Running the North Pole Marathon

Posted By on May 23, 2017 in Columns | 0 comments


The North Pole Marathon – Thierry Cohen

First some facts.

Barneo camp {where the marathon starts} is set up anew every year on the day of the spring equinox, 21st of March, when the sun finally rises above the horizon after having remained unseen for 6 months.

From a plane, the Russian camp leader scours the ground, or rather ice floes, around the North Pole looking out for the perfect location to set up camp. Once the location is determined, a group of 50 Russian paratroopers skydive off the plane, together with a tractor, and begin creating the runway from which an Antonov cargo plane will be freighting supplies and people to and from the town of Longyearbyen 1,300 kilometres away. It will take 2 weeks to flatten the ice for an 800 meter strip and set up Barneo camp with 10 kerosene heated tents.

All types of scientists and adventurers from around the world will start arriving at the camp from 5th of April until the camp is dismantled around the 23rd of April. By this time the ice will be less than 2 meters deep making the risk of ridges and breaks forming along the runway and camp too perilous to maintain camp.

Contrary to Antarctica, there isn’t a pole on the North Pole because it is not a fixed piece of land but lies instead on a cap of frozen seawater floating on the top of the Arctic Ocean. The size of the ice cap has been shrinking every year but is still 14.5 million square kilometres (Europe is 10 million square kilometres). It moves constantly with the currents and so although the camp was set up at 90 degrees, by the time we ran the marathon the camp had moved to around 88.6 degrees.

We start our journey by flying to Oslo and then Longyearbyen which at 78 degrees is the northernmost town in the world. For the next 5 days we will have sunlight for 24 hours a day which is at first completely surreal but it quickly grows on you. The white landscape is picture post card perfect and you can take day trips on a snowmobile exploring this untouched land— well, untouched except for polar bears which is why everyone moves around with a rifle on their back. It is illegal to kill polar bears in Norway but the rifle shots scare them away.

There were 54 runners this year which meant that we were brought to the North Pole in 2 shifts as the Antonov 74-TK-100 can only carry 28 passengers at a time. With each trip, the plane is loaded with supplies including kerosene, food, medicine and all of our luggage. IATA would have a field day checking the number of safety rules broken… Thank goodness we didn’t encounter turbulence as one of those kerosene drums would surely have hurtled across our heads…There are 4 people in the cockpit including a navigator who alternates between playing a game of solitaire on his iPad and controlling his navigational instruments straight out of a WW2 bomber airplane.

I’m in the second group and we land at the North Pole Barneo camp at 21:00. It is difficult to describe the mixture of emotions you feel when getting off the plane. The excitement of finally making it to the North Pole, the nervousness before embarking on what is definitely going to be a very difficult marathon, the shock of taking a breath going from +20 degrees in the plane to – 30 outside. And when you finally set foot on the ice, it feels like you are setting foot on the moon, a land as far away and as unwelcome as possible to human life. You take in the surroundings of no plant life, white snow and ice all around you, a horizon visible for 360 degrees, the sun just above it, minus 30 degrees temperature and a group of 10 tents around you with no other form of life visible.

When the plane takes off 30 minutes later, you hope that the plane will be able to land again to pick you up–last year the group got stuck for 6 days as a crack had formed on the runway and the Russian paratroopers had to be sent in again to build a new runway!

The novelty of the experience is quickly brought to an end as the North Pole marathon organiser announces that its 9 pm and since the conditions are good (-31 and little wind), the race is going to start at 22:30. Apparently the concept of having a good night’s sleep before running a marathon is a luxury reserved for wimps! We quickly get into our assigned tents and take out our gear to get ready. We are 10 to a tent and each have a sleeping bag placed on a metal base 50 cm off the frozen ice. Although the tents are very well heated, I left my water bottles on the floor only to find them frozen a few hours later.

