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Duluth woman completes marathoning Grand Slam with North Pole Marathon

Duluth’s Pam Solberg-Tapper celebrates after finishing a marathon at the North Pole on April 9. She was one of just 38 participants in the race, held near the geographic North Pole. (North Pole Marathon photo)

Waking up on Duluth’s coldest mornings this past winter, Pam Solberg-Tapper was thrilled.

“Every day I’d wake up and it was 25 below, I’d think, ‘I want to get out there quick before it warms up,’ ” Solberg-Tapper said.

Out the door she would go. Duluth’s Solberg-Tapper was training for the North Pole Marathon, where she knew she was likely to find similar conditions. Yes, it’s a regular 26.2-mile marathon. And, yes, it’s run at the geographic North Pole, that imaginary spot at the top of the globe where 6 to 12 feet of pack ice float atop an ocean 13,000 feet deep.

Solberg-Tapper’s frigid training paid off. On April 9, in temperatures of 22 below zero and a brisk wind, she completed the marathon in 9 hours and 53 minutes. The 60-year-old was fifth among seven women in the race. Just 38 entrants from 16 countries took part in the marathon, plus nine more in a half-marathon. All finished except one who was suffering from moderate hypothermia, according to race organizers.

Solberg-Tapper wanted to run the North Pole Marathon so she could join the Grand Slam Club of marathoning — runners who have completed marathons on all seven continents and at the North Pole. She became the 17th woman in the world to have joined that club. She completed her seven-continent quest in 2011 when she ran the Great Wall of China Marathon.

“My hat goes off to Pam. It’s awesome,” former Grandma’s Marathon director Scott Keenan said. “It’s wonderful to see people take on challenges. The best thing is, they keep their fitness level up.”

Solberg-Tapper has run about 30 marathons since her first Grandma’s Marathon in 1982. None moved her quite like the North Pole.

“I think it’s been the most transformational,” said Solberg-Tapper, who makes her living as a business coach. “It’s sobering when you look around and all you see is ice and ice shards and crevasses. No wildlife. No birds. No trees. … It really helps you put perspective on life and realizing your place in the universe. I felt like a speck.”

Beyond the temperature at race time, running conditions were less than ideal.

“The footing was really difficult,” she said. “I describe it as a snowshoe race without snowshoes. You had to go around all these ice juttings. I played it conservatively, but you still fell. A lot of people fell lots of times.”

The race was run in 12 loops of more than two miles and included the half-mile plowed landing strip for the jet that brought the competitors to the race from Longyearbyen, Norway. The race was held near Camp Barneo, a Russian drift station erected each winter on the ice near the pole. After the race, participants rode helicopters to the exact location of the North Pole.

Along the course, race officials armed with rifles stood ready to discourage any polar bears that happened by. None did.

Sea ice atop the Arctic Ocean is constantly drifting. Arctic explorers traveling pack ice to the North Pole have often found that they drift a few miles as they sleep. But that movement is undetectable to explorers — or marathoners.

Solberg-Tapper said training through weeks of Duluth’s polar-vortex winter helped her refine the clothing and gear she would wear during the race. She wore layers of high-performance clothing, ski goggles, a face mask and running shoes sized large enough to accommodate two pairs of socks.

She felt prepared for the rigors of the race, now in its 12th year.

“I was confident in that I had trained a lot, more than for any other event,” she said. “I’d go for six-hour hikes or trots or run/walks. I felt really trained physically.”

Race participants were at or near the North Pole for only 48 hours. They stayed at Camp Barneo, drinking camp water from melted sea ice that tasted a bit salty, Solberg-Tapper said.

Running the North Pole Marathon and completing the Grand Slam of marathoning has been in Solberg-Tapper’s work with business executives and others she coaches.

A coach taught me once that there isn’t much difference between ordinary and extraordinary,” she said. “A marathon is 26.2 miles no matter where you do it. The extraordinary thing is where you go and do it and what it takes to train and be ready for it. If you put a little more effort into it, you can have these extraordinary experiences.”

“I vowed when I stood on top of the world that I’d do the best I can to make a positive impact in my work and in helping others see their potential and accomplish their goals and dreams.”

She remembers a fellow racer she met while competing in the marathon in Antarctica. He was a physician from Singapore, she said. He’s a member of the Grand Slam Club in marathoning.

“He was in a wheelchair,” Solberg-Tapper said. “He did it all in a wheelchair. It’s amazing.”

At the North Pole, participants using wheelchairs do their marathons on the relatively smooth ice of the aircraft landing strip, race organizers say.

“I believe we all can reach goals far beyond what we think we’re capable of,” Solberg-Tapper said.

She finished her North Pole Marathon at 9:30 p.m. in the Arctic’s 24-hour light. Half an hour later, she and 22 others were whisked to the exact North Pole by helicopter. The location was verified by GPS as the precise spot, 90 degrees north. All of the runners got out and encircled the spot.

Then Solberg-Tapper stepped away and made a snow angel.

“I thought, ‘Holy man, how lucky am I to have had that experience?’ ” she said.

She said her next marathon may be somewhat warmer. She’s thinking about running the Easter Island Marathon in 2015 on the tiny island in the South Pacific.

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