The race, to that point, had been perfect. The water was unusually calm that first day on Lake Laberge, northern Canada’s typically treacherous 30-mile-long body of water located some 100 miles from the Alaskan border. It was sunny and hot, for the Yukon, but not so hot that a bandana dipped in the sub-Arctic lake wouldn’t provide relief. My teammates and I paddled our voyageur canoe hard, challenging nearby boats and overtaking many of them. The fervent pace of that first afternoon slowed as evening came, but we soldiered on, keeping a steady stroke-per-second rhythm. Around 10 p.m., we indulged in a 15-minute rest for warm soup—our only on-shore break during the first 26 hours of this three-day race. Later, while we paddled to starve off the late-June night’s chill, our captain, Carmen, read poems from the Yukon’s most treasured bard, Robert Service, aloud.
I had joined seven other women to race the Yukon River Quest, the longest annual paddling race in the world. The route travels 444 miles north through the Yukon from Whitehorse to Dawson City, re-tracing the path of the Klondike Gold Rush stampeders of the late 19th century. We were a group of young professionals living in Whitehorse who, for different reasons, decided to make this challenge our own. Last April, we rented an old, patched up beast of a voyageur canoe (we called her Jenny), and by early May—with snow still on the river banks—we were on the water, training two or three times a week. We called ourselves the Tough Birches.
Only Carmen had done the race before; the rest of us had varying levels of paddling experience and almost no clue what we were getting ourselves into.
And so I was naive enough to believe that the good feelings of that first night would stay with me. This, I thought, was the race’s best-kept secret: You are sold a bill of pain and hardship, but what you find instead is immense pleasure and joy—a boatful of women who had been mostly strangers erupting into unbridled fits of laughter, speaking with foul language and without inhibition. They surprise you with their weirdness and their wildness, and you realize that you admire them deeply. You love them.
My euphoria came to an end suddenly. I shared a bench in the canoe with Eva, my closest friend on the boat, who had tapped up her right wrist after developing tendonitis during practice. So, of course, it was her left wrist, which she was not being as careful to protect, that became swollen on that first misty morning of the race. Eva was not only sore but quite unwell; she had caught a chill that wouldn’t lift. The blood had drained from her face and her lips were a deep purple. I urged her, with little success, to eat, to sip hot tea, to rest her wrist. Injury, I knew, was the thing that could end our journey.
The rest of us had varying levels of paddling experience and almost no clue what we were getting ourselves into.
And so Eva would now surely quit the race, I thought. We’d carry her, or she’d halfheartedly paddle for a few more hours until we reached a beach that is accessible by road, where rescue is possible.
The rest of us would be forced to choose: continue, although we would be officially disqualified, or accept defeat. Would anyone choose to keep going? Would I? My energy, which had before seemed boundless, had faded in lockstep with my mood. My muscles were spent, my strokes contributing next to nothing. I had crashed, hard, and we were less than a third of the way there.
And then, I had an idea: I told Eva to take my small dry sack and fill it with cold river water. Ice your wrist, I said. She did, and it felt better. As suddenly as everything had crumbled, it turned around. Her cheeks became rosy, she ate with real hunger, and resumed talking. She came back to life, and the rest of the boat did too.
Eva’s recovery was so improbable, so remarkable, that it changed everything I thought I understood about the race. After watching her, I knew that, although I was exhausted, I would make it to our mandatory seven-hour rest stop, now only a handful of hours away. The break would refresh me, and I would get back into the boat and keep paddling all the way to Dawson. There would be new highs, and new lows, but we, all of us, would keep going.
When we did finish, two full days later, I realized the moment of despair on that first morning was not the darkest of the race, but it was the only time when I thought that the pain would get the best of us.
Make no mistake: The Yukon River Quest is punishing. By the end, my wrists seared in agony with every stroke. The rash where my bottom met the seat was so bad that it felt like I was peeling off a layer of skin each time I pulled down my long johns to pee in the empty yogurt container designated for the purpose. My lips, which I had neglected to care for on that first sunny day, were dried, cracked, and throbbing. My mouth, reacting to either the stress or the pain medications or my diet or all three, had broken out into dozens of sores. Although there were two mandatory rest stops totaling 10 hours of downtime, my adrenaline kept me from sleeping more than two hours the whole race. For the last 24 hours, the rain was relentless—we were forced to paddle through the final night sore and soaked to the bone.
Who signs up for something like this? When I announced my plans to my family, they thought I had a screw loose. Although I grew up paddling, I’d never raced anything longer than a handful of miles in my life. Fond memories of multi-day canoe trips as a teenager inspired me to sign up for the River Quest, but the challenge sounded crazy to me too. You have to be a certain kind of person to put your money, your time, and your personal safety on the line for a challenge that, even if all goes according to plan, necessarily involves a great deal of suffering. I had become that sort of person apparently.
