On October 27, 250 people will hit the arctic tundra without sleds, skis or skates: Starting off in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, the 26.2-mile Polar Circle Marathon is one of the most grueling races in the world. Competitors face ice, snow, wind and temperatures that dip below 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
So what's it like to train for this one-of-a-kind event?
"I'd like to find someone in Ireland with access to a large freezer so I can put a treadmill in it," jokes Dublin trainer Andrew Moore, who's running in the Polar Circle Marathon for the first time. Short of that, he's relying on a standard marathon-training plan and packing plenty of layers to keep warm.
Nick Van Mead, who documented his experience running the Polar Circle Marathon for The Guardian, took a year to prepare for the race. Before training, Van Mead weighed more than 270 lbs and had a 40-inch waist. After enduring four three-month training courses back to back—and a year "of good old-fashioned calorie counting"—Mead lost more than 60lbs and dropped several belt sizes.
When race day came, the weather was unseasonably warm—but that brought its own hazards for Van Mead.
"The flip side of the lack of snow... was that the ice cap had no covering to offer grip," he explained. "This made the initial section of the race treacherous, like running up and down a steeply pitched 100m-thick ice cube." Organizers suggested putting spikes on running shoes to keep grip, but he admits "the few millimeters of carbide steel provided scant purchase on the hard ice."
Even with proper equipment, the conditions are brutal: "The temperatures reached -30 degrees Celsius and the wind speed got up to 50mph," recalls UK runner Jessica Rowlands, who competed in 2015. "We were running along a ridge up to the ice cap and the wind was so strong that I was knocked to the floor."
The year Rowlands competed, 30 runners were left the race due to frostbite, some permanently. Kangerlussuaq, once a U.S. Air Force base, is Greenland's main transport hub. But it has no hospitals or doctors—medics are flown in from Denmark to deal with injuries.
Still, despite the arctic chill, the Polar Circle Marathon has been known to warm racers' hearts.
"I ran eight miles of the race with the oldest competitor, a tiny 80-something-year-old German man who could barely speak a word of English," Rowlands recounted. "We ran alongside each other for over an hour, with not another human being in sight, and he maintained the most heartwarming grin I have ever seen. I kept thinking that if his little legs can do it then so can mine and he was probably looking at me and thinking the same thing."