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San Diego Woman Runs the North Pole Marathon

A serendipitous Google search led Vivian Lee to run 26.2 miles in one of the coldest places on earth


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Vivian Lee at the finish line of the North Pole Marathon | Photo by Mark Conlon/North Pole Marathon

Vivian Lee loves to travel. With seven continents under her belt, the 45-year-old Encinitas software engineer, wife, and mother is no stranger to international journeys. But the novice runner, who took up the sport only two years ago, never thought to combine her race calendar with her travel bucket list until fate—in the form of Google—stepped in and led to her complete her first marathon in April—at the North Pole.

What inspired you to travel all the way to the North Pole to run a marathon?

I was in Antarctica in 2010 and was fascinated by the Golden Age of Exploration and the controversies about who reached the North Pole first. I wanted to travel there ever since, but it’s hard because there’s no actual continent; the only way to get there is by nuclear-powered icebreaker ships from Russia or Norway. Those are often chartered out, and if not, only the most expensive suite is available, so I wasn’t able to book one for years. While I’ve been searching for North Pole travel, I’ve also been searching for marathons. I started running only two years ago and almost instantly, I was hooked. But I would never have thought to combine my searches. For once, Google’s cookies did something good: An ad showed up in my browser for the North Pole Marathon. I thought, “If this is true, I’m in!” I contacted the race organizer and the rest is history.

How did you prepare?

I registered last summer for the race this spring, so I had time to train. It’s easy to find long runs here in San Diego, but it’s not easy to find cold weather—and I needed to prepare for minus-30-degree temperatures. I started buying cold-weather gear in September, based on a list from the organizer, and tested it out in Denver in November, Quebec in December, and on family ski trips to Mammoth. Some of it worked and some didn’t.

"It was so cold I had to change my face mask almost every loop!"

Tell us about the big day.

So much led up to race day that once we all actually ran the marathon, it seemed like the easiest part of the whole experience. First, we traveled to Longyearbyen, Norway. From there, we took a three-hour charter flight to the North Pole, but due to unpredictable weather and cracks in the ice runway, we were delayed several times. Some of us were even stuck on the North Pole for three days, with limited food and communication, waiting on the arrival of the second half of our group, which was stalled by another runway crack! We finally started running at 5 p.m. GMT on April 16. I finished the 26.2-mile course—multiple loops on a figure eight with knee-deep snow in places—in 7:04, fifth out of 16 women; the fastest man finished in 5:17 and the fastest woman in 5:50. It was so cold I had to change my face mask almost every loop!  

What did this experience teach you about yourself?

I now think of my life as “Before the North Pole” and “After the North Pole.” I’ve always been pretty obsessive—I had life planned in 15-minute increments. But so much happened that was out of my control. I had to let it go. Now, if I’m running a little late somewhere, I think, “Don’t worry—at least there’s not a crack in the ice 20 feet from where you’re sleeping!”

What’s next on your running bucket list?

Some of the people I met have run nearly 100 marathons. Nine completed the Grand Slam, which is a marathon on every continent plus the North Pole. That’s my goal—one I want to complete by the end of 2017. I’m already registered for one in Australia on July 10.

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