“Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom”
Bertrand Russell, philosopher
It might be run over a classic marathon distance of 42.2kn (26.2 miles), but the North Pole Marathon is no classic marathon. Dubbed the 'world's coolest marathon' for obvious reasons, the North Pole Marathon has been described by its race director Richard Donovan, the first marathoner at both the North and South Poles, as: “The trip of a lifetime in one of the most remote parts of the planet. You are only there for 48-hours, but it can be one of the most incredible, surreal and life-changing experiences an athlete will ever encounter.” He might just be right.
If racing at the top of the world - at the geographic North Pole – and dealing with (and overcoming) the extreme sub-zero temperatures are not challenging enough when an athlete gets there, Donovan points to even greater hurdles to overcome just to get participants to make the leap of the imagination to travel to run on Arctic ice floes, with 6 to 12 feet separating them from 12,000 feet of Arctic Ocean.
“It’s a huge decision to participate, but making the decision is the biggest action. People don’t know what to expect, so there’s a certain amount of mental exploration on their part. Conquering that uncertainty is a brave decision.”
There’s the uneven terrain (“similar to running on sand”); the cold (“some people train on sand, others run on treadmills in freezers”); the notion that a polar bear might appear at any moment (“they rarely do, thank goodness”) or that you might fall through a piece of ice (“highly unlikely”). In truth, the anticipation and the nervousness an athlete might feel in the build up to the race is nothing compared to the rewards they will feel after the herculean effort of completing it.
Donovan says: “I always tell people to enjoy the anticipation and nervousness pre race. They have to embrace the fact they have no control over anything. If you have no control, you have no responsibility. It helps them to relax. There will be a massive high after the race and athletes start to look at life differently as a result. It brings a different perspective, a new meaning to things. You have managed to overcome something you were afraid of. It wasn’t that bad. You take that positivity into everyday life. And if there’s a low, athletes tend to sign up for another race to get that incredible kick again.”
With all of the psychological uncertainties, the kit athletes wear on the race must be pretty important? “As soon as people land at the North Pole and they realise their kit works, it is a huge relief,” Donovan points out. “Running high-energy activities brings its own challenges. A runner will tend to get hot and sweat even in the coldest of weather, so it's important to have gear with good sweat wicking and ventilation capabilities. The problem, otherwise, is that when runners slow down or stop there can be a build up of ice, or freezing, in wet areas that would contribute to hypothermia. The key is to control temperature through your gear and perhaps remain slightly cold. You have to try to stay in control in cold weather, particularly with pacing, energy output and body temperature control. I have worked with UVU from the outset of this extreme challenge to overcome these things. UVU’s clothing helps to takes care of any problems you might encounter on the journey, allowing you to get on with the race.” It’s a great place to start.