YRQ – How it was for me
I like many other people had no concept of what this race truly involves. I thought I was just going for a really long paddle.
To put this race into perspective the distance is in excess of THREE 11 City Tour NON STOP and only getting a total of 10 hours rest during the full distance. Add to this crazy distance the requirement to read maps well, there are hundreds of islands in the Yukon River and one wrong rounding of an island can put you into slack water and add a lot of time to your finish. Freezing Glacier water, bears, moose, lonlieness, tiredness, rapids, a lake that went on for ever and fast flowing water that wanted to catch your fin and spin you at anytime.
During the briefing you realise this is going to be NO normal race. Your mandatory kit includes tent, sleeping bag, stove, 2 sets of dry clothes, spare wet weather gear and full first aid kit. If something were to go wrong you have to be prepared to self preserve for anything up to 48 hours before rescue can get to you. In this years’ briefing we were all handed an additional orange garbage bag. Usually the bags are used to identify your positioning in case of a need to be rescued. This year the second bag was to pin point the position of a dead body that is believed to be trapped on the river. A week before the race a paddler went missing and had still not been found. It was a possibility any one of us paddlers could find this body during our race.
My race started well and I kept to my own pace, making sure not to get dragged into someone else’s race strategy. I kept a steady pace through the initial part of the river and was looking forward to getting onto the lake as I am used to non flowing water. 1km before I entered the lake I passed my friend, Stuart Knakk and saw he was struggling. He said he was over heating and thought he may have to pull out. The last thing I wanted was for him to retire before the lake, if he made it across he would get back into flowing water and the temperature would drop. I thought this would help him so I asked him to slot onto the back of me and sit in my draft for 5km. After 5km I could see he was feeling no better so I told him to stay in my draft for the duration of the lake. My only wish was we both get to the end of Lake Labarge within the cut off time. Sadly a few km before the end of the lake he had to withdraw. He was badly dehydrated, overeating and actually ended up in hospital that evening. It was sad to hear this news.
I reached the checkpoint at the end of the lake over 4 hours before the cut off but I was starting to feel nauseous. I took some anti nausea tablets without realising they had a sedative in them. Within an hour I was struggling to keep my eyes open. I decided to eat some more as I was sure the tiredness was coming form not enough food or drink. Whilst kneeling on my board to prepare my liquid nutrition I actually fell asleep on my board and the board grounded on the shallows. As it grounded I fell in and woke up as I hit the water. The water is less than 5 degrees Celsius and therefore I had to get into dry clothing quickly to keep hypothermia at bay. It took about half hour at the next monitor point to warm up and get into dry clothes. At this point I saw Carmen go past the monitor point and paddle into first place female SUP. This made me decide to get back on the water and try and catch up. When I started paddling I just could not shake off the tiredness and my speed was dropping to virtually just the speed of the river. I then had to make a difficult decision to get off the water completely and sleep off the effect of the anti nausea tablets. I dragged the board on land, got my sleeping bag out and snuggled down as comfortable as I could. I was trying to shelter in the tree lined edge. A few minutes later another competitor came on land to see I was ok. I said I just needed some sleep. He then advised me to go and sleep at the waters edge as the bears are less likely to go there and make sure my bear spray and whistle was really close to hand. I then realised this was no ordinary distance race. I slept for around 2 hours and awoke feeling great . I got packed up and back on my board. I was concerned the sweep boat had driven past me and I was in last place. I had to get the negative thoughts out of my mind and focus in getting back into the race. I slogged it out until Carmacks (300km) and the 7 hour rest point. On arriving I realised I was one hour behind Carmen, so thankfully I had made up time after sleeping. Todd and Krista who were my support were absolutely amazing. They had me showered, fed and in bed within an hour and woke me back up with one hour left of my mandatory 7 hour stop. I got back on the water feeling great. My main goal was to keep a solid pace and catch up with Carmen before Coffee Creek, the 3 hour mandatory stop with is 240km after leaving Carmacks. During this second stage I would have to manoeuvre 2 sets of rapids. The first, Five Fingers went smoothly and I got through and then came Rink Rapids. Now all I can remember from the briefing was hearing Rink Rapids are really easy and very safe. When I approached them I thought they were bigger and fiercer than I expected but I just kept remembering being told they were easy so I tried to paddle straight through them. Within seconds a huge standing wave took me broad side and rolled my board. I got back on quickly, everything was still attached to my board and I still had my paddle, but I was soaking through to my skin again. Time for another unscheduled stop to strip down and get into my Dador Dry Suit, as I could not risk another set of wet clothes. I later found out I should not have gone through Rink Rapids but I should have taken the flat water channel to the right hand side. I seemed to be spending too much time in this race taken stops I should not be taking.
