How to Finish the Arctic Ultra
August 08, 2010
by Dave Reese
It usually happens after about 18 hours that the hallucinations begin.
Andrew Matulionis has learned to expect them, even enjoy them. But he doesn't succumb to the bizarre things he sees and hears after 18 hours of running.
Like a runner hitting the proverbial wall, you just have to work through these hallucinations, which for Matulionis normally begin about 3 or 4 a.m. in his long-distance marathons. "You just have to bust through it, put one foot in front of the other."
Matulionis, 37, did just that and he went on to win the inaugural Arctic Ultra last month in Whitehorse, Yukon Territories.
The Arctic Ultra was a 100-mile run, bike or ski event that followed the Yukon Quest sled dog race. The Arctic Ultra attracted athletes from from 12 countries, most of them in Europe. There were 25 competitors and only four Americans.
The course winds along the Yukon River, then climbs up along a mountain pass for 45 miles. It is billed as "the toughest human-powered winter adventure race in the world."
Matulionis, who owns Medical Arts Pharmacy in Kalispell and spends his workdays shelling out medicine, is no stranger to ultramarathon running. He has run the Iditasport four times, capturing first place twice.
In the Arctic Ultra, there was no radio contact along the way, so the athletes were required to bring along survival gear, including a camp stove, clothes and sleeping bag. They were required to take at least a four-hour break — something he didn't want to do, but was glad he did when he started "seeing things."
Having done enough of these events, Matulionis knows the ins and outs of what to bring. He chuckles when he sees fancy sleds and harnesses that athletes bring along. His outfit is simple: a $10 orange sled from Wal-Mart and a rope harness covered with PVC pipe for stability. He eschews sports nutrition fare like energy bars and drinks, and opts instead for real food. "I stick to my four food groups: sugar, fat, salt and caffeine," he says.
Favorite foods in his pack are licorice, cookies, candy bars, cheese and chips.
Usually in an event like this, skiers or bikers have an advantage if the snow is hard-packed. But since the snow on the trail in the Arctic Ultra had a granular texture like sand, Matulionis had the advantage because that's the kind of snow he trained on in Northwest Montana. Constant running in soft snow helps develop the hundreds of subtle muscles in your feet, and it paid off by helping him cross the finish line six hours in front of the next competitor and four hours behind the first-place mountain biker.
Just finishing the race was an accomplishment. "Winning is the icing on the cake," he said.
For his efforts Matulionis won nothing. "A handshake and a smile is about all you get," he says.
His first night out in the race, Matulionis was left alone in the vast Alaska wilderness. Without sleep for nearly 20 hours, he looked up to see the Northern Lights dancing across the sky. "It was almost frightening."
Then, he said, he calmed down, convinced himself that the trees along the dark trail were not people.
"I looked up at those Northern Lights and said to myself, 'This is why I do these things.'"
He was glad to have finished in under 24 hours. "I didn't want to spend another night out there."