Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Race

The start was brutal. Three-and-a-half K uphill into the teeth of a 20 m.p.h. wind  to reach the ice cap. It was 1-degree F. I was wearing a thin neck sleeve that could be pulled over the nose for warmth, but it felt as though I was breathing through an iron lung. When I pulled it down, snow whipped my face like sand.

At the ice cap (wind chill -22), we made a 3K loop. It was a hallucinatory experience. Having run that part of the course the previous day, when it was 15 degrees warmer with no wind, proved useless. Nothing looked vaguely familiar in the swirling wind. Thoughts became confused, tangled, shattered. I had no idea where I was on the course; I just kept trying to make it to the next pole in the snow. I experienced all sorts of odd sensations. I thought my running tights had drooped, exposing my hindquarters. Worse, if you'll excuse the earthy description, I was quite certain my penis had frozen and would never regain functionality.

Once we left the ice cap and headed down the hill, the event slowly took on the contours of a normal human experience-at least a normal experience for long distance runners. By the time we reached the 12K marker, the clouds and wind had disappeared. The temperature soared to a balmy 15 degrees. We were also rewarded with breathtaking views of snow-swept mountains girding mountain lakes and meandering creeks. We had driven this road the day before, but to experience it from a runner's perspective was bliss of an entirely different order.

The balance of the course was composed of slowly rolling hills on a declining arc. The road was covered with hard packed snow that made an excellent running surface. In comparison with other marathons, this was a fairly easy course, except for that bit on the ice cap, and the cumulative effect of running in cold air and wearing relatively heavy attire.

With 5K to go, the road topped a sharp hill and the ramshackle, pre-fabricated, virtually pointless hamlet of Kangerlussuaq came into view. Paris never looked so beautiful.  I became fatigued in the final stages, but managed to trundle to the finish to be greeted by a throng of two. The race was won by Torben Dahl from Denmark in the boggling time of 3:02:57, five minutes off the course record (set on a day, I'll wager, when the wind chill on the cap was something other than-22).

Kudos to Albatross Tours and the very friendly people of Kangerlussuaq (who manned the aid stations for hours) for running a spectacular event. Hats off to my 99 new BFFs from around the globe for their accomplishment and excellent comraderie, a swell bunch for sure. And, a special shout out to my wife, Linda Rosner, for supporting my choice to take this wild and chilly adventure.

My time: 4:50:57 (first USA).

Friday, October 21, 2011

Greetings from Kangerlussuaq!

I arrived in Kangerlussuaq yesterday after the third of three soul-crunching flights. I'll say this about Scandinavian Airlines, the food is horrible, but they package it nicely.

Within an hour of landing, we attended a short orientation meeting, then thirty of us packed into a vehicle the size of a UPS truck and headed for the Russell Glacier. The truck stalled two miles outside town, but a trio of Toyota SUVs were sent to our rescue.

The Russell Glacier is a mammoth river of ice feeding a flow from the ice cap to the Watson River. At the point of entry, the glacier fractures and looks like shattered granite, with a cool, blue glow caused by trapped oxygen. While we were gaping at it like the looney tourists that we were, a large sheet broke loose and crashed into the river with a thunderous roar.

When we returned, we were treated to a Greenlandic barbecue, consisting of quickly braised muskoxen, reindeer and lamb, sausages, and just enough vegetables to make us feel like civilized creatures. And, no, muskoxen does not taste like chicken. It's more like dog, though less tender.

Today, we toured the marathon course, driving a 19-mile road to the ice cap. The topography reminded me of the California desert-rugged, rolling hills dotted with scrubby foliage-only, of course, it was covered with snow and the temperature was ten degrees, a notable difference. As we climbed toward the ice cap, the road grew steeper (it's significantly hillier than I expected), the mountains loomed taller, the snow deeper.  Last year, the race was run in unusually warm conditions. The road was bare. That is not the case this year. It's white powder the whole way-the purest, driest snow I have seen in my life.

At the ice cap, we tumbled out of our vehicles to inspect the course. What a sight! It is a Sahara of gently rolling snow drifts, stretching to horizon. I took pictures, but they are feeble imitations. I have run in some beautiful places-the Grand Canyon, Big Sur, Santorini-the ice cap is the equal of any of those, but the spaciousness, the silence and the solitude sets it apart. That will stay with me forever.

