The North Pole Marathon

With temperatures of -25ºC to contend with, you'd do well to manage eight-minute-mile pace in the North Pole Marathon. But that won't impress the locals... the polar bears are much quicker


Posted: 15 August 2006
by Steven Seaton

"Going anywhere nice, Sir?" It was an innocent enough question, tossed out as small talk by the Heathrow security guard checking my running shoes for anything suspicious. "Yes, the North Pole." "I see... going for long are you?" "No, just the weekend."
"Right… and why are you going?" "I'm running a marathon."
I could tell by the look on his face that he didn't believe a word of it.

The Background

I signed up for the second running of the Red Moon North Pole Marathon in the middle of 2003. Since then, I'd been living the event in my mind and I'd become used to it. The basic absurdity of the idea had long since passed me by. I had convinced myself it was just another race, a point reinforced by the fact that it's not much more difficult to get to the North Pole than it is to, say, New York or Chicago. Two hours to Oslo, then four more to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.

The disbelief on the face of the security man was no real surprise. I was more troubled that the people I met in Longyearbyen were equally bemused by the idea. Longyearbyen, the archipelago's main town, is on Spitsbergen, the largest island and the transit point for expeditions and tourists heading to the Pole itself. Here an afternoon's entertainment is a snowmobile ride over a glacier with a rifle strapped to your back in case you run into one of the island's thousands of polar bears. These of all people should have appreciated this race. They didn't. In Longyearbyen you ski or snowmobile but you don't run.

From Spitsbergen, a worryingly old 50-seat Russian transport plane picked us up and dropped us beside Camp Borneo, an incongruously named floating ice camp a few miles from 90o north. The camp, our base for two nights and the site of the marathon, was a surreal place: half a dozen big red and yellow heated tents, manned by hard-drinking, fur-hatted clichés of the Russian male. A night cost $1100 a head, making it surely the world's most expensive camp site. Alongside the tents was the kilometre-long ice runway, prepared by a bulldozer and marked by a line of black bin bags filled with ice. The bulldozer sat on the other side of the runway between two large transport helicopters that could well have been relics of the Afghanistan war.

Even here, in this Wild West-like setting, where people spend weeks maintaining the camp and the aircraft while living on a diet of bad pasta, biscuits, and something that looked and smelt like home-made anti-freeze, they regarded us with far more sympathy than empathy. The idea of willingly stepping out into the wild white wilderness in nothing more than a set of thermals and a windproof jacket was beyond their comprehension.

The Race

Yes, everyone seemed to agree that a marathon near the North Pole was a pretty stupid idea. But that appeared to be the primary motivation for making the trip for the 15 who signed up to run. To add an extra element of unreality to the whole thing, the North Pole Marathon is put on as a very serious event: accurately measured, precisely timed and fiercely contested. It was the desire to make it a genuine race, rather than merely a ‘running experience' that convinced race organiser Richard Donovan to take the pragmatic step of switching the location of this year's marathon from the Pole itself to Camp Borneo.

Since the Arctic ice is constantly on the move, a marathon at the North Pole is a nebulous concept. You might start there but within minutes you've drifted away and with time limited by the helicopter's fuel, everyone would have to complete the race on a small loop course inside five hours. This time the main lap was just over three miles and skirted the visual perimeter of the camp, passing the tents (for drinks and kit changes) on each loop.

The appeal of such a race is not just the craziness of the concept but the environment you are living and running in. It is both alien and unique. The sun shines constantly, circling the clear blue sky at the same height whether midday or midnight. There is nothing on the horizon in every direction but whiteness. Every footstrike is accompanied by a strange creaking as the sound of your feet hitting the ground echoes into the depths of the Arctic Ocean just a couple of metres below. Although there is no wind, and conditions were a relatively balmy –25oC when we stepped off the plane, the cold was still a shock, although insidious rather than immediate. You think you can cope, but even gloved hands quickly start to tingle and the fabric of your clothing turns cardboard-stiff as your body moisture freezes into the fabric.

Less than three hours after the plane had made its precarious landing on the ice, there was a line of pink flags circling the camp to mark the race route. The start banner was forced into two old oil drums and a few minutes after midnight the race was on.

The People

Although cheap by the standards of polar travel – the 2004 package for race entry, flights and accommodation from Longyearbyen was $8500 compared with $12,500 on other trips – it was still unquestionably an expensive running race. Perhaps that added extra incentive for all 15 runners to start and finish the race. Among the field were Sir Ranulph Fiennes, one of the world's most experienced polar-expedition leaders, and American Sean Burch, a martial arts expert who climbed Everest in 2003. There were just as many extraordinary, ordinary people in the field. Here are three of their stories.

Mark Pollock
Mark became the first blind man to run the North Pole Marathon after being guided around the course by John O'Regan in 5:51:48. The pair only started running together at the end of last year and O'Regan had no previous experience of being a guide.

"Six years ago I was about to complete my finals at Trinity College in Dublin, I was 22 years old and I was rowing internationally. Within the space of two weeks I went completely blind and I thought it was the end of everything. I carried on rowing to prove to myself that I could and won medals at the last Commonwealth Games. I took up running last year to do the Gobi March in China. After the heat of the desert this offered the other extreme.

"It was very easy sitting at home thinking about running a marathon at the North Pole, I always felt I was going to finish it, which I didn't with the Gobi. I thought the Arctic would be flat. In my mind it was all hard-packed ice. I didn't bargain for how rough and variable the terrain would be from one metre to the next. It takes a lot more effort for me to run on uneven ground, I have to lift my legs higher to avoid tripping.

