This weekend I took part in the Polar Circle Marathon, in Kangerlassauq, Greenland, 100 kms north of the Arctic Circle
Three days before the marathon, in transit in Copenhagen, I start to have symptoms of a cold. I am mortified. I haven’t had a cold in the last five years. I have spent six months preparing for this race. I have somehow managed to adhere to a disciplined training regime, running hundreds of miles. I have meticulously researched and planned the technical clothing I need to stay warm. I have become an authority on the food and fluid I need to keep me running for up to seven hours in the extreme cold. Yet the possibility of developing a cold did not even occur to me in my contingency planning. I hurry to the 24-hour pharmacy. I am anxious because Day and Night Nurse, my drug of choice, isn’t available in Denmark. I have to make do with the Danish version of Strepsils and parecetamol.
I am panicking because I know it will take every ounce of energy just to get through the race. Fighting a cold virus will sap my stamina levels. A running nose at sub- zero temperature is torture as the mucus freezes down your face to form a solid stalactite that you have to keep bashing off with your glove. So I just take things easy in the two days prior to the race. When the plane touches down in Kangerlassauq, my fellow runners head off for musk ox safaris or glacier sightseeing trips. I go straight to bed with the shakes and a high temperature. However, I get up in time for the welcome dinner of wild trout and musk ox burgers in a heated tent strewn with animal furs and get a spectacular view of the Northern Lights as an added bonus.
Fast forward 36 hours to the day of the marathon. The event doctors have said I am fit to run. I am part of an incredible community of marathon runners of all ages and abilities, from across Europe, Asia, the USA and Australia. Forty men and ten women are running the marathon distance. Right at the beginning, there is a four kilometre traverse across the polar ice cap; the most technical and demanding part of the course. We carefully manoeuvre the ridge of the ice cap; one slip could mean a drop into a glacier crevasse! Then we wade through knee high snow at 15 degrees below freezing. I decide to take this very slowly because I think that if I try too hard I will run out of steam before I complete the remaining 38 kms. Yet once I climb down from the ice cap and change my mountain boots for running shoes, I feel my confidence returning, I relax and start to enjoy myself. What follows is truly amazing. For most of the race, I’m running on my own through the arctic desert. There is a deafening silence that I have never experienced before. The only sound is my running shoes hitting the snow. The spectacular landscape is an unexpected treat. I run through a breathtaking ice landscape with glacier tongues, snow covered moraine hills, tundra and arctic desert. And a miracle has happened. My nose has stopped running. I’ve forgotten I have a cold. It’s just me in perfect communion with this big arctic space.
The runners are widely spread out so the only people I meet in the next five hours are the enthusiastic Danish race marshals accompanied by local Inuit school kids, who are manning drinks stations every five kms. They ply me with hot elderflower cordial and energy bars. Despite the sub-freezing temperatures I never feel cold, even when it starts snowing. I never get exhausted or miserable, and I sing 1930s big band songs in my head because they just feel appropriate. And I keep going. And suddenly, at 40 kms I see the Lego-like buildings of the former US airbase that is now the village of Kangerlassauq (and the finish line) in the distance. At 41 km, my roommate, a Danish violin maker who has already long completed the race, has run out to greet me and to graciously re-run the final step of the race to accompany me. I am crying with happiness. I have the energy to sprint the last two hundred metres to the line. I am euphoric. I am 35 minutes inside the maximum time allowed for the race (my goal was to finish within this cut off time). I am the eighth woman finisher but I feel like a world champion. You couldn’t chemically manufacture a better feeling. Everyone should get a bit of this.
After the race, my cold decides to come back from its temporary holiday with a raging vengeance. I hope it had a good a time, wherever it went. This interesting phenomenon has given me much to think about concerning what you can prepare for, what you can’t, and how important it is to be ready to turn on a sixpence when needed. More on that next time.