Embracing the Elements and the Terrain: Story of a Long Distance Runner from the Yukon (Nadeem Khan, 01 Sep)
Long Distance Running, or ultrarunning, is difficult in itself. Now, what would you say if you had to wrestle -30C (-22F) to -40C (-40F) on a regular basis during the winter months. Furthermore, add snowy trails and icy roads to chilly weather conditions. To top this contemplate 4pm dusk and darkness that persists till 7am in the morning.
Now, combine all of the above elements and imagine an ultrarunner trekking through the trails embracing the wilderness and running a multi-day stage event. This ultrarunner is Canada's top 100km runner Denise McHale.
Denise, a Recreation and Active Living Consultant with the Yukon Governemnt, is not your regular fair-weather runner. Living and working in the Yukon, a region that gets one of the Canada's most extreme winter weather, has made her into one of the most versatile runners from the Great White North.
It does not take a running enthusiast to ask the question on how did Denise start running, given her extreme environmental conditions. She says, "I started running when I moved to Yukon in 1996. I had always secretly dreamed of being a runner and running a marathon someday, but it seemed at the time, like a huge goal."
A hundred miles starts with a few steps. Denise agrees, "I started running by joining a running group and running just a few blocks at a time. By the end of that first summer, I ran my first half marathon and started to believe a marathon was maybe possible!¨
In March 2009, Denise ran an incredible 6-Day event covering 225km. The Diamond Ultra race treks through stages spanning from 25km-46km. Denise lays down the conditions during the race, ¡§The race course involves a series of lakes with portages in between. Some of the really large lakes can get very cold as Yellowknife is well known for being very windy.¨
Denise found the opening day of the course very challenging. She says, "The first day was the worst as the wind picked up in the afternoon across the largest lake and it was essentially a white-out. The course was marked every 100m or so with orange flagging, but in these conditions many of the flags had been blown down, tracks were filled in behind racers in seconds and visibility was limited.¨
However, she ran through the tough conditions and kept her lead through the stages winning the female division. She says, "I ran a very consistent race, stuck to my game plan and was pleased in the end with my run.¨ Always competitive by nature, Denise never lets her guard down in a race. She added, "We (another female racer) ran much of the days together and close to the end of the stage I would generally pull away and put a bit of time on her everyday, which gave me about 30 minute lead overall in the end.¨
I was intrigued to know how one copes with the chilly conditions. Denise explains, "Layering is the key and my Salomon gortex runners and gaitors are essential gear for winter running¨. Wearing several layers has always been my best friend during cool winter months in the Northern Hemisphere.
IAU World Cup 2008 in Tarquinia was Denise¡¦s introduction to international ultrarunning. At this race she finished top Canadian in 8:32. Denise recalls this race, "Overall, I really enjoyed my experience in Tarquinia and being part of the Canadian team. In general, I was fairly pleased with my race there. Because I hadn't run that distance on the road before my race plan was to run a conservative pace that I hoped I could maintain.¨
Like many ultrarunners, she has tremendous support from her family. Her husband Greg is an accomplished Adventure racer himself. The McHales have participated in several events as a team.
Denise credits her adventure racing background for her achievements in ultrarunning. The two are different yet very similar sports. She says, ¡§I find it¡¦s all about breaking the course down into sections, and just focusing on what you are doing in the moment, which I do with my ultra running.¨
It has been a busy year for Denise. She has run the Rock & Ice Ultra in Yellowknife in March, Elk/Beaver 50 mile Canadian trial running championships in Victoria in May, the Best of the West adventure race in Southern Alberta in June, the Yukon Trail marathon in August followed by a 1000 km Adventure race in South Dakota.
Talking to Denise about her training, her life in the Yukon and about her outdoor activities, I have been enlightened that the sport of ultrarunning truly transcends extreme weather conditions and terrain.
Great performances require even greater sacrifice. Numerous ultra-athletes that I have had the privilege of meeting and speaking have eluded this persona.
I am confident that this relatively new ultrarunner has just touched the surface of her ultrarunning prowess. There is more to come from the Recreation Consultant living in the heart of the Yukon.
Director of Communications