Piotr Suchenia of Poland crosses the finish line at this year's North Pole Marathon. // North Pole Marathon via Facebook
Piotr Suchenia of Poland crosses the finish line at this year's North Pole Marathon. // North Pole Marathon via Facebook

Yesterday at the North Pole, Marathoners Ran Across 26.2 Miles of Pure Ice

Piotr Suchenia of Poland crosses the finish line at this year's North Pole Marathon. // North Pole Marathon via Facebook
Piotr Suchenia of Poland crosses the finish line at this year's North Pole Marathon. // North Pole Marathon via Facebook

On April 9, 55 athletes from across the globe faced snow, ice, and sub-zero temperatures as they attempted the northernmost (and arguably chilliest) marathon on Earth: the North Pole Marathon.

A "destination marathon" to the extreme, the North Pole Marathon is run atop the Arctic Ocean; runners have 6- to 12-foot-thick ice sheets separating their feet from frigid polar waters. The circular course, which starts at a drifting North Pole camp named Barneo, is repeated about 10 times to make up 26.2 miles, according to the North Pole Marathon website.

Given this race isn’t actually on land, the entire course moves slightly with the ocean current while the event takes place—but runners don’t feel the movement (just the freezing cold air). The marathon’s highly anticipated finish line lies at the true "North Pole," where all longitudinal lines meet.

To an adventure junkie, this marathon sounds like a dream. For a non-runner, attempting 26.2 miles on the North Pole sounds suicidal. Shilpa Abbitt, an oil and gas evaluation engineer who completed the North Pole Marathon last year, tells why she signed up for the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"I’ve always thought about going to the North Pole," Abbitt tells mental_floss, "and the marathon helped me justify the expense of getting there."

Shilpa Abbitt at the finish line of the North Pole Marathon in 2016. Photo courtesy of Shilpa Abbitt.

Organized by experiential running group Global Running Adventures (which also produces other extreme marathon experiences like the World Marathon Challenge, where runners complete seven marathons in seven days across seven continents), the North Pole Marathon is in its 15th year and has seen more than 400 finishers from nearly 50 countries. (The 2005 event was cancelled "due to a dispute between French and Russian logistics operators.") The inaugural race was completed in 2002 by expert runner Richard Donovan of Ireland, who finished the 26.2-mile arctic run entirely by himself—in 3:48:12. For context, the average men’s marathon time (in non-polar, normal conditions) is 4:19:27. This year's winners, Piotr Suchenia of Poland and Frederique Laurent of France finished in 4:06:34 and 6:21.03, respectively.

Donovan now serves as the marathon’s race director, where his focus is not only running a seamless event—but getting people safely to and from the North Pole.

"The task of actually getting to Camp Barneo is a marathon within itself," says Abbitt, whose race was delayed one week due to cracks in the ice that stopped planes from landing. "Donovan ensured we were safe and kept his cool despite all that was thrown at him. Honestly, when you’re going to extreme places like the North Pole, you have to go in with a good attitude—don’t stress about delays and be flexible."

Since its inception, the North Pole Marathon has seen all sorts of runners, including CEOs, magazine editors, novelists, Ironman athletes, and first-time marathoners. The women’s record (4:52:45) was set by Anne-Marie Flammersfeld of Germany in 2014, and Thomas Maguire of Ireland set the men’s record (3:36:10) in 2007.

But most runners don’t come here to break records. They come for the experience and, in many cases, to raise money for charity. Abbitt’s cause was one of the most personal.

She started the Big A Charitable Fund through the Oklahoma City Community Foundation in memory of her son, Austin, who died in 2002 at age 11 after an eight-year battle with brain cancer. She runs races like the North Pole Marathon to cope with the loss and to raise money for cancer research; she’s running 17 marathons in 2017 to continue fundraising.

While Abbitt is an experienced marathoner (she’s completed more than 100 of them), the North Pole Marathon is open to any runner who can afford the $17,000+ entry fee. Of course, a typical 14- to 20-week marathon training plan (what’s required for any 26.2 race) is recommended.