Over dinner last night, an Irishman advised me to wear my running clothes under warmer garments for the tour today so that at the ice cap, I could strip down and run it, testing my gear. I thought that was excellent advice and did as he suggested. I was the only one to do so (including my new Irish friend). I'm glad I did it. The ice cap was covered with a thick layer of snow. At times, I plunged into it up to my knees. Very difficult running. But, it allowed me to determine that I had the right gear and that he cold was not going to be a factor. I finished brimming with confidence.

Tomorrow, I'll learn if that confidence was misplaced.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Parting Thoughts

As the days before my departure for Kangerlussuaq have slipped away, I've undergone a curious transformation. The prickly feelings of nervous anticipation that have been building over the past 50 weeks have floated off like dark clouds on a spring morning, replaced by a cold and enveloping sensation of terror.

Not having visited Greenland before and having accumulated precisely zero cold weather running experience has hardly kept me from forming a number of cock-sure beliefs about the environment, the course and my performance.

For example:

  • Although the temperature on race day is likely to be around 15-degrees Fahrenheit, the air in Greenland is exceedingly dry and there is very little wind, so it actually feels much warmer. Really.
  • The race has a net dissent of 1600 feet, with the last 20 miles, a smooth downhill amble, making for easy running. The first 2.5 miles, however, are a rapid climb up a sheer ice face.
  • Reviewing 10 years of past results reveals not a single DNF! "If everyone finishes," he chuckles, "how tough can it be?" Or, perhaps, the names of those who fall into crevasses, get trampled by muskoxen, or succumb to hyperthermia are expunged permanently from the records.

A Travel Note...

My Polar Adventure is hitting the road. On Tuesday, I fly to Copenhagen, arriving Wednesday afternoon. The following morning, I and 99 other madcap marathoners will board a plane for Kangerlussuaq. (If you refer to a map, you'll note that my travel route is a bit like flying from Los Angeles to Toronto by way of Krakow.)

I expect to tour the Russell Glacier on Thursday and review the race course with my new mates on Friday. The real test of nerves and frozen family jewels begins bright and bitingly early on Saturday.

If technology serves me well (a 3% likelihood), I'll be blogging here and posting photos to Facebook and Picasa at annoyingly frequent intervals.

I look forward to seeing you all in sunny Southern California soon.

Friday, October 7, 2011


I was not athletic as a child. In gym class, when it was time to pick teams for softball, kids with broken arms were selected before me. At the beach, 99-pound weaklings kicked sand in my face. I was constantly teased for being soft, slow and my mother.

That pretty much held true for me up to middle age. Then one day, when I was 45-years-old, I ran across Robertson Boulevard (to buy a bagel) and immediately doubled over wheezing and out of breath. I felt I had to do something. So that same day, I joined a gym. I mounted a treadmill, flipped it on and promptly fell off.

Ten years later, I heard a 2-minute story on NPR about a marathon on the ice cap in Greenland. The reporter described it as an insanely frigid event attended by the most hard-bitten, devil-may-care athletes. The news hit me like a bolt of lightning because, having by then completed nearly 40 races of marathon distance or longer, I knew it was something I could do. In fact, if I could have teleported to Kangerlussuaq, I was pretty confident I could have run the course that day. It was a very empowering revelation. So much so, that had Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura and Hulk Hogan happened along at that moment, I would have kicked sand in their faces.

Now, it would be shallow and immature if I were travelling all the way to Greenland simply to exorcise a demon from the eighth grade. The truth is, I've put all that behind me and have learned to embrace running as an opportunity to stay fit, commune with nature and enjoy the company of my friends. In fact, if I could have one wish it would be to have some of my old pals from junior high school there with me in Greenland so that we could together experience the magic and excitement of striding up to the start line of an incredible race...right before I kick their butts.

Saturday, October 1, 2011


Jared Diamond in his excellent book Collapse describes the quixotic attempt of Norse to colonize Greenland around the turn of the first millennium. The island was given its counterintuitive name by Erik the Red, a vicious marauder, imaginative p.r. man and ancient patriarch to yours truly. Erik used the image of a verdant Shangri-La to lure his gullible fellow countrymen across the North Atlantic in creaky wooden ships. What they found was hardscrabble land, biting cold and nary a green shoot or twig in sight.

