The second annual BHP Billiton Rock and Ice Ultra was held from March 22-28 in Yellowknife, NWT in Canada’s Far North.
This extreme adventure race consists of the Cold Foot Classic one day 71.5km race, the K-Rock Ultra three day 135km race and the Diamond Ultra six day 225km race. Participants choose to either ski or run/snowshoe the course. Competitors in the Cold Foot Classic must carry their supplies for the day in a backpack. K-Rock racers also carry their gear in a backpack, but have their overnight camping gear shuttled to stage camps by race volunteers. Diamond racers don’t get off so easy, as they must pull all of their gear and supplies in a pulk (sled) for the entire six days.
With this being my first year competing in the Rock and Ice, I chose to run in the three-day K-Rock Ultra. My training had gone well, with several weeks of running up to 20 hours per week, a good winter of snowfall, and I felt confident in the gear I was preparing to use for the race. Still, the thought of running longer than a marathon a day for three straight days in such an inhospitable environment quite frankly scared the hell out of me.
Rock and Ice was the brainchild of race director Scott Smith. Two years ago, Smith approached title sponsor BHP Billiton and told them about wanting to organize a race in Yellowknife to showcase the beautiful land that he loved. He was sure that people would travel to from around the world to compete here. The folks at BHP thought he was crazy at first, but Smith’s passion and determination eventually convinced them to come on board and donate the grand prize of a 1 carat diamond for the first place skier and foot racer in the Diamond race and a .5 carat diamond for the first place skier and foot racer in the K-Rock race. A unique race was born.
This year, conditions differed considerably from 2007. While it was still going to be cold by my standards, especially factoring in the windchill, it certainly wasn’t going to be approaching the frigid -40C days they had for the first year of the race. This was a relief, however we were given our own great challenge of having to deal with a heavy snowfall the day before the race which dropped large amounts of deep, granular “sugar snow” on the course. Sugar snow may sound like a really sweet name, but believe me when I tell you that I was cursing it just a few kilometers into the race.
The course for the K-Rock race was a 135km loop beginning in Yellowknife Bay and crossing many of the lakes in the area by way of connecting portages. Foot racers had the option of running with or without their snowshoes on their feet, but it was mandatory to always have them in their packs when they weren’t being used. Due to the deep snow conditions, most foot racers switched to wearing snowshoes quickly and kept them on for most of the race.
Athletes from around the world came to test their endurance at this event, including competitors from England, Denmark, France, Ireland, South Africa, the United States, and across Canada. Local, national and international media were also present to report on the Rock and Ice in newspaper, magazines, television, radio and websites. Media were seen snapping photos from helicopters, snowmobiles and land.
With the deep snow making challenging trail conditions, day one was much longer than anticipated. Racers found that because they were at least 2-3 hours longer on the trail than they prepared for, they were running out of food. To make matters even more difficult, the final section of trail went across the roughly 20km of Prelude Lake. This was definitely a test of mental toughness as much as physical. The lake just never seemed to end!
Finally, at the end of the day, we arrived to the Stage Checkpoint and could settle into our nightly routine of drying gear, eating dinner and preparing supplies for the next day. Our sleeping accommodations were large teepees that fit 5 comfortably. We were sleeping on the snow, but had the luxury of the teepees being warmed by oil stove.
Day two began where day one left off, with a slow trail, deep snow and windy conditions. Mentally I felt that this was going to be the most difficult day and without a doubt it was. The trail conditions did improve at times due to some long portages. These trails were packed down better than the wind blown lakes. Still, racers were spending longer hours on the trail than originally anticipated, and were struggling to take in enough calories to fuel their starving muscles. I had hoped to take off my snowshoes and run with them in my backpack at times today, but found that there was no way that this was going to be possible with all the deep snow.
