An Arctic Challenge... a marathon in the arctic... 26.2 miles in the snow and freezing temperatures... a marathon on cross country skis.... no matter how you say it, it always sounds just a little bit crazy ! But crazy is good isn't it? Crazy makes you feel alive!
And so I go back to May 2016 when, to be fair, without too much hesitation I pressed the send button on an email to sign up for Walk the Walk’s Arctic Challenge 2017. With the encouragement of my husband, a large amount of concern from my mother (she thought I'd got travelling out of my system in my 20s and what about polar bears?!! Really Mum !?!) and the raised eyebrows of my teenage son, I'd done it! I'd said yes. No going back now. A moment of madness? A midlife crisis? Or the best decision ever?? Only time would tell.
It's fair to say I was excited from the start. I loved the idea of doing something completely different, taking on a challenge and stepping out of my comfort zone. I'd had to say goodbye to my much loved career, my son was away at school and it was time to reconnect with myself. Those were my selfish reasons for signing up but there was also another big draw, the opportunity to help to raise money for such a worthwhile cause. Cancer, a disease that has taken friends and family from me but also through the amazing advances in research and provision of care (helped by money raised from challenges similar to this) has helped to save the lives of others. It had been a few years since I'd done The MoonWalk London so time to do my bit again.
Would it be a challenge? Would I be able to do it? Would I raise enough money?... well the answers to those questions were a definite yes, yes and yes... but the trip became so much more than that, more than I'd ever expected or hoped for.
So, be warned, there is something truly special and very very magical about this adventure, it's beyond being just a marathon.
From the very start you are welcomed into the bosom of the Walk the Walk family and I have to say I felt so well looked after. Advice and support is excellent. Some of the team have actually had first-hand experience of completing the challenge so their knowledge and guidance on both training and kit is first class.
When the Training Plan arrives you really feel like it's actually happening and while I was already pretty active I still stuck to the plan as much as I could. It really does make a difference and hey, what's not to love about getting fitter? My dogs have never been happier... they turned out to be the perfect waggy tailed training companions!
And so February 2017 arrived, all the kit had been purchased, the Training Plan seriously put into action and I was off on my travels.
Despite the very early 4:40am meeting time at Heathrow on Feb 24th everyone was already in great spirits and Walk the Walk’s wonderful Nina and Shabana were there to greet us and make us feel welcome. Time for the first team photo at the airport in our bra t shirts and pink bobble hats... our journey had begun! And what a journey it turned out to be.
One of the many things that amazed me about this trip was the speed at which a group of strangers bonded. By the time we reached the Mountain Station l in Abisko, I really felt like I was part of a warm, fun and friendly team.
One lovely member of the group said to me on the plane that she was relieved to see that there were "no athletes amongst us" it made me giggle at the time (and sorry for anyone in the 2017 team if you were a secret athlete) but thinking about it, what it really said was that we were just a bunch of ordinary women and 3 brave men (!) about to take on something extraordinary. We each had our own story to tell and reason for being there, united in our desire to challenge ourselves and to raise as much money as possible for the same great cause.
So, if you are by any chance reading this, thinking about signing up and are worried that you aren't an athlete, fear not, you can do it, after all we did!
If we had any doubts about why we were doing this it became very clear as we gathered around the baggage collection at Kiruna Airport all wearing our pink hats. A lovely couple heading off for a weekend at the Ice Hotel were intrigued by our group and after hearing about the marathon very kindly donated some money! We hadn't even clipped a boot in a ski and money was coming in!
From the minute we touched down on the snow filled runway at Kiruna we barely stood still for 5 minutes. No time to sit still, no time to waste, so much to see and do.
A quick check into our rooms at the hotel then up to the Abisko Sky Station for a fabulous meal and we were lucky enough to capture the amazing Northern Lights A brilliant long day, but all was good, and off we went to bed satisfied from the wonderful food, tired after the travelling and excited about what the next few days would bring!
