PART TWO: RUNNING FOR SCHOLARSHIP AT THE NORTH POLE-- President Baker gives the second and final chronicle travel log of his North Pole Marathon expedition (Part 2, Days 3 to 6):
Day Four (Tuesday, April 6)
From Longyearbyen, our destination Tuesday was to depart for the Camp Ice Barneo, the floating ice island that was to be our base for the next three days. But like many flights in the Arctic Circle, it was delayed, due to weather condition at the North Pole. We eventually left the hotel in Longyearbyen at 10:00 a.m. and were airborne at 12:00 midnight in the Antonov AN-74 Russian plane. The jet has two engines high on the wing, and a rear ramp for loading cargo. It is one cabin with 30 seats at the front, and no windows for most of the passengers. It was a different experience packed in the semi-cargo plane flying above the frigid Arctic waters! There is a nervous sense of anticipation in the plane as we near the ice island base camp where we are to run the North Pole Marathon.
Arrival: We land around 1:00 am (eight hours ahead of Central Standard Time [CST]) to bright sunlight on the ice at Camp Ice Barneo (Camp Barneo or CB). After some soup and bread, a camp orientation from Victor—the Camp Supervisor who is a reputed explorer in his own right— we go to our heated tents that house 10 campers each. A few of us took a brief walk around the camp to get a sense of the lay-of-the-land and to orientate ourselves to the proposed route of the 26.2 mile or 42.195 kilometer marathon course. Whenever I think of the distance of a marathon, no matter how many times I complete it, I’m always impresses that it is one long distance. After the walk-run, we return to our tents thinking of mental and physical strategies to tackle the challenge. There is a general sense of nervous anxiety as we go to a fitful sleep.
Camp Ice Barneo: I became intrigued with the history and formation of Camp Ice Barneo, (Camp Barneo) where the North Pole Marathon will take place, about three hours by air from the city of Longyearbyen in Norway. Camp Barneo is described as a unique complex on a drifting ice floe in the Arctic Ocean, located in the immediate proximity of the North Pole with a its longitudinal address, 89 degree North (89N). It sits on a shelf of ice about the size of the size of the United States and surrounds the geographic North Pole.
Camp History: The ice camp concept was first established by Russians in the 1930s to do research and scientific studies. The camp is comparable to a small outdoors camping village that serves as the lodging site for scientists, researchers, expeditions (i.e., explorers and marathoners) and tourists. The complex includes a runway and a tent camp constructed every year in March-April for scientific research. It is run by a private Russian company, VICAAR and the Arctic and Antarctic POLUS Expedition Center. Every year the construction of the camp starts with a search for a suitable ice floe in the area between latitudes 88.5 and 89.5 degrees North and longitudes 80 and 130 degrees East. A suitable ice float must be found that has the right safety features such as old and new ice, the right thickness and accessibility to get the right equipment in to build a new runway. Two Russian MI-8 helicopter help to find the right site each year and remain at the camp for safety purposes. Fuel and all major equipment, including tractor for building a runway are delivered by air drops. The camp is assembled and dismantled in approximately three days and operated for a two month period each year at the maximum time for ice stability and daylight.
Floating Ice: The ice mass that forms the base of Camp Barneo literally floats on the Arctic Ocean, and when we were there, we were headed in an eastern direction, away from the geographic North Pole. At one point during our four-day stay, I was informed that we reached a floating ice floating speed of close to a mile per hour. It was quite a remarkable phenomenon since I was never aware of the floating sensation. I must admit that it was a mental jolt to remember that we were not on terra firma (land), but on ice. That is, we were literally floating on an ice platform in the Arctic Ocean. Camp staffers informed us that the ice foundation would not be stable enough to sustain the weight of the camp after April, only weeks after our departure. This fact was unnervingly substantiated in that we were able to see periodically see cracks appearing in the ice at certain locations in the camp during our stay. Dramatically when traveling to the geographic North Pole by helicopter, we were able to see parts of the ice mass that showed huge leads or cracks that had the appearance of streams or rivers from an aerial perspective.
Day Five (Wednesday, April 7)
The Marathon: The race is supposed to start at 10:00 a.m., but due to the severe weather conditions, it gets under way at 4:00 p.m. I read, rested, checked and rechecked my running gear. There were about three times the race start was announced, only to be adjusted, due to poor weather (blizzard-like) conditions. Finally the race started with the shot of a gun, and all 24 of us were off in pursuit of the finish line. By the grace of God and some serious grit, I finished the North Pole Marathon, along with 23 other participants. Normally, my average time to finish a marathon is between 4 and 4.5 hours, however, this, my longest time, was more than 8 hours. It will go down as the most grueling and difficult marathon I’ve completed.
