The marathon in Antarctica is the hardest physical feat I have entertained. Catalina Island Marathon had over 4000 elevation gain and shoe sucking mud. Midnight Sun Marathon in Alaska had miles of trails, gravel, and a moose that charged us. Paris Marathon was wall to wall people on miles of cobble stone. The Hepthalon and 400 hurdles at the World Championships was pure performance pressure in front of a full stand of people. But Antarctic was…. well, freezing.
We had been rolling, swaying on the open ocean for days and now a new storm was stirring up the bay we were to make our LANDING for the marathon. The temperatures had been dropping ever since we entered the convergent waters circulating Antarctica. Just getting the zodiacs with the quad runners ashore to set up the course proved heroic. High seas, wind, and snow delayed them by half a day. We circled in the choppy bay for hours and finally the One Ocean crew and Marathon Tours brazenly forged a landing despite the chilly spray that slammed into their heavily loaded zodiacs. They knew the marathoners were here to run the race no matter what. We had all fought just to get here, years in the planning, a month in the delay. They HAD to have a marathon. That was fact.
The course could only be what Antarctica is…terrain. A terrain that cemented into whatever mud groove formed during a much warmer month. Thom, the Marathon Tours director said the course was hilly. I asked him to describe hilly. He looked me in the eye and said .”HILLY!”. I should have trained running ravines, gullies, maybe abysses… hopping over ponds on ice skates and thrown in running miles atop of metal grates. The caterpillar treaded vehicles they used to get around from the science stations left the dirt road rutted in exact width to twist ankles. It required precision strides on top of the ridges. 26.2 miles of this tip toeing, tight tapping foot work while slipping and sliding down hills turned this into a marathon that would require being out longer than normal. Typical marathon times of 2 hrs and 30 minutes up to 4 hrs and 30 minutes became 3 hr and 50 minute lead finishes to 6 hours and 30 minutes. Humbling.
We slid up hills and down hills and cracked through ice. Many fell including the lead runners. Knees, elbows, and chins were bloody. The course was a figure of eight of three loops to keep us crossing a check point. It allowed us to continue the camaraderie that had developed on the ship. We could hooray each other coming and going.
And yet, we were alone on this vast land for much of the mileage. I had a lone runner ahead of me possessed to run it in a penguin suit. We were reduced to a waddle just trying to tip toe the terrain, deal with the ever dropping temperatures, and keep that one stride going in front of another. Being there later than normal, this would be the coldest marathon yet. The two lead runners were rushed to the Russian station minutes after their finish, both in full stages of Hypothermia. Our oldest competitor, at 78 years, wisely knew to come in after only the first lap. This would not be the year to be the oldest finisher on this unrelenting continent. It was so cold we watched a lake freeze before our eyes.
Antarctica is incomprehensible beauty with life sapping consequences. Winter, a 14-year-old prodigy, who traveled here to be the youngest finisher ran with purpose. With the balanced backing of her mother, she started competing for prostate cancer research after losing her dad who did not live to his 41st birthday, leaving behind a wife and four athletic, energetic children. Whether the weather bothered this young girl, she did not show it.
For me, I never got comfortable. Go figure. I had lived the winter out in Jackson, Wyoming to test out and determine effective clothing layers and pit my body against the elements. I had set my alarm at 5am many a day and ran right out into storms. But today. I was actually dizzy. The ground seemed to be rolling like the ship, coming up to greet my knees and stomach. I was LAND SICK. And that rolling did not dissipate. Having been redirected to California and Maui prior to the event, my limbs were confused now as I forced them to function in the cold.
I fumbled with the gear I so tediously bought. The Gortex jacket was too concealing. By the third mile I was drenched in dangerous sweat. My craft windstopper leggings that had been so perfect for skate skiing, were tugging at my knees and pulling my wool core layer down every stride I took. The borrowed ‘flat thing that plays music” that my daughter laughingly reminded is called a nano ipod was stuck on one song. There must be a mode that allows you to repeat a tune over and over again, say for an aerobics routine. But hours of the same Black Eye Peas song?! I pulled the ear plugs out. My double layered gloves were too hot layered and too cold with only the first layer. They went on again, off again, and I continually dropped one and had to turn back and pick up a lost mitten. It was even more time-consuming to try to use the camera. It required removing the gloves, begging a fellow runner to take a quick snap ,than trying to zip it back into a pocket with gloves in the teeth. I inadvertently unzipped the vent to the Gortex jacket thinking it was a pocket, stuffed the portable snap shot camera in, and lost it somewhere on that frozen, grooved road. Every frustrated focus on the pants, jacket, gloves, ipod, and camera put me behind the pace pack and forced me to surge like a tortoise and the hare race. I devised a plan to make up the distance on the down hills. Here, I have to say, is where the training in Jackson came to reward me. I could run terrain. Hard, frozen, uneven ground. Pick, pop, step, jump, twist, turn, run and not fall down. This was not any different that say running Cache Creek or the Elk’s refuge. I was deftly confident of footing on this icy surface. Hooray. But the downhill gain wasn’t equating to the mounting minutes dealing with my gear.
In sheer agitation, I stripped off all the layers at the check station only 8 miles into the marathon. Now I was running in my wool base layer! Go figure. Working the fall at Skinny Skis in Jackson so I could get the techy gear and I was running in my underwear. I at least had on my favorite Patagonia pull over with its hoody and whisking ability, but was now all dressed in black. I grabbed a funky Saucony hunter orange beanie out of my gear back and declared my very funky fashion statement.