Remarkably, they made a go of it for more than 400 years. But their tiny communities never really thrived and, eventually, they died out. (Legend claims they hightailed it to Tahiti.)  As Diamond explains, farming was tough and resupply from Scandinavia erratic. Most crucially, the Norse failed to acquire a taste for the one food source in abundant supply: fish.

In just a few weeks, I'll be retracing the journey of the ill-fated Norse colonizers to take part in the Polar Circle Marathon-only I'll be doing so in considerably more comfort. I'll travel to Greenland by plane, stay in a modern hotel and dine in a pleasant restaurant with an agreeable menu and passable wine list. I will be braving the cold for the 4 1/2 hours or so that it will take to run the marathon, but I'll be driven to the start in a mammoth ATV, snugly attired in Gortex, and plied with hearty soups and hot beverages every few miles by race staff.

This will provide me with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness the magnificence of the Arctic. And I'm lucky to be visiting now as Greenland's vast ice sheet and towering glaciers are slowly melting...due to the fossil fuel consuming lifestyles of people like me who travel in planes, ride in motor vehicles, reside in temperature-controlled buildings and eat two servings of beef per day.

Erik the Red would be amused.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

What to Wear?

A crucial part of my preparations for The Polar Circle Marathon has been determining the optimal running gear for a 26.2 mile race where temperatures are likely to be in the teens. I obviously need to wear clothing sufficient to prevent hypothermia. However I also want to avoid overheating and excess weight, while maximizing freedom of movement. Most importantly, I want to be sure my outfit appeals to the ladies.

As a Southern California runner, I generally don't spend much time thinking about what to wear during my jaunts on the road or trail. On virtually any day, one could run in the Santa Monica Mountains dressed in nothing but a thong. (Never having made that particular choice has earned me the gratitude of countless runners, hikers and dogs.) 

In Greenland, such a cavalier approach simply won't do. So, I have spent considerable time studying photos of past editions of The Polar Circle Marathon and observing what other runners, mostly crafty, winter-wise Europeans, donned to face the elements. I thus came up with a composite sketch of the proper layering. I then doubled it.

The photo below shows my planned marathon wardrobe (with a few alternate items for last minute adjustments due to race day weather conditions or cowardice). Starting roughly clockwise from the center, they include: a Craft Storm Jacket, a Broner Ski Cap, an OTHTC Neck Warmer, a Craft AXC Touring Stretch Pant, a Craft PXC Thermal Top, Manzella Gore-Tex Gloves, Sugoi Subzero Tights, Asics GT-2160 Trail Shoes, Kahtoola Microspikes, an LL Bean Scarf, Seirus Unisex Stormsocks and an L.A. County Coroner's Toe Tag. 

Have I made good choices? 

As you can see from the figure below, I'm going to blend right in.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Road to Nowhere

However you slice it, Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, site of the Polar Circle Marathon, is remote. Located at the end of a long, narrow fjord near the island's southwest coast, the town is more than 100 miles from Sisimiut, its nearest neighbor, and there are no roads connecting the two. Getting out of town by boat means a long and treacherous sea journey. Stir crazy residents could fly out, as the town boasts an international airport, but flights to Nuuk, the capital, and other local towns, or to Copenhagen are infrequent, and there is no Southwest Airlines offering wanna-get-away fares. If by some quirk you find yourself marooned in Kangerlussuaq for an extended period, I suggest you subscribe to the deluxe package from the local satellite TV provider.

Originally, Kangerlussuaq was an American Air Force base called Bluie West Eight. It was built in World War II under the supervision of Bernt Balchen, a pioneering Norwegian aviator who served as an American colonel during the war. The base later became a northerly outpost in the Cold War. (One can imagine U.S. servicemen stationed there in the '70s begging for transfers to Viet Nam.) After the Berlin Wall fell, the base's importance declined and the U.S. government gave it to the Greenlanders in 1992.

