The Arctic Ultra Walking Marathon

By Kundai Chihambakwe

Zimbabweans take on the 6633 Arctic Ultra

With several marathons under his belt and being in prime physical fitness, it was as an instant yes when his neighbour approached Mark Strathern and told him about the 6633 Arctic Ultra. It simply had to be done. Roping in his friend George Economou, the pair exchanged the warm African sunshine for a nine day walking race set in -35 °c weather.

Regarded as one of the most respected extreme and taxing ultra-walking marathons in the world, in 2015, the 7th edition of the 6633 Arctc Ultra had two categories, 120 miles (193 km) and 350 miles (563 km). 27 participants from around the globe entered that year and George and Mark stepped up to the start line at Eagle Plains to compete in the 120 and 350 miles respectively. The duo were eager, but, as they admit, they were very unprepared for the Arctic tundra challenge which lay before them. Hauling around a 50 kg sledge was exacting, the thigh-high snow was constantly getting into their shoes, their water packs froze over and hypothermia had started creeping in. Mark jokes that at one of their stops, he had to give a delirious George the boot a few times to bring him back to his senses.

© Mark Strathern

Despite their will to complete their respective races, the extreme blast freezer-like conditions of the Arctic, coupled with their limited idea of what to expect and working with new equipment, neither made it over the finish line. George reached 111km and then called it quits while Mark managed to push through to 153 km before he too bowed out. This experience had humbled them and they couldn’t get out of there fast enough. This simply wasn’t their cup of tea. To ensure that he would never make the mistake of returning to this desert of ice again, George left all of his kit behind. Nevertheless, this adventure spurred him on to give a motivational talk to his staff members on the importance of planning; his colleagues still lightheartedlytook the mickey out of him. Unbeknownst to both men, the Arctic was not done with them yet.

The Comeback

It was during one of their regular runs where, on a whim, Mark suggested that they should go back.They hatched a new strategy; more walking, practisinglayering, walking on fatigue for eight hours a day for five days while pulling a sledge, and this time, George would invest more heavily in equipment. This preparation gave them the opportunity to witness some of the strange and fascinating things that happen in the streets of Harare at night-an array of stories for another day. In 2016, they made the return trip with their eyes set on conquering the same race categories from the previous year.

They made it through to the second checkpoint at James Creek and had managed to keep up with the pack in spite of howling 120 km/hour winds. However, at this 111km juncture was were their woes began. Fatigue was worming its way into their bodies and their cardboard tasting freeze dried meals were increasingly unappealing so much so that Mark lost his appetite, while George had started overheating and sweating in his sleeping bag making it a damp manmade cocoon. With about 70 km left to reachthe third checkpoint at Fort McPherson, Mark felt twinges of pain in his ankle and George’s gloves had now hardened over from his frozen over sweat. Nevertheless, Georgeinsisted that they press on and after a quick refreshing

Coffee stop and taking some painkillers, they proceeded.

© Mark Strathern

“Your thoughts are your own. You are in so much pain and anxiety but you need to be able to switch off and keep walking”-George.

Overcome by hypothermia, physical and mental fatigue, George hung up his sledge at Fort McPherson but managed to come in first place in his category. He quips that he also came in last place as he was the only contender, but he was at peace with accomplishing what he had set out to do.

After a solid meal and a good night’s rest, Mark was once again on the road despite the burning pain in his ankle. 24 hours later, after having dragged his injured leg over several kilometres and the Tsiigehtchic mileage sign just in sight, the excruciating pain forced him to pull over and put an end to his race. There sat a man in great physical and emotional pain; broken and disappointed. Requiring specialist surgery and months of recovery for his tendon, Mark was unable to compete in the 2017 race. Sensing the flood of distraught emotions emanating from his friend’s voice during one of their phone calls, George committed to going back with him in 2018.

