It’s billed as the toughest, coldest and windiest ultra race in the world. We caught up with Romanian runners Vlad Tanase and Andrei Rosu ahead of the notoriously brutal Likeys 6633 Arctic Ultra.
1 What is the 6633 Arctic Ultra and just how tough will it be?
Vlad: It’s a non-stop, self-supported foot race taking place in the north of Canada. Starting from Eagle Plains, Yukon, it passes through the Arctic Circle (which has coordinates of 66° 33′ 39″ hence the name of the race) on the Dempster Highway, continuing to the banks of the Arctic Ocean and ending in Tuktoyaktuk. We will have to negotiate 563km (350 miles) of the most remote and inhospitable landscape known to man. Mother Earth will no doubt provide us with some special weather conditions to deal with… especially in ‘Hurricane Alley.’
Andrei: It will certainly be very tough. Only 19 people (out of more than 100 starters) have made it to the finish line since the race started in 2007.
2 What kind of conditions are you expecting to encounter and how will you overcome them?
Vlad: Winds will blow up to 120km/h and temperatures will plummet to about -40°C. Add to this the gruelling distance and the fact that each of us 12 lunatics (sorry, participants) will pull our own provisions in pulks weighing about 30kg and you start to realize just how tough this ultra will be. How will I overcome the conditions? This is a tough question… I cannot honestly say because I’ve never experienced such conditions. All I can say at this moment is that I will go there and try to finish the race. Obviously I have a plan, but anything is possible out in the Arctic Circle. We will be tired, sleep-deprived and wishing for hot showers, beers and juicy steaks, but have a goal based on a purpose, so we will keep going. That purpose for myself and Andrei, whom I will race this thing together with, is to raise funds for planting trees on degraded soils in Romania.
Andrei: The temperatures will be extreme, the winds powerful and the nights long and dark. We will suffer with sleep deprivation and everything that comes with a non-stop, week-long event like this. It’s the kind of race that one can only overcome by training hard, both physically and especially mentally. I hope that the previous ultra events I’ve taken part in will have prepared me for this one…
3 How have you tailored your training to prepare for a race like this?
Vlad: It has been impossible to replicate in training the exact conditions we will encounter in the 6633 Arctic Ultra. I’m not a professional athlete, I’m a tax consultant and work 10 hours a day, so I don’t have the time to go and run for hundreds of km’s. In addition, there’s no place in Romania where temperatures drop to -40°C and winds blow with such ferocity.
However, to get as close as I can to mirroring what it will be like in the race, I have tried a few tricks. In terms of the distance, I’ve tried to spend as much ‘time on feet’ as possible by doing back-to-back walking/running sessions. My body is used to running so I’ve had to adapt it walking longer distances because if you run and sweat in the Arctic there’s an increased risk of going into hypothermia, which will of course lead to a DNF. Making that transition from running to walking was not as easy as I thought it would be. I got injured during my first walking sessions and thought ‘this is madness, how can anyone walk that far?’ But step-by-step I have increased my mileage and now feel strong.
At the same time I also started to hunt out the lowest temperatures in order to better acclimatize myself. This meant I ended up sleeping on the balcony of my apartment and doing training sessions with as few clothes on as possible! You can imagine the smile on my girlfriend’s face as she enjoyed the full bed to herself and the raised eyebrows of strangers seeing me out walking in temperatures of -15°C wearing just tights, gloves, a bandana and a thin top.
Andrei: I don’t think you can ever be fully prepared for such a hardcore experience, but I have done my best to get my body ready for the cold temperatures and the tough moments that lay ahead in the 6633 Arctic Ultra. I’ve slept outside during the winter, enduring multiple -20°C nights and also run/walked for many, many hours in the cold.
4 How do you expect it to compare to previous ultra races you have completed?
Vlad: Honestly, I expect this race to be far beyond what I have experienced before. I’m relatively new to ultras having taken part in my first one only two years ago. I don’t have any Arctic experience but I’m fully aware of what it is going to be like out there. My toughest ultra to date lasted for 30 hours when I ran non-stop for 220km. For me however, the 6633 Arctic Ultra is from another planet!
Anderi: The hardest races I’ve done were the Virginia Quintuple Ultra Triathlon (19km of swimming, 900km of biking and 210km of running) and the Arch 2 Arc (a non-stop ultra triathlon, including 140km of running followed by a swim across the English Channel and then a 300km bike to Paris). I think the 6633 Arctic Ultra will be hard in its own way and will involve me being on the move for more days than the previous events mentioned here.
5 Mentally, how will you cope with running alone in such remoteness and for such long periods of time?
Vlad: This is a very good question because, in my opinion, it’s the mental aspect that is the most important when it comes to ultra racing. Fortunately I will not be alone at the 6633 Arctic Ultra as I will be racing shoulder-to-shoulder alongside Andrei. Over the past few months we’ve tried to speak as little as possible to each other in order to save all those subject conversations until the race!
