Before I start, I want to make clear which race I’m running. There are three races on King George Island within the month:
- The Last Marathon (Antarctica Marathon) by Marathon Tours. This is the original.
- White Continent Marathon by Marathon Adventures
- Maraton Antarctica by Olimpo Producciones
- The Antarctica Ice Marathon by Polar Running Adventures
I did the Last Marathon in 2010, and I’m doing the White Continent Marathon this year. It’s mostly the same ground. The Ice Marathon goes down to 80°S and is actually on the continent proper. At breakfast one day this week, I talked to Brent Weigner, the only other early riser and a retired geography teacher, about what a “continent” really is. He’s one of the few people to have run all seven by the strictest definition, unlike me with on an Antarctic island or counting Rapa Nui as South Africa. I’m not brave or rich enough to do the Ice Marathon yet. There’s a limit to the number of people any event can put ashore, so there’s been a long waiting list, me included, to do the original.
A couple of hours after the end of the Punta Arenas Marathon, we found out that we would leave for Antarctica at 1:30am, about 12 hours later, for a 3am flight to King George Island.
We were supposed to fly on Monday, but the island was covered in fog. Tuesday was no better, so we ran the Punta Arena race early and were on alert to fly at a moments notice if conditions were good in Antarctica.
Now we had a small window. After a two hour flight, we should arrive at 5am and have six hours on the ground. That’s the plan if everything goes well, the planets align, the gods smile, and the right butterfly in the Amazon flaps her wings just right. Windows can close faster than they open.
If you want to run in Antarctica, you have to be ready for disappointment. If you want the sure thing, run your local race (and that’s not even a sure thing, as the New York Marathon found out last year). In 2007, the Antarctica Marathon (“the Last Marathon”) run by Marathon Tours, which takes a ship across the Drake Passage, couldn’t land their zodiacs due to sea conditions so they ran 400 something laps on the ship. The Maraton Antarctica, run the day after this one, only had one finisher because the pilot made everyone get back on the plane after four hours. This year’s Antarctica Marathon was rescheduled after it’s charter ship struck an iceberg and wouldn’t be available for the trip. When I ran the Last Marathon in 2010, the weather was passable but awful.
When things go wrong in the Southern Ocean, people die. The operators there don’t mess around when it comes to safety margins. I don’t want to discourage you from any marathon in Antarctica, but you have to be ready to to spend a lot of money to possibly never set foot on the course. Get trip insurance and consider how much of your vacation time and money you might want to commit to something this risky.
Our own window was six hours. That’s from the wheels touching the runway to the wheels leaving the runway. That’s a tight schedule. Really good runners can run the King George Island course in four hours, but the rule of thumb is one and a half times your regular, non-adventure marathon time. That puts me between five and six hours. Now, further complicate that having finished a marathon about 20 hours ago, getting very little sleep, and flying. There’s a reason the race organizer is “Marathon Adventures”.
Aerovias DAP flies charters to Antarctica, and it’s the easiest flight I’ve had since 9/11, and maybe even ever. Chile considers a flight from Punta Arenas to the Chilean base at King George Island to be a domestic flight. Antarctica is not really a country, and no one is supposed to really claim ownership of it, but it reality, Chile and Argentina have strong interests for that section of the ocean and land.
DAP flies to the Chilean base on King George Island
My boarding pass
Bib handout was right before boarding. I got the same number as the previous day. There was no zone boarding, no assigned seats, no TSA. When the crew was ready, we walk out the doors and up to the plane that said “Antarctic Airways”.
Bib handout at the gate
Leaving on a jet plane
Most people were wiped out from the that day’s marathon or from the early start. I’m one of the few people who showed up wearing street clothes. I’d change on the plane when we got close so I didn’t have to wear my compression tights longer than I needed to. I figured the whole kit would be too warm for the plane.
Ziyad Rahim is upbeat for his second marathon for his Grand Slam record attempt.
Some people try to sleep
To great applause, the plane touched down on the packed dirt runway under clear skies and what looked like a good day. Some people were happy for the good weather, but I was thinking that we’re lucky right now, but that could change quickly. It’s not a sure thing until we finish the marathon.
We were ready to run the moment we stepped off the plane. Everyone knew that time was tight so every minute might count. We landed a bit later than anticipated. With a bit of a walk from the plane parking area, we were falling behind. The weather doesn’t care about any of this. It was going to get bad on its own schedule.
On the ground in Antarctica
The southern coast of King George Island
Walking toward the hangar on our way to the start, we pass the Chilean welcome sign and a signpost showing just how far away we are from civilization.
A long way from anywhere
Welcome to Antarctica
The start area was spartan and had been set up by the local crew. There was a warm-up tent where we could store gear and a couple of latrine tents that were literally just a five gallon bucket. This is a self-supported marathon. You should have brought your own toilet paper.
When everyone had made it from the plane, the organizers pointed to a spot on the ground, told everyone to stand behind it, then started the marathon. The turn around point was about 3.5km away and we were running behind the truck taking that crew out there. We were on the course as it was being set up in front of us.
The first part of the course is easy. We were on the high ground at the end of the runway, going east toward the Great Wall (Chinese) base. This portion of the course is mostly packed dirt. The sun was just coming up so it was still at or below freezing. The ground was solid so far. As it got warmer and seventy runners trampled it over six laps, it was going to get messy.
Many of the runners stopped halfway to the turn around to take a picture of the sunrise. The sun was coloring the broken clouds, and there was a mostly full moon still in the sky. Ideal conditions. So far.
We ran through the Chilean base a bit down the hill, and ran toward the Chinese base. There the road turned into loose gravel. Any low points were covered to stabilize the road. We would have to run through all of that.
The Chilean base
The Chinese (Great Wall) base
The landscapes are amazing. I’d like to see this route in Runner’s World “Rave Runs”. I wasn’t taking too many pictures. I’d do that on my last lap. That was my plan.
I was feeling okay for my first and second lap. I was certainly tired, but I wasn’t sore. I was taking it easy while still maintaining the pace I needed to finish on time. Somewhere in the middle of my run on the way back to the Chilean side I came across a bird and a penguin having a showdown. Neither wanted to move but they didn’t want the other one there.
For most of the marathon, I put my head down and kept moving forward. Yesterday had been so friendly with everyone chatting and encouraging each other. Today, people weren’t surly, but they were certainly tired. We waved and maybe said one of two words, but people were keeping to themselves. We’d give a thumbs up or a wave, but I think everyone understood each other’s mental condition.
No matter how much I thought I was suffering (and it really is how much I think), there’s always someone suffering more. One of the runners was attempting a first in history: a barefoot marathon in Antarctica. He had some actual suffering going on as the rocks tore up his feet. You could find him by following the blood.
Eddie trying to be the first person to run a barefoot marathon in Antarctica
Toward the Chinese base
When the sun was fully up, the landscape became more striking. I didn’t take time to enjoy it. My plan was to get five of six laps out of the way then enjoy the scenery on the last lap. I figured that I’d use up most of the time, but if I made it to that last lap, I was pretty sure I’d have it made. That was my plan, anyway.
I was getting a little better each lap, I think, although I’m not really sure. Each lap