by Marcus Leach
For many of us running a single marathon is a big enough task, let alone running multiple marathons all over the world. But that is exactly what Shona Thomson does.
In September 2013 she became the first Scottish, and third British female, to run a marathon on every continent, joining the famous 'Seven Marathons Continents Club'. To put that into perspective there are fewer than 100 members of the club, which includes Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and there are less than 20 women.
Not content with that achievement Shona set her sights on going one better as she set out to join the highly exclusive 'Marathon Grand Slam Club'. In her own words Shona tells us the remarkable story of how she achieved her goal....
In September 2013, I became the first Scottish woman to run marathon on all seven continents and join the Seven Continents Marathon Club, founded by Richard Donovan.
Not quite ready to hang up my trainers, I decided I wanted to be the first Scottish woman to join the Grand Slam Marathon Club. This club is open to runners who have completed a marathon on all seven continents, as well completed the North Pole marathon. The journey to the North Pole is one that I have no regrets taking. It wasn’t an easy one but it was worth every setback, tear, difficult training run, bruised limb, frostbitten finger and frozen eyelash to cross the finishing line of the North Pole marathon.
On 5th April 2014, I flew to Longbearbyen in Svalbard, with an overnight stop in Oslo. The race was scheduled for 9th April and that week I waited patiently in Svalbard with the 46 other runners for the best weather window opening to fly to the Pole. Eventually, at 2am on 9th April, we got the go ahead from the Russian paratroopers to fly to Barneo Ice Camp at the Geographic North Pole.
We flew to there in a Soviet Antonov jet, designed for hostile weather conditions and short landings. The flight took approximately three hours so we landed about 5am. This was clearly not ideal preparation for running a marathon at 11am! However, after a couple of hours of sleep in a tent, a meticulous adorning of thermal base layers, active shells, gloves and balaclavas, and a feed of porridge from the Russians, all 47 of us were lined up at the start ready to go. ￼
I've had experience of running in polar conditions before, having run the Antarctic Ice Marathon in 2012. However, challenging and cold as Antarctica was, it felt like a walk on the beach in Barbados in comparison to the course at the North Pole. The course was 12 loops of 3.5k. The reason for this was that there had been sightings of polar bears near the Camp a few days earlier so it wasn’t safe to send us out too far. Also, it meant that we passed by the camp after each loop so we could check in if we felt we needed to warm up, refuel or get medical attention. ￼
My plan had always been to treat this run as a challenge and not a race. I had planned to go out steady and refuel after each lap. I am genuinely glad I took this approach. The first few laps were relatively straightforward. I felt fresh and strong, and at this stage, whilst the snow was 2 feet deep in parts, it was still fresh. I fell over several times on the first lap, as my feet hit deep soft snow. As I looked up, I saw three runners just ahead of me go down like dominoes. It was reassuring that I wasn’t the only one struggling!
As the run went on, the course deteriorated rapidly. Unlike Antarctica, the snow did not compact, which meant it was largely a balancing act to stay upright against the thousands of other footsteps which had gone so bravely ahead. The only forgiving part of the course was the section which took us down the runway, apart from that we were fighting the constant drifts. ￼
Apart from the underfoot conditions, the other challenge was keeping a close eye on your body temperature. It was minus 30 degrees and the risk of hypothermia and frostbite was all too real. In this respect, it was far more challenging than the Antarctica. The vapour from my breath froze on my balaclava and then ice froze to my skin. Every loop I had to change my face wear. At one point, I had a frostbite on my nose so was called into the medical tent. This was a little reality check.
Unfortunately, I heard that two people had been pulled off the course, one with hypothermia and the other with frostbite so sadly they were not allowed to finish on medical grounds. At the same time, a fair number of competitors were gradually switching from the full marathon to the half. The reality of seeing others not being allowed to finish due to hypothermia and frostbite was very sobering. And hearing stories of other runners who had generated too much sweat with the result that their base layers frozen to their skin like armour was not a position I wanted to be in either.
Clearly, getting the right high quality base layers and shells is absolutely critical to surviving up there. I was very lucky that Ellis Brigham kindly provided me with some amazing Arc'teryx pieces and Berghaus kindly supported me with some great pieces from their EXTREM range. ￼
This run was in every respect mercilessly beautiful. She was the true Ice Queen of all the races I have done. The North Pole is a hostile, brutal and unforgiving environment to run in, yet at the same time, it rewards with the most spectacular scenery. As the course got churned up, you could see the ice surface and the deep navy of the Arctic Ocean below. Suddenly, a giant clear blue ice cube would emerge from beneath the snow. Never before have I seen the sun shine in such a glorious soft yellow haze, yet it provided no warmth against the bitterly chilling air.
It was a true honour to be able to run at the North Pole. Nowhere on earth do you get Russian paratroopers with polar bear guns as race stewards. No other run allows you to run on 6feet of frozen ice on a floating ice floe. No other race allows you to run in such extreme cold. No other run provides such a spectacular and isolating backdrop. Put simply, nothing compares.
Despite the unforgiving nature, I was delighted to finish third in the woman’s race. As a result of completing, I also became the 16th female and youngest female member of the Marathon Grand Slam Club. ￼ It may sound tough but in my opinion, I honestly don't feel I've achieved much, others fight cancer and wars. They are the real fighters and survivors. I just run.
Photos are copyright of NorthPoleMarathon.com