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6633 Arctic Ultra 2017 - Interview with this year's finishers

We asked winner Tibi Useriu, runner up Roddy Riddle and finishers Scott Donatelli, Hidechika Kabasawa and Joaquin Candel a few questions about their experience in this year's Likey's 6633 arctic ultra.

What made you decide to enter the 6633 this year?

Tibi Useriu: I wanted to prove myself that winning the 2016 edition wasn’t just luck. This race has challenged me and I like it.

Roddy Riddle: To raise awareness of what can be achieved with type 1 diabetes and to show people living with the condition shouldn't stop you achieving your goals and dreams in life.

Scott Donatelli: I was looking for a big race and when I found the 6633, it was a perfect fit. For a couple years, I had been thinking how I would like to visit the Canadian Arctic so to cross the Arctic Circle in the first portion of the race fit the bill. I had seen an episode of Ice Road Truckers, and although I didn't enjoy the show, I was fascinated with the idea that you can build a highway on a frozen river. The fact that this race covered almost 200km of ice road was very interesting. And finally, it ended in Tuktoyaktuk. I had heard of Tuktoyaktuk when I was about 6 years old and to me, it became one of those exotic sounding places that seemed so far away, and maybe not even real. Tuktoyaktuk became a place much like Timbuktu, Shangri-La or Zanzibar. So to actually race where Tuk was the finish, was very exciting.

Hidechika Kabasawa: This year is the last year of the ice road leading to the Arctic ocean so I wanted to take this last chance to walk this road.

Joaquin Candel: I'm a dessert rat. I grew up right by the beach in Spain, Playa de San Juan (about an hour from Benidorm), and now I've been in Las Vegas for about 9 years. So, to me being below zero, and surrounded by that white stuff called snow is being out of my comfort zone.
A few years ago, while having breakfast the day before a race in Wisconsin (Tuscobia 150), someone mention a crazy race in Canada. Couldn't remember the name, but a number got stuck in my head, 6633. At that time I had more than enough surviving for 150 miles in Wisconsin.

During the 2016 Yukon Arctic Ultra I got to meet Paul Fosh, and while sharing a few miles of the trail together, we talked about the 6633 Arctic Ultra. One of my main questions was about the wheels, and the need of them.
That's where my interest on the race started, but I still needed some more time to get ready for it.

I was planning on coming back to Whitehorse for the YAU 430 in 2017. The 300 miler came out pretty good. I was really happy with it, and felt ready for the following year 430 miler. But the future closure of the Ice road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk precipitated things. Still not too familiar with the 6633 race, I asked Paul, if it made any difference racing on it or not, and his answer made me change my plans, and sign up for the 2017 one. And I'm glad I did.

What was the most difficult moment in your preparation for the 6633?

Tibi Useriu: The acclimatisation with the cold conditions. Staying in a hole made in a frozen lake for as long as I could.

Roddy Riddle: On Christmas Day I ended up in A&E after going over my ankle whilst out running with a suspected broken ankle and waiting for X-ray result I thought I'd have to pull out.

Scott Donatelli: The volume of training leading up to the race, and especially in the last 2 months. I had been warned to have all my gear and kit organized by Jan 1, because I would be very busy with the training in the final couple months. In the 6 months leading up to the race, I had run over 2500 km. And in the last month, I was training over 22 hours a week.

Hidechika Kabasawa: It was difficult to choose the right combination of socks and shoes. I prepared several pairs and made sure I used them properly to avoid my feet from freezing!

Joaquin Candel: "Don't really need to be doing this" (that's what I tell my self at all times), so I "try" not to stress about much. But at the end, the wheels. The wheels were the hardest part of the race preparation. I have raced with sleds in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Alaska and the Yukon, so I know exactly what sled system works for me. It took a few months for Paul, and Martin to convince me that I really needed wheels (at least for the Dempster Highway portion).
So adapting my sled to a set of wheels, and making sure it would work was the hardest part.
Physically, I just trained like I've done before for other winter races. Because of my changing schedule, I wasn't able to run at any cold places. So this was my first race where all the preparation was done always above zero degrees.

