It’s 2am, but it might as well be noon. The sun is shining brightly and a polar bear is staring at us through a window decorated with reindeer antlers. This was the first glimpse of our accommodation when Oli and I arrived on a remote Arctic archipelago with 24-hour sunlight, 600 miles from the North Pole, in an attempt to dispel the dark cloud that had been hanging over us. We had been trying to start a family for too long, and were eventually given a diagnosis that having a child was going to be challenging or even impossible. As a result, our mental health took a dip, and I suffered from several months of insomnia. In an attempt to refocus, I signed up for the Spitsbergen Marathon and decided to dedicate running it to our future child.
On the day of the race, I woke up early to a breathtaking panoramic view of the Arctic landscape from our hotel window. Downstairs, the breakfast buffet was sumptuous, but I somehow managed to limit myself to a couple of freshly made waffles with berries, remembering there are no bushes or trees on Svalbard. Oli was going to hire a bike and cheer me on along the way. The temperature was perfect for running, between 0 to 3°C, but with a windchill factor of -7°C and occasional freezing rain. The air was cold and fresh – straight from the North Pole, it seemed. The international and local crowd was already gathering at the start line and most runners wore hats, gloves and long layers. 147 runners took part in the full marathon distance, with more in the half marathon and 10k. There was a good mix of intimidatingly fit-looking semi-professional runners and normal folk like me. The race felt just the right size to create a buzzing atmosphere but feel intimate at the same time, as if we were taking part in a secret event. There were even race marshals in polar bear costumes adding to the atmosphere! Polar bear danger is real on Svalbard so there were also guards patrolling with rifles on ATVs to keep us safe during the race. Although no polar bears interfered with the event, a week earlier one had been spotted inspecting the route.
Finally, the starter pistol went off and up the hill we went, following the long curve of the gravel road overlooking a wooden church, the cemetery, colourful little houses that are typical of the Longyearbyen settlement, and mountain slopes. The route was varied, challenging at times but incredibly scenic. It took us out of town before turning back towards civilisation. Ahead we could see snow-covered peaks, glaciers, and one of two husky farms. Reindeer were crossing the road. On the right, Hjorthfjellet mountain guarded the entrance to Longyearbyen. Then the route became quite steep but with truly fantastic views of the port, the airport and the remains of an old mine.
In my mind I was running like a gazelle, with a radiant smile on my face – an opinion which was later revised when race photos revealed what a red hot mess I was trotting up those rocky hills. But I had a song in my heart. Over halfway, through, debilitating pain shot through my knee and Oli raced on his bike to the pharmacy for painkillers. I ended up taking more than the recommended dose but was determined to finish the race. I remember passing the 30km marker outside town – the view was incredible as we ran along a lake partially covered in ice, with snowy mountains and fjords in the background. I felt a pang of sadness that there were only 12 kilometres left. On the last long incline before the finish, I was jogging leisurely and chatting to a fellow runner, Lauritz, about life on Svalbard. A few metres before the ‘mål’ (goal) marking, I let him go ahead to collect his medal, and then it was my turn. I didn’t win the race (a fellow Polish runner, Piotr Suchenia, who had won the North Pole and the Antarctic Ice Marathons the year before, took that honour), and neither did I manage to run sub-four hours as planned. But I felt happy again, and Oli was waiting for me at the finish line.
Finally, we managed to get over our most important finish line. The following year, after several rounds of IVF treatment, we were rewarded with the most darling little girl, Olive, with whom we’ll be returning to Svalbard soon.
The Spitsbergen Marathon next takes place on June 4, 2022.