Friday, 4 May 2018

North Pole Marathon 2018, NORTH POLE : 42km



© North Pole Marathon


90° NORTH LATITUDE  

NORTH POLE MARATHON - Running the coldest Marathon on top of the world


© North Pole Marathon

2017 : FRUSTRATION HITTING HIGH

The last entry in my blog was written way back in August 2016, when I completed the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon in a very good position (6th man). After having survived and tested my limits in the “hottest race in the world” (50°C), I had wondered whether I would be able to do the same in the other extreme, which is the Polar temperatures.

When searching for a race in such conditions, I decided that the North Pole Marathon should be the ideal event to test my ability of endurance, considering that the average temperature during the race has always been in the region of -35°C. I braved myself and registered for the 2017 race. 

All went well with my preparation, but three months before the race, I visited my Podiatrist to remove four toenails which have been giving me problems in all my previous races. It was supposed to be a very minor procedure with fast recovery time, but unfortunately, four weeks before race, I was still struggling with the healing of the wounds and to make it worse, one of my big toes had become infected. 

I had to make the tough decision to cancel my participation in the event for that year. I was very grateful that Richard Donovan, the Race Director (a very nice and cool Irish man), was kind enough  to allow me to postpone my participation to the following year without any penalty. We had to cancel all our flights and accommodation, and in the process, lost quite a substantial sum of money. 

I was only able to start training again in May 2017. The first race I did after this unfortunate incident was a fabulous stage race in Albania in September, called The Hidden Treasure, a very well organised 250km, 6-day race by GlobalLimits (http://www.global-limits.com/the-hidden-treasure.html). After a very tough competition with Frank Johansen (Denmark), I finished in the second position. 


In November, I travelled to Indonesia for holidays, exploring the beautiful island of Lombok and climbing the second highest active volcano in Indonesia, Mount Rinjani (3,726m), before hopping to the island of Java to run the famous Bromo Tengger Semeru Ultra – 70km (https://www.btsultra.com/), where I unexpectedly finished in the first position with a record time of 8’ 56”.   


Three weeks later, I went back to Greece to run the Ultra Trail Pelion 80km in  the beautiful town of Volos (http://www.utp.gr/index.php?lang=en), which was organised by one of my best friends. I really enjoyed the race, where I met up with friends from the Greek running community, many of whom I have not seen for a very long time. Despite all the cramps and tiredness from my race in Java, I managed to finish in the 11th position and to reconnect with a place which was very close to my heart. 



2018 : TRAINING FOR THE RACE

After this last race in 2017, my training slowed down a lot due to an injury. Before I knew it, January of 2018 has flown by. I only started training again in February, where I adopted a methodical training of a maximum of 60 km on treadmill per week, with all sessions being run in fast speed.

By the end of March, I felt confident and fit again to finally realise my dream of running at the North Pole Marathon. I certainly did not have the chance to do any training in extreme cold temperatures to prepare myself for the race. On the contrary, less than a month before the race, I was running on the Galapagos Islands in lovely tropical temperatures! 

I have read about some people who prepared themselves for the North Pole Marathon by running in industrial refrigerators in order to adapt and acclimatise their bodies for the low Arctic temperature, but personally, I do not think that it makes sense. I strongly believe that the only way to be 100% ready for this race is to visit places like Siberia, Alaska or Northern Canada, where you will encounter similar temperature as that of the North Pole. In my situation, this option is not possible and so, I took it easy and continued with the regime of training I have planned for myself.


A VERY UNPLEASANT SURPRISE

One of the main conditions required of you when registering for the North Pole Marathon is the flexibility in terms of time. This was made very clear by the organiser and I fully understand the need for this. Although a date is fixed for the race, participants were informed that this can change anytime due to the fact that we will be running on a piece of floating ice. The monumental task in getting the logistics in place (which I will describe later) means that nothing should be taken for granted, and Mother Nature is the main determining factor in making the race possible on the date it is fixed for. I have read that in 2017, everything went as planned and the race went on smoothly. I was hoping that the 2018 edition will be the same, and that all these “warnings” about possible delays were merely precautionary measures.

