Well, the trip is done and everyone is back safely with their own story to tell. And what a great trip it was! Literally unforgettable.
On Easter Sunday, 5 April I flew from London to Oslo and the next day from Oslo to Longyearbyen (with a touch-stop at Tromso to drop/pick up a few people). Longyearbyen is the most northerly town on the planet, sitting at a latitude of 78N. It’s a former coal mining town, names after Mr Longyear who discovered the place originally (“byen” is Norwegian for “town”) and these days is mostly for tourists, with a permanent population of about 2,000. We should have been here for a couple of days, but due to various reasons (more below) it stretched to almost a week.
On a nice day, it’s quite a charming – if isolated – place. On a poor day – or in winter with 24 hour darkness – the place is (in my opinion) pretty grim. Still, people live there, and some have actually moved to it not just from an accident of birth.
The initial problem was that, having landed at the airport, we were informed the converted Russian cargo plane that would fly us the further 850 miles to the North Pole had had a heavy landing on its second flight of the season, the week before, and was damaged. A new plane was being flown over from Moscow, but there was now a backlog of flights for the various groups of people wanting to make the flight to Barneo Ice Camp (the name given to the little tented village set up on the Pole one month each year). This included scientists and some important Russian government people, plus the marathon runners, some trekkers – and a rugby team who wanted to play a match there!
So, with time to kill I spent one morning in the hills of Longyearbyen on a dog sledge…not quite the purpose of the trip but a lovely morning on a beautiful day.
The opportunity to practice running in the cold, in full gear, couldn’t be missed and a few short runs helped make the decision to purchase a couple of different face masks, with better breathing holes. Finally, after several false starts, we met at the hotel lobby at 6.15 am on Saturday 11 April and got the call we were waiting for – the flight to the North Pole was on and leaving at 08.30!
So, in our almost windowless little plane we took off in on a lovely clear morning and 2 1/2 hours later were landing down on the temporary ice runway at the North Pole! As a slightly nervous flyer I was very pleased at our smooth landing. Upon learning later that the previous weeks’ “hard landing” had finished with the first plane ending nose-down/tail up with its occupants having to clamber out via ladders, I was VERY pleased to have avoided that particular flight!
First impressions of the North Pole were great. The weather was sunny and clear (the sun moves across the horizon this time of year, rather than rising and setting). It was cold, minus 35 degrees Celsius, so full layers of clothing were required. We were shown our sleeping tents, the mess hut and the toilets (the less said of the latter, the better). Race time was set for 1 pm and the next two hours were spent preparing running kit, getting stuff set out in the Transmission tent etc. The time flew by and we were ready to begin running:
It quickly became apparent that this wasn’t going to be an easy race. The course was just over 2.2 miles around the tented area, and thus was 12 laps of the course. Several armed guards kept watch in the event of Polar Bears being seen – fortunately they had the good sense to stay well away. The lap system meant runners went past the transmission tent and medical facilities 11 times during the race, offering plenty of opportunity to call in, take a warm drink, some food and change clothing as necessary (it’s imperative to stay dry in these conditions as damp will swiftly turn cold and cause potentially great problems).
The pictures above are of my tent (7 sharing, a camp bed each, shame they forgot to load the plane with our sleeping bags!) and the other is of the Mess Tent. There was a generator pumping in warm air so the situation wasn’t as hostile as could have been the case.
Coming back to the race, this year the organisers had decided not to incorporate the ice runway into the course, meaning that there was no nice area of hard packed ice to run along. Instead most of the course was lumpy, crusty ice that came up to your ankles and was similar to running on (very cold) sand. Each step required the effort of not only putting your foot down, but lifting back it out again…for 26 miles! The fell-running shoes were fine, but there was no spring in the step, as every forward movement took maximum effort. An excellent “work-out” no doubt!
There were 44 runners in all (one had unfortunately contracted flu the night before and had to withdraw). 39 finished the full marathon. The winner, from Czech, completed the race, non-stop, in under 4 1/2 hours – almost 1 hour faster than the second place! To put it in context, he had run 150 full Iron-Man triathlons previously so he was pretty strong and fit. The rest of us followed behind at various levels of hours behind. My time was 8 hours 28 minutes, of which I would estimate included 2 hours total in the transmission tent (I stopped at 10 of the 11 times passed). Perhaps I was overly cautious, but one person suffered hypothermia and another quite severe frostbite when her scarf stuck solid to her face and neck, so perhaps I was just being sensible. At any event, I finished and all in one piece.
Here I am, slogging through the ice…there were some times when you were out of sight of people in front or behind. Pictures (c) Mark Conlon / North Pole Marathon.
As the day wore on, the weather worsened. The wind picked up and the sun moved behind cloud. The temperature was -35c but including the wind-chill it was down to -41c. In short, the quicker you got in, the better conditions you ran in. The people who finished latest were arguably the bravest and certainly took the highest levels of endurance.
At the finishing post!
The thing to remember is there’s no land anywhere around – the whole Arctic is just a sea, mostly frozen most of the year. It moves around. Here’s a Garmin print-out of the route taken during the race…the 12 laps are clearly plotted and each identical shape of course. The main difference is that the 12th lap was run 4 miles away from the first as the whole ice sheet was moving under our feet! You can’t notice it of course, but to my mind, we should claim the distance covered was both the 26 miles 385 yards plus the further 4 miles = 30 miles moved!
With the marathon now “in the bag” it was time to wait for those still on the course to complete the race and come in. From there, it was calculated we were around 25 miles from True North Pole (90 degrees, 0 Minutes, 0 seconds North). So, into the Russian helicopter (it was around midnight by now) and a short flight to the exact co-ordinate of 90 degrees.
Some of my new friends in the helicopter (top) and here I am wrapped up well (below) as the temperature was falling further, to a real-feel approaching -50c.
It was getting ridiculously cold now but you can’t go to the True North Pole without a “dance around the world”. Here we all are, and I’ve placed Lucy’s cuddly squirrel in the middle…not many kids can say their favourite soft toy has been to the North Pole.
Finally, by around 2 am, we were back at the Ice Camp, and in my tent for a few hours sleep. The plan had been to fly us back to Longyearbyen that night ready for the flights back to London the next morning, but the weather was too bad by now. the scheduled flights home were missed and had to be re-arranged for a day later. The next day was spent hanging around in the Mess tent, swapping stories, making friends and preparing to return to civilisation.
For an hour or so, the weather turned warm – perhaps reaching as high as minus 10 Celsius, so there was an opportunity for a few photos without gloves or hats on for a few minutes:
Me, with my 2015 NP medal, Mark with his dogs…who had come up and done part of the run too!