Charlotte Brockman runs the Susitna 100 in 2023.

Building resilience; Charlotte Brockman tackles 100-mile Arctic ultra

Charlotte Brockman doesn’t like running all that much. And she hates the cold “more than anything.” But when she was overcome with a sense of restlessness this summer she figured she had two options: Catch up on decades worth of TV or train for an Artic ultramarathon.

She chose the latter.

“I thought, well, I can use that to plan big long weekends and adventures with some sort of objective, challenge and motivation behind them — not just killing time,” Brockman says. “The thought of that always hits me with a bit of fear.”

Brockman, 36, grew up in Saskatoon and moved to Yellowknife last spring for work. The first few months in her new home were full of exploring and discovering new things. Then the homesickness hit.

“I knew I had a really long winter to get through, so I explored my options mentally,” she says.

Brockman started running trail ultras in 2014 when she signed up for an 84-kilometre trail race while on holiday in the Canary Islands. “I don’t like running all that much, but I like gravity pulling me down and I don’t mind hiking hills,” she explains.

Charlotte Brockman, left, and her sister at the Susitna 100.
Charlotte Brockman, left, and her sister at the Susitna 100.

The following fall, she ran Saskatchewan’s Beaver Flat 50. “That’s what hooked me,” Brockman says. “There’s such an amazing trail running community and I discovered them through Beaver Flats … I realized ‘Oh my gosh, my people exist in Saskatoon.'”

In the years that followed, Brockman ran a handful of technical mountain trail ultras in warm locales — including Croatia and Malibu — and had been training for her first 100-mile race in 2020 before the pandemic shut everything down.

So in the summer of 2022, Brockman committed to once again training for a 100-miler and convinced her sister to join her. The pair signed up for the Susitna 100 — a 100-mile race in Alaska in February 2023.

“It kind of got me excited for snow. I was apparently the only one in Yellowknife who was excited about how early it got snowy in October,” Brockman says.

The Susitna 100 is a wilderness race that runs through forest and along frozen lakes. While there are aid stations with warming tents, there are no opportunities to leave drop bags and competitors must carry their own gear and food, usually in a sled. The race website warns of rapidly changing weather, rivers that overflow in all temperatures and the possibility of hypothermia.

So Brockman set about preparing herself. She ran to and from work and turned her weekends into winter camping adventures. Before winter arrived, she ran along the roads. Once temperatures plunged she ran across the frozen lakes, often with a sled in tow.

Views from the 2023 Susitna 100.
Views from the 2023 Susitna 100.

After looking at previous results, Brockman set a goal of completing the race in 30 hours, well under the 48-hour time limit. But as race weekend approached, the course was inundated with fresh, wet snow that would make pulling a sled challenging. “I still was naively thinking: OK, 35 hours, something like that,’ she recalls.

The temperature hovered around -10C when the race kicked off on Feb. 18, which Brockman describes as “quite balmy” compared to the -45C temperatures she’d left behind in Yellowknife. Despite having planned to run most of the course, she and her sister quickly realized it was often more efficient to walk with their sleds over the sticky snow.

Racers who miss cutoff times or drop out voluntarily are charged a US$200 evacuation fee to be taken back to civilization by skidoo or plane unless they get evacuated from the aid station at the 100-kilometre mark. Brockman fixated on that cost. “Really I just didn’t want to pay to not finish a race,” she says. “With $200 you can have a lot of fun for a day or two, you can sign up for another event with that fee.”

Brockman and her sister made it to the 100-kilometre aid station in 25 hours. That’s when Brockman’s sister accepted a free skidoo ride back to the start and Brockman set off to tackle the last 60 kilometres on her own.

“I kind of thought, well, I guess I have nothing else to do today. And we don’t have to check out of our Airbnb until noon on Monday so I might as well keep going,” she says.

The final 16 kilometres of the race were the toughest. Brockman had not planned to be out for two full nights and was exhausted. The course was hilly. She was wheezing and getting cold. She thought about dropping out at the last aid station and half hoped volunteers would tell her not to go on. Instead, they helped her strap on her sled.

Brockman made it to the finish in 44 hours and 21 minutes, making her one of only nine runners to complete the course.

If you had asked her then, Brockman would have said running an Arctic ultra was a stupid idea. But weeks have passed and now she’s not only grateful to have done the race, but is considering returning to the Susitna 100 with her sister next year.

“Everything that I do that’s tough and challenging, when I come out the other end of it, I honestly feel like I just gained another arrow in my quiver that I can pull out for resilience,” she says.

“This is going to be something that I will be forever changed by. I’m going to be leaning into this experience now when I’m doing other things that are hard — whether it’s a physical endeavor or even a hard time in life.”

In the meantime, Brockman is looking forward to some warmer races this summer. She’s lining up as part of a two-person team at the Sinister Seven Ultra in Crowsnest Pass, Alta. in July and has a number of other races on the calendar, including her second 100 miler in Switzerland in August, which will present its own unique challenges.

“I do now know I can stay awake for the duration — and happy I won’t have to pull a sled — but with 10km of vertical over the 100 miles, it will certainly be a huge challenge for me and I’m excited to see how I fare,” she says.