by Jim Whiting
Think south. Very south. About as far south as you can get.
Next February is the running of the Antarctica Marathon, also known as The Last Marathon by its organizers, Marathon Tours of Cambridge, MA. February is, of course, the height of summer in the Southern Hemisphere. And the temperature on King George Island, just off the tip of the Antarctic mainland (the actual site of the race), may rise to slightly above freezing on a warm day. Due to the staggering logistics of producing the event, it's previously been held biennially. But since the race's popularity has soared, the 2007 race is already sold out and there's a wait list for the '08 race.
Perhaps one reason for its popularity is that many hard-core marathoners, not satisfied with merely being members of the 50 States and D.C. Club, are now seeking an even more elite soubriquet: The Seven Continents Club.
While the other six continents have a fairly rich marathon menu, Antarctica becomes the choke point for joining the group. It's not just the only marathon held in Antarctica, it's the only sporting event held there, aside from the Three Times Around the World Run which is an informal event in which resident scientists and support personnel run three one-mile loops with the geographic South Pole at the epicenter.
My Antarctic adventure was in 1999 and just getting to the starting line is a marathon in itself. A score of Golden Staters joined other tour members in Miami, while a smaller contingent met in New York. The subsequent all-night flights crossed the equator and we groggily deplaned the following morning in Buenos Aires. There was a healthy turnout for a jet-delagging group run in a torrential rainstorm that quickly dumped several inches of rain on our hapless heads and totally saturated the city streets. After a long get-acquainted dinner, we arose at 3 a.m. for the flight to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. Once there, we would board the Akademik Ioffe, a chartered Russian research vessel, for the 500-mile crossing of the Drake Passage the following day. It's easy to tell that Ushuaia caters to tourists: $7 for a small chicken breast hammered flat and broiled; mashed spuds for another $5. Fortunately, there were plenty of rolls.
Knowing that once we boarded the ship there would be no chance to run until race day nearly a week later, the truly diligent took every opportunity to squeeze in some last-minute training runs. There was a pleasant downhill run from our hotel, situated at the foot of a glacier well over 1,000 feet above sea level. The serious runners made the long climb back under their own power. The slackers took advantage of shuttle bus service from the Ushuaia waterfront.
About half a dozen fanatics got up early the next morning to run in a downpour - heavy, sodden, solid and cold - before joining the rest of us for a tour of the nearby national park. Then we headed for the ship, which would be our home for the next 10 days, there being no hotels in Antarctica. On the dock, we met a woman who had just returned. "I've never been so scared in my life," she said, shuddering at the memory of the 20-30 foot seas she'd encountered. The most famous landmark of the Drake Passage, after all, is Cape Horn. Sailing ships often needed weeks to round it. "But it was worth it," she added.
We were much luckier. Apart from some rough weather shortly after midnight, we encountered nothing more than 6-8 foot swells, millpond smooth by Drake standards. "Drake Lake," sniffed several crew members.
And nothing prepared us for the staggering beauty of the Antarctic continent. "The scenery of Antarctica - deep turquoise blue crystalline waters, icebergs not unlike ice castles, jet-black volcanic beaches and white expanses that take you into your dreams. Tuxedo'd penguins everywhere, surreal shining silver leopard seals and majestic whales complete the solemnity," said Michelle Matisse of Los Angeles and 'veteran' of the race. "I've traveled much of Africa, Europe, Egypt, Greece, South America, Canada, the United States and more," she added. "Antarctica is the most memorable destination that I've experienced. It is how everywhere else was before man arrived. A place void of intrusions on one's being. No media, no salespeople, no freeway traffic. Only air that is invigorating. A place where you know the animals even sense the peace."
But this is a sporting magazine, after all, and while memories of the trip are forever etched on our minds, the thing that brought us all there was the marathon. "My fellow marathon travelers were all adventurers," Matisse noted. "Everyone had more than one tale to tell - hiking Kilamanjaro, trekking/running 150 miles in the Sahara, marathoning Mt. McKinley, or completing a marathon in all 50 of the United States within one year!"
We needed that adventure background, because we'd all heard about that 1997 Antarctica race. A blizzard blew up on race day and the occupants on one of the ships nearly didn't get ashore. Eventually, the conditions relented just enough, but there were in effect two races and nearly everyone ran in clothing more suited for summiting Everest than running a marathon.
Back to our adventure, prior to race day, we made one of our numerous shore excursions to visit an Argentine research station. On the way back to the ship, our Zodiac passed a tiny iceberg with a lone penguin perched forlornly halfway up one side. A predatory half-ton leopard seal swam restlessly back and forth at the base, sticking its head out of the water occasionally to glare in our direction.
