Sarah Ames was running to catch a flight. Of course at the North Pole, if the plane takes off without you, you don’t have many options.
Ames was one of 26 athletes from 10 countries who signed up to participate in the 2008 North Pole Marathon, which, among its many extreme claims, is the only marathon run entirely on water—the frozen water of the Arctic Ocean. The group gathered in Spitsbergen, Norway, where they planned to take a Russian cargo plane to a base at the North Pole.
But delays at the pole caused the group to remain in Spitsbergen for five extra days.
“The tractors that plow the ice, so the planes can land, they couldn’t get those to work,” Ames says. “It’s something that was just beyond our control.”
That delay meant that two members of the party had to leave without making the trip to the pole. For the remaining 24, they would make an abbreviated attempt to hold the race. The plan was to fly the 1,000 kilometers to Camp Borneo, a scientific outpost not far from the pole. From there, competitors would take a helicopter to briefly visit the actual North Pole, before returning to the base to run the marathon. After the race, the group would fly immediately back to Spitsbergen, rather than spending a night at the pole as originally planned.
They landed at Camp Borneo in the early morning—although with 24 hours of daylight, who can tell?—and race organizers were able to stick to the schedule. Participants got what they probably expected—brutal conditions with temperatures below -20 degrees Fahrenheit and a stiff wind.
“The cold was just brutal,” Ames says. “Every part of your body was covered, and you were still freezing.”
Two meters of ice covers the Arctic Ocean, which is topped by several inches of brittle snow, making for tough conditions to walk, let alone run. The first finisher, an ultrarunner from South Korea, completed 10 laps of the 4.2K course with an impressive time of 4:02:37. Most of the other runners expected to finish between five and eight hours. But as the race wore on, the Russian pilots became convinced they had to leave.
“We had to impose a cut off time, which we normally don’t do,” race director Richard Donovan told a documentary crew at the event. “I was trying to delay the plane to get as many people across the finish line as possible. Ultimately six people didn’t make it.”
Ames was one of those people. She had about 2K to go before she was pulled from the course to get on the plane.
“It was very disappointing,” she says. “Of course you’re there for the experience and to see the North Pole, but you still want to finish.”
But Ames, a German citizen who’s lived in Chicago for the past 12 years, doesn’t look back with any regret. “You can’t expect everything to go as planned when you do something like this.”
Ames completed her first marathon in 1998. On a trip to South America, she was inspired to do the Antarctic Marathon. On that trip, she met several runners who became good friends, and they continued doing unusual marathons all over the world. Ames later became the first German woman to complete a marathon on all seven continents. She would have been one of the few people to run the “Grand Slam” of seven continents plus the North Pole.
But she’s never taken any of her events too seriously.
“I just do them to have fun,” she says. “I get to see a new part of the world and meet a great group of people. That’s the reason to do something like this.”
She’ll have her chance to complete that grand slam on April 7, when she attempts the North Pole Marathon again. “Richard Donovan invited back all the people who didn’t finish to come back—at no cost.” she says. “He didn’t have to do that. It wasn’t his fault that we didn’t finish.”
So Ames is taking him up on his offer, to have one more shot at 26.2 miles at the top of the world.