The rest of the second stage went well. I just kept a steady pace and played catch up with many paddlers. Nine hours before Coffee Creek I got back up to first place female SUP and then pushed to make a gap. I got to Coffee Creek almost an hour ahead. Sleep at coffee creek was impossible , the biggest mosquitos I had ever seen, paddlers coming and going and trying to sleep on the grass with my PFD as a pillow was not working for me. I decided to not sleep and to sit with my bare feet in the water and try and get the swelling down in one ankle.
I left as soon as I could from Coffee Creek and paddled into the most difficult part of the race to navigate. I made a few mistakes but nothing that added too much time. I could feel the end was within grasp and was looking like I would get in under 60 hours to set a new female SUP course record. With 4 hours to go a brutal headwind formed and was with me all the way to the end. This was soul destroying and reduced me to tears. I actually spent much of the last 4 hours crying. I was beyond lonely, I was exhausted, I just wanted to speak to Pete and have him tell me I would be ok and I wanted to eat something that was not liquid. The wind affected the SUP paddlers more than any other craft. It would get under the nose of our boards and spin us if we stopped paddling for the shortest time. We would still be moving forward due to the flow but we would be travelling backwards. I tried going to my knees but the shortened stroke length and the loss of power was dropping my speed by over 2 kph. There was no other option but to stand to the finish.
As I paddled the last stretch and saw the finish line and my friends I felt something I had never felt before. I did not want to go to shore and see them. I knew I would be asked how I felt and I had no answer. No words were ever going to explain how I felt, no words were ever going to do this race justice and no words could emphasise my feeling of loneliness. I felt it was just me and the Yukon River for 60 hours.
On reaching land and the finish line I sobbed like a baby. The River did not destroy my body but it destroyed me emotionally. At the 38 hour mark of my race I paddled past Minto. This is a point where there will be no further road access and the next time I saw people on shore would be at the finish Dawson City, over 20 hours later. I struggled with this decision to paddle completely into the wilderness. If something went wrong after this point I was on my own, no one was coming to get me quickly.
I finished in 59:28:06, setting a new Female SUP record for the course and first place female SUP.
To add to this, on leaving Carmacks I set a tracker and the stop watch to record my distance for the next 24 hours. In this 24 hours I set a new World Record for the longest distance paddled on flowing water, a distance of 283.32km (175 miles). During this 24 hours I had to take a 3 hour compulsory rest but was not allowed to stop the clock and also had to ensure I did not sit in any paddlers draft. Add to this I was carrying around 10kg of kit and I started the clock 35 hours after starting paddling. I am super happy to break the flowing water world record which was raised to 139 miles last year. BUT I think I need another trip to the Yukon and run 24 hour solid, no kit on board and start the clock at hour one. Try and get that distance to 200 miles.
Pete Vale, Ali Pereira and Mark May, you have all been with me on so many challenges. I missed you all like crazy. Though you were not there in person, I took all 3 of you in my heart for the journey and did talk to you all along the way.
Huge thanks to Todd and Krista for being my support, you were both first class. Krista and Kalin for the most amazing kindness and hospitality. You both kept me level headed leading up to the race. I have so much love for you both. All the volunteers of the race. All the people who stayed up and followed my tracker. I am absolutely overwhelmed to see how many people were following me. My good friend Bart de Zwart, who made me sit down with the maps prior to the race. Thanks to all the paddlers who joined me in the adventure. My fellow SUP paddlers, were ALL awesome and should all be very proud of their achievements. We were a small bunch, with huge hearts and a solid bond of friendship that helped us all through. I am very proud to call you all friends.
Would I tell people to add this to their bucket list? Yes, but this race takes a certain strength and determination