North Pole marathon
Sports World

Polar express

Sportsworld joins a group of hardy souls tackling the North Pole marathon.

Temperatures at the Pole dropped to -30 degrees Celsius

It is in one of the world’s most remote and unforgiving environments but for a few days the fragile beauty of the arctic ice plays host to a handful of adventurers determined not just to reach the North Pole – but to run a marathon there as well.

It is an annual quest to the top of the globe for the only 40km race in the world run entirely on water and it produces emotions every bit as extreme as the landscape.


 -Watch Andy Richardson’s voyage to the North Pole

 -In pictures: Running on top of the world

However for some of the original 26 competitors the journey started in the most unusual of surroundings.

Ted Jackson prepared for the run of a lifetime by training in the deep freeze of his local butchers in southern England.

Ted, by his own confession, is not a natural athlete but that did not stop him cycling all 21 stages of the Tour de France and over the next few years he hopes to run a marathon on every continent.

“People just don’t seem that surprised,” Jackson says. “I have done a long list of silly things and this is just the latest one.”

Hostile environment

Several days before the race competitors congregate at base camp on Spitsbergen, the largest of Norway’s Svalbard islands, about 600km north of the mainland but still more than 1,000km from the North Pole and the temperature is already down to -20 degrees Celsius.

The shifting ice makes visiting the Pole
a unique experience every time

Spitsbergen’s natural beauty is intertwined with the reality that the island has one of the most hostile environments on earth. 

Two thirds of its surface is covered by glaciers, the soil is frozen to a depth of 500 metres, and the sun never gets above the horizon for five months of the year.

Richard Donovan, the race organiser, admits that even though some of the competitors have clocked up more than 300 marathons, some are making their debut over the distance and the conditions will be a shock for all.

“The first thing is they’re effectively running on water over the Arctic Ocean, so it can be quite a scary experience if you look at it that way,” says the Irishman who won the first ever South Pole marathon in 2002 and later that year became the first man to complete the same distance at the North Pole.

“None of them will have had experience of running in such low temperatures. We can expect it to be around -30 on the Pole.”

But with anticipation mounting ahead of the marathon the elements demonstrate their power and organisers announce a delay in clearing the ice runway at the Barneo camp which is a few kilometres away from the Pole.

The delay leads to a six-day wait with two of the original 26 entrants dropping out as a result.

“It is enough. I want to run, to get this race over so I can go back to my wife and children,” Hans-Jacob Bernsten, the first Norwegian ever to enter the race, says.

Long day

However the delay does give competitors the chance to acclimatise, which was especially handy for one of the favourites for the race South Korea’s Ahn Byeung Sik, who won a 250km race in China’s Gobi desert in 2006.

“I like being in extreme environments. I have run in the Gobi desert, the Sahara, in Chile and at the Antarctic so I was looking for a different experience,” he says.

After a frustrating wait, news arrived that the arctic runway was ready and a few hours later the runners are heading away from a Spitsbergen night, and towards the continuous daylight of springtime at the North Pole.

Camp Barneo, a seasonal home for scientists, explorers and, once a year, marathon runners, is on an ice sheet that drifts a few kilometres away from the exact North Pole.

Ahn raced to victory in just over four hours

A short helicopter ride brings the runners to the spot that defines latitude 90 degrees north – the northern most point on earth. As the Pole is covered by constantly shifting ice, it makes every visit unique.

From elite athletes to enthusiastic amateurs, 24 runners from 10 different countries were about to begin their personal duel with the arctic ice.
“I’m feeling good. Very strong,” Ted Jackson says before the race. “I have no chance of finishing in time to get that flight home obviously,” he says half in jest but unaware of how prophetic his words would be.

Runners were required to complete a 4.2km circuit 10 times in order to cover the 42km marathon distance, and with difficult terrain plus windchill taking the temperature way below -30 Celsius, it was a task that proves more than challenging.

Korea’s Ahn leads from start to finish completing the course in a time of four hours, two minutes and 37 seconds.

Frost-clad, exhausted but equally exhilarated Ahn manages enough breath to thank the North Pole. “I have had an experience I’ll never forget,” he says.

However back on the ice, the rest of the field are facing an unexpected race against time, as the last flight back to Spitsbergen prepares to leave.

Agonisingly short

Some runners finish just in time, but after just over seven hours of running, a sizeable minority of weary souls are forced to leave the North Pole without getting the chance to complete their marathon.

It is a devastating finish for runners who had paid or raised around $15,000 to be there.

“We effectively had to introduce a cut-off point which we’ve never had to do before,” Donovan explains. “Russian logistics had a plane on the runway and I couldn’t delay it any longer.

Ted fell agonisingly short of
completing his dream race

“It meant six runners didn’t get the chance to finish, so I am going to pay for them to come back next year and get this race done.”

Ted Jackson is one of the six being forced to stop a few agonising kilometers from the line and the crushing disappointment is etched on his frozen face.

“There was never any question I was going to finish, but I can’t rightly wear a finisher’s t-shirt or medal. Right now my knees hurt and I never want to see any more snow again, but I reckon I’ll be back next year to finish some unfinished business.”

It had all started as a once in a lifetime adventure, but few could have realised just how tough a test they set themselves and that for some next year it will become a twice in a lifetime experience.

Watch part one of this episode of Sportsworld on YouTube 

Watch part two of this episode of Sportsworld on YouTube 

This Sportsworld special airs from April 7, 2008 at the following times GMT:

Monday: 1130 and 2030, Tuesday: 0230 and 0730, Wednesday: 1330, Thuesday: 0630 and 1930, Friday: 0130 GMT

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