The two-hour flight from Spitsbergen is pretty uncomfortable as the Antonov plane that is used does not have many luxuries. These planes were built for Arctic work; they mainly shift goods around rather than athletes and members of the press.
The marathon operates from a drifting Russian camp base at the Geographic North Pole –it is the only race in the World that is run on the waters of the frozen Arctic Sea ice.
Camp Barneo, otherwise known as the North Pole Camp is located approximately 49 kilometres from the top of the world. As I looked at my GPS watch I can quite clearly see that we were drifting about in the Arctic Ocean – northerly winds push the floating camp towards the southeast at up to 0.5mph – a little bit scary if you sit down and think about it.
Richard Donovan, the race organiser and all-round top geezer, marks the marathon course out around the camp. This is for safety reasons; well you wouldn’t want to get lost out here that’s for sure.
The runners this year had to complete 10 laps but they were able to retreat into a refreshment tent every lap to regain body warmth and hydrate themselves with hot drinks and snacks. Everybody needs to protect their skin against the harsh conditions. Our clothing included a full faced balaclava, goggles, gloves and mittens, long johns and several layers of thermal clothing under a ‘shell’.
This year, 60 athletes from over 20 Nations took part; China had a significant entry with 13 athletes vying for glory. The race started at 10:35 Sunday evening (15th April) with a temperature of ¯30° degrees Celsius. That time of year there is 24 hours of daylight, so it was a bright sunny outlook throughout the race.
Aside from the cold, competitors had to negotiate the energy-sapping soft snow and small ice pressure ridges to complete the race. Conditions were very tough underfoot, in places many had to slow their pace to avoid slipping and injury. As the race progressed temperatures dipped further to ¯33° degrees Celsius
This year’s winner was the wonderfully named Greek runner Argyrios Papathanasopoulos, transpires he’s an emergency physician now living and working in Halifax, England.
I was thrilled for my Aussie chum Marcus Fillinger who ran the race with two husky dogs called “Blue and Duro” as they now enter the record books becoming the World’s first dogs to complete the North Pole Marathon.
Later this week I’ll be heading up to The Barneo Ice Camp at the geographic North Pole. It’s one of the most remote scientific research stations on the planet.
It will be my nineth time that I will have visited this camp; nothing comes close to this surreal experience. I am extremely lucky and very privileged to cover the ‘World’s Coolest Marathon’ – The North Pole Marathon over the last decade.
This year we have been delayed by a week, actually all Arctic travel to the region has been delayed; the Russian’s are in charge, so perhaps we will know more on arrival.
Our Russki friends call their camp on the sea-ice, only 1° away from the North Pole, “Barneo” because it’s not Borneo… that’s a Russian sense of humour for you!
They may not share our wit, but their inventiveness, persistence and just good old fashioned guts in setting up the camp on the sea ice is second to none.
Barneo is a private temporary camp, each year it is assembled from scratch; helicopters take off from Siberia in search for a good, stable location. The frozen landscape at the Pole is constantly moving and the depth of the ice from one year to the next is unpredictable. They refuel on an island called Sredny and then head towards the North Pole. Once a suitable site is found on the sea ice, paratroopers are airdropped to set up a basic camp, they transmit their coordinates back to HQ , where an Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane chocked-full of fuel and supplies will follow. They fly in 50 tonnes of equipment – including a tractor with a bull-dozer for smoothing the ice to make a runway. The camp is only operational for a matter of a few weeks each year becoming the gateway for North Pole expeditions and of course the North Pole Marathon.
Finding the perfect ice-floe for the camp is challenging. The floe must be oval-shaped, detached from the surrounding sea ice and must be at least 2km’s long a runway can be built. According to sources this year, the ice is pretty solid from 1.60 to 1.82 metres, which is enough to land the plane and the 2018 North Pole Marathon competitors.
I’ll let you know how we crack on next time.
Plunging into ice cold water to compete in a swimming race did not sound like fun, but for nearly 1500 participants the World Winter Swimming Championships was the highlight of their year.
Tallinn in Estonia was the host for this year’s championship, from the air it looked a small compact city on the coast, dusted in snow giving it a winter wonderland appearance. On the ground temperatures were around zero degrees Celsius, but the wind chill made it feel much colder.