True Challenge: The race to be brutal and unrelenting. It called upon all my experience and endurance. Toward the end of the race, I felt as if maybe, just maybe, I didn’t have all that I needed to finish. But I prevailed. As a result of knowing the mind-games and the inevitability of what happens when you stretch and reach, with prayer and numbing determination I went into autopilot and finished! Despite the difficulties, I will always savor the North Pole Marathon as one of my premier challenges. What it stretched me to do and what I learned while doing it will stay with me till my end.
Test Points: Why was it so hard? Well, for one thing it was seriously snowing (I don’t particularly like snow or the cold) and eventually snowing escalated into a full-blown blizzard. We had to repeat the same course 11 times to equal the 26.2 miles or 42 kilometers of a marathon. In itself that may not seem an overwhelming challenge for someone use to running marathon, if it wasn’t for the terrain of the last mile and a half of the circuit. The last three fifths of each circuit were torturous!
Aside the anesthetizing repetition, it was the insistent driving snow. In some places it was knee-deep, on a path that inundated with ups and downs, drops, twists and turns undergirded with temperatures of 20 degrees below zero. This complex challenge was further complicated with opposing winds that exceed 25 miles per hour winds! It was, well, a perfect storm of the marathon that I didn’t want. All this was in the barren white frozen wonderland on a floating island of ice in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. It’s the kind of thing that tested my internal fortitude to the extent that I wonder, not if I would if I would finish the course, but if I could finish the course!
Equipment: Admittedly it wasn’t all bad. For one thing I had excellent running gear. I’ve learned that you don’t want to, you can’t afford to compromise on the tools that facilitate a good support system.
There is a certain science to dressing for cold weather. A key strategy is what is referred to as “Layering.” Layering is designed to balance temperature and moisture levels both inside and out. The inner or base layer, often a polyester item, is supposed to draw sweat away from the skin. The middle or insulating layer, typically wool or fleece, keeps the body warm. The outer or shell layer keeps the worst of the wind and rain away from the outer clothing. Together, each layer contributes to the wearers comfort and protection.
My gear included: good The North Face, Vibram-built running shoes with gortex, that made them water proof (I added Heat Max Foot Warm-Ups for additional heat protection); three pairs of socks with the inner pair being Injinji toe socks to help cut down on blisters; gators that kept water and debris out of shoes; three layers of pants—the inner pair to wick off perspiration, middle for the insulation and outer for water and wind resistance; three thermo layers for the upper body—inner, middle and outer top that held my bib (my running number happened to be #1 since they listed according to alphabetical order) and the Running for Scholarship with the sponsors names on it.
I actually ended up wearing another outer layer—a Norway made Helly Hanson coat with a hood that I picked up in Longyearbyen, just in case I needed it (what a great difference it made when the weather became more inclimate about halfway through the race); of course I wore a neck-face buff that was invaluable as it was in my South Pole Marathon experience; a balaclava that covered my head, ears and neck, a cap that covered my ears, a pair of thin thermo finger gloves inside water resistant mittens; my googles were a lifesaver in that they preserved my vision and protected my eyes (I should have brought an extra pair as my fogged up several time in spite of a tight fit); I had my Garmen watch with GPS; and of course my ipod with a biography that I was able to complete listening to, number of engaging thoughts, good music and a prayer list of persons that I prayed for.
Snow Running: Another unanticipated advantage was the snow; while it was deep, and often slippery, it was softer on my knees and joints than urban running on asphalt and cement—so I anticipate that my recuperation time will be speeded along. Then the scenery was surreal and beautiful. One got the sense they were in the midst of God’s great creation—a creation that could be wonderful to behold but also very harsh on those who didn’t treat it with respect. So I ran, and trekked, and walked, and at time stumbled and fell but I kept moving forward.
Several of my running colleagues said they started to hallucinate—one said he thought he saw a Polar Bear, another a white stallion, another a group of mermaids. I kept seeing the “Finish Line”; that was the image that beckoned me on!
Mental Motivation: One humorous incident happened that I had to smile about even as it happened. About mile 21 when the going was really tough; I took my mitten off for a moment and before I knew it the mitten slipped and wind blew it away. I knew I would have been in a bad way without that mitten. I immediately became determined to redeem it, even though I thought I have no energy to spare. However the thought of losing that mitten that I badly needed, spurred something inside me. With a herculean gust of energy, I took off after that mitten and chased it a good way off the path, until I caught it! So much for being out of fuel! The mind is a powerful motivator. I learned something from that incident.
