Yukon Arctic Ultra conquerer Sally Mason had the grit to race across 100 miles of Canadian ice and snow
“And the woman was small, but her heart was greater than the beef-heart of a man, and she had grit.”
- Jack London’s “Grit of Women”
Gossip about a February endurance race of 26-, 100- or 300-mile distances with a “self-supported nature to it and a wicked environment,” compelled the Sausalito racer to enter the 2006 Yukon Arctic Ultra in Whitehorse. Although a rookie, Mason, a trainer at Endurance Performance Training Center, has crossed the line in the Big Sur Marathon, Farallon Island expedition and paddled the circumference of Lake Tahoe at night.
She was the sole American woman to bushwack out of Whitehorse in the toughest and coldest human-powered race on earth. She had 72 hours to cover a northbound course from the banks of the Yukon River, along the historic Dawson Overland Route to Braeburn Lodge. Sixty-two adventurers joined her on ski, bicycle or foot, in this no-purse event where finishing is the grand prize.
In the first 24 hours, the Yukon’s unseasonably warm, dry winter challenged all contestants. Overflow – ice water on the surface of frozen creeks – rose from ankle to knee high. “I was poking at the ice ahead of me with my poles,” Mason said. “But when it starts to creak and crack under you, you just want to run like hell as best you can on ice.”
That night, under the light of a northern full moon, she realized, “Holy crap, I am out here all alone with only myself to look after me and I am doing just fine.”
At noon, Mason arrived at Dog Grave Lake, a checkpoint 60 miles into the bush, just ahead of British mother-and-daughter team Alison and Denise Pickering. Meeting two of the seven women on the trail “lit a fire under me to take off,” Mason said. Close behind was England’s Stuart Gillett, the 300-mile second-place finisher.
Mason broke trail all afternoon, but with sunset her morale plummeted. Gillett passed her, and together they wandered through the Northland. “I was focused only on the trail a few steps ahead except when Stuart turned around with his headlamp on and I could ‘go to the light.’ That meant a lot.
Deep into Mason’s second night, shards of pain stabbed her from hip to toe. “My legs felt as though they were filled with broken glass. I was hallucinating the sound of crushed glass with every step.”
In the final mile over ice-crusted Braeburn Lake, 50-mile-per-hour gusts crosscut her path. “I was literally blown over onto my side and that’s when I fell apart, bouts of laughing and sobbing, until I pulled myself together and got back up.”
After 39 hours on her feet, Mason arrived fifth overall and second in her class. “The moment I stepped into the lodge I was too exhausted to control my emotions, crying uncontrollably while smiling as big as I ever had.”
“Her feet had been born to early paths and sunny lands, strangers to the moccasined pain of the North, unkissed by the chill lips of the frost.”
- “The Wisdom of the Trail”
"Training for this race presented a bit of a problem, given I live in sunny California,” Mason said. While her Marin County home is hillier than the Yukon, she relied on early snow in the Sierras for cold-weather training and took an overnight workshop offered on site two-days before the race started.
The Yukon facilitator, Shelley Gellatly, holds the women’s record in both the 100-mile and long distance Ultras. She combined bush sense with experiential learning on the 90-minute hike to their “classroom,” where Mason built camp, cooked over an open flame and bedded down under the stars. “I think this session is absolutely required for an event of this magnitude,” Mason said.
Prior to the workshop, Mason’s coworkers used the coaching expertise they employ with triathletes, cyclists and runners to develop a training schedule to build up her legs. Mason cross-trained with kayaking to strengthen her heart.
“As I progressed, my sessions became long enough to demand the rest of the week to recover,” she said. “Ultras are unsettling because it’s contradictory to not run in training. Finding a pace you can hold for 10s of hours is critical. And on the Ultras, you’re pulling a sled, so you can’t run.”
To simulate hauling a pulk full of gear, Mason connected a child’s sled to rigging that led to a padded belt at her waist. She’d either drag it up and down beaches full of driftwood or hitch up ahead of her running partners and use them for resistance. “I got some pretty funny looks,” Mason said.
Twenty-four-hour hikes gave Mason night training and sleep deprivation experience. She likened Yukon nights to being in a dark basement. “You know your way around, but the panic is right below the surface. I admit, a couple of times on the trail, I snapped on my light to make sure I was alone.”
Pound for pound, women and men are equals in ultra racing. But, Mason noted, “Women are more likely to see warning signs and tend to them before they get out of hand, where guys will push on.”
“She says, ‘I am a great traveler. This is my outfit.’ ”
- “The Sun-Dog Trail”
Mason’s kit fit neatly into a pulk tugged by traces fixed to her hips. Her 45-pound load matched the men’s. “This was my first cold weather ultra run,” she said, unsure up to the last minute about what to bring. “I learned a ton and this was my biggest source of growth.”
Packing the pockets of the jackets Mason wore in layers for temperature control demanded forethought. A fanny pack loaned to her at the last minute became crucial for keeping snacks and salves handy. Mason says, “People tend to pack their insecurities. Someone who is worried about getting hungry will pack a mountain of food. My insecurities include becoming too cold and running out of water.”
Before departing, she asked Welsh ultra veteran Martin Like to go through “a sanity check” with her. "After showing him the five different hats that I planned to take he looked at me and said, 'I wish I knew you better so I could cuss you out more about all this gear you want to carry.' As a result, I pared down my clothing to about an eighth of my original plan.”
On shoes, Mason is adamant. “The shoes need to be made of sturdy material to survive the long distances.” Neoprene boots helped Mason shed most of the slush and she kept them on permanently. Blisters erupted on her toes and the balls of her feet. “I only had duct tape, so I used that to tape them up.”
Southlanders reckon with a daily fluid loss of up to 4 liters, but the Yukon’s subzero, semi-arid climate can extract 5 or 6 liters a day. Two liters of water in camel packs and two thermoses of hot liquid food were sufficient for Mason between checkpoints. Pringles, cheese, gummy electrolyte bars and microwaved baby potatoes rolled in salt made up her solid diet.
The medicine chest held Pepto-Bismol, Advil and No-Doze, all of which kept Mason going to the finish line. Her race recovery equipment included a soft bed in a warm hotel and, back home, sessions of massage and acupuncture donated by her employers. “I am sure it won’t be long before I can’t stand resting anymore and am back at it with a new goal.”
“This is the end of the trail…but your trail…leads on and on, by the light of many suns, over unknown lands and strange waters, and it is full of years and honors and great glories.”
- “Grit of Women”
“The Ultra will be life altering,” Mason said. “I was really taken by the international aspect of it. Being one of only three people from the U.S. was not typical for me.”
Mason plans to develop a training program with opportunities for Californians to prepare for future Arctic Ultras. “For most people, limitations are mentally imposed,” the finisher said. “I would like to lead others to achieve what they are after.”
The 2007 Yukon Arctic Ultra extends through the Klondike Gold Fields to Dawson City and starts at 10:30 a.m. Feb. 11 in Whitehorse. A description of the complete 460 miles is available on www.arcticultra.de.