A self-described ‘non-athlete, but adventurer to her core’, Nicky Chisholm (#pinknicky) approached the Environmental Extremes Lab to help prepare for her latest fundraising adventure – the Polar Circle Half Marathon – back in September 2022. Taking place in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland on the 30th October 2022 across seemingly endless ice and involving varying terrain, this race is known as the ‘Coolest Run on Earth’  with temperatures anywhere around -3°C to -18°C and so presented Nicky with some unique challenges.

Having never run in extreme temperatures before, but having had experience running the half marathon distance Nicky had a few concerns:

  1. How she would handle the below freezing conditions.
  2. The best clothing strategy so that she could run effectively but not be too cold or hot.
  3. Risk management – what were the dangers of being in this environment, what signs should she be looking out for to keep herself safe?
  4. Hydration and nutrition – was there anything she could to do to keep water and gels from freezing?

Support from the Environmental Extremes Laboratory

After meeting with Nicky, the team came up with a plan to run a lactate threshold test in ambient temperatures so that Nicky could get an overall picture of her current ideal pace and to help us determine a pace for her sessions in the environmental chamber.

We then ran two separate sessions in our environmental chamber:

  1. 3 x 15 minute sessions of running at 7.5km/hr on the treadmill at three different temperatures in the chamber: 0°C, -10°C and -20°C where we tested Nicky’s tolerance to cold and monitored her core temperature and heart rate.
  2. 3 x 20 minute sessions of running at 7km/hr on the treadmill, this time solely at -20°C, so that we could test different clothing options.

We knew that unlike heat acclimation, acclimation to cold would take too long and so we chose to take the approach of education through our sessions in the ultra low temperatures. We were able to establish how her body responded in terms of energy consumption and fluid lost as well as narrowing down clothing choices as we decided what did and didn’t work.

Nicky was particularly keen to find ‘gamechangers’, something she described as the little extras that would help get her over the line. We found these in the way of handwarmers slipped under gloves in the final 20 minute block, hiding gels in her layers to keep them from freezing and wearing her hydration pack under her top layer to prevent freezing.

One surprising find for Nicky was that the thermal, waterproof over layer she had expected to need actually warmed her up slightly too much and so they were quickly relegated to the emergency kit she could have taken out to the route for her if necessary, rather than a race kit ‘essential’.

Whilst Nicky was able to keep warm in the chamber by doing the prescribed exercise, the rest of the team wrapped up extra warm in multiple layers (including an extra warm expedition coat and a dry robe!) and swapped over regularly, which also had the added effect of giving Nicky a variety of advice and knowledge from the different team members – Chanel Coppard, Dr Rebecca Relf and Gregor Eichhorn – on signs of accidental hypothermia, cold related injuries and the prevention of, as well as general hydration tips.

Lab and Race Reflections from Nicky

Going into preparation for the race, I knew I could do the distance, but I wanted to try and find a massive fridge to spend some time in and when I heard that the University of Brighton had a purpose built chamber, I immediately reached out to Dr Neil Maxwell to find out if using it was possible and was thrilled when he said yes!

Arriving to the lab for the first time was scary – I wasn’t sure what to expect but Rebecca and Chanel immediately put me at ease and it was full steam ahead from there! I knew that what I wanted from the sessions was confidence. Confidence that I could cope with the extreme temperatures that were going to be out there and confidence that I could keep myself safe throughout. Going into the last session of the cold chamber I was so excited to get back in there and practice my clothing options and figuring out race strategy.

Out in Greenland, I have to say I enjoyed every single part of the adventure and the views were INCREDIBLE. I knew exactly what the coldest temperatures would feel like so I wasn’t worried, but happily we never quite made it down to as cold as I’d trained for! On top of knowing my gels wouldn’t freeze, I went into that race confident of my preparations and knew I’d soon cross that finish line! I just want to say a massive thank you to Neil, Chanel, Rebecca and Gregor for everything!

Many congratulations to Nicky for accomplishing an amazing achievement and the coolest run on earth! Nicky’s energy and enthusiasm was infectious and she gave our PhD students such a great opportunity to translate what they have learnt into practice.

Nicky was raising money for some really important charities – Chestnut Tree House – which provides care for children and young people with life-limiting conditions in Sussex and South East Hampshire and Safe in Sussex – providing help and support for people affected by domestic abuse in West Sussex. A good amount of publicity was raised along the way, with Nicky being a natural in promoting what she was doing. Norman Miller from Marketing and Communications at the University of Brighton was in touch with Nicky and helped facilitate a brilliant interview on BBC Sussex in which she talks incredibly positively about the work the Environmental Extremes Lab provided in helping her prepare. You can listen to the full interview here (3:10:08 to 3:20:30). The university also ran a nice news piece on the support offered too, spreading the reach of the Environmental Extremes Lab and what Nicky was embarking upon.


So what is the next challenge then Nicky!

Written by: Chanel Coppard