Finishing the 6633 Ultra – Interview with Gavan Hennigan

Last updated: 06-Nov-18

By Luke Jarmey

The 6633 Ultra is one of the toughest Ultras out there. There have been 7 editions and so far only 19 people have ever completed the 350-mile race. Luke Jarmey talked to Gavan Hennigan after he joined that heroic few.

First off, huge congratulations for finishing the 350 mile 6633 Ultra! It’s arguably the toughest race out there and with only 19 finishers in 7 editions, it really is a fantastic achievement!

Q. For readers who haven’t seen our pre race interview with you, could you give us a little summary of what the 6633 Ultra is all about?

A. It’s a non stop ultra endurance foot race where competitors carry all their supplies in a pulk (sled) for up to 8 days, covering 350 Miles from Eagle Plains in the Yukon, Canada to Tuktoyatuk on the banks of the Arctic Ocean along the Dempster Highway and the Ice Roads. After 23 miles the race goes into the Arctic Circle so it’s cold, barren and inhospitable but at the same time very beautiful.

Q. Naturally you would have researched the heck out of it before racing; was it as hard as you expected? ….or tougher!?

A. As it was my first foray into anything like this I really did my homework. I went as far as studying past results and contacting ex competitors asking them about different stages of the race and how to go about things around gear and clothing. The race was much harder than I expected, it really blew my mind actually, there were a few points where I was reduced to tears through pure frustration and angst at why I was doing this to myself, then other times when I felt very powerfully connected to the environment and world around me.

Photo credit: Emily Like.

Q. Were there any points in which you nearly threw in the towel?

A. Just before the last checkpoint at the end of a 70-mile stage 6 days in. I was extremely sleep deprived and started going into a very weird state of delirium. I had tunnel vision and my mind was playing tricks on me. I could see the lights of the checkpoint up ahead. It was just a 4×4 and a trailer, but it was on the ice road that was long and straight. I couldn’t seem to get any closer no matter what I did and it drove me a bit mad. Luckily Kev one of the organisers drove past to check on me and I told him I wanted out. He urged me to continue as I was only 2 miles from the checkpoint. I think just having that brief bit of human contact snapped me out of that delirium and I kept going and made it to the checkpoint.

Q. Are we correct in saying the checkpoints are at least a single if not multiple marathon distance apart? What sort of pace were you going at? Did you alternate between jogging and walking?

A. The shortest was 23 miles and the longest was 70, I was trying to average 3-4mph when on the move, which was a brisk walk. This really suited me as I don’t fancy myself as much of an ultra runner!

Q. What was your favourite stretch of the race and why?

A. The stage from Tsiigehtchic to Caribou Creek about 200 miles in just before my first meltdown. I was on a slight brow of a hill on otherwise a very flat and straight stage. It was late evening and I was looking directly west where I could just about make out a mountain range spanning the horizon. At the time I thought I was imagining it as I was so sleep deprived. However, after the race I went home and studied Google Maps and in fact I was looking down across the MacKenzie River Delta to the Mackenzie Mountains some of which rise up to nearly 3000m. They were around 80km away and I was in complete awe of what I was seeing, being out there in that vast incredible wilderness. It is something I will always remember.

Q. Talk to us about gear! What sort of kit do you use for this kind of extreme winter marathon? What ended up being the most and least useful? And is there anything, in hindsight, that you’d wished you’d brought along?

A. There is a lot of kit you need! Some high quality warm gear, a lot of mountaineering branded stuff like Marmot, Montane, Mountain Hardware etc. Base layers, power stretch pants, down jacket, wind stopper pants, wind stopper underwear, balaclavas, ski masks ,down mitts,3 pairs of socks… It’s endless the amount of kit you could have! The most useless bit of kit was a load of very expensive possum merino socks I got from New Zealand. Possum hair is hollow and it traps air and warms it. They were the thickest warmest socks ever but I didn’t need them as I discovered even in -35c my feet did fine with a liner sock and a normal hiking sock.

The best bit of kit I had were two 2L Stanley thermoses that I filled with hot water at each checkpoint. This saved me from melting snow most of the time for water and made it easy to get a meal or hot drink in quick. I think I was completely covered and brought too much kit! Luckily, the organiser Martin Like supplies a full kit list and happens to sell it all at his amazing little shop, Likeys, in the Brecon Beacons which I visited before the race.

Photo credit: Emily Like.

Q. What was your original nutrition plan? Did you end up following it? If not, what changed and why?

A. I had a lot of freeze-dried meals which were perfect, but my trails snacks ended up being a nightmare. I painstakingly organised zip lock bags of 2,000 calories and I had 13 of them, I had biltong and droewors (South African jerky and fatty sausage) dark chocolate covered hazelnuts, dried mango, sour cherries, cashews, Kendal mint cake and Clif bloks. Unfortunately, the Clif bloks and mint cake sort of gelatinised all over everything. I think this must have been due to the salt and spices from the Biltong. So, I was left with this sticky lump of crap I couldn’t stomach. All I did was crave skittles and snickers. I got way too fancy with my trail snacks and I won’t make that mistake again. My sponsor, Platinum Diamond Nutrition, saved me with their recovery drink I would have one once I arrived at each checkpoint.

Q. What bit of advice would you give to someone thinking of doing the 6633 or similar extreme winter ultra?

A. I’d say absolutely go for it, these are unique races held in amazing places. It doesn’t matter how tough you think it will be, with the right training, preparation and mind-set you can adapt to the environment and finish the race. But you have to enjoy suffering! Like the great Rich Parks said ‘It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun’.

Q. We heard you’re planning on doing the Yukon Arctic Ultra. How do you think this will compare to the 6633? Do you think your training will be similar?

A. Well I have a pulk and a load of expensive winter gear so I may as well put it to good use. Not sure how it will compare. I am trying to treat it like a whole new experience and I’m excited to travel along the Yukon Quest Dog Sled race trail. My training will be very different this year, I did a lot of time on my feet last year multiple 10-12 hour days, which I still will do some of, but for the whole of November I am off to Nepal to climb Ama Dablam at 6,812m. The high altitude, exposure, cold and adversity will be very valuable for a winter ultra like the YAU.

I also have the added incentive of raising money for a friend’s child who has cerebral palsy and needs a life changing operation in the States. My donation page is here.

Photo credit: Emily Like.

Q. Finally, what’s next on the cards for Gavan Hennigan, running or otherwise?

A. Apart from using RunUltra’s huge database to find the next race… I will be rowing the Atlantic Solo as part of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge in December 2016. It’s a 3,000-mile ocean rowing race from La Gomera in the Canaries to Antigua in the Caribbean. I will be raising money for youth organisations in Ireland to highlight problems in young people like suicide and addiction.

Thanks for the interview man it was a pleasure!

Thank you Gavan, great to catch-up again and good luck for Ama Dablam and the Atlantic Solo Row!

Follow Gavan on Twitter and Instagram @nomadic_amphibian.

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"there were a few points where I was reduced to tears through pure frustration and angst at why I was doing this to myself, then other times when I felt very powerfully connected to the environment and world around me"

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An ultra distance race including at least two of the following activities such as running, swimming, cycling, kayaking, skiing and climbing. It may also include different climatic conditions (eg ice, snow, humidity, cold water, mud or heat).

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Increase of up to 2000 metres with very challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity, heat or at high altitude)

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Increase of up to 2000 metres with some challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity or heat)

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