Racer’s Perspective | The Yukon 1000

Photo: Bart de Zwart

Expedition SUP paddlers Bart de Zwart and Ike Frans completed the Yukon 1000 race on Tuesday morning with a blistering time of eight days, one hour and 42 minutes. The following account from de Zwart provides a first-hand perspective of what it takes to complete the toughest paddle race on earth.

While making camp the first evening at 11 p.m., we realized it was going to be a grueling race.

After checking for bear footprints, I started to pitch the tent and my partner, Ike Frans, started to boil water for our freeze dried meals. We were trying to be as efficient with our time as possible, knowing we only had six hours — the Yukon 1000 includes a mandatory six-hour break each day from 11 p.m. until 5 a.m.

Six hours to make camp, eat, sleep, eat again and pack back up. Of course, that left only three to four hours for sleep.

Nevertheless, the routine worked well for us and we would continue this for the next eight days. We even made a fire during our meals which I think was a very important part of our trip. Having a good 30 minutes to wind down made it much nicer and was probably one of the best moments of the race. After paddling for so many hours, we were sore and tired; but being able to sit around that fire in one of the most remote places on earth was very special.

Nothing like relaxing around a fire after 18 hours of paddling. Photo: Bart de Zwart

We woke up surprisingly fresh and ready for another day. The weather was great — even too good because it was very warm. While it was cold in the morning, by 11:00 a.m. we were splashing ourselves with water to cool down.

Ike and I were a good team, we worked well together and instinctively felt when we had to adjust pace when one of us had a slower hour. The first part of the race I knew well because of my experience competing in the Yukon River Quest, so we didn’t have any new navigation issues.

For safety precautions, you have to race this race as a team. While the concept of staying together was new to me, I enjoyed the company, cooperation and the fact that you really had to race as a team. The day before the race, the race director told us about the rules and also about the risks and responsibilities involved in this race — the dangers of wildlife, hypothermia, heat exhaustion and the fact that you are days away from help if needed. So everything you do, you do with care and don’t take unnecessary risks.

I was on a Starboard All Star 14′ x 24.5″ with about 80 pounds of food and gear — an optimal size to carry the gear and still be fast. We had to carry a big list of compulsory gear including bear spray, food for 11 days and other items that we would need for survival if something went wrong. This amounted to a lot of gear and weight on the board.

It took us three days to get to Dawson — where there is good road access — but after Dawson we were on our own. From that point, there would be only a few tiny little villages without any roads or transportation to get out of there. During those three days, we started to get better at our routine. We were even getting used to the 18-hour days of paddling.

By then we had a solid lead in front of the other standup paddlers and felt very confident about finishing the rest of the race. But the lack of sleep always slowed us down for a couple of hours each day, which we called the sleepy phase. To snap out of it we tried talking, eating something or when it was bad we did a 15-second sleep. We laid face first over a bag and tried to relax for a few minutes. While we may have dozed off for a few seconds, the instability of the board woke us up instantly, but this still usually helped.

18 hours of paddling everyday is a long time, so we had to break it down into smaller steps. I was doing the navigation with maps and every map page was about an hour to an hour-and-a-half. You eat almost every hour and drink all the time. You need to consume as many calories as you can get in. In the middle of the day we had a longer 10 minute stop with different food that we both looked forward to.

Ike (back) and Bart (front), just two small specks among the trees. Photo: Bart de Zwart

It is very hard to know what food you are going to like during the race. I learned from my previous endurance races that variety is key and that having only cereal bars is horrible. The longer the race, the more salty and fatty foods I bring. My day bag contained bags of mixed nuts, cereal bars, ontbijt koek (Dutch special cake), and our favorite was fancy health food crackers with peanut butter and beef jerky.

On the river, the 18 hours would fly by and wasn’t boring. Most of the time was spent navigating, looking for faster currents and admiring the wildlife and natural scenery around us — and it is stunning. The scenery included lots of greenery, river banks, mountains and rock formations. We felt tiny in this giant green space the size of Europe with only a handful of other people in it.

By day four, we had seen eagles, moose, beavers and passed by several wildfires, some of which were burning right next to the river. Sometimes dark clouds threatened but we never got rain and the temperatures during the day were great.

