Coogee Lifesaver To Patrol The Pole

Coogee volunteer surf lifesaver Heather Hawkins only took up marathon running two years ago, and now she is embarking on her greatest challenge yet; to run the famous distance at the North Pole in April. During her planned marathon run she will be flying the flag for Surf Life Saving, and in the process hopes to encourage more people to be mindful of the importance of surf safety.

The North Pole Marathon is a 42-kilometre slog around a looped track on the frozen Arctic Ocean. It has been certified as the northern-most marathon on the planet and has obstacles such as thick snow, moving ice, and of course biting cold for the runners to overcome. In 2015 there will be 45 starters from 22 countries, including a handful of Australians.

Just to get there is a huge logistical challenge. From Australia, Heather will need to travel to the Norwegian Svalbard Islands and the town of Longyearbyen, and from there it’s a 2.5 hour flight on a Russian transport plane to the race camp.

“The idea first started to take shape when a friend told me they were planning to run the Antarctic Marathon…it was really just a throw-away line,” Mrs Hawkins said.

“It stuck in my head so when I got home that night I did some research and emailed the company about the possibility of joining in, but as it turned out places were already filled. They wrote back and said there were spots available for the North Pole run and just like that the dream was born.

“As it turned out this was the right time for me to do something like this. I’m turning 50 just before the race, and also celebrating my 25th wedding anniversary, so it all just tied in perfectly.”

Since taking up the sport, Heather has competed in six marathons of the standard distance, and two ultra-marathons. She fine-tuned her preparations recently with a run in the Six Foot Track Race in Sydney’s Blue Mountains where she was able to test her footwear for the first time.

“One piece of advice that the organisers gave is that it would be really beneficial in preparing to run at the North Pole, to do a lot of soft sand running.

“I couldn’t believe it when they said that, as a surf lifesaver that was perfect for me! So I’ve basically been trying to get a lot of distance in my legs and build up some strength,” Mrs Hawkins said.

Temperatures on race day are expected to range between -20 and -40 degrees Celsius, a world away from the balmy climes of Coogee.

“I’ve never raced in snow before, and as an Australian I think the biggest challenge will be the cold, and learning how to breathe through the balaclava I have to wear,” she said.

“I’m confident that dressing in layers will provide good insulation, and luckily I have a few days before to get acclimatised to the conditions and really test all the gear.”

A committed clubbie, Heather hasn’t let her training get in the way of her patrolling duties. “I’ve done about 60 hours already this season, it’s very important for me to do this as the club really is a community.”

She is speaking from the heart as the club supported her and her family when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007.

“It was just the little things, people would check up on us, make sure we were ok. In fact that experience has probably driven me in this direction, to take on a challenge like the North Pole Marathon.

“I’ve been involved with the club since my children were in nippers, and when they got to the last year, as a group of mums we didn’t want to leave the club behind. So we all did our Bronze Medallion together and pushed each other to get fit and keep healthy.”

After completing the race, Heather and the other competitors will be flown by helicopter to the Geographic North Pole where she will proudly fly the iconic red and yellow flag of the Surf Life Saving movement.

And for that moment at least, she will be the northern-most lifesaver on Earth.

Photograph: Heather Hawkins is all smiles with the jacket that she will be running in during the 2015 North Pole Marathon.

Tue 24 Mar 2015