A record thirty-seven competitors from nineteen countries lined up for the world’s southernmost marathon and ultramarathon races which took place on mainland Antarctica on 15th and 16th December, respectively.
This sixth edition of the Antarctic Ice Marathon & 100k changed from its traditional location at Patriot Hills to an area known as Union Glacier some 40 miles away. Operated at approximately 80 Degrees South latitude and only a few hundred miles from the South Pole, the events are the only official marathon and ultramarathon races within the Antarctic Circle. The 42.2km (26.2 mile) marathon is an Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS) member while the 100km (62.1 miles) is an International Association of Ultra Runners (IAU) labelled event.
Unsurprisingly, simply getting the competitors to the start line is always a unique logistical challenge for the organisers. The athletes are flown from the southern tip of Chile on a specialist IL-76 cargo plane to land on a blue ice runway on the frozen continent. They are required to stay in tented accommodation on a multi-day expedition-style trip.
This year’s marathon was originally due to take place on 12th December but unfavourable flight conditions delayed the Antarctic-bound flight until 13th December. On arrival at Union Glacier, the runners were greeted by absolutely stunning scenery and the constant daylight that prevails at this time of year, the Antarctic ‘summer’ season.
Course preparations for the Antarctic Ice Marathon are quite unique compared to a conventional road marathon. Although there may be no need for road closures in this area of the planet, crevasse-checking is a very important element to ensure runners’ safety. With this in mind, a spectacular course was prepared by advance logistics, which featured a 25km loop followed by a 17.2 km circuit on a generally flat course surrounded by mountains and hills.
After a couple of days’ acclimatisation by competitors, the marathon race began at 14:00 GMT on 15th December. Overcast conditions soon made way for clear blue skies and an exciting competition ensued in the sub-zero temperatures.
Steve Hibbs (USA), who holds a 2:31 marathon PB in ‘normal’ conditions, stormed into an early lead over the initial 15km. But he began to suffer in the Antarctic environment and eventually relinquished his lead to Belgium’s Marc de Keyser, the 2007 Antarctic Ice Marathon winner. However, in the final quarter a surprise was in store when 33-year-old Bernardo Fonseca of Brazil ran a perfectly judged race to overtake de Keyser, who began to cramp in the soft underfoot snow conditions. Fonseca’s time of 4:20:31 established a new record for the race. De Keyser finished second in 4:24:24 with Hibbs third in 4:46:15.
In the women’s competition, 24-year-old Clare Apps from Great Britain had a convincing win over Denmark’s Cathrine Due, the 2008 North Pole Marathon champion, and she set a new record of 4:47:37 in the process. Sarah Oliphant (USA) finished strongly in third place.
There were many achievements throughout the race field, including several competitors who succeeded in running a marathon on all seven continents by completing the event.
The marathon was followed by the world’s southernmost ultramarathon when six competitors braved it to the start of the Antarctic 100km on 16th December. Temperatures would dip to -18C as the athletes traversed a 25km loop four times.
Once again, Fonseca would prevail.
Although Fonseca (BRA) ran alongside Tommy Yen-Po Chen (TPE) and Alain d’Andria (FRA) over the first 15km, he soon stretched away from them. Yen Po-Chen, a 2.25 marathoner, and d’Andria, the 2006 Antarctic Ice Marathon winner, could not keep pace as the Brazilian went on to take a notable double. His time of 12:41:52 also established a new record for the 100km race. Chen finished second in a time of 15:15:58 with d’Andria coming third in 16:12:53.
Clare Apps (GBR), the previous day's marathon winner, was the sole female participant and reached the finish line in a time of 18:58:19.
Next year’s Antarctic Ice Marathon & 100k races are scheduled for the slightly earlier dates of 30th November and 2nd December, respectively. Race Director, Richard Donovan, plans to introduce the first ever Antarctic Triathlon and Antarctic Duathlon events on the same trip, involving the disciplines of running, mountain biking and cross-country skiing.