A Million Miles Away It Seemed From All of Eternity

Antarctic Ice Marathon

November 22, 2014

Dear reader, you have arrived at this page for one of two reasons: 1. you are a regular reader of my running blog, or 2. you have signed up for or are considering the Antarctic Ice Marathon, and doing your research.  Welcome!  Any questions you may have, no matter how trivial, plop them in the comments below and I will answer them!

The straightaway

Nine months, now, since I boarded the Ilushin-76 in Punta Arenas with my fellow runners, bound for the icy center of the Last Continent.  My how time flies when you’re procrastinating.  See, I’ve just found it so difficult to put into words, this experience that’s so outside the pale of my everyday life. The few days at Union Glacier Camp seem so much sharper, brighter, than what went before or after.  Writing about them using my usual, linear race report style just feels wrong.

Wasn’t it cold?  Well, yes; it was about 15 F/-9 C the day of the marathon, and that was the warmest day.  But that wasn’t my major overall impression of Antarctica.  I remember specific things, like adding a second thermal layer on the bottom after a checkout run, when my butt went numb after 5K.  Snow tracked into the sleeping tents never melted, and phones had to be kept inside your sleeping bag if you wanted it alive to wake you up in the morning.

What struck me most, and what stayed with me after, was the stillness.  The Absence not just of the background hum of electricity and traffic but of birds, dogs, insects, so far south that no life survives.  When the wind drops and the clouds lift, there’s just the rustle of your own clothing and the white plain stretching for miles to blue-etched mountains under an empty blue sky.  The sun circles high in the sky, never setting, and it all seems to take place in a timeless sliver totally disconnected from the world and its history.  Coming upon an aid station with hot drinks and biscuits in the middle of this nothingness was both surreal and absolutely fitting.

How was the course?  Was it tough?  I found it incredibly difficult.  Even though the course was groomed (and carefully checked for crevasses by the glacier camp staff), we’d had several days of blowing snow up until the day of the marathon, and so there were a few inches to maybe a foot of powder on top of the ice, which made it much like running in sand.  My calves and lats were protesting from the get-go.  Eventually the niggles built to where I just slowed it way down and made finishing without injury my goal.  It was my slowest marathon ever by a long shot, but when I neared the finish line, and all the happy drunk finishers came tumbling out into the cold from the party that had been rolling in the dining tent for hours just to cheer me in, it was the greatest feeling in the world!  It was after midnight and full daylight, and I polished off a bowl of seafood stew and hushpuppies and fell into my sleeping bag.

How long does it take to get to Antarctica?  Well, the private flight from PA to Union Glacier was about 5 hours.  As for my flights from Phoenix to PA –ugh, don’t ask.  It was fraught with unnecessary excitement, exacerbated by the merger of American and USAirways.

Did you see any penguins?  Yes, I did, just not in Antarctica – Union Glacier is too far south for any animal life!  Punta Arenas has several Magellanic penguin colonies and I made a trip out to the one at Seño Otway.  They are cute little boogers, especially when they’re making the cross-country waddle between the beach and their burrows.  I also took the tour out to the king penguin colony on Tierra del Fuego, although I don’t recommend doing this the day before a flight home as rough seas caused the local naval authority to suspend return ferry service for hours and we didn’t get back to our hotels till well after midnight.

A word now about the organizers.  The organization of this event is outstanding, from race director Richard Donovan and crew handling the logistics of getting two score runners there and back again with all the weather delays and other uncertainties involved in travel to the Far South, to the ANI staff at Union Glacier Station keeping you warm, fed, and above all safe, all the while doing a yeoman job of keeping the site pristine.

Oh, and a word about my fellow adventurers:  it takes a special breed of idiot to fly to the middle of Antarctica to run a marathon.  Most of them have far more inspirational stories than mine.  The camaraderie was great.

Finally, here’s a little video to give you a taste of my adventure.  Most of the photos are mine, but I slipped in a few by official race photog Mike King:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbpk1feuxYg

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