Novice Irish runner battles gruelling conditions to win Arctic marathon near North Pole
A NOVICE marathon runner has battled minus 30C (minus 22F) temperatures to win what has become known as the coolest race on earth.
Gary Thornton, a national school teacher from Galway, was running only his third competitive race over the 26-mile distance this week when he came first on a specially designed North Pole course.
"The course was brutal. It's like you're on the moon up there," he said.
"I'm only relatively new to marathon competition. I'd only raced in two before this, in cities, so this was totally different to what I've ever done. I had to wear a face mask and really needed that, it was brutally cold."
The 33-year-old's teacher wife Elaine Barrett, 30, joined him on the floating Arctic ice after two days earlier deciding to take part in a half marathon on the same 4.69km course.
"She might normally run 20 minutes once a week so this was a bit last minute. And she wouldn't be a woman who likes the cold, she likes being beside the stove," Thornton said.
The race took place 20-30 miles below the magnetic North Pole as the Arctic ice floats and shifts.
Thornton ran the marathon in 3 hours 49 minutes 29 seconds, compared to a 2 hours 17 minutes he took to run a qualifier race in Rotterdam last April for the London Olympics.
The camp is set up by Russian paratroopers dropped on to the ice who also guard the route with rifles for fear of polar bear attacks.
Richard Donovan, North Pole Marathon organiser and the first man to complete the adventure 11 years ago, said Thornton's training regime on the west coast of Ireland stood him in good stead.
"Coming from the west of Ireland means you are kind of used to robust weather conditions," he said.
"I know this is extreme but you go out running in the west of Ireland, wet and near constant windy conditions, it's going to toughen you up."
Thornton explained the impact the Arctic conditions have on the body.
"On the last lap I could only really see partially out of my right eye and fully out of the left. I had to keep using my frozen mitten to break ice off the face mask," he said.
Donovan said this year's conditions were the most difficult to date.
"It's unpredictable from one year to the next what the course might be like," he said.
"We had some solid ice but then we had competitors running over what I call ice hillocks, pressure ridges from the sea moving, but as the race went on the soft sections became worse. This is energy-sapping soft snow."
The fastest woman on the course was Briton Fiona Oakes, a 2:38 marathon runner in normal conditions but taking close to five hours to complete the race.