!

But that’s what makes it an adventure.

A month and a huge adventure later, I’ve crossed the Andes on a bicycle and on foot, explored glaciers, summited mountains, bivy’d next to rivers, bivy’d in the rain, bivy’d in the snow and under star-filled skies, found border crossing few knew existed, lost a few kilograms and toenails, learnt to predict the weather in Patagonia (cold with a very strong westerly wind, everyday), learnt more spanish, found help from absolute strangers when the unexpected did go wrong, met like-minded travelers from Korea, Canada, the US, the UK, Switzerland, Belgium, Slovakia, Argentina, Poland, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Germany, France, South Africa, New Zealand, Brazil, The Netherlands, Israel, The Czech Republic, Spain and Russia, each on their own adventures at their own pace in their own way – some cycling, some walking, some using ships and ferries, some backpacking, some doing nothing at all – each with their own story to tell.

In a few minutes, and a month later, I’ll step off this flight. This adventure will end. But that blank screen will light up and with the world at my fingertips once again from base camp, I’ll start planning the Next Big Adventure!

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