It’s quite incomprehensible that it exists really, but it does. And the GPS track of it is astonishing. Its wavering path encircles the race start 12 times but somehow never returns to the same place. It doesn’t even get close. Cath Harris took on the frozen challenge…
Such is the movement of three-metre thick ice across the vast, desolate but magical top-of-the-world that runners completing last April’s UVU North Pole Marathon finished an incredible four miles from their geographical departure point where below an incongruous black gantry up to 14 hours earlier, the starting gun had echoed. Among them was Chris Petrie.
“It was surreal, unbelievable,” he says, delightedly glowing at the memory of his six-day visit to one of the globe’s most inhospitable regions. And so he should. Of the 44 starters, hypothermia and frostbite meant five failed to finish. “With wind chill it was -41˚C and the weather was getting worse,” Chris shivers. “The people coming in last were the bravest.”
With adventure races now testing not only fitness but spirit and grit too, the North Pole Marathon must rank among the most daunting. It took Chris, a 47-year-old Northampton-based financial advisor, a mere seven years to feel sufficiently brave to enter the event which at €11,900 (£8,673) a throw is not a commitment most of us could take lightly. “My sister bought me a book for my 40th birthday called A Year of Adventures, which was a bucket list of things to do around the world. I was skimming through it and saw a side bar on the North Pole Marathon with a photo. People were slogging around on ice under a beautiful blue sky. I’d always liked running and really fancied it. It was as simple as that.”
The event was lodged in the back of Chris’s mind but every time it crept forward, he’d nudge it into reverse. Time drifted, “But as each year passed I knew it had become a little bit harder,” realised Chris. Finally, in September 2013, he contacted race director Richard Donovan to register and pay the €4,000 deposit. “There wasn’t a huge waiting list,” he jokes. “But when I woke up the next morning I was concerned about what I was in for.” Chris is a wary flyer and faced eight flights if he wanted to complete the trip. “The flying is what worried me most.”
The running bothered Chris much less. He had cruised through cross-country races at school and completed the 2007 and 2008 London Marathons, and a half marathon, on minimal preparation.
“Other than that it was occasional 10kms. I’d had four years without much training.” Such was Chris’s confidence that he delayed training proper until late December, less than four months before the April 2014 event. “I ran 10 miles and was a bit stiff and achy and realised then that I’d have to step up.” Chris increased his mileage quickly and once he’d completed a 25-mile road run, switched to the country. “Slogging through the fields in February was tough.”
As his fitness improved, Chris began to trial the clothes he would wear, settling for Merino wool base layers and ski gear. “It was 2˚C or 3˚C at home and you could get quite sweaty, this is something you have to avoid in the North Pole because you then get very cold. But I needed to get used to running for hours in all that clobber.”
With less than a week to go, Chris boarded for the Norwegian capital Oslo on Easter Sunday, having packed all his layers and a selection of chocolate fairy cakes baked by his daughters Olivia and Lucy. A day later he flew on to tiny Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen, the world’s most northerly continuously-inhabited settlement. The former coal mining town lies 850 miles from the North Pole, where runners would head within 48 hours.
A hitch, however, in preparations left the group idling in Longyearbyen for three additional days. The Russian cargo plane due to transport runners to race HQ, Barneo Ice Camp, was stranded with a damaged under carriage. “They had to send out another plane which meant five days of waiting in Longyearbyen. I used the opportunity to do the cold weather acclimatisation I had missed out on at home,” explained Chris who had hoped to visit Scotland or the Alps to train on snow but had run out of time.
Race day finally came with the first batch of runners, organisers and doctors flown to the start on the 10th April. But the weather worsened and the remaining participants, including Chris were delayed a further 24 hours. The race began at 1pm – just two hours after Chris arrived. “It was a beautiful day and the first few laps went past like a dream.” But the idyll did not last and with wind whipping snow into runners’ faces “it just got worse and worse”.
Conditions took their toll and many of the runners sought shelter, warmth and food inside a heated tent after each 2.2-mile lap. Organisers keep runners close at hand in case of medical emergencies. “I decided before the start that I would come home safe so returned to the tent at the end of almost every lap. I ate the cakes my daughters had made, had a cup of tea and changed my clothes. That took a long time. I reckon I spent two hours in the tent in total. The winner didn’t stop at all.”
Regular pit stops meant positions changed often, which sometimes altered the outcome. “One lady had to withdraw because of hypothermia and another was kept in the treatment tent because of frostbite. Her scarf had stuck to her neck and they held her there for 40 minutes. She was going to be first woman but lost her place. She was quite cross.” Chris got off more lightly, suffering a small burn on his neck from frostnip, a step down from frostbite. “Most of the time I could see other runners but with people dipping in and out of the tent there were times when you saw no-one. It was a bit like Forumla 1.”
Chocolate cakes were not Chris’s only sustenance but were perhaps the most appetising of the food on offer. “We had porridge, soups and broths, the sort of food you might expect in Russia. It did the job although the toilet facilities were horrific.” Back outside, the weather was deteriorating. “We had to jump over a crack in the ice every lap which I thought might widen, and I was scared of strong winds whipping up an ice storm. It was very bleak. There’s nothing there but ice.”
With eight laps completed the temperature had dropped to -35˚C which with wind chill, was recorded as -41˚C. But Chris still had energy to burn and set out for his last two circuits determined not to walk or stop. “I could see people walking ahead but it took an incredibly long time to catch them. Almost everyone walked at some stage. The whole route was on lumpy, crusty ice up to your ankles. You couldn’t get any bounce from it.”
It was with some elation that Chris crossed the finish line in 30th place, with a time of 8:28.20. He and most others were some way behind Czech winner, Petr Vabrousek, who clocked 4:22.24. Vabrousek is a professional athlete and has completed more than 150 Ironman triathlons. “I never doubted that I would finish but I could perhaps have been a bit quicker if I’d been more adventurous and aggressive,” Chris says. “But I didn’t want to hurt myself or come home with nine fingers.
“If I did it again I would train on a beach because that’s like running on snow. I expected the ice to be compact because in the past they have incorporated the plane’s runway. But this time the course went completely off-piste. I’d also train more in colder conditions. Some of the guys even put treadmills into ice stores to help with acclimatisation. There was massive camaraderie but I won’t do it again. I want to do the Antarctic Marathon instead!”