What was the hardest moment in the event?

Tibi Useriu: The moment when the infection from the frostbite degenerated and Johnny, the doctor, said to me that in his opinion I should stop there, at CP7.

Roddy Riddle: Making the decision to leave Greg and follow David on the way to the checkpoint at Caribou Creek.

Scott Donatelli: Coming into the last checkpoint at Swimming Point. I was 6 days into the event and up until that point, probably only had 10-12 hours of sleep. The last 25 km before Swimming Point were 6+ hours of hell where I was experiencing strong delirium and hallucinations. The ice road had become a deserted town that was overgrown with trees and bushes, much like you would expect to see in the towns around Chernobyl. The snowbanks became huge pumpkin plants with their leaves blowing in the wind. And 50 ft deep ravines would appear in front of me with no way to get around them. All this while heading up what looked to me to be a steep winding road. There must have been times when I was sleep walking because I woke myself up many times when I walked into a snow bank - on both sides of the road. And then there was the "Fog". I would be walking thru the Chernobyl-like town and then suddenly, everything would go white like I was in a very dense fog. I could only look straight up, and it would be clear and I could see the Northern Lights. Luckily, this would only last for about 10 seconds before going back to normal hallucinations. In the beginning, the hallucinations would cause me to walk around the "trees" or stop for the "ravines". However, I got to the point where I realized what was happening and I would just tell myself, "You are on an Ice Road that is flat and those ravines will disappear when you step into them"... And they did! I did not like this part of the race.

Hidechika Kabasawa: Night-time at Caribou Creek and Inuvik when the temperature went down to minus 38 degrees celsius. I couldn't even lift my face, because the tip of my nose got so cold.

Joaquin Candel: There were a few:
- During the training days before the race, in Whitehorse, I heard a crack coming from my sled. I think it was the T-joint between the spars that held the wheels, and the sled. So I had to reinforce it with steel wire. For 230 miles I had the fear that my race, if it ended, it could be because of wheels failure. So reaching Inuvik was a great relief.

- Part of my plan was to bivy, or tent in my case, anytime I felt tired or sleepy. After day three, that end up being sometime around 10 PM and midnight for a couple of hours, and then 8 am for another hour or so. But having to bivy out off the trail, road area, away from the trail sometimes was impossible for almost a few hours. So walking (or crawling) for hours looking for a spot to sleep was sometimes demoralizing.

- Temperatures, up to the fifth day, didn't get beyond 25, 30 below. I was doing great, gear wise, all my clothing was spot on, and working great. So, to save some weigh, I decided to leave my backup mittens behind at Inuvik. I still had the ones I regularly use, and a second set that could go on top of those ones, in case it got too cold.
I came out of Inuvik feeling great, physically and mentally, and decided to press on a bit harder. Didn't really pay much attention to my hands, and how they were sweating. When the night came, and the first drop below -35, I felt how my mittens, and gloves were soaked in sweat. At this point, it was so cold that I was already using both sets of mittens, one inside the other, with my liner gloves wet.
This was the lowest point on my race. I had to use dirty socks (that I had in my sled) instead of gloves to keep my hands from freezing. I just needed to make it to Swimming Point with all my fingers, and quit once I got there.

- Anytime you see the lights (at night in the distance) of a city/town where you're going to, you know you're just a few miles away. But seeing Tuktoyaktuk in the distance was the pure definition of "eternity". I forgot we were on a river leading to the ocean, and how flat everything was. I also forgot I was moving at "half the speed of smell". So what I thought it was going to be 3 hours, turn out to be 10.
Because I could see the lights, I didn't want to bivy, and take a 2 hour nap, so I kept dragging thinking everything was going to be over in a couple of hours, when I still had more than 8 left.

How does the 6633 compare to other big ultra-marathons you have done in the past?

