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Paraplegic athlete Beth Sanden's latest challenge: An uphill climb to the North Pole

Paraplegic athlete Beth Sanden's latest challenge: An uphill climb to the North Pole
Beth Sanden trains with her handcycle on a trail in San Clemente. (Don Leach / Weekend)

Beth Sanden was never supposed to walk again. But that hasn't stopped the 62-year-old athlete from completing 50 marathons and 48 triathlons since becoming a paraplegic following a 2002 cycling accident.

"I've done more since I've been injured than I had prior," said Sanden, of San Clemente.

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Sanden does not typically compete with her feet — she has some use of the right leg but hardly any of the left — but mostly uses her hands with the assistance of a custom-built handcycle.

And now Sanden is training for a marathon that will not only test her limits for challenging terrain and weather, but will land her a spot in the Guinness World Records once she officially completes it on April 9.

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The North Pole Marathon, founded in 2002, takes competitors on a 26.2-mile run over the frozen waters of the Arctic Ocean amid temperatures in the minus-40-degree Fahrenheit range, not including wind chill.

"I have to get in that mantra: I love wind, I love altitude, I love cold snow," Sanden said.

This marathon is the grand finale of a series that began when she participated in the Great Wall Marathon, traversing China's famous series of fortifications in 2011 using her walker and brace, as well as handcycle.

"Since then I've done the whole seven continents," she said.

Sanden has completed the Kilimanjaro Marathon in Tanzania, Ross Marathons in Tasmania, Lima42K Marathon in Peru, Boston Marathon, Rome Marathon in Italy, White Continent Marathon in Antarctica and Phu Quoc International Marathon in Vietnam.

But although Sanden's worldwide racing adventure began with the Great Wall, she was unable to retrieve all the necessary documentation required by the Guinness World Records for it to be considered part of the seven-marathons-on-seven-continents recognition — so she added the Vietnam marathon to her checklist in order to have the Asian continent represented.

Once she was done, she was informed by Guinness officials that she and several other competitors who accomplished the "seven on seven" could add the North Pole Marathon to their total to receive an additional Grand Slam title.

"The reason why I'm doing this is to hopefully inspire other guys and gals like myself," Sanden said. "There are things out there you can do even if you're disabled."

In fact, Sanden's visits abroad have involved transporting donated equipment for local disabled athletes. This mission began at the Kilimanjaro Marathon, where she noticed disabled Tanzanians and Kenyans sitting on the sidelines, watching from chairs as the marathoners raced by.

When she returned home, she — along with fellow athletes and longtime friends Paul and Denise Fejtek — developed a plan. They enlisted the help of Challenged Athletes Foundation in San Diego, which Sanden has worked with closely since her accident, in finding potential donors of good used equipment for disabled athletes, including pieces like handcycles and race chairs.

Since then, the three have arranged donations for races near Mount Kilimanjaro and Machu Picchu, in Peru, and they're now collecting equipment for Vietnam.

Beth Sanden trains in San Clemente. "The reason why I'm doing this is to hopefully inspire other guys and gals like myself," she says. "There are things out there you can do even if you're disabled."
Beth Sanden trains in San Clemente. "The reason why I'm doing this is to hopefully inspire other guys and gals like myself," she says. "There are things out there you can do even if you're disabled." (Don Leach / Weekend)

The North Pole

Located on the Arctic Ocean, the North Pole is the largely uninhabitable northernmost point of our planet. Other than being of interest to researchers, scientists and polar bears, it is an isolated, intensely cold area of frozen water masses.

The challenges of running a marathon over frozen ocean in temperatures far below freezing are undeniable. For the unprepared, frostbite and death are certain. Layering is key.

Gear recommendations for the North Pole Marathon competitors include base layers, insulating layers, wind shells, sock liners, wool socks, toe and feet warmers, glove liners, gloves, mittens, hand warmers, a balaclava, a face mask and a thermal hat.

Yet, year after year since 2002 competitors keep on running — including two guided blind athletes and a wheelchair competitor, who completed the distance of a marathon on the aircraft runway, according to the North Pole Marathon's website.

And in April, Sanden will leave the warmth of Southern California for most likely the coldest marathon she will ever experience — on her tricked-out handcycle.

"We actually go to the North Pole, right on the tip of the vortex of that pole," she said, adding that paratroopers holding tranquilizer rifles are on standby throughout the marathon, on the lookout for polar bears.

The marathon's race director sent her an informational video showing Russian and Norwegian paratrooper crews parachuting in with bulldozers so they could grade the area before the marathon.

