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Rachel’s Arctic Marathon 2015 adventure!

It was the early hours of a cold and dark Thursday 26 February 2015, and with only a few hours of broken sleep behind me, I was walking through the doors of the departure terminal at Heathrow Airport.

It was the early hours of a cold and dark Thursday 26 February 2015, and with only a few hours of broken sleep behind me, I was walking through the doors of the departure terminal at Heathrow Airport. A mixture of nerves and excitement bubbled up inside me. It was finally here, the Arctic Marathon 2015.

My reason for signing up for this marathon? I think I can probably blame those documentaries where the likes of James Cracknell and Ben Fogle are seen taking on gruelling challenges in the North Pole. With a passion for skiing and an impending 30th birthday, this seemed like the perfect adventure to undertake before I waved goodbye to my twenties. Coupled with the fact that it would also raise much needed money for breast cancer projects, I was inevitably drawn towards this challenge. However, for any of you who are under the illusion that I must be an ultra-fit, marathon junkie who thrives off extreme sport induced pain, then you are hugely mistaken.

Signing up for the Arctic marathon also involved a large dollop of denial thrown in for good measure. Anyone who asked me how I was feeling on the run up to the trip would be greeted with the response that I couldn’t wait to see the northern lights, stay in the Ice Hotel, take an ice sculpting class, witness the beautiful landscape of northern Sweden, experience a husky ride to the airport…you would think I was off on a five star alpine skiing holiay. The small matter of completing a marathon on cross country skis in sub-zero temperatures was always overlooked.

My training for the Arctic Marathon whilst living in the centre of London with an unforgiving work schedule meant that preparation for the event was squeezed in wherever and whenever possible. The lack of snow in London restricted my preparation to cardio and core training in the gym with the help of a personal trainer with the patience of a saint. Combining this with a number of long walks into work, I could feel my body shape changing and my fitness improving. However, walking into Heathrow airport to meet my fellow WTW adventurers, I couldn’t have felt anymore underprepared. Although a keen skier, I had never actually been on cross country skis and never completed a half marathon, let alone a full marathon. With the amazing support of the WTW team and a bunch of awe inspiring women (and men), my worries subsided. I had a feeling that this was going to be a trip of a life time.

The first couple of days involved meeting fellow Arctic trippers, getting to grips with our warm clothing and practising on the skis. For anyone considering this trip and who has 2015-04-16_0003limited skiing experience, you should not be put off from signing up for this challenge. Whilst skiing basics are needed, having years of downhill skiing does not necessarily give you the edge. Anyone watching me attempting to cross country on the first day would have laughed at the heap of mess sprawled in the snow! I was certainly no cross country ski pro by the end of the trip but it is strangely easy to pick up once you get going.

On the second day, we headed to the first mountain hut on sledges pulled by snowmobiles. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me. Seeing the breath-taking scenery as we 2015-04-16_0005whooshed through the snow covered trees, up through the mountain valleys, made me realise how lucky we were to be in such an incredible part of the world. The huts were basic: no electricity or water but this didn’t dampen the excitement in the camp. Once we had eaten in the candle lit, warm hut we snuggled down in our dorms ready for the first day of the marathon. However, the peace was short lived. We were rudely awoken by someone shouting in the corridor that the northern lights had appeared. In two minds whether or not I could face getting out of my cosy bed to stand in the cold, I finally pushed myself to get up. Standing in the middle of the wilderness with other Arctic trippers was phenomenal. The clouds in the sky had broken to allow green and pink lights to emerge and dance around the sky above us. We must have stood there in silence for about fifteen minutes, everyone in disbelief that we had actually been granted the chance to see this once in a lifetime entrancing spectacle which took place directly above us. As the clouds started to re-gather, the lights began to fade away – the show was over and our beds beckoned.

