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.