That was nearly the kiss of death for Kangerlussuaqers. Without well paying American jobs, the population dropped below 300. It became hard to find canasta partners on Saturday night. However, two things happened that sparked a revival in the town's fortunes. First, reindeer and muskoxen were reintroduced to the area and that led to a mini-boom in tourism and hunting.
Secondly, Volkswagen took an interest in the place. The German automaker wanted to build a test track to evaluate cars under extreme conditions and Kangerlussuaq, with its flat-as-a-pancake topography, windless environment and dependably cold temperatures, fit the bill. In 2000, a 19-mile gravel road was built. It proved to be a better idea in theory than in practice. German engineers found that they preferred conducting cold weather computer simulations from the comfort of Bavaria. So, after just a few years, Volkswagen pulled out.

But the road was there. And it just happened to lead to the base of the Greenland Ice Sheet, making Kangerlussuaq the only place in the entire northern hemisphere where it is possible to visit an ice sheet without traveling by helicopter. That transformed Kangerlussuaq into a Mecca for Arctic tourists. (Okay, "Mecca" may be too strong a word.) In addition, a few enterprising locals determined that by adding a short scamper across the ice sheet itself, the road could be formed into a 26.2 mile course for mentally unstable runners. In 2001, 130 frigid athletes with unpronounceable Scandinavian names ran the first Polar Circle Marathon.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Big, Empty, Frozen Place.

Greenland is the largest island on earth. (Sorry Australia, you’re a continent.) It covers some 836,000 square miles, nearly twice the size of California and Texas combined, and yet is home to a mere 57,000 souls, making it the world’s least densely populated country. Nearly all of the people live on the island’s southern fringe, or one of several smaller islands that dot its coast. That is because the majority of the landmass—more than 80 percent—is covered by an ice sheet, an inhospitable place to pitch a tent, even if your tent is an igloo.

Although tacitly self-governed, Greenland remains part of the Kingdom of Denmark. After World War II, the U.S. government offered to buy the place for a cool $100 million, but the Danes turned them down flat. Considering they are now subsidizing Greenlanders to the tune of more than a half billion dollars per year, the Danes must be kicking themselves over that.
Nuuk, the capital, population 15,000, is a charming urban encampment of wood frame houses and Lutheran churches. Situated on a fjord in the southeast of the country, it has a number of modern conveniences rare in other parts of Greenland, including roads, running water and a Starbucks franchise. (Okay, I’m kidding about Starbucks.) By contrast, Kangerlussuaq, where I’ll be running the Polar Circle Marathon, is home to only 500 year-round residents. It, no doubt, is looked upon as a bumpkin backwater by cosmopolitan Nuukers.

Greenland’s ice sheet is a marvel of nature; second only in size to the one at Antarctica. At its thickest point, it measures nearly two miles. The weight of the ice has depressed the island bedrock into an enormous bowl that dips below sea level. Should global warming cause the ice sheet to fully melt (something that could take several hundred years), sea levels worldwide might rise more than 20 feet and Greenland would be reduced to a craggy archipelago.
At that point, the Polar Circle Marathon will become a nippy 26.2 mile swim. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

My Polar Adventure

On October 22, I’ll be running The Polar Circle Marathon, which occurs in the environs of Kangerlussuaq, a town on the western shore of Greenland a short distance north of the Arctic Circle. I learned about this event last fall, when NPR interviewed the female winner of the 2010 edition, Marianne Delcomyn, who called it “the best race ever.”

The race begins 26.2 miles north of Kangerlussuaq with the first 5k, a slippery traverse on the Greenland ice cap. That’s followed by a 23-mile romp down a slowly descending gravel road originally built to test cars in extreme weather conditions. At the end of the course, runners can look forward to a tepid shower in the Hotel Kangerlussuaq, a warm beer and a cold saucer of borscht.
In fairness, there are downsides to this run. It’s remote and the logistics are a bit daunting (you have to fly to Copenhagen before boarding a plane to Greenland), some might find the landscape stark (think Siberia without the Gulag), and of course it’s likely to be cold (typical race day temperatures are in the teens). A perusal of last year’s participants list suggests most are Danes and Brits with alcohol issues.

My wife, who is not a runner and for whom San Francisco is equivalent to the North Pole, will not be joining me in Greenland. For companionship, I turned instead to my cadre of runner friends. They are among the hardiest souls on earth and include people who have conquered the Western States 100 and the Badwater Ultramarathon, as well as grueling events in China, the Andes and Katmandu. Their response was uniform, unequivocal and swift.
I’ll be going alone.