The International Winter Swimming Association president Mariia Yrjö-Koskinen summed up the spirit of the championship “the colder the water, the warmer the welcome”. Over 35 nations took part from as far afield as Australia, Brazil, Argentina, the US, Europe and even a competitor from Mongolia, with the youngest just 10 and the oldest at 93.
According to most of the swimmers it gives you a real legal ‘buzz’ making them feel thoroughly awake and revitalised. Many also are quick to report the therapeutic benefits of cold water swimming. Getting into effectively ice water is a shock to the system so to enjoy the sport; you must first learn to overcome this shock and continue to breathe!
Organisers in Tallinn had built the pool area adjacent to the harbour side, which measured 25 x 12 metres, with 10 lanes. There was a festival atmosphere with hot Jacuzzis and saunas where competitors could warm up after their ice cold heats. Races distances were 25 or 50 metres, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle as well as 4 x 25 metre team relays. Spread over 5 days there was plenty of free time to visit Tallinn and the surrounding area.
The Old Town was charming, but the highlight for me was the Gala dinner venue, the Seaplane Harbour maritime museum. Dinner beside the Lembit submarine was somewhat surreal, especially with a live band performing at the top.
However, the most enduring memory of this event was the camaraderie amongst participants. People come from across the globe for this bi- annual event as strangers and left as friends, a potent reminder of what sport is all about!
Three weeks ago I had the privilege of covering my 4th World Marathon Challenge. The event is a logistical, physical and extreme challenge for not only the 50 athletes from around the World who would complete seven marathons on seven continents in seven days, but also for us press chaps tasked with capturing the event. In my mind, this is one of the toughest endurance races on earth.
In completing the challenge, the runners ran 183 miles, travelled approximately 24,000 miles around the globe whilst experiencing nearly 50° degree temperature changes, sleeping in the air and living off of airplane food, all in less than 168 hours.
This year the locations had changed from the previous three challenges. The group congregated in sunny Cape Town on the Sunday evening and went through the itinerary, checked equipment and talked through the logistics of the challenging schedule. We were to leave on Tuesday 30th January and head off to Nova, a Russian Air Base on Antarctica for the first marathon. From there it was a six hours flight back to Cape town, then on to Perth in Australia follows by Dubai, Lisbon, Cartagena (in Columbia) and finally to South Beach in Miami.
Among the athletes this year was a woman called Johanna Garvin. She was attempting to become the first person to complete all 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days in a wheelchair assisted by two fellow Australian runners – James Alderson and Steve Birnie.
Johanna was born 11 weeks prematurely, and at just three days old Johanna suffered a severe lung haemorrhage and a stroke, which lead to a diagnosis of cerebral palsy at the age of one. Alderson and Birnie took it in turns to alternately push Garvin in the customized wheelchair. The aerodynamic chair, which cost around $4,000, had one wheel at the front and two wheels at the back. The chair also has six different sets of wheels, specifically engineered for the various terrains they encountered.
Even though Johanna was being pushed around the courses, communication with James and Steve was essential to keep Johanna alert and involved; she was kept busy helping with logistics, particularly during the four night marathons, often shouting out “potholes, left hand side.”
The trio took on average between four to five hours to complete each of the marathons. Travelling with the rest of the able bodied group was not easy, as transit through customs was always a challenge on such a tight schedule. Team Johanna was running to raise money for the Cerebral Palsy Alliance based in Sydney. To date they have raised $64,000 (Australian dollars) for the charity.
It was a stunning winter’s morning as I meandered down the motorways towards the Cotswold’s in Gloucestershire. I was here to film a report on a large-scale green revolution that has been going for several years at the local airport.
I was always under the impression that planes that were past their sell-by-date were rotting away in some vast American desert in 100-degree heat. So I was quite surprised that these beasts of the skies are now-a-days nearly 100 per cent recycled.
I had arranged to meet Mark Gregory, who is the big cheese behind Air Salvage International. His business is thriving and the company is now the biggest in Europe processing over 50 planes a year through its Cotswold facility.
He was telling me that the economics of plane production have reduced the price of new jets to such a level that aircrafts are now retired much younger as the core value of spare parts can fetch more than the aircraft, as an airborne asset.
The programmed age for retirement was normally around 25 years but it is now common for perfectly good working jets to be retired at 15 years.
