RR: The Antarctica Marathon
“When you see someone putting on his running shoes, you can be pretty sure that an adventure is about to happen.” ~Winnie the Pooh
I awaken to Rupert, our German expedition leader, over the intercom: “Good morning. Today is race day. The temperature is currently zero degrees. Breakfast will be served in a half an hour.” My first groggy thought is zero is mighty cold. I then convert Celsius to Fahrenheit and realize that all the times I said Antarctica would be warmer than Pittsburgh, I was right. We take zodiacs, small boats, to the race and are greeted by our race ambassador, a crabeater seal.
We walk up a short hill to the starting line/staging area where we are handed giant red trash bags which will serve as secondary containment for our belongings. We must place all of our possessions, including our muck boots and bright red wetskins, inside these bags. As we wait for the race to start, people chatter with the friends they have made the last week, take pictures, and use the “porta potty” a box which is placed inside a tent.
Right as bright, beautiful sunshine lit up the bay around King George Island, the race starts. I plan to run with Sarah, my travel companion, and Tim, a new friend about to finish his seventh continent. However, as we climb the second of two steep hills in the first half mile, I decided that for the rest of the race I’d walk uphills to conserve energy and Sarah and Tim ran ahead toward the Argentine research station. The trail was packed dirt that had frequent steep hills with flats that were either mud fields or glacial streams. The terrain was breathtaking as the sun shone down on glaciers, 30,000 year old moss, hills, valleys and lakes. I began to smile ear to ear, a huge stupid grin about which many of the runners would comment, because it was such an incredible opportunity to run this marathon and such a beautiful day to run it.
Two miles into the run I approached the Argentine base and I saw the other start line. Yes, you read that correctly: the other start line. Due to restrictions that only allowed 100 people per landing, our boat, the Ioffe, had a start line at the Russian and Chilean bases and the other boat, the Vavilov, had a start at the Argentine base. The Argentine start was set up much like ours- boxes in tents, an array of red bags, and it also served as a water bottle drop station. In order to hydrate we had to carry water from our start towards the Argentine base where we would drop it, and on second trip on the figure eight course, return it to our base camp. There were very few spectators, but as I run I see Kelly, a Pittsburgher, and wife of a Vavlovian runner. She cheers for me by name and it feels so great to have support. As I begin to head towards Collins Glacier the lead Vavlovians have already turned around and are heading towards the Ioffe start. It was so cool to see the leaders of the race the first of several times on the course. As I approach the glacier, the terrain shifts from “just” mud to rocks and quicksand mud. The mud was so thick it would literally suck the shoes off of your feet- one runner lost her shoe five times! At the base of the glacier I look up to see Mark, a Brit dressed as Superman, fall and Sarah and Tim holding onto each other as they try not to lose their footing on the descent. I carefully climb the glacier, slipping a few times, but not falling, and put my Yak Trax on at the top.
At this point we turn around and run back to the start where I pick up a water bottle to carry and drop on the other arm of the course. I depart, heading West towards the Chinese research station. There is a hill leading up to a hairpin turn and I see Kelly’s husband, Chris, coming towards me and on the other side of the course I see Sarah and Tim. The camaraderie on the course is incredible. Everyone is cheering for each other… and when you pass people at least four times over the course of the race, that is a lot of support from other runners. The abundant sunshine is starting to fade and I can feel the wind starting to pick up but I catch a nice long downhill and am greeted by a Chinese scientist saying “Welcome to China.” A short while later I see Sarah and Tim and Sarah frantically yells “The Chinese have beer!” When I arrive at the Chinese station they are kind hosts to the West Side Bottle Drop and also have their own aid station complete with water, Coke and beer. Welcome to China, indeed! I head back to our start and cross the half at 2:30, which means I have 4 ½ hours to beat the 7 hour cutoff. This is the point where I really start to relax and have fun.
As I head back towards the Argentine station the mud starts sucking my morale. I’m thrilled to be alive and I can’t believe I’m running a marathon in Antarctica, but really, the mud is exhausting and I swear the streams are getting larger (other runners later collaborated that this was, in fact, the case and I wasn’t just hallucinating). The sun has gone away and the wind is steady. Runners are more spread out than before and I keep myself entertained by cheering for other people. Past the Agentine station, Kelly returns the cheering karma, and then it’s back to the glacier. Runners start yelling at me that there’s a penguin ahead. I run ahead to see a cute little chinstrap penguin (one of only two I’d see on the trip) hopping along. He is so funny that me and Natasha, who is about 50 yards ahead of me, just stop to point and laugh and love the moment. The glacier is much less slippery this time around and at the bottom I mean the nicest couple, Bruce and Saw Lan, who are completing their seventh continent. We chat and share granola bars and I walked with them about a mile just because I enjoyed their company. I considered walking the rest of the race with them, but decided to forge ahead.
Then I had a penguin encounter.
Running all alone I am thrilled to see the little chinstrap penguin again as he waddles along the trail and up a hill. I approach him and realize that in order to give him the recommended 15 feet of space I would need to step on 30,000 year old moss. No can do. Which environmentally insensitive thing do I do? Penguin? Moss? Penguin? Moss? Penguin. I know that they get stressed if you approach them, but no one told me what happened when they get stressed. I approach him very slowly as he stares at me. I stare at him. I creep past, dreading that I will go down in history as the marathoner attacked by a penguin, but successfully pass my tiny tuxedoed competition, and run ahead.
The next few miles are the toughest of the course. The wind picked up to a fierce 40 mph and there are no runners in sight. I pull off at the start to grab some water where I see Matt, who has already finished, and Tim, who I think has finished. Instead, Tim is also taking a pit stop and has the last Chinese loop like I do. I pair up with the man who was originally supposed to be my marathon buddy and we head out for the final five miles. As we’re heading out, we see our friends starting to finish. The last five miles are filled with chatter, encouragement, and running where our bodies and the course allow. Tim is soaking up life, and what a pleasure to see it, as he drinks beer with the Chinese, takes pictures, and makes new friends. The final five are some of my favorite, and as I come upon the finish line I realize that I really did this. I ran a marathon in Antarctica.
It was a terribly anticlimactic finish. There was a tiny sign indicating the finish line and a staff member holding a stopwatch. There were no spectators to cheer, no finish line clock and Chris served as the finish line photographer. The medals were too heavy to bring from Boston so we didn’t get one at the end. But none of that mattered because I had done something incredible. My time was 6:04, but that is completely meaningless to me. I was seeded 111th but came in 105th which is also nice, but unimportant. For me, the marathon wasn’t about the race, it was about the experience. And it was the experience of a lifetime.
Pictures can be found here.