Bi-Polar Marathon Man Heads North
By Don Kern
July 2003
Michigan Runner


Photos Courtesy of Don Kern

Michigan's harsh winter provided great training for three state men who recently ran the first North Pole Marathon. Dave Kanners of Rochester, Helmut Linzbichler of Harbor Springs, and Don Kern (that's me) of Martin ventured to the farthest north to enjoy this unique adventure.

I joined my South Pole traveling companions Brent Weigner and Richard Donovan along with eight other runners for this trip to the other end of the earth. Getting there was relatively easy, with commercial flights that would take us as far as 78 degrees North to the small town of Longyearbyen in the Svalbard Islands north of Norway. From there, it was a two-and-a-half hour flight on a Russian Anatov 74 plane to "Ice Station Barneo." Each year, the Russians set up a Barneo about 60 nautical miles from the Pole to accommodate polar expeditions. After landing we were shuttled about 7K to the campsite via helicopter. We arrived late evening Moscow time and were assigned to heated tents for our first night on the ice.

Evening, of course, is only measured on our watches, since we had reached the land of perpetual sunlight. The next morning at breakfast we were told that we would load on the helicopters at 2:30 for the trip to the pole to do the marathon. Around 12:30, we were suddenly told that we had five minutes to get on the helicopter because we were going north RIGHT NOW. We were beginning to understand why they called them rushin's as we hurriedly grabbed our bags and headed north.

We landed about an hour later, after dropping two groups along the way for ski expeditions to the pole, and Brent and Richard went out to set up the course -- a one kilometer loop we would run 42 times. After about an hour of hurried preparations, setting up a warming tent and putting up banners, we were ready. Nelsen Petersen of Kibo Productions was there to film the event.

And so we started, running a marathon in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, only a few feet of ice separating us from 12,000 feet of frigid ocean. After our ceremonial loop of 195 meters running together around all the degrees of longitude, we started on the course. The crisp snow creaked under our running shoes, providing firm footing for a few steps at a time, alternating with ankle twisting ridges and soft sugar-like looseness. Every step had the potential of breaking through a crusty layer and burying a leg up to the knee. The aid station was almost able to keep up with us, melting snow to mix with Gatorade powder or boullion soup. After 20 laps, they stopped me to inspect my nose, and seeing that it was turning white, sent me into the tent to get it warmed up. A Russian helicopter mechanic used a gigantic fist to rub my nose for about three minutes before finally standing back and declaring, "Is pink." He bundled me back up and sent me out to play some more.

Martin Tighe, who trained for this race on a treadmill in a deep-freezer, finished the race first in just over five hours. Because the helicopter had to be started periodically prevent freezing, our Russian hosts stopped the race and hurried us back to the camp before the helicopter ran out of fuel. Richard managed to finish his last couple of laps as we were loading, and the rest of us would restart back at camp.

My last 16K were on a 1K out-and-back, one end of which went around the ceremonial North Pole. As I finished my penultimate loop, Nelsen told me to do something good for the camera when I finished. A few yards from the finish I managed to remove my two jackets and my shirt to finish bare-chested in the 25-below Arctic air.

We had the whole next day to enjoy the Arctic ice, as we explored "Ice Henge" and the various leads (cracks in the ice) around the camp. Andrey Chirkov from Moscow insisted on getting a post-marathon shower, so he stripped to his shorts and dumped a sub-freezing bucket of water over his head, followed up by some Russian Vodka down his throat. I guess my naked pictures at the pole were a little tame after that, but, hey, I had a reputation to uphold.

Another "night" at Barneo and we were headed south again for a celebration get-together in Longyearbyen. The first marathon ever in the middle of a frozen ocean, new friends, and great stories. It doesn't get any better than this. and the adventure continues . . . MR



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