RUNNER'S WORLD, APRIL 2006 EDITION (REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION)
The racingís tough but thatís about the only hardship at the Antarctic Marathon
By Steven Seaton
ďIím going outside and I may be some timeĒ
I never thought Iíd have the chance to deliver Titus Oatesí ironic last line from inside a tent in the midst of the Antarctic wilderness, but here I am 600 miles from the South Pole overheating in a head-to-toe layer of Gore-Tex and my Falke thermal underwear. The inaugural Ice Marathon is just ten minutes away and thereís little doubt that it will take me some time.
Outside, the wind is dying down, or at least as much as it ever does in this part of the world, but itís still picking up snow and ice and throwing it against the side of the tent. The noise of the repeated collisions echoes around inside as I fiddle with two hats and a scarf trying to ensure none of my skin is exposed to the elements. Thereís bright sunshine streaming through the double-layered tent, but the air temperature is still Ė10C and itíll feel much colder with the wind chill. The thought of what awaits makes my still-warm sleeping bag, lying close by on top of two single mattresses, look very attractive.
Oates would not have been impressed. His famous final words were in fact a verbal suicide note. After walking for weeks starving and suffering with severe frostbite, his decision to step outside was a selfless but ultimately futile attempt to save the remaining three members of Robert Scottís ill-fated 1912 south Pole expedition.
Although my family thinks Iím away trying something equally heroic, Iím not sure theyíd be quite as impressed with the reality. My group flew to Patriot Hills, and its expedition base at the foot of the Ellsworth mountains, on a huge Russian transport plane. Our arrival just after midnight was greeted with a fine cooked meal and another this morning before the race. In between, I managed a comfortable night in my family-sized two-person tent that even has sheets and a fluffy pillow on top of the mattress. In fact the toughest thing Iíve had to do so far is walking a kilometre from the blue ice runway to the semi-permanent structures of the camp. Somebody else carried my bag though.
Even my marathon worries seem pathetically mundane. Will my goggles steam up the moment I step outside into the cold? Is it a problem that I canít feel my feet inside three layers of woollen socks? And how am I going to use my ďpee bottleĒ using this much clothing?
That lavatory question, particularly vexing in any marathon, is doubly problematic out here. With a 3,000 metre ice cap covering the land, which incidentally means the whole continent sits at altitude, and a strict no-pollution policy, all human waste has to be collected in bags and barrels before being shipped back to Chile. Thatís fine when the collection point is one of the campís designated lavatory tents but more troubling when you have to carry it in your jacket pocket and then run with it for 20-odd miles. And Iím not even going to think about the potential dangers of exposing myself in these conditions.
Itís all another reminder that the obvious problems of running in Antarctica, such as the cold and the wind, might not be as big a deal as the less obvious ones such as the dryness of the air or the altitude. In fact the biggest challenge in the whole event might simply be making it to the start line in the first place.
Most Arduous Race Journey is one of many labels the race could claim for itself. Although itís not the only marathon in Antarctica Ė thereís another long-standing event which is a cruise from southern Argentina and puts its runners ashore to run the race on one of the south Shetland islands off the coast of the Antarctic mainland Ė itís definitely the worldís most southerly marathon, possibly its windiest and most expensive and as only nine of us are due to run, it could pitch itself as the worldís smallest too.
As I finally emerge from my tent into glorious 24-hour-a-day sunshine I can see the other runners milling around in a group under the start banner. Wrapped up against the elements itís hard to tell one person from another, although itís easy to pick out whoís planning to run and who isnít.
Ironically, overheating is more of an issue when running in freezing temperatures than being too cold, so most of us are dressed in only two thin layers, one to insulate the body and one to keep the wind off. The camp staff, who have turned out to witness the marathon, are all in the more usual Antarctic attire of bulky down jackets, thick trousers and heavy boots. They see plenty of ďstrangeĒ people passing through the camp but still seem to regard this escapade as eccentric, although I sense they look on with more amusement than admiration.
The signal to start is a welcome one. Sub-zero air temperatures are comfortable to run in but numbingly cold when youíre just standing around. Our route stretches out ahead as far as the eye can see, a clear path carved out through the little wind blown ice and snow ridges that cover the entire terrain.
The event is organised by Adventure Network International (ANI), the company that runs the Patriot Hills camp, and Richard Donovan, an experienced polar runner who is acting as its race director. Most of ANIís clients are either climbers trying to tick off the nearby Vinson Massif, Antarcticaís highest peak, off their sporting CV, private expeditions who need logistical support or a few rich tourists looking to ďbag the PoleĒ. It sees the race as a means of filling more seats on its plane although thereís a commitment to make it as authentic a marathon as the conditions allow.
To that end, camp staff spent days before our arrival scouting, measuring and marking out a course, which is effectively one big figure of eight with loops around the mountains on one side of the camp and out onto the plateau on the other. The course has been groomed repeatedly with snowmobiles to make a firmer, flatter surface to run on, marked with distinctive pink flags, and has big bamboo poles in lieu of mile markers. Manned aid stations with warm drinks, food and emergency shelter are sited every five or six miles, snowmobiles will drive up and down the course for safety and thereís even a doctor on standby ready to deal with any emergency. Itís an organisational effort that would flatter a race 20 times the size.
