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Pushing the limits

Andrew Rankin
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, March 26, 2009

INUVIK - He had run plenty of extreme races, even through deserts, but nothing had prepared him for this.

With temperatures well below -40 C, some 60 km outside of Inuvik on the ice road, 32-year-old Chris Todd appeared to be almost hobbling his way to Tuktoyaktuk on Thursday.

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6633 race participant Chris Todd struggles on in the last leg of his 350-mile journey to Tuktoyaktuk on Thursday. - Andrew Rankin/NNSL photos

Expected to reach his final destination Saturday, he will have travelled 350 miles from March 13 to 21, starting in Eagle Plains and trekking to the Beaufort Sea.

Of the nine athletes, the British resident is the last man standing, his body completely covered, heading seemingly nowhere with his sleigh of supplies behind him.

Three others finished a shorter but also remarkable race from the same starting point to Fort McPherson.

Exhausted but pleasant, Todd said he has been encouraged by friendly passers-by, waving and beeping their horns.

"That gives me a morale boost," he said. "I get physically stronger."

Unable to say precisely why he's undertaking such a torturous journey, Todd said the experience has made him immeasurably stronger.

"I think I've grown and I certainly have had to dig a little deeper than before, but I can believe in myself a bit more, maybe," he said.

"There have been so many people who have believed in me and so many people think I can do it. I just want to make them all proud."

That includes the two founders of this ultramarathon called 6633 Ultra, referring to its longitude/latitude starting point. Martin and Sue Like call Todd a "sweetheart."

Both long distance runners from Wales, the married couple have organized this event for the last three years. Racing across deserts, jungles and even Alaska, Martin said nothing beats this challenge.

"This is the toughest race in the world," he said. "The temperatures are so unforgiving."

Several of the world's best ultramarathon runners have given it a shot only to pull out. The couple has seen racers go down with everything from severe frostbite to extreme exhaustion to gangrene.

Fed up with his surveying day job, Martin Like and his wife decided to do something more adventurous. Friends in the Yukon suggested the unforgiving route and the rest is history. With no corporate backing, they lose money, but that's fine by them.

With the aid of a medical team, satellite phones and some heavy-duty SUVs, the pair monitor the participants throughout. They offer hot water and shelter in the vehicles, but participants have to do the journey entirely by themselves.

They say the haunting beauty and vastness of the land as well as the generosity and spirit of the people along the way has given them endless memories.

"The way you're welcomed by the communities here - you would not get that back in Britain," Sue Like said.

For example, in Fort McPherson they were given free range at the school where they spent the night and had access to the kitchen, showers, and computers.

For fear of encroaching, the couple had stayed away from mingling with the community. But since most residents welcome them with open arms, they've tried to acquaint themselves with the communities, and have given talks to local students.

To mark the end of the event on Saturday, a celebratory drum dance was planned for the crew in Tuktoyaktuk.

"The athletes are suffering like hell, but they'll have come back with some wonderful stories," said Sue Like.

"You don't see the Northern Lights in Britain, the ice roads and the wonderful culture," said Martin Like. "It's a massive experience for all of us."