June 2007 - Post Race Report Part 2/6
Gabrielle Finn - Polar Challenge 2007
Faff Factor and Frozen Brains
We took off in 3 groups – Polarity (our team), the Arctic Virgins and Team Star. It became clear very quickly that our tent admin skills needed desperate improvement. I also needed to increase my speed and decrease my faff time outside the tent. I wasn’t alone. Our whole team were guilty of the faff factor. My brain seemed to get badly affected by the cold. A simple task seemed to involve too much physical paralysis and task analysis. My body was in shock by the initial impact of the extreme cold. My mobility was restricted by the Michelin Man style clothing and the cumbersome heavy boots. Perhaps my mind and body needed more acclimatisation. Having trekked at high altitudes, I wasn’t expecting to encounter the same slow mindedness that afflicts the brain but undoubtedly I experienced mental limitations due to the extreme cold. Gary M , my team member who had successfully completed the Polar Challenge last year was not surprisingly showing signs of impatience. I tried to fight the thick pea soup in my brain that was clearly getting in the way of logic and efficiency, occasionally with success but often I struggled.
In the training days , we certainly could have won the competition for the clumsiest team. Gary M admitted that last year he had been somewhat of a “Tent Rhino” (outdoors equivalent of bull in a china shop) and Thom , I knew from Austria ,after almost setting the tent on fire, was not far off that description. I’m not excluding myself from this either - I had my moments too ! I burnt holes in most of my contact gloves, I naively threw water over the stove (not the best idea !) when Gary and Thom managed to light the leaked fuel on the stove creating dangerously high flames in the tent. By lighting stoves and cooking in tents , we were breaking the first rule of camping but there is no practical alternative in the Arctic.
The trainers all tried different approaches with me. Ady - the military and humorous approach; Matty - the laidback , learn for yourself approach ; Gary B - the good cop , bad cop approach to improve my speed and reduce our faff factor all with some but not great success. It seemed much of it was about testing different systems and equipment to see what worked best for you. I tried all sorts of glove combinations but dexterity always compromised the warmth factor. One day when my mitt wasn’t attached and we experienced probably the worst wind of our time out in the Arctic , it flew away into the distance . Gary B with not a second delay skied off after it at a speed I could only dream about and rescued my mitt. I was learning lots of lessons. It never happened again !
I’d volunteered to perform the “kitchen duties” . This included shovelling for snow , , lighting stoves, making dinner and hot drinks and melting snow for drinks the following day. Thom and Gary M concentrated on setting up the tent and unpacking of pulks. Washing dishes, route planning , plugging co-ordindates into gps and drying clothes were the main activities before we could collapse into our sleeping bags. I was struggling big time with physical exhaustion and stress due to lack of relaxation time and empathetic conversation. It appeared , at least from the outside, that no-one else was. (I was wrong on this I later discovered)
I must not omit from these entries moments of humour and grandeur: Watching others and myself fall arse-over-tit in less than elegant styles; retrospective laughter when my personal 130 dB alarm was accidentally activated and unable to de-activate so easily ( I’d naively bought to deter a polar bear if it came in the tent ! ) ; Awe and amazement at our environment : - incredible ice structures (eg ice cathedrals and many phallic formations !!) ; Realisation of the fact we were camping and walking on top of the Arctic ocean and scraping off the top layer of snow to reveal bright turquoise shades of ice below us.
On our return from the training days in the ice we were told we had one day to prepare ourselves and our equipment for the race and the walk to the start line. We would be on the ice from the following day until the end of the race.
I desperately needed to talk to someone. I hadn’t particularly made a special bond with any of the competitors and was struggling for someone to turn to and relay my fears of inadequacy, fears of failure and worst of all the fear of the dangers that lay ahead. I called my parents only to get their answer phone , I tried to be brave but broke down in tears at the end of message . Clever one ! Mum would be beside herself with worry , best call someone else in family and tell them I’m really ok . Claire, my sister, too was out and I wasn’t able to keep the wobble out of that message either. Dom, my brother was in and despite all efforts to sound upbeat , tears overcame me. It helped enormously just to talk to someone who cared and I felt much better as a result.
4 days and 65 miles to cover ! And that was before we’d actually started the race. I had been told about “escape monkeys” . This is where competitors look for a noble excuses to withdraw – made much more respectable if enforced by the Doctor. I didn’t think I would be one of those type of people but found myself occasionally wishing that something serious would happen to me in order to be pulled off the race with dignity !!
My energy levels and strength were not quite up to par. Gary B suggested that perhaps we as a team we should adjust the weight we were carrying in the pulks to match our speed and pulling power. I’d also experimented with my food intake . Was it best to eat every hour when we stopped for a 4 minute break or was it best to constantly nibble as and when we felt like it. I found the latter approach worked best for me. The compromise being that I slowed down slightly as I removed mitts and opened bag to obtain food. By the last day of the walk to the start line, I discovered a new-found energy and speed much to Gary and Thom’s amazement and my utter relief.
Me at a training camp
Putting up tent
Thom & Gary route planning in tent
Ice Cathedral spotted in training
Teams on way to start
Walk to the Start