"Anyone can run the North Pole Marathon as long as expectations align with the training regimen," Abbitt says. "Expert runners will need specific training to excel and break records, but if you just go out there to run and get the experience, you can finish this race."

To cross the North Pole finish line in one, frostbite-free piece, runners need warm gear. Wind chill temperatures typically run about -22° Fahrenheit, so race organizers recommend multiple layers, toe and foot warmers, and ski goggles. Abbitt also suggests multiple pairs of mittens, face masks, and windproof gloves.

What else should runners know before dropping nearly $20,000 on these extreme running conditions? Polar bears are rarely a threat, wind chills have reached as low as almost -150° Fahrenheit, and if the race course "cracks," directors will re-route. And, perhaps the most pressing question, what does it actually feel like to run a race on the North Pole?

"The North Pole racing experience is best described as running in sand in full scuba gear," Abbitt says. "It was weird, but Donovan built the course so we could experience different types of terrain like rough ice, slushy snow, and deep, loose snow that came up to our shins and knees."

Ready to reserve your spot for 2018? Registration is now open, and we'd recommend traveling as far north as possible for long training runs next winter.

Shout! Factory
Original GLOW Wrestling Series Hits Twitch
Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

When it premiered in June 2017, GLOW was a bit of a sleeper offering for Netflix. With the amount of original programming ordered by the streaming service, a show based on an obscure women’s pro wrestling league from the 1980s seemed destined to get lost in the shuffle.

Instead, the series was a critical and commercial success. Ahead of its second season, which drops on June 29, you'll have a chance to see the mat work of the original women who inspired it.

Shout! Factory has announced they will be live-streaming clips from the first four seasons of GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling), which first premiered in 1986, beginning at 9 p.m. ET on June 28. The stream, which will be available on shoutfactorytv.com and Twitch, will feature original footage framed by new interviews with personalities including Godiva, host Johnny C, and Hollywood. The show will air live from the Santino Brothers Wrestling Academy in Los Angeles.

Godiva, who was portrayed by Dawn Maestas, inspired the character Rhonda (a.k.a. Brittanica) on the Netflix series; Hollywood was the alter ego of Jeanne Basone, who inspired the character Cherry in the fictionalized version of the league. Basone later posed for Playboy and takes bookings for one-on-one wrestling matches with fans.

Shout! Factory's site also features a full-length compilation of footage, Brawlin’ Beauties: GLOW, hosted by onetime WWE interviewer “Mean” Gene Okerlund.

On Top of the World: Remembering the Lost Trend of Flagpole Sitting
Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly sitting on a flagpole atop the Hotel St. Francis in Newark, New Jersey
Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly sitting on a flagpole atop the Hotel St. Francis in Newark, New Jersey

Flappers and bootleggers might be the most memorable aspects of the 1920s, but there's a lesser-known, yet no less colorful, trend from that decade: flagpole sitting. From the glamorous hills of Hollywood to the blue-collar dwellings of Union City, New Jersey, this unusual pastime turned eccentric showmen and ordinary people into overnight celebrities, before the crushing reality of the Great Depression grounded their climb to stardom.

Flagpole sitting is exactly what it sounds like: a person climbing on top of a towering pole, usually in the middle of a city, and testing their endurance by sitting atop it for as long as their body holds up. It began in Hollywood in January 1924, when a former sailor, boxer, steelworker, and stuntman named Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly was hired by a local theater to sit on a pole outside of the building for as long as possible to drum up publicity for a new movie. Kelly, a New York City native—whose nickname was supposedly inspired by his dubious claims as a Titanic survivor—wowed crowds by perching himself on the pole for an astonishing 13 hours and 13 minutes. The stunt worked, and once it got picked up by the papers, offers started pouring in from more businesses to perform pole-sittings. Kelly was eager to oblige.