Third time’s a charm

At the ever so familiar Eagle Plains start line, Zimbabwe had the largest contingent of competitors. Joining Mark and George for the now 380 mile (612 kms) ultra-marathon were Hugh Morris, Ian Anderson, and Kirk Strathern. George and Mark managed to keep up with each other’s pace, but it was at Ride’s Pass where George started making what he refers to as critical errors. He removed his damp shoes and placed them onto the gas burner to dry, which they did, and he thought nothing of it. Mistake number 1. As Mark was putting on his Arctic longs, flashbacks of overheating and sweating flooded George’s memory and he was like “nope” and opted not to don his. Mistake number 2. The winds had picked up and carried your voice away, so walking in silence was the order of the day. With Mark a few paces ahead, George’s shoelace snapped at the front causing his shoe to open up and snow to enter. He risked taking off his glove to try and remedy this; mistake number 3. It went sailing away with the wind.

© Mark Strathern

Thinking that George was a few meters behind him, Mark soldiered on with the thought of pulling over shortlyand sharing some coffee with his companion. In the meantime, George was pulling on his windproof pants and hopping into his bivvy bag while things were flapping and flying around him. An overwhelming sense of feeling alone taunted him and he pulled out his satellite phone with two panic buttons. Option 1 was ‘assistance’and option 2 was ‘SOS’. He opted for the former. Mistake number 4. It had not beenclearly explained that pressing either would result in one being automatically eliminated from the race. Although he had wanted to continue, he accepted the ruling and made peace with his premature marathon exit.

During all of this, Mark also had one of his shoes fill up with snow which had melted and frozen to form a chunk of ice on the heel which was potentially dangerous. He was now in excruciating pain and had pull over to get the situation under control. Turning around to check on George, he was instead greeted by approaching flashing headlights and was surprised to find his compatriot inside the vehicle. George’s news devastated him; they had planned to get to Fort McPherson together.

Although Mark couldn’t reconcile what was going on with his leg, the Fort McPherson stopover was much needed rest and he pressed on with a swollen leg. The road to Mid Peel River was narrow and cragged, but the grandeur of the majestic Northern Lights was one of nature’s more appreciated gifts that helped keep Mark going. A little over two hours past this checkpoint, Mark confessed that he started going a bit cuckoo and lost track of how much time he then spent pulled over, bivvied-up and resting.

Feelingrejuvenated, he started off at a solid pace and caught up with Pete Newland who then became his new travel companion. The pair made it to the checkpoint atAklavik and were warmly welcomed by the participantswho had since pulled out or completed their races. Thenature of the ultra-marathon somehow changes at this point. People who were adversaries now became like family, running around with food for them, ensuring that their equipment was dry and willing them to make it through to the end. It was here that Ian’s race came to an end and he handed over the Zimbabwean flag to Mark and said, “it’snow on you.”

Now the last Zimbo standing, Mark was physically drained but mentally adamant that, come hell or high water he was going to finish his race and carry the Zimbabwean flag across the finish line. Pain and fatigue aside, he tapped into that indescribable bank of human willpower deep within and he did just that. After a gruelling 8 days 10 hours and 35 minutes, Mark Strathern became the first Zimbabwean to cross the 6633 Arctic Ultra finish line and come in tie third.

At the finish line Mark had mixed emotions. On the one hand he felt an amazing sense of achievement as well as relief that he was done and a mounting excitement that he would soon be on his way home to see his wife and daughters. “I had spent a lot of time imagining beingback with them over the last few days.”On the other hand, he was sad that the journey was over. “I went through ahundred emotions and constantly questionedmyself. It broke me down and played withmy mind, but you have decided that you aregiving up, that’s when the race really begins.”

© Mark Strathern

Now having completed this crazy race, one of the things Mark would loveto do is help others to complete the journey. In the words of the raceorganiser Martin Likey, the race is ‘perfectly doable.’ You don’t need to be the best athlete in the world. It’s very much a mental race. Mark does however note that you do need to be completely familiar with your kit which will enable you to look after yourself in such a harsh climate and of course a bit of training is a prerequisite! His group has already started training walks again and they welcome anyone keen to join us for a stroll around Harare.- © Ndeipi Magazine June/Issue 100 http://www.ndeipi.co.zw

Contact Mark on mark@paragon.co.zw

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