The next day, we awoke to a crisp, bright morning. Once we had all eaten breakfast, prepared our lunch pack for the day and done several equipment checks (and re-checks), we were ready. Standing in one long row at the starting line, there was a strange feeling of excitement and nerves. Enclosed by frozen, white mountains either side of us, we were eager to get going. The first day of the challenge involved a number of uphill and downhill sections which coincided with me spending a lot of time with my good friend, the floor! One particular part involved me snowploughing all the way down a slope whilst watching fellow Arctic trippers being wiped out by another Arctic tripper who shall remain unnamed! Despite my legs feeling like they were about to fall off, and a desperate desire to not see the floor again, I went down the slope crying with laughter. Fast forward an hour or so and the sight of the second mountain hut and our support team with hot drinks and cookies was a very welcome sight! The second mountain hut was to be home for the night, and with a delicious meal inside of us and a session in the sauna, it wasn’t long before we were all tucked up and dreaming of cross country skis!

Day two of the challenge brought some leg and arm pains from the previous day but also exhilaration of being half way through. The terrain was very different – large mountains had been replaced by tree lined tracks and frozen lakes. For me, this was a slightly easier part of the challenge as it was on flat tracks which didn’t require me to permanently watch my skis! This allowed me time to take in the pristine, white wilderness surrounding us and to chat to our guide about life in the Arctic Circle. Our relaxed and sunny morning was followed by a stop off for lunch next to a frozen lake with a family of moose (not something you do every day)! After copious amounts of sandwiches, soup and (most importantly) chocolate, we headed off for the final part of our challenge. This brought other emotions – euphoria of being nearly at the finish line but also a strange feeling of sadness that it was nearly over. As we reached the finish line, we re-grouped with as many Arctic trippers as possible so that we all crossed the finish line together. It was incredibly exciting to see the flags flying as we crossed the line, we had finally done it!

Tiredness swept the camp and by the time we had travelled to our next destination, the Ice 2015-04-16_0007Hotel, the excitement of civilisation, hot water and pristine beds was not fully appreciated until we awoke the next day. On waking up the following morning, I was blown away by the resort and all of the activities on offer. Although getting up for a painful 8.30am start, I enjoyed an ice sculpting class which was taught by one of the Ice Hotel artists in a classroom made of snow. We were each given a block of ice which had been taken from the local river and given three hours to sculpt whatever we wished. Being taught by one of the Ice Hotel artists was incredible and made me truly appreciate the skills required to make and design the hotel each year after it has melted away during the warmer summer months. I opted to try and create the WTW foot logo (with questionable success) but the experience was fun and magical.

This was followed by snowmobiling in the afternoon and then an impressive feast in the evening. A WTW event would not be complete, of course, without the display of the WTW bras! We stripped down  2015-04-16_0011decorated bras (both men and women) whilst celebrating with a number of pink cocktails in the Ice Bar. After quickly putting our warm clothes on, we retreated for our last night of the adventure which was spent in the Ice Hotel itself. Sleeping on blocks of ice was a surreal experience – I had expected to freeze but with the specially designed sleeping blankets and reindeer skins, I slept solidly throughout the night. Waking up in the enchanting hotel with its huge ice chandeliers hanging from the ceilings and ice sculptures decorating the corridors, there was no better way to finish our adventure. Or so I thought…A taxi to the airport anyone? No, not here! My final memory of the challenge was being escorted back to the airport by sledges pulled by dozens of excitable arctic huskies. The huskies sprinted along the snow tracks through the charming woods, barking along the way until we finally arrived back where we started, Kiruna Airport.

I honestly can’t name the best thing about this trip – it was jam packed from start to finish. The elation of completing the challenge, being able to experience the northern lights, taking part in various activities, living in spectacular scenery for six days and exploring the Ice Hotel are high up there. Whilst there were moments of physical and mental pain, these were overshadowed by the times that I laughed so much I cried and the opportunity to meet an amazing and inspirational bunch of people. They may have been of different ages, different backgrounds and have different reasons for being there but we all had something in common – we were there to prove that we have the strength and determination to overcome personal fears and challenges that life throws at us no matter how big or small.

This was an adventure of a life time and I have no regrets pressing that entry button on the application form twelve months earlier.

Now, Iceland 2016, who wants to join me…?!

 

Rachel

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