Polar Sunrise Ultra Run: 100 Miles from Tuktoyaktuk to Inuvik, NWT

January 4-8, 2019

It all started like just another day on a trans-Canada road trip…

Lark and I were driving across Canada, after a long season of tree planting, enjoying the freedom of being on the open road, when I spotted an unusually dressed runner trucking down the side of the road.  I suspected this was a runner I knew (well, more like a runner that I had read about).  “Pull over!” I yelled, hopping to the back of the van to grab some power bars and gels and to throw on some running shoes, “I think that’s Caribou Legs! This super cool runner!  I read about him in a magazine!  I’m gonna see if I can run with him!”

Sure enough, it was the one and only Caribou Legs(an amazing runner, who was quite the life story, including running across Canada 3x to raise awareness about missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW), a huge issue in Canada right now).  Luckily enough, he was looking for a ride into the next town, Thunder Bay, and we got a chance to talk.  And, this being Canada, of course he just happened to know my mom from her days in the Arctic, where she was known for winning many arm-wrestling competitions and being one of the first female volunteer firefighters, among other things.  That’s another story though.

Back to our story: After making our way the 2.5 hours to Thunder Bay and getting my face painted with war-paint next to the drive through of a Tim Hortons, we decided to keep in touch.  We’re all runners after all; we should definitely plan a run together.

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And thus, the Polar Sunrise Ultra Runwas born.  A run from Tuktoyaktuk (aka Tuk), on the Arctic Ocean, 100 miles south down the newly completed Tuk/Inuvik Highway to the Town of Inuvik.  We would start in Tuk in the dark, and aim to finish in Inuvik for the first sunrise of 2019, on the 6thof January with the Inuvik Sunrise Festival (a fact that we were a bit slow to figure out and would mess with our running plans, but that will all come later).

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The Route Plan: Not to many worries about getting lost out here with only one road to follow

Five months later, on January 4, 2019 I met up with my mom, Rita Pasiciel, along with our hearty running crew, Freda and Kevin Whiteside, in Inuvik.  Caribou legs was unfortunately unable to make it at the last minute, but wished that we would “rock the mucklucks off the spirit of Caribou Legs”.  He wasn’t able to be with us physically, but I think we recognized he was the spark that started the idea for this run and, with his energy (and skills in mobilizing people to action), spurred this idea into reality.

And so, the run must go on…  it would be starting that very night.

 

DAY 1: THE NIGHT RUN: Winging It (35km done)

After touching down in the town of Inuvik, we had to get the rental vehicle, get packed up, do a quick interview with the local newspaper, and pick up some last minute groceries we would need for the run back into town.  It was a bit chaotic as any pre-race prep is, but eventually, around 6pm, we were all ready to start the trip north up the highway to Tuk.  It was already pitch black out around 4pm, so it didn’t really matter how late we started as it would be completely dark anyways.  And so, in the dark, with everything we would need to the next couple days running, we set off on the highway that none of us had ever traveled on before (until 2017, Tuk was only accessible by plane/boat in the summer and ice road in the winter).

Eventually, in what seemed like way more than approximately 130km, it was time for the actual run to begin.  All of this prep, training, and support came down to the next 160km we would cover. And all the doubts creep in…Would we be able to handle the cold?  Would is be too scary to run so isolated in the dark?  What is the ground actually going to be like?  And the constant question of doubt when winter running: did I wear one layer too much or will I be wishing I had thrown on an extra layer? But, now was not the time for doubts, now was the time to get started.  After a quick photo with our specially-decorated high vis vests, we started running, and our support vehicle drove off to Tuk, where we would meet up with them, ~35km and 6 hours later.

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But first, photo by the light of the high beams!