The competitors will be transported via a cargo plane that will also carry scientists on their annual visit. The marathoners will set up camp for the night and start racing the next day at 4 a.m. They will have 24 hours to complete the marathon.

Competitors sleep only the night before and after the marathon in tents over the floating ice cap, Sanden said. Once the race starts, competitors can stop as needed at outdoor tented portable toilets.

She plans to keep her energy going by eating GU Energy Gel, dense calories in a portable packet. Her Camelbak running pack, filled with electrolyte and coconut water that she can easily sip, will be kept inside her jacket to prevent the contents from freezing.

At one point, Sanden asked the race director about the terrain, and he answered, "No way is it flat."

Her response: "Oh no."

She expects at the very least two or three snow drifts that she'll need to overcome on her handcycle.

It took Sanden nearly 11 hours to conquer the White Continent Marathon in Antarctica; she imagines it'll take her several hours longer — perhaps 18 to 20 hours — at the North Pole. Because the Antarctic and North Pole are on vortexes, "it's like training at 3 or 4,000 feet," she said. "I did a lot of mountain handcycling up in Big Bear and Mammoth before Antarctica … and it sure did save me."

That uphill work continues for her North Pole training, which she began in late October. She's out on the San Clemente trails "grinding hills" for five to six hours twice a week, and on Saturdays she spends the day in Big Bear handcycling in high altitudes.

"I'm stronger for it," said Sanden of going uphill pedaling only with the strength of her upper body. "Nobody wants to arm wrestle with you, that's for sure."

Her three-wheel, low-to-the-ground cycle will be decked out with 18 gears for the extra climb, studded tires to get through the snow and ice, and extra-thick tire tubing to help prevent flats.

"It's tough, believe me.… You can do it. You gotta get stronger. That's all [there is] to it," she said.

A closeup view of Beth Sanden's special handcycle.
A closeup view of Beth Sanden's special handcycle. (Don Leach / Weekend)

An inspiration

Many consider Sanden an undeniable inspiration.

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Besides her marathon feats, which most people with fully functioning legs would not dare take on, her work with disabled athletes is legion. She helps through the Challenged Athletes Foundation and coaches at the Orange County Paratriathlon Camp through a grant from the USA Triathlon team. In addition, she coaches members of Camp Pendleton's Wounded Warrior Battalion - West in track and field and works with her own able-bodied personal-training clients.

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Diane Chapman, who has known Sanden for more than 20 years and is writing a book about her, saw the deep struggles Sanden endured after she lost the use of her legs. But she also saw her defy doctors who told her she'd never walk again after crushing the thoracic T6 and T7 vertebra of her spine. In 18 months, she was able to regain some use of her right leg and with the help of a walker could walk into her doctor's office.

Now, when not handcycling, Sanden walks with the help of a cane and a leg brace by swinging her left leg like a pendulum.

"There's so much that she's done and so much she's doing for others," Chapman said. "Everyone will tell you, she comes into the room and she lights it up."

As for Chapman, Sanden is her inspiration.

"If she can do that, we can all climb our own personal mountains too," she said.

Jerry Bussjaeger of San Clemente helps Sanden as a swim buddy for the disabled at the Orange County Paratriathlon Camp, where she coaches. He sees the effect she has on people.

"She's just very inspiring," he said. "She'll be there with her straw sunhat and a big smile … welcoming and encouraging people."

And she helps them reach their goals. Bussjaeger recalled two paraplegic men this past year who wanted to complete a Half Ironman. Sanden helped them create a daily training schedule, developed their diet and nutrition plan, and gave them tips on how to eat and drink during the race.

"She's really touched a lot of lives," he said.

Sachi Fukuman of San Clemente, a marathon runner and triathlete who was racing with Sanden long before her accident, said she's seen her friend become an advocate for disabled athletes.

"One of the first things she did was pushed for like-minded, challenged athletes to participate in triathlons," said Fukuman. "There was little or no interest in having challenged athletes participate in regular, able-body triathlons prior to Beth. She got the directors to hand out podium medals to challenged athletes."

As Sanden continues pushing herself and inspiring others, what keeps her going during those long, difficult battles hand pedaling uphill?

She reminds herself of those dark months in the hospital following her accident when she was told she'd never walk again. The marathons are one day — not the 31/2 months in a hospital bed or 18 months learning how to walk again.

"This is nothing compared to that," Sanden said.

Diane Chapman has set up a GoFundMe campaign to help Beth Sanden cover expenses for her trip to the North Pole. Donations can be made at gofundme.com/BethSanden.

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