9 15, 2018
This was a big experience. There’s a reason so many people who run this race wind up self-publishing a book about it. I thought I’d do my write-up this time as a FAQ, to try and organize my scattered thoughts. Most of these are actual questions that friends and co-workers have asked me. Can you guess which ones aren’t? Book may or may not be forthcoming 😉
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How cold was it?
At the time the race was run, the temperature was around -30 to -35 degrees C (-22 to -31 F). We had great weather – bright, clear and calm – which I think was a major factor in the director’s decision to start the race at 10:30 PM, just a short time after the final group arrived at Camp Barneo. The horizon did start to haze up the following morning as the rear guard were still out on the course, and clouded over later. Overall, I think we had much better conditions than they did at this year’s Boston Marathon, when you take into consideration how the runners had dressed in anticipation for the day.
Q: Was the race really at the North Pole?
The start line was 89°34’00″N, 91°44’31″E, roughly 30 miles from the geographic North Pole. The camp drifts with the ice. After the marathon everyone took helicopters to the Pole. There’s no permanent marker, so we brought along one provided by the Camp for photo ops.
Q: What was the course like?
The course was a ~2.6-mile loop run on the sea ice, with an opportunity to step into the mess tent to warm up at the end of each loop. Think ice floes are flat? They’re frozen undulating ocean, the troughs filled with dry, incredibly fine white powder, and pressure ridges forcing blue blocks of ice into low walls piled with snow. A short portion of the loop ran down the airstrip, where the snow had been scraped away by bulldozers and the ice leveled to make landing of the flight from Svalbard possible.
Q: How did you train? Did you train for the cold?
Obviously there’s not a lot of opportunity for training in the snow in southern Arizona. Among my takeaways from the Antarctic Ice Marathon was that running on snow – the uneven, unpredictable terrain sliding in random directions underfoot without warning – required the same kind of alertness and skill set as trail running the crumbling granite hills around Phoenix. And the same tired muscles in weird places afterwards! I signed up for Aravaipa’s DRT trail racing series, including their Evolution Pass, while doing the occasional training run out at Pass Mountain and grinding out most of my training miles on the local roads.
Some people from warm climates, like a South African couple at this year’s race, trained for the cold by renting a deep freeze and putting a treadmill inside. I neglected to ask them afterwards whether it helped. In my experience it’s psychological rather than physical; at temperatures that low the cold feels more like pain than cold, and it’s weird to have ice crystals on your eyelashes and snot freeze in your nose. If you’re properly dressed the temperature won’t be a dealbreaker.
Q: How did you dress?
- Hoka One One Stinson trail shoes,
- thick alpaca socks with thin silk sock liners.
- Also chemical toe warmers that didn’t work.
- Lower half:
- Base Layer: Winter-weight running tights,
- Thermal layer: midweight fleece pants,
- Wind shell: Eddie Bauer Duraweave Alpine pants (serious heavy-duty gear that I had to cut down for length and “hem” using duct tape that mostly held for the duration of the race.)
- Base layer: InkNBurn pullover (heavyweight technical shirt),
- Thermal: Midweight fleece pullover,
- Wind shell: Land’s end waterproof jacket
- Buff, later swapped out for a thin balaclava and my Untraced breath mask,
- Oakley A-frame goggles,
- alpaca hat with earflaps
- Dakine thermal mittens (without liners)
- Chemical handwarmers
The “serious” runners seemed to have fewer layers down below, and probably more technical kit. Many people taped their faces, in particular their noses, to stave off frostbite. I was fine without, but I did stop and get warmed up in the mess tent almost every loop.
What I wished I’d had was a pair of down-filled trousers to wear while not racing. I couldn’t find any locally, it got down to the wire, and I thought “eh, I’ll be OK!” But I would’ve been a lot more comfortable with them, especially when we wound up spending more time on the ice than scheduled.
Q: What kind of other supplies did you need?
Barneo Camp provides packet coffee, tea, hot chocolate and cookies 24/7, and basic meals at set times, so in addition to any performance drinks or goodies you need during the race, it’s good to bring some extra food, which you can easily buy at the supermarket in Longyearbyen. Because of the “odd” start time, I wound up slurping a cup-o-soup (pot noodle) right before the start. During the race I had a hot drink at every loop, and dipped into the bag of dates I bought in Longyearbyen. I also ate the two Mojo bars I brought from home. Not touched: the GUs and Sports Beans – I needed stuff with substance.
USB batteries to recharge my electronics probably wasn’t needed, but I felt better having them topped off.
Q: Is there anything else you didn’t bring that wished you had brought?
Yes! iPod, toothbrush/toothpaste, bottled water (the water at Barneo is hot, melted seawater -slightly salty. Bottled fresh water is available for sale, also a limited selection of booze at a markup – you’re paying for location.)
When the word came down to be ready in the morning, it was a mad last-minute scramble to decide what went in the bag and what stayed behind in the hotel.
Q: How long does it take to get there?
Overnight from North America to Oslo. I took the short flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen the next day. The flight from Longyearbyen to Barneo by private plane is roughly 2-1/2 hours.
Of course, this is the Arctic, a place where shite still happens. A single AN-74 is shuttling the entire marathon field, along with various expeditions, tourists, and Guinness World Record aspirants between Svalbard and the Pole. A delay on the outbound departure leads to a crowd of restless runners snarking in the lobby of the Radisson Blu for hours. Our flight back to Longyearbyen was delayed over 24 hours when a metre-wide crack appeared across the runway, revealing the ocean below. “You get an extra night at the North Pole – for free!”
Q: Did you see the Northern Lights?
No, in April it’s broad daylight the entire time. Even in Longyearbyen the sun was only below the horizon for a couple hours, so it never got dark.
Q: Was it a high-altitude race?
No, it’s on the sea ice, so basically sea level plus a few feet.
Q: Did you see Santa’s Workshop?
No, nobody gets in there. Santa’s Workshop is locked down like Area 51.