RUNNING a marathon anywhere is gruelling enough. Running one on ice, just a few feet above the Arctic Ocean, with the prospect of a polar bear popping up out of nowhere – well, that takes gruelling to a whole new level.
The North Pole Marathon is a challenge, all right. But for Scots athlete Shona Thomson, who competes in it next week, it is the sort of challenge to which she has become accustomed.
Brought up just outside Glasgow, Thomson walked the West Highland Way – all 96 miles of it – when she was six. More recently, she became the first Scottish woman, and one of only 20 worldwide, to complete a marathon on all seven continents – Asia, Africa, Antarctica, Australasia, North and South America and Europe. Once she did that, it seemed almost logical that the next step should be to take part in the North Pole race, which bills itself, with some justification, as “the world’s coolest marathon”.
The field of some 50 competitors gathers this week on Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago inside the Arctic Circle. After a few days to acclimatise, they fly to the North Pole next Tuesday before, weather permitting, racing the 26-and-a-bit miles the following day, 9 April. Provided she finishes the race, 36-year-old Thomson will become the latest member of the Grand Slam Club, an elite group of athletes who have completed a marathon or longer on each continent and at the North Pole.
The Antarctic Marathon was preparation of a sort for this coming race, but Thomson explains that the North Pole has its own distinct challenges. “In Antarctica you’re on solid ground, and the surface was fairly frozen ice. I think in the North Pole there are far more drifts. The whole set-up is more primitive.
“We fly to the North Pole from Svalbard in a Soviet-era plane, because they’re the only ones tough enough to land on ice. They send some paratroopers up first to survey the course. There are polar bears up there, so the course is a loop of 4.2km, which is easier from a security point of view.
“In Antarctica there were two loops of 13 miles, and with only 50 or 60 people in the race we were pretty spread out. It’s a pretty isolating experience. It’s such a contrast from doing the London or the New York Marathon where there is a street-party atmosphere, but I do all my long runs on my own anyway, so that aspect doesn’t bother me.”
Although she had that early start in endurance events when she walked the West Highland Way with her family, it was only in the last few years that Thomson took to marathon running. At first it was a complementary activity to her work with a bank in the City of London, but it is now a central part of her life. Trained by former Scotland rugby league international David Arnot, she mentors other athletes through her work with the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust, and also works for the 5x50 Challenge, which aims to inspire the whole population to become more active.
Indeed, although she has clearly achieved something extraordinary in her own life, Thomson does not regard herself as an exceptional athlete, and is if anything more interested in making small improvements to the everyday life of the country as a whole. “I do spend most of my time training, but I also do charity work, and work with other runners as a mentor, for example,” she says.
“I would be reluctant to call myself a professional athlete, because to me that always conjures up people that are naturally far more talented. And I don’t see myself as a particularly good athlete – I just like a good challenge and I like to set myself goals. Running suits me from that perspective. I think a lot of it is about the mindset.
“I did the Seven Continents challenge when I was working in the City, but when I got back from the last race in Vietnam I felt that City life wasn’t giving me what I wanted out of life. Financially it was rewarding, but it wasn’t particularly meaningful. So it seemed the right time to get out of it.”
Anyone who has focused on a big event for months beforehand will tell you there is a danger of a massive hangover afterwards. The main purpose of your life has suddenly gone, and you do not know what to do next. It is a danger of which Thomson is well aware, and although she does not know where or when her next marathon will be, she is sure her life will remain as busy.
“That [hangover] is a huge risk, as I found after the New York Marathon, which is the first one I did. So it’s important to have something else lined up. I’ve not entered any other races at the moment, and after pretty much three years of running my mind probably needs a break.
“But I will carry on with my running, and strength and conditioning, and I’ll continue to work for the 5x50 Challenge and the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust. I also love the hills and at some point would love to fill up my Munro bag, and tick off the seven summits – the highest summit in each continent – though my technical skills require a lot of work.”
Appropriately enough for a long-distance runner, Thomson’s attitude is to take everything, including the coming race, in her stride. “If I’ve had a bad run, or I’ve picked up a bug and had a few days off, I’ve had that feeling of ‘Oh, the days are ticking’. But confidence-wise, I know I’ll get round.
“I’m not an overly competitive person: for me it’s about a personal challenge. It’s about me completing the race in the best time I can do. That takes the pressure off.
“The race list was posted online the other day, and when you see 50 or so other names up there it becomes a bit more real. I’m sure I’ll have butterflies the day before, but at the moment I’m fairly calm about it.”
• See www.5x50.org for more details on the 5x50 Challenge. For information about Dame Kelly Holmes’ Legacy Trust, see www.dkhlegacytrust.org. www.npmarathon.com is the official website of the North Pole Marathon.