I looked forward to the training, probably more than the race itself. After a long, dark winter, I was grateful for a scheduled reason to be doing something active and outside. And it did feel great—which, of course, is no surprise. Exercise is often considered to be a sort-of miracle drug that combats depression and anxiety while increasing positive moods and general well-being. It’s so good for your brain, it can actually make you smarter and help ward off Alzheimer’s, research has shown.
Endorphins, of course, are the feel-good chemicals that get released when we exercise. To think of it like a drug is no stretch—the word endorphin comes from endo (internal) and morphine, and literally means a morphine-like substance produced within the body. It acts much like other opiates do: increases pleasure, reduces pain, and induces feelings of euphoria.
But unlike injecting heroin into your arm, getting a hit of endorphins takes some work. The pleasure response to exercise is a reaction to the stress it places on the body—no pain, no gain. This helps explain why even though exercising makes us feel good, most of us, most of the time, still lack the motivation to strap on running shoes and head out the door.
The Yukon River Quest is no normal exercise session. The highs are crazy high, the lows crazy low. And the participants, it seems, are suckers for this particular sort of punishment. In the racer’s bios, about a third mention that they have done the YRQ before—some five, 10, even 13 times. A lot of the competitors are older; the average age this year was 44, with participants creeping into their 60s and 70s.
What keeps even these older racers coming back for more suffering? Is it addiction? “Somehow, I don't think this will help me kick my YRQ addiction, but it's worth a try!” writes one racer, age 41, as his reason for entering the race. Two others also cite addiction as a motivating factor. Google “adventure race addict” and you’ll find all sorts of individuals and groups who self-identify, including some who say they kicked alcohol and drugs and merely replaced them with extreme exercise.
“Even under several environmental adversities and minimum hygiene conditions; food and sleep deprivation; excessive physical and metabolic breakdowns; the athletes seem not to worry about this situation and frequently complete a race already planning for the next one,” wrote a team of Brazilian researchers who investigated addiction in 17 elite adventure racers in 2006. “Such behavior suggests a remarkable questioning: are these athletes physical exercise-dependent? Does this physical stress make them dependent?”
To think of endorphins like a drug is no stretch—but unlike injecting heroin into your arm, getting a hit of endorphins takes some work.
The Yukon River Quest is not technically an adventure race, though it’s a similar sort of extreme exercise. “Adventure race” is usually defined as a multi-disciplinary wilderness expedition completed over hours or days as a team; the Adventure Race World Championship takes place next month in Brazil, and will require racers to mountain bike, trail run, river kayak, pack raft, and canoe over 500 kilometers. The Quest demands similar endurance and navigational skills, although the activity is exclusively paddling. The race can be done in a kayak or canoe, and can be raced alone, in a pair, or on a team of six or more in a voyageur canoe.
The analogy between adventure racing and recreational drugs goes well beyond the rush of endorphins that created that first night's sleep-deprived giggle-fests. There are also hallucinations. Imagine paddling along with your team, and someone points out what appears to be a rodent swimming parallel to the boat, maybe 10 feet away. Logic tells you it's actually a ball of floating river foam, but that doesn't make the hallucination evaporate. You keep your eyes fixed. Suddenly, the foam turns and stares at you with beady eyes. It has changed directions and heads with apparent purpose directly for the boat. You feel your heart thump through your chest. This isn’t real, you tell yourself. But then again, the others see it too.
There were hundreds of these moments, though most were benign. Every floating log in the distance appeared as a rival boat. A stump on the shore was a dog, or a bear, or a dinosaur. It’s a bit like seeing things in the clouds, except the moment you discern what the cloud resembles, it comes to life. And the more sleep-deprived you get, the harder it is to believe that the giant winking face in the sky, for example, is just a figment of your imagination.
These hallucinations are real, but science has yet to determine the mechanism for their existence, says researcher Sam Lucas, a physiologist at the University of Birmingham in England who has studied adventure racers for more than a decade. He remembers one of the top adventure racers in the world coming up to him during an event in New Zealand and swearing he had just seen a pink rhinoceros cross the trail ahead of him.
At other point in the race, when my team arrived at the first mandatory rest stop 26 hours in, I stepped out of the boat and suddenly felt drunk. There were no hallucinations, but I couldn’t walk in a straight line and my head was spinning. I had to hold on to the walls of the bathroom stall to keep the world upright. I knew what I wanted to say, but the words came out slurred and broken.