However, three days before leaving for Svalbard (a Norwegian Archipelago in the Arctic Circle, and only 1,200 km from North Pole), where all participants are to gather before being flown to the vicinity of North Pole for the race, I received an e-mail informing me that this year’s race has to be postponed to one week later. I was further informed that the delay was due to a later camp set-up than scheduled. Due to this, all trips to the North Pole have been impacted, not just the race.

Desperation began to set in, with me trying to sort out my shifts at the hospital and rearrange my days of leave. My wife had to go through the whole process of cancelling/re-booking flights and accommodation and at that point, it was getting rather difficult to find alternative accommodation in Svalbard, as almost everything was fully booked!!

It was during these chaotic moments that I started to have doubts and wonder whether all that had happened (toe injury in 2017 and race delay in 2018) were signs for me to stay home and just ‘enjoy’ my treadmill runs instead. I was very frustrated, to the extent that I was determined to cancel my participation should any other problems were to arise.


START OF THE ADVENTURE

After one week of stress and dilemma regarding the outcome of this adventure, we were finally on our way to Oslo, and from there, took a connecting flight to Longyearbyen in Svalbard. This is the world’s northernmost town located in the archipelago's largest island (Spitsbergen) and is the transit point for expeditions to the Pole itself.

© Hannisze

© Hannisze

© Hannisze
© Hannisze
© Hannisze

We arrived two days before the day fixed for the race, and managed to explore the beautiful town on foot, ventured into its magnificent east coast on a snowmobile and had a wonderful dog-sledding experience with some very enthusiastic and adorable Alaskan huskies. 

© Hannisze

© Hannisze

© Hannisze
It was an amazing feeling to witness the wilderness of this Arctic region, made by 70% of glaciers. My body was able to gradually adapt to the freezing temperatures during these days.

© Hannisze


© Hannisze

© Hannisze

On the third day of our arrival, I was ready for the most crucial and anticipated trip of my lifetime. A worryingly old Russian converted cargo plane (Antonov AN-74TK-100) flew us to a North Pole Camp called Barneo, situated between 89°N and 90°N, drifting on the Arctic Ocean. The flight time was almost three hours and for the entire duration, I had my face stuck to the window, admiring the Arctic Sea, with pieces of ice floating in the ocean. After having read so much about the adventures of the early North Pole explorers who struggled to conquer this part of the world for almost 400 years, I felt so blessed to be in such a comfortable position in my journey to reach the “Hilton of floating ice camps”, with warm tents and decent fresh food cooked daily by the Russian crew.







CAMP BARNEO - A MIRACLE OF HUMAN MASTERY

The process of establishing a camp at the North Pole is an indisputable proof of the ability of human beings to colonise the most hostile environments by improvisation.  Every year, in around late March, the sun will appear at the North Pole after six months of darkness. 

It is at this time that the amazing Russian team (helicopters and paratroopers) that sets up the North Pole Marathon camp each year, will start their search for a suitable ice floe at the North Pole to build the camp, known as Camp Barneo. Not only do they have to find an ice floe which must be robust enough for a plane to land; it must also be one which is stable for a few weeks in April. Once the team identifies the right ice floe, advance personnel, including a tractor driver and a tractor, are dropped to construct a temporary runway and the camp. This will be followed by three technical flights which will test the runway for its safety, for the purposes of bringing in the participants from Longyearbyen. 

© North Pole Marathon

© North Pole Marathon

© North Pole Marathon

© North Pole Marathon

© North Pole Marathon

© North Pole Marathon

© North Pole Marathon

© North Pole Marathon

© North Pole Marathon

© North Pole Marathon

Since 2002, the year when North Pole Marathon started, the amazing Russian team has faced many technical challenges in setting up this unique camp, but not a single accident or fatality has happened. This goes to prove what a great job these experienced people have been doing all these years.


