‘Toughest marathon ever’

2018-04-19 16:28
Eleanor and Steve Pienaar.

Eleanor and Steve Pienaar. (Supplied)

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Delayed flights, polar bears, sub-zero temperatures and running a marathon through knee-deep snow in frozen solid boots, Pietermaritzburg’s adventure couple, Eleanor and Steve Pienaar braved it all, completing “the toughest marathon ever”, hand in hand.

The couple made South African history on Sunday by becoming the country’s first couple to compete in and finish the North Pole Marathon, which is run on moving sea ice and is considered one of the toughest marathons in the world.

Speaking to The Witness on Wednesday afternoon from “the other side of the world”, Svalbard (between the North Pole and Norway), the Pienaars described their “absolutely unbelievable” experience of running a full marathon in the North Pole.

“To be on frozen sea ice was just such a surreal experience,” said Eleanor during a broken WhatsApp call yesterday.

Runners in the North Pole Marathon run 10 laps, totalling the distance of a marathon on moving sea ice.

“I don’t think we were fully prepared for this one,” said Eleanor with a laugh.

“During the South Pole Marathon that Steve and I ran last year, the surface snow was flat and solid.

“But the surface in the North Pole is so fluffy, it is like running on beach sand but with hidden potholes.

“It was minus 30 degrees on the day of the race. There was a biting cold that just went straight through you. If Steve and I took off our gloves, within 30 seconds, our fingers were burning from the cold.

“We were lucky though because it has been colder in previous years and there was not much wind on the day.

“The race was 10 laps and was not flat. We had to walk over the snow at different levels. It was sort of like a trail run but in the snow,” she said, laughing.

“For the first few laps, the surface was still icy but then it just became a mess. On our third lap, I took a step and my leg disappeared knee-deep in snow.

“My other leg hit ice and I fell over and hit my head. I got quite a fright because I thought I would not be able to finish the race so we were forced to take it easy.

“There were several other runners who also fell during the race.

“After the third lap, Steve and I had to go back to our tent to take off our socks and shoes.”

Also read: North Pole Marathon feat for PMB couple

She said while they were running, water trickled inside their shoes, freezing and becoming small snow balls within their boots. “We had to change otherwise we would have got frostbite.

“When we took off our socks and shoes, they were frozen solid. Our boots were like they were made out of metal and we had to defrost our boots before we headed out to finish the race.”

Eleanor said the couple were forced to change one more time before crossing the finish line.

“It was the toughest marathon ever.

“The marathon was a dream we thought would never come true and the fact that we are the first South African couple to complete the race is just a bonus. It is quite overwhelming that something we have been planning for so many years materialised and we were there for each other the whole way, so it has been really special,” said Eleanor. “Such amazing memories have been made.”

Eleanor and Steve Pienaar trudge through uneven snow, careful to avoid any ‘potholes’.  

Eleanor said they arrived in Svalbard from the North Pole on Wednesday morning as the icy landing strip for their plane back to Svalbard cracked.

She said once the race organisers managed to sort out that crack, another massive crack opened on the other side of the runway.

“We have not slept for three days, we are quite wired,” said Eleanor.

“We start our journey home on Friday and it will take us about three days to reach South Africa.”

Eleanor and Steve said they were both aware of how few people had the opportunity to run the North Pole Marathon but that “all the sacrifices to get here have been worth it”.

“We really appreciate all the support we have received. It means so much to us and really helped to get us through.

“We are an ordinary couple who set out on an extreme adventure and it is so amazing when you finish what you set out to do and that we could do it together.”

Eleanor said they hoped to book a hot air balloon ride over Svalbard before they left on Friday and said they were back at their BnB in Svalbard where the owner was busy baking them a congratulatory cake.

Well-deserved world slam title

The couple have previously run seven marathons on the seven continents in seven years, followed by the Antarctic Ice Marathon in 2017 and now the North Pole Marathon. The marathons have earned the couple their “grand slam” title which is only awarded to people who have completed the seven marathons, the Antarctic Marathon and the North Pole Marathon.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg

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