"I also hadn't realised how cold the cold was. It isn't something that you can comprehend when you haven't been there. Living in the tents with eight other people while keeping track of your kit was hard, even simple things like going outside to the toilet tents was an effort.

"From the moment we stepped on the plane in Longyearbyen, I was totally reliant upon John. I found the whole experience quite difficult. Every time I'd say, ‘can you see where I've put my gloves', he'd be straight over. When we're in a stressful environment, we are both tired and if I have been asking him to do things for me for four or five days, it becomes difficult to keep asking. But I know, whatever it is, if I asked he would do it.

"Overall I was disappointed that we weren't more competitive. I can justify not being competitive because I'm not a runner, and I have an excuse because I can't see, but the truth is I didn't train hard enough for this. I am disappointed with myself that I didn't train as hard as I used to when I was a rower. But I wouldn't trade this experience for anything, it was unique."

Brent Weigner
After serving as the joint race director for the 2003 event, Brent Weigner, a geography teacher from Wyoming in the USA returned this year to focus purely on running. It worked because, as an experienced snowshoe runner, he finished fourth in 4:32:50.

"I first wanted to come to the North Pole to add it to the seven marathons and ultras I've run on seven continents. This was my 134th marathon. There is a romance to running in a place like this, but I love the craziness and outrageousness of this kind of thing. Running races is also a great excuse to travel.

"The limits people place on themselves are largely in their minds. Everyone has a disability of some sort and everyone is terminal. It's what you do with the bit in between that gives life meaning and substance. I have a different time line, because I celebrate every day.

"I had cancer when I was 12, but my parents never told me. I didn't know until I flunked my physical to join the Air Force. I have had cancer a couple of times since then but I've been clean since 1986. It gives me a desire to live every day and not to put things off. If I want to do something I go and do it, but there is no guarantee of tomorrow and while that's true of everybody, my experience is a little more real.

"Coming back to the North Pole defies explanation, not everything has to have a reason. I run for the same reason that birds fly and fish swim: because I can. I don't think there's any deep meaning behind it.

"This year was 100 per cent better than last year. The aid stations were there, the course was more interesting, the logistics were far superior and the competition was outstanding. It's not exactly luxury, but it's a luxurious experience compared with the conditions that people like Sir Ranulph Fiennes put up with when travelling to the Pole overland. This race environment was as safe as it can be in such an extreme place.

"But the safety is an illusion. This is still a very dangerous place. It's easy in extreme environments to become seduced by the siren song of nature. You have this sense of well-being because you feel blessed to be experiencing it and sometimes you let your guard down and you think you are in control. You are not.

"I have a poster in my room at school and it says you don't know how far you can go until you risk going too far. If people are looking for something a little different, this is a great adventure, which will push them further than they've ever been."

Fearghal Murphy
Fearghal was part of a contingent of eight Irishmen in the field. He and Paul Grealish were also two of four runners making their 26.2-mile debuts at this year's North Pole Marathon. They ran the distance together to finish in 5:47:02.

"Usually when someone from Galway wants to do a marathon they go to London, Dublin or New York," said Murphy. "We aren't runners and we'd only run one race before this but this was a great opportunity to do something different. I was very apprehensive about being at the North Pole. I was nervous about the weather, the fact that you are standing on top of an ocean, even polar bears.

"The moment we touched down, apart from the fact I was glad to get off that Russian plane, I felt a lot better about everything. The fear left. I knew what –25°C felt like and it helped that we were pretty much straight off the plane and then on with the race.

"I'd never worn snowshoes before but they weren't that bad. You have to focus on what's ahead, so you soon become oblivious to the snowshoes. Very early I was also wearing ski goggles but they fogged and iced up and I had to ditch them. With no eye protection there was frost and icicles over my eyes and nose. The temperature was tough, particularly the coldness on your face.

"It was a real struggle on the last two laps, Paul suffered early on and I helped him through, he had to do the same for me later. But I had visualised finishing this marathon again and again. When we turned onto the runway on the last lap and I could see the finish banner, that was a special moment that will stick with me for ever. It was everything that I expected.

"In truth, the race was just a small part of the overall trip. The marathon is the reason you are there. But it's also about being in that environment, standing at the North Pole itself the day after the race, living in and sleeping in those tents, drinking with the Russians and meeting and spending time with the other people on that trip. I'd loosely call it a holiday but it was probably the funniest holiday I've had in my life."

Post-race

Sean Burch, running in snowshoes for the first time, won the race in a surprisingly fast time of 3:43:17. Fiennes was a close second in 3:56:49 (he was just over ten minutes quicker the following week at the Flora London Marathon) with another British runner, Timothy Mitchell-Smith, third in 4:24:27. All 15 runners completed the course with the last runner crossing the finish in 20:21:32, although that did include a long sleep break in mid-run.

My favourite moment of the trip came the morning after the race. I boarded one of the Russian helicopters beside my bruised and badly hungover photographer (he'd fallen into the clutches of the Russians for a post-race anti-freeze celebration and had banged his head on a wooden bench as he fell over) to stand exactly on top of the world at the geographic North Pole. As we all trooped off the chopper to stand on a completely anonymous piece of ice, one of the Russian pilots followed with a spade slung over his shoulder. A quick debate ensued before he dug a hole, disappeared back into the helicopter and reappeared carrying a huge red and white pole with directional signs on top. This he proudly announced was the North Pole. It did occur to me that I might take it back for that security man at Heathrow, to prove I'd really been there.

The next North Pole Marathon will take place on April 7 2007, for details on how to win a place, click here.


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