Tibi Useriu: Each competition has its nature, difficulty and its particular challenge. I can say though that 6633 Arctic Ultra is the hardest race I competed in so far.

Roddy Riddle: Makes all the other Ultra Marathons I've done look like a park run.

Scott Donatelli: There is NO comparison. The only other big ultra I have done is the Marathon des Sables and MDS was a day at the beach compared to this race. The distance and non-stop nature of this event make it much harder. In terms of kit, clothing, and equipment, you are researching and prepping with at least four times as many items. And with the MDS, everyone is focused on the fact that it can get up to 50 C during the run. This is true, but you also have to remember that at night it gets very cold. So during a day, you will have about 6 hours where it could be uncomfortably hot, 6 hours where it is very cold, which leaves you with 12 hours where you are fairly comfortable. With 6633, it probably never got above -20, with much of the time in the -30/-35 range, and night could be even colder. The only time you were somewhat comfortable was when you were at a checkpoint.

Hidechika Kabasawa: This race can become very dangerous if there are strong winds so I really prayed for no wind. Fortunately, this time the winds weren't strong. I have done several desert stage races, but it seemed like a picnic compared to this race.

Joaquin Candel: The main difference between any "regular" race, and a winter race is that you're out there on your own. Usually, if you have a crew, and run into trouble, they can pull you into the crew vehicle, fix you, let you rest, and spit you back out in the race. So you can run until you literally pass out. At the 6633, you are on your own. You have to have that mental clarity all the time, since if anything happens, you have fix it. There's no raising your hand to get help. Sometimes, that help may come in 10 or 24 hours.

The 6633 is a big melting pot of hurdles. Everything is hard, the terrain, the weather, the physical exhaustion, the mental challenge... Is how you manage each one of them that makes you reach the end, but sometimes, they all come to you all togheter at the same time.

What was the most enjoyable part of the event?

Tibi Useriu: There were more than one enjoyable parts of the event. I loved the beginning of the race due to its scenic route. The aurora borealis from the first nights. And even if I hate the ice road with my whole being, to actually be there, seeing it all, it’s just wonderful.

Roddy Riddle: Crossing the finish line and the general good crack between fellow athletes and helpers.

Scott Donatelli: The beauty of the area you get to race thru and over the 560 km, you travel thru many different landscapes. You have the rolling mountains while leaving start line and heading to the Arctic Circle. Wrights pass is more mountainous. There is a beautiful small canyon you climb thru just after James Creek and before heading to an area of many kilometers with small arctic trees lining the highway. And of course, there is the Ice Road, which was my favourite part. Then there were the Northern Lights. We had 5 nights where they were visible and it was very special to be able to spend hours at a time watching these lights dance in the sky while working your way northward. I rarely used my headlamp at night, as you could see just fine without it. I would only turn it on when a vehicle was approaching so they could see me.

Hidechika Kabasawa: The beautiful views! The ice road during twilight and the Arctic Ocean were very beautiful.

Joaquin Candel: Since I landed in Whitehorse. There was no turning back, I only had to enjoy it.
Meeting Martin at the airport, the Hull's, each one of the racers, driving for hours with Pink Floyd as a soundtrack, the total experience of feeling at an out of space station (Eagle Plains), finding out that the guy that won last years (and this years) race also speaks Spanish, owning the center lane of the Dempster Highway for hours (except when the trucks had to borrow it from me), seeing the northern lights, talking about photography with Weronika, arriving at any of the check points, talking to locals on the ice road, being interviewed by Matt in the middle of nowhere while I ate salmon, taking a shower half way through the race and finding out that there's hot water, and boiling water for the first seconds until the cold water comes in, the many, many, many talks with the great Japanese tv crew, talking about positive energy with Obi Wan Knobi, hijacking Martin's car audio and seeing him try to find out what's wrong with his iPhone, the care that all of the volunteers had for us, finding that one of the racers makes wigs for a living, seeing one of the race cars approach you after 12 hours on your own, owning the ice road for hours, taking pictures of the northern lights and ice road, peeing on the ice road and hearing the ice crack underneath (you can omit this last one, but I did enjoy that).