There’s a very good chance that I was severely hypoglycemic, Lucas says. Confusion between the symptoms of low blood sugar and alcohol intoxication is common. That hard paddling on that first day would have depleted my glycogen reserves, and I was unable to replenish them fast enough. It’s likely that this situation resolved itself as my body switched over from carb-burning to fat-burning mode, and my blood sugar was allowed to slowly recover. (Lucas says suddenly standing up after a day of sitting could have contributed to dizziness and disorientation as well.)
I can’t imagine chasing the feelings produced by either the hallucinations or the hypoglycemic stupor. The hallucinations were interesting but not all that pleasurable; the drunkenness was disorienting but lacked the giddiness and unselfconsciousness of alcohol intoxication. But the endorphin euphoria? Maybe, just maybe, you could get hooked on that.
Exercise addiction is a real and serious thing, but it’s fairly rare. One British study found just 3.6 percent of people they surveyed at community fitness centers were at risk of exercise addiction given their behaviors and attitudes toward exercise. The aforementioned Brazilian study found evidence of exercise dependence in the 17 athletes it examined, but these were elite competitors, the best in their country. Most Yukon River Quest participants strike me as a different sort of breed.
The average Yukon River Quest participant isn’t in it for the competition, at least ostensibly; the vast majority of entrants say they’re racing to finish and have fun. Very few give a specific goal in terms of time or rank. And for those who do offer a time goal, it’s more often than not the nebulous and cheeky “make it in time for last call at the bar,” which, for the record, is a hugely ambitious goal that few teams accomplish. (How many among those opt for a beer over a nap once they get there is uncertain.)
This falls in line with other research into adventure race participants. One study found that 61 percent of participants in the Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge were business managers who saw themselves as part of “new” corporate culture. That is to say, in their work lives they emphasized teamwork over hierarchy, collaboration over competition. Just as this new business ethos emerged as a rejection to traditional corporate structures, adventure racing exists in opposition to the traditional values of sport, the researchers posit. With adventure racing, goals based on time and rank are de-emphasized and the focus is instead on teamwork and personal challenge. The interview subjects mostly saw the sport as a preferred leisure activity and a means to test personal limits.
When we speak colloquially of exercise addiction, we usually mean something that looks sort of like addiction, but without the bad parts. It’s a point of pride to be an “adventure addict,” not a point of shame.
This makes sense to me. The top veteran competitors of the River Quest don’t strike me as exercise junkies, but as highly efficient paddling machines. Pat, a 60-year-old eight-time Quest veteran and frequent top-finisher, volunteered a couple hours of her time to walk my teammates and me through her routine before our race. She’s a high school teacher and a nutritionist—petite and fit. Nothing about her gives the impression of someone with addictive tendencies. She’s calm and calculated—a formidable athlete.
When we speak colloquially of exercise addiction, we usually mean something that looks sort of like addiction, but without the bad parts. It’s a point of pride to be an “adventure addict,” not a point of shame. Participating in the Yukon River Quest feels at times like being on drugs, but the impact on the lives of participants is, I believe, overwhelmingly positive.
Those elite Brazilian athletes? The ones that researchers found were addicted to exercise based on an established scale? Even they showed no evidence that their dependence had negatively affected their mood and quality of life. The authors hypothesize that exposure to natural environments might bring enough positive feelings to counteract the potential negative aspects of compulsive exercising.
And here’s the truth of the Yukon River Quest: It’s not so extreme after all. With the right training and preparation, just about any able-bodied person could do it in relative comfort. There are high highs and lows lows, but for the most part, you’re just paddling. As Lucas points out, once our bodies shift into fat-burning mode, we are able to continue for much longer than you might expect—as long as you manage to avoid injury. Our bodies are designed for endurance, designed to keep going. Adventure racing is not designed to chase the highs but to test that limit.
My team and I finished the race—in the middle of the pack, 68 hours after we set off from Whitehorse—to an anti-climatic end. We were close to hypothermia after a long, hard night in the rain. We were so exhausted we could barely function, and there wasn’t much of a welcome party to greet us at quarter-to-eight in the morning on that gray Saturday. We no longer felt any strong interest in each others’ company, and fanned out as quickly as we could toward warm showers and beds.
"Would you do it again?"
It’s the question a rookie paddler hears most after her first race. My teammates mostly answered with a qualified “yes.” None of us ended the race already planning the next one, but all would entertain the possibility. One said she’d prefer to be on a team that was in-it-to-win-it next time. Another said she’d only join a team if its members were committed to more frequent breaks. As for me, sure, I’d do it again. I’d want it to be a new challenge—surviving three days in a canoe with a loved one, maybe, or going solo in a kayak. Doing it again in the relative safety and comfort of a voyageur canoe just doesn’t seem hard enough to be worth it anymore.
Lead Photo: Jacqueline Ronson and her team paddling in Canada's Yukon River Quest. (Photo: Elise Giordano)