Most travel to Greenland originates from Copenhagen, as Denmark governs the country. There are flights once a day from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq, which also happens to be the main travel hub in Greenland. From there, smaller flights have regular flight schedules several times a day to the other coastal cities. The decision to have the marathon in Kangerlussuaq each year may also stem from the fact that the longest road in the entire country is located there, due to Volkswagen having a testing area there for several years. The road goes from the town all the way up to the Russell Glacier, which is a main draw for tourists visiting the area.
The flight from Copenhagen was about 5 hours long, but the plane was very spacious and comfortable. They fed us well, and the food wasn’t bad at all. I guess the days of poor airline food are gone. We arrived in Kangerlussuaq to a winter wonderland, which is about what I expected. The sky was grey and blended in with the snow covered landscape. It was 12 degrees outside when we landed, but it felt good to step off of that plane onto the runway knowing we were finally in the Arctic. The baggage retrieval was a bit hectic, with the entire plane having to disembark and then file into the airport, and then go down into a basement area that had the conveyor belt with the luggage. I would recommend waiting until the line goes down if you are claustrophobic. After we got our bags, there were guides employed by Albatross that were directing people to where they were staying. There were three options: the hotel that was located in the airport, some lodges that were next door, or the “old camp” located about a mile away. This was where I was staying. It was the cheapest option, but that is not to say it was run down or dirty. If there was a knock on it at all, I would just say that it was a bit cramped. Anyone expecting to go to an outpost town in Greenland and to stay in luxury, I guess the airport hotel is your best option. The old camp consisted of three trailers that had small dorm style rooms and communal bathrooms with showers. There were commons areas where you could gather for breakfast each morning, and a small kitchen where you could cook. In the lobby trailer where you check in, there is a small giftshop and they also let you purchase Wi-Fi access.
My first planned adventure was to go out to the Russell Glacier with a small tour that left from the old camp. With the temperatures being extreme, I am sure this is the only way to safely journey to this part of the glacier during the winter, and maybe during the summer months as well. If you brought all of your hiking and camping gear with you, I suppose you could just “show up” in Kangerlussuaq, but in the winter months this seems like a very tough environment to do that. I only saw one person camping the entire time, and they were not located very far from the town.
We drove a small bus out to the glacier, which took about 45 minutes due to how slow we had to drive. The bus was freezing, no heaters on this particular vehicle. My biggest problem during my first day was my feet and toes. I was wearing some Timblerland boots made out of leather. I guess because they weren’t properly insulated, and a bit large in the toe area, it didn’t matter that I was wearing wool ski socks. My toes were in pain almost the entire time we were out. I am not sure how I would have made it back, if the driver had not let me sit in the front with him where there were heaters. My toes were hurting that badly. That being said, I was not going to let anything stop me from seeing that glacier up front and close. We drove off the road and came around to where the glacier begins to rise up, a gigantic wall of ice shooting straight up out of the ground. Seeing it during overcast skies apparently is ideal, since it showcases more of the baby blue colors in the ice. A pair of good hiking boots would come in handy to navigate the rocks and rough ground leading close to the glacier. There are several large rocks that you can stand on to get some spectacular photos of the glacier. Also, if you look at most of these rocks, there will me small patches of vegetation, some sort of lichen with a lot of interesting colors and textures. It was surprising to me that anything could grow out here and remain alive during the harsh winters, which see the temperature plummet well below zero.
After we got back to the bus, we had some hot chocolate, and thankfully I was able to ride the rest of the way home. Not just for my frozen toes, but the driver was a very knowledgeable source of information and answered my tons of questions our entire ride back. I mostly asked about the relationship between Denmark and the native Greenlandic people and how the economy seemed to be completely reliant on Denmark. It apparently costs the Danes a ton of money to keep the country running. As we got back into town, there was a plume of smoke coming out of a bbq looking device outside the police station. Our guide informed me that some young people had been caught bringing marijuana back into the country on the same flight I was on earlier. The cops confiscated it and then just burned the entire amount, getting the entire town high in the process.