MY FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH THE NORTH POLE 

Unlike the Antarctica, the Arctic is not a continent but a floating mass of ice, constantly moving to the south direction. Since the Arctic ice is constantly on the move, a marathon at the real geographic North Pole is a nebulous concept. You might start there but within minutes, you would have drifted away. This is the reason why I find the following illustration so interesting, because it shows how the original position of the camp changes over time. It is incredible to see how far the camp can shift away from the North Pole in just one month!

© North Pole Marathon

The aim of the Russian team is to set up Camp Barneo as close as possible to the geographic North Pole. On the day of the race itself, the camp will have most likely moved 40-70 km away, but the organiser has promised not only to fly all the participants to the exact North Pole position, but also to give each of us a certificate to prove the fact that we have actually stepped on the Top of the World!!!

The helicopter taking us to the exact North Pole position

Landing on the exact North Pole position

I found "Athens" on the exact North Pole position 

© Hannisze

What makes this race so unique is not just the “craziness” of the concept that you are running on a floating piece of ice which is only 3 meters between your feet and the deep Arctic Ocean. It is also the unique environment that you are living in while running the race, which is one of the most remote parts of our planet. The sun shines constantly for twenty-four hours a day, circling like a big ball in the clear blue sky, and always at the same height whether it is midday or midnight. There is nothing on the horizon in every direction but whiteness. The bright landscape is completely flat 360 degrees all round, with lumps of windswept, snow covered ice everywhere as far as the eye can see.  

The landscape at North Pole

You are at this place and you feel like you have just landed on a new planet which is so hostile to human beings. You have only forty-eight hours to be there, but it can be one of the most incredible, surreal, and life-changing experiences you will ever encounter in your life.

Stepping off the plane, the cold was like a shock I have never felt before. I had thought I would be able to cope reasonably well with all the gears I had bought especially for this “adventure”, but my gloved hands started to tingle very early on, and I could feel the fabric of my clothing turned stiff as my body moisture froze into it. My nostrils felt like they were burning, as they went into overdrive to warm the freezing air before sending it to my lungs.  A kind of nervousness began to build up in me when I realised that I had no control over anything.


MY GEARS/EQUIPMENT

We landed at Camp Barneo at 19:00, and after a short briefing, we were told that the race would begin in three hours’ time. All of a sudden, I felt my body going into a shock caused by a massive release of adrenaline. I felt nervous and I did not quite know how to manage the next three hours. Should I eat? Should I sleep? What about my equipment? Should I try to run around for a bit to test if my equipment is working properly? I have not had the chance to try some of my gears and I was particularly worried about my goggles. Almost all the previous participants have mentioned in their blogs about their frustration of goggles fogging up while running. I hurriedly put on my gears/equipment and stepped out from the tent. True enough, within less than ten minutes, I noticed the first signs of fogging in my “anti-fog” goggles. 

Even though I was prepared for this scenario, I was not happy with the idea of having to run with part of my face being exposed to the freezing cold. Returning to the tent, I found most of the other runners had used tape to cover all their faces! I have never heard of that, but having spoken to them after the race, it seemed that the trick had worked for them. Since I have not come prepared with this, I ended up running the race without protection over my eyes and tried to cover as much of my face as possible with two layers of balaclava, and a thermal hat.

For the upper part of body I used three layers:

1) Thermal underwear (Merino wool) = Icebreaker
2) Thin Fleece = Patagonia
3) Wind shell (GoreTex) = Patagonia

For my legs I used two layers

1) Base layer pants = North Face 
2) Pants GoreTex  = Marmot 

For my feet I used:

1) A pair of sock liners 
2) A pair of wool socks 
3) Foot warmers on top of sock liners 
4) Crossover GoreTex shoes with gaiter = La Sportiva (one of the best choices of all my gears)

Waterproof shoes are crucial because the snow can easily get much deeper than it appears. And if your feet get wet because of improper footwear, or lack of gaiters, it can really dampen your run.

