North Pole Marathon - Training in Sweden

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Icehotel - a cool place

Ice chairs and ice chandelier in the entrance lobby

Icehotel - suite sculpture

Russian art deco ice sculputure in a bedroom suite

Ready to run

Ice running gear for slight sub zero

On the Torne River

Goggles for the sun

Side View

The snowshoes allow plenty of movement

Trotting on the Torne River

The snowmobile trails give a good surface

Birthday Girl

Sarah enjoying a snowshoe walk in the woods


Demonstrating my ice sculpture


Arctic Training Diary - Jukkasjarvi, Sweden

Flying into Kiruna airport, 200 km north of the Arctic Circle, a snow clad land of frozen lakes and pine forests greet the eyes.  I have come here with my wife Sarah to celebrate her birthday, give her a taste of the Arctic, and allow me to try some snowshoe runs in cold conditions.  The Icehotel is renowned worldwide for its ice sculptures, an artform new to both of us.  The hotel is made each year from snow and ice taken from the Torne river, and guests have the choice of ice rooms at -5 deg C, or warm chalets.

Wednesday 14th March

After a post-arrival late lunch, I leave Sarah checking out the ice sculptures and sauna, and head for a steady six mile snowshoe run.  The lake is iced over and covered with snow, and the snowmobile tracks give a good surface to run on.  The temperature is just below zero, and has been unseasonably warm for the last week.  Navigation is easy on the wide, flat lake and I find I am running at about 10 min/mile, or +/- 15% quicker than the hilly terrain in Oslo.

My equipment check for the day is neoprene toe caps.  These look a bit like egg warmers, and go over the front part of the foot.  I wear them between the liner and thicker insulating socks, and find them very comfortable and am delighted by the wind protection and warmth they will provide.  For the North Pole Marathon, toes can be vulnerable to frostbite as we run in normal trail running shoes, oversized to allow extra socks.  I will also be using a neoprene outer cover (Bootglove) over the trainers.  However, as their strapping chafed during the test run in Oslo, I don’t plan to use them again before the race.

Thursday 15th March

Refreshed from a wonderful night in an ice suite, Sarah and I try a spot of guided snowshoe walking up a nearby hill through pine trees, giving wonderful views over the Torne river valley and the village of Jukkasjarvi.  Our guide, Tony, has worked in the area for four seasons and is fascinated by the North Pole Marathon.  He passes on good tips about coping with temperatures down to -30 deg C.  Leaving any skin exposed in wind is a bad idea as frostnip can quickly develop, so regular checks by a colleague or with a mirror are a good idea.  He uses multiple balaclavas when snowmobiling as they quickly get damp and frost up, and he recommended that I take several.

Late in the afternoon I head out for a 6-1/2 mile snowshoe run up the valley.  It is slightly colder and cloudy, and the dull light makes variations in the running surface hard to see.

Friday 16th March

Sarah’s birthday and the only running is for the camera in brilliant sunshine.  We have a fantastic day walking, enjoying the scenery and trying ice sculpting.  I carve the head and torso of a runner, and am proud of my achievement - until I have to explain to the instructor what it is!  “Ice runner” is my attempt to capture what the North Pole Marathon is about with a determined blocky head (with little cranium for a brain), strong jaw, eyes looking far into the distance, and dynamic arms conveying movement over a long, cold haul.  Sarah is a bit more down to earth.  She carves a nut shell with a square hollow interior which is about the right size for a half-litre vodka bottle.

In the early evening we join a night snowmobile tour through the forests, and are lucky to see fantastic views of the Northern Lights.  Their wispy, green hues spread across the sky, changing lazily in front of an inky black infinity studded with the northern constellations, floating above the snowy lakes and tree lined hills.  It is novel to see the Pole star nearly overhead – soon it will be.

The snowmobile ride is in temperatures of about – 5 deg C and at speeds of 20 – 50 km/h, so give a chance to try my neoprene face mask and balaclava combination.  The face mask works well, and the holes for the nose and in front of the mouth allow easy breathing.

