Breaking into cold sweat at the North Pole

A father and his daughter from Minhang attended perhaps the coolest marathon in the world, North Pole marathon.


As marathons go, the one run by Xing Bo and his 19-year-old daughter in April was the coolest of them all.

The Minhang pair participated in the North Pole Marathon, which is run on a 4.2-kilometer loop, 10 times around, over ice floes on the Arctic Ocean amid wind-chill temperatures as low as minus 35 degrees Celsius.

The annual event is held in April, wedged between the long polar nights of March and the rising threat of polar bears in May.

The marathon is a very selective event. Participation numbers are limited. This year’s event has 47 men and 13 women. The entry fee is 16,000 euros (US$18,660).

Ti Gong

Xing Bo and his daughter Xing Jiawen display the Chinese flag they carried with them for the run.

An event only for veterans of extreme sports? Not in the case of Xing Jiawen. She had never run a marathon before her father casually asked her late last year if she wanted to join him in running at the North Pole. She didn’t hesitate to accept the challenge.

“I started training in January, running at least 7 kilometers a day,” she said. “I also took training in long-distance running. I practiced squats during showers.”

Xing Jiawen was the youngest contestant in this year’s polar marathon and one of 12 runners from China’s mainland.

The race was won by Greek Argyrios Papathanasopoulos in a time of four hours, 34 minutes and 35 seconds. Xing Bo finished 29th in the men’s division, clocking 8:06.42. His daughter finished last in the women’s division, at a time of 11:55.45.

Xing Jiawen needed water and a bite to eat after completing each loop, so Xing Bo prepared food for her himself. He calculated her running time so that instant noodles would be hot when she stopped for a break.

When Xing Bo had finished 10 loops, Xing Jiawen was just completing her seventh and was looking tired. He knew she needed to pick up her pace or she wouldn’t finish before the race officially ended, so he ran alongside her to give her encouragement.

 Runners were kept warm by layering their garments: a base layer to wipe sweat from the body, a middle fleece for insulation and an outer shell to protect from wind.

To accompany his daughter on the last loops, Xing Bo didn’t even have time to put on his outer shell.

“Looking back, that was the wrong thing to do,” he said. “Hypothermia can be fatal, sucking the life out of a person within two hours. But I was in a race with time to help my daughter finish, and I didn’t think of my own safety.”

 She said she will always remember those final loops.

“Afterward, my dad lay next to a heater for two hours, still shaking,” she said. “But the loops we did together are truly memorable.”

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Xing Bo, fully geared up for North Pole marathon.

 A Russian team set up the marathon course. It searched for the best location by satellite and built a runway on the ice for planes bringing the contestants. For the 800-meter runway, the ice had to be at least three meters thick.

As tired but exhilarated contestants were packing up at the end of the race for the plane trip home, they were notified that the flight back to Longyearbyen, Norway, was delayed a day due to broken ice on the runway.

“We were thrilled at first, thinking that it was like a bonus to be able to stay in that beautiful wilderness a little longer,” said Xing Bo. “They gave each of us two minutes to talk to our families back home on the phone.”

Xing Bo is no stranger to extreme sports. He once had to contend with a fierce sandstorm when running in the Gobi Desert. He once nearly drowned when the ice breaker carrying him in the Drake Passage developed problems. Xing Bo thought he had learned how to ride out adversity.

“When I asked my daughter if she wanted to run at the North Pole, I said it as a sort of casual joke,” he said. “She immediately said yes, perhaps out of the passion of youth, without fully knowing the dangers. It was my duty to bring her home safe and sound.”

That was the thought running through his head as he and the other runners from around the world gazed across the frozen landscape at the inoperative runway.

“I felt a lump in my throat,” Xing Bo said. “I think we all did.”

Fortunately, the repairs were completed quickly and everyone was flown safely back to Norway. Xing Bo said he plans to do the Mount Everest marathon in the future. His daughter, meanwhile, is continuing her studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.


Ti Gong


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