The waiver he signed is the best guide to what Paul Deasy had got himself into.

There would be no comeback if he suffered frostbite or hypothermia or lost a limb. No recourse should he be attacked by wolves or hit by an elk.

With apologies to Cuala and Corofin, this is the toughest.

The toughest, coldest, windiest footrace on the planet is called the Likeys 6633 Arctic Ultra.

The ultras’ ultra, it is a non-stop, self-sufficient 380-mile trek from Eagle Plains, Yukon, in northwest Canada, into the Arctic Circle along frozen rivers and treacherous ground. It finishes in Tuktoyaktuk, on the Arctic Ocean, the place known as “the end of the earth”.

It takes eight or nine days, all going well, pulling your bed and board on a sled.

The organisers were twitchy this year after a competitor in another event lost an arm and seven toes to frostbite, but Paul had traipsed in the dark from Rathcormac in Cork to Lismore in Waterford often enough, and back via Cappoquin, so he should be grand, right?

I did a lot of miles and hours on the road; 30-to-40-mile walks overnight, pulling the sled, out through Lismore at two in the morning, going out over The Vee. That helps you prepare mentally, because you’re on your own; and, in this race, you’re on your own for 20 hours a day, eight days.

It was in Tallow one night that he was nearly arrested.

“The guards were doing a checkpoint and I came out of the dark pulling the sled. They were looking at me, going: ‘Are you alright?’

“One of the guards was asking me what I was doing and she donated online, there and then.”

Christina Chambers’ Helping Cork’s Homeless initiative was his cause: Kitting out a bus to provide showers and beds for rough sleepers. He found plenty of goodwill when people on his training route learned of his polar plans.

Often, people came out with coffee and cake for me. It shows the goodness that is out there in people. I’ve seen an awful lot of it, even during the race, local people coming out offering you tea and coffee, asking you if you’re OK, giving you weather updates.

Paul tackled the famous Marathon des Sables in the Sahara three years ago, but 150 miles in 50-degree heat isn’t exactly a dress rehearsal for the other extreme.

“Mentally, physically, this is probably the hardest race you will ever do. Not just because of the environment or the distance, but the solitude.

“But ignorance is bliss, as well. Sometimes you are better off not knowing what you are facing into, rather than make a monster out of it.”

Romanian Tiberiu Useriu, who has won the Likeys 6633 Arctic Ultra three years in a row. Paul Deasy had been pushing for second place, until he suffered a ‘calamity of errors’.
Romanian Tiberiu Useriu, who has won the Likeys 6633 Arctic Ultra three years in a row. Paul Deasy had been pushing for second place, until he suffered a ‘calamity of errors’.

 
So he set off along the ominously named Hurricane Alley on the planet’s least hospitable terrain, with the mercury sometimes dropping below minus 30.

“You could physically feel the cold chasing you. It sounds silly, but you see it in the movies the way frost creeps up… you could see it move across your kit and your gloves and your hat and you can feel it biting, trying to find a gap to get into your skin.

We hit a couple of blizzards. The wind-chill factor was minus 102. I was lucky enough. The rest behind me were pulled, but I was on the mountain and they couldn’t get to me to pull me. So I kept going.

The Katabatic winds have been known to flip a truck on Hurricane Alley, but even in relative calm, the Knockmealdowns can’t prepare you for that moment a truck rolls onto your stretch of frozen river.

“You hear the ice cracking. Crack, crack, crack. You feel this wave underneath you, like walking on a wave of ice. You think it’s going to break and you’re going to fall in, or in the dead of night, you hear this pop pop pop, the ice refreezing and you’re just looking into the blackness. It’s so eerie and you walk a bit faster anyway.”

There are no rules about when you sleep.

“The organisers will probably force you after 40 or 50 hours, but it’s up to yourself. I took around 45 minutes a day.

“My main thing with sleep deprivation was to visualise a cliff in front of me that I was going to fall over.”

That kept his eyes open, though not on day three, when he fell, sleepwalking, and
fractured a wrist.

