Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant - Robert Louis Stevenson.

North Pole Marathon 2010 Diary

Having competed in several desert events in the past, the idea of taking part in the north Pole Marathon is a bit like "jumping out of the frying pan into the freezer" and I wasn't exactly sure how I would get on. Below is the story of my participation in the event which took place in April 2010 (even though the diary was written nearly 18 months later!)

Run Up to the Event.

I entered the marathon nearly a year in advance of it taking place and, in order to try to attract a large sponsor, I decided not to select my guide early but was offering a sponsorship package which would include the chance to send a staff member as my guide - perhaps a bit of a risk but it would have been worthwhile if it had worked as a strategy. Unfortunately, no major sponsors came forward and I ended up having to decide on a guide close to the cut off for booking flights. In the end, after much deliberation, I chose Alex Pavanello, who, at the time, worked for St Dunstan's, the charity for which I was planning to raise funds. I had only met Alex once before the trip and we never had the opportunity to train together so you can imagine the potential for a disaster. Read on to find out how the trip went in the end.

Listen to audio diary for the run up to the event. (Please allow time for the audio to download)

Thursday 1 April - Getting ready at home.

Pick up the story the day before departure, as the excitement builds.

Listen to audio diary for the day before departure. (Please allow time for the audio to download)

Friday 2 April - Glasgow to Oslo.

Believe it or not, as the day of departure arrived, I still hadn't got all my essential equipment and packing was still under way! Several items had to be collected en route to the airport including food and goggles from a local shop and silk gloves and socks from my mother. However, notwithstanding my apparent shocking lack of proper preparation (which wasn't quite as bad as it sounds, honest), I was finally ready to head to Edinburgh airport with my wife Shauna to meet Alex who was flying up from London to meet us. After a quick top up of foreign currency, I met Alex as planned. Time then for us to bid farewell to Shauna and get some food before the flight to Torp in Norway. It was also time for Alex and I to learn a bit more about ourselves as we'd only met once very briefly before. The flight left on time and we soon found out that we knew as little about the geography of Norway as we did about each other! Although Torp is called "Oslo Torp" it turned out that it was in fact about 2.5 hours away by train from Oslo Gardenon, the main Oslo airport - a bit of a shock to say the least! We were also very lucky with our transfer from the airport to the station as it only just made it in time to catch the last evening train (literally by about 1 minute!). The train journey was very uneventful and sleep was high on the agenda. We finally caught a very expensive taxi to our hotel ***** on the airport perimeter. Although the roads were clear, the snow lay all around and certainly set the scene for what was to come over the next few days. After a quick unpack, Alex and I had a very enjoyable buffet evening meal and, in a very quiet foyer, a shot on the adult rocking horse!

Listen to audio diary for Friday 2 April 2010. (Please allow time for the audio to download)

Saturday 3 April - Hotel in Oslo.

As today was an entirely unpressured day because our onward journey wasn't booked until Sunday, we decided to take our time about pretty much everything including getting up. Breakfast was a lazy and most enjoyable experience. Guilt then took its toll and it was decided that we ought to at least test out our marathon clothing in colder conditions than had been offered in UK. We didn't have to go far to decide that running in knee depth snow was a poor (and very tiring) idea so we beat a hasty retreat to the hotel. Alex headed for the gym and sauna and I did some judicious repacking of my kit and a bit of recording. In fact we managed to take a long time doing not a lot all day, and polished off the evening with a long and very delicious buffet meal once more. I couldn't help feel that this was the quiet before the storm!

Listen to audio diary for Saturday 3 April 2010. (Please allow time for the audio to download)

Sunday 4 April - Oslo to Spitsbergen.

Today was again a relatively leisurely one with most of the time spent travelling, first by bus to the airport and then onwards to Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen (in the district of Svalbard). In the airport we met one of the other competitors, Mike from Canada - I guess we must have been pretty obvious or something but he certainly spotted us pretty quickly! Alex managed to fit in a quick training session as we waited to depart - he got himself locked out of the terminal and had to make a long detour to get back in again! Spitsbergen, which is in the Artic Circle at 78 North, is far bigger than I had imagined and is approximately 94 square miles in area with some very significant mountains into the bargain. The small airport didn't take long to clear and we grabbed a minibus taxi ride into town, at the same time catching our first glimpses of the snow and ice all around. Many of the houses were built partly down into the ground, to make insulation easier, and our hotel, the Radisson Blue Polar, was no exception. Shoes off was the norm and we were welcomed by the stuffed carcass of an extremely large polar bear in the hotel foyer - certainly not a creature I'd like to meet so closely in a live situation - he was huge! We got settled in and went for a gentle wander round town to get some supplies from the local supermarket. The evening was pretty relaxed and we had a fantastic buffet meal, including a host of unusual dishes such as carpaccio of whale, reindeer steaks and seal! We also dined shoulder to shoulder with Zinedine Zidane which was a tale to tell to my boys - I did manage not to ask him about his head butting technique!