I had many bad patches during the race, but the final few hours of day two were probably the lowest point for me. I had pushed hard to catch a runner early in the day, had my sights set on the race leader, but had also made the classic mistake of pushing too hard, too soon. We still had a long way to go, and another day of racing ahead. My early eagerness came back to bite me in the butt as I bonked very hard and found myself scouring my backpack for any food that would help me to fuel my depleted body. Approaching the final checkpoint of the day, I was informed that we only had about 10 km left to go. While that doesn’t seem like far normally, in these conditions it seemed unimaginable. If it had been possible to drop out of the race easily at this point, I think I might have been tempted. But really, the thought of a long, cold snowmobile ride out was not a very appealing option either.
I spent a few extra minutes at this checkpoint trying to regroup before heading back out. I was moving slowly, but at least I was moving. A passing foot racer and a few skiers offered encouragement as they overtook me. I wished that I could have maintained contact with them, but sadly I watched them disappear ahead. I just had my own company to get me through the final few kilometers of the stage.
Mercifully, stage camp two finally came into sight and my day was soon over. This was a real turning point for me mentally, but physically I felt totally exhausted. Struggling to eat the required calories to continue the next day was almost as much of a challenge as the long day of running. My muscles were screaming for food, but my mind and stomach really didn’t want any part of it. Luckily, I was finally able to choke down some dried camp food, yet again, and kept trying to top up my caloric deficit by eating chocolate, macadamia nuts and anything else my stomach could handle. Others were in the same situation with certain foods appealing to some, while turning the stomachs of others.
Sleep didn’t come easily this night as the expedition style tents we were sleeping in were not quite as warm as the teepees from the night before. The last thought I had before dozing off to sleep was that things might improve in the final day.
I awoke to day three and the energy around camp was very uplifting. I was assured by the Yellowknife racers that the trail conditions were guaranteed to be fast on this final day as it was a very well traveled section of trail by snowmobile. The added bonus of a strong tailwind for most of the day was also very much welcomed.
My legs were surprisingly fresh this morning, and with the hard, sure-footed surface, I felt like I was moving faster than I had at any point in the race up until now. Alternating back and forth between running with skiers and other footracers, you could tell that spirits were high and that everyone had a huge sense of optimism. I have never before witnessed in a race the encouragement shared between fellow racers. It was almost more of an expedition than a race, with everyone working hard to accomplish the same goal as a group, regardless of whether you were leading the race or well back in the pack. Each could relate to the other.
The final checkpoint of the day had me thinking something that I hadn’t really let slip into my mind up to that point. I was actually going to finish this thing! The cheers and enthusiastic greeting at this checkpoint, as with all the other ones, helped to really spur me on. The added feature of knowing I only had a few more kilometers to run before I hit the ice highway and could take off my snowshoes for the first time was very motivating as well.
Stepping off the snow and onto the ice highway, I quickly slipped off my snowshoes and put on my running crampons. This was such a welcome boost. Knowing that I only had 6 km of ice road to go, I sprinted off towards the finish line. Feeling light and free of the challenging footing from earlier in the race, this section flew by.
I was having a great day, but so was race leader Ewan Affleck, who had built up a commanding lead over the first few days. Ewan won this race last year and, being from Yellowknife, seemed to excel in the challenging conditions. Ewan was within sight for all of day three and I had thoughts of trying to catch him, but he was just too strong. Later, I would tell him this and that I was hoping to at least take day three away from him, but he replied that he really wanted to break the tape first on the final stage. Fair enough, and I was happy that Ewan was able to prove without a doubt that he deserved to win this race for a second year in a row.
Crossing the finish line was a mix of emotion. I was very happy to have finally completed what I had set out to do. I was also somewhat sad that it was over, even though it was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life.
Emotions were still getting the best of me when I shook hands with race director Scott Smith, and thanked him for such a wonderful race and experience. It was truly life changing. You could tell from looking deep into Scott’s eyes that he understood this, and was genuinely thrilled that each racer came to experience at least a little of his own depth of passion for the north.
For more information on the BHP Billiton Rock and Ice Ultra, please go to http://www.rockandiceultra.com
Derrick Spafford finished 2nd overall in the K-Rock Foot division of the BHP Billiton Rock and Ice Ultra. He is now thinking he might like to try the 6 day Diamond Ultra in 2009.
Photo credit: Rob Howard/SleepMonsters.com