The whole experience was a total joy.

What was the favourite piece of equipment that you used?

Tibi Useriu: The sleeping bag.

Roddy Riddle: Four wheeled pulk.

Scott Donatelli: I customized a cycling vest by placing 4 pockets on the front and wore this as my second layer of clothing thru out the race. Since we were wearing a hip harness, most standard clothing with pockets would have the pockets under the hip harness. I placed 2 pockets above where the belt would be. I also had 2 more pockets above these higher on the chest. Since this layer was tight and close to my body, it keeps all the items in the pockets warm. The bottom pockets were sized to fit my ziplock bags of race food which I portioned out into 1000 calorie bags. These stayed warm and eatable. The top pockets were great for a camera, lighter, and anything small item you want to keep from freezing.

Hidechika Kabasawa: Vapor barrier shirt. I was able to run with confidence even when I sweat.

Joaquin Candel: I measure every single once that gets into my sled. Then I throw a pound and half Sony camera, and a mini tripod, and extra batteries. I like to document the places where I go. To me, these pictures are one of the most valuable pieces of memories. I don't mind "waisting" 5, 10 minutes or more of my race time trying to get a picture. I do know Martin sometimes got annoyed by that, but I love taking pictures.

When I travel to any of my races, there's one piece of equipment that I always take with me, on my carry on bag. One jacket and pant from RBH Designs. They're be base of my layering system, and it has worked great for me since I started a few years ago. Anything else can get lost, I'll replace them at the town I'm going, except those two.

I have a love/hate relationship with my sled. Up to Inuvik it did feel like a love triangle having those wheels with us, but after that, I did really enjoy pulling the sled on the ice.

My tent. The Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2. It has just two poles. They go inside, so there's no messing around outside. The two nights that was kind of windy I tied it to my sled and it was great. It was great to get up out a nap, and not have the wind slap you on the face. Also great to take care of your feet or any other emergencies.

What bad equipment choice did you make?

Tibi Useriu: The gas cooker, the shoes with claw, the thermos flasks which due to the low temperature, the sealer froze and I wasn’t able to open them to drink the water.

Roddy Riddle: Using a two wheeled pulk on my failed attempt in 2016.

Scott Donatelli: Overall, I let my kit bag get FAR TOO HEAVY. Ideally, your kit should be in the 50-60 lb. range [plus sled]. I'm embarrassed to say this but I think mine ended up in the 85-90 lb. range [plus water and sled!] For the Marathon des Sables, I was very focused on keeping the weight down. For example, I had Duct tape for an emergency. For the MDS, it was about 12 inches long and 1 inch wide and rolled up tightly. For 6633, I threw in 1/2 a roll! Figuring because it was in the sled and not on my back, it didn't matter as much about getting the weight down. Trickle this down to all my kit, and it became a very heavy bag. I also packed for what "could" happen, instead of what "would" happen, so I had many items that were never used. Next time I would keep my kit as light as {safely} possible.

Hidechika Kabasawa: My face mask froze and was difficult to use.

Joaquin Candel: I used a set of kayak wheels linked up together. During the testing runs in Las Vegas, they worked great, but during the race I realized that I completely missed one minor detail: no one uses kayaks during the winter at the Arctic. So the bearings started wearing off really fast. During the few downhills into Inuvik, I had to push down my sled, since it wouldn't roll down on its own. That's why the wheels came off in Inuvik for the rest of the race.

Which of the participants inspired you the most during the event?

Tibi Useriu: I don’t have a particular one. I liked all of them. Being in an individual type of race, is hard to get to know people.

Roddy Riddle: Jonny the medic as he had finished it in 2015 with a two wheeled pulk.

Scott Donatelli: I would have to say Roddy, and it has nothing to do with the fact he racing with Type 1 diabetes. He was just a very focused and determined athlete. You could tell he had a plan going into the race and was able to stick to it.

