Extreme athletes discuss danger as flippantly as nine-to-fivers talk about traffic, or crappy coffee in the break room, or a lack of parking spaces. So when you ask Richard Donovan, 45, the man behind the North Pole Marathon what it’s like to run 26.2 miles on top of the earth, he off-handedly says, “Hypothermia can happen because it’s minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. You can get frostbite and polar bears are in the area, but we minimize the hazards.” He states the risks with the same nonchalance as your co-worker complaining about his frozen desktop—as if passing a polar bear in zero visibility on a six-foot thick Arctic ice floe is only as inconvenient as waiting for the I.T. guy. But for Donovan, both organizer and runner of this 9-year-old marathon, the seemingly insane becomes casual. However, he didn’t always have a grip on his calm mental state.
In an environment as hostile as the Arctic, where the ice could split at any moment, it’s easy to imagine the worst. “The reality is that when you get to the North Pole, you feel like you’re on land, but you’re not,” says Donovan, a native Irishman. “You’re on shifting ice. You think you’re stationary, then you look at your GPS and realize you’re moving all over the place.”
But to Donovan’s advantage, the North Pole Marathon wasn’t his first experience running over ice. In January 2002, a year before the official North Pole Marathon kicked-off, he won the first South Pole Marathon. The South Pole race taught him mental grit to stay composed while facing the risk of plummeting into frigid water. “After I finished that race, the obvious question to me was, ‘Is there a North Pole Marathon?'” Donovan says.
As luck would have it, there wasn’t, which meant he had the chance to become a pioneer. Four months later in April 2002, Donovan ran the first marathon at the North Pole. He enjoyed himself so much he wanted other marathoners to have an opportunity to run it as well. So he started Polar Running Adventures, his company that organizes races on opposite poles. But starting the race wasn’t that easy.
Here’s how it works: every year, to carve out a course on the frozen Arctic Ocean, a team of Russians—whom Donovan refers to as “hard men, used to the cold”—airdrop a tractor onto the ice. The tractor then plows a runway for a plane, carrying racers and supplies. Donovan restricts the number of runners to seats in the one or two aircrafts he secures. This year he had 41 runners compete in the race, with the fastest finishing time at 4 hours 17 minutes and 8 seconds.
Unlike most marathons that cover longer-distance loops, runners circle a small, 2.62-mile loop about 10 times. This shorter loop keeps racers close to camp and minimizes risk of navigational error in low visibility. “The pole is like the desert, because there aren’t any buildings or landmarks like a city marathon,” says Donovan. “You misjudge distance constantly. When you run it the first time, it seems so much longer than it is. That’s where the mental part comes in…You think, ‘will I be able to hold on?’ but you learn to manage your emotions.”
Getting a mental grip is one thing. Facing the elements? That’s a whole different story. Race temperatures are classified as “extreme sub-zero”. Wind chill makes it feel colder. And of course, you’re running on ice and snow. Donovan says some runners try racing in snowshoes, but the large shape makes running too awkward. Most racers opt for trail shoes, and wear layers of clothing including a warm base layer, a fleece layer, and a tracksuit-like wind shell outer layer. Runners also wear warm face covers to prevent frostbite.
Most racers finish between five and seven hours however varied weather conditions prevent consistency. “Nobody is going to be running a personal marathon best,” Donovan jokes. “Running on hard snow or ice or powder can change things.” Runner Thomas Maguire had the fastest time in 2007 at 3 hours, 36 minutes and 10 seconds, but Donovan says in another year, under different conditions, Maguire could’ve finished much slower.
The elements, Donovan says, are also a great equalizer. Two runners who have very different skill levels might finish an hour apart on a city course, but racing at the Pole levels the playing field. Those same two runners might finish only minutes apart, by default of weather. In the Arctic, all things are possible. These runners brave enough to test the ice don’t do it for fame or glory. They do it for the thrill. “It’s not a survival race,” says Donovan. “It’s a challenge.”