Polar Challenge

"The idea behind entering this race came in May 2004, on a rather hot evening in the desert in Sudan, at 50 degrees crowded round an air conditioner unit, when someone suggested a polar expedition might be a good idea! All three of us were heavily involved in the international response to the Darfur crisis - I was working as Medical Coordinator for MSF. We came across an advertisement for the Polar-Challenge - one of the toughest team endurance races in the world - and it immediately attracted us, as a test of our physical and mental endurance.

At the time, there was little global coverage and understanding of the crisis in Darfur. The scale of the disaster was, and still is, huge. Darfur is the size of France and there are millions affected. The people of Darfur have endured a vicious campaign of violence and terror which led to huge numbers of deaths and forced more than a million people to flee from their destroyed villages.

Whilst the work I was doing in Sudan and in Darfur was very challenging, it was also very disturbing and frustrating at the same time. I was seeing men, women and children attacked and driven from their villages, ending up in terrible camps, where children were starving and where women had to run the risk of being raped every day. Families were regularly beaten and the sight and smell of driving through a recently burnt village is something that will live with me forever.

I suppose one of the most moving things I saw was a twelve year old girl trying to stand and walk with a large gunshot wound to her thigh. She was not able to go to the clinic for treatment as there were too many militia around, so we were trying to treat her inside her mud hut. I have never seen such determination on her small face as, in terrible pain, she hauled herself to her feet to show us that she was still able to take those few steps and to prove how far she could walk and how far she had come.

...And yet, the world did not know. There were terrible things happening right in front of our faces, and we wanted to tell people - to let them know so that something could be done. So the idea of the Team Darfur and the Polar Challenge was born. People are now aware that something is going on in Darfur, but are often not aware of the extent, and are not aware that even now in 2005, these things are still happening, and MSF workers are daily facing situations and treating people such as the small girl above. Innocent people continue to be attacked and driven from their homes.Something still needs to be done. Through taking part in the Polar Challenge race to the north pole, we want to raise money for MSF's work in Darfur and also to raise awareness of the terrible plight of millions in the region.

We have entered this event with our eyes wide open and it's certainly daunting! Not only is the Arctic one of the most extreme environments in the world, temperatures can fall as low as minus 50 degrees and the route will take us through the home of 80% of the world's Polar Bears. We will be racing to the Magnetic North Pole on skis, pulling all our supplies on a sledge weighing 90kg. The journey will take about four weeks covering approximately 320 miles, racing against 30 other teams. It will be the ultimate test of teamwork!

We have been spending many long hours in the gym, working on upper body strength and stamina and have even been pulling tyres around the New Forest, which has certainly earned us plenty of strange looks and loads of funny questions. In January we headed out to Austria for a week of training with the other Polar Challenge racers, where we trained in everything from Navigation using GPS, Shotgun shooting and Polar Bear Defences, to medical evacuation, cold weather injury treatment and camping and tent routines. Some days we were woken at 3am to be packed and skiing by 5am, in minus 7 degrees, rain, and the pitch dark but probably the biggest shock to the system was having to jump through the ice on a frozen lake to practice recovering yourself as quickly as possible. I have never, ever felt such freezing cold water. After using the poles to get ourselves out of the water, we had to get all our clothing off and roll in the snow - it absorbs the water! Your team-mates then had to pitch the tent, and get you into as many clothes and inside your sleeping bag inside the tent as soon as possible with both cookers going flat-out, to avoid the hypothermia that can kill you quickly. It was a very powerful (and cold!) lesson in why we must do everything possible to not fall through the ice.

We will fly to Ottawa, Canada and then on to Resolute on 12 April. We will then do a further 10 days of Arctic training, before the race itself starts on 22 April. So it's all going to happen pretty quickly now. We're very excited now, but there are definitely a few butterflies in our stomachs!