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Conditions make it unlikely that anyone will run a personal best at the North Pole Marathon. (Mike King)
Conditions make it unlikely that anyone will run a personal best at the North Pole Marathon. (Mike King)


North Pole Marathon: 42 kilometres below zero Add to ...

To hold a marathon on water, you first need a tractor. This week, one will be dropped from a Russian cargo plane and will parachute on to a large ice floe near the North Pole, where it will be used to clear a runway for a plane carrying 26 people from around the world, including one Canadian, out to conquer what bills itself as "the world's coolest marathon."

"It's the type of event that anybody with a sense of adventure will take on," said Richard Donovan, president of Polar Running Adventures, the company that organizes the North Pole Marathon.

A tractor is just one requirement of an event that is hardly your typical 42-kilometre race. Then again, holding a run at the Pole frees Mr. Donovan from many of the concerns associated with a standard race.

"I obviously don't have to worry about traffic," he said.

A runner himself, Mr. Donovan got the idea for the North Pole Marathon after he won the inaugural South Pole Marathon in 2002. "Nobody had ever run a marathon at the North Pole, so it just seemed logical to turn around and go up there," he said. More than 180 people from 33 countries have completed the event since it was first held in 2003.

"There are a lot of marathon runners out there who are looking for the next thing to do that they haven't experienced already," Mr. Donovan said.

Although he doesn't have to worry about traffic, he does have to worry about runners becoming hypothermic, especially with temperatures usually hovering around -25. (In 2009, a particularly cold year, the mercury dropped to -37 degrees). Snow blindness, a temporary loss of vision caused by sunlight reflected off the ice and snow, is also a concern. There is also a fear a runner might lose his way without signposts or landmarks to guide him.

To guard against these possibilities, the marathon course is a five-kilometre loop marked by tiny orange, glow-in-the-dark flags dotting the snow every 20 metres. The short loop means organizers can keep an eye on runners, and anyone in trouble can see a physician at the medical tent.

"I want it to be a marathon, not a survival race," Mr. Donovan said.

The event has attracted every type of runner, from a 66-year-old grandmother from Wales to a 23-year-old ultra-marathon runner from Taiwan. All pay an entrance fee of €11, 900 (about $16, 000).

This year's field includes runners from Great Britain, India, Norway, France, Ireland, the United States, Luxembourg, Hungary, South Africa, Australia, Spain and Canada's Glenn Harkness, a 48-year-old who has never run a marathon before.

"The whole reason I'm doing it is for it to be a powerful message to children and youth that come to Boys and Girls Clubs here and across the country to be active and eat healthy," said Mr. Harkness, executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Hamilton.

He said the long, harsh winter in Southern Ontario this year was great training weather.

"It's been an absolutely wonderful winter for me," Mr. Harkness said.

Michael Stashin was one of three Canadians who competed in the event last year.

"I like to run and I like adventures," the 49-year-old Ottawa-based computer consultant said.

Participants meet in Spitsbergen, a Norwegian island. From there, they will fly to an international North Pole camp drifting in the Arctic Ocean between 89 degrees north and the Pole.

Runners will head out on the course within 16 hours of landing and will stay for a maximum of 48 hours, sleeping in tents - if they sleep at all at the Pole, where the sun will be shining 24 hours a day.

And although they may not feel it, the ice they are on is always moving, meaning they could be drifting away from the Pole even as they head out on the race.

"Running at the Pole is kind of a nebulous concept in that way," Mr. Donovan said, although the race is always in the "immediate North Pole vicinity."

After the race, runners are flown by helicopter to the Pole to have their picture taken.

"There's nothing there, but it's just an amazing feeling," Mr. Donovan said.

Mr. Harkness says he is looking forward to standing on the top of the world.

"I think there's going to be something almost spiritual about standing on that spot," he said.

Most competitors complete the marathon within seven hours. Last year's winner finished in five hours. But it's not as if anyone is heading to the Pole to log a personal best.

"The time that you run it in is kind of irrelevant," Mr. Donovan said.

What's not irrelevant is what runners bring with them. Layers upon layers upon layers of clothing are essential, Mr. Stashin said, adding that the course's mix of ice and snow would ideally be traversed sometimes in snow shoes and sometimes in running shoes with spikes attached.

Of course, runners should bring more than just gear with them to the Pole for the event, Mr. Donovan said.

"A sense of humour helps."

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