Saturday morning was about getting our ski kit, trying out cross country skiing, team bonding and a lot of packing, un-packing and re-packing! One thing that dawned on me that morning was that apart from everything else, I was going to be spending much of the next few days laughing. No matter how hard the challenge ahead our group was going to have fun and I was in serious danger of my facial muscles hurting more than my legs if the laughter that morning was any indication of what was to come.
A prediction I can happily say that proved to be 100% accurate!
Fuelled with lunch and back into snow suits plus just about every other item of warm clothing we had, leaving no chink of bare skin exposed we all bundled ourselves into the skidoos for the exhilarating 3 hour journey to our hut for the night and the starting point of our marathon. We got our first glimpse of the absolutely stunning scenery and the route we'd be skiing along over the next two days... definitely no going back now!
While the temperature outside may have been freezing the atmosphere and temperature inside the hut couldn't have been more different. With beds made and fires lit we sat down to a lovely pasta supper with wine too, perfect. We dined by candle light, occasionally blinding each other with head torches(!) and the team spirit, bonding and laughter continued till bedtime. Quick trip to the toilet, well I say quick, but when the toilets are outside it's not so quick by the time you've kitted up into all your warm clothing plus hats & gloves, etc and crunched your way over the snow to the Arctic lavatories... an interesting experience in more ways than one! My pillow was sprinkled with lavender (thank you Nina) and our dorm was wonderfully warm and cosy (thank you Chris for resurrecting our log burner and Shabana for keeping it very well topped up!) there is definitely something about basic living and a no frills environment that brings out the best in people. We were all equal and all getting stuck in looking out for each other and after each other. What a lovely feeling. It struck me that night that I was very lucky to be there and really happy to be a part of this family.
Sunday dawned, marathon day! I was very excited, some were nervous and apprehensive but a hearty breakfast, big hugs and encouraging words settled the nerves. We had a start team photo and then it was time to go!
The forecast was perfect it was set to be sunny all day... how lucky were we? The first group left and in the blink of an eye they had almost disappeared and so it was our turn to grab skis, day packs, hats and gloves and walk to our starting point. We were a tight knit group of 5 plus our wonderful local guide Amanda, who had the most dazzling of smiles and gorgeous gentle nature.
What a day, what a place, what a dear diary entry... as long as I live, I will never forget the beauty of that day. The stunning scenery off set by perfect blue skies was breathtakingly beautiful and the peace and tranquillity only interrupted by our frequent bursts of laughter. It truly was a privilege and joy to be there. Nine hours of skiing through the glorious sub arctic became less of a challenge and more of a pleasure. We made frequent stops to grab a drink, a snack and a short lunch. The day’s skiing was mostly flat apart from a short but steep decent to take us back to the tree lined lower area. We skied , tumbled and walked this section and I will never stop giggling at the alternative and comical way our group negotiated this section. Sarah, Nicky, karen and Di thank you for the cross country dancing on ice display that left Amanda and I crying with laughter
Just a few more miles to the hut to stop for a much needed and well earned rest for the night. It was getting cold but strong spirit, grit, determination and team work saw us through and we'd made it to half way. Medals to be awarded later on in the trip were definitely earned over those last couple of hours.
I have to say it was fabulous to be greeted by the team ahead and after we'd welcomed in the final team there followed another lovely candlelit dinner, wood chopping, fire stoking, chatting, laughing and eating. Everyone mucked in and the team of guides did a fabulous job of feeding and watering us. Great effort when there is no electricity or running water. For some a trip to the sauna eased some aches and pains. Day 2 of the marathon arrived with talk of it feeling a bit colder. Confirmation of this came from the guides who with wide eyed looks informed us it was -27c! (later confirmed as -30c) Yep, we were right, it was a bit chilly! I went out first thing to take some photos but quickly retreated to grab my gloves, boy it was cold!
It turns out that -30c is cold enough to freeze your eyelashes, I had a lovely line of snowballs that made blinking interesting, an Arctic Lady Gaga look! I'm not sure I was in touch with any of my fingers for a couple of hours that morning despite 3 sets of very good gloves & mittens!