“A lot of pain alright, when you’re trying to open a bottle, or take off your socks, but it’s just one of many pains you have. The pain gets pushed to one side. I’d class it as a minor pain.”

Paul was mindful, on this journey, to seek out the rewards. To revel in the barren beauty and to hear the silence.

I’m sitting on my sled, having a cup of coffee, with a picture of my family in my hand, looking at the Northern Lights. They couldn’t be with me, physically, but they were there, mentally, and we sat there for a half hour.

“That’s something you can never experience again, but you have to make those moments, look for those positives, and then you kiss your picture and move onto the next checkpoint.”

Though shin splints had taken hold of both legs, that positivity had him lying second on the last night behind the 2016 and 2017 winner, Tibi Useriu from Romania.

Then, his horizon disappeared.

“Around midnight, there was a total whiteout on the road. I wasn’t expecting it. By the time you get your gear together… bivy out, they call it, sleeping out. I had a couple of mishaps. Getting into the bivy, my shoes blew away. The bivy was filling up with snow, so I was trying to horse that out and lost a glove. So I thought I was going to get frostbite, which is the one thing you don’t want. A calamity of errors. I couldn’t close the tent, either, because the zip broke. Hypothermia and frostbite, the two things you don’t want.”

He lay there for eight hours, waiting out the storm. “I said to myself, ‘just keep rotating every 20 minutes, keep talking’.”

His daughter Aoife and son Colm had written nine days of motivational quotes and also some jokes for him, so he reached in his inside pocket and laughed through it.

Corkman Paul Deasy on his way to third place on his debut in the 380-mile Likeys 6633 Arctic Ultra race.
Corkman Paul Deasy on his way to third place on his debut in the 380-mile Likeys 6633 Arctic Ultra race.

“I pulled the sleeping bag over me, reading those until my torch ran out of batteries. All you’d have heard from the tent was laughter.”

After seven in the morning, more racers came behind, pulled him out of the bivy, sorted his shoes and gloves and got him going again.

“What it shows is you can‘t ever be complacent. I was going hard for second place and, in the blink of an eye, it went south. I was never going to die, but hypothermia and frostbite would have finished my race.”

Instead, last week, Paul came in third among six survivors of the 28 that set out. He finished, as planned, on his 45th birthday, carrying a Cork flag and arriving to a chocolate cake sourced by another Cork competitor Patrick O’Toole, who raced for ARC Cancer Support.

“Patrick had been flying, but he fell into the snow, gloves got wet, got frostbite and his race was over.”

There are so many dangerous ways this race can go wrong. That’s what draws them back for the achievement of finishing.

Since the race began in 2007, few have made it on their first attempt. Paul puts it down to an ability to smile through the worst.

“And I had great support. I have to mention Kevin Nash back in Glanmire, who was phenomenal help to me, with gear and an ear to listen to me. A good friend.

People say: How did you do it? I’m not an athlete, by nature. I’m a big man, but for me it’s about showing my kids, if you train for something and put your mind to something, you can do it. Write your own story, don’t be reading someone else’s or someone else’s preconceptions of what you can do.

Also, don’t let setbacks be full-stops.

“Don’t live in the past, it’s gone, you can’t do anything about it. You can plan for the future, but things change. Live for what’s in front of you right now. I keep saying that to my kids. For me, that’s the meaning of life.”

Tibi Useriu, who completed the three in a row, would agree. Tibi returned to Romania to a hero’s welcome — hundreds gathered at Cluj airport and he is to be made an honourary citizen of Bucharest, but it wasn’t always that way.

He has been an asylum seeker. He has escaped from prison twice having served time for robbing Austrian jewellery stores using knacks learned watching American movies. He was hunted by Interpol and eventually spent nearly 10 years in maximum security.

It was in a 27-foot prison yard, where he could walk for a few minutes every day, that Tibi began to rebuild his life through endurance sport.

In his book, 27 Steps, he writes: “The past must understand that it can’t have the last word in a man’s life. It’s just a part over which everything, anytime, can be rewritten.”

Just watch out, Tibi, for the Corkman on your shoulder writing his own story.


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