Four hundred forty-four miles, three days, two paddles, one mighty river: sounds like an incredible (and crazy) adventure, doesn't it? The Yukon River Quest, the World's Longest Annual Paddling Race, certainly is an adventure of legendary proportions. This grueling test of endurance is not for the weak or inexperienced. It is no wonder that ultra paddlers from all over the world choose the "Race to the Midnight Sun" as their test of skill, strength, and perseverance. One must have grit, determination, and juuuust enough craziness to voluntarily sign up AND pay for the pleasure of paddling for three long and challenging days and nights on this historically significant river route that runs through the traditional territories of five Yukon First Nations. This week's Body Physics Endurance Coaching Featured Athlete, and Yukon River Quest Finisher, Mike Lauterbach, clearly has plenty of all three. Here's his story.
Mike's paddling adventure begun in the "Land of 10,000 Lakes." Attending the St Cloud State University in St Cloud, Minnesota, he met a few guys who introduced him to the active lifestyle. Since then, the paddling--and the friendships he continues to cherish--have become an integral part of his life. His passion for the sport is palpable... and contagious! In fact, his enthusiasm has even affected his brothers. The siblings have either become his support crew during the long-distance events or, in case of Nathan, his usual partner during the grueling races, paddlers themselves.
While he never raced during college, soon enough, Mike was ready for the challenge and begun looking for something, as he put it, "cool and crazy to do." Eventually, he stumbled across the welcoming and supportive subculture of canoeing ultra athletes, and he was hooked.
His first event, the Missouri River 340, took him from Kansas City to St Louis. The race featured only two rules: no rowing and the declaration that whoever gets to the finish line first, wins! Since, as Mike joked, "you can't die on the Missouri River," the participants are allowed to paddle at night and without stopping. While the race has a cut off time of 88hrs, the winners have been known to finish in 35-40hrs. The first year Mike and Nathan did the event, they completed the route in 58 hrs. A "complete suffer-fest" for the relatively seasoned team of brothers, Mike recalls the race was brutal, with"sunburned Newbies in plastic kayaks, shells of human beings, who would paddle three strokes and give up again." Despite the apparent difficulty, two days after the race, both he and Nathan were ready to do it again!
The second time around, the duo finished in 48hrs placing them11th in men’s tandem. This accomplishment was made even more impressive by the fact that Nathan, a former special forces medic, was deployed to Afghanistan for six months and returned home a mere month before the race. Having no real opportunity to train after coming back since he didn't own a boat, the first time he took hold of a paddle was the morning of the event. Yet again, the race pushed them to their limits: Mike recalls that, afterward, both he and Nathan could not recollect anything that happened for a period of about 3-4 hrs. While those hours seemed to be entirely gone from their awareness, they did remember the hallucinations, which started by the second night. Laughing, Mike tells the story of an athlete who not only saw a tractor in the middle of the river but seemed to have also collided with it!
After completing a few other races, the duo was ready for something even "crazier." The Yukon River Quest--longer, more rugged, and with the added challenge of a big lake paddle without the assistance of the current--seemed like the perfect option. The race, beginning in Whitehorse, 300 miles as the crow flies from Juneau, Alaska, and running North to Dawson City, follows the old gold rush stampeders' route. It features breathtaking scenery through ancient woods, still untouched by humans; a pristine lake so large it can create its own weather systems; and a sun that never completely sets, bathing the silent landscape in a magical twilight even in the dead of night. In a word: paradise.
While the vision was romantic, the race itself was anything but. Mike recalls the unmerciful journey over the lake: "We were not ready for it. After starting at noon, we got to the lake at 3 pm, and that's when things got interesting. A storm rolled through and, suddenly, we had 3-4ft swells coming at us from all different directions. Nathan was getting seasick. Eventually, we got through it, but it was harder than I expected." Luckily, the waves did not get into the boat due to the canoe spray deck, which was a requirement for this race.
After fighting the massive, 31-mile long Lake Laberge's weather for hours, the brothers made it safely to the other side by 11 pm... and still had about 120 miles to go before the first mandatory rest stop! As Mike explains, "You race for 24hrs, stop for 7, race again for 20, have a 3hr stop, and then do another 10hr run." It's no wonder this race is such a treat for the elite paddler. "These guys are REALLY tough, especially the Canadians and the guys on the Stand Up Paddle (SUP) Boards like the legendary Bart de Zwart with whom we paddled for a bit of the race." However, it is not enough for the participants to be physically tough and mentally resilient. They must also be prepared to be self-sufficient (sometimes going hours without seeing anyone else) and be able to navigate by map and GPS. This feat can prove tricky when the extreme exhaustion of paddling for countless hours sets in. Mike recalls, "the third night, we missed a turn and ended up in a maze of channels followed by another kayaker. Eventually, we got out, but we lost him along the way. I guess he'll never follow Wisconsin paddlers again!"
When asked about his training plan, Mike laughs: "My strategy was to let Nathan do all the work, because he's so tough, and I'd sit in the back and just rudder. But it didn't work out that way." Instead, Mike realized he needed to train better so he could get as strong as his brother. He also knew that the race was earlier in the year than his usual ones, so there was a limited amount of time available for training. Fortunately, Mike found Coach Tom to help him with the "dry land" training. Coach Tom provided him with a "structured program" that included workouts on a SkiErg and a Rower throughout winter as well as paddling intervals once he could go outside.
The assigned drills and workouts not only took the guesswork out of the training but "really made a difference" when it came to both the Yukon River Quest and the Birkie, the cross-country skiing race that Mike participated in earlier in the year. Moreover, as a busy lawyer with his own practice, a husband and father, Mike appreciated having the accountability of a Coach, "When you have it on your phone, you just DO IT. You get up at 5 am to get it done." Lastly, he felt that because he was training smarter and with more structure, not just longer, he was able to avoid injuries and having to take time off.
Between the smart training and proper food and hydration strategy that included real food like PB&J roll-ups, turkey sandwiches, fruit snacks, as well as salty options, neither Mike nor Nathan felt significantly depleted during the race and eventually finished fourth (out of 22) in men's tandem and 27th (out of 125) overall. As Mike recalls, "we were in front of the middle pack but really pulled away that second night due to the training."
While Mike has a few smaller races coming up later this month, including a 6hr one on the Mississippi River in his surfski, and is already excitedly planning improvements for next year's Quest (and the Birkie), it seems his heart remains somewhere on the Yukon River, "It was the most brilliant thing I've ever done..."
Written by: Marta Dolan