Saturday 17th March – am

I rise at 6am, leaving Sarah asleep, grab a coffee and head into the frosty air for a 14 mile run.  I check the thermometer as I set out, - 12 deg C, so a good cold test.  On my torso, I wear a wicking merino wool thermal underlayer and a normal quick dry running vest under my lightweight gortex cagoule.  For the legs I have windproof, thermally-lined trousers over running shorts.  I try merino wool liner gloves inside windstopper gloves, and a thermal hat plus goggles.  For safety I carry a small rucksack with water, chocolate, thicker top, mittens, telephone and back-up GPS – it is a remote, cold place to get lost or have an accident.

Lesson one came after 100 yards as my cheeks rapidly chilled down in the freezing air, so I stop and put on a balaclava.  This covers both the nose and mouth, and with the goggles gives excellent face protection. 

After a mile I settle into a steady rhythm, running East towards a thin sun poking low over the horizon.  I am alone, and the feeling of space and light is stunning.  I can see for several miles along the lake, and the air is crystal clear.   The goggles are excellent, and only mist after about 3 miles / 30 minutes.  After four miles, I put them on my head to allow them to clear, only to find when I stop at five miles for water that the vapour inside the goggles is frozen.  I tuck them inside my cagoule to warm up, and keep heading East on snowmobile tracks over a second lake, and then into an open forest trail.  Although I had only stopped for a couple of minutes, it takes a while to fully warm up again.

The balaclava works well, and I alternate between covering my nose and mouth, and leaving them open to the air.  The balaclava restricts the breathing a bit, so I need to cut some small holes.  Nearing the turn round point I spot open water on the flowing Torne river, and a reindeer trots along the track in front.  I do not want to encounter a moose in a bad mood, and keep an eye out. 

As soon as I turn and head back I notice an immediate cooling, as I am now running into a very slight breeze and the thin sun is behind me – small changes but very noticeable.  The balaclava starts to freeze solid in places, and ice forms on my eyebrows.  The goggles have defrosted enough inside my cagoule to clear them, so I put them on and pull up my hood to keep warm.  At 10 miles, I take a walking break for water and chocolate, and don the insulated hat.  By keeping walking, I do not cool nearly as much as before. 

The final four miles along the open lake are cold, but at least houses come into view and I see my first people of the day.  Running along the middle of such a large lake is a bit like sailing – the islands along the edges gradually slip alongside, and the distant destination is in view for a long time getting slowly larger and more defined as you progress.  My stomach chills significantly, so I up the pace, tuck the goggles inside my cagoule in front of the coldest spot and pull up the hood again to generate warmth.

The run takes 2 hr 25 min for the 14 miles (10:23 pace), and has been fabulous for gaining confidence.  It is -8 deg C at the end, making the average run temperature -10 deg C.  This is warmer than the North Pole and there was no wind, but it is still a big experience step.

On changing, the reason for my cold stomach and general chilling become clear – my thermals, running vest and balaclava are all soaking from perspiration.  I will need to wear another insulating layer on my torso at the pole, and think about a spare set of upper layers in addition to balaclavas to change into part way round if necessary.  Maintaining a layer of dry clothing between me and the outside world will be essential. 

Rest of the trip – Saturday pm to Sunday 18th March

Later in the morning, Sarah and I catch a bus to Kiruna to visit its iron ore mine – a huge underground complex, and see life in an Arctic Swedish town.  Its architecture is utilitarian and almost Soviet in style, dominated by the mine and a couple of notable buildings including a beautiful square church.  As the mining continues, the whole town of 30,000 people will have to be relocated over the next 30 years, together with key historic buildings.  The town’s event of the day was reindeer racing …. skiers get towed by reindeer around a short track …. definitely an acquired taste !

Snow falls in the afternoon and through the night, changing the landscape and turning the pine trees white.  The thick, light covering makes it hard to differentiate between hard and soft ground, and I do not go running on Sunday morning to avoid injury.