6633 Arctic Ultra: Interview with 2016’s 350-mile race winner Tiberiu Useriu
A couple of years ago, running a 60- or 100-mile race earned you bragging rights for life. That’s not true anymore. Today, the word “ultra” has been slapped too much. Any marathon that takes a step beyond 26.2 miles is called an ‘ultramarathon’. It seems like every endurance runner is preparing for one.
Fortunately for those crazy runners with a hankering for the extreme, there’s a type of ultramarathon that’s a step above the rest. It’s in a completely different league. It’s the extra long, incredibly tough race that takes maniacal levels of logistics and commitment, all brought together in some of the world’s most dazzling and incredible landscapes at the Arctic Circle.
6633 Arctic Ultra
The name of the race says it all, denoting the latitude in degrees and minutes. Only 19 people had completed this punishing, brutal, cold-weather ultramarathon in Canada’s northern territory by 2016, though over 100 have tried. About 24 miles from the Eagle Plains hotel near the Klondike Highway, runners cross the Arctic Circle at latitude 66 degrees, 33 minutes. Then they have to follow the snowed-over highway either 350 miles or 120 miles to the cold, brutal Arctic Ocean, dragging their food and gear on sleds. With hurricane-strength Katabatic winds and sub-zero temperatures some runners are literally reduced to crawling. The mental game is tougher than anything else. Most people drop out because of the seemingly endless frozen plains. But the physical game is also tough.
Tibi Useriu, the Romanian who won the 350-mile race this year told me that he used to unfreeze water during the race using his own body.
After I had followed the event live on Facebook, I e-mailed him and he agreed to give an interview for Airia.
There were 12 people at the start line participating in the 350-mile race, including two other Romanians (Vlad Tanase and Andrei Rosu), two Americans, two Brits, and other runners from Scotland, Zimbabwe, France, Australia and Singapore. No Canadians. It seems they knew why.
Let’s see what he has to say about the race.
Beware – you will be shocked.
When did you start running?
Well, the answer is a bit silly. I started to run back in 2012 when I didn’t have a fence around the yard. I let the dogs out of the pen and they started running away. I began chasing them and after about 200 meters I collapsed on the ground as I couldn’t catch my breath.
I got frustrated with my lungs because I perceived them to limit my ability to run. Running became a priority for me.
How did you train? What helped you the most in training?
I followed a 3-month training plan for this race. I ran wearing only shorts at temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius. I did this to desensitize my skin so I could adapt my body to thermal shocks. In addition to this, I did what ice fishermen do, except for the part with fishing. I would bathe for 11 minutes a day in an opening in the ice on a frozen body of water. I would sleep outside in a sleeping bag. This was the physical preparation, but I also prepared myself mentally. The time spent in the cold water definitely prepared me for some critical situations in the Arctic.
What was your strategy for the race? What would you improve?
My strategy was to run for 10 hours followed by a break of 45 to 50 minutes and so on. I seems that I adjusted the plan a bit and I ended up running for the first three days straight, no sleeping at all. In the following days I did only a few short breaks, including one of four hours imposed by the organizers.
Why did I change the plan? I wanted to take the lead and put a big gap between me and the others in case I would have encountered difficulties. I combined running with walking depending on the conditions.
You’re a vegetarian. How much do you think this affects your performance?
I cannot say it influences the performance in a certain way, but recovery is way faster. At least in my case.
How did you deal with adversity and emotions? You were the leader throughout the race.
I handled my emotions well, even though I was a no name and nobody actually believed that I even stood a chance. I wanted to lead this race from the start and was prepared for that. The last part was grueling as my body began to show signs of weakness and that’s when I questioned my chances of finishing first.
I love to go beyond the limits, get out of my comfort zone and that helped me a lot. After all, that is why I wanted to participate in this race in the first place.
My strategy when it comes to adversity? As I said, since I was going there as a no-name, I decided to scare the others by going out in front. It seems that I succeeded.
Did you get injured?
Yes. Foot infection. The doctor said it was because of the extreme cold. At one point I was dragging the leg and was moving forward very slowly. I was very nervous that I could not go through at the pace I wanted, but I tried to remember why I started the race in the first place and forced my brain to keep me on track. I just kept running and walking. There was one point where I had doubts, but I strived to eliminate those thoughts.
Do you know what’s funny? I was very sad that I would cross the finish line looking like a zombie, but the other foot got infected as well, so the problem was solved.
What was the toughest moment of the whole race?
Minus the foot infection, I’d say it was the cold. The entire race was tough. We had temperatures of -52 degrees Celsius. It was a “burning” cold and I still have frostbites on my fingers. I was extremely prepared for low temperatures, but nothing can prepare you for the hell that is unleashed during the race.
Did you hallucinate?
Yes, I never imagined human beings are capable of such things. I saw different cartoons and far away places looked way closer than they actually were.
What did you eat?
I could only eat the food if I held it under clothing first, close to my skin, otherwise it was impossible to use it. The same applied to water, as I couldn’t drink as much as I needed because I would risk frostbites.
It was really hard taking all the nutritional elements.
How would you describe this race in a sentence?
Race of my life.
How did the race change you?
I’m the same guy who wants to achieve super goals, but I experienced things that will remain in my soul forever. The cold, the pain and the suffering have been transformed into something unique after I crossed that finish line. I guess one cannot find sufficient words to explain the ‘scar’ that such race leaves on your soul. It’s a great memory that strengthened me and showed me how powerful the nature can be.
What motivated you to participate and win the race?
It was another opportunity for me to surpass my limits again. I wanted to compete with some famous people in the endurance running world.
Was there a moment when you wanted to quit?
I strived to control these negative thoughts. I know it’s not okay to deal with such things, it’s like in Inception – the famous movie. At first it’s an idea and then it can become something larger and more powerful. All I can say is that I was determined to finish the race and win, and I prepared enormously for this.
Do you have other extreme races in your agenda?
Last year I participated in the Tor des Géants (Tour of Giants) and the event was cancelled when I had reached the 240-kilometer mark due to poor weather conditions. It’s a 330km race which must be completed in less than 150 hours. The completion rate is 60%. I want to go back to finish the race.
Meanwhile, I’ll take a 2-week break from running.
To be continued…with other fantastic races.