The elite athlete training for an extreme Arctic race in a fridge

An ultra-marathon runner is training in a research refrigerator with a team of engineers ahead of a 230-kilometre Arctic race

Megan van Vegten, University of Melbourne

Published 28 November 2023

With temperatures as low as 40°C below freezing, the Arctic is a unique challenge for the human body. But can you imagine running an ultra-marathon in one of the world’s most extreme environments?

The five-day Ice Ultra marathon, hosted by Beyond the Ultimate, is exactly that. It requires more than just physical endurance; you must be self-sufficient, carrying your own clothing and food, while navigating the freezing Arctic terrain.

The Arctic ultra marathon is both challenging and exposed, putting physical and mental endurance to a painful test. Picture: Mikkel Beisner, Ice Ultra Arctic/Beyond the Ultimate

And one Victorian ultra-marathon runner, with the help of University of Melbourne engineers and its unique polar research facilities, is preparing for the gruelling 230-kilometre Ice Ultra Arctic marathon.

Sia Kindberg, 42, is testing different clothing materials and her body’s reactions in extreme conditions with Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology students Patrick Bradfield Smith, Jacqueline Coelho and Rohit Naidu, who are supervised by Professor in Ocean Engineering, Alessandro Toffoli.

So, how has the team come together?

Professor alessandro toffoli: the tech

As this project’s supervising professor my focus is on the fascinating interplay of technology and human ambition. Our research refrigerator is generally used to study wind, waves and sea ice in polar regions, but it has now unexpectedly become a critical component in Sia’s preparation for the Arctic marathon.

In order to replicate the conditions Sia will face, we’ve used a large fridge that normally underpins research in polar environments.

The facility, which is managed by the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is basically a freezer room measuring 17 × 2.4 × 2.4 metres where temperatures can be dropped down to -18°C.

The room is equipped with a small channel (a wind and wave flume), where oceanic conditions – like surface waves and sea ice – can be replicated.

Patrick Bradfield Smith (left) and Professor Alessandro Toffoli (right) in the facility. Picture: Megan van Vegten

By recirculating air within the flume through an enclosing superstructure, we can generate wind over the water surface. If we remove components (panels) from this superstructure, air can circulate around the room more freely – which can reproduce wind and increasing our perception of cold.

Although an extreme condition of -40°C is beyond the capacity of the facility, it’s estimated that the feel-like temperature can be dropped down to -25°C. We have a treadmill set up so that Sia can train in these frigid conditions.

Our refrigeration facility has long been at the forefront of environmental research – particularly in ocean engineering.

But its versatility in mimicking severe cold has shown that it can play an important role in understanding the human response to challenging conditions like this, beyond its intended purpose.

This one-of-a-kind set up acts as a fantastic training ground for Sia, helping her to acclimatise to the Arctic’s harsh cold just as Australia heads toward summer.

In the freezer room, Sia can test clothing, focusing on their performance in a very cold environment and their impact on her movements.

Then there are the seemingly unimportant details that turn out to be worth investigating – like finding the ideal resting positions to minimise heat loss.

It’s a pleasure to be supporting such a tenacious athlete, but the project is also involving our students in meaningful and impactful research.

The collaboration aims not just to push the limits of human body, but to also use technology to improve our understanding of how we, as humans, respond to extreme environments.

It’s a thrilling opportunity to involve students in the meeting of scientific ideas with the desire of a determined athlete – contributing not only to Sia’s preparation for the Arctic, but also broadening our knowledge of human resilience.

Patrick bradfield smith: the work

So far, the experience has been nothing short of transformative.

Working with Professor Alessandro Toffoli, mechanical engineer Liam McGregor, and fellow students Jacqueline Coelho and Rohit Naidu, we are concentrating on the tiny elements that could offer Sia an advantage in the Arctic Ultra.

The stakes are high, her challenges are immense and the excitement of pushing the boundaries of human resilience is both exhilarating and humbling.

For a student like me, the combination of research and real-world application is a rare and educational experience. Our participation is a unique collaboration that takes us students out of lecture rooms and into the realm of real-world challenges.

Sometimes we’re tracking how Sia’s body reacts to the cold when she’s running, other times we are looking at her resting state. All this can help us work out the best and safest approach for her in the Arctic.

This project is not just about the cold; it’s about understanding the science behind it, the nuances of clothing materials and the human body’s response to extreme conditions.

Patrick Bradfield Smith (left) and Jacqueline Coelho (right) watching Sia train in the fridge. Picture: Megan van Vegten

This has led us to investigate creating a personalised thermal shoe insole for Sia. We’re using the data recorded from our training sessions to apply it in the real world.

The collaboration bridges the gap between theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience, setting us students on a trajectory of professional growth.

Sia kindberg: the training

When a very close friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer, with only three months left to live, I saw her struggle with mobility. She tried so hard to walk again just to go home to her family, to see her children.

It was like this eureka moment – I realised I didn’t want to be a benchwarmer anymore. I wanted to stop watching these ultra marathon races from the distance. I wanted to be in it.

Fast forward, and I’m now working with a team of students who are supervised by Professor Alessandro Toffoli to test different clothing materials and my body’s reactions to extreme conditions, for optimal performance.

To simulate the low temperatures and harsh conditions of the Arctic, I’m training in the Faculty’s research fridge – which gives me a unique opportunity to see what I need to do and change before I set off.

During these three-hour training sessions, I go for a run on a treadmill in the fridge. I also use this time to see how long I can stop and stand still before becoming too cold.

For example, when I get a little sniffly, it starts to freeze inside my nose, so I have to cover it to start ‘defrosting’.

Sia Kindberg training on the treadmill in freezing temperatures. Picture: Megan van Vegten

Moments like these show me what I need to be aware of and what I can do to avoid any injury or discomfort.

The team’s expertise guides me through the complexities of surviving in the Arctic environment. And it’s a collaborative effort that empowers me with the knowledge and tools essential for this challenge.

The training sessions also help me gauge what clothing to take, when to remove clothing, and how to minimise weight and avoid dangerous situations like sweating, which could pose a risk of hypothermia.

Over the last few weeks, I have been able to eliminate the things that aren’t working for me – like extra socks and certain combinations of clothing.

The team is also looking into creating a personalised thermal shoe insole designed to shield me from the harsh Arctic conditions.

Together, we’re exploring the limits of my resilience, extracting insights that could give me a distinct advantage in the Arctic Ultra.

The research isn’t just about breaking records; it’s about pushing the boundaries of human capability and adapting to the harshest environments.

Without this team, I would be navigating the Arctic’s challenges blindly. I would have turned up at the race in the wrong gear – which would be a disaster.

They have helped me transform from a passive spectator into an active participant in the race against nature. And their guidance is shaping my journey from aspiration to reality.

Banner: Megan van Vegten

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