Just walking around the block in the daunting cold of Canada’s far north is a test. Try hiking 100 miles across frozen rivers, through deep woods and over wind-scoured hills.
Five Irishmen took on the challenge in February, tackling the world’s toughest foot race, the Yukon Arctic Ultra in the Yukon territory, near Alaska. John O’Regan, Ken Byrne and Pearse Allen shocked more experienced cold-weather athletes by jointly winning the event in two days and 41 minutes.
Andrew Reynolds also finished while a chronic back problem sidelined Fergus Hughes after 18 miles.
The 100-mile trek was scarcely for the faint of heart. So Allen surprised his countrymen by announcing he would carry on to finish the triply punishing 300-mile race.
Byrne and O’Regan said Allen grabbed one of the tricolor flags the party carried and said he would take it the rest of the way.
Though Allen, a 52-year-old Dublin pharmacist had only recently started endurance training, the other members of Team Ireland said he had already impressed them with his steady pace. “Once Pearse gets going, he has the look of someone who can go forever,” said O’Regan.
They had set out of Whitehorse on Feb. 14, Allen and Reynolds still trying on new equipment as the other three set off down the track.
As they got into their gear, Reynolds found his water bladder was leaking. He also decided against using a harness to pull his sled, a decision that would later cost him.
Each man had about 45 pounds of supplies with him as they set off along the route of the Gold Rush Trail, the path prospectors took to the Dawson City gold fields in the late 1800s.
“I’m not one to be nervous but that morning I spent a fair bit of time in the bathroom,” said Byrne, 29, of Dublin. He said he used to be a beer drinker and smoker, quit and was looking for a challenge. “I thought I’d give this a go. I did the Dublin marathon and started working with Fergie and John doing 50 miles every weekend.”
He said the group was a bit discouraged when Hughes was injured “but we just kept our heads down and kept going. I never thought we’d actually win.” But that possibility dawned on him, O’Regan and Allen with about 10 miles to go.
“At one point we were about 10 miles behind the German who was leading,” explained Bryne. “We could just see a sleigh mark in the snow, and we wondered how far ahead he was. Then we turned a bend and there he was sleeping.”
Said O’Regan: “You snooze, you lose.
“We talked to him and he started to panic and get dressed. So we upped the tempo to four mph, and we did that for three miles. We knew he wouldn’t catch us because it was kind of a sprint.”
There was disbelief when they hit the last kilometer marker.
“We just kept going hard,” said O’Regan, an Irish Rail employee. “I thought as if we’d been in a plane crash and had to walk to civilization, and that’s what I did.”
There was temptation along the way. A woman competitor had a fire going and called out for the three to enjoy the warmth.
“We said no, we’ve got a German chasing us,” Byrne recalled.
They were lucky to have fine weather, clear skies and daytime temperatures of 14F. But at night temperatures plummeted, fears of wild animals rose and the loneliness of the landscape closed around them.
Even in daylight, nightmarish images visited them as a result of sleep deprivation. Hallucinations set in.
Reynolds saw “people running beside me with guns, hillbillies and goblins, and I was worried about bear and moose.”
He was a late entry and unable to find sponsors for a charity but Byrne and the others raised money for Down syndrome children.
“You’d want to quit, then I’d remember there’s a thousand Euro for Down syndrome in it. That’s not a charity everybody thinks of,” said Byrne.
Reynolds, a 34-year-old Waterford investment fund accountant, was feeling a bit like a charity case himself when things turned against him.
His plan to pull his sled with one arm became too difficult, so he had to hoist his heavy rucksack on his shoulders. But the real blow came when he woke from a sleep to find another competitor had mistakenly taken one of his shoes.
“Someone had gone off in the middle of the night with my size 10 and left me their size 9 right foot.”
His foot was already swollen, but he managed to last 35 miles with it. “Surprisingly it was the left foot that gave up, the right foot was grand.”
Reynolds, who has also done the 150-mile marathon across the Sahara, said the cold was something you could plan for but never fully be comfortable in.
For O’Regan, the feat leaves him two short of his dream to do events on seven continents.
“My plan was to run on sand, water (ice), snow and then do the jungle ultra in Brazil, then a mountain event maybe in the Himalayas. I will have done seven continents and all surfaces.”
He completed the Sahara event and finished the North Pole Marathon last year.
He kept his concentration on the trail by reciting his phone number backwards and constantly going through a checklist for frostbite.
“You have to watch your hands especially. If you lose your hands, you can’t light a stove, fix equipment. You’re really in trouble then.”
Hughes was disappointed in having to scratch from the event but figured after 22 years of adventure running it was bound to happen.
“Pulling that sled was jarring, then I hopped out of the way of a dogsled and banged it [his back] out.” It’s an aggravation of spinal injuries he suffered as a young gymnast.
“I should have followed my instinct and just done the 26 miles instead of doing the 100.”
He vows to return, especially after making a promise to a woman at a Whitehorse sporting good store. “She said she’ll start training if I’ll come back and run the 26 with her.”
The others had already returned to Ireland before Allen walked into Pelly Crossing after his epic 300 miles in the wilderness.
He finished in lockstep with German Joachim Rinsch, the last of the group and winners of what is called the Red Lantern Award for being at the back of the pack. But only seven of 17 who set on the 300-mile course finished it.
Rinsch spoke no English and Allen no German.
“We were like an old married couple,” joked Allen. “We couldn’t understand each other and I didn’t speak to him and he didn’t speak to me.”
He took seven days, 21 hours and 40 minutes to complete it, but Allen said he didn’t have the sleep-deprived visions other walkers had. “I didn’t have a single negative thought, either It was all positive.
“I think everyone who did the event came searching for something. I loved the land and the solitude, the time out there to think and pray, real prayer, not the TV kind. I did a lot of praying.”
But he conceded the intense cold made for careful walking and preparation. “It was -31F crossing one lake. You can’t make mistakes when you’re between checkpoints in those conditions. I found a good pace from the beginning and stuck with it. I’m glad I did it.” ♦