Running ultra marathons has taught me that the best laid plans often go awry, and finishing something this taxing on your body depends on your ability to not only adjust, but to press on when everything inside of you is going wrong. I would say that this definitely applied to my experience running the Polar Circle. As they say, “so much depends on the weather”…
The morning of the race begins well before the sun begins to come up. Getting up early enough to have a light breakfast is important, since the bus leaves around 6:00 AM. Old Camp breakfast offered cereal, yogurt with some granola, and toast that you could put some jelly on. Everyone was pretty quiet at breakfast, the anxiety of what was awaiting us up on that glacier was like a physical being sitting at the table, watching. After getting my gear on, and checking everything for the hundredth time seemingly, it was time to board the bus. Thankfully, we had one of the nicer tour buses that seemed to retain warmth. Slowly, we drove up the road towards the start of the race as the sun began to creep over the arctic wasteland.
Up to this point, we had been in Greenland 2 days, and had gotten a taste of just how cold it could get here. That, plus the fact that we had all been up on the glacier to inspect the course gave us a false sense of security. Because as soon as the bus came to a stop and the door cracked open, it became apparent just how vastly different this morning was going to be from what we had experienced less than 24 hours before. An arctic blast exploded into the bus, and a few of the people who had gotten off right away were now scurrying back onto the bus. I decided to wait as long as I could before going to the finish line, which was about 100 meters ahead of where we had parked. This gave me time to ready my hand warmers and adjust my Buff neck warmer so that it covered most of my face. As the clock ticked closer and closer to race time, I took a deep breath and stepped outside the bus and into polar chaos. There were many people huddled in front of each of the bus’s for warmth. I tried to find out which bus I needed to drop off my bag at, which I intended to retrieve at mile 7. No one seemed to readily know where to put the bags, so it was a lot of confusion. I eventually found the right person to ask and tossed my bag into the back seat of the bus. This was actually very hectic trying to figure all of this out while the wind howled and the cold set in. Even more concerning was how worried all of the medics and race staff looked once I got onto the start line. I found out later that the race was almost cancelled and that this was the worst weather they had ever seen for race day. The race director made it clear that we were to keep our faces covered while on the glacier and to watch our fellow runners for signs of frost bite. After these brief set of instructions, the siren went off and it was go time.
The temperature was around 5 degrees fahrenheit to begin the race, and gusts of wind on the glacier made the windchill dip down to -22 degrees. The ridge leading up to the glacier was steep, but that was the least of my worries. As soon as I was onto the ridge, a blast of wind jerked my entire body. A combination of how sudden this was, plus the fact that a steep cliff of solid ice was a few feet to my left, made me immediately acknowledge just how extreme this race was going to be. I don’t know exactly how far it was to the bottom of that cliff, but lets say it was more than 100 feet. Once I made it up to the top of the ridge, there was a path leading back down and onto the glacier itself. This path had a lot of uneven surfaces and a few rocks, so the footing was definitely something I was being cautious with. Keep in mind, all of this was within the first two miles of the race.
The glacial landscape was like a constantly rolling white desert. The hills made out of solid ice were sporadic and plentiful, our race path zing zagging through them, and sometimes right over them. The Yaktrax strapped to my feet did a good job whenever I stepped directly onto the solid ice, and I was able to stay light on my feet. Unfortunately, these parts were not the entire glacier course, as I would have preferred to run on the ice instead of the soft snow that was piled over a foot deep. The constant motions of high stepping through the snow and then climbing up and down the hills made my leg muscles burn. This part of the course, which was the first six miles of the race altogether, made me appreciate all of the weight training I do. Having these physical challenges at the beginning of a marathon would make this a warriors race, but on this day, it was the elements that were truly against us.
We were constantly battered by the wind, which seemed to howl over the ice in every direction. It was nearly impossible to keep my neck warmer pulled up over my face, and eventually, it froze into one solid piece and stuck onto my beard. The medics on the course were yelling at us to keep our faces and ears covered because of frost bite warning. They ended up pulling nearly 30 runners off of the course and forced them to wait inside the buss’s to warm up. My glasses fogged up and were useless, if I tried to wear them to block out the winds then I was running blind. The double walled bottle I had with an electrolyte drink froze solid, so I regretted having to lug that around. On just about every hill I climbed, it was like I was pulling something behind me, that is how strong the wind gusts were. I eventually linked up with some other runners and stuck close to them until finally, I could see the path leading off of the ice cap. By this time, I was exhausted. I went out too fast to have encountered those kinds of conditions that quickly into the race. When I saw the first aid station at mile 6, I foolishly pulled off my Yaktrax and handed them over to be picked up at the end of the race. Of course, I fell less than a minute later, slamming my left knee into the permafrost ground. It was going to be a long race.
