By Ken Stone
Michel Ribet and Vivian Lee know how to chill. Running a marathon at the north pole after cooling your heels a week will do that for you.
La Jolla’s Ribet and Encinitas’ Lee returned recently from trips to far northern Europe — among only 47 people from 19 nations to complete the icy trek.
Ribet, who turns 79 in May, is an old hand. He’s run 25 marathons since taking up the sport at 54. One race was at 17,000 feet, without oxygen, on the Nepalese side of Mount Everest. He also ran a 100-kilometer race — 62 miles.
“Your body can do anything you want if your mind tells it to do it,” said the native of Normandy, France, whose family survived World War II. (His dad was a German POW, saved by Americans when Michel was 7.)
Beijing-born Lee, a San Diegan for 16 years, is 45 and a relative newby to the sport. She’s run several half-marathons. The NPM was her first 26.2-miler.
“I certainly picked a hard one to start,” she said. “On the positive side, any marathon race after the North Pole Marathon will be a lot easier.”
Times of San Diego caught up with both. But Ribet’s story first.
A retired salesman for Procter & Gamble, and also the Lotus car company, Ribet called the north pole run “a really good adventure” but under “really brutal” conditions. The last six miles were in a foot of snow. Temperatures reached 42 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
Ribet, the oldest entrant by far, said the April 16 run (which took him 8 hours, 59 minutes, 10 seconds) wasn’t for young people.
“You need big motivation to do this kind of race,” he said. “If you’re not motivated, run the Rock ’N’ Roll San Diego Marathon.”
He said finishing it — he took 26th out of 31 men — was 20 percent physical and 80 percent psychological, so you must be “very sound in your mind.”
His mental toughness was forged as a sailor — in a 20-year career, he took part in the first round-the-world sailing race, the Whitbread, in 1973-74, where tragedy struck in the Indian Ocean. A crew mate of his fell overboard and was lost.
“It was impossible to turn around and pick him up,” he said in a phone interview.
He’s also a member of the seven-continents club — having run marathons on every major land mass on Earth.
“I got The Grand Slam Medal, which is the supreme or ultimate award for a marathon man,” he said. “In the world, we are very few people to get this award and I’m proud of it. Years of pains, tears, doubts and sometimes frustration.”
The north pole race was delayed a week because of cracks in the runway — keeping the shuttle plane from landing.
The back-and-forth loop course was held about a mile from the ever-changing geographic north pole. After the event, Russians equipped with GPS took the runners to the real pole.
Wearing spikes on his shoes and layers of clothes (“no piece of skin should be not protected,” he said), the 5-foot-8 runner lost 3-4 pounds of his 145-pound frame.
“I feel OK. I have no problems,” the grandfather of two said of his injury status.
What next for the 40-year La Jolla resident?
“I’m going to breathe a little bit” first, he said. Then his goal is returning to Antarctica to run another marathon there “when I turn 80 — in 2017.”
Vivian Lee’s story: “We did cheer each other”
Lee — who took fifth out of 16 women in 7 hours, 4 minutes — is a web/mobile application consultant at J2 Data Technologies in Encinitas, her home for eight years.She finished her secondary education in Beijing and then earned her bachelor’s at the University of South Dakota. “For post-graduate study,” she said. “I attended North Central College and received my dual master’s degrees in MIS and MBA.”
To acclimate herself to the snowy conditions, she trained at Mammoth, Denver and Quebec — with her longest winter/snow run being 11 miles in the 7,880-foot Mono County town.
Dedication to training isn’t enough to run the north pole. It takes major coin as well.
“The North Pole Marathon is the most expensive marathon in the world,” Lee said. Entry fee was 11,900 Euros (about $13,600). Her total expenses? Close to $20,000.
“I do not know the exact amount since all donations were done directly to our church’s PushPay giving page,” she said. “I trust God to handle the numbers.”
Married to Jay Yu with sons 12 and 9, she said her husband not only sponsored her race, but also took over daily parenting duties for three weeks “with all the driving and cooking.”
She traveled to Norway, the staging area, but had no cell phone or Wi-Fi access at the pole. But her family followed her progress via the marathon’s Facebook page. “The organizers posted updates via satellite phone … in real time,” she says.
