North Pole Marathon 2013
April 7th - 11th (Sunday - Thursday) 2013

Race Website <---> Race Results
My bib number was 22.

Race Photos by Mike King

Prologue
A number of years ago I decided there was no good reason to delay checking items off my bucket list. I had read about the North Pole Marathon in an adventure travel book some years prior and, at the time, thought it might be an interesting adventure to try one day. With a couple of other bucket list items successfully checked off, I was looking around for my next adventure and I recalled the North Pole Marathon. The timing was perfect and the idea of combining multiple Bucket List items into one outstanding trip was too good to pass up.

Since I have never been a runner and I don't mind pushing myself outside my comfort zone, I decided to sign up. I believed it would help me grow as a person. I figured that if I never run another marathon at least I would have done an epic one; and, I would have a story to tell.

I signed up for the race in June 2012. At the time, it seemed like such a long way away. As I learned more about the rigors of what is physically required to run a marathon, I knew I had my work cut out for me. Most participants were running their 100th race, or completing their Grand Slam, or supporting a charity. Many of my friends with whom I shared my plan, thought I was especially mental to make my first race attempt be this particular race. I was unfazed and undeterred by such comments. I was doing it and that is all there was to it.

Training
I began running in the summer. I would go for runs but no matter how much I stretched before hand I could never manage more than about five miles. My hips would start aching and force me to turn around. I knew something was not right, but I didn't know how to correct the problem. As fall approached the time available to train was dwindling. In passing one day I mentioned to a good friend the hip pain I was experiencing and how I thought maybe a chiropractor would help. She nixed this idea and instead put me in contact with a Yoga instructor she knew. After a brief phone conversation with this instructor I was pointed toward a book about living pain free through simple stretching to correct alignment issues. Within a week I was running farther and my every day hip pains were subsiding.

Book: Pain Free: A Revolutionary Method for Stopping Chronic Pain

Getting There
My flight itinerary went like this:
Seattle (SEA) --> Reykjavik (KEF) --> Oslo (OSL) --> Tromsø (TOS) --> Longyearbyen (LYR) --> Ice Camp Barneo

After a seemingly endless series of flights, I arrived in Longyearbyen, Svalbard on Sunday, April 7th. Thus began the period of the trip where the race organizers took over. I began meeting fellow race participants and started to get a feel for cold weather. Svalbard was a balmy -16C. We transferred to the Radisson Blu Hotel then had a few hours to ourselves before our race briefing that evening. The briefing covered what to expect over the next 48-72 hours. We heard about cold, we heard about damn cold, and we heard about bitter damn cold. We needed to bring our bags to the briefing room since they would be weighed and loaded on the plane that evening.

The following morning I woke early and laid in bed with thoughts and anticipation of the events to come. We had little to do on Monday but wait for our plane to depart. I was scheduled on the second flight, which would not leave until 4pm. Many of us sat around in the hotel sharing stories until the bus arrived to transport us to the airport. We boarded the chariot that would fly us to Ice Camp Barneo, a Russian Antonov 74. Upon boarding, we soon realized that none of the typical airplane safety briefings or usual accommodations would be provided. This was half cargo plane, half passenger plane. You knew it was time to go when they closed the door and the plane began to move. During the 2.5hour flight most of us were standing, chatting, and cheerful about what was to come. The closer we got to our destination, the more solemn people became. Again, there was no announcement that we were beginning our decent; just the throttle back of the engines and a sudden downward angle to signal you had better take your seat. We arrived at Ice Camp Barneo around 7pm Monday evening.


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Upon arrival we all gathered in the public mess tent for a briefing by the Russians about the camp and the rules. We got our tent assignments, dropped our gear, and waited for the start of the race. We were informed that once they had completed marking the course, the race would start around midnight. Dinner consisted of fish and mashed potatoes, and then we started to get prepped for the race.

  • Woke up in Longyearbyen at 07:00 Monday
  • Arrived Barneo 19:00 Monday
  • Started the race at 00:30 Tuesday
  • Slept at 00:00 Wednesday
  • Departed Barneo 13:00 Wednesday

The Race
We all gathered in the mess tent around midnight for the pre-race briefing from Richard. Everyone seemed excited for the start of the event. We listened intently to the description of the course and what we should expect to encounter while running. With the briefing completed, we all migrated outside into the -30C night air and congregated at the start line for a pre-race group photo. A few snaps of the camera later we all stood in line and waited for the signal.

