montane yukon ultra; interview with neil thubron


Neil Thubron, Race Director of Extreme Energy, won the Yukon Ultra in 2015. Ahead of the Montane Yukon Ultra, which starts tomorrow, Kate asks Neil how he managed it.

Q: Why the Yukon Ultra? 

A: I had on my vision board an image of a walker pulling a pulk, or a big sled, and for many, many years I always wanted to do an event in a cold environment. At the Druid Challenge, an event I organise, two of our friends were pulling tyres and I asked them what they were doing. They said they were doing the Yukon Ultra next year,  so I said to Anna [Neil’s wife] what do you think, and she said go for it! There was only 3 months until the event so it didn’t give me long to train. But I’d always wanted to do a cold race and I knew people who were doing it and just kind of went for it.

Q: How do you prepare and train for such a race in those conditions? How did you learn to survive in an artic winter, while doing a foot race?

A: Actually you learn a lot of it while en route and if you’ve done your preparation right, and I talk about this in the book which I’ll cover later, you test everything. I went to the Alps and I tested cookers, I tested clothing, and I learned what worked and didn’t work. Having said that when you have to put a tent up in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, in the freezing cold you are learning as you do it and it is a very, very hostile environment.

There is a survival course you have to do and take part in before you do the race and that’s got stricter now so you do learn some of it on that course.

Training for the race: you can’t really train for – 55°C in the UK! But I did lots and lots of walking and running with a tyre dragging behind me. I did an 80 mile out and back walk along the Grand Union Canal between Christmas and New Year before the race and it was about -4° so that was kind of how I prepared.

Q: You wrote a book on the back of your run outlining your 7P formula for success. Was the entire book conceived during the race or had you thought about it previously? Did the mental challenge of building the book help you through the frozen miles?

A: Yes the book was conceived during the race. On the second afternoon I was feeling amazing as the sun set, the lake was on my right and the hills on my left, and the snowy trail in front of me. I had just been through the toughest 36 hours of my life and you need to read the book to understand how tough it was and how cold it got. But as I was going into this afternoon I was thinking why do I always manage to get through these extreme challenges, Why do I always manage to succeed. And I thought if I could come up with a formula that could help others then that’s what I would like to do. And over the next 5 to 6 days I spent that time thinking about how I could structure it in a way to help other people. 

Did it help? Yes it did for sure help me in those moments when you are on your own.

Q: What did you learn about yourself during the Yukon and what lessons did you take forward?

A: What I learned mainly was that I can achieve anything in life and that is true for anyone reading this. No matter what you think you cannot do, you’re wrong; you CAN do it. And for me I was already achieving some pretty incredible things but this took me to another level. I came back from the Yukon and made a decision to leave 30 years of corporate life. And I set up my own business. I made a decision to change the way I lived and what I was prepared to accept. It just made me realise I was capable of more than I ever thought possible.

Q: What elements of the race did you enjoy and what did you struggle with the most? 

A: I enjoyed the beautiful scenery, amazing organisation and actually I enjoyed being on my own. I do a lot of meditation and being on your own with your thoughts, it was basically six days and 19 hours of meditation. 

What I struggled with most was being tired, you just don’t get enough sleep. On the last night I was walking for 14 minutes and sleeping for a minute. Just so that I didn’t completely walk off the trail. One of the evenings I was hallucinating and the hallucinations were amazing and I talk about those in the book as well.

Q: Did all your kit work? Was there something you wished you had, or hadn’t taken? 

A: Even though I tested the kit thoroughly, not all the kit worked in those temperatures. So, for instance, the lighter doesn’t work in those temperatures because the fuel freezes.

A Primus type stove doesn’t work, whereas a Trangia type stove using white fuel does. It doesn’t matter what the temperature is you can always light it. I learned that down gloves are fantastic and you need to make sure you put them inside your clothing when you take them off so they don’t get cold. I learned that clothing goes rock hard when you are out in those sorts of temperatures. 

The most stupid thing I did was to make sandwiches the night before the race. I thought I’d eat them on the first day. Of course when you’re in -35 to -40° during the day, they were just as hard as house bricks and I couldn’t eat them.

There wasn’t anything I wish I had taken, actually, I had pretty happy with what I had. 

Q: Was it lonely? Do you ever see any competitors as there’s so few of you? Or do you stick together?

A: Not really. Yes there are times when you are on your own. But so long as you are okay in your own space, as most ultrarunners are, it’s actually pretty enjoyable. There’s always something to think about, my dashboard is constantly going; can I feel my feet, can I feel my toes, am I warm enough, when was the last time I ate, how are my legs feeling, am I getting too hot and need to take some clothing off, when was the last time I had something to drink, etc etc. 

There isn’t really that much time to get bored or get lonely. There were other competitors out there that I bumped into occasionally and you briefly have a chat with them and then carry on your own way. At the aid stations we would catch up with the crew, who were absolutely incredible.

Q: Do you have to carry (or pull) absolutely everything you need? 

A: Yes 100% I think my pulk was 25kg to pull everything.

Q: What tips would you suggest to the runners starting this weekend?

A: Never put your gloves on the snow, always put them inside something. If you feel tired and you need to take a rest, do. Make sure your discipline is incredibly strong; never let any skin get exposed to the air because you will get frostbite. Be mindful, slow and thoughtful about everything you do. So discipline and taking time to make decisions. Good decisions will mean you will have a good race.

Q: What is the navigation like? Do you rely on a map? Does any tech work in that cold? 

A: The route is really well marked because we were following the Yukon Quest Trail and you can see the reflective tapes in the evening. We were given maps but they weren’t much use to be honest but they gave you an idea of where you were. I did put all of the coordinates into a GPX file but the problem with that is it’s a straight line from one point to another. I only got my GPS out one evening when I wasn’t sure where to go and actually it wasn’t much help.

Q: You’ve done some very extreme races; do any of them stand out as your favourite? Which climate did you prefer to run in?

A: I’ve done lots of desert runs; I’ve done the UTMB several times and the Yukon. I love the Mountains but they are tough and brutal and those events are very hard. I prefer multi days to single stage and so if I was going to pick I would say a hot environment is my preferred option. You are less likely to get into trouble and die in a hot environment! The Yukon is very remote, very exposed, there are wild animals around, you are on your own and it is dark for most of the race. My favourite race to date is the Grand to Grand Ultra; stunning scenery, great organisation and an amazing event.

Q: Any more extreme races on the horizon for you?

A: What I’m preparing for now is a leg of a round of the world yacht race called the Clipper Challenge and I’m doing the leg from East Australia up to China, which is about 3,500 miles, which is similar to going across the Atlantic. I’m doing that in January 2024 so I’m building up the training for that at the moment.

Huge thank you to Neil for his time in answering these questions. Good luck to everyone starting the Montane Yukon Ultra tomorrow, especially the English competitors Dale Langford, Jim Ryall, Mark Dunne, Keith Thompson, Philip Cowell and Pat Cooke-Rogers. You can watch their tracker here.

Neil’s race event company, Extreme Energy (XNRG), is run to help people challenge themselves and break through their mental and physical barriers, whilst providing peace of mind with expertly run events, going the extra mile for every competitor. Find out more here.

If you’re interested in Neil’s book, Yucan Achieve any big goal using the 7P formula for success, you can buy it here.

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