Lee returned home April 21 after flying into LAX.
“Our friends helped us to pick up kids from school and they wrote a huge message: ‘Welcome Home North Pole Marathon Finisher’ on the driveway,” she said.
Our interview was conducted in late April:
Times of San Diego: How do you feel right now? Any residual issues — illness or injuries?
Vivian Lee: I feel pretty good. After I finished my race, I was able to walk with Gloria Lau (who finished after 11 hours) on her last lap to make sure that she would complete the race. Up at the pole, we all helped each other and we had a 100 percent completion rate this year — that itself was a success.
Did you take part in sports as a schoolgirl?
I was not athletic at all as a schoolgirl. On the contrast, since I skipped two grades during the elementary school years and ended up being two years younger than my classmates in middle school and high school, I struggled to meet PE requirement all the time.
After school and college years, I discovered that I really enjoyed to be active. Unlike school or professional sports, most physical activities for grown ups are recreational. I love to ski, swim, hike and backpack. One of the motivations for me to pick up running as a sport was the book “Born to Run.”
How long did it take to go from San Diego to the Norway staging area? How long were you away from home?
I flew to Oslo first, then to Longyearbyen, the biggest settlement in Svalbard Island (halfway between Norway and the north pole). I was gone for 3 weeks for the entire trip with a couple of sightseeing days in Oslo and Stockholm before and after the race.
All runners for the NPM meet at Longyearbyen before flying to Barneo Camp at the pole by a STOL category plane Antonov-75 (with short landing and takeoff distance) chartered by the organizer.
This year’s race was unprecedented due to the ice runway condition at the pole’s [Russian] Barneo Camp.
The runway cracked five times! The race was delayed for an entire week because of that. That was probably the biggest story for this year’s race besides the race itself. The last time it cracked was after the first group of runners had arrived at the the camp, and 15 minutes before the second group of runners were about to land. (The plane is not big enough to hold the entire group in one trip.)
What were reactions of friends, family and co-workers to your goal of running NP?
Most people did not believe their ears when they heard the words north pole. Some thought it is North Pole, Alaska. Once they realized it is the geographic north pole, the most common reaction was that “You are crazy!” Everyone thought it was very ambitious.
What time of day did the NP Marathon start? What was temp at start and finish? Did you fight winds on the loop course? How strong?It started 6 p.m. on April 16th, about two hours after the second group finally arrived. The sun does not set at the pole so that no one will run in the dark no matter what time the race starts.
The temperature was -25C without wind, and -41C with wind at times. The wind did not seem to be too strong, and I felt that most on the face even with the balaclava since unlike the jacket, the balaclava is not windproof.
How often did you hydrate? What did you drink? Was it warmed or kept at a cool temp?
I had to take an energy gel with sips of water almost every two miles. In regular conditions, I take energy gel every 5-6 miles as recommended by the manufacturer. At the pole, I felt “depleted” and “hit the wall” a lot quicker due to the cold temperature. Our body needs a lot more calories in cold conditions just to stay warm, and that is what happened.
Did you run with others? Or by yourself most of the time?
The course has eight big loops with shoe-deep snow on the ground for the first 20 miles, and four small loops with shin-to-knee-deep snow the last six miles. I did not run with others, but we did cheer each other every time we crossed paths.
What were your splits — every lap or at halfway point? Did you pass many people near the end or get passed by many?
My halfway time at 13.1 miles was 3 hours and 5 minutes. The split was between 13-13:45 minutes per mile up till 18 miles. Soon after that, the tracker’s battery died. It is kind of hard to estimate the splits, since I stopped in the tent to take energy gel and change balaclava + glove liner with every lap. I changed my base layer only once – I know other runners did it two to three times depending on each individual’s “sweat level.”
I passed only a couple of people during the the big loops, but passed at least a handful during the deep snow loops.
Did you suffer any ailments as a result of the race? Or any muscle or structural injuries?
I was constantly hungry on the course. I took a lot more energy gels than I normally would. About triple the amount.
No serious ailment or injuries, however the neck was very sore afterwards – which never happens during running for me before. I had to constantly look down at my steps to avoid falling and that is probably why.