The early morning ski across the frozen lake was amazing. Slightly scary seeing cracks in the ice and hearing a few suspect noises, one particularly loud one but always confident in the unflappable Amanda's tracks and guidance we ploughed on and into the undulating tree lined route towards the finish. What a welcome once again from the team ahead and from the ever fabulous Nina. I think we felt famous for a few seconds as everyone cheered and cameras flashed!
We'd made it! We'd stuck together, we'd done it as a team, we'd laughed till our cheeks hurt and till tears rolled down our faces, we'd had ups and downs but so so many more ups than downs, it felt great! We were all elated!
Once we had all made it to the Finish Line we regrouped, a little tired but happy and exhilarated! Time for tea, cakes and a celebratory drink!
No time to hang around, after big thanks to our wonderful guides and chefs we headed straight off to the Ice Hotel; the warm side for the first night. It was quite sad to leave the bubble of the marathon and the peace and isolation and to find ourselves back in the company of strangers but I have to say the simple joys of a light switch, running water and a flushing toilet brought big smiles to our faces and if we were getting lost amongst the other visitors we only had to look out for a pink bobble hat and all was well, we'd found our family. My hat will always make me smile and feel like I belong somewhere.
We had a lovely meal booked for that night and then pretty much all headed straight off to bed feeling happy, content and proud of our achievements.
After a relaxed day, we met in the Ice Bar for some celebratory fizz and regrouped later with decorated bras for official photos. There was such a warm feeling amongst us, despite the freezing temperatures inside the bar and quite a crowd gathered to take photos and celebrate with us.
What fun and what a laugh we had. We had done something amazing together, we had shared something magical, we had conquered fears, we had overcome injuries, we had skied a marathon and we all knew how each other felt and we had bonded as a wonderful team... if that doesn't deserve a glass or two of the fizzy stuff I don't know what does ?! So, with IceHotel suits on, mittens on hands and pink hats on heads we supped a few ice glasses of fizz! Back in the land of communication again we were all also finding out that our sponsorship money was going up and up as word reached our friends and family that we'd completed the marathon! Even more cause for celebration.
A wonderful celebratory dinner followed and our fabulous leader, Nina gave a lovely speech and awarded us all our magnificent medals. All in all a fantastic evening and we still had a night on the ice to come. For some that came later than others, as there was still a little more partying to be done!
Sleeping in the Ice Hotel is quite surreal, an amazing unique experience. The ice sculptures are incredible, there is something charming and beautiful about the rooms and I've never seen such a big thick sleeping bag before! We did all sleep, I think the champagne helped and just to be sure, I kept my pink hat on!
And then, there it was, the final day had arrived, the day to return home to family and to normality. Time to go back to the usual routine, but somehow I think we all knew we'd changed a bit, we had absorbed all that this challenge had thrown at us, we'd embraced it and loved it and we were taking some of it away with us.
The sadness at leaving was soon forgotten as we took our places on the sledges for the husky ride to the airport, what a way to go! This really was turning out to be the trip that kept on giving. The fun, the experiences the sights and the magic… just never seemed to end.
We travelled home contented people, we were too euphoric from our experience. The greatest sadness was all going our separate ways after landing at Heathrow. Was it really only 6 days ago that we all met for the first time?
We've all kept in touch since we got home, sharing photos, memories and ideas and plans for future meetings. I think just about everyone is doing another marathon or challenge... or planning one or volunteering at one or more of the various MoonWalks. It's hard to let go!
So, was it a mid life crisis, a moment of madness or the best decision ever? Probably all of the above but most certainly one decision I am so pleased I made... one I will never ever regret and one amazing experience I will never forget!
A trip like this is worth grabbing with both hands for so many reasons.
I'm proud of myself for doing it, I'm enormously grateful to all my wonderful friends and family for donating so much money and I can't thank Nina, Shabana and Kate (and everyone else behind the scenes) enough for arranging, organising and laying on the trip of a lifetime. Thank you Walk the Walk - you are fantastic.
Tempted? Come and join our Arctic Challenge 2018 and get ready for the Challenge of a lifetime!
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