For my hands I used:

1) One pair of glove liners = Patagonia 
2) One pair of GoreTex mittens = Mammut 
3) Hand warmers   


THE RACE

It was 22:30, but with a glorious sun in the horizon, it felt like it was 08:00. The weather conditions were fine. It was certainly freezing (-28°C) but with no wind, and a beautiful blue sky.

60 very excited runners, representing 20 countries, were at the start line, with a massive group of Chinese participants numbering to almost 20. 

When Richard started the final countdown, I was struggling to contain my excitement in knowing that my Arctic adventure is finally happening. You cannot imagine how many times I have dreamed of this moment during the past two years; to be at such a unique place to complete another challenge I have set for myself. My body began to shiver and I felt like a bull raring to get into the bullring to chase after its destiny.

3…2…1… and the race was on!!!

© North Pole Marathon

© North Pole Marathon

Two days before race, I had gone through the list of the participants'names, and with a very thorough research, I knew that there were two of them who have their personal best of 2:30 and 2:40 in marathons. I knew that if I want a place in the podium, I would have to give in my very best. 

The first part of the course was in hard-packed ice with a light snow covering and it led to the end of the ice runway, and then along it.  This gave me a chance to run with a rather fast pace and after 500m, I noticed that I was leading the front group, with a runner literally behind me, in my shadow.

© North Pole Marathon

© North Pole Marathon

After looping by the camp, we headed out into a jumbled snowfield with lots of loose snow, small pressure ridges and uneven ice lumps.  It was difficult to see at first which snow was covering hard ice, and which snow was soft, so we stumbled about quite a bit.  The course was cleverly laid in a series of bends, giving a sense of isolation without spreading the group over miles, and you could often see the other runners in the distance. We were supposed to run a loop of 4.2km by ten times to complete the marathon distance.  A line of black flags marked the entire route, making it impossible for one to get lost. Most of the loops (2/3) were made of uneven terrains, very similar to running on sand.

© North Pole Marathon

After two loops, Ι stopped feeling the pressure from the pursuit of the runner behind me. I presumed he had stopped to change his gears. There was no one behind me and this made me more relaxed. My body seemed to cope well with the temperature at -30°C, apart from my frozen nose and eyes. After a while, I was struggling to keep my eyes opened because a layer of ice had settled on my eyelashes and this was beginning to affect my vision. Every twenty minutes or so, I had to break the layer with my thumb to maintain my vision.

© North Pole Marathon

I also suffered from another unpleasant experience which worried me. After running for about one hour, I was having difficulties to get air in my lungs. I felt like something in my nostrils had blocked my breathing. I took off my gloves and mittens to check, before discovering that two pieces of ice had occupied both the cavities of my nose! I carefully removed them and was relieved to be able to breathe normally again after that. 

After having completed seven out of the ten loops, leading the race with only 13 km before the finish, I started experiencing the first signs of fatigue. It began to feel as if I was stomping on a ploughed field. A huge effort was needed for every step I took, and it was more like I was jumping rather than running. The risk of getting a sprain became higher as the race progressed and tiredness began to build up in my body. I was losing energy after three hours of running without eating and drinking. Despite that, I was reluctant to stop for refueling in the nice, warm tent because I was certain that if I do that, I will be unable to continue the race with the same level of determination and persistence that I had then. That was the main reason I made that difficult decision to complete the grueling race without eating and drinking.

© North Pole Marathon

As a side effect of my body’s hypoglycemia-hypothermia, my mind began to behave strangely and I was suddenly consumed by negative thoughts. All the euphoria and enthusiasm which I had felt earlier was replaced by miserable thoughts. Despite being so close to a glorious win in the North Pole Marathon, I became annoyed and irritable by every little thing. Basically, I had turned into a moaner - the horrible terrain was so difficult to run, the cold was freezing up my face, why did I subject myself to such extremities, I was hungry, tired, thirsty. The complaints just went on and on, in my muddled-up head.