Right before the first drop station at mile 7, the course levels out and becomes a series of gradual uphills and downhills. I stopped inside to peel off my frozen neck warmer and ditch my bottle. Your bags are located in whatever seat of the bus you left them on, and you yourself get onto the bus to retrieve them. After having a cup of water, and mistakenly taking a gulp of the warm elderflower drink, I was back on the road. The sun was out at this point, giving an entirely different feel to the race. This really was like two different races in one. I tried to remain as upbeat as I could, taking in the beautiful scenery and fresh arctic air. It was still extremely cold, but when in direct sunlight things were tolerable. When the steep hill leading up to the half marathon point came, I tried to put things into perspective. I was halfway done with the race and hadn’t done much walking, save for the most chaotic parts of the glacier. I guess what was the most worrisome thing to me, and was eventually my downfall, was just how tired I felt for only being at mile 13. That distance was an almost unconscious run for me back home, even in the heat. Today, after what had happened the first 6 miles, it may as well been an ultra marathon. Determined to give it my best shot, I trudged back onto the course.
Now, I will point out that while this was my first marathon, I was not a novice to long distance running. I am used to pushing through when things start to go wrong or fatigue sets in. This current situation was something I wasn’t used to though. Being this dead so early in a race just was a huge mental hill to climb, and it wasn’t going away. I alternated running and walking but nothing seemed to keep me going for any significant amount of time. Before long, I was mostly walking. Everyone at the aid stations were really nice and encouraging, and I probably would have been in even worse spirits had it not been for them. Thankfully, I made it to the last aid station, 3 miles from the finish line. There was a photographer there, and he was shooting a video for the race. I think the expression on my face said it all.
Frozen beard, delerium, and 3 miles of tundra left to run. I cranked out a mile of running just to try and get me as close to the end as possible before I dropped, and I came to a crawling halt about a mile outside of town. I could see the airport and the flat land stretching out to the fjord. The final hill was in front of me before town, and it was a steep one. All I remember was how a bus driver had told me this hill made people want to quit right before the end. I can see why. That part of brutality finally behind me, I zombie walked my way into town. Passing a few locals that were cheering runners on, I put on my most positive face possible and lightly jogged down the street, and turned left to where the finish line, the barbeque, and the party was. Thank the Norse gods, this one was in the books. My first marathon took every last bit of mental and physical strength I possessed.
…and at the battles end, she is great
The next day, I woke up with some soreness, but thankfully my knee wasn’t as stiff as I feared it would be. Being an ultra marathon runner finally kicked in and I knew if I ran a smarter race, I would be ok today. The winds were not as bad, and no snow was blowing up on the glacier. I kept a steady pace and ran within my means, never sprinting uphill on the ice or the path leading up to the glacier. I got off the ice with no falls, and was feeling like a completely different runner than the day prior. After I got onto the road, I maintained a steady pace the entire rest of the way. I made sure to stop at every aid station and drink two cups of water. I couldn’t believe how much better I felt than I did during the marathon, at exactly the same portions of the race. As the road rounded and the hill leading up to the finish line came into view, I kicked into another gear and began to pass some of the runners ahead of me. The final climb was a beast, and my legs were screaming at me as I passed the last runner in my view. When the climb finally ended, I was exasperated to see that the actual finish line was still 20 meters to go. I pumped my fist as I crossed the finish line, 10th place overall and the first American to finish that day.
I had traveled halfway across the world to one of the coldest and most remote parts of the world, and ran as hard as I could in two races. It was all worth it and given the challenges I have faced during the year of 2015, I wouldn’t have had it end any other way. To those that wish to journey to the ice and run either of these races, good luck and resign yourself to the fact that the arctic will throw everything it can at you.
- J. Christopher Caravello