We are informed that the course is 3.2 kilometres long and we are to run it 13 times. We try to wear the bare minimum so as to minimise sweat, which will freeze and easily cause hypothermia.
So for the legs I have a base layer and a wind shell. For the upper body, I have a base layer, a thin but warm fleece and a very light wind breaker. For the hands, a thin glove liner and huge mitts. The shoes are the usual trail shoes. The face needs to be completely covered including goggles against the wind and sun and I put anti-frostbite cream on my cheeks for extra measure. 5 people weren’t as lucky as I was and ended the race with slight frostbite on their toes, fingers or face which was clearly very painful.

At 22:30 we set off to the start line but are made to wait about 6 minutes before the race starts as we get everyone ready. That’s enough time to get my feet and hands frozen stiff by the time we start. As we set off, my heart was pounding with excitement, quickly putting me out of breath.

The first 800 meters is the easy part where the ice/snow has been flattened out for the runway. But then you turn left into the raw arctic landscape and for the next 2.4 kilometres of that lap, you place each foot on the ground unsure of whether its ice, hard snow or soft snow. The goggles start fogging up from the warmth of your breath, first at the top of the goggles and slowly moves down so that you end up lifting your chin up to try and see where you’re going. When the goggles became completely foggy, I gave up and took my goggles off. After 5 minutes, tears were coming down my face and immediately turned into little ice droplets that became thicker and heavier. I closed one eye and it got completely frozen shut until I could warm them with my hands but then my hand got frozen from being out of the thick mitt! In any case, after the third lap my eyes were hurting so much from the sunlight reflection that I had to force myself to run with goggles throughout the rest of the race.

We started the race at temperatures of -31 but this quickly dropped to – 40 ( -54 taking into consideration the wind chill factor) Three laps in and my stomach and lower back were frozen so I tried sticking “foot warmers” onto my tummy to warm up but I don’t think they worked.

Worse than the cold, however, was the terrain. The more everyone ran on the path, the more the iced snow became soft until it was at times 20 cm deep and felt like running on sand. By the time I had run 16 kilometres, all the energy in my legs was gone. As anyone who prepares for a marathon will know, running 20, 25 or even 30 kilometre long runs in training can be a little tough but you still have energy left, so running out of energy with still another 26 kilometres to go was a huge mental shock.

At around the 21 kilometres point, I placed my foot in mid-calf deep soft snow which made me hurtle to the ground face first for the 3rd time. As my face lay snuggly nestled in the soft snow the thought, “WTF was I thinking”, rang as clearly through my brain as the turquoise water of the Caribbean I dreamt of soaking my aching body in!

By then it was clear that mental strength was going to be a lot more important for this marathon than physical strength. I lifted myself up and finally understood that there was plenty of energy for the taking all around me. The location was surreal, spiritual.

As I looked at the 360 degree horizon I could feel myself literally running at the very top of an earth suspended in mid air hurtling across space, tilted just at the right angle so that the sun could do a perfect circle just above the horizon.

I calculated that I only had another 4 odd hours left to experience this magical moment and that gave me the necessary strength to keep going, one footstep after another, making an ice crunching sound that I can still hear in my ears today.

I stopped 9 times out of the 13 laps, drying my goggles, 3 times changing all my clothing gear, refilling my body with water, energy bars and drinks and using the toilet facilities that are best left with minimum description. Towards the last 3 laps I was more in a trance than anything else. But the feeling of crossing the finish line 7 hours and 46 minutes later was exhilarating. It was just past 6 am and I had been awake for 24 hours, having run for the whole night. The last time I was out all night was when I was in my 30’s….

Later on during the day, we were shuttled onboard two helicopters in search of the true geographical north of 90 degrees. They dropped us off a 89.9 and we walked the rest. We walked in a circle around the North Pole, thereby crossing all the time zones in 1 minute!

Back at the camp, after some refreshing shots of Russian Vodka, we undressed and threw ourselves into an outside bath literally filled with chunks of ice that had to be broken up with a pick so that we could dip in the water. Can’t be done without vodka!

For sure a crazy challenge to put oneself through but one I would encourage anyone who craves for a crazy, unique and spiritual adventure. Registrations of the 2018 North Pole marathon are now open….

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