Preface to the North Pole Marathon: Lonyearbyen



As I sit to start writing this a couple weeks after completing the North Pole Marathon I experience an odd sense of displacement. In one sense it seems only like yesterday and in another it could have been months ago. The more I contemplate this the more I realise that this strange form of the surreal is a result of the sudden switch from my very normal somewhat mundane day-to-day life to the world of extreme running and back again. And it does not get much more extreme than running a marathon 20 miles from the geographic North Pole in -41 centigrade.

My latest odyssey began on Easter Sunday when I journeyed to Longearbyan in the archipelago of Svalbard, where we were to congregate ready for a briefing on the evening of Tuesday 7th April, with the expectation of travel to the pole on Wednesday 8th, race Thursday 9th, back to Longyearbyan Friday 10th; chill out over the weekend and back to the UK on the Monday 13th. That was the theory. I had learned my lesson from the weather related delays in the Antarctic Odyssey and had built in extra time to allow for settling in time beforehand and delays. Schedules for these types of event will always be fluid and part of the experience is learning how to go with the flow and not sweat the small stuff.

Arriving in Oslo I quickly realised that the 7 hour stopover was going to be a costly affair in the country of the £10 pint, £5 cup of coffee and £6 sandwich; however, a lovely lady on the SAS desk suggested I pay for the use of the lounge.  That was not inexpensive either, but the lure of a quiet comfortable lounge with access to wifi, wine, beer, tea, coffee, and plentiful and varied snacks was just too tempting.  I paid up and spent the next 4 hours relaxing.

When I finally made my way to the gate for the onward flight to Longyearbyan it occurred to me that I may meet up with some of my fellow participants. I started to people watch in the hope of spotting a runner or two. This proved tricky as the flight seemed to consist of mainly sporty looking types. I eventually met Kate Richardson, who I overheard talking about the event with some other passengers.  Kate, director with The Travel Division works with Richard the race director arranging travel and logistics. She was undecided on whether or not she would run or join the support crew. After chatting for a while I learned that her arrangements had been made last minute and she was struggling for accommodation that night. I was pretty sure that although I was in single accommodation that night, I would be in the twin room that I was going to be sharing with another participant. I suggested that we check if Kate could bunk in. That would save us both the single room charge.

Coming in to land at Longyearbyen

Coming in to land at Longyearbyen

We left Oslo in the dark and close to three hours later, having chased the light, we touched down in a twilit, windswept and brooding Lonyearbyan. As we stepped out of the plane onto the permafrost and ice on the runway we were hit by an icy blast of wind making the short walk to the terminal building interesting as we tried to stay on our feet. A short 10 minute bus ride and we were deposited at the Radisson (where most of the runners would be staying) and finally crashed into bed about 1am.

The weather was much the same when we awoke, quite late and ravenously hungry. A quick scramble out of bed and along to the dining room for breakfast after which we headed out to explore. The town was quiet due it being Easter Monday, very windy and bitterly cold at -10: not really conducive to leisurely sight-seeing, so it was a quick once round to get our bearings before returning the comfort of the hotel. Longyearbyan is a small industrial town with a history of mining. Svalbard is technically not part of Norway, but under the protection of Norway. The Norwegians continue mining operations and have developed a tourist industry to retain their interests and stewardship of the archipelago.

As we returned to the hotel we bumped into Mark, who I had been in Antarctica with. It was lovely to see him again. The 2015 North Pole Marathon had 5 of the 2013 Antarctic race alumni participating: me, Mark, Michael, Petr and Daniel. Petr and Daniel had run both Antarctic races also. Hugs and introductions then we retired to the bar for pizza and beer, relaxation and chat. Let the carb loading commence.

Later that afternoon the bulk of our fellow competitors, Richard, Fearghal and the support crew arrived. The hotel reception and bar filled and the excitement levels started to mount. I had a new roommate, Tuedon, for the next few days as Kate moved in with Marianna and Tanj. Catch-ups and introductions done we got our first taste of the fluid schedule. It was rumoured and then confirmed that one of the Antonovs that would take us to the pole had damaged its undercarriage in an emergency landing. We were definitely going to be delayed. Time to sign up for some activities: ice-caving on Tuesday and dog-sledding on Wednesday. Group drinks that evening ensured that most of the introductions were done and the ice was broken. We were a wonderfully eclectic group of adventurers from 22 countries ranging in age from 18 – 64 all with a common goal: to take on and complete the world’s coolest marathon. There were 10 female competitors and we were a real mix of personalities, age and ability. I was enjoying meeting everyone: so many exciting people with amazing stories.