Personal Incentives: So it was my toughest marathon. I figure the secret to finishing: experience—knowing that I could and would finish it and that the 26.2 miles would come to an end; motivators—faith in God and His presence even in such things as marathons, I thankful for grace and good health; inspiration—my wonderful wife and Physical Therapist, Susan gave me support and good practical advice on working with my body; incentives—the $150,000 dollars in sponsorship for the Running for Scholarships program for OU Students and the sponsorship of Florida Hospital/AHS; personal will—all were factors that help me to finish the unforgettable the “NoPo” Marathon!
Finish Line: As it turned out, in light of the extreme conditions and in the context of the 2010 North Pole Marathon, I finished in respectable time. I learned that I was the second oldest person in the group to finish by about 10 years. Virtually everyone reported that this was their highest time marathon in spite of the fact that most of the persons on this expedition were experienced marathoners. It was a great moment to cross the Finish Line with the United States and Oakwood University flags in one hand and the Bible in the other.
Reflections: So, I ran the race and finished the course (no pun intended). Upon completion, I received the citation of being a certified member of the 7 Continents Club, finisher of the North Pole and South Pole Marathons (truly “bi-polar” in a global sense), a member of the coveted Grand Slam Club of about 40 individuals that have run marathons on all seven continents and on the North Pole and the only African American on record to run marathons at both the South Pole and the North Poles and the only College or University president.
While the above highlights were not the intent for embarking on this project, it is an accomplishment of which I am proud. Most important we have now raised right at $450,000 (in cash and firm pledges) in scholarship dollars in the Running for Scholarship program/endowment. I believe with the current synergy and momentum we have a real opportunity of finding interested donors who may match the raised amount and take the endowment to the $1 million mark! Exciting prospect.
Inspiring Stories: An unexpected benefit I derived from the experience was meeting some incredible people. To name a few: A visually impaired British war veteran completed the marathon with an accompanist who was fund-raising for those who were visually impaired while serving in the military; a 14-year-old teenager completed the course who had run marathons on all continents except the South Pole (her father who also completed the race was a geneticist who did original research on the unraveling of the genome riddle); a 64 year old journalist from the BBC noted this as his 10th marathon; then among the group were doctors, scientist, researchers; and the world famous UK television host, David Attenborough, most recently known for the documentary, Planet Earth, was at the North Pole with a video team working on an upcoming special to be entitled The Frozen Planet. The fascinating reality is that all the runners there had a story to tell that was inspiring and full of the stuff of life.
Day Five (Wednesday, Post Race, April 7)
I spent the post hours after 12 midnight stabilizing, getting warm, lightly eating and cleaning up. I actually bounced back quickly and was able to socialize and encourage the others finishers coming in before going to bed. There was a spirit of jubilation and relief, mixed with esprit de corps in the dining area as the runners finished and one after the other came in out of the cold.
Wednesday night (or rather Thursday morning), I wearily closed my eyes and got a good night’s rest. Unfortunately the heater in our tent wasn’t working and we had to spend a good part of the night in the frigid arctic air before they got the heat on again. The night temperature remained at -20 degrees and the winds howled outside out tents the remainder of the night. What an experience that was! Tough as it was there is nothing like quite like crossing the Finish Line! The sense of exhilaration and relief was worth the effort—it is sometimes called the Runner High, I simply called it relief and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. It reminds me of the need to persevere for the heavenly reward.
Lasting Impressions: I was impressed with several thoughts in the period after the run: 1) incentives are wonderful motivators—challenges and positive outcomes (i.e., gifts); 2) family love and backing are a great support during times of extreme challenge; 3) prayer, preparation and training provide effective undergirding and can make the difference between success and failure; 4) the body will do some amazing things if we give it no choice—while we must listen to our bodies, it can surprise us with what it can produce in times of challenge; 5) global people, travel and experiences add depth and deeply enrich our lives—the human story makes the difference; 7) color, class and caste become secondary or nonexistence when the human spirit is tested and tried and the mind is challenged to go beyond and above what you have done in the past.
Best Marathon?: Someone asked after having run marathons on the seven continents, which is the most memorable? Is it New York, Marine Corp, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles, New Orleans in the US, Rome in Italy, Athens in Greece, Cairo in Egypt, Manila in the Philippines, Gold Coast in Australia, Patriot Hills in Antarctica, South Pole or now the North Pole? I can honestly say that each one had it unique challenge and mystic. I’m also quick to say that the most daunting and difficult to get to and actually navigate were the South Pole and North Pole. They were enigmatic and mysterious and even after having visited them I still think of them with awe and wonder.