So, we set out to start what we meant to do. One step at a time, one hundred steps at a time, one thousand steps at a time.  It was so, so dark and even with our fancy headlamps, we could only see about 10 metres in front of us, and not any farther than the snow bank on both sides of the road.  Quickly, it became apparent that mom had over-dressed a bit and I had under-dressed a bit, but we were both comfortable enough for -19°C so long as we kept moving.  And thus the kms passed.  We had a lot of catching up to do so it went by quickly.  After about an hour we saw a red light in the distance, but it was impossible to tell if it was 5km or 30km away.  Turns out it was about 30km away, so for 5 hours all we saw was this flashing red light in the distance getting closer and closer, ever so slowly as we weaved our way north.  After about 6 hours of steady going we arrived in town, where we were greeted by our support vehicle to guide us to the house we were staying at for the night. Graciously, Nellie Cournoyea, a former premier of the Northwest Territories, an old friend of mom’s, and the woman who had given me the Inuit name Oovilou when she met me as a baby, provided us with some warm showers and beds for the night.  Thank you Nellie!!  We were pretty tired, but happy to have already completed a good chunk of the highway; it was by no means easy, but it was definitely do-able.  After eating a hot meal, we were quickly in bed, well aware of the many cold miles still ahead of us.

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L to R: Kevin, Rita, and Freda posing at the… well, you can read the sign

 

DAY 2: THE LONG DAY: Relentless Forward Progress (60km done)

The next morning we were up and at ‘em, ready to get going at the not-so early time of 9am.  After a massive bowl of oatmeal and coffee, we set off by car to the drop point where we had started the run the night before.  (But first a quick photo of the sign that says we are at the Arctic Ocean, even though we can’t see it in the complete dark).  When we made it to the right spot on the highway, thanks to Kevin’s excellent navigation skills (he’s a pilot so we were in good hands), we were, once again, dropped off on our own in really the middle of nowhere.  Freda and Kevin headed back to Tuk for some breakfast and waking up, and we started heading south.  We were in good spirits, but I think the idea of how many cold kms were ahead of us was also a daunting factor.  Slowly, but surely, we covered ground, going about 7km/hour.

Here, I would like to recognize my running buddy, well, actually the person that first introduced me to running, none other than my mom, Rita Pasiciel.  This woman is truly something else, and that’s not even me being biased as her daughter.  I would first like to point out that she is doing this run at the age of…wait for it… 65! Yes, that is no lie.  She also happens to have a bone chipped and floating in her shoulder (ski patrol accident) and is waiting for surgery to fix that. And still she is out here doing this run that any person at the prime of their life/health would probably never opt to do.

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It is with this person at my side that I find strength.  Really, what can I possibly complain about when the person next to me is doing this at 65 years old!  She was definitely a motivating factor, and made the many kilometers much easier for me keeping that in mind.  We weren’t blazing the trail, as I sometimes have the tendency to do with my horrible pacing skills, but we were steady, and thanks to her pacing, we kept moving the entire day.

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And in this way, the second day of the run and another 60km were done.  Our support vehicle helped us out every couple of hours with warm beverages, not-frozen water, dry balaclavas, and a heated place to sit for a bit while we fueled up. For us, having the support crew was key – a chance to warm up, a chance to see friends that remind us we are strong and capable, and, most importantly, a safety net should something go wrong in this no-cell reception part of the highway.  We had started in the dark, had about 6 hours of dusk (with no sun coming over the horizon), and finished in the dark.  The landscape was beautiful in a desolate way as we had not yet reached the tree-line area closer to Inuvik. We were pretty exhausted but also amazed at what we were able to do together, and mostly, we were looking forward to crashing in a warm house and bed for the night (Thanks Tom Zubko & family for letting us stay at your place in Inuvik!).

 

 Day 3: THE PRETEND FINISH: For the Cameras (33km done)

As I said earlier, in the planning phase there was a bit of confusion around when/what day the sun would first rise in Inuvik.  Some websites claimed it was the 6thof January, some claimed it was the 7th.  We were originally under the impression that the first sunrise would be on the 7th, and planned our trip/booked flights accordingly.  But, turns out we were wrong and the actual day that the sun was set to first peek over the horizon in the northern town of Inuvik was the 6th.  We could have pushed through the night the night before, but opted to sleep instead, do a “photo finish” for the Sunrise Festival, and then complete the in-between section afterwards.  Not the perfect way we planned to finish, but our adaptation would have to work.  So, the next morning, on schedule with our expected pace to cover the distance, we were dropped 30km outside of town with about 5 hours to make it back for the sunrise up on the hill, at exactly 1:45pm.

