Polar Circle Marathon
I was flicking through one of the running magazines I had bought and out of it sprang the photo that started it all!
The Polar Circle marathon in Greenland is probably the craziest thing Craig and I have ever done. Greenland! Honestly, you couldn’t get much further from Australia if you tried. We had been in snow only once each prior to arriving in Greenland and had absolutely no idea what gear we would need. We left Australia in mid-Spring with temperatures of mid to high 20 degrees Celsius, arriving in Greenland to temperatures of minus 19!
We looked on a map at the country. Strange, it was coloured completely white. Other countries don’t look like that! And then comprehension dawned – it was snow and ice. Nothing green at all. In fact as we found all fresh food consumed in Greenland is flown in from Denmark as nothing can be farmed there.
Kangerlussuaq is the only town in Greenland where a Boeing 747 can land. Kangerlussuaq is inside the Polar Circle. It was a US Airforce base in WWII, and in those days key in the monitoring of the Atlantic Ocean traffic during the war. The hotel in which we stayed is the old Officers’ quarters, and which is co-located with the airport terminal and airport cafeteria that also poses as the hotel cafe. Meat featured prominently on the menu. Vegetarians would struggle to live in Greenland I think.
We went out on an organised drive to see the course the day before the marathon. The race director indicated that he was pleased it had been snowing because this had put a thick layer of snow on top of the Polar ice cap on which we were running 5km. The team doctors had expressed significant concern that the ice would pose too much risk with no snow to cushion any falls, and safety prayers had been answered by the snowfall.
Three large vehicles arrived to drive us there, one being an old yellow school bus you would typically see in an older US film. Not four wheel drive either, and no chains! The driver was fairly confident, he indicated, that chains would not be required. Thus the drive itself became an adventure because of course the bus became bogged in the snow, and it was something of a circus towing it out.
Race day morning dawned with clear skies. We drove out to the start which was 35km from the town. Alighting the buses it quickly became apparent that it was (unsurprisingly I guess) freezing cold! My hands and feet started buzzing and amid cautionary words from the race director about avoiding frostbite, I became very scared that I was going to get just that! The race began with one of the locals firing a rifle into the air, and we were off!
The first kilometre involved scrambling up the moraine of the glacier. The moraine is the rubble that is pushed aside by the advancing ice of the glacier – it’s huge hills of loose gravel, rock and boulders. So in that first kilometre I was frightened of frostbite while overheating terribly because of the exertion needed to climb the moraine. Tears came but as I saw later in photos, they froze immediately on my cheeks!
Running on the top of the glacier was incredible. The snow was thigh deep in places. It was amazing.
We wore Kahtoola spikes and found them very effective on the ice. They dig into the ice and you don’t slip or slide.
After we did the 5km circuit on the glacier it was time to scramble back down the moraine and run back past the start line. Some of the runners had taken Camelbaks with water and it was so funny to see them stop at the trucks and dump the Camelbaks with the loudest CLUNK, as the water had frozen solid!
I found the next 14km really hard. It was difficult to get the clothing right. We were in normal runners with long Skins and then multiple layers on the top half. Despite my fears about frostbite I don’t tolerate being hot at all well and stripped off most of the clothing as we went. I ended up in a long sleeved technical top and my Gortex jacket with light gloves and a beanie that I took on and off as needed. We had made friends with another couple who ran a fair bit of this half of the race with us, and at 21km the husband elected to stop his run “I’m out. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Are you with me?”. I said “Yes” and made to step off the course but Craig grabbed me and said “You’re not stopping now. You’ll regret it forever”.
And so we kept going, and I’m extremely pleased Craig said what he said as I know I would have always regretted pulling out at 21km. Funnily enough it was after that point that I committed to the race and found the next 21km very enjoyable. We ran along together as we had in training, even overtaking others who were beginning to flag.
With about 5km to go Craig’s body began to pack it in. He developed terrible knee and ankle pain and was suffering. We stopped at the last drink stop and I was worried that he wouldn’t get to the end. They were serving hot Elderberry tea at the aid stations, as well as protein bars. We had trained on dried pineapple and sultanas however these too had frozen and were difficult to chew! We walked the next 4km. I’d dumped my extra layers in the truck at halfway and as I cooled down while walking I became anxious again about the cold. There was a bizarre moment when Craig tried to put his beanie back on. He’d taken it off when he was warm and carried it for a while. When he went to put it on, the beanie had frozen flat! The sweat had frozen and he had to pull hard on both sides of the beanie, with ice spraying off, and then jam it on his head!
We could see the town approaching and Craig managed to raise a trot. It was amazing running over the finish line and know we’d accomplished such a difficult event. By this time I was holding Craig up and I acted like a crutch for him to get back across the snow and ice to the hotel. After helping him undress I went back out to find us some food and drink!
So what would we do differently knowing what we know now? I think road shoes were perfectly adequate but trail shoes might be more sensible because they have the rock plate (for the moraine) and are typically more waterproof. I’d wear brushed winter tights and not Skins. I’d get better gloves. I’d put a couple of those chemical heat packs in my pockets. I wouldn’t bother carrying any nutrition as they had heaps on the course and knew the conditions far better than us!
And what else would I recommend? Greenland is a very very long way away. It’s unlikely we will ever get back there. I would really recommend people do the extension tour to Ilulissat afterward. This town is further north into the Polar Circle and was just so very beautiful. It is so hard to imagine how people live in these places and yet they do!
Polar Circle marathon was number 2.