Kal Bittianda became the first person of Indian origin to run a marathon at the North Pole in April. The New York City-based business consultant spoke to us about the addiction of extreme sports, the dangers of breaking into a sweat and that top-of-the-world feeling
How did the North Pole marathon happen? Have you been into endurance sports for a long time?
I have always been a runner, using running for cardiovascular exercise. I got into endurance sports (biking and running) in 2000, when 14-16-hour workdays at a start-up made participation in team sports difficult. Over the past 10 years, I have run 20 marathons and competed in three 100-mile bike races. The marathoning started first with road marathons, but a trip to Antarctica in 2005 for my first off-road marathon got me hooked. I decided to make it an annual event to pick an interesting overseas destination with a challenging marathon course. Thus started the series of extreme marathons.
Top form: The North Pole marathon, at 42.19km, is just as long as a conventional marathon. Photograph: Mike King
In 2005, I started my very own Global Meltdown Tour, picking a new “extreme cold” location each year. I’d already run in Antarctica, Mongolia and Greenland when, in 2008, a friend mentioned the North Pole marathon. I jumped at the chance.
Tell me a bit about the organization of the polar run.
The organization Polar Running Adventures (www.npmarathon.com), which runs this event, is managed by Richard Donovan, a three-time polar marathoner and an accomplished and decorated ultra-marathoner. One just needs to be in good health and up for an extreme challenge to participate. It is a given that a little bit of foolhardiness is required to even consider such an undertaking.
What were your principal concerns ahead of the run?
The primary concerns were the temperatures (expected to be -30 degrees Celsius) and the soft terrain (snow does not pack and get hard at these temperatures). Given that the temperatures would be so dramatically different from what I’d experience in New York City (where lows hit -5°C this winter), the key question was how much clothing to wear while doing strenuous exercise and how much it would restrict movement. I embraced every cold day for runs outdoors, but training at 30 degrees Fahrenheit (-1°C) is not sufficient preparation for -35°F (-37°C), as I found out.
Marathon man: Kal Bittianda has run 20 marathons in the past ten years. Photograph: Mike King
The second question was whether to use snowshoes or run in regular trail-running shoes. The uneven and soft terrain, while flat, would make getting into a good pace a challenge and the regular running stride impossible.
So far as the rest of the gear goes, we were told to use three layers of clothing— thermals/sweat-proof wear, insulation/thin fleece and a windproof upper layer—gloves, balaclava, face mask, et al.
Where was the base camp? Is that where you met the other runners?
Spitsbergen, a Norwegian island, serves as base camp for polar trips. Some runners travelled with me from New York; I also met a couple of others from previous trips to Antarctica and Mongolia. There is a relatively small group of people who like running enough, enjoy travel to faraway places/extreme climates and can afford these types of adventures. This expedition cost me a little over $20,000 (around Rs10 lakh). There is no sense of competition: It is you against the course and the elements. Marathon runners are very supportive as a group—on such trips you get to know each other, share tents, compare notes, tell tall tales and suggest other marathons “worth considering” over meals as you travel to and wait for the marathon.
And then you fly to the “geographical” North Pole?
That’s right—this is the 90-degree latitude, the northernmost point of the globe. We were ferried to Camp Barneo (a Russian camp near the Pole), nearly 1,000 miles and a two-and-a-half-hour plane ride from Spitsbergen, over two days. I was part of the second group, taking off from Spitsbergen in a blinding snowstorm on the morning of 7 April, with temperatures in the -25°C range. We landed on the runway (carved out of ice cap 1.5m thick) at Camp Barneo at 1.30pm and, after a quick briefing, were told that the race would start at 3.30pm.
I got to walk about 400m along the course to get a feel of the terrain. This was of limited value as the terrain changes over the course of the 4.75km loop. In addition, we expected the terrain to change as the runners trampled over it in completing the nine loops of the course.
And the marathon itself—what was that like?
The marathon started at 3.30pm CEST (Central European Summer Time): Temperatures were down to -33°C at the start and later expected to drop to -37°C. The nine-loop course was designed to be within eyesight of the camp for safety reasons and was on soft snow for the most part, except for about 500m towards the end that was on the runway.
Given the soft and undulating surface, I decided to start the race with snowshoes, even though I had never really raced in them before. While these were very helpful in navigating the terrain, I tripped over the tips more than a few times. Falling on the soft snow was not an issue in terms of getting injured, other than being embarrassing.
The first four laps went smoothly and I was off at a pretty good pace. However, it became clear that I would need to get a water break because I was perspiring. At the end of lap 4 and the 2.20-minute mark, I decided to stop and took off my snowshoes to go inside the mess tent. What I was not prepared for was the fact that when you move from -37°C to the 15°C tent, the 50°C-plus temperature difference makes you break into a profuse sweat immediately. So now all my inner layers were soaked and this meant having to go to my tent to change. This was not a trivial undertaking—especially since it was unforeseen—and the end result is that I lost over 50 minutes.
At this point, the straps of my snowshoes were frozen, having been outside for this long, and so I decided to continue without them. The fifth lap after this long break was torturous, as the course was much softer, I didn’t have the snowshoes and I was tiring: This lap took 51 minutes versus an average of 35 minutes for each of the first four. The race became a slog from here on.
At the end of lap 5, I began developing frostbite from the sweat freezing on the face. This meant another extended break in the tent to warm up and literally defrost. At -37°C, it takes 15-20 seconds for wet material to freeze, as I found out with gloves I took off by mistake outside the tent. The last four laps were very forgettable, as it became a test of will power to balance warming up at the end of each lap with ploughing ahead. I could manage only a fast walk, with the terrain and fatigue taking a toll.
I finished in 7 hours 21 minutes (just before 11pm CEST), which placed me 17 out of the 38 participants—the first American to finish and the first Indian ever to complete the course. Of course, this was my worst performance in terms of time, well over twice as long as my average road marathon time (3.25 hours). There was no rush when I crossed the finish line—just relief that it was done and excitement to finally get some hot, solid food. The Russian cook was kind enough to serve a delicious, hot plate of stew and mashed potatoes—I was hungry enough to eat the plate too. That was the highlight of being done.
Post-run, were there celebrations?
After eating the hot food, I went to my tent, towelled down and changed into clean dry clothes—which was the second best feeling of the day. Then I returned to the mess tent, where runners kept trickling in through the night: We would help them get their fluids and get warm before they headed out into the cold to run another lap. This went on all night—the last runner finished at about 7.40am, 16-plus hours after we started—and the sun had never set in all this time!
At 10am, once everyone was cleaned up, we boarded two Russian helicopters and made the 20-minute flight to the actual North Pole. We got down and finally everyone acted like tourists—taking pictures with the flag, kicking a soccer ball and running around in circles at the “top of the world”.
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