Back at the Old Camp, things were pretty social. I don’t know how the atmosphere would be there without an event taking place, but for our few days it was like being back in college. People from all over the world were getting to know one another and having a great time. I was laughing all night at the hilarious jokes and stories I was hearing, especially from my roommate Phil. He was from England and was a master prankster. You could never tell if what he was saying was a jest or if he was actually serious. I think Phil keeping the mood light made the weight of an arctic marathon over our heads not as foreboding.
The next morning after we woke up and had a lite breakfast in the commons room, we all boarded a much nicer bus to head out onto the glacier again, this time further up to the part we would be running on. We stopped once along the way to take some photos and walk around on the snowy road. It was actually pretty sunny and cold was nowhere near as biting as it had been the day prior. This would lull us all into a false sense of security…
When we got to the end of the road, the bus stopped and we got out and walked the remaining way onto the glacier. About a mile and a half of the route was available to us for exploring, so many people strapped on their ice spikes to see what it would be like walking on that surface. I made sure to wear exactly what I planned on running in, just to get a feel for things and see how comfortable I was. It was crazy to look down and see solid ice as a surface and be walking around on it. The spikes I had worked perfectly though, I felt secure wherever I stepped. There were several rolling hills of ice all over this landscape, and the running route seemed to wind right through them. There were small signs posting the distance into the race.
After we had walked the route, we got back onto the bus and headed back to town. We stopped once more to have some hot chocolate and visit a good viewing point for the glacier. When we got back to camp, most of my time was spent organizing everything for the race and making sure I was not forgetting any articles of clothing. When it was time for dinner, we boarded a bus and went back to the airport/hotel and had a banquet dinner and information session. They were very thorough on explaining how the race would go and I didn’t feel like anything went unanswered. At that point, it was just a matter of how the weather went. Which was going to be a surprise, unfortunately.
The day of the race was quite an experience. We headed out to the starting line up on the glacier before the sun was even up, and were greeted by extreme gusts of winds that blew snow and ice, and temperatures that were close to zero. As soon as the door opened on the bus and the wind blasted in, you could tell people were nervous. Things got kind of chaotic as people tried to decide whether to stay on the bus until the last possible minute because it was so cold, and also trying to figure out where to drop off our gear for the latter parts of the race. I guess this was where training for this in the unseasonably hot Florida autumn was going to catch up to me. I will detail how the race went in a separate blog, but I will just say it was quite brutal, and because of how rough it was on the glacier, I was pretty much dead in the water by the time I reached the halfway point at mile 13. The wind and ice had taken its toll on me, with the weather being the worst in the 12 year history of the race. I found out later that the race director Lars had almost cancelled the marathon that day because of it.
After the race was a really nice BBQ, with musk ox, reindeer, and a lot of Greenlandic grilled food. I was pretty out of it, but did take a minute to grab a plate and try to eat something. Since I was running the half marathon the next day, I wanted to eat and get re-hydrated before resting the rest of the day. Once I was back at the Old Camp, I collapsed into bed and slept until dinner. That night, we got to eat in a large tent at one of the towns few restaurants. It was quite a feast, and everyone seemed to be in a celebratory mood. I tried to shake off my disappointment from the marathon, and it was reassuring to know that I could still go back out and run a race the next day and try and do better. I think being used to running ultra marathons kept me from being too worried about fatigue or soreness stopping me from the second race. I had fallen a few times during the marathon, but nothing to keep me from giving things a try.
The day of the half marathon went much smoother. The winds were not extreme, and there was no ice blowing into our faces. I felt like I could run composed and once I was off the ice, run at a steady pace that I was used to running back home. I finished 10th overall, the first American to cross the line.
video done by Nicolai Brix
The rest of the day was spent back at camp celebrating with everyone. Telling old race stories, having some good food that people had brought from home, it was a really great thing to be a part of. I now have friends on every continent and I can’t wait until we see each other again. Dinner that night was awesome, and I continued to meet new people and hear everyone’s amazing race experiences of how they made it to the finish line. The next morning, we all headed back to the airport and checked into our flights. I was continuing on to Ilulissat farther north with about 20 other runners. Before we had to board our planes, I walked around town with Phil and bought a few items to take back home. There was a shop with a lot of beautiful hand carved jewelry and sculptures, all made from the bones and horns of musk ox, and I bought a small polar bear head necklace for my girlfriend.
When it was time to leave, we boarded a small propeller plane and headed even farther north, to the ice fjords of Ilulissat.