On March 28, some 85 people took part in the Frostbite 50, sponsored by the Yellowknife Multisport Club with the able assistance of the Yellowknife Ski Club, Yellowknife Search and Rescue and other generous volunteers. About half the field participated in teams, splitting the course among two to five competitors, the rest took part as soloists. Racers also had the choice of tackling the course on cross country skis or snowshoes, with the majority opting for the former. Only a few chose, as I did, to attempt the course as a solo competitor on snowshoes.
Racers set out on a lariat course that began and ended at the Ski Club, a mile outside Yellowknife, with just four aid stations along the way. If you look at a map of Canada’s Northwest Territories, especially near Yellowknife, you will see that the geography is as much small (and not so small) lakes as land. These lakes freeze so hard in winter that they can be traversed in motor vehicles on “ice roads.”
The majority of the Frostbite 50 occurs on several such finger-shaped lakes. We moved from one lake to the next through short portages of wooded hills. The lake sections were breathtaking. Prosperous Lake, for example, is as much as a mile wide and perhaps 10 miles long, girded but short, pine covered hills, and punctuated by a few small islands. We ran down the middle of it, which was covered in a thick blanket of snow. Looking down the lake, I could see for miles. There were no cars, no power lines, no buildings. When I paused I was engulfed in silence. A magical place.
The weather was mild; temperatures were in the low to mid 20s (Fahrenheit) all day. The wind was a little gusty out on the lakes making it feel a bit colder, but, really, these were splendid conditions to be out moving around the back country.
Not surprisingly, I made a few rookie mistakes. I carried way too much stuff not needed in the relatively balmy weather. My pack probably weighed 35 pounds. I also wore too much. Less than a mile into the race, I stopped, sweating like a boxer, and tore off my mid layer. It, naturally, landed in my pack and remained there the rest of the day.
My plan starting out was to travel on foot as much as possible and keep my snowshoes strapped to my pack. I reasoned that would allow me to move faster. That illusion popped as soon as I got out onto the first lake. The snow was soft and crunchy, impossible for me to run in. I stopped again and strapped on the snowshoes and didn’t consider taking them off again.
Unfortunately, even with the snowshoes, I was continuously breaking through the snow. That made for hard running and put a lot of stress on my ankles. I believe, for the skiers, it was easier; they were better able to glide along the top. In any case, they were moving much faster than me. I managed to jog to the first aid station, 15km (9 miles) out. It took me 2 ½ hours to reach that point. Shortly thereafter I began to walk.
I reached the third aid station at Cassidy Point, 31km (19 miles) six hours into the race and decided to call it a day. Lindi was waiting there and the possibility of a car ride back to the hotel, versus four more hours of tramping through the snow made it an easy decision. I had seen the best part of the course and I was beat. I have no regrets.
The Frostbite 50 was an exceptionally well run event. The race organizers could not have been friendlier or more supportive. (Many thanks to Damian, Tim and Elaine!) The course was well marked with spruce branches placed in the snow every 100 yards. A team of snowmobilers from Yellowknife Search and Rescue were vigilant in monitoring the course (and took a particular interest in the American bringing up the rear). I marvel at the goodwill of all the volunteers and am grateful for their good humor in allowing me to be part of their event.
To my friends who are long distance runners, I suggest, if you have not done a cold weather event, you are missing something special. Cold can be managed. Running in snow can be managed. The sub-arctic is a spectacular place. Experiencing it is irreplaceable. I will be cheered by memories of Prosperous Lake long after Lindi sends me to the old folks home. If you want a good time and a great adventure, Yellowknife and the Frostbite 50 deserve a place on your bucket list.
Thanks to all.