And itís all very welcome. As the field quickly strings out the reality of running here becomes apparent. Itís hard to gauge your effort in such an alien environment so itís good to know as I pas the first bamboo pole in nine minutes that Iím going faster than I want to. The early section of the course is flat and relatively fast and Iím tucked in behind the big pre-race favourite, a Russian ultra runner who has a couple of international victories on his running CV. Iím not sure what Iím doing there because I havenít.
Weíre a diverse group from a range of backgrounds: a Blackpool-based GP who hasnít run a marathon for years; an insurance salesman from San Diego making his first running trip outside the USA; and the director of a security firm from Galway who ran his last marathon at the North Pole, to name but three. In fact the only common link between us is the race itself for which the only real qualification is the ability to pay the $15,000 fee ANI charges for the out-and-back trip from Chile.
Of course thatís a frightening sum of money but in the expensive business of Antarctic travel itís considered reasonable. ANI charges Mount Vinson climbers $28,000 (£16,000) and if you want to continue on to the South Pole youíll need closer to $33,500 (£19,000).
It isnít the thought of money but a watch that crosses my mind as I try to stick with the early pace. Other than the bragging rights, the winner also takes home a £3,400 kobold watch. As the pace quickens from flat to gentle incline, I decide that I can do without a new watch.
When the sun is shining out of a perfect blue sky and thereís a light wind on your back itís easy to forget the potential dangers of this place and push too hard. The weather can change quickly; a rise in the wind speed would bring a drop in the wind chill making frost damage and even hypothermia constant concerns. Even with all the support on the course you still have to look after yourself. Thatís my excuse anyway. Itís nothing to do with my ability to run quickly.
Iím already feeling the effort of running in these conditions. The grooming of the course has helped to make an even running surface but the top layer of snow is soft and slips away under any pressure, particularly on the first climb. Itís like running on sand. The grip on the trail shoes everyone is wearing offers no purchase on the soft snow. It is demoralising stuff, sapping your leg strength as every foot forward is accompanied by half a step back.
By now the Russian leader is starting to disappear over the top of the climb and for a time Iím on my own.
Glancing ahead from the top of the slope the horizon stretches out as if youíre looking at it through a wide-angled lens. Framed within the white landscape the sky and mountains seem on an equally grand scale. If you ever doubt your own insignificance in the face of nature, this place will clear your mind of the thought.
It feels like I should be on my own but Iím glad of the company as one of the Irish runners catches me on the slope. We run together and try to chat, but itís hard to speak properly through a face mask and with the wind whistling through the air itís hard to hear anything anyway.
After cresting the hill, tossing down a warm drink at the first aid station and sucking on half a bar of frozen chocolate, weíre on to a gentle downhill section behind the mountain.
In the crisp, clean air you can literally see for miles. The black silhouette of the leader is still clearly visible out in front and in the distance behind us we can see the next two runners moving over the terrain like tiny ants. After the long down thereís another climb back on the other side of the mountain which brings the campís tented village into view even though itís still four or five miles away. Beside it the blue ice runway shines out of the snow like a mile-long rectangular mirror dropped on to the snow.
Iím now running on my own again and the pace is down to ten-minute miling. Iím inclined to give chase to the pair ahead but it would be criminal to run here without taking in the surroundings, or am I just too slow? I can feel the sun beating down through my hat but I know that will change when I pass through the camp and head off into the open windier section of the course. By now Iíve had enough and the joy of the experience is fraying at the edges. My triple layer of socks is killing my feet and will eventually cost me seven toe nails; my hands are constantly vacillating between too hot and freezing cold and the soft ground is draining the strength from my quads. Out on the open plain, the little pink flags are the only spot of colour against the white landscape.
At 20 miles the final aid station before the finish comes into view and itís the most bizarre of those on the course. Itís at the point where a DC6 crashed in 1993, although now all thatís visible is s ingle wing that sticks up menacingly out of the snow. I take my last warm drink, try to eat a gel that has partially frozen in my pocket and head for home into the wind.
The last six miles of a marathon or always a challenge but this is a nightmare. By the standards of the Antarcticís ferocious katabatic winds, which have been known to gust at over 200 miles an hour, todayís is but a light breeze, but itís still strong enough to check your forward movement and force you to run with your head down out of the wind.
Itís a slow trudge to the finish line just outside the camp, which doesnít come into view until you crest a little rise half a mile before the end. Iím miles behind the winner who finishes in 5.09.38, but only a few minutes ahead of the fourth placed finisher. The rest of the field follows over the next hour or so.
Oates was right, I was out there for some time. My 5.39.35 is a person worst by some way. Iím not troubled at all. The joy of this event is not how fast you run it, but simply that you run it at all.
So you want to run the Ice MarathonÖ
The next event will take place in December 2006; the entry fee is $15,000 (£8,500), which includes all flights to and from Antarctica from Punta Arenas in Chile in addition to accommodation, food and all logistical support in Antarctica itself. For further details see www.icemarathon.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ilyushin of Grandeur