Running the Polar Circle marathon
A full-length trail marathon across the ice-cap and through Arctic desert and frozen tundra always promised to be tough – and the Polar Circle marathon didn’t disappoint.
But the beauty of the undulating course run over the harsh ice, past jagged blue glaciers and grey frozen lakes was worth the pain – the eerie silence of minimalist Greenlandic wilderness broken only by the sounds of my breathing and my shoes hitting the track.
Unseasonably good weather and perfect blue skies meant the 60 or so runners on the 26.2-mile course had no need for any Inuit words for snow. (As Geoffrey Pullum pointed out in the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, Inuit languages like the west Greenlandic Kalaallisut spoken in Kangerlussuaq, are polysynthetic. They use a root such as “snow on the ground” aput, and add suffixes. For example, “a patch of snow on the ground” is aputitaq. So the number of words you can create is in fact only limited by your patience – which worked the same way with the English language experiment I conducted during the run to list 100 marathon runners’ words for pain using Anglo-Saxon modifiers like ‘ow’, and ‘fucking-ow’.)
The flip side of the lack of snow, which looked as though it would make the course easier, was that the ice cap had no covering to offer grip. This made the initial section of the race treacherous, like running up and down a steeply pitched 100m-thick ice cube. With the ambient temperature at the start recorded at -10C – and with a biting wind coming straight down from the north pole making it feel far colder than that – the race was living up to its “coolest marathon on Earth” nickname.
Race organisers Albatros had prepared us for the worst and recommended we bring spikes that slipped over ordinary running shoes to provide grip – but to be honest the few millimetres of carbide steel provided scant purchase on the hard ice and I might have been faster in mountain boots and crampons.
My race plan was to try to keep up with the leaders on the steep climb to the ice cap and over the ice, gambling that I could recover on the downhill section, and see what happened after that. This worked well enough until we came to run down a slope of solid ice, my feet disappeared from under me and my teeth jarred together as my left thigh connected with the ice. I could do nothing to stop myself sliding another 30 ft downhill and off course. Adrenaline helped me pick myself up and gingerly make my way back to the marked path and off the ice cap – but I had a feeling I would pay for it later.
The sweeping views of the jagged blue-grey cliff of the Russell glacier went on for miles, and as the track crossed a stretch of Arctic desert, the ice crystals glistened in the low sun like millions of diamonds. The temperature can reach 40C here in the summer, with -57C the lowest recorded in winter, and it’s one of the driest places on Earth, so I was grateful for the frequent water stations (although I wish I hadn’t decided not to carry my own water supply in a fit of 5am race-plan tinkering on the day of the run).
The rest of the route followed an undulating rock and gravel track back to the race’s base at Kangerlussuaq, an old US air force headquarters that is now the country’s main transport hub. Most tourists only stop here to catch a connecting flight to see the icebergs at Ilulissat (there are no roads connecting Greenland’s towns so you have to take a small propeller plane or helicopter). Greenland is the most sparsely populated country in the world, with 56,450 people in 840,000 square miles (although most of it is uninhabitable ice-cap) – so, like any town here, you only have to wander a few minutes in one direction to find yourself in pristine wilderness.
The race attracted runners from around the world, with 18 countries represented this year. Many had run extreme and exotic marathons, like the retired South African lecturer who had already knocked off seven marathons in seven continents, and is now well on the way to completing his next goal of running 26 marathons in 26 countries. Others were tackling their first 26.2-mile race. Oxfordshire businessmen Tony Jones and Simon Biltcliffe were having a change from their usual sports of mountaineering and cycling, as part of their plan to do “one stupid thing a year”.
When I crossed the finish line after 3 hours and 31 minutes it had warmed up to a balmy -6C and I found myself in a creditable 6th place.
After the initial post-race euphoria I realised my leg was hurting more than it should, and within minutes I could no more than hobble. There are no doctors or dentists in Kangerlussuaq – as the hotel guest guide helpfully points out in its entry under dentist: “There is no dentist in Kangerlussuaq.” Need a doctor? “There is no doctor in Kangerlussuaq.” Luckily, the marathon organisers had flown two doctors in from Denmark. Collaring one at the finish line, I was told that if I’d stayed lying on the ground with my leg pressed against the ice, my thigh might have been fine – once I made the decision to get up and run, the damage was done, he said with a smile.
Back in the office in London, doped to the gills on co-codamol and diclofenac painkillers, I have no regrets.
When I decided to train for the Polar Circle marathon a year ago I was tipping the scales at 18st 9lbs and my waist had expanded to 40-inches – meaning I couldn’t buy clothes in most high street stops. A group of old friends had rather unkindly started calling me “the bear”.
After four three-month marathon training schedules back to back, and 12 months of good old-fashioned calorie counting (no more bacon sandwiches; goodbye Vacherin and Brie de Meaux; daily bottle of wine cut back to one or two good bottles a week) I’m four-and-a-half stone lighter, need a belt to hold up 36-inch trousers and feel fitter than I have for more than a decade.
In the end my time was 14 minutes behind the winner, Danish Ironman triathlon champion Jesper Rygaard Hansen, whose regular marathon PB is 2:40. More experienced runners reckon I’ve got a chance of knocking off a sub-3-hour marathon on a flat course, so that’s my next challenge – that should help keep the weight off.