The toughest race in the world

Photo courtesy of Arctic Circle Race/Facebook
Hay River native Ilona Gyapay, right, finished third in the recent Arctic Circle Race in Greenland. The other skiers on the podium are second-place finisher Uiloq Slettemark, left, of Greenland, and first-place finisher Kamila Borutova, centre, of the Czech Republic.

There’s sports, and then there’s the kind of sports that Hay River native Ilona Gyapay does.

That is extreme endurance cross-country skiing, like a race Gyapay recently entered for the first time in Greenland – and finished third in the women’s division.

It’s called the Arctic Circle Race.

“It’s been a goal of mine for a couple of years,” said Gyapay. “It’s called the toughest race in the world. It’s a harsh course, harsh climate.”

The competitive cross-country skier, who trains in Canmore, Alta., explained the race was something that she’d never done before and she decided to do something interesting.

“For me, I just decided that physiologically I’m more suited to long races,” she said. “And I’d never been to the High Arctic, either.”

Gyapay noted people in Canmore ask her what it’s like in the Arctic since she is from Hay River, but she had never been to the Arctic until going to the race in Greenland.

“It’s kind of ironic that I go to Greenland to go to the Arctic,” she said.

The race covers 160 km over three days – this year from March 31 to April 2 – and the competitors camp out in tents for two nights.

Gyapay said that, surprisingly, the distance isn’t the toughest thing about the race, which is held at Sisimiut, Greenland, about 65 km north of the Arctic Circle.

“It’s definitely the terrain,” she said. “So it’s mountainous.”

Gyapay had never seen a course like it before.

“There was a three-kilometre uphill 65 per cent gradient,” she noted. “So just unimaginable.”

Then there’s the fact that there’s no cut-off for weather or temperature.

Gyapay said that’s why the racers still competed on the first day in a “massive blizzard” which meant almost no visibility on the ungroomed trails.

“So you’re just going from blue pole to blue pole, which are the course markers,” she said.

That’s aside from the fact that the temperature on the first day of racing was -35 C, not factoring in wind chill.

Gyapay said she has no idea what the temperature was with the wind chill.

“I really don’t want to know,” she said with a laugh during a telephone interview with The Hub. “The warmest it was was -25. But the last two days were brilliant sunshine. I was actually concerned about snow blindness. Just brilliant sunshine and, since you’re so high up in the mountains and then you dip down into fjords, the scenery is just breathtaking because there are no trees, obviously.”

As for the distances, the first day was about 52 km, the second day was a 57-km loop, and then the competitors skied back to town.

“It’s a primitive race in Greenland, and it’s well-known all over the world in sort of the more endurance, extreme sports circles,” said Gyapay.

She said the race was “definitely” dangerous.

“I don’t think in Canada they would hold a race when you can’t see,” she said. “Like we were chucking ourselves off of mountains having no idea where down and up is.”

This year’s 21st annual Arctic Circle Race attracted 208 competitors from 26 different countries.

“I think I was the only Canadian,” Gyapay said.

The 24-year-old was born and raised in Hay River.

“The passion for skiing and being outdoors definitely was founded in Hay River,” she said, saying she began skiing in her hometown at two or three years of age.

Her father, Stephen Gyapay, believes her passion for skiing might be inherited.

“I think perhaps many of the genes come from Ilona’s grandfather, who grew up in the Austrian Alps and skied to the very end of his life,” he said, referring to the father of his wife, Christine Gyapay. “My father was also a skier, but nowhere near to the same level.”

Stephen Gyapay said skiing was in the family, noting he also did some long-distance skiing and ski jumping, although his main sport was kayaking.

His only fear for his daughter competing in the Greenland race was that she was travelling a long distance and might have been affected by jetlag.

However, he noted she knows how to train for such a race.

“She has a fabulous drive, more than an average person,” he added.

After graduating from Ecole Boreale in 2010, Ilona Gyapay studied kinesiology at Augustana University College in Camrose, Alta., graduating in 2014.

She then moved to Canmore to train as a cross-country skier.

“It’s pretty much a full-time passion,” she said. “I train twice-a-day, six days a week.”

Gyapay doubts if she will ever compete again in the Arctic Circle Race.

“I think it’s once in a lifetime. Once is enough,” she said. “Maybe a couple of years from now, but definitely not next year.”