Where did you get your running gear? How would you describe the gear — detail the layers and what you wore? Did the gear work as expected?
Mostly online, especially REI and Amazon. The organizer Richard Donovan put together a list of tested gear and I did my shopping accordingly.
What would you do or wear differently if you do this again?
It worked pretty good — the only thing I missed was a pair of gaiters. A fellow runner, Rob Dickinson, lent his gaiters to me. It totally saved me since I was about to duct tape my running pants to the shoes — which might not work in such low temperature. That is one of many examples of the comradeship I was talking about earlier.
What advice would you give would-be NP Marathoners?
Manage your body temperature wisely. Do not sweat too much and do not overdress. Test your gear before you go.
What future races are you training for? When and where?
Now that I have met so many “grand slammers” — people who have finished seven continents plus the north pole — I plan to become one as well. I have not registered for any particular race yet, but will try to complete my seven continents in the next 2-3 years.
Get close to any other runners — Americans or others? Any stories to tell about any new friendships?
I became close with quite some people, and the friendships we formed were totally amazing. The first person I met before the entire group was Lise Gronskar from Norway. I was taking an excursion to the east coast of Spitsbergen while in Longyearbyen and her family was in the same group. They treated me like a family member and we journeyed 200 kilometers on snowmobiles to see polar bears.
There is also a couple from Thailand, Sasie and Lookpetch, who were just incredible. They do not stress over anything, love the people around them wholeheartedly, and have the fun spirits like young kids. Being around with them made the entire north pole rollercoaster ride (many delays and change of plans) almost anxiety-free for an OCD personality like me.
It is so hard to short list these amazing people I have met. The comradeship among the runners was indescribable — especially among the first group of runners who were stuck at the pole for three days together.
Did you get to know fellow San Diegan Michel Ribet?
Yes, I did. He was looking for me on the airport shuttle bus and mistook Gulzhamel DeFelice, a Russian American who finished first among women, as me. Through him, I got to bond with Gulia (Gulzhamel) and we ended like sisters.
What was biggest surprise about NP Marathon?
The difficulty level of the course. Here is the official video and it has good footage for the last six miles of the deep snow on the course.
What was worst moment of NP Marathon?
The crack on the runway after the first group of runners had arrived at the pole, and 15 minutes before the second group of runners were about to land. It was about 20 yards away from our tent.
At that point, we had already gone through many rounds of schedule changes and been on standby for updates for 24 hours, and this still completely caught us by surprise. Plus there was the worry that not only many people would miss their flights (which were changed quite a few times already), but whether we would be even able to leave there if no plane would be able to land as the runway kept cracking. The emotion was very high and several ladies in the tent were in tears.
How did you deal with the week’s delay in the race? What did you do during this week?
When it was announced on Sunday night (April 10) that there would be a one-week delay, the organizers offered us the options to either wait and run this year or come back next year. Some people could not stay that long and decided to come back next year, and started to make flight arrangements to leave.
Several people left on the midnight flight. Four of us (the Thai couple, me and a lady from Oklahoma) decided to go to Lofoten, Norway, and come back in a week. We even purchased the tickets! Then the news came early Monday morning (April 11) that the runway might be ready as soon as the next day.
So we canceled the tickets and got ready for takeoff on April 12. The organizer was able to stop several departing runners: some at the hotel front door waiting for taxi, some at the Longyearbyen airport about to board the plane, and even a handful who arrived Oslo, UK and Greece were also coming back.
From April 12 till we eventually flew out on the evening of April 13, we were almost constantly on standby waiting for updates. It was a rollercoaster ride, especially when we heard that Norwegian Aviation Agency revoked the flight permits early Wednesday morning. By the time the plane took off from Longyearbyen to the pole, we were so elated and little did we know what was waiting for us next.
What was best moment?
Calling my husband on the satellite phone after the finish line. And ironically, he was the one to inform me about my time and my fifth-place finish.
Would you do this again?
Absolutely worth doing it again. I will steal Lookpetch’s FB post to express my feelings here: “Many lifelong friends made, many moments to cherish, many dreams were fulfilled, and many more to be realized!! And as most people would agree and relate to this.. It is the journey that makes the person, not the person who takes the journey.”
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