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26 May 2011

A Marathon of Superlatives (Gold Coast Airport Marathon)

By Sivaraman

A Marathon of Superlatives

A marathon in the midst of a 12000 feet deep ocean. World’s coldest, the northern most, all-night under the mid-night sun, uni-directional, on the top of the world (pun intended).

The North Pole Marathon.

Yes. I ran it on Friday, 9th April, 2011. All of 42.2 km in -34*C, feet sinking calf deep in soft snow. Having lived all my life in temperate and hot climes, I had hardly seen snow, let alone marathoning on it. But I had to run on all seven continents plus the NP to qualify for the Marathon Grand Slam Club.

North Pole entailed funny gear. Heard of a balaclava? Mittens, Snow-shoes, Snow goggles, Ice cleats? There were three layers each covering the head, torso, lower body and feet. Plus body and toe warmers. I did several practice sessions just getting in and out of the gadgets. Most formidable were the snow-shoes. Walk with the likes of a mini-ski hitched under your shoes, and your feet stand separated by twelve inches and the gait betrays hyper-herniated hydroceles. No snow where I live. So I practiced on beach sand. Half hour past, my sides were in splits. Do 42 km strapped to this thingummy?

If you attempt something as bizarre as the North Pole Marathon, be prepared for something as zany as the airstrip splitting in the middle even as you are about to land. On the 6th May when our flight from Longyearbearn (Norway) descended on to the Russian Camp set up 100 km away from NP, where our marathon was to take place, the pilot revved back at the last minute. The airstrip had developed a 1 meter crack in the middle. That happens when you try landing on a huge floating iceberg, whose south end decides to go on vacation. But the Russians miraculously sutured the fissure in just 24 hours. And behold, who walks into us while again waiting at the Longyearbean airport! Prince Harry, who had gone to the NP three days earlier.

Barneo, an adventure Camp set up by Russians, is the base camp for all NP expeditions. It is on the 89th parallel, meaning, just 110 km away from the geographic North Pole proper (90*N). The camp has an airstrip entirely constructed on solid ice. Unlike the south pole, which is ice covering the solid mass of the Antarctic continent, the NP is located in the midst of ice-bergs in the Arctic Ocean.

Our flight landed at 8 pm. The sun was a crimson ball positioned 10* above the horizon. All around there was ice and only ice, bathed in a silky sunshine, that remained for all the 24 hours we stayed at the Camp. The sun was to my left when I walked forward. It remained to my left when I returned. Unfathomable? That’s just what happens when the East and the West merge on the top of the globe (Mark Twain, had you been to the poles?). From NP, you always walk south, nowhere else.

The marathon was slated to start at 10 pm. The course was a 3 km circular loop, starting and ending at Camp Barneo, 14 laps around which will complete 42 km. Twenty-seven of us eagerly panting like the pole’s sledge-bearing huskies, flocked out to the start point. 10 pm. BOOM!

Sans any longitude, what is polar standard time? That being a bit nebulous, no one resets the watch after the last port of embarkation. You fly in from Alaska, you are on US time. We came from Longyearbean, we were on Norway time! East and West meet; Yesterday and Today coalesce at NP!

If I had practiced on sand for the polar run, Ricardo of France had trained inside a walk-in deep freezer, Norway’s Brendt had slept out at night, braving -3*C. They were people from colder countries. Will I be able to compete and complete? The answer came within 200 meters of the start. I was blown. The wind had gone out of my lungs and sight out of my eyes. Just before I blacked out, my hands furiously spanked off the heavily clogged goggles and the skin-tight balaclava choking my breath. Slowly, I started breathing easy. I continued with a simple face mask without goggles. I had read horror stories of ice radiation piercing the retina. But there was no time to worry. The race was on.

But after the third lap, I indeed started enjoying the run. One needn’t be much scared of sub-sub-zero, if one has enough warm layers around the body. And once past the initial learning curve, goggles and balaclava returned and I ran like a polar professional. Till the ice underneath gave way. Running lost in my thoughts resonating to the rhythmic BOOM, BOOM, CRUNCH, CRUNCH of the snow underneath, I suddenly felt myself stretched out on the snow, with both feet sunk inside ice. I remembered the crevasse on the airstrip. There was no one around to pull me up. Will the ice in front be as skeletal as that under my feet? If so, I would slowly slide into the Arctic Ocean, seals and otters for company. With a prayer on my lips, I did a push up with my hands. The ice under my hands held. I started running again.

I finished the North Pole Marathon in 9:30 hours. Bad? No way. Every runner had shelled out 11000 Euros for the run on the Pole. I ran 9:30 hours. Many did in 5:30, 6:20, 7:15 etc. Whose Cost Per Polar Hour was the least? Mine! Didn’t I pay top dollar to enjoy the polar sun? Heated tents are always thee, back home.

I had earlier run Safaricom Marathon, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya on 30th June, 2010 (7 hours). Five months later, in the same jungle cottage, Prince William proposed to Kate! Brush with Royalty, a marathoner’s privilege. On 31 July, 2010, I ran on the crimson red soil around Ayer’s Rock in the Australian Outback Marathon (6:30 hours).