Frozen, starving and mentally drained – that’s how Ilona Gyapay spent her ‘vacation’ at the Arctic Circle race.
Surviving 160 kilometres through mountainous regions 65 km north of the Arctic Circle in Greenland, Gyapay and fellow Canmorites Kamila Borutova and Tom Caslavsky powered their way onto the podium in a sadistic three-day Nordic tradition dubbed the toughest ski race in the world.
Borutova took gold in the open women’s 160 km division with a time of 13 hours, 49:25, Caslavsky won silver in the open men’s division (12 hours, 35:35) while Gyapay took open women’s bronze in 15 hours, 48:10. All three medaled, yet had wildly different experiences on the mountainous course.
For Gyapay, competing in her first overseas adventure race took a toll. Stressed due to a lack of information leading into the start, race organizers did little to assuage her fears.
“They definitely reminded us an Italian skier died on the course a few years ago, and one of the top skiers broke their leg this year … They had a church service so they could pray over us, which was eye opening,” Gyapay said.
Originally from Hay River, Northwest Territories, the Rocky Mountain Racers athlete said her upbringing prepared her for -35 C temperatures, rugged ski conditions and northern culture. But freezing in a tent and eating nothing but granola bars after tackling 65 per cent graded hill climbs took her out of her comfort level.
Day one began in the town of Sisimiut, Greenland, where nearly all of the town’s 5,000 residents had come out for the beginning of the race. The biggest event of the winter, it was the equivalent to the Greenland Olympics, as the community clamoured to be part of the race. The waiting list to volunteer was 100 names long.
“It was crazy,” she said. “The first day, 52 km through the mountains, was a complete blizzard. You couldn’t see. You are just going blue pole to blue pole. The hills, you had to herring bone up in knee deep snow, and then you’re launching yourself off the mountains. You’d hit powder and cartwheel. Get up, hit powder and cartwheel.”
Meanwhile, Borutova, a former world cup racer and veteran loppet master, had a smoother first day. She had skied two-thirds of the race three years prior (when the third day was cancelled due to poor visibility), and returned this winter to finish the job.
“The pace was super slow the first day. The first 20 km, there was no track. It felt like being in Canada, doing backcountry skiing,” Borutova said. “The snow was mid -calf deep – this was the most adventurous course I’ve raced, but I really liked it … on the first day people were pumped up and ready to go, but some people took 11 or 12 hours to finish.”
The course climbed barren mountains, traversed ridges and crossed fjords, while volunteers, dressed in arctic survival suits manned aid stations every nine kilometres through the wild.
“The volunteers are the loveliest people. They have these big metallic chests – one with honey water, one with elderberry syrup and one with sports drink – and they serve it to you piping hot. They take pride in the job and are out there for 12 hours a day, snowmobiling or dog sledding to the stations,” Gyapay said.
Day two brought the sun, -17 C and 57 km of groomed track. Borutova and Caslavsky grew impatient with the pace early on, but soon the field splintered.
“I skied with Tom, and the top men again. I was telling them, just go. The first 10 km was slow, and I thought, what’s going on? This is not racing,” Borutova said.
Strategy was coming into play, as stage two finished with “killer hill” – a 3 km drop, followed by a steep 3 km climb.
“It was a downhill ski with a 65 per cent grade, they said. Some people snowplowed, some took their skis right off. I was careful, and snowplowed, but it was tough. You could really feel your quads,” said Borutova, who had built a two-hour lead by day two over Uiloq Slettemark of Greenland.
Gyapay, calculating health insurance risks, took off her skis for the descent.
“Whoever set up this course did not think of safety or a normal race profile,” she said, crossing the line with the second place skier.
That night, cold and fatigue got to Gyapay, as she struggled to stay warm in the -30 C sleeping bag she had rented. The temperature reached -35 C.
“The first night, I was out like a light. The second was cold … food for me was a huge issue and the biggest detriment to my race. I didn’t feel like eating. My digestive system shut down. I ate a lot of granola bars. Kamila and Tom tried to give me soup and cured meats, but I couldn’t eat it, even though I would wake up really hungry,” Gyapay said.
Cold temperatures slowed ski speed for the final ski back to Sisimiut. Borutova had her position locked up, while Gyapay had to battle to stay on the podium.
“The third day, I was racing scared. It was a slog. We had skied most of the course on day one, but it was a blizzard and in reverse. I just wanted to get home as fast as possible. It was head down skiing,” Gyapay said.
She had amassed enough of a lead to fend off a final attack and keep her bronze medal position, leaving all three Canmorites on the podium.
“It was not even close to anything I’ve done,” Gyapay said. “It was a weird feeling. It was mentally exhausting. I had no goals or aspirations at the finish. I was a vegetable for two weeks afterwards – a complete vegetable.”
“I love the fact on the podium was Ilona, Tom and me, all from Canmore, almost on the other side of the world. I thought it was really unique,” Borutova said.
Borutova did suffer over the three days, but said the race is doable for the average Bow Valley resident, and a worthy challenge.
“People have different reasons for why they go to the Arctic Circle race. Some want to rock it and pin it. Some want to achieve, and just know they can do it. It’s the toughest because of the two nights in the tent, but I think there might be tougher races,” Borutova said, contemplating a 1,700 km ski race across Finland.
The volunteers, members of the Thule people, made a lasting impression upon the Canmorites, who gushed about their good nature. The race ended with a grand banquet, which raged until 3 a.m., with its own Greenlandic style.
“Most of the volunteers showed up, and there was a long table in the room. We had no idea what was happening. Someone stood up and said it was time to eat. The locals rushed the table, and there was jostling and a full on contact sport to get the food. Most of the foreigners were cued up. We soon realized there would be no food if we waited,” Gyapay said.