I met up with Derrick Spafford in downtown Kingston, Ontario, Canada, one day for a coffee. Funny in a way, because we live not too far from one another out in the country. I wanted to learn more about Derrick’s most recent race – the 100 mile Yukon Arctic Ultra event which was held in the Yukon, Canada, in February, 2012. For those of you not familiar with weather in Canada, February is basically in the depths of winter, with temperatures that can easily drop to sometimes as cold as -40 to -50C, (-40F Fahrenheit) depending on where you are.
So for most of us, running 100 miles, in one race, is one thing; it’s a huge distance isn’t it? But running it in sub-zero temperatures? In the wilderness? Really?
Well, yes, especially if you are Derrick Spafford. Derrick’s been running competitively at a range of distances for more than 30 years, and coaching for over twenty years. His favourite races are on the trails, in the mountains, and in ultra and snowshoe running events. To give you a further sense of Derrick’s passion for running, he’s not missed a day of running since 1989.
He’s won a number of events over the years but he seems particularly ‘good’ with the 100 mile distance. In 2008 he won the Haliburton Forest 100-mile race through undulating forest trails in a time of 18:42. He went back in 2009 with the goal of breaking the course record, which was 18:23. This he did, finishing in a time of 17:52. Unfortunately, Glen Redpath of New York finished the race in a time of17:18 which meant Derrick finished second despite breaking the old record.
This year he travelled north to Whitehorse, Yukon, where he was able to combine his passion for distance with his love of snowshoeing. For those of you not familiar with Canada, Whitehorse is 2.5 hours in flying time north of Vancouver.
Derrick had competed in the 135km Rock and Ice Ultra in Yellowknife (Northwest Territory of Canada) in 2008 and 2009 and this gave him valuable experience for this year’s race (he finished second in the Rock and Ice Ultra in 2008). Despite a relatively ‘warm’ winter with little snow in and around his home in Yarker, just north of Kingston, he was able to get in some great training, which included dragging a tire, running a high mileage, and getting in many long runs. As Derrick wrote in his blog “I went into the race feeling a little tired physically, but felt that mentally I was as strong as I could be and would take strength out on the trail from thoughts of family, among other things”.
Before the race there was a pre-race trail briefing, gear to check and the pasta dinner. He’d be pulling /dragging a pulk with his supplies for the 100-mile race (which he estimates weighed about 40 lbs). That’s another little fact that raises the bar of hardship higher still for the 100 mile run. Come race day Derrick said his two biggest concerns were the overflows (layers of ice that form from successive flows of ground water in freezing temperatures – one of which he encountered after less than a mile into the race) and the cold. Fortunately the forecast was for temperatures of just -20C, which is quite tolerable and not unlike those experienced where he lives in southern Ontario.
After the 50 Km mark Derrick observed that things were getting increasingly remote. He was in second place and trying to increase his pace in a bid to catch the leader Justin Wallace. “Winding through the trails, there were spruce on both sides, water below and mountains on both sides as well. Just before it got dark, I was treated to the sight of a wolf scampering off in the distance below the trail.”
But it never really got that dark as the moon shone bright. So bright in fact that for a long portion of the night he didn’t even need to use his headlamp.
At the remote Checkpoint # 2, at 100Km into the race, there was just a tent heated by a barrel wood stove. Derrick wrote in his race report: “I was cold, and my stomach had stopped being able to handle my gel-blok-granola bar rotation. I underestimated the need for real food and specifically protein. I had a bit of soup and cheese sandwich, but had to deal with a ham sandwich and beef stew at CP#2. This was probably not the best thing for this vegetarian stomach, but you do what you have to do.” By this point, and with some hot food and more layers of clothing, the temperature had fallen to -30C.
Derrick writes of the frost dancing and sparkling off the trees, and the northern lights playing in the sky. Beautiful at any time, but what a buzz to have this show when you’ve been running more than 100km. And still running of course.
But let’s not forget that remoteness.
I asked Derrick about the whole safety side of things. He told me that every competitor wore a spot-tracker, which essentially plots their locational coordinates through a satellite so that the race organizers know where they are at any time. Importantly, the spot trackers have buttons the runners can press that either indicate an emergency, a non-life threatening problem, or that the runner is simply taking a rest, which explains why they’re not moving.
Derrick wrote: “I was very tired, not fueling with what I needed at this point and just in survival mode. Somehow though, in a very strange way, I was enjoying this. In a race like this, and at this point, things get quite raw. As strange as it sounds, the most important thing you need to look at doing is surviving. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s 25-35 miles between checkpoints, and you just need to look after yourself and do all the little things that will help you keep moving forward. This is also when your brain starts misfiring too.”
With what he said was a mix of joy and relief he saw the Lake near the finish. A dog came along and ran with him to the finish line. He crossed the finish line in a time of 23 hours and 15 minutes. A great time that gave him second place, not far behind Justin Wallace, who finished in a new course record in 22 hours and 19 minutes.
Derrick wrote on his blog: “I loved everything about it. The event, the rugged wilderness, the people, the test. The scenery that I experienced in that setting is by far more beautiful than anything I have ever seen.”
It would be hard not to be proud of the accomplishment; running a 100-miler. In the middle of winter in Canada’s remote north. Pulling a 40 lb pulk. And finishing second. When your passion is running, it’s hard to believe it can get better than this.
Of course I suppose 1st place is one way. Maybe next year?
So I asked Derrick “Why do you like the 100 mile races. What’s the appeal?
I loved his answer.
After a few seconds of thought he replied “the absurdness of the distance”.
And that’s as good an answer as I can think of. I’m inspired to try a 100-miler this Fall. But in much different conditions. I still think a marathon is a long way. I have to get my mind around running four marathons in one race. And my body too. But I’m already thinking of what an amazing feeling it would be to finish it.
In the meantime Derrick will continue with his training and with plans to return to racing the Haliburton 100 miler this fall, and the Yukon Arctic Ultra again next February.
Getting to know Derrick and reading of his exploits and passion is one of those ways to get inspired and to push yourself into experiences you once thought wasn’t possible. Derrick’s coached hundreds of runners, many through his online coaching service.
Even if I’m unsuccessful with my 100-miler I know that the process I go through to get to the start-line will fill my thoughts positively and my health and fitness will be better for it. Of course people may think I’m crazy, but they probably think that already.
To contact Derrick go to www.HealthandAdventure.com