It is with great pride that I am able to say that I have finished the North Pole marathon. It has got to be the toughest marathon in the world, when you add the temperatures, the wind and the underfoot conditions together it is an endurance test right from the first step.No amount of preparation for the conditions can replicate what you encounter at the North Pole.
We headed up to the pole on April 11th, having been delayed due to poor weather for 48 hours. This I suppose is to be expected when you are dealing with such remote locations. Our plane up to the North Pole was a Russian cargo plane with some seats fitted, it was a mad, but in some weird way the plane adds to the whole experience.There are no flight attendants, no safety briefings, no overhead baggage areas or gizmos for controlling your light and temperature!
The flight takes about 2 and half hours to get from 78 degrees to 89/90 degrees, from the appearance of the plane you would imagine the journey to be bumpy but it was the opposite, that is apart from the landing, I have to admit I was freaking out a little with the thought of landing a jet on ice!, it just sounds like it is not possible, the landing is hard and fast, the Autonov jet we were on can stop in less than 800m, which is amazing when you consider the weight of it. Stepping off the plane was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, it is just pure beauty, you can see brilliant white right out to the horizon and the sky is a clear blue, I was so grateful to be there and experience the top of the world.
Arriving at Camp Barneo https://youtu.be/vW_xzdhd110
Camp Barneo is a Russian camp that drifts on an ice flow each year, it is home to all kinds of expeditions and it was our home for about 36 hours, the tents are surprisingly comfortable with a bunk bed for each person and they are pumped with heat, which after a while becomes bleedin roasting, you don’t need a sleeping bag..
We had a race briefing from Richard and then we got ready for the start, the race kicked off at 1:15, just while I mention time, there is no real concept of time on this trip, there is no night and the schedule is very much dictated by the weather, you find yourself having to seriously think about what day it is or what time it is, if you are prepared to let go of schedule and enjoy the experience no matter what mishaps come your way, then you will be fine and you will enjoy it, if on the other hand you want everything to go as planned, don’t do this race.
So I kick off in the top half of the runners, I immediately realise that this is going to be tough, the course was about 3.5Km and the first 1KM was probably the toughest in the beginning, I say in the beginning because the toughest part changed as the race went on. The underfoot conditions are impossible, you never have the same foot placement-ever! for 42.2KM’s, you go into deep snow, you go up and down small hillocks, you go for what looks like a hard patch and suddenly realise it was a soft one. First lap my goggles freeze, I am afraid to lift them up in case my face starts to freeze but I had no choice, I lifted them up and ran for about 1KM with no cover on my eyes, I pulled down my buff and lifted my face mask. Stopped at the tent after that lap and dropped the goggles for sunglasses, I drank same electrolytes and back out , not a long stop but enough for me to realise that I had heated up a bit, I headed back out and continued for 2 more laps without stopping, I started to notice that I was getting cold so on lap 3 I was back in the tent, whipped off my wind breaker and changed my base layer, more electrolytes, some “nakd” chocolate bar and then back out, I decided to stay out for 3 laps, I was feeling fine from an energy perspective but on lap 5 I started to feel the cold again, I stayed out until the half marathon distance and then headed back into the tent.
When I took off my jacket, I could see that my mid layer was frozen and the inside of my jacket had ice all over it, I had some pain in my lower back, just at my kidneys, I also had damp feet, I asked the doc to take a quick look at the back, he asked me to wait for the redness to go down before going back out and to also get changed. Took on a Derolyte and some more “nakd” chocolate. I headed over to my tent to get changed, I still had some pain in my lower back but it was not that bad.
Trying to get changed was hilarious, when I bent down or stretched to put on dry socks my legs would cramp, I was jumping up and down off the bunk trying to get socks on for about 20 minutes, it was ridiculous!, eventually I was all kitted out and ready for the off again, I had to control my pace and be a lot more cautious for the second half, I was concerned about overheating and the mid layer freezing again and causing me a serious issue with the kidneys.
I stayed out for 6 laps without going back into the tent, I was not thirsty or hungry and because I was going so slow I was feeling fine temperature wise, I really enjoyed those last 6 laps, I spent a lot of the time thinking about what an amazing achievement this was and how a man from East Wall in Dublin can end up on top of the world running a marathon.
I finished the race in great form, I was delighted to be done and delighted to raise the Irish flag across the finish line. it is definitely the hardest marathon that anyone will ever run, actually running is required for this race but more important than the ability to run is the ability to perceiver, it is an endurance test like no other.
The conditions that you have to endure are extraordinary, -30 temp with a wind chill dropping this to -41, the route becomes more difficult as you progress through the laps due to the snow softening up from all of the runners. In terms of clothing and protective gear, I would recommend getting your hands on the UVU branded clothing, all of the participants who had this brand appeared to not have any issues with freezing or having to change or dry clothes in the tent. From a preparation point of view my opinion on this is to forget about trying to adapt to the cold or underfoot conditions, spend more time building up miles, get yourself into as best shape as possible for the run, I was very happy with my fitness level going into it and I needed all of the increased mileage I had done, the fridge training is of very little use, and sand training is not the same as running on snow, it is close but the unpredictable and ever changing snow track is impossible to replicate. Using the fridge gave me an idea as to what the clothes would feel like but it does not compare to the temperature or environment at the North Pole.
If you are planning on taking this epic journey and running the UVU North Pole marathon, here are some key points;
Book fully flexible air tickets
Book your hotel right through, even pay for an extra night at the end of the schedule
Have a positive attitude and don’t get stressed if there are delays, your going to the top of the world, its remote and the weather changes quickly.
Bring at least 4 litres of water with you on the plane to the pole
Bring plenty of food with you to the North Pole, dried food, pot noodles, quick oat tubs, snacks and treats!
Have 3 sets of base layers
Don’t use waterproof socks, this was one of the best pieces of advice I had, the water proof socks don’t let any moisture out, which is not good when running a marathon
I used Saucony Peregrine trail shoes, a sock liner and wool outer socks, I did not have any feet issues.
Use a good quality face mask and a good buff pulled down over your head and to the eye brows, I had issues with goggles and sunglasses freezing, its a pain in the arse.
Limit your visits to the tent, I found this caused me issues with heat, on my first visit in there I spent too much time sorting out goggles and clothes, this resulted in too much sweat which then froze when I went back out, laps 3-6 where a nightmare because of this and it caused me to get a lot of pain on my right side just at the kidney, my skin was a bright red in that area and there is still some discomfort after 3 days. I think this was also the cause of my cramping problem.
Just to be a little patriotic for a minute, this race is entirely organised by some Irish guys, Richard Donavon the founder of Polar Running adventures and Ferghal Murphy. On a number of occasions I thought to myself how cool it was that all of these people from around the world are being brought to run a marathon at the North Pole by my fellow countrymen, they should be given the key to Galway!
To close, I want to take my companion Dave, he was great company and I really enjoyed getting to know him, he was brilliant at reorganising our plans to ensure we had hotel rooms and flights etc, we had laughs and great chats and even enjoyed a movie together!. Dave ran a brilliant race, he is one tough gentleman..
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