ChiRunning at the North Pole

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Richard Donavan is an ultra marathoner from Ireland who was the first person to solo run a marathon distance at the North Pole in 2002.  Every year since 2006, Richard has organized a North Pole marathon ( Because I have an adventurous spirit, I signed up for the 2010 event knowing it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I knew the slippery snow on ice footing would be problematic for power runners that push off with their feet to propel them forward. I would have an advantage with my pain-free ChiRunning technique since my feet would only be used to support my running posture. It’s amusing to view the running of a marathon on snow as a 42 km sand pit exercise!

Accommodations for running the marathon were at the temporary Russian research ice camp Barneo, located approximately 100 Km south from the actual North Pole. It’s built using tents on a six to twelve foot deep ice floe in the middle of the Arctic Ocean with Greenland as the closest land mass approximately 750 km away. Travel to the ice camp is in a modified Russian jet from Longyearbyen, a Norwegian island settlement located approximately 1200 km south of Barneo. Cracks sometimes form as one did about two inches wide right under our sleeping tent. We were advised to sleep fully clothed and to be ready to evacuate our tent should the crack worsen. Thankfully it didn’t. However, two days following our departure from Barneo, the same crack widened causing a crevasse through the ice camp with a number of tents ending up on their own separate ice flow. Despite the risks, I found the Barneo staff very capable and never felt in danger during our three-day stay.

We were scheduled to start running on the morning of April 7th. The temperature (without wind chill) was approximately -10˚ C (or 14˚ F). However, the winds were up to 50 km/hr with an overcast sky, which caused low visibility whiteout conditions that the Barneo staff decided was unsafe to run in. By late afternoon the winds died down and visibility improved so we started the marathon at approximately 4:00 pm Barneo time. Time of day was a somewhat ambiguous concept since it was constant daylight for 24 hours a day.

The marathon running course was comprised of just over eleven loops through Barneo, where runners had access to their race food and drinks left in the mess tent. A medical doctor was also available in the mess tent to assist runners if required.

The depth of the snow varied throughout the course to the point that some sections were best suited for snowshoes while others were best suited for spikes that slipped over the running shoes. I was ready for both, but chose to use slip-on spikes. This past winter, I included snowshoe running as part of my training. It was interesting adapting the ChiRunning technique. In ChiRunning your feet momentarily contact the ground in a manner designed to only support your posture and in a manner designed to minimize resistance to the forward pull of gravity. This is far easier in running shoes on asphalt than it is with snowshoes in deep snow.

Soon after the start, the weather quickly deteriorated into low visibility blizzard conditions with a wind chill of -20˚ C (or 4˚ F) resulting from winds at 45 km/hr. Sounds harsh, but I was quite comfortable having trained in this type of temperature this past winter in my home town of Ottawa, Canada. My clothing included a base layer of thin merino wool, medium thickness running tights and a soft shell running jacket. I also wore a balaclava, facemask ski goggles, pair of gloves, two layers of socks in my New Balance 790 trail running shoes, and the slip-on spikes. The trail running shoes were covered with glued-on rip-stop vinyl and gaiters.

The race itself involved a strategy of ChiRunning what you could run, and ChiWalking what you couldn’t run due to snow depth. I used a slightly modified ChiWalking technique in the deep snow, which involved more emphasis on pelvic rotation for increased stride length and less emphasis on cadence. Sorry Danny (laugh) but I felt this modification worked well under the conditions for maximum speed.  Other runners who saw this technique thought I was “power walking” …. not (laugh again)!

The race took me just over six hours to complete which was a fourth place men’s finish.  The first place finisher took five hours and the last place finisher took almost ten.

The next day we were scheduled to helicopter to the actual North Pole (a solitary spot on the Arctic Ocean at the top of the world) then fly back by jet to Longyearbyen, Norway. This was delayed by a day as we were grounded at Barneo due to inclement weather.

The whole trip was an incredible adventure, with the run being only one part. My favorite part of the trip was the camaraderie and stories shared by the 25 like-minded adventure marathoners isolated for over three days at Barneo.

Written by Former Certified Instructor Michael Stashin

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