SubscribeAvailable Now
Daniel Benhammou. Photo courtesy of James Graven.

This Denver Athlete Is Braving the Coldest, Toughest Ultrarace on Earth

Daniel Benhammou is about to journey 430 miles across the frozen tundra of the Yukon Territory—again. We sat down with him to talk about why he (or anyone, for that matter) enjoys this type of challenge.

|

There’s no world record recognition or prize money, the temperatures can plummet lower than fifty below, and participants are at high risk for frostbite, dehydration, or worse. In fact, the race is so brutal, it’s being studied as training for future missions to Mars. Still, nearly 100 athletes subject themselves to these conditions each February for one of the world’s most intense (and thankless) ultra races. Who would sign up for a 430-mile slog through the northern Canadian wilderness? Meet Colorado’s own Daniel Benhammou, who is about to embark for the third time on the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra (MYAU).

Benhammou, originally from Colorado Springs and a current Denver resident, has lived a relatively average life at first glance. He earned an engineering degree from MIT, designs traffic-flow technology by day, and spends much of his free time with family. But there’s another side of Benhammou, one in which he’s an ultrarunning machine. The 38-year-old purchases trail-running shoes 10 pair at a time and typically runs five or six 100-mile races each year.

Advertisement

This weekend, Benhammou will join about 80 other race participants in the small Yukon Territory city of Whitehorse, about 2,000 miles northwest of his home. Athletes from more than 20 countries will gather there to begin the MYAU, in which they will run, mountain bike, or cross-country ski across one of Canada’s most remote provinces. Participants can choose to take on a marathon, 100-mile, 300-mile or the full 430-mile self-supported trek which finishes north of the small town of Dawson. Benhammou will naturally be running the longest distance, a feat which he completed with only 15 other athletes two years ago (the 430-mile race is offered every other year). Back in 2015, he ran the 300-mile distance and was one of only six finishers during an exceptionally cold race.

“My favorite element is to see people finish,” says race director Robert Pollhammer. “If they don’t reach the finish line the first year, they come back.”

Beat Jegerlehner, Daniel’s training partner, added his two cents as well: “A race like the Yukon Arctic is extremely challenging, it’s even worse than the Iditarod because of it being consistently 40-50 below.” Jegerlehner has finished the Iditarod Trail Invitational full distance four times, but has never run the Yukon. “You are no longer in a race, you are in a survival situation. And that’s what sets it vastly apart from other running races. But all that said, I have 100 percent confidence in Daniel.”

Before Benhammou set off for the MYAU, which lasts from February 3-16, he came by the 5280 office for a conversation about what it takes and why anyone would want to run across a desolate tundra of snow and frozen trails, carrying only the essentials to survive.

5280: How did you hear about the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra race?
DB: I read an article in Outside magazine back in 2002 about a race called the Hardrock 100, and it’s this epic race. I started wondering, Could I do that? You have to qualify for it, so I signed up to run the Leadville 100 [a qualifying race] in 2005. I’m not a runner at all; I made it like 40 miles [out of 100]. But I had a ton of fun. I was hooked on ultras. I went back in 2006 and completed Leadville. I thought, Now I’ve gotta try Hardrock. Sometime after that I learned about the Montane Yukon.

Advertisement

How would you describe this race to people who are familiar with other races? What makes it so different?
One of the things about running the Montane Yukon is the temperature and the remoteness add a whole other dimension. In the Leadville 100, a super well-supported race, the longest distance between aid stations is, I think, 13 miles. In the Yukon, the longest distance is 100 miles between checkpoints. In a 100-mile race you could maybe power through without sleeping; but there’s no way you can do that for a race like this. You have to go at a pace that’s sustainable. Also, the first year I did the race in 2015 it got to 65 degrees below, which is really, really cold.

Can you talk about pacing yourself and what that’s like up in the Yukon?
A lot of it depends on trail conditions, and you have no idea what the weather’s going to be like. When conditions are good—zero degrees Fahrenheit—and when the snow is hard, what’s great about that is you can move pretty fast without sweating. It’s a big challenge because you want to move fast enough to stay warm but not too fast that you’re sweating. That ends up being that window of how I set my pace.

What was your biggest challenge doing your first 430-mile race two years ago?
One of the biggest challenges that’s not environmental is sleep. I try to sleep two to three hours a night, but when you get tired, you get slow. I’ll start falling asleep while I’m moving. It’s worth getting into my sleeping bag and sleeping a few hours no matter where I am, because then I’ll be a lot faster. After a few days…it just wears you down.

Environmentally, overflow can be pretty scary. Lots of times there will be ice on the trail and you can walk across no problem. But once, I remember I could see the trail go down to this creek and back up the other side, but there was nothing on the ice. To me, that was a sign this was fresh ice. And it looked pretty thin. Things like that are scary when you’re by yourself. I had no idea if the water was six inches, or four feet. The rivers up there are enormous; they can be 20 or 30 feet deep in some places. So it’s easy to get yourself psyched out, when it’s really cold and the implications can get really serious. And you’ve been awake for a week. It can be pretty daunting.

What happens if you get in a bind out on the trail?
You have to be able to sustain yourself, cook some food. I mean, all your water is gonna freeze. You can’t really prepare for that kind of cold. They tell us you have to be ready to survive…[a rescue] could take 48 hours. You have to have a stove, and know how to use it and be comfortable. And when it gets really, really cold, things break. You have to know how to fix it.

Advertisement

Which do you prefer for sleeping: tent or bivy sack?
[Smiles and chuckles] Bivy sack, 100 percent. I see people using a tent and I can’t understand why. Tent poles can break, especially when it’s that cold.  What I do is keep my sleeping bag inside my bivy sack, that way, within two or three minutes I can be in my bag. Also, when I get going, I can roll it up and be on, because those couple minutes between getting out of your sleeping bag and trying to force your feet into completely frozen shoes…it’s pretty uncomfortable.

Do you even like the cold?
Oh, I love the cold. I don’t like being cold, but yeah, I don’t like being hot either. I love cold weather.

What about this race makes you come back?
One of the things which makes the race really incredible is it’s so inclusive. I certainly understand why for other races you have to qualify, because so many people want to register. But what I really like about this race is anyone can sign up. Robert [Pollhammer] encourages you of course to have experience, but anyone can take on the challenge. You don’t have to be some elite runner. It’s a really neat thing. This race kind of embodies ultrarunning, there’s no trophy, no prize, and in the end, no one really cares [about that]. People do it for themselves.

What’s something unique about you that would surprise people?  
I made my own sled. My engineering skills are really helpful with figuring out how I want to load my sled; weight distribution. And things always go wrong, so being able to improvise…it’s part of the fun. Also, I’ve still never run a marathon.

Going forward in the future, are there other races you are looking forward to?
Down the line, I’d love to run the Iditarod [Trail Invitational] in Alaska. Last year I did the first 350 miles of the Iditarod. My goal is to run the full race (Editor’s note: that’s 1000 miles, folks), and it will probably take about four weeks. That’s definitely on my list.

Advertisement

There’s no prize money. Winner gets nothing. What’s the number one reason why you run?
The first time, it was really, Can I do this? This year—first of all, I had a great time, so I want to go back—but it’s more, Can I run a better race? How can I do better than I did before? It’s just an amazing and beautiful place so I’m really looking forward to it.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Winter in Colorado

Newsletters

Keep me up to date on the latest trends and happenings around Denver. 5280 has a newsletter for everyone.

Sign Up