This non-Disney nature situation seemed to offer an object lesson for the upcoming race. Antarctica is noted for the ease and speed with which weather conditions can deteriorate. Would runners be consumed by the course, in much the same manner as the hapless bird was doomed? We checked the ship's barometer the night before the race with the same feverish intensity as a NASDAQ day trader surfing the net.
It was with a sense of relief that we awoke to find that summer-like conditions prevailed. Summer, that is, in Antarctica, which meant that the sun was actually visible and the temperatures out of the wind were in the mid-30s.
Unfortunately, the course was almost entirely in the wind. It sometimes approached gale force and lowered the wind-chill factor to a bone-numbing single digit, forcing most runners to wear several layers of clothing. A notable exception was a Russian woman who ran the entire distance in t-shirt, shorts, and oven mitts. A guy from Arizona, taking summer at face value, hadn't packed long pants or gloves. Since I was the finish line photographer, I loaned him some of my running gear. Which is why my running pants can lay claim to having completed the event.
The course began on a beach strewn with rocks of up to fist-size, followed by a mile each way up and down the Collins Glacier - the signature portion of the course - then 10 miles along a dirt road that links Uruguayan, Russian, Chilean and Chinese research stations. The road was punctuated by streams, shoe-sucking mud and severe hills.
Some runners reported being dive-bombed by skuas, a seagull-sized predatory bird. And when you were finished, you were only halfway done. Back out and do the whole thing again. Clearly not a PR course. Matisse voiced the prevailing sentiment: "The marathon - crossing a glacier, dodging skuas, and no flats to speak of - was the most challenging of all the courses I've completed. My victory smile was well-earned."
Winning times of 3:45:19 for men and 4:31:25 for women and a median time of 5:36:08 lend credence to this judgment. However, the overall winner, Fred Zalokar of Reno, downplayed its difficulty. "I do 50Ks and trail runs all the time," he observed. "I've run much more rugged courses than this one," placing himself into a minority of one. "Though the up and down on the glacier was quite tough," he conceded, a much more mainstream observation.
"That was a long time to be running," Rosemary Fajen of Wilton in suburban Sacramento, California commented on the 6:39:20 she ran with her husband Dave, well beyond their personal bests (3:58 and 3:28). "For awhile, I thought I might stop at the halfway mark. But once I did the glacier again, I knew I would finish it."
Her husband also acknowledged the course's difficulty. "It was a spartan, no-frills marathon," he added. "But I definitely got my money's worth. The ship and the cruise were even better than I expected, and the food was as good as I would ever want to eat."
124 runners completed the marathon. Another 32 finished the accompanying half marathon, with many entrants in the latter coming from the four research bases. There were no DNFs; people who committed to the cost of the trip and the difficulty of getting there weren't about to give up partway through.
Timothy Ashbaugh of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania came "to observe the glaciers and prove to myself the world is round." Ashbaugh was not only running his first marathon but also his first race of any length. He finished in a creditable 5:10, putting him in the upper half of finishers.
The day after the marathon, we cruised down narrow channels between massive glaciers that came right to the water's edge, then enjoyed what is quite likely the most unique post-marathon party you'll find anywhere. We ate salad, pasta and barbecued meat while icebergs and basking seals drifted slowly past amid a profound silence disturbed only by the thunder as avalanches continually re-contoured the glaciers.
All too soon, the ship turned its bow northward for what turned out to be a relatively placid return across the Drake Passage. One of the highlights was the final meeting of the Stone Cold Penguin Club, co-founded enroute to the marathon when Steve Salvatori of Castaic, California, race director of the Santa Clarita Marathon, and several others wandered out onto the deck in t-shirts to acclimate themselves. "It was a way of having fun and thumbing our nose at the weather," he noted.
Now, on the return, more than 50 members cavorted in varying stages of undress in the freezing wind that swept across the Ioffe's foredeck.
Pulling his eyes away from the spectacle of all that goose-bumped flesh, the captain steered carefully toward the Pacific Ocean so that everyone aboard could lay claim to rounding Cape Horn as the ship returned to Ushuaia.
Runners disembarked with priceless memories of Antarctica as they boarded planes for the butt-numbing series of long flights back home.
Matisse spoke for virtually all of us. "If you have the inclination, I say realize this trip for yourself. It can only add to your life or change it forever."
For information about the Antarctica Marathon, please consult Marathon Tours & Travel.