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This being my first race I had no illusions of keeping pace with the leaders of the pack. From the start I positioned myself near the back of the field and was quite comfortable to remain there. The first five laps were really excellent. The weather conditions were favorable and honestly rather enjoyable. I had never experienced cold like that. The air was still, the sun traveled straight across the horizon, and I was alone with my thoughts out on the course. The ever-present sound of crunching snow and ice under foot was the gentle background noise of the entire race.

The course was marked as a circuit around the camp with a lap being a smidgen under three miles. We were told the course was rather difficult in places, and true to their word the course had good bits and really terrible bits. The bulk of course was flat. The good bits were run on ice with 1-2 inches of powdery dry snow which felt exactly like running on a soft sandy beach. The terrible bits were deep snow drifts over hillocks of ice protruding from the landscape. Trying to run through those snow drifts completely zapped my strength. I learned to simply walk through those bits. On the back side of the course there was a really excellent section where the surface had been graded smooth. That section is where you could really pour on the speed and make up time. The final leg of the course, heading back into camp, was another terrible bit with snow drifts and powdery snow.

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I quickly realized that goggles were nearly useless during the event. Even with controlled breathing, a face mask, and ventilation my goggles simply iced over on the inside. Their use was abandoned shortly into the second lap. Without any wind blowing, exposing my face wasn't a problem at all. In fact, the balaclava worked better once it partially froze into a ridge shape that would stay on my nose. The thing I did not anticipate though was once the goggles were off, my breathing formed icicles on my eyelashes! Every ten minutes or so blinking would become difficult. While moving I would remove my mittens and use my fingers to thaw out my eyelashes and wipe the water away. This went on for the duration of the race.

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I brought two GPS data logger units with me on this trip. One I carried with me during the race and on excursions. The other I left stationary in my tent for the duration of my stay at Ice Camp Barneo. The above image shows the race course and my nine laps while the link above will open in Google Earth to show you the full set of GPS track data. In the roughly 40 hours I was at the camp the Arctic ice sheet drifted 13 miles!

My clothing for the race consisted of:
  • Two sets of base layers (legs and torso)
  • A torso mid-layer
  • Wind shell pants and jacket
  • Trail running shoes with Smartwool socks and toe sock liners
  • Mittens
  • A buff, balaclava, and beanie on my head

On the whole, for the first five laps I was comfortable. The jacket, however, did not breathe well which left me a sweaty mess quite early in the race. My feet were cool but not cold. My hands were sweaty hot in the mittens, my head was mostly warm, and my body was cool. So long as I continued moving I was fine. Since the event was a circuit race around the camp we were encouraged to stop at the mess tent after each lap. There were tables set up where we placed our individual food items and supplies. We also had access to an endless supply of hot water. I was stopping for 5-10 minutes between laps to warm up, eat, and drink. The doctors were on hand to check anyone showing signs of distress. The primary concern was possible frostbite injuries as well as general fatigue and exhaustion.

As I said, the first five laps were excellent. I kept a consistent pace and felt good. Lap six though, things changed. Somewhere around the halfway point, the furthest spot from camp, my core body temperature began to drop. The dampness of my base layers caught up with me I think. I began to really feel the cold, shivering a bit as I tried to keep pace. I labored through the rest of lap six and went immediately to my tent to change my clothing. Once in the tent I found several competitors who had already finished with their marathon. I sat down and started stripping out of my damp clothing. The base layer closest to my skin was remarkably dry so I kept that layer. I proceeded to put on my fleece pants and heavy outer pants, new socks, my insulated boots, the remaining mid-layer, my heavy down jacket, and different beanie. Much to my relief, I instantly started to warm up. With clothing sorted I walked over to the mess tent for hot tea and food. This pit stop was about 30min. At this point in the race the remaining field of runners were all pacing each other fairly consistently. My triple length stop allowed a few people to pass me.

