Adventure in the Arctic
It was a somewhat comical start to the race. Adam, our guide,
pointed his long rifle into the air and fired a single shot. Not one of
the 98 runners from 24 different countries moved. Had he spotted his
lunch flying overhead, or was he just testing his weapon? There had
been no countdown to the start, no announcement that the race would
begin with a rifle shot. We just stared as a group at Adam, and he
stared disbelievingly back at us as we stood motionless. It was only
when he started to wave his arms frantically that the penny dropped -
we were on our way. Another crazy adventure run had started, and the
spikes attached to my shoes began to bite into the ice as I trotted
gently away from beneath the start banner.
The race started on a level section of the slippery gravel road, and I settled down towards the rear of the field. I had just one goal for this adventure, and that was to pass under the finish banner within the four-hour time limit, although my competitive inner self was a little more ambitious, and I would be dancing for joy if I could break the three-hour barrier. The early stages were all about assessing how much grip my footwear gave me. There was a trade-off here. The faster runners, who were already speeding away from me, would be using lightweight spikes on their shoes to give them enough traction on the ice, but not at the expense of adding so much weight to their shoes that it slowed them down markedly. For me, stability on the ice was paramount; I just didn't need a heavy fall at my age, and was prepared to carry extra weight on my feet for the privilege of staying upright. I'd tested the running spikes that I would use on my shoes on grass at home, and the extra weight was noticeable. I'd carried out a quick calculation on the proverbial 'back of a fag packet' and it revealed that the extra weight my legs would have to lift during the half marathon amounted to almost sixty times my body weight, but it was a price worth paying. The day before the race we had been taken onto the polar ice-cap to test our footwear, and whilst others tumbled and slithered around me, my heavy-duty spikes glued me firmly to the polished surface.
After the initial mile or so, the trail gradually turned into the long steady and sometimes seriously steep climb towards the ice-cap. A runner, some 200 yards in front of me, barely visible through a low-hanging mist, was suddenly launched into the air after stepping onto a lethal patch of ice. Within seconds he was being picked up and dusted down by his fellow runners. Yes, we were in a competitive race, but we were all going to look out for each other in this hostile Arctic environment.
The climb up to the ice-cap was relentless. On the steeper sections I was reduced to a brisk walk, but I'd made a deal with myself that I would run as much of this route as possible, and the recent snowfall had actually made this easier as the cushioning effect of the layer of fresh snow provided extra traction on the slippery surface beneath. Then the snowy gravel road ran out. We turned right onto a fearsomely steep icy ramp and began to follow a narrow rocky trail that led towards the polar ice. As we climbed, the mist was clearing and a clear blue sky was revealed, but the marked route was barely 3 feet wide and already the leading athletes were running downhill towards me after exiting their loop on the ice. No room to pass each other safely without tumbling into piles of loose rock, so I stood aside and yelled encouragement as each one passed. In time the route opened out a little, and then it was my turn to run on the polar ice-cap.
It was a very emotional experience, and at times I felt moved to tears. The route we had to follow was clearly marked with poles and red and white tape. To deviate from this would risk falling into a crevasse on this constantly moving mile-thick ice cube. Through the dusting of the snow on its surface, the ice appeared like black, shiny granite beneath my feet; only on closer inspection could I see it was translucent, and could see the rocks and tiny pebbles embedded within it.
A massive smile stretched across my face. Here I was, a 65-year old grandad, and I was taking part in a running race on Arctic ice. For the umpteenth time in my life, I gave thanks that I had discovered running, and the opportunity to experience parts of our world that so few people get to see. The euphoria triggered crazy thoughts that drifted through my mind as I almost floated across the polished surface - what would our government think if they could see me right now? Would they demand I return my free bus pass and winter fuel allowance? As far as the eye could see, and in every direction, gentle rolling undulations of ice stretched to every horizon, glistening, sparkling in the sunlight that now bathed the whole scene: just ice, just sunshine, nothing else.
There was a little more wind on the ice-cap, and it was noticeably colder than it had been earlier, but personal discomfort was the last thing on my mind. A lone figure came into view; it was one of our doctors keeping a watchful and reassuring eye on everybody as they passed. I reached the 6 kilometre marker flag, and then began the descent back off the ice-cap. Running downhill might sound easier, and is of course easier in a normal environment, but running downhill on ice is a whole different story. As I returned to the gravel road, a small truck signalled the first of the aid stations, a chance to grab a mouthful of water and a welcome cup of a warm elderflower drink. This was no ordinary aid station - it was manned by Henrik Jorgensen, the winner of the 1988 London marathon - this race was just becoming more and more extraordinary.
"Have a great run," he called as I set off down the hill after the briefest of pauses. With so few in the race, and with such a wide range of abilities, we were now well and truly spread out over this vast, barren landscape, so were running solo for much of the time. To be honest I find it hard to find the words that do justice to the beauty of the scenery that I was running through. At each brow of a hill, or turn of a corner on the icy trail, a new breathtaking landscape would come into view, and the tiny camera that I carried in a pouch around my waist would come out again. This run was just too special for me not to pause and capture an image of what lay ahead of me. Towering but crumbling glacier tongues marked the exit points from which the ice flowed from the main body of the glacier. Rock-strewn but frozen rivers held the water that had melted from the ice-cap during the previous summer. Now locked in place for the winter, this moraine debris would have to wait for another summer melt before it could continue its journey towards the fjord, and eventually the open sea. Massive frozen lakes decorated the horizon, and high on the mountain slopes, small herds of reindeer and caribou playfully chased each other around.
We passed through areas of Arctic desert. Extraordinary. Flat, sandy plains and small dunes as you might expect in any desert, punctuated by the occasional thorny bush of Arctic willow, but instead of searing heat, pools of ice lay in the hollows.
And then there were areas of tundra - bare, rolling landscapes, patrolled by the occasional herd of musk ox, with virtually no vegetation at all. There are no large trees in Greenland - an attempt to plant a pine forest alongside the gravel road some forty years ago now has just 3 trees surviving, the tallest an imposing four feet high!
There was another benefit to this extraordinary journey. So breathtaking were the views, it left little time for internal reflection on any personal pain and suffering, and the kilometre markers just seemed to fly by. It had been my plan to remove the heavy spikes from my shoes once the going underfoot became less treacherous but, in fact, the recent snowfall ensured that this was never to happen. As I entered the final couple of miles, I began to experience severe cramps in both calves which inevitably slowed my progress. These were the sort of cramps I might expect to get in the final stages of a full marathon, but were undoubtedly hitting me earlier here because of the extra weight I was carrying on my feet.
The Long Lake came into view, so named because it appeared to stretch to infinity. I ran past two small wooden boats frozen into the ice, took a right turn, and began one final steep climb towards the finish line banner that stretched across the road half a mile away. I so wanted to run all of this final long hill, but the cramps were agony so it was more a case of run, stretch, walk; run, stretch, walk, but then I was there! I passed under the banner to the enthusiastic applause of the single timekeeper, who then placed a medal around my neck and managed to take a photograph with his frozen fingers to commemorate my achievement.
I glanced at my watch. I had finished the race in less than three hours and, in the words of a well-known television advertisement, I felt epic. It was another challenge confronted and overcome, and another encounter with Mother Nature that will leave indelible memories forever