6633 Arctic Ultra: The aftermath……….
It’s been a few weeks since I completed the 6633 Arctic Ultra and I’ve had some time to reflect on the cold, the wind, the distance and the endless pulling of the pulk. I’ve written several blog posts after the race and these blog posts have been quite cathartic and made me think more about the actual race itself. Sometimes you get caught up in the moment and forget the little things that were going on at the time, so writing the blog posts were a good exercise for me.
There were a few things I didn’t mention in the blogs (because I forgot or didn’t appreciate them then), one of them was the amount of sleep I got over the 9 days of 'racing'. After counting up the sleeps and my mini-naps I calculated that I had 19 hours sleep over 9 days, which works out at a little over 2 hours of sleep a day……for 9 days! This explains the fatigue and the hallucinations, but one thing we must remember is that this was self-inflicted. I chose to sleep so little. I had to keep moving to meet the cut-offs (and keep warm), so sleep wasn’t a priority; moving was a priority. A good friend of mine who completed the 6633 last year told me before the race “If you aren’t moving, you aren’t finishing”. And this is so true. You have 383 miles to cover in 9 days, so you have to keep moving. Not sleeping is a form of self-torture and it was my choice at that point in time. Sleep deprivation can drive a person crazy (there’s a reason people use sleep deprivation as a tool of torture) and my mind was all over the place at times!
The weather was also an issue that I didn’t really discuss too much in my blog posts. This year we had ‘good’ weather, we only had one day of really strong winds (which did really batter us) and the temperatures, generally, were pretty mild for that part of the country. Don’t get me wrong, it got down to ‘32’c, which is pretty chilly, but occasionally it did also go up to -5’c, which is considered pretty balmy by nothern Canadian standards. The issue for us was the swing in temperatures. When the temperature drops from -5’c to -25’c that’s when you have to be very careful and make sure you’re fully covered up and your extremities are insulated adequately. And this was a real problem out there, one moment you could be quite warm and be on the verge of sweating when working hard, to being very cold and having to put all your ‘big’ down clothing on (jacket, trousers, hat and outer mitts).
Another thing that crossed my mind, and this might be going slightly deep, so perhaps I’ll cover it in more detail again, is whilst on the ice I was only able to fill my pulk (sled) with the absolute bare essentials. I only had food, water, clothing, bivvy, cooking equipment and emergency/medical supplies. It had to be simple. I had to be streamlined. I had no room for creature comforts. And now as I am back home I do wonder how much “stuff” I actually need. Now, I’m not saying I’m going to ditch all the luxuries and just live on the bare essentials, but I do wonder if I can streamline things. I mean, how much “stuff” do we actually need?
Once I’d finished the race at Tuktoyaktuk and returned to Whitehorse, and now back to the UK, I’ve been monitoring my recovery very closely. Not in any scientific way, but making mental notes on how my body feels, fatigue levels, sleep patterns and the like. Straight after the race my nose and face was peeling and flaking, this was mainly due to my reluctance to cover my face in the final few hours of the race (as I was heading towards the Arctic Ocean it was very cold but I just wanted to get the race done & dusted and therefore neglected fully covering up), this healed very quickly with the help of some moisturiser and was hardly noticeable by the time I got back to Cardiff. One significant aspect to note was my sleep straight after the race and the days following, my body was obviously very fatigued from 9 days on the ice but I found that my sleep was very poor, maybe 4-5 hours a night initially and always waking up with night sweats and thinking that I had to get up and get moving as I had a race to finish. The sleep got better over time and the idea that I was still in the race dissipated quickly upon my return to the UK but the night sweats continued for weeks after the race. Jonny, one of the medics, had warned us about this and said it could continue for several weeks after the race (he was definitely correct in my case). Other things to note were peeling skin on my all of my fingertips about a week or so after the race and a numb left thumb; obviously my fingers were exposed to extreme temperatures a lot during the whole trip, which is unavoidable at times, and this is the body’s healing response. The fingertips are now healed but the left thumb is still numb and I’m not sure when I’ll regain full feeling back in the thumb.
I’ve previously mentioned the cold, the wind, the distance and the endless pulling of the pulk, but the days on the ice were so much more than that. We tend to forget about the little everyday things that allow you to achieve the big things; the preparation, the anal attention to detail, food & hydration choices, layering and delayering of clothing, foot maintenance, regulating body temperature, kit choices, sleep, setting up and taking down your bivvy (quickly), the list of ‘boring’ daily tasks is endless, but vitally important. The bottom line is, to achieve success, you need to get the ‘boring’ little things done every day & get your systems dialled in and that is only done through preparation, planning and repetition.
Some close friends have asked if I realise what I’ve achieved. I’ve usually just batted this question away and played it down as nothing as I don’t particularly enjoy talking about myself or being the centre of attention, but I guess when you look at it objectively, it is a massive accomplishment and one perhaps that I should celebrate more. As I mentioned above, preparation, planning and repetition (practise) were key to my success but I do also wonder how much of it was mindset and just being plain stubborn. When it’s -32’c and you’re dragging your pulk into a headwind, what is it that makes you just keep grinding and putting one foot in front of the other? Maybe my military experience helped, but for me, I knew it would end at some point. So all I had to do, like with anything in life I guess, is suck it up, dig in and get it done.
And the cold and wind did end, but the bottom line with the 6633 Arctic Ultra is that it gobbles you up and spits you out. The commitment required is massive, you have to go deep, deeper than you thought possible, and if you’re prepared to leave part of your soul out on the ice, then you just might succeed.
A lot of people are asking what’s next? I guess that’s a normal question when you’ve done something big. My usual response to that is, “a rest, spend time with the family and pay off my credit card bills”. A few people have suggested a few races and some crazy adventures, but for right now, I’m happy spending a bit more time at home and letting my body and mind recover a bit.
I’ve also received some really nice comments and feedback from members of the public, friends and family, so I thank you all for that. Whilst I was in the race I understand the support, particularly on social media, was massive, I’ve tried to respond to all the messages retrospectively, but if I’ve missed some I apologise; your support was greatly appreciated.
There are so many people I need to thank, without the help of many experts, friends and family the 6633 Arctic Ultra would never have happened for me. I sought out experts and professionals in their fields and quizzed them endlessly on different aspects of the race and race preparation; without your knowledge and unbridled support I couldn’t have completed the race, I will be forever grateful.
I trained extremely hard for this event, both physically and mentally, and it does somewhat take over your life for a few months. Without doubt, the biggest support came from my wonderful wife, Sarah. People often say that “Behind every great man there's a great woman”, well, I’m not saying I’m a great man, but I do have a great woman supporting me every step of the way. I have no doubt that I couldn’t have done it without Sarah’s support and encouragement; so to Sarah, thank you, WE did it, your unwavering support got me over that finish line.