Once again, we started in the dark.  This time we were in the tree line, and this was apparent by the many recent animal tracks in the fresh snow on the highway.  At one point we saw a print that was quite large, and quite fresh, but we had no idea what it was.  A wolf?  A bear? A wolverine?  Remind yourself that polar bears do not live in this part of the arctic.  Whatever it was, we didn’t see it, but it sure spooked us in the dark, and we covered the road pretty close to each other until it started to be daylight.

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The daylight comes ever so slowly in the north in the winter.  The sun has not come over the horizon for the past 31 days. Although there is no direct sun, there is some daylight.  Out of the complete dark, you start to think you see the horizon, but wonder if you are just imagining the greenish light.  Slowly you can start to see the horizon to the south, and then the visibility of the horizon spreads around you.  After a couple of hours you can see the landscape around you, but it feels like that short time after the sun sets where it is light outside but you know it is going to be dark very soon.  This is how it stays for the peak hours of daylight in the northern winter.  All of this over a period of about 5 hours.

After about 5 hours of progress, we make it to town, we turn left just before downtown, in order to go up the hill on the bypass road, the best place to watch the sun rise in town.  It’s been a cloudy couple of days, and unfortunately, there is no visible sun rise this day.  There are a couple local reporters out to capture the sunrise, and they turn their cameras to us instead, the brightest things in town on this cloudy day.  It was a strange arrival, we celebrated as if we had finished, but we also know that we had a 30km section still to cover. But that would wait for now… now it was time to check out the sunrise festival village, with dog sleds, igloos, bannock, and of course a giant ice castle for kids to slide on.

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Day 4: THE COLD STRETCH/ACTUAL FINISH: So glad it wasn’t this cold for the entire run!  (33 km done)

Okay, today is the day to get it done!  We are pumped to know it’s the last day, but at the same time, we know its going to be tough.  A cold front has moved in and it is back to being regular arctic cold.  We lucked out and hit a warm spell, where temperatures were about -18° C each day.  Now we are looking at -38°C.  Both seem cold, but -38°C is really a whole other level of cold when you are out on your own to deal with the elements.

We bundle up, adding several extra layers to account for the extra cold.  Our faithful till the end crew, drives us about 60km out of town to drop us off at the place we finished running 2 days ago.  We’ve got to run to the sign that says “Inuvik – 30km”, where we started our run into town yesterday.  So, no point in dwelling about the cold, it’s not getting any warmer, time to get going.

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But damn, it’s cold!  We have our balaclavas covering our entire face except for a small slit for our eyes to see through.  Our eyelashes keep accumulating “icescara” so quickly that if you don’t melt the ice off your eyelashes they soon become too heavy to hold open. We don’t really stop to eat or do anything as stopping means getting cold, and taking your hands out of gloves means instant frozen fingers.  The only stops are for peeing.  Oh, and when a bus stopped to check in on us and offered us some delicious bannock.  Other than that, it was heads down, keep moving and bear it and get these 30km done.

Along with the cold, comes the clear skies, which does make for an incredible sunrise over the course of the day.  I have never seen so many colours on the horizon (a full rainbow from red to green to violet), or maybe that is because I had nothing else to look at so I simply looked at the beautiful picture the sky painted, changing ever so slowly as the sun rose and noticed things that I hadn’t taken the time to notice before.  Either way it was stunning.  And with the clear skies we got to get our polar sunrise run after all.

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It was a tough, but fulfilling day.  The cold made the running much more difficult, and made us that much more tired at the end of the day.  I’m glad we had the opportunity to experience a “real” cold day, because after the first three “warm” days, we were already talking about doing this run again.  After the cold, cold day, I think we snapped back into the reality of running in the arctic and how hard that normally is.  We celebrated our real finish to our faithful running crew waiting for us at the “Inuvik – 30km” sign, and after a quick photo and hugs all around, we quickly jumped into the warmth of the car to get back home.