Listen to audio diary for Sunday 4 April 2010 featuring the rather interesting room service menu in the Blue Polar Raddison hotel! (Please allow time for the audio to download)

Monday 5 April - Longyearbyen (Spitsbergen).

The past few days of luxury were beginning to create a false sense of security in my mind and I quite liked the idea of booking into the hotel for the next few days without thinking about the marathon but today was the day when all the other competitors had to arrive and the real purpose of coming all this way was about to become reality. However, we still had most of the day to do some local exploration including a walk down to the shore, being buzzed constantly by skidoos, sight seeing in town at the 2 miner's statues and post office (with its "No guns allowed" sign and some shopping for presents. A fair bit of the day was spent lazing about until we went back to the airport for a safety briefing from our Russian hosts. Interestingly, at the airport, there is a 'Seed bank' in which is stored a vast number of sample seeds of plant life from all over the world - something to do with the specially cold conditions that makes it a good place to store them. Briefed to the hilt, we headed back to the hotel for a briefing from Richard Donovan, the race organiser, and handing out of event items such as T-shirts and baseball caps etc. After repacking once again, the day was rounded off with another pleasant meal in the hotel - Alex went for the buffet again but I went for something more conservative in the form of a pizza in the bar with some of the other competitors.

Listen to audio diary for Monday 5 April 2010 featuring the sights of Longyearbyen and briefings from the Russian staff and Richard Donovan. (Please allow time for the audio to download)

Tuesday 6 April - Longyearbyen to Camp Barneo.

Finally, after all the luxury, we were going to get going to the ice itself. A hearty breakfast was followed by leaving unnecessary baggage in the hotel conference room and then a transfer to the airport in a variety of vehicles. After a bit of a wait, we walked out to the Russian Antanov aircraft and took our seats - the sense of expectation was palpable! I managed to capture a number of audio recordings during the flight, in particular with Richard Donovan, the Race Director - he indicated that he expected the temperature to be around -27C and that the race should go ahead tomorrow. He did, however, say that the wind was quite strong. After around 2.5 hours flying, we finally landed on the ice somewhere relatively close to the North Pole. The runway was marked by rows of black poly bags filled with snow down either side of the strip.

The Russian organised camp was called Camp Barneo and it is set up and run annually for around 5 weeks from late March/early April to early May. The camp manager was a Russian called Victor Boyarski - quite a legend in his own right as he had been one of the members of an international dog sled expedition that had traversed 6000 miles of the Antarctic in 7 months, in 1989/90. It was Victor who then gave us our welcome briefing in the large messing tent. I was really quite surprised at the level of comfort that was available - 4 10 man sleeping tents and a main messing tent, in addition to the tented quarters for the camp staff. All the tents were linked into an extremely efficient central heating system!! Sadly the arctic loo however, was not included in the central heating system and all business had to be completed at double quick speed! The temperature was, in fact, only around -10C but there was a constantly strong wind of around 30 miles per hour and visibility wasn't great either. After the briefing, competitors were given time to settle in and grab a cup of tea. I managed to grab an interview with Sarah Oliphant and her dad Arnold from San Diego. Sarah, aged 14, was aiming to be the youngest person ever to complete the Grand Slam of Marathons. After the North Pole Marathon, she would only have the Antarctic Marathon to do - some achievement! That done, it was time to check out what it was like to get outside in the teeth of the gale. Not only that but the cold appeared to have made everyone go a touch mad and half the competitors ended up playing the Russian staff at football - no mean feat in a 30 mile per hour wind!! A rather crazy (but likeable) Romanian, Andrei was also seen playing drums just outside the messing tent! Just when we thought things couldn't get much more bizarre and we had retired for another cup of tea, we realised that amongst the people who had arrived on the plane behind ours was a BBC film crew which included Sir David Attenborough! They had flown to the North Pole area to film for the forthcoming 'Frozen Planet' series, due to be screened in October 2011. I was itching to ask Sir David for an interview and probably would have chickened out of asking had it not been for Sarah's enthusiasm - she offered to take me over and how could I then refuse the chance. Sir David was charming and gladly gave me a good 15 minutes of his time to record an interview for posterity - absolutely fantastic experience from my perspective.