For new generation aircraft up to 95% can be recycled with the removal of 1000 – 2000 parts. To preserve the value of the parts, each item needs its documentation, to prove that it has been taken from the aircraft, a little like its own passport, without this provenance the part is worthless. Every part must be carefully dismantled and labelled, a skilled yet somewhat arduous task.
A 737 can take up to 6 weeks to dismantle. Whilst the engine is the most valuable asset, surprisingly it is the airframe itself that is least valuable, but even that is recycled as scrap metal often finding a new form such as a beer or coke can.
Luckily I was a boy scout when I was much younger and that taught me to be prepared for anything. But, figuring out what to pack before an overseas assignment that visits all 7 continents in 7 days can be somewhat daunting.
I have been very fortunate; next week it will be the 4th time that I have covered the World Marathon Challenge. This year, the event takes 55 athletes from around the World to run seven marathons on seven continents in seven days.
The runners will complete 183 miles, travelling approximately 28,000 miles whilst experiencing nearly a 50 °degree temperature change. If that wasn’t enough, they will sleep, eat and recover in the air and also cross 16 time zones in less than 168 hours.
The challenge starts in Novo (Antarctica) then heads to Cape Town (Africa), Perth (Australia), Dubai (Asia), Lisbon (Europe), Cartagena (South America) and ends in Miami (North America). It is, without doubt, one of the toughest endurance races on earth.
It tires me out just writing about it , but it is also a physical challenge just covering it for news media/PR purposes rather than a participant.
So, what have I learnt to take on these trips? Well I pack sparingly; I have lost count how many times I have taken too many cloths, jackets and shoes. I take clothes that you can layer, Merino wool or synthetics work really well, also two thin waterproof tops with pockets, always useful for batteries, SD cards and the like. Lightweight trousers, buffs, ziplock bags to keep my passport, credit cards and cash dry and safe, sun cream, hat and sunglasses.
I minimize toiletries with sample sizes and store everything in re-sealable plastic bags. I roll my cloths up (perhaps that’s why I also look scruffy) and also I take a smaller backpack than normal as otherwise I just fill it up with superfluous stuff.
Since we will be visiting Antarctica, I am taking a down jacket, a climate motorbike base layer one piece (I have used this many times and it works a treat.) thermal gloves, Brynje beanie hat and balaclava (thanks to Rhodri at www.nordiclife.co.uk) and insulated trousers.
I am discarding my polar boots, they are just too heavy – so I am hoping that trainers with thermal socks will do the trick for such a short stay. According to the schedule we will be landing in Nova and the marathon will start pretty much straight away, if there are weather delays I might live to regret this one!
That’s pretty much it – aside from all the gear I need to do my job, camera, microphone, tripod, laptop etc.
The 9:30am flight from Gatwick to Helsinki was running 30 minutes late – I didn’t really care as I was totally cream crackered. I had just arrived back from Sydney a day and half earlier, having gone around the World in a week (covering the World Marathon Challenge). I closed my eyes and fell into a deep, much needed sleep.
And so to Finland. I do love Finland and the Finnish people. I admire them for their sense of enjoying themselves in the winter months.
I was there to cover the rather grandly titled ‘The Leikkurile LeMans or to put it into plain English, ‘The Ice Grand Prix’. As you can imagine, racing on a frozen lake is about as far removed from cutting the grass as you can get.
Watching them sliding all over the place looked a little ridiculous, but I am told it does require skill, concentration and is a real challenge, plus it was heaps of fun.
It wasn’t just the Brits who thought this might be a hoot – drivers and their backup crews from across Europe entered the race.
The rules are simple; complete as many laps of the 850 metre circuit within a 12-hour time frame.
Hurtling headfirst on a tea tray down ice at 80mph is not the most sensible thing to do – I may be dumb but I am not that stupid.
Every sports has its own blue ribbon event, in football it’s the FA Cup, cricket has the Ashes, Tennis, well Wimbledon. For the sport of Tobogganing, apart from the Winter Olympics, it’s ‘The Grand National’ – No, I hadn’t heard of it either.
The World famous Cresta Run is held every year in Switzerland’s glitziest town. The St Moritz Tobogganing Club is well over 125 years old, and for those with suitable dosh, dash and clean underpants – it’s the ultimate downhill ride.
