Claudio Gonzalez is going to the North Pole. Not to see Santa and his reindeer but to go for a run, where he will face bitter cold temperatures, biting winds and perhaps wandering polar bears.
A decade after taking up running to lose weight, Gonzalez, 39, will pull on running shoes with metal spikes, layer up in fleece and set out to run 26.2 miles on the polar ice cap on Wednesday. The Westbury resident will be among 44 runners braving temperatures likely to be about 22 below zero to compete in the North Pole Marathon. As guards with tranquilizer guns watch for polar bears, the racers -- there is a men's division, a women's division and a team division -- will run a loop around Barneo Ice Camp, a smattering of tents and a landing strip rebuilt every spring for Arctic researchers, explorers and adventurers.
"I'm turning 40 this year," Gonzalez said. "A lot of people have a midlife crisis and buy a Porsche. This is my midlife crisis."
Actually, it's more like an item on his marathon to-do list. Gonzalez wants to join the elite Seven Continents Club, whose members can proclaim they have completed marathons on all seven of the world's continents (North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania and Antarctica).
The North Pole Marathon began in 2002 and bills itself as the "World's Coolest Marathon" and the only one run entirely on water -- more precisely, ice. About 300 people have completed the race, compared with the 36,000 who finished the 2004 New York City Marathon, Gonzalez's first.
It's likely not just the atmosphere that accounts for the gap in finishers for those races. As if the cold and the polar bears aren't daunting enough, the North Pole Marathon has an entry fee of 11,900 euros, or about $16,422, which Gonzalez paid himself. He left Saturday for the race, flying from Newark to Oslo, and then on to Svalbard, Norway, and from there to the North Pole. The trip is about 16 hours. Once Gonzalez arrives, he said he expects to be on the North Pole for about 48 hours.
Preparing for the marathon
Gonzalez has barely altered his training routine for his North Pole challenge. He runs five times a week in Eisenhower Park in East Meadow and doesn't normally train in the winter because most of his races are in the fall. To prepare for the North Pole Marathon, he started running in December. Long Island's frigid, snowy winter was just the ticket to help Gonzalez train for his run on the Arctic ice. In February, he put his gear to the test on a day when the wind chill made it feel like 10 below zero.
"After four miles, I was pretty warm," Gonzalez said. "The key is that base layer. Then, if you have a good shell to break the wind, it's really all you need."
Gonzalez started running in the first place to combat the after-college weight gain that came with life in the business world.
"The life of a consultant is basically traveling every week, and you eat out every day, so you gain a lot of weight," he said, recalling his dismay at putting on 40 extra pounds. "It was all the eating and the sedentary lifestyle of sitting at a desk all day long. Right before I turned 30, I said, 'I've got to do something.' "
He started small, a few miles at a time, but by April 2004, Gonzalez had decided to go the distance. He entered the lottery and won a spot in the New York City Marathon.
"Right after I finished, I said I'm never running a marathon again," he said. "A week after that, I was thinking about my next marathon. I definitely caught the running bug."
Nine more marathons would follow, along with 20 half-marathons, including the Brooklyn Half. Eventually it became Gonzalez's goal to run a marathon on every continent. Then, he heard there was one at the North Pole, which is not actually a continent but a 12-foot-thick slab of ice floating on the Arctic Ocean.
Gonzalez decided to run that marathon first -- while he still can.
"Maybe 10 years from now, that marathon may not be there anymore because of global warming," he said. "So if I want to do this, I should do it sooner rather than later."
Gonzalez also has run in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., the Philadelphia Marathon and the Chicago Marathon. Though he struggled for years to finish a race in the Lower 48 states in less than four hours, he said he'll be happy to break the seven-hour mark at the top of the world.
"I'm going to go just to finish," he said.
Gonzalez, a supply-chain consultant, is running for more than bragging rights. Like many of the entrants, he is running for a worthy cause and hopes to raise $10,000 to help victims of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. He has raised $300 so far.
Pledges for Gonzalez (bit.ly/O965rP) will benefit the Happy Hearts Fund, a nonprofit founded by model Petra Nemcova to rebuild schools after the massive and deadly Indian Ocean tsunami in 2005. Nemcova was critically injured and her boyfriend was killed by the tidal wave that hit Thailand. The Happy Hearts Fund has expanded and now works in seven countries, including Haiti, that have experienced natural disasters.
When Gonzalez was looking for a cause to support with his polar marathon, Haiti was a natural choice because of his friendship with Damian Merlo, the special assistant to Haiti's president, Michel Martelly, and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe.
"Claudio has been one of my best and closest friends since high school, and it means a lot that he has dedicated this special race in the North Pole to the country I now spend so much time in, Haiti," Merlo said in an email. "Haiti is working hard and is under way to its reconstruction, and this type of attention is crucial to the development process, especially as the prime minister works hard to rebuild schools around the country."
Nemcova, too, cheered on her benefactor.
"Claudio is doing a few things I could never do," she said. "First is to run, and second to run a marathon, and third, run a marathon [at] the North Pole. It will be an amazing journey. But what connects us is the ever-important sprint to rebuild children's lives."
Gonzalez said he plans to give his top three contributors bottles of snow from the North Pole.
Meeting his match
Gonzalez was born in Argentina and moved to the United States in 1989, when he was 15. He and his parents lived in Rockville, Md. After graduating from the University of Maryland, Gonzalez lived in Chicago, where he met his fiancee, Juanita Marquez. They have a daughter, Sofia, 5.
"On our first date, through conversation it was revealed we were both running in the same half-marathon four days later, and that was all she wrote," said Marquez, who plans to enter nursing school next year at Adelphi University in Garden City.
She did not accompany Gonzalez to the North Pole and was concerned initially about him going.
"The first thing I thought about was the negative 20- to 30-degree weather," Marquez said. "I was worried how the human body would hold up under such extreme temperatures. And then, also to hear that there would be men with tranquilizer guns on hand in case of polar bears. . . . Yes, I was extremely apprehensive."
Gonzalez managed to put her fears to rest by sharing emails from the race director attesting to its safety and the presence of two doctors on hand for the race, and showing her the marathon's website (northpolemarathon.com).
Nevertheless, the runner in her will not be following in her fiance's footsteps. "I told Claudio, 'You couldn't pay me to run that marathon,' " she said.
To prepare for polar ice cap weather, Gonzalez has bought lots of gear designed for such extreme temperatures, which is expensive because of the protection it offers. It might seem like a good idea to bundle up when the mercury is at minus 22, but Gonzalez plans to dress lightly for the race: a base layer that wicks away moisture, a fleece top and a wind-breaking running suit.
"You can't wear anything too warm," he said, because overdressing leads to sweating, which can bring on hypothermia. His hands will be in gloves inside mittens, and his face will be protected by a mask and goggles. No skin will be exposed, as frostbite can happen quickly when it's that cold.
Which continent is next? Gonzalez hasn't decided yet, but he said it's between Europe and South America.