Hardy Irish Arctic warriors go to extremes

What’s the toughest part of running 350 miles into the Arctic Circle?

The minus-50 cold? The 70-mile treks to the next meal? Or the mountain climbs in the teeth of vicious 80mph crosswinds?

No, the unscheduled appearances of Mickey Mouse brought on by the chill, hunger and fatigue, according to Paddy Craig from Ballyfermot in Dublin. “The hallucinations are frighteningly real and can range from Walt Disney characters to complete strangers holding conversations with you for many miles – until you either run away from them or daylight saves you.”

Paddy is one of five Irishmen starting out on the 6633 Ultra today, which extends up the Yukon in the northwestern corner of Canada to the banks of the Arctic Ocean in a place called Tuktoyaktuc, one of Canada’s most northerly towns.

This is a self-sufficient foot race for the hardiest souls. Each competitor pulls a sled with their own food, sleeping gear and safety equipment.

Competitors have eight days to complete the race. More pressingly, they typically have around two minutes from the moment they stop moving to get under cover before hypothermia begins to set in. Sleeping bags rated to -35C are mandatory.

In six previous races, only 11 entrants have stayed the course.

Sell this thing to us, promoters: “The toughest, coldest and windiest extreme ultra marathon on the planet.”

Denis Conroy from Rathfarnham in Dublin is another dreaming of being the first Irishman to make it over the line. Having survived the infamous Marathon Des Sables in the Sahara – 150 miles in 50-degree heat – Denis “thought it would be fun” to try the opposite. Feel a little chill.

The spirit is willing now, but he worries too about the mind.

“There are some climbs I am not looking forward to but I know in my heart that my mind telling me enough is enough is my biggest fear. The mind can mess up the best-laid plans if you let it. A couple of hundred miles on foot with very little sleep in the freezing wilderness can do strange things to your head. I hope I can just keep putting one foot in front of the other and reach the finish.”

Jonny Davies fears injury, to him or his sled, and frostbite. Dr Daithi Ó Murchú dreads the unavoidable dangers of the ‘ations’ — dehydration, hallucination, sleep and food deprivation. But knows too that dread is his best ally at the start line this morning.

“Fear keeps you sharp and very aware that every decision I make is life and death. My greatest fear is not to fear and not have unconditional respect for the Yukon.”

Gavan Hennigan from Galway works as a Saturation Diver on the North Sea oil rigs, so he’s used to foregoing home comforts. He’ll be using a cognitive testing app while racing to aid research into the effects of cold and fatigue on brain function.

And he has been warming up, if that’s the expression, for this one by climbing Croagh Patrick on the coldest afternoons, then spending the night in his bivy sack in the old church on top.

He’s raging the mercury hasn’t plunged below minus-ten recently.

At 9am local time today, they will set off. At 23 miles, the race crosses into the Arctic, the latitude of 66 degrees, 33 minutes giving the event its name.

But why do they do it? After all, you can see the Northern Lights as far away as Waterford these days.

“The temperatures, distance and lack of sleep really wear you down until there is nothing left in the gas tank or head in terms of willpower,” says Craig. “But I have to say, it is a really beautiful, truly remote environment.”

Ó Murchú relishes the challenge of holding the head amid the unpredictable conditions.

“Staying focused in the belief that each step will bring the finish line closer, no matter what.”

For him this test has a strong spiritual element: “To finish the race would be such an honour and privilege. To know that Mother Earth had allowed another human being to connect with and traverse one of her most inhospitable and yet spectacular environments and survive.

“To finish would be very humbling and words alone could not express my gratitude.”

“Completing this race means everything,” says Jonny Davies. “It would be a culmination of a year’s training which has involved a lot of sacrifice in all parts of my life.”

Denis Conroy just wants to plant that tricolour in the snow. Then get home to more good news.

“Being the first Irishman to cross the line in the event’s history; that would stick with me. Imagine if a few of us could finish, maybe even have a couple of guys on the podium. With Ireland winning back-to-back Six Nations, reckon I could take a day or three to celebrate.

Some of the lads will be travelling with GPS  Track their progress here.

For race results, visit 6633ultra.com.

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