The rest of the day was spent chatting to other competitors, visiting the huskies and checking equipment for the expected race tomorrow. Winds continued to be very strong and visibility was not great so there were concerns that the race may have to be delayed unless things improved by the following morning.

Later on in the evening I met Mike Scholes, who had come up to take part in a trek to the North Pole - quite bizarre to come all this way and bump into another St Dunstaner!!

Listen to audio diary for Tuesday 6 April 2010 featuring chats with Alex Pavenello, Terry Harker, Joep Rozendal, the flight out to the ice, more chats with Richard Donovan, Sarah and Arnold Oliphant, Andrei Rosn drumming and a football match. (Please allow time for the audio to download)

Wednesday 7 April - Race day!

We woke this morning with the wind still blowing very strongly and possibly even worse than last night. Consequently, the expected start of the race was held back because of poor visibility.

Most of the day was spent chatting to other competitors and I recorded interviews with Joep Rozendal from Holland (the eventual winner), Paddy Clark from England (works for BBC Radio) and Emer Dooley (from Seattle but originally from Limerick in Ireland).

One interesting fact, we learned from the camp staff, was that the wind and tide combined had made the whole ice cap drift much larger distances than we had imagined possible and at one point the ice was drifting at 1 kilometre per hour!

Sarah Oliphant then decided to 'keep the troops amused' by singing her own song - the tune of "Standing at the Top of the World" but with her own words - far braver than me to get up in front of all that crowd!

Sitting around became the norm throughout the day and we began to have fears that the race might have to be postponed until tomorrow. However, in the end, whilst the wind stayed very strong, the visibility improved a little and the race got under way at around 4 pm. We had to run 11 laps of just under 4 kilometres. After 2 laps, I had to stop to remove the foot warmers from my trainers as they were causing blisters and, in any case, I was well warmed up by then. A good long stop after 5 laps put a bit of energy back into my rapidly tiring limbs. We then adopted the plan that we would aim to complete the last 6 laps by doing a 3 lap stint followed by 2 laps and then finish with a single lap. It was a good plan as I was getting extremely tired the longer the race went on.

Each lap had about 1.5 kilometres running down wind along the runway and then the remainder of the route back into the wind and off the smooth surface into much more broken ground.

After a gruelling 7 hours and 37 minutes, Alex dragged my carcass over the finish line. I was completely goosed! Mind you, what a sensation of achievement! In the end, our lap times were: Lap 1 38 mins, Lap 2 38 mins (including stop), Lap 3 28 mins, Lap 4 31 mins, Lap 5 53 mins (including stop), Lap 6 39 mins, Lap 7 37 mins, Lap 8 55 mins (including stop), Lap 9 39 mins, Lap 10 48 mins (including stop) and Lap 11 50 mins.

The race was won by Joep in a time of 5 hours and 8 seconds - pretty impressive, though clearly considerably slower than the times you would expect in a standard marathon race!

As all the other competitors came in from the cold, a bit of a party spirit spread through the group with bottles of Jagermeister, beer and hot cups of tea in plentiful supply. Once I had recovered sufficiently, I managed to capture some other interviews with Krzysztof Szachna from Poland and Ivana Pilarova from the Czech Republic - it is probably clear on the recordings that a minor amount of alcohol had been consumed by this stage! A most welcome camp bed then awaited each of us and I gladly sank into a deep and very satisfied sleep.

Listen to audio diary for Wednesday 7 April 2010 featuring chats with Joep Rozendal, Paddy Clark, Sarah's song, Chat with Emer Dooley, the race and post race chats with Krzysztof Szachna and Ivana Pilarova. (Please allow time for the audio to download)

Thursday 8 April - Waiting at Camp Barneo.