Even the sight of Gary Leung, a blind participant from Hong Kong, struggling to find balance in the treacherous terrain without having any idea of where he was placing his feet, was not enough to motivate and comfort me. I became selfish and was only concerned about my own suffering. I just wanted to finish the torturous run as soon as possible!

© North Pole Marathon

After four hours and thirty-four minutes of non-stop running, I finally crossed the finish line while holding on to the Greek flag and collapsing on the snow. I was frozen and exhausted. I was in pieces, but I was also the winner of the race! What an unbelievable moment that was for me. For the first time in all my races, I was ready to burst into tears because I was so choked up with emotions. A journalist appeared before me just in time to interrupt that. To be very honest, I would have preferred to be left alone for a while to take it all in. 

© North Pole Marathon

© North Pole Marathon

© North Pole Marathon

I remember trying to remove all the built-up ice from my eyelids and face with my trembling hand while attempting to regain some feelings to my frozen lips, before replying to the journalist’s questions. I was so spaced out from the cold and starvation when I started mumbling into his microphone and camera about North Pole not being the right place for a Greek guy and that it was like asking an Eskimo to run in the desert (!!!).

To my utter horror, I was to find out later that a video of myself struggling to articulate my speech while talking about Eskimo and desert, was broadcasted over major news channels and talk show programs all over the world! I really have to be more prepared to avoid this kind of faux pas in the future, but believe me, when you are half-frozen and numbed, you pretty much lose control to think properly, let alone to make a speech!

https://www.facebook.com/NowThisSports/videos/810267375810263/

EPILOGUE

Without a single shred of doubt, the North Pole Marathon experience was one of the highlights of my life. Words cannot adequately describe my feelings of being at this remote and special place, running against cold and fears, and winning the race without much stress.

I have managed to overcome something I was afraid of, and with that, I emerged as a stronger person from the whole experience. 

All the anxieties and nervousness before the race, with all the uncertainties, postponement and delay, were all part and parcel to this whole unforgettable experience. It is yet another proof to the fact that nothing good in life comes easy.

I must admit that before going to the race, the substantial financial commitment which I had to fork out for making it possible to be at the start line, has made me guilty and a little reluctant, on how acceptable it is for me to spend almost €20,000 just to run a marathon.

After having lived through all the emotions during and after the race, I can now definitely say that the money spent was totally acceptable and worthwhile. This race is not just a marathon. It is a journey to the edge of the world, when a few decades ago, you would have to be an explorer to be able to reach it. I now have much more respect for those explorers whom I have read so much about. Four hours and thirty-four minutes being out running in a freezing environment, tripping over snow drifts and crumbled sea ice, has definitely given me a more vivid look at history than just by reading all those exploration books for last few months.

In coming to a conclusion of this post, I want to say that the most important thing I have learned from my North Pole experience is that, there really is no limit to what is “possible” in this life. After having run from +50°C in Death Valley, to -35°C in North Pole, I can definitely say that ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE.

I have now lost interest for more challenges. After having completed races in almost all the continents, in every distance, in every temperature and in every terrain, I now only feel the need to complete my long career as a runner and traveller by running at the last Continent (Antarctica), and by doing so, to qualify as the first Greek in the Marathon Grand Slam Club.

Following that, I will embark on a new chapter in my life. I will continue to run races by combining them with exploration of beautiful places on our planet with my supportive wife, but I will be less determined to challenge my limits, which have been tested so many times before. I am looking to divert my energy to the mountains instead, and to share more magical moments and reconnect with some of my best friends out there. 

© Hannisze

© Hannisze



1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! What an amazing adventure and achievement. Well done.

    ReplyDelete