On day five, we crossed the border at Eagle — a small village. To enter Alaska and the USA, you have to call at a special phone booth with a direct line to US immigration. After giving all of our details, we were allowed to enter and we jumped on the board and continued our journey. At this point in the race, we were racing a canoe with two big English fellows who had crossed the Atlantic via rowboat in a record time — 50 days. Later, they told us that the Yukon 1000 was a more physical and mentally difficult race than their crossing.

That night we had a nice camp spot with beautiful midnight sunset. Most days, the last four hours before camp was tough. Tired from the whole day, sore muscles and ready for a good meal and a good sleep. Sleeping was easy. As soon as we put our head down we were out until the beautiful sound of our 4 a.m. alarm went off.

The midnight sunset. Photo: Bart de Zwart

We had days with light breeze but also days with a strong headwind. Day six we entered the flatscreen and crossed the Arctic circle. Here the scenery changes with no more mountains and many little islands with different routes to go, some have current and others very little. Navigation is critical here and a small mistake can put you back 30 minutes, while a big one can cost you several hours.

The winds started this day very early, straight from the front and fiercely strong. Sometimes we had a hard time moving at all compared to the water. Luckily, the currents here were still good and kept us going in the right direction. By the end of the day, we were super tired and felt every muscle hurting. We found a good sandy spot, beached our boards and took off the bags. For good measure, we checked the sandy beach for bear footprints and found really fresh big prints with small ones next to it. This wasn’t good as bears are very protective of their cubs. The prints looked still so crisp like they had just been there. After a short discussion, we decided to leave and find a safer spot.

The next day we wanted make it to the finish by 11:00 pm (end of day seven). When we started in the morning, we felt right away that we had gone very deep the day before. The back muscles, knees and legs were all sore and there was still a long way to go. The highlight of the day was the bear we saw when we passed by the river bank. I saw it moving but when it saw us the bear stood on its back legs to check us out, looking and smelling. The bear decided it was going to make a run for it along the river bank and climbed up the bank. We both watched in awe; simply taking in the moment and not even trying to get a camera.

We almost made it in by the end of day seven but were a few hours shy. Because we had to stop by 11 p.m. for the compulsory six hour break, we stopped early at 10 p.m. for our last night on the river. We again saw footprints but they weren’t as fresh so we decided to camp.

The next morning, we paddled the last four-and-a-half hours and finished the race in eight days, one hour and 42 minutes — first place in the SUP division. We gave each other a hug and received our coins from the race director. The finish was under the Dalton highway bridge. One of the two bridges we passed in the 1000-mile race. It was the only road to go all the way north to Deadhorse (the name speaks for itself). There is a small restaurant, a place to sleep and a few houses. Before the bridge was built, the trucks could only pass during the winter when they passed over the ice of the frozen Yukon.

Ike (left) and Bart (right) finished the Yukon 1000 on Tuesday morning. Photo: Bart de Zwart

The next two days we spent recovering, talking story with the canoe teams and we also wanted to be there when the next two SUP teams came in. After completing this race, you know how much physical and  especially mental strength this requires. On a standup paddleboard, this a very tough race so we wanted to show our support and respect for both SUP teams.

Apart from some damaged nerves in my finger and toes, my body is recovering well. It is really astonishing what your body can do and that it can even recover during the race.

My teammate Ike Frans was super great. I knew he was a strong paddler but I asked him to join me because I knew he had the right attitude and mental strength. These last two are far more important in this race than anything else. You are literally on you own and depend on each other. We always valued each other’s strength and never had any issues. It is important to talk about disagreements directly when things come up right away. Little sleep and 18 hours of paddling is not an easy situation if the synergy is not right.

The other major thing is preparation. Test all of your equipment, food and gear to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. We met some special people both during and after the race. The harsh environment in this area attracts many special individuals. Truckers driving the ice highway, fur trappers and a father and his 12-year-old son who were walking from Deadhorse to Valdez — a 12-week hike.

Special thanks goes to the race organizers, Jon and Harry, who put all their heart into the race and did a phenomenal job. If you ever want to do the longest race in the world and are ready for an adventure of a lifetime, than this race should be on your bucket list. Though be prepared and forewarned, it is very tough and the race organization does a good vetting process.

This year, 15 teams started but 17 teams were turned away for lack of experience. –Bart de Zwart

The article was originally published on Standup Paddling

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