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Jock Talk: Marathoner conquers the North Pole

by Roger Brigham

Larry Rich stands with his medal after the North Pole Marathon. Photo: Courtesy Larry Rich
Larry Rich stands with his medal after the North Pole Marathon. Photo: Courtesy Larry Rich  

I asked Larry Rich what it was like running a marathon at the North Pole. He spoke to me about the strange sound the snow made beneath his feet. That made all the sense in the world to me.

I should explain.

Rich, a gay man who is involved with the current Bare Chest Calendar contest, is a local running fanatic and the founder of a coaching effort called Sweat Tracker. You know how runners are: they keep track of things, set goals, and knock things off their bucket lists as they hither and yon about the world.

On a bit of a marathon binge, Rich has taken his passion to serious lengths in recent years. In 2013, he started conquering continents one marathon at a time. You know: #quest4seven.

He started with the marathon course that inspired all of the marathons that have come in the centuries since: the course across the Greek countryside from Marathon to Athens, which he covered in a very respectable 3 hours, 56 minutes and 43 seconds.

In 2014 he tackled Asia with the Great Wall Marathon (5:31:39) and Antarctica (5:32:24) in the Antarctic Ice Marathon.

In 2015 he visited Africa for the Big Five Marathon in South Africa (5:55:31); in 2016, he knocked off the Americas with a 3:36:55 finish in the Boston Marathon and a grueling 11:16:23 in the Inca Trail Marathon to Machu Picchu. He followed that with the Australian Outback Marathon in 2017 (5:58:13).

This year, having run out of continents, he took on the North Pole Marathon, a fun little jaunt across the floating patch of ice that surrounds the North Pole in the endless sunlight of spring and under the watchful eye of heavily armed Russian troops guarding against polar bears.

Now, I'm a bit of an arcticphile. I lived in Alaska for nine years (the first three without a winter coat) and have kayaked north of the Arctic Circle on a river so remote that at night we had to scrape the bear crap off a rocky ledge so we'd have room to set up our tents. I'm familiar with the winter days that have no sunlight and the summer days in which the sun neither rises from the horizon nor sets below it. My favorite moment in my Alaska days was showing my mother Mount Denali at midnight, its western slopes hundreds of miles away from us swathed in a golden glow as dusk set in, its eastern slop simultaneously illuminated by the first rays of the morning sun.

So I wanted to know what struck Rich when he started to run on the icy patch so far removed from civilization, so frozen and barren under the unblinking eye of the sun and the guards and the bears.

"The sound," Rich said.

The sound.

"The sound," he repeated. "It's a strange sound. It's almost like Styrofoam."

I know the sound well. It is a strange sound and it is a good sound. It is the sort of thing you would notice when you are alone with your thoughts trudging across a patch of semi-crusty snow, crushing the crystals in to dry and tightly packed masses beneath your feet, compressing them tighter and tighter as you run over the same snowy patches again and again, repeating over and over again the loop course that has been hastily set up just hours before around an impromptu landing field, crossing again and again into the wind and out of the wind, into the wind and out of the wind, seeing runners in front of you and behind you, never seeing their eyes but only the clothing bundled in layers on them and around them, clouds of steam rising from their breath, the sun shining in their eyes and casting the longest shadows, all of you dancing in circles around and around in the snow and the sun until on this course and this runway that both will be gone hours after you leave, running and running through the layers of sweaty clothes you unwrap from your body until the deed is done and you can rest with the memory of that Styrofoam crunch.

Strange that something as artificial as Styrofoam and so natural as snow should make the same sound, but there you have it.

It was Rich's 80th marathon.

"When I say it was the toughest race that I have done, I've got a few to compare it to," Rich, 49, said. "Almost immediately you step in some loose snow, in some places as deep as your knee, so I knew right away it was not going to be any where as fast as the Antarctica marathon."

The runners raced in a loop, covering the course 10 times. A base camp offered runners repeated chances to peel off wet clothes and replace them with dry ones, as well as to eat food that had not yet frozen, but Rich said he limited his stopovers so as not to waste time. On the third lap he found the energy bars he had were frozen; on the sixth lap he was blinded by goggles that fogged up. For two laps he gutted into the direct glare of the sun without the goggles.

"Marathons are a lot about mental toughness," he said.

The logistics coming in and getting out were in constant flux, depending on what was happening with how the runway reacted on the ice floe. And then there was the chance to get on a helicopter and fly a few miles to where the actual, for real geographic North Pole is.

"For a moment I thought, 'Wait - we're standing in this snowy place and then we're going to stand in another snowy place,'" Rich said.

But of course, he hopped on the copter and stood at the other snowy place, the one that was 40 degrees below zero, rather than the snowy place at the runway course that was only 30 degrees below zero. And there, far from the surreal constructs of the Great Wall of China or the mysteries of Machu Picchu, as far from the Antarctic penguins as it is humanly possible to get, Rich strode atop the globe, crossing through every time zone with just a twist of his body, the Styrofoam crunch beneath his feet, the possibilities of human efforts forever frozen in his DNA.

Cool.

Contact the columnist at jocktalkroger@yahoo.com.

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