Hidechika Kabasawa: I was honoured and happy to be able to participate in the same race with these tough competitors.

Joaquin Candel: I had a lot of respect for each one of them. I did know that they were strong either physical or mentally, or both, so just staying behind any of them was going to get me to the end.

Every time a car from the organization pulled along to check on me, and they rolled down the windows, I could see some of my race mates inside, that was intimidating. If for whatever reason they couldn't go on, maybe I had no business being out there.

How did you feel as you finished?

Tibi Useriu: Finished but very happy.

Roddy Riddle: Very emotional for many different reasons.

Scott Donatelli: When I first finished, I was simply happy to be done! The last 2 or 3 hours before any checkpoint was usually pretty hard as I would be very tired at these points and looking forward to a bit of sleep. But then it began to sink in about what I had accomplished, and I was very happy and proud of what I had managed to do. I may have been the last one to finish this year, but I finished.

Hidechika Kabasawa: I can finally rest! I also wanted to talk with my family and friends.

Joaquin Candel: Relieved, but also saddened since it was over. In one way, or other, I was really enjoying the whole experience.

What would you say to someone unsure about whether to enter the 6633 in 2018?

Tibi Useriu: I recommend it with all my heart. It’s that type of race that can change your life. If you don’t become good friend with the low temperature conditions, then they should think twice before going ahead.

Roddy Riddle: If you’re willing to put in the commitment it's worth it as it's one hell of a journey to take part in the BEAST.

Scott Donatelli: Have a good hard think about how serious and committed you could be, and if you think you could focus a lot of time towards it, SIGN UP! An event like this requires respect, and that includes the training and prep that goes into it. I don't want to scare anyone off but there is a reason most people don't finish, and especially first timers. For most finishers this year, it was either their second attempt, or they had previous winter ultra experience. Having said that, with the right focused training and a good mindset, I believe anyone who is comfortable doing a 100 km or 100 miler could finish this race.

Hidechika Kabasawa: If you're interested, you should give it a try. There's always something to be gained, even if you don't do well the first time.

Joaquin Candel: It is a beast. At no time loose the respect for it, because it will eat you up. Having that into consideration, DO IT!!! As a race, experience, it's a must.

What piece of advice would you give to someone thinking about taking part?

Tibi Useriu: Train well in advance and get familiar with all the equipment.

Roddy Riddle: Use a four wheeled pulk and listen to your body to reduce chances of hallucinations during the race.

Scott Donatelli: Have a good plan regarding your training and kit prep and stick to it. It all comes down to the "Train Hard / Race Easy" mindset. While racing on the course, you want to enjoy the race and the area you are in. You can't do that if you are struggling right from the start with poor training or kit prep. There will be times when it is brutal out there, but if you have trained well, you won't have as many of these moments, and hopefully, a few hours sleep will fix that.

Hidechika Kabasawa: It's important to have multiple plans. Switch to another method if one method doesn't go well.

Joaquin Candel: This is one of those races where you're not only the main part of the race. Your gear is too.
It doesn't matter if you brought in the best gear available, if you don't know how to use it, it might kill you. Know how to use everything you have on your sled.

Also, your sled is your best friend, since it will let you bring anything you want/need. Your worst enemy is your sled, since all that stuff you thought you might need, is going to slow you down to a stop eventually.
In my first winter race I carried two tons of "what if's" in my sled. Be careful with the "what if's"... they add up

Have you recovered enough to start running again?

Tibi Useriu: Yes. I did start running 3 weeks after my return home.

Roddy Riddle: Yes I have recovered which I hadn't this time last year which obviously means I was better prepared this year.

Scott Donatelli: I've been back doing smaller and light runs but will get back into the heavy training shortly. I have a tough 120 Miler in August [Fat Dog 120] so I need to get a bit of speed back and work on climbing hills.

Hidechika Kabasawa: Yes, it took about a month to recover.

