What It's Like Running in the World's Most Northern Marathons
Watch out for polar bears.
For most people, running a marathon is an extreme milestone. It takes an incredible level of athletic endurance and mental strength to train and compete in a 26.2 mile race. But how do you top the achievement once you’ve managed to do it in the first place? Runners can go the extra mile by tackling marathons in more exotic locations — like the top of the world.
Take Longyearbyen, Svalbard, the world’s northernmost settlement, and home to the Spitsbergen Marathon taking place on June 1, 2019. For being held in such a remote destination, located on an archipelago between Norway and the North Pole, the event draws a lot of runners to its snowy course. "We estimate that it will be around 500 participants this year and have a max on 1000 participants,” says Longyearbyen resident Silje M. Hagen, who manages the Spitsbergen Marathon. “There are not so many people who watch the race, but we believe most visitors get a good experience of feeling welcome to Longyearbyen and most of all we hope everyone who participates connects to nature and gets the ultimate running experience at 78 degrees north.”
The weather, while unpredictable, isn’t as cold as you might imagine for the arctic. “At the beginning of June there are normally pluses (around 5–10 degrees Celsius),” says Hagen. “The snow has melted most places and the town has a rich wildlife where you can be lucky to meet both reindeer, goose and eiders in and along the track.”
Hundreds of volunteers from the archipelago’s some 2200 residents help facilitate the Spitsbergen Marathon, handling check-in, passing out water, and keeping polar bears at bay. "Polar bear danger is a real situation we take seriously,” says Hagen. “There are patrolling polar bear guards on ATV in the trail who will keep the safety during the race.” The arctic island of Spitsbergen on which Longyearbyen is located is mostly undeveloped, and home to a healthy polar bear population. Residents traveling outside of the town year-round are required to carry a firearm for self defense. On race day, armed volunteers will be positioned around the track to protect runners. “All the time you have to be extra vigilant and watch out for polar bears,” says Polish runner Piotr Suchenia, winner of the 2018 Spitsbergen Marathon with a time of 2:52:27 (he also won in 2016).
And then there’s the course, which is both challenging and scenic. “There is very variable weather on Spitsbergen. In one part of the route the sun may shine, in another rain and blow wind,” says Suchenia. “The route is very hilly and leads on a variable surface. It is a very diverse marathon with the most beautiful views in the world.” To prepare for the race, Suchenia recommends training on mountainous terrain with various surfaces, including parks or forests where the ground is soft. He also suggests packing gear to stand up against Svalbard’s windy and cold conditions.
But there’s another race even further north than Spitsbergen, one that makes Svalbard’s look like child’s play. The world’s most northern marathon, the FWD North Pole Marathon, took place for the seventeenth time on April 9, 2019. The marathon is held at Barneo Ice Camp, 89 degrees north, and is Suchenia’s favorite. “I won this marathon in 2017 and it was an amazing feeling to win the top of the world,” he says. “There, man is 100 percent self-dependent and depends on nature and weather. It is also a very difficult and demanding course due to the extremely low temperature and very difficult surface.”
When Suchenia competed in 2017, the race began with a temperature of -23.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Runners have to find a balance dressing for the freezing weather while not overheating under too many layers. On their upper body, they’re instructed to wear a base layer, a mid fleece layer, and an outer shell. Legs only require two layers: a base and outer shell. Runners must pack two sets of clothing to change into during the race in case they get cold and wet. “Keeping dry is important in cold conditions,” the FWD North Pole Marathon’s website reads. This is the only marathon in the world run completely over frozen water, no land at all.
Such an intense race comes with an intense price tag. The fee to enter the FWD North Pole Marathon is €16,000 (about $18,000), or €15,000 (roughly $17,000) if you’re paying in full at registration. Included in the price are your flights to and from the North Pole from Svalbard, your North Pole accommodations (a heated tent shared by 12 people), a helicopter flight to the exact Geographic North Pole, medical support, emergency medical evacuation insurance, and more. And you get a t-shirt.
Once you check Spitsbergen and North Pole marathons off your bucket list, head south, way south, for your next challenge: The Antarctic Ice Marathon. Held in January, it’s the world’s southernmost marathon and, you guessed it, Suchenia has run it. “The marathon in Antarctica is played on a snow loop, where the snow is loose, slushy and runs very hard,” he says. “In addition, it was snowing all the time and it was blowing strongly. It was cold, although not as at the North Pole, where the temperature felt during the marathon was minus 50 degrees Celsius.”