Blood, sweat and frozen tears...
The training involved in completing the two toughest races on earth i s unsurprisingly rather involving. Paul averages 12-20 hours a week of physical training as well a lot of reading and technical preparations (trying to figure out what he is doing out there!). Whilst running isn't Paul's primary focus until after the Polar Race, he runs a half marathon every Sunday and has been doing some long runs... including a 24 hour run (165kms) and a 100km race. Cold adaptation is also on the agenda and Paul tells us he hasn't worn more than a shirt all year long.
On this page, Paul provides an overview of his physical and technical training over the course of the Fire and Ice Challenge as well some thoughts on the mental side of these epic events. At the bottom of the page, you will find some photos from Paul's training to date.
Being phsyically up to the task for both the Polar Race and the Marathon des Sables is a huge challenge and requires a huge amount of training. I am currently doing a number of disciplines, initially focusing on the Polar Race, to make sure I am strong enough, fit enough and that I won't break in the process.
I have been working with a personal trainer for over a year now to help me prepare. Jon Tyler, my fitness coach is a highly qualified personal trainer, former champion bodybuilder, Top 50 in the world at Ironman now track cyclist... an all round hard man. I have worked with Jon to put together a weekly programme that involves 8 sessions totalling about 15 hours a week. I focus on several things:
- Weekly half marathon: Every Sunday I run a half marathon - focusing simply on keeping a good pace rather than chasing any specific time (I normally do this in about 1hr 35ish, but rarely really hammer it)
- 5k morning jog: I do a weekly 5k outdoor run on a Thursday morning. Normally do this in about 22 mins, but again, not pushing it and normally have to avoid many folk walking to work and traffic!
- Ultramarathons: I have done a few very long runs. The longest has been 165km (ish) which was a 24 hour non stop run. I also did a 100km race (in which I came third) as well as a few other 50km+ races. My main focus is just keeping going, regardless of pace.
- Free weights: I spend a lot of time lifting weights focusing on core strength and balance. I work on a number of routines with freeweights involving complex movements (which I frequently have to be reminded of). This is typically with dumbells and involves simultaneous arm and leg movements
- Squats: A focus throughout my training has been on leg strength. Squats aren't my forte as I seem to have a very inflexible lower back and can't get that low (even with no weight at all!), but I am now doing sets with 120kgs on the bar.
- Plyometrics and balance: I do a number of routines involving single leg deep jumps (e.g. over benches) and balancing. I hate these sessions and am appalling, although getting better
- Machine weights: I use a number of machines, but these are secondary to all my free weights sessions. The main focus has been on cables - with the effort on powering forwards (simulating sled dragging)
I will do circuit training/sessions on pretty much every cardio machine in the gym. I will do 30 min sessions on the bike, cross trainer, stepper and rowing machine, as well as the innumerate other oddities of machines that exist in most gyms
I have been doing a weekly yoga session with my good friend and yoga teacher Kore Mason who has been helping me work on strength and flexibility. Whilst originally very sceptical, and still refusing to engage in any mystic chanting or 'lions breath' expressions, I think the strength, flexibility and balance is hugely helpful. I very rarely get injured nowadays
In the 3 months leading up to the Polar Race, I will be dragging tires up and down the beaches of Devon to simulate the feeling of dragging a 100kg+ sled across the ice
Two huge mountains form part of my training plan - Mt Elbrus (Europe's highest mountain, 5,642m) and Aconcagua (highest mountain outside the Himalayas, 6,962m). This is really the best preparation as it brings together all the strength and stamina challenges in one place (with the added challenge of just 41% of sea level oxygen at the summit). Climbing also helps me practice in the cold (-30c) , test my kit and improve my self management skills. These trips will ensure I am also mentally prepared for the extreme environment at the pole
Arctic Survival Training
Regardless of how fit I am, unless I genuinely know what I am doing on the respective challenges, I have no chance of being successful. Whilst the Marathon des Sables has a number of unique challenges relating to the heat, kit and food, it involves a fraction of the preparation and knowledge that I need to succeed in reaching the North Pole.