It all started in the 1890s, tobogganing was a form of entertainment in the newly established winter resorts. It was mainly Brits who raced one another down busy, winding streets St Moritz, Davos, Aros and Chamonix.
They took they sport seriously, clubs were formed and races were organised on the icy downhill roads. At one time, there were more than 40 “village” pistes across the French, Swiss and Italian Alps.
Nowadays it’s not quite as chaotic. The club opens just before Christmas and ends around late February. The run is still hand-built from scratch every year with costs met by the club and its 1,300 members and St Moritz town council.
The Run is an extreme sport that provides a thrill according to members unlike any other. Riders reach speeds of 128kph – which is bonkers when you think that all they are laying on is a tea tray, with leather knee and elbow pads, gloves with metal plates, helmet, chin guard and spiked boots.
There are two starting points: Top and Junction. The primary thought in the minds of most racers is to avoid being hurled from the track at Shuttlecock corner. Any slight loss of control prior to the infamous bend is likely to see them ejected, and more often than not sent to hospital. Fallers at Shuttlecock, automatically become members of the Shuttlecock Club and are entitled to wear the much sought after Shuttlecock tie.
It sounded a great event to cover, so I headed over to Switerzland and the 2006 Grand National where 21 riders made three runs down the course.
In the end the winner was Lord Clifton Wrottesley, a peer from Galway on Ireland’s west coast. It was his fourth Grand National win, and he is the only competitor to win the club’s grand slam (the Morgan, Curzon and Grand National events) three times. Wrottesley has had Olympic success, coming fourth in the skeleton race at Salt Lake City in 2002.
I am pleased to report that the ‘Health and Safety scallywags don’t come knocking in St Moritz and the “Cresta” tradition still carries on. For the record, I was offered several times a ‘press ride’ to experience the run but I rather fancied having a beer in a posh restaurant than lying in a hospital bed. Yes – you can call me a great big wuss – but I am happy to accept that.
Union Glacier in Antarctica is one of the most tranquil places on the planet. I was lucky enough to be down there to cover the annual Antarctic Ice Marathon, now in its 13th year. Having been several times before and played football, volleyball and cricket with the runners as they relax and wait for the main event, I thought perhaps this year it was time for a spot of golf.
So after some research, I came across the rather forgotten game, that of clock golf. It is unknown who exactly built the first clock face course but the game is believed to have originated in the mid 19th century, supposedly by the English upper class who wanted to practice their golf putting in a more intimate way. Whatever the origins – the game became quite a success in Victorian Britain.
So after purchasing a hole and flag for the princely sum of 10 pounds and borrowing my son’s putter (it’s the only one that would fit into my luggage), I packed all my goodies along with my thermals and headed off.
The Antarctic version of the game revolves around 4 tees marking starting points to reflect the clock face. The object was to take the least amount of shots from the 4 starting points to sink a putt with strokes combined to complete their round. In this context, like in Speedgolf, the flagstick was left in during play. In the extreme conditions of the Antarctic, with temperatures of minus 25°C, players had just one round to establish their superiority as in those conditions the game has to be quick.
Aside from the icy conditions and rutted Heath Robinson course, the Inaugural Antarctic Clock Golf championship took place with a competitive field of players. Each player used the same putter and highly visible golf ball (thanks to visiongolfball.com) for their round. In the end, it was Pal Skyrud from Norway who took the men’s title and Sally Orange from Britain who took the women’s crown.
So despite coming up with the championships and practicing more than the others, I came in 3rd – close but no cigar. Still, at least, when I missed the target I didn’t miss the beauty of the landscape.
Five long days in Ireland and Northern Ireland working on various “Brexit” stories for a news broadcast client. One of the stories that we covered was exploring the possible rebuilding of customs posts between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
As we drove to the outskirts of the Irish border town of Newry, there is a reminder of what life was like before peace came to Northern Ireland – the weed-covered, fenced-off hulk of an old customs and border post.
During the Troubles, it was an intimidating presence in the heart of nationalist country. Now it is sinking into the rain-sodden countryside, unused for two decades as the Irish border became a fading memory.
This morning (8th December 2017) the European Commission has announced it is recommending to the European Council that “sufficient progress” has been made in the first phase of Brexit talks, so it looks like the border question has been resolved. No hard border is likely to return!
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