“On the coldest nights I’ve climbed a 750m mountain called Croagh Patrick and slept in my bivy in the ruin of an old church; much to my annoyance temps only hit -10º C! So not quite the -25º C I’ve been after”
Gavan Hennigan is from Galway, Ireland, where he lives. For his day job he works as a Saturation Diver in the North Sea, and this involves living in a pressurised chamber for 28-days at a time. He spends between 100-150 days a year under pressure to depths of 200m. He’s also the part owner of Irish clothing company Emerald Surf Wear. You can follow his amazing travels here.
Q. Gavan, you’re clearly a keen outdoors man, how does running fit in with your other activities?
A. Due to the nature of my job and living environment inside a small chamber I don’t get to run very much apart from around the seabed of the North Sea, so when I do get out I love more than anything to get out for a run. Running has always been the baseline to everything I do.
Q. Have you done or ever thought about doing an Ultra until recently?
A. Not really, I’ve been to the Alps a few times to trail run, but never thought of racing or entering an event. With my job I can´t really train very much specifically for a race.
Q. Tell us a bit about this race?
A. The 6633 Ultra is a 352.64 Mile/566km winter ultra marathon in the Canadian Arctic. It’s a self-sufficient race, held over 8 days; athletes must carry all their supplies with them in a sled or ‘pulk’. There are checkpoints on average every 40 miles.
Q. Why is it called 6633?
A. The race starts at Eagle Plains, 500 Miles north of Whitehorse (Yukon), after mile 23 it crosses into the Arctic and the longitude/latitude is 66º 33º, hence the name 6633 Ultra.
Q. What’s the rough breakdown of distance per day? Or do the days vary considerably?
A. Basically you need to get 43 miles done everyday, it’s 350 miles total and the cut off is 8 days. That’s what makes this so hard because of the time constraints and amount of rest you can take, because of the nature of the race and pulling the pulk, racers will end up mostly walking.
Q. Why does it appeal to you?
A. It appeals because it’s a small race, with about 30 taking part, and also because of the extreme environment coupled with the landscape in that region. I’m just really excited to get up there and experience the place.
I’ve been to the Yukon before as well as Alaska, Antarctica and Svalbard (Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean) so I love frozen wildernesses. I suppose in a roundabout way it’s going to be a great way to see the northern lights as they are expected to be strong up there too! Another big reason why this appeals to me is the fact that it’s more about being able to finish than anything else.
Q. How did the idea to partake come about?
A. I read about the race in the Daily Telegraph – the 7 hardest races on the planet. So this has been on my radar for a couple of years but due to my work I could never have enough time to prepare. But last December we found out work would be quiet until April so I jumped at the chance, knowing I would have 4 months to train full time for it.
Q. How does it compare to endurance challenges you’ve undertaken in the past?
A. It compares to nothing so far as I don’t race or take part in organised events! I’m a keen backcountry snowboarder, so I’ve spent a lot of time winter camping in far out places under my own steam; I’ve spent 1 week camped in temps around -25º C in Northern British Columbia.
Q. Is it completely self-sufficient or are tents etc. transported for you?
A. We carry all our supplies with us - food, bivouac, survival shelter, stove - and are allowed 2 drop bags along the way. The checkpoints provide shelter and hot water, but when the say shelter it’s usually a highway depot, so imagine sleeping in between snowploughs and trucks!
Q. Which charity are you raising money for?
A. I’m raising money for Cancer Care West in Galway, Ireland. They’re a great support to cancer patients and their families, they provide a house where patients travelling from all over the west of Ireland can stay while getting treatment.
Q. Tell us about your training regime for the 6633?
A. Well, I’ve been out walking a lot! Many 10-12 hour days around the back roads of Galway. I’ve also done 136 miles in one go as a sort of test, during a cold spell in February.
Q. When did you start the training?
A. I started in December full time.
Q. Any special training techniques to prepare for the cold?
A. On the coldest nights I’ve climbed a 750m mountain called Croagh Patrick and slept in my bivy in the ruin of an old church on top of it; much to my annoyance temps only hit -10º C! So not quite the -25º C I’ve been after.
But I was lucky enough to spend a day in the Glaxo Smithkline Human Performance Lab in London. I will be using a cognitive testing app while in the Arctic to help further research into the affects of the cold and fatigue on brain function. They have an enviro lab there and I spent a few hours on a treadmill at -25º C.
Q. Have you undertaken any other races in preparation for this?
A. This weekend I will be doing a half marathon mountain run, but nothing else other than that.
Q. Any ideas for future challenges?
A. I’m full of ideas for things to do, but there isn’t enough time for me on this planet. My dream challenge would be to sea kayak between the Aleutian Islands off Alaska and snowboard the volcanoes.
Q. What would be your dream endurance event?
A. Well, I need to get this one done first but the Iditarod Invitational really appeals to me, 1000-mile self-sufficient race following the historic Iditarod sled dog race across Alaska.
Thanks, Gavan! And the best of luck to you!