Joaquin Candel: Kind of. If you can call that running, yes I'm back running again. But what it used to be a warm up, is now a long run.

Do you have any ideas for your next challenge or adventure?

Tibi Useriu: Yes. The one race that I have my mind set on is the Tour of Geants. Beside this and other less important races, I will do one in desert.

Roddy Riddle: I'm now retired very happy with what I've achieved.

Scott Donatelli: I always do Fat Dog 120 so I will be running that in August. Even thou it is 120 miles, I still consider it my little, local race. I only do a big, big event every couple of years so haven't decided yet on the next Big One. There are many options if I want to keep things cold. I'm looking at the Yukon Ultra, The Iditarod Invitational [ 350 miles ] or would love to do something in Antarctica.

Hidechika Kabasawa: I am planning to participate in Yukon Arctic Ultra again two years from now. I withdrew from this race in 2015 and 2016 and want to give it another go.

Joaquin Candel: I would love to run the Path of Saint James, starting from Lourdes (being my wife's and daughter name). But this time, without the sled ;)
I'm also considering (just considering) going down south (way south), but as an adventure, not a race. But right now it's just a dream.

You also sent in your questions via social media.

Mark Evans on Facebook: Is it possible to hire the equipment required for the 6633?

Tibi Useriu: No. The equipment needs to be tested well in advance before the start of the competition.

Roddy Riddle: Don't know.

Scott Donatelli: Yes, there were a few competitors that rented the pulks/sleds and picked them up in Whitehorse. This is a great idea in terms of saving money and convenience, however, it is really important that you train with your equipment. I don't think there were any athletes this year that rented equipment AND finished the race. If you do plan on renting the sled, at least train a lot while pulling a tire or even just rig up some simple wagon and rope thing. You also want to practice having your kit laid out in your bag while out on a trail so you need to have this figured out.

Hidechika Kabasawa: I think that it would be possible if you could test the same type of equipment before the race. But I think that it would be better to arrange your own equipment if possible.

Joaquin Candel: Consistency. Martin has a pretty good program out there. Because of my work, and family schedule I couldn't follow it 100%, but I had it as a guide on where I should be at.

Stuart Humber on Facebook: What was the most valuable part of the training process?

Tibi Useriu: The mental preparation, meditation.

Roddy Riddle: Martins training program which I tried to follow as close as I could.

Scott Donatelli: Having a really good training plan and sticking to it. I credit this [and a bit of luck] with getting me to the finish line. As well as a good workout schedule, my plan included timelines for getting gear and testing items and techniques. My 6-month training program was based on hours of movement per week. "Movement could be running / hiking / cycling / etc... I started off in September with 4-6 hours Monday to Friday and 3 hours on Saturday and another 3 hours on Sunday. The program worked up to February being 8+ hours Monday to Friday, and 12+ hour weekends. Since I always took Mondays off as a rest/recovery day, that meant at least 2 hours a day after work. The weekend was then a 12+ hrs spread over the 2 days, which meant I could go out for 1x12hr / 2x6hr / or something like an 8hr and 4hr run. Some weeks were a bit more detailed with things like 70% time with Tire or sled / 1 session a week in the gym / etc. I credit this intense training with the fact I didn't really have any injuries at all, besides ones that I had come into the race with. No blisters, no pulled muscles, no shin splints and luckily no frostbite, although there were times when that easily could have happened. I had issues with my back but that was from some broken ribs the year before.

Hidechika Kabasawa: I practiced not only to run long distances but also to run short distances at full power.

Joaquin Candel: Sled and wheels: That was the worst part of my race. My design, my failure, but I knew at every single moment every thing I had with me, so I knew how to fix it. Either you do it your self, or hire it, allow your self time to become familiar with your best friend for the next 8 days.
Clothing: I'm not sure, maybe. I owned everything from my previous races.
Stove, fuel, other gear: I'm pretty sure you can, but again, rent it or buy it with time, and play a lot with it.

Go to if you are contemplating taking part in next year's event.

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