It was all a joke at first, a bad Christmas cracker joke:
Q: Why did the chubby man go to the North Pole?
a) To meet a polar bear
b) To see Santa
c) To escape his teenage children
I remember being at a Borne founders’ dinner, and someone mentioning a fundraising trip to the North Pole. I turned to my husband Julian, knee-jerk reaction, and whispered, “Not you love, you’re too overweight, you’d have a heart attack.” He laughed, and I thought that was the end of it.
Julian is the Chairman of Borne, and announced tentatively, that he thought as Chair he should be part of the team. I repeated the few negative points I had remembered: “No love, you’d have to spend hours every day melting snow just to eat; you’d have to pull a massive sledge; it’s about minus 30, and anyway, you’re not fit enough and you’re very overweight.”
There are many adjectives I’d use to describe my husband: unfit and overweight (obviously), genius, incisive, stupid, impractical, soppy, funny and loyal but the key ones are stubborn and determined. So I wasn’t all that surprised when he said he’d been to see a nutritionist. The prognosis wasn’t unexpected – Julian was morbidly obese and a heart attack waiting to happen. Julian didn’t like that. But the nutritionist was totally brutal and at the same time unfailingly positive, and he decided to changed his lifestyle, at least a bit. He toyed with the idea of drinking his entire wine collection before he started the regime, then decided maybe the odd glass would be a better idea.
We started the diet. On day two I broke my tooth on a seed hidden in my muesli. My sarcasm reached new heights. We were told to take fish oils (which is one element of Borne’s research into preventing premature birth) so there was a link in there somewhere. Julian was advised not to drink out of plastic bottles so we read about the Arctic and the wildlife being killed by plastic in the ocean, and decide as a household, to cut down on our plastic waste.
At this point, I don’t think any of us (me or the children) really thought he’d walk to the North Pole, we just thought it would be good for him to lose some weight and get fitter. His mother helpfully said, it would be a good idea for him to lose the weight and do the training, then to break his leg the week before the expedition.
Where is the North Pole anyway?
A few months on and Julian is keeping to the diet and has lost weight. He buys new clothes, and I take his old tent-like jackets to the charity shop. The trip to the North Pole is almost a possibility. Almost.
At least the possibility of the trek is a theme for birthday presents. He is given books about the Arctic (including explorers who died on the way there or back). We look at cute penguin cufflinks and realise, to our shame, that there are no penguins, they live in the Antarctic. So we change to polar bear theme gifts instead – how many pairs of polar bear socks does a man need?
We watch an episode of Top Gear, the one where they race to the North Pole: a soup-ed up jeep against a team of huskies. What we found astonishing (and terrifying) is the landscape. The Arctic is practically empty. There are no landmarks, not even a hillock. There are no plants, no animals (unless there is a rare sighting of a polar bear). There is nothing but ice with crevices and lumps. The North Pole isn’t even marked, it can’t be because the ice constantly moves. You only know you’re there when your compass reads 90.0000 0.0000 (note to self: pack him a spare compass).
Possibility changed to probability when Julian began to tell people. Once you say you’re going to the North Pole, you have to go, right? Friends and colleagues asked him, “Why?” he replied, “For Borne”.
It sounds mad, not funny. But in fact, it’s not mad at all. Borne’s aim is to end or at least reduce prematurity, because babies born too soon are not meant to be outside their mother’s womb. They can’t eat, they can’t breathe and their brain is insufficiently developed. The environment is totally hostile – temperature, infection, everything is a battle for survival. That’s why so many premature babies will be disabled or have lifelong health problems.
Walking to the North Pole will, just for a week or so, put this healthy group of adults in a similar situation: out of their comfort zone in a totally hostile environment, inexperienced, minimally resourced and vulnerable to the elements. Just like preterm babies, the greatest challenge will be mental: can the brain catch up, adapt and make new pathways? Can it survive the whiteness and blankness of no stimulation for days on end. I hope so. Julian sees every film on in-flight movies. He has heard every bit of music, like some teenager with the radio on all the time. He lives with five children, a dog and two tortoises, and me; how will he manage the silence?
It’s 18 years since our first son was born premature in intensive care. His eyes bandaged, under blue lights, temperature controlled, sensors everywhere, breathing on a ventilator, feeding through a tube. I feel as if Julian is going back to that, and it won’t be nice. But it’s only for 10 days, then he comes home. Our firstborn was in the NICU for four months, then came home on oxygen. Come to think of it, the North Pole is an easy ride.
Q: Why is the not-so-chubby man walking to the North Pole?
A: Because it’s easier than being born too soon.
Support Julian’s Borne Arctic Challenge here
Watch Julian talk about why he’s walking to the North Pole.