American Michael Wardian is one of a few dozen international runners who ran a marathon April 9 on drifting ice at the North Pole. Not surprisingly, he told Business Insider this week it’s the toughest marathon he’s ever finished, although he won it easily.
“I don’t love the cold,” Wardian laughed. He committed to last week’s 26.2-mile North Pole Marathon — the northernmost marathon in the world and the only one not run on land — because he had no previous experience with cold-weather races and welcomed the adventurous new challenge.
This winter, Wardian began training around his home in the Washington, D.C. area, where he hit the streets and treadmill to test how many layers of clothes he would need in the Arctic. The perfect amount of clothing is critical, he explained, because overheating is a danger.
“You really want to run as hard as you can without getting too sweaty, because as soon as you get sweaty in that type of weather you get cold, and then it freezes and you can get hypothermia really quickly,” Wardian says.
Wardian ran in the marathon in a little over 4 hours. That’s over two hours longer than it took the last winner of the New York City marathon to finish, possibly due to the difficulty of running on drifting ice and in many layers.
The night before he left for the North Pole, Wardian purchased a bigger size shoe to accommodate the multiple layers of socks on his feet. “My biggest goal was to come back with everything I left with and make sure all my extremities were intact when I got home,” Wardian said.
After a flight to Norway, Wardian boarded a Russian charter flight to Camp Barneo, a Russian-led temporary research center located next to the North Pole. Although initially worried about possible tensions between Americans and Russian troops in the camp, Wardian said the soldiers were friendly and didn’t mention the current situation in Ukraine. He purchased some souvenirs from the Russians.
“They gave me a canteen which just reeks of vodka, to live up to the stereotype,” said Wardian, 40, who works as an international ship broker.
The marathon consisted of 12 3.52-kilometer loops around the camp, while armed guards stood watch for a polar bear and her cubs that had been spotted in the vicinity shortly before the marathon.
Although some of the competitors took breaks throughout the race to warm up inside the camp’s tents, Wardian spent no more than half a minute indoors during the race. While he said the camp was never out of sight, portions of the loop took him far away from the tents, where he relied on black markers to stay on course.
“The consequences are pretty dire if you make a mistake at the North Pole,” Wardian said. “It’s nice because it’s a small loop that we’re running, so we’re not really exposed for that long, but within 15 to 20 minutes at those temperatures you can be at the far side of the loop and by the time someone has a chance to look at your face, you can already have a lot of damage.”
The cold was so extreme that Wardian worried moisture freezing around his eyes would hinder his vision. “I was worried my eyes were going to freeze shut, so I would breathe really heavily into my mask to try to create a little atmosphere around my eyes,” he said.
By the time Wardian crossed the finish line, winning with a time of 4.07.40, he had frostbite on his nose and his face mask was frozen to his face. “I had this huge ice goatee where my breath had just frozen,” he recalled.
“This was just so outside of anything I’ve ever done before. … For me it was kind of inspiring and eye-opening and exciting in that I’ve been so kind of scared about cold weather just because I don’t love it, but I really embraced it and now I know that I can do these type of things,” Wardian said of this year’s North Pole Marathon. He will next set his sights on the April 21 Boston Marathon.
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