As I set out on lap seven I was warm and comfortable in my fresh clothing. I tried to run but the weight and inflexibility of the boots made that difficult at best. I quickly decided to abandon running and simply walked the remaining three laps in comfort. From that point on, each new lap I was increasingly alone out on the course. Mentally lap eight was the most difficult. Setting out from camp you could see roughly half of the course in front of you and to the right. I saw no one ahead of me at the start of lap eight. Eventually I did see some people behind me, but I was very much running alone. I didn't mind the solitude, and actually enjoyed it to some degree. Being alone gave me time to really soak in the surroundings and contemplate where I was and what I was doing.

On lap nine I was up beat because every step brought me closer to the finish, and I knew I would never again pass by those black flags marking the course. I had become well acquainted with certain marker flags, often cursing them out loud as I passed. On the final lap I was able to curse them one last time while bidding them a fond farewell. As the finish line approached, I sucked up the will and ran the last fifty yards much to the cheers of the few people still waiting. I crossed the line with a time of 9:29hrs.

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During the race my running companion Robin dutifully soldiered on in my jacket pocket. Robin is a 2nd grade classroom mascot from a school I work with. Robin regularly hitches rides with people to travel all around the globe. Last year Robin accompanied me to Antarctica. This year Robin came with me to the North Pole and ran the marathon as well. I visited the class upon Robin's return and shared photos and Robin's story with the kids. It's a real treat for them and myself. I hope to take Robin on more adventures.

After the race, the Russians loaded us up in two helicopters and flew us to the geographic North Pole. This was roughly 30 miles away. While the weather at the camp had been calm and favorable for the race, the pole itself was blisteringly cold. We exited the helicopters to find the wind was just howling. It was difficult to even be outside let alone try and take pictures. Cameras didn't work well, batteries died quickly, and hands burned from being outside a glove to operate a camera. The barber pole was carried in the back of a helicopter along with an auger drill to allow the pole to be planted. Since the ice sheet drifts so quickly nothing can be permanently placed at the geographic pole. We all gathered around for a quick ring around the pole, and then posed for individual photos. I don't think we were at the pole more than thirty minutes, it was simply too cold to stay.

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On our return from the pole we found people packing for the first return flight to Longyearbyen. Even though the plane would be leaving soon, most of us bedded down for a few hours to try and rest a bit before dinner. Because the perpetual sun light really screws with your circadian rhythm, at best I dozed in and out for a couple of hours. After the plane left, my tent only had four people remaining.

When I arrived in the mess tent for dinner, the after race party had already begun. The table was one layer deep in empty cans of Russian Lager beer. After having subsisted on energy food during the race, the delicious chicken and rice dinner was wonderful! After our meal, and a second layer of empty cans, the real drinking commenced. One of the racers even brought a supply of plastic shot glasses. Much laughter and merriment was had until around midnight when the Russians kicked us out of the mess tent because some dignitaries were arriving soon. I, and the rest of my tent, packed it in and went to bed. Apparently one or more of the other tents proceeded with the after, after party.

Wednesday morning we gathered up our things, ate some breakfast, and awaited our departure. Time was spent quietly reflecting on the past two days events. Many of us wandered around outside getting final looks at the incredible environment we had found ourselves temporarily inhabiting. The wind was blowing that morning. It would have been extremely difficult to have had to run the race with the inclusion of wind. We really did have excellent conditions for our run.

Our flight departed Barneo to Longyearbyen at 1pm Wednesday afternoon. The flight was quiet and uneventful. Many of us slept. That evening we all gathered at the hotel for an awards ceremony, which, shortly after, migrated to the bar. We all chatted and drank into the wee hours of the morning when the bar closed and they kicked us out into the cold dusk-lit night. The following morning was spent packing and the parting of ways. Most of the participants, myself included, flew out on Thursday for the far-flung reaches of the globe.

When I signed up last June the race seemed so far away. Now it has come and gone.

As of this writing fewer than 300 people have participated in the North Pole Marathon. I feel privileged to have run such an epic and exclusive race for many reasons. I met some truly exceptional and dedicated people, I tested myself, expanded my personal experience; but most importantly, I feel I am a better person for it.

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