A decade of the North Pole Marathon

City endurance runner RICHARD DONOVAN has just returned from the North Pole where as well as celebrating the 10th North Pole Marathon, he marked the occasion by bringing his wife, sister and eight-year-old daughter along. Here in his own words, he describes what the occasion meant to him and just what it takes to organise a marathon on six feet of ice with polar bears roaming around.

Richard, pictured with his family on Spitsbergen island, prior to departure. From left, his sister Alice, wife Caroline, and daughter Jaimie.

Richard, pictured with his family on Spitsbergen island, prior to departure. From left, his sister Alice, wife Caroline, and daughter Jaimie.

Executing the North Pole Marathon is a difficult logistical exercise.

The pole is not situated on land but on the frozen water of the Arctic Ocean. Six feet of ice separates contestants from 12,000 feet of sea below.

In late-March, the sun finally appears at the North Pole after six months of continuous darkness. The area suddenly switches to six months of continuous daylight, 24 hours a day. The ice is robust and stable for several weeks after a winter of extreme cold and it is an ideal time to operate the North Pole Marathon.

To set up a camp to cater for the marathon and other visitors at this time, a suitable ice floe must be located in the immediate North Pole vicinity. The floe needs to be of a certain maturity that renders it capable of withstanding a plane landing on it.

My Russian logistics colleagues search for this floe in late March, with two Mi-8 choppers flying to the region with only enough fuel for a one-way ticket. Once an ice floe has been located, an IL-76 cargo flies overhead and airdrops a tractor and personnel to carve a runway of 800 metres length into the ice. It is difficult and technical work.

This year’s crew had to endure -50C temperatures and work in three hour shifts only to minimise the potential for frostbite.

The runway was finally completed on April 4and I brought 50 people on two flights (AN-74 planes ) to the ice camp on April 6. Among them was my wife Caroline, my eight-year-old daughter Jaimie and my sister Alice.

It was time the family knew what I was doing for a decade

It had been ten years since I first ran a marathon at the North Pole and my family were long overdue a trip to witness at first hand what I have been doing for a decade.

To take part in my first North Pole Marathon, a ‘solo’ run on April 5 2002, I travelled to Spitsbergen island which is about 1,000km off the northern coast of mainland Norway. A plan to be airdropped with an advance Russian crew had suddenly changed to my being flown in on the first ‘technical’ flight to test the runway. After a few days helping to build the camp, I was choppered to the exact Geographic North Pole and simply ran 26.2 miles on the ice floes with a GPS recording distance. It was bitterly cold at -60C windchill and I had little or no support.

A lot has changed in the past decade. This year’s race is already receiving global coverage: CNN and Sky News coverage is the norm; 41 competitors from 18 countries and five continents ran in the event; electronic timing was introduced for the first time; and there is a new title sponsor for the race – a luxury brand clothing company called UVU. The race is also known as the ‘world’s coolest marathon’ and contestants have raised more than €2.5 million for charities in the intervening period.

Mind the bears

The race had to be patrolled by armed personnel this year due to a polar bear threat, with two of them spotted in the area a few days prior to the event. But it was an absolutely fantastic and life-changing experience for contestants, and somehow all 41 competitors managed to finish the race.

It was also an amazing experience for my eight-year-old Jaimie, who by coincidence became the youngest person in history to stand at the North Pole. She spent 60 hours on the ice, staying in tented accommodation and mixing with explorers and marathoners, before returning to Spitsbergen.

Jaimie learned about the cold, the notion that polar bears were potentially around the area, and that huskies can warn humans about the presence of bears nearby.

After the race, Jaimie was choppered to the exact Geographic North Pole with the marathoners as we had been floating on the ice and were 13 miles from the exact pole when the race was complete. The temperature varied from -25C to -30C as she stood at the Pole with a Knocknacarra National School teddy bear called Frederick.

There is now an incredibly strong connection established between the North Pole and Galway City and we probably have more people per capita who have visited the Pole than any other city in the world.

Each year, fellow Galwayman Fearghal Murphy handles all logistics for the marathon on Spitsbergen island. In 2004, there were four Galway competitors: Fearghal Murphy, Paul Grealish, John Lally and Diarmuid Smyth. In 2011 charity worker Ronan Scully completed the event and this year Paul Grealish returned to the pole at my request to assist a multiple sclerosis sufferer from France who had a dream of completing a marathon at the North Pole. It took the Frenchman almost 11 hours to finish the race, with Paul accompanying him all the way, and he truly inspired everybody present. In 2007, local journalist Ralph O’Gorman joined the marathon group to stand at the North Pole and report on the event and in 2010 Pat Comer filmed the race.

This year, three others have now joined this unique Galway club.

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