What’s Next: It seems no matter what the venue, at the end of a marathon, one of the most asked questions is, “What next?” In short, when and where you run your next marathon? Most runners wanted to achieve the Grand Slam (I was the only one of the 24 who had completed all continents and the North Pole), several mentioned that they were either planning or had run other popular internationally known marathons as one annually held at such places as Great Wall of China, Nepal Everest, Sahara Desert, Big Five Safari, Mount Kilimanjaro, Dead Sea, Underground Cave (Valuenburg in Holland). However, when asked what the next one for me would be, I could honestly say that, besides working on finishing running the last 16 remaining marathon states of the 50 states, which I have yet to run, I haven’t planned or decided on running another marathon in an international venue.
Day Six (Thursday, April 8)
The schedule had the group getting up by 7:00 a.m. and being transported to the geographical North Pole by the M-8 Helicopter. Due to the weather didn’t happen. (After being delayed in the South Pole for one week during the Christmas I have learned to flow knowing that the weather is totally out of my hands and that it does no good to stress and sweat it.) The weather didn’t change; the helicopter and the jet were not able to operate as planned. The weather was poor with high winds and low visibility and there were growing cracks in the runway; the camp staff hadn’t had the time to cut a new runway for the jet to take off and safely land. So safety prevailed and we did fly that day.
Down Time: Thursday was spent in reading, resting, conversing and playing soccer; marathoners played the staff members with the staffers ultimately winning. I used the time to write in my log book and got my passports and papers stamped with the North Pole stamp and I brought a couple of mementos from the North Pole to take home. Thursday evening campers relaxed and played games in the Dining Tent. The Russians supplied the spirits and many of the runners stayed up late and celebrated. Others went to bed and got needed rest.
Thursday evening Camp officials announced that everyone was to be packed and ready to go at 7am to the geographical North Pole (90N) via helicopter. We would spend an hour there before returning to Camp Barneo and go from the helicopter directly to board the Antonov jet to fly to Longyearbyen and then on to our final destinations.
Day Seven (Friday, April 9)).
I was up 5:30a.m. Friday. We get instructions that though we will shortly board the Mi-8 helicopter for the North Pole; if the weather threatens we are told, the pilots would turn back. I realized that going to the geographic North Pole was a very big deal to at least half of the persons in our group—several insisted that took the trip more to visit the North Pole, the geographical top of the world, than they did to run the North Pole Marathon!
Enroute to 90N: At about 7a.m., about 35 people into the cabin of the helicopter. When the seating is full, a bench is pulled out and put in the centre of the cabin for the others to sit on. No seatbelts, etc. here. Not what I am used to—but on the other hand, most of this is not what I’m used to. Flying is difficult as there is limited contrast between ice and sky. Few windows are in the helicopter. During the 45-minute flight to the 90N North Pole location we saw a visual panorama of the ice below that was fascinating. While most of what we could see was a vast expanse of white ice, in several spots we saw where the water had broken through and there were small, large and huge cracks where we could see the waters of the Arctic Ocean. It was once again, a bit unnerving to know that Camp Barneo was resting on ice that was on top of the ocean. Nevertheless, there was a rugged, raw beauty to this marvelous natural phenomenon.
Before landing at the North Pole site, the pilots hover a few feet above the ice and throw a tyre out of the door to give a visual reference. Then they gently bounce the helicopter on the ice to make sure it is secure before resting the helicopter on the ice and closing the engines down. Although the exact geographical North Pole is only about 35 miles from Camp Barneo, it feels more isolated and colder and remote in the light, white and thin air. It reminded me of the emotions I felt when disembarking in the South Pole the first time in December of 2008. The profound sense of white, openness, pristine wonderland was breathtaking. Only at the South Pole I was struck with the firmness of the ice and knowledge of the terra firma beneath me! Whereas on the North Pole I was ever aware of the knee-deep snow and ice beneath me, distinctly knowing that the waters of the Arctic Ocean were beneath us not land!
North Pole Touch Down: We spent the 45 minutes at the North Pole walking, looking, laying in, touching the snow and reveling in the moment. It was very cold, frigid with temperatures about -20 below. I prayed, thanked God for the moment and for allowing me to see this often hidden part of his creation. I, along with others, took several pictures at the 90N spot. One of the marathoners from Romania loaned me his Satellite cell phone and I called my wife Susan from the top of the world (technology is quite remarkable).