Jokes aside, I’m fully aware that there will be periods in which both of us will be focused on the process: run/walk, drink, eat, sleep, repeat. In these moments I will enter into a state of trance or meditation… detaching myself from my body and forgetting about the pain. It’s by doing this that we are all capable of achieving superhuman feats. You strip your mind of all its doubts and fears and allow it to unleash its full potential. Believe me when I say that these moments are precious.
Andrei: When I take part in 24+ hour events I usually enter into a state of trance or active meditation, becoming extremely relaxed and ‘in the present moment.’ I move away from outside distractions to an inner dialogue. This is one of the main reasons I sign up for this type of event… they give me the chance to become introspect, so I find myself mentally transformed at the end of the race.
6 What kit will you be pulling in your pulk? Anything obscure (a special treat maybe) that’s not on the mandatory kit list?
Vlad: From a simple fork to a sleeping bag and from batteries to my precious GPS watch; we will carry anything that makes our task that little bit easier and gives us more chance of surviving to the finish line. Those pulks will be like our trailer homes… although in this case every single gram will be attentively calculated. We certainly won’t be including any useless pieces of kit that make the pulks heavier… so yes, my bottle of shampoo is staying at home! Of particular importance to me are my arm warmers upon which I have printed some special messages from a good friend of mine. Those same messages have helped me in ultra races before, so hopefully they will do the same in the 6633 Arctic Ultra.
Andrei: Well… my passport, in case I get lost and end up crossing into the US or Russia!
7 Do you go into a non-stop race like this with a sleeping plan or do you make it up as you go along?
Vlad: Of course we have a plan. We will target 3-4 hours a day of sleep, but we will see. In such races, if you want to keep going you have to adapt. The distance is so long and the conditions so severe that you cannot make and stick to just one plan. You have to have plans B, C and D, be prepared to change strategies and adapt to the difficulties when they arise.
Andrei: I certainly do, but I am also flexible. In case of really bad weather, I will probably sleep a little bit more than the planned 3 hours a day.
8 What are the biggest dangers / fears to overcome in a race like this?
Vlad: One of the biggest dangers in this race is losing some fingers or toes. My goal is to finish the race with all 10 fingers and 10 toes… and preferably with them attached to my arms and feet! Fears? Probably the thing I fear the most is myself. My biggest weapons for this race are my brain and my conscience, however, while they can be allies, when things get nasty they could potentially become my worst enemies. There will be moments when they will try to make me stop, when they will try to find alternative paths to put an end to the pain. It can be difficult to silence these voices but ultimately I will overcome them.
Andrei: The biggest danger is to forget why I am there. I have to remember the reasons: To create a better version of myself (good enough to become an inspiration for my two children and the people who follow me); to fundraise for an environmental project (planting a forest in the southern part of Romania and stop the desertification process); and to explore and overcome my limits and limitations.
9 You’ve chosen to run the 6633 Arctic Ultra in the Arctic Claw 300. Why did you choose this shoe?
Vlad: I tried the Race Ultra 290 and wanted to use this for the race, then I came across the Arctic Claw 300 – a beast with steel claws! Besides the increased cushioning necessary for competing over such distances, they provide the ultimate grip. I tested them and soon we had become best friends.
Andrei: The difference between ‘I finished’ and ‘I failed’ lies in the detail. And not planning for success means planning for failure. I think that a great pair of shoes, adapted to Arctic conditions, can make a big difference while running/walking on ice for more than 500km. I’m a big fan of inov-8 and used the X-Talon 212 at the 2015 Otillo Swimrun Championship in Sweden, where I ran on slippery stones and swam from island to island without an incidents.
10 Finally, what is it about ultra running that keeps you wanting to push your limits further?
Vlad: I’ve discovered ultra running to be the perfect way to find myself. It’s helped me feel reborn and connected to nature. It’s not necessarily the race that gives me pleasure but the process of reaching the start line. All those training sessions and strategies and all that discipline – they make me a better person. We as humans have no limits, there are only obstacles… which one can choose to overcome or just observe. Overcoming them makes me feel more humble, and this is why I turned to ultras. Dean Karnazes once said: “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want a life-changing experience, run a marathon. But if you want to talk to God, run an ultra.” It’s one of my favourite quotes and, believe me, it’s so damn true.
Andrei: Getting out of the comfort zone helps me discover new things, places and abilities, meet extraordinary people and become a better man, husband, father, citizen and athlete.
* The 6633 Arctic Ultra course record, set in 2007, is held by Mimi Anderson (143 hours & 25 mins). Last year (2015) there were 21 starters. Only 8 made it to the finish line.