A Question of Time

Posting 1 – A question of time

Tanya and I thank you for joining us on our 6633 Ultra journey. We will endeavor to post an update about our journey, our preparation, and even some general thoughts every second week. We invite you to comment on our post, and to give us your insights, experience and some much needed advice, as neither of us is very familiar with cold weather. A few minutes ago Tanya came down with an electric blanket for me to put on our bed; it is plus 23 degree Celsius outside and was a low 7 degree Celsius at 05:00AM this morning. It might also be helpful for me to state that I once experienced -14 degree Celsius in Switzerland. This resulted in me phoning Tanya to tell her I love her and Arielle, and that she should know it, in case, I don’t make it back to my hotel, so as you may see, we need lots and lots of help.

Firstly let me introduce the 6633 Ultra for which we entered. We opted to participate in the 350 mile (563.27km’s) race which is a single stage race that has to be completed in 191 hours with an interim cut-off at 120 miles (193.12km’s) of 71 hours. For those that don’t know, in a single stage race, the clock never stops. So taking a rest, sleeping, eating or attending to anything is done against time. The benefit of doing is weighed against the possible effect this might have in terms of time. As can be imagined, this places an additional level of race stress to an event that is extreme in every sense of the word.

Many would look at the 191 hour cut-off and consider the 2.949km/h (20:20/km) pace that has to be maintained as easily achievable, but is it? This race has a substantial dropout rate, since inception in 2007 a total of 86 athletes have entered for the 350 mile race, yet only 27 were able to finish the race. That is a staggering DNF rate of 68.6%. This means, that on average, only 1 in 3 participants will be able to complete this race. Compare this to other ultra-endurance extreme events and the realisation of exactly how extreme this ultra-endurance race really is becomes blatantly obvious.

The question, therefore, is what exactly makes this event so extreme and even more importantly, why are so many not able to finish this race. You will note, I did not say fail, as not being able to finish this race has nothing to do with succeed or fail. Most of us, and trail runners more so, embrace nature as a wonderful part of life. We live in it, we breath it, experience it and believe that we, somehow, find her rhythm and move harmoniously with her. But most of us will seldom, if ever, face the brutality that mother nature can bestow on the living. To be able to reach the finish line in an environment where mother nature subjects you to her worst is a combination of physical preparation, mental strength, race strategy, technology, experience, knowledge, and a great deal of good fortune.

The good fortune element becomes very evident when we look at the race results in more detail. In 2008 not a single person in the 350 mile race was able to reach the finish line, only 1 in 6 participants were able to reach the finish during 2009 and 2011 and only 1 in 4 were able to complete the race during 2010 and 2013. The single most challenging element in this race is not, it seems, the distance but rather mother nature herself.

So, what makes this event so extreme? Firstly 93.43% of this race, a total distance of 526.27km’s takes places within the arctic circle, hence the name 6633, which refers to the arctic boundary which is set at 66°33′46.7″ north of the Equator by the scientific community. The weather conditions in this region of the planet are so extreme that less than 0.05% of the world population inhabits it, and it is this single element that, I believe, defines the 6633 Ultra and which poses the greatest obstacle for those who decide to participate.

There are three main weather station collection points; these are at Whitehorse, Fort McPherson and Inuvik, and by using the average March data from these stations a very simplistic picture can be formed of what the conditions are like out there during the 6633 Ultra. I will highlight some key weather indicators briefly to demonstrate:

Temperatures during the day range between -32 and -8 degree Celsius, [-20, ±12 degree Celsius], and night time temperatures range between -45 and -25 degree Celsius, [-35, ±10 degree Celsius]. As this is a single stage race there simply is no reprieve from the cold, as participants will be out in the cold dragging a pulk during both day and night time, or if exhaustion becomes too great, will be trying to get some rest out in a tent or bivvey as their only protection against the elements. It is clear that anyone hoping to finish the race must be prepared to face a range of temperatures over a twenty four hour period of between -45 and -8 degree Celsius.

Precipitation range between 3 and 12% [7.5% ±4.5%], rainfall between 0 and 2mm, and snowfall between 1 and 10mm [5.5mm ±4.5mm], while humidity remains constant at 0%. Wind is an important factor to take into consideration as the wind-chill can substantially reduce the temperature beyond the figures provided earlier. For the most part the wind range varies between 2 and 13km/h [7.5km/h ±5.5km/h], however, the 25km section known as Hurricane Alley regularly records winds between 60 and 80km/h in temperatures of -31 degree Celsius. With the wind chill factored in the temperature drops to below -52 degree Celsius. In such conditions, frostbite occurs in minutes. But there is another important element pertaining to the wind to consider, its direction. The data seems to indicate that participants will experience, on average, a headwind 37% of the time, a wind from the back 24% of the time and a cross wind the remaining 39% of the time. This makes movement extremely difficult, especially through Hurricane Alley. Fighting strong winds through Hurricane Alley results in a decrease in speed on average of around 42%, during 2016 the average speed, amongst the finishers; through this section of the route was 3.79km/h. This means that an average participant could be stuck in extreme conditions for nearly seven hours, seven hours of being subjected to extreme wind conditions (80km/h), and extremely low temperatures (-52 degree Celsius), while the slowest participant was out on this section for nearly 8 hours.

So why are so many participants not able to reach the finish line? This is not a simple question, and any answer would represent an over simplification. I don’t believe that there is a single reason, but rather a combination of elements that prevents a participant from reaching the finish line. Besides the weather and the associated mental and physical stress it causes, combined with the fatigue of covering great distances, there are, elements that are obvious, key amongst these are those elements associated with time.

Here I am referring to the participants average pace, the time spent resting and, or sleeping, the time spent preparing meals, and the time spent sorting kit and equipment. Optimisation of time spent to derive at a highly productive allocation of time is, I believe, key to reaching the finish line. This means that kit familiarisation, organisation, and various operational actions must receive as much attention during the preparation and training phase as does those elements of fitness we usually focus on. A well thought out strategy where movement and rest is carefully balanced is evident from the race result data I have analysed, the good fortune element, even here, plays an important role, as conditions can easily wreak havoc with the best thought out strategy, as many an ultra-runner can attest to. Adaptability and those second and thirst option plans, within this environment, are not accidental considerations that take second place during preparation but are of paramount importance.


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