Deer Lake woman prepping for ultra marathon through 'cold desert'

Michaela Pye is fairly new to long distance running, but she's going cross-country and then some for her second endurance race — a 160-kilometre course through the rugged peaks of Alaska's White Mountains.

Alaska's White Mountains 100 race tests endurance in extreme conditions

Michaela Pye at the start of East Coast Ultra marathon in October. Competitors in her second endurance race, the White Mountains 100, can choose to compete on foot, skis or fat bike. Pye says she chose to run because it is more of a challenge. (Submitted by Michaela Pye)

Michaela Pye is fairly new to long-distance running, but she's going cross-country and then some for her second endurance race — a 160-kilometre course through the rugged peaks of Alaska's White Mountains. 

The ski patroller at Marble Mountain on Newfoundland's west coast was bitten by the running bug after completing the East Coast Ultra Marathon in October.

"I fell in love with spending long days running on the trails … it kind of became this slight addiction for me," said Pye, who ran just over six hours and 51 minutes straight to be the third female competitor to cross the finish line.

Pye trains with a 30-kilometre training run in from Deer Lake to Goose Arm. She started training for the White Mountains 100 in November. (Submitted by Michaela Pye)

"I found it really fascinating to see what limits you could get your body to and to just experience that type of discomfort."

Pye will find plenty of discomfort in Alaska. 

The 100-mile course — that's 160 kilometres — runs through the White Mountains National Recreation Area near Fairbanks in Alaska's interior.

It will likely be between minus 20 and minus 40 when I'm doing the race.- Michaela Pye

She describes it as a semi-groomed trail, which will be similar to running on a cross-country ski track as long as the weather co-operates. 

"That part of Alaska is classified as a cold desert, so ideally it won't snow three feet of powder the night before." 

Pye runs to the finish of the East Coast Ultra Marathon. She finished the race on the East Coast Trail network with a time of 6:51:27. (Submitted by Michaela Pye)

Pye will have to carry extra clothing, first-aid supplies and enough food so she can fuel up with a high-fat, high-carb snack every 15 minutes or so.  

"I guess one of the challenging parts of this race is it's completely self sufficient," she said.

Blisters and bone-chilling cold

"So you really have to think ahead about what your body might need — if you get a blister where it might be, if you're going to get cold are your mittens going to get wet, because it will likely be between –20C and –40C in that range when I'm doing the race."

There are cabin checkpoints every 50 kilometres or so, but there won't be much time to rest.

"One of the more shocking things is you have to complete the race within 40 hours."


Pye on a backcountry ski trip in Gros Morne National Park this winter. She's planning to pack high-energy foods like avocado and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to keep her going during the race. (Submitted by Michaela Pye)

Pye's job with the ski patrol at Marble Mountain keeps her on her feet and moving most of the day, and she's doing about 100 kilometres of running, cycling and skate skiing per week to prepare for the race.

That will ramp up to peak at 200 kilometres as her training progresses.

Lucky break

With only 85 spots and about 300 applicants interested in competing in the White Mountains 100 this year, Pye didn't think she had a shot after ending up 121st on the wait list after the lottery-style draw. 

But a few days later she was offered one of the seven additional spots for participants chosen by sponsors, after Fairbanks-based Delcourt Aviation decided it wanted to help out the rookie runner from farthest away.

"I was super-excited … Newfoundland is about 9,000 kilometres away from where the race is happening, so I lucked out." 

Pye gets plenty of exercise in her job as a first responder on the ski slopes of Marble Mountain, doing safety checks and providing first aid. (Submitted by Michaela Pye)

Pye is hoping to finish the race in under 30 hours, and now she has the added boost of a sponsor to keep her going when the going gets tough. 

"It's not just me now counting on me to finish and do it, there's another group of people excited for me to do it."

The race starts March 25 at 8 a.m., and you can follow the progress of racers with a live online tracking tool on the White Mountains 100 website.

"In case anyone is interested in seeing if I survive it, I think I will!" said Pye.

With files from the Central and Corner Brook morning shows

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