To be able to survive in one of the harshest environments on earth, I have been preparing for almost 2 years (although building up experience over the last 10 years). Over 14 weekends, led by Polar expert and race leader Jock Wishart and through practicing and preparing myself, there are a number of key skills I have been focusing on:
- Health and safety: The arctic and the sahara aren't places to injure yourself. I have been learning a lot about cold and hot weather management, hypothermia, hyperthermia (too hot!), frostbite, blisters. Key lesson is to avoid and prevent all ailments at all possible costs!
- GPS usage: I have to be able to use my trusty GPS blindfolded and know exactly what it is telling me. In a full white out, there isn't any room for walking the wrong way.
- Tent management: I hate putting up tents almost as much as I hate the heat/cold. I will be putting up our Tera Nova tent a good few hundred times before going with the intention of doing this blindfolded and alone (although hoping the latter doesn't happen!). I have also been learning about each of our roles in the tent - we need to operate completely independently and know exactly what we are doing - without discussion
- Cooking and food: Unsurprisingly food is very important - I will carry everything I will eat on both challenges. For both challenges I will be very focused on my diet and knowing what to eat before and during each of them (after both I will not care... for a couple of weeks anyway!)
- Kit and kit management: The kit for both challenges is incredibly important. For the North Pole I have a phenomenal amount of kit and I need to know exactly how it works, how to fix it and where to put it. In a tent with three guys, all with similar kit, you need to be incredibly self disciplined not to lose things and not to waste time. This is one of my weakest areas and like all things, practice makes perfect
- Polar Bear safety and shooting: Bears can weight 1000kg, run faster than horses over short distances and swim incredibly well. There is no getting away from a bear under your own power if it wants to hunt you - sadly people do get killed by polar bears. I have to learn exactly what do in every circumstance and crucially how to use the gun!
I am the last person to get drawn into any sort of meditative nonsense around this sort of thing, but I definitely want to be prepared and be as relaxed as possible in both of the challenges. This is as simple as being experienced and 'comfortable' (read 'not terrified') - and to achieve this I am focusing on a few key things:
- Cold acclimatisation: This is as simple as being happy in the cold. I am doing two very cold weather trips (Elbrus and Aconcagua) which will not be too different temperature wise to the pole (albeit not the same duration!). On a more practical day to day basis, I have yet to wear anything more than a shirt walking to work (25 minutes at -4c). I occasionally have cold showers. I hate these, although the focus for me here is simply being confident that the cold here is analogous to pain... it's very uncomfortable, but unlikely I will suffer any real damage here - no matter how cold I feel
- Reading... and thinking: I have read a lot about both of the challenges and have tried to think through the various scenarios that could come about
- Talking and learning: I am very lucky to have world leading experts around me - guys who are incredible experienced in their field. By asking all of the stupid questions, getting their perspective and hearing their stories I am continuing to learn
No matter how much preparation I make, I have no doubt that there will be many things that come up that I can't effectively prepare myself for. If anything, this is about preparing to be suprised.
In April 2013, Paul completed the Polar Race – walking to the Magnetic North Pole from Resolute Bay in Nunuvat (Canada). The 6 week challenge, ‘probably the toughest race on earth’ was followed by the infamous ‘Marathon des Sables’ (also ‘the toughest race on earth’), a 260km multi-day ultra marathon across the Sahara Desert. more >
Maps & Tracking
You can explore the full route to the North Pole and follow Paul’s progress with live maps that will plot his position each day as he progresses towards the pole more >
VSO is the world’s leading independent international development organisation that works through volunteers to fight poverty in developing countries (www.vso.org.uk). The Fire and Ice Challenge is aiming to raise £50,000 for VSO’s secure livelihoods programme more >
We would be hugely appreciative if you can support this initiative, make a donation and help hit the £50,000 target. 100% of your donation to charity will reach VSO with no money from charity donations going towards to the cost of the challenges. more >