Standing on the Geographical North Pole is like nothing I have ever done before. At the time I was there in 2010 it is estimated that less than 20,000 people in all history have ever set foot there. Why? Because the Geographical North Pole is one of the most difficult places on the planet Earth to reach. With the drifting and breaking ice, the extreme cold, the inability to make a permanent base, and the extensive distance from any land mass, reaching the North Pole is not only very difficult, it can be very dangerous. Thanks to the help of the Russians, with all of their years of research stations and travels to on the Arctic Ocean and trips to the pole, the infrastructure was in place to put visitors and scientist on the exact and only point on the planet where every direction is south. This is true. When you are standing on the Geographical North Pole, there is only one direction, and every direction that you look is south.
Defining the North Pole: Some people get the North Pole area where I visited confused with the city North Pole, Alaska (a small town of 1778 people who advertise its zip code as the Zip Code of Santa). They are very different. One is a city in Alaska; the other is a geographical location at the top of the world. A few helpful notes about the North Pole: The Geographic North Pole, also known as True North, is defined as approximately the point at which the axis of rotation meets the surface rotating counter-clockwise around the axis as observed from space. It is also the northernmost point on Earth; the point at which any linear direction of travel is south.
North Pole vs South Pole: The North Pole lies in the Arctic Ocean. Unlike its antipode the South Pole, it doesn't lie on a polar continent (Antarctica means anti-, i.e. opposite, Arctis, the northern polar region), nor is it part of any (sub)continent or island, so there is no land, just waters which are almost permanently frozen.
So it is the northern end of the Earth's geographic axis, located at latitude 90° N. Amazingly it is the northern point of the globe from which all meridians of longitude start. It lies in the Arctic Ocean and is covered with drifting pack ice. Like with the South Pole, a visitor has to get use to the six months of constant sunlight and six months of total darkness each year. Robert E. Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole by dogsled in 1909, but that is now in dispute; Roald Amundsen and Richard E. Byrd claimed to have reached it by air in 1926. An interesting fact is that the geographic pole does not coincide with the magnetic North Pole.
It is argued on many fronts that global warming is taking its toll on the ice on the North Pole. On April 9, 2010 when I visited, guides note that leads or cracks in the ice are more widespread and obvious than they were years ago and it is becoming more difficult to find ice thick enough to build a runway and establish a camp. Some people go as far as to say that there may be a limit to the day when people can visit and stand on the Geographic North Pole due to the ice becoming thinner.
Striking Impressions: The North and South Poles have no official fixed time zones of their own—visitors use their own time or some agreed upon time (at the North Poles we use European time). At both places I experienced 24 hours of daylight.
Where I ran the North Pole marathon Wednesday, April 7, the ice will no longer be in existence in a month because it will break apart and dissipate. The cracks we see here that are increasing (I saw new ones just this morning that I didn’t see the day before) will continue to widen until there is no longer an ice island. The staff at Camp Barneo will dismantle it (it takes about three days for them to take down the camp) because where this ice mass sits will break up in about a month and will reform in approximately ten months.
Floating Platform: So the place where the next North Pole Marathon group will meet will be a totally new reformed ice mass or ice island floating on the Arctic at the top of the world. It amazes me right now that I am not on land but on an ice mass floating to the east away from the North Pole. Further it’s incredible to think that when we are at the geographic North Pole we are exactly opposite the geographic South Pole. When I stand at the North Pole I stand at the true top of the world with it vertically revolving under my feet—if I were to stand there for 24 hours, the earth would make a complete rotation under me. Well so much for the geographic wonder of it all, it’s just that I find this concept mind boggling—what I learned in Geography class strikes me now with a startling sense of the reality: traveling to the North and South Poles are true journeys to the beginning and ends of the earth.
As we departed from the North Pole, the passengers on the helicopter were quiet and somber. It seemed that the North Pole had a sobering effect on the group.
Transition: After flying back to Camp Barneo we transferred to the Antonov Jet that took use back to Longyearbyen. We finally deboarded the plane at the airport, back on solid earth, about to take a SAS flight to Oslo, Frankfurt and then home to the US. We got our marathon completion metals, said our goodbye and farewells. After a few moments of souvenir shopping, we finally leave the Arctic Circle for home. I return to the world of academe but I go back changed as a result of my Arctic experiences. I will always remember the mysterious aura of the mystic North Pole and the marathon that taught new lessons on endurance and perseverance.
Many people doing the North Pole Marathon had already achieved the most amazing things from climbing the highest summits on every continent, rowing the atlantic to completing the Marathon de Sables and other incredible long distance ventures on foot and bicycle. It shows what is possible when you put your mind to something. For me personally, it reinforced my faith in preparation and training and the vastness and diversity of God’s creation. It reminded me of the Tommy Lasorda’s word, “The difference between the impossible and the possible, lies in a person’s determination.”
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