I got the sense that this was shaping up to be quite a competitive event in both races. My roommate had Googled all the female competitors and knew what they had done and what their marathon times were. Had I not done that? No. She was a big personality and came across as quite competitive something that I was not going to be drawn into. I am not competitive and I find it very unnerving. People did seem to be taking this seriously with some not doing activities for fear of injury or getting over tired, and others going out on training runs. Should I be running? Well, I knew my kit was fine, the terrain here was not how it would be at the pole, and it was very icy here making the risk of a tumble quite high. So, on reflection: no. I decided to rest, eat and drink beer in true ultra style.

Tuesday was sunny and clear. Kate, Mark and I had signed up for some ice caving. We were taken by snow cat up out of the town to a glacier. The caving was actually a walk along a tunnel carved deep in the glacier by glacial melt water. It was stunning. You could see the layers of ice and materials trapped in it. There were ice stalactites and threads, frozen air bubbles and even a fossilised leaf trapped in the ice. It was a great trip to do. After lunch back at the hotel we went out to further explore the town and the shops.

Glacier Ice Cave

Glacier Ice Cave

The race briefing was scheduled for Tuesday evening. This was the time for Richard to provide us with the flexible schedule, key information about travel, the location and the event. It was explained that it was usually 10 laps and that it was routed through the ice ridges and around the camp, would be technical underfoot but that the runway was incorporated giving us 800 meters of respite. Some safety information was provided and a medical briefing from the event doctor. Little did I know that in several days I was going to resemble one of the doctor’s photos! As ever there was plenty of laughs and banter, especially with regard to the luxurious toilet facilities, alongside the more serious side of things and a real sense of comradeship and anticipation was building.

The departures for the pole were to be delayed by a full day plus and the first flight, which I was to be on, would leave Lonyearbyan at 1am on Friday.  There was a bit of a scramble to sort out accommodation for people who had not booked all the way through, but everyone found a bed somewhere for the next couple of days, and I got an unexpected change of roommate.

What happens when you step out of your tent in bare feet to take a selfie

What happens when you step out of your tent in bare feet to take a selfie

On Wednesday, quite a few of us had signed up for dog sledding. It was another bright sunny day. We were collected from the hotel at 8.30 am and driven out of the town up the valley at the end of the fjord, to the kennels where the dogs were kept.  On arrival we given a briefing, provided with an padded ‘onesie’ to keep us warm and protect our clothes from the dogs. Then we had some time to meet the dogs. The huskies were smaller than expected, but looked lean and strong. They were arranged in teams, a line of 6 kennels, with the leaders at the top of the line. They were full of character and friendly.  We were shown how to harness them to the sled and how to handle the sled, with the driver and passenger each having specific tasks and responsibilities.

Kate and I paired up. We were assigned to a team and sled which turned out to be an exciting combination. Our sled was lightweight, were pretty light and we had a strong fast team. One of the rules was that you do not overtake, you keep a 3 -5 meter gap and you when you stop you keep in line so that the dog teams do not fight. We set out and quickly built up some speed. Now, Mark, who had done the sledding the day before, had warned us about the fart bombs. When the dogs get moving it stimulates their internal organs. There was a lot of peeing, pooping and farting going on and wow it was pungent, not ideal for anyone with a delicate disposition.

I was driving and it was hard keeping the gap and even putting both feet and my full weight on the brake was not slowing them much. We went flying past the sled in front. Oops. Then we started to gain on the next sled. Double oops. As we shot past them the guide looked round and was not happy. She started to wave and shout at us: we were in trouble. Everyone stopped, and the trouble makers split up. Kate and Daniel swapped over. It made quite a difference and the team was easier to handle with the extra weight. Kate got swapped around between several sleds especially the ones that were slower and needed a reduction of weight.

The sled trip took about two hours and we went deep into the valley before turning and heading back down the other side. At that point I swapped over with Daniel so that he could have a turn with the driving. The scenery was majestic and beautiful in the sunlight, and the dogs were amazing.  They needed little encouragement to go, and you could see that this is what they do and that it is build deep in their DNA to run as a pack. The lead dogs were so focused and there was no distracting them from it. Even stopped and at rest you could see they were straining to go.

What a great way to spend a morning. When we got back we went and had lunch in a great wee coffee shop before going to the supermarket to stock up on water and extra provisions for the pole.

We had to have out North Pole kit ready to be taken to the airport by 1pm on Thursday. Now, one of the problems with delays is that you tend to re-visit the kit several times, start to doubt your decisions and plans. I eventually, stuck with my original plan: it was tried and tested and had worked. I did indulge my doubts with the acquisition of an extra merino mid-layer that I could change into post race.

A further quick briefing on Wednesday evening to tell us that the flight would now 7am, which had the benefit of allowing us to get some sleep before departure.  There was a change in the weather overnight  and as we gathered at 5.30 am for some breakfast the visibility did not look great and there were whispers which were confirmed that the flight was further delayed and that it would 9 am before we would leave the hotel.  I said it would be fluid. There is no point in stressing, best just to go with the flow, relax and enjoy some more breakfast.