News of Kelly's exploits spread, and before long, men, women, and children were climbing poles of their own. There was the three-week feat of Bobbie Mack, a young woman from Los Angeles; Joe “Hold ‘em” Powers, who sat for 16 days in Chicago in 1927 and climbed back down with six fewer teeth than he started with after a storm smacked him face-first into his pole; and Bill Penfield, who braved a pole for 51 days in Strawberry Point, Iowa before a storm forced him down. In 1928, a 15-year-old named Avon Foreman of Baltimore even established a juvenile sitting record of 10 days, 10 hours, 10 minutes, and 10 seconds (he practiced on an 18-foot hickory tree in his backyard). Foreman’s accomplishment was so inspiring to Baltimore mayor William F. Broening that he publicly declared that the youngster exhibited “the pioneer spirit of early America.”

Still, Kelly was the one making a big business out of pole sitting. Even when he wasn’t holding the record, he was the ambassador of the bizarre sport. He toured 28 cities, attracting massive crowds that jammed streets and lined rooftops just to get a glimpse of the daredevil poking out among the apartment buildings and businesses of Downtown, USA.

Kelly's notable feats included an 80-hour sit in New Orleans and the 146 hours he spent high above Kansas City's Old Westgate Hotel. But even those were overshadowed by his largest-scale stunts: 312 hours on top of Newark’s St. Francis Hotel in 1927, 22 days on a pole above a dance marathon (another endurance fad of the time) in Madison Square Garden, and 23 days in 1929 in Baltimore’s Carlin’s Park on a pole that was 60 feet high. By Kelly’s own calculation, he’d spend around 20,613 hours pole-sitting during a career that lasted over a decade.

His peak came in 1930 when he lasted 49 days and one hour on a 225-foot pole on Atlantic City’s steel pier. The feat was witnessed by as many as 20,000 onlookers during the weeks he spent up top, becoming one of the first of many spectacles that would grace the pier in the 1930s. (He’d eventually be followed by acts like Rex, the water-skiing “wonder dog”; JoJo, the boxing kangaroo; and the city’s infamous diving horse routine.)

Estimates of Kelly’s fees range from $100-$500 a day throughout his career, paid by whatever outlet needed the publicity and sometimes by crowds who spent a quarter to get a view of his act from nearby hotel rooftops. And what did those onlookers see, exactly? A man on a circular padded seat high above the rabble, sometimes reading the paper, other times enjoying a shave. For food, he’d stick mainly to a liquid diet of broth and water, along with cigarettes, all of which were lifted up to him in a bucket. When he needed to sleep, he’d stay seated by wrapping his ankles around the pole and securing his thumbs into holes in his seat before nodding off. That's if he rested at all—he was also known to deprive himself of sleep on the pole for as long as four days.

The big money would dry up soon after his Atlantic City stunt, and the realities of the Great Depression put an end to flagpole sitting as a career. With up to a quarter of the population unemployed, people were apparently less interested in opening their papers to stories of men and women testing endurance at the top of a pole for more money than the readers would likely see all year.

"As Shipwreck Kelly analyzed it, it was the Stock Market crash that killed pole-sitting as the golden egg that paid the goose," a writer for The Evening Sun in Baltimore put it in 1944. "People couldn't stand to see anything higher than their busted securities."

Kelly’s personal story ends on a similarly somber note. Penniless and stripped of his daredevil veneer, he died of a heart attack in 1952 at the age of 59, his body found not far from the room he rented on West 51st Street in New York City. Underneath his arm at the time of his death was a scrapbook of newspaper clippings detailing his accomplishments as a once-champion flagpole sitter.

Though flagpole sitting has fallen out of the public eye since the Depression, it has occasionally shown faint signs of life. In 1963, 17-year-old Alabama native Peggy Townsend cruised past all of Kelly's highest marks by spending 217 days on a pole for a radio contest. That time was later beaten by Kenneth Gidge, who topped her at 248 days in 1971 before becoming an artist, inventor, and New Hampshire state representative later in life.

Today, the occasional pole-sitter still pops up in the news, though they're now most likely perched for protests or as living art installations. Regardless of the purpose behind it, it's unlikely that a person atop a flagpole will ever attract a sea of thousands of onlookers again—and the days when a man like Kelly could become a household name and dub himself the "Luckiest Fool on Earth" seem long gone.


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