A fairly frustrating day today as, although the wind had dropped considerably, the visibility was still not great. It soon became clear that many (or all) of us were likely to miss our flights from Spitsbergen out to mainland Norway. We were, however, hopeful that the helicopter flights to the geographic North Pole would still be able to take place. Indeed, earlier flights had taken off to deliver other trekking groups to their start points.

We were also told that, during the time of the race, a crack had appeared in the ice which passed right through the camp area and out across the runway, putting in possible doubt the ability of the plane to land without an alternative runway being made - all a bit of a salutary lesson in the ways of the Arctic!

The day dragged by in a fairly frustrating way but the banter was good and we enjoyed reminiscing about yesterday's race. We also had to ensure that our bags were fairly ready to go, just in case we got the word at short notice.

Victor Boyarski delivered an extremely interesting talk on his 6000 mile Antarctic trip in the late 1980s - an incredible story of determination and team work.

In the evening, I interview Matt Nichols from London as we sat around the mess tent with a few ales, before everyone eventually drifted off to bed.

Listen to audio diary for Thursday 8 April 2010 featuring a chat with Matt Nicholls. (Please allow time for the audio to download)

Friday 9 April - North Pole to London!

A fairly unexpected start to the day saw us wakened and told to be ready to leave in 30 minutes - a surprise to say the least! It turned out that we were going to go immediately to the North Pole by helicopter and, on our return, fly in the Antanov back to Spitsbergen. Suddenly the camp was alive with action again as we all boarded the helicopter and were given our safety briefing from one of the Russian staff. Essentially it consisted of "If you go to the left when you get out, you're dead!!" Certainly clear and very concise!

After all preparations had been made and baggage had been deposited at the messing tent, we took off and made our way (a flight of around 30 minutes) to the geographic North Pole, flying over a lot of large cracks in the ice field. When we arrived in the area, the patent method of checking the landing site was to firstly drop a heavy old tyre out onto the ice. When this did not disappear, a man with a long pole jumped out and prodded around on the ice to check for any obvious weaknesses. Only when these checks had been successfully completed did the helicopter pilot gingerly rest the aircraft down onto the ice.

Apart from the chatter of competitors and the whistling of the wind, the sensation of total wilderness was immense. The satnav was used to check that we were indeed exactly at the pole and a couple of glasses of celebratory hot gluwein were consumed. We were all given around 20 minutes to enjoy the peace and to take photos. I don't suppose I'll ever be back again but it was certainly a privilege to have had the chance to experience this magnificent place.

It was then over all too soon. A sharp whistle blast indicated that it was time to leave and, after everyone had got back aboard, the engines whined into action and we flew back to Camp Barneo. The Antanov was waiting for us and the luggage had already been loaded. Hurried 'thank yous' to the camp staff and then we were off back to Spitsbergen. Richard handed out race medals (which were very proudly worn) and everyone then started to disperse in all direction.

Alex and I had already missed our morning flight out and had to negotiate and purchase new tickets. In the end, we managed to get flights all the way to London. Ironically, this meant that Alex arrived back in Heathrow earlier than he would have done if we had not been delayed! Unfortunately, I drew the short straw and had to stay over in Heathrow to get a flight back to Glasgow in the morning. Matt Nichols joined us on the journey to London. After sussing out the accommodation situation, Alex saw me to a taxi and I shot off to a cheap (and somewhat dubious) hotel in the Heathrow grounds.

As I lay trying to get to sleep, it was incredible that that morning I had been standing at the North Pole and now I was in the middle of Heathrow - one of the busiest airports in the world - what a contrast!!

Listen to audio diary for Friday 9 April 2010 featuring the helicopter flights to and from the geographic North Pole, the Russian safety briefing, chats with Matt Nicholls, one of the Russian staff, Richard Donovan, Pat Comer and the flights back to Spitsbergen and on to London. (Please allow time for the audio to download)

Saturday 10 April - Back home in Glasgow.

Breakfast, a taxi to the terminal and my flight back to Glasgow brought to an end one of the most amazing journeys I've experienced to date. The wilderness and unpredictability of the Arctic is certainly something I will never forget.

Thank you to everyone who supported me in making this trip, it was fantastic. Thanks too to Alex for hauling me round the race course and making it possible for me to take part in the marathon.

Listen to audio diary from the day after getting home. (Please allow time for the audio to download)

Jamie Cuthbertson, 12 October 2011