We did it!  It was over!  At times we weren’t sure it would happen.  At times, we were over-confident that we would easily make it.  Obviously the highway is not impossible to run in the winter, but it was definitely a challenge for both of us.  I think next time, we’ll stick to running this in the summer 🙂

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Some lessons learned / tips for running in the Cold:

Keeping water above freezing: Water freezes fast in -20° to-40°, and frozen water is useless to a runner.  To keep your water in liquid form, make sure you start out the day with pre-heated water. Also, some people add a shot of alcohol to their water to slow/prevent the freezing process.  Then, make sure you are storing the water bottle near your body (heat) so that it stays warm.  Wear your backpack under your outer layers or put your water bottle in your sports bra / sewn-in packets in base layers.  Definitely don’t use a camel back – even if you are very careful and blow air in the tube to prevent freezing, this never worked for me and by the end of the run I gave up on the camelback and converted to water bottles.

Keeping things easily accessible: Trying to get to anything in a backpack while running is super annoying, but this becomes next-level annoying when it is freezing out and you are wearing gloves that make it impossible to do much with individual fingers.  If you are running for extended periods in the cold, make sure to make everything you will need easily accessible.  If you are wearing your pack under your outer layers to keep the inside items from freezing, you will have to remove said outer layers (in the freezing cold) to get to anything.  Put everything you might need in the front park of the pack (pockets on the shoulder straps) or in your jacket pockets.  This way you’ll be able to get the calories / water / Vaseline / headlamp when you need it without having to undress and redress with numb fingers.

Stay visible: Winter means reduced day light hours.  If you are running in the dark, or even at dawn or dusk, make sure that you can both see and be seen.  Always bring a headlamp (you never know how late you might be out and you should never count on your cell phone), and always wear reflective gear so that vehicles can see you from far away.  (Please) Don’t be that runner running in all black in the dark that scares the living daylights of every driver that comes up to you.  

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Hand Warmers: These are a good emergency item to keep on your person when running in the winter. Cold hands that cannot feel mean that you won’t be dexterous enough to open your water bottle or power bar. Usually your hands will warm up on their own, just by running, but if they are unable to warm up, it is really nice to have a set of hand warmers to throw into the end of your gloves to return blood flow and dexterity.  I splurged on this run, and put a handwarmer in each mitt every day of the run. Grabbing onto the heat was very comforting in the cold, and my hands were toasty warm! 

Thermos with hot beverage: If you’re headed out for a longer, more isolated run, I would also highly recommend bringing along a thermos with a hot beverage, either sweet (e.g. hot chocolate) or salty (soup broth).  It’s an additional source of calories, liquids, and will warm you up from the inside out.

Sweating: One of the first rules of winter running: keep your sweating under control.  Sure, if you are going out for an hour or two, the sweat is not a big deal, but if you are out for longer and away from buildings to potentially warm up in, you’ll want to keep the sweating in check. The wet will be fine so long as you are running and keeping your heart rate up, but if you need to walk or stop, those wet base layers can quickly lead to hypothermia in freezing temperatures.  To prevent this remove layers of clothing before you start sweating and always pack an extra base layer to change into if needed.

 

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L to R: Kevin, Rita, Jennifer, & Freda

To finish off this blog, I’d like to sincerely thank all of the people involved in this undertaking.  To my running partner for life, Rita Pasiciel for never-wavering in the decision to do this run, and not letting me back down from the challenge, no matter how expensive flights to Inuvik are (they are super expensive by the way – definitely a glimpse into how hard it is for people in remote northern communities to travel south).

To our stellar crew: Freda and Kevin Whiteside, who, together, made a spectacular race crew, putting their own personal needs aside and making sure we covered all 160km of the highway.  The run would not have been able to happen without you two, and it was just really nice to share this experience together.

To all the locals that pulled over on the highway to ask what in the world we were doing, where we were goin, and if we needed help.  Thank you especially to the locals that welcomed us into their homes: Nellie, Tom, and Paul.

And lastly to Caribou Legs for all that you do raising awareness about issues First Nations people in Canada face on a day-to-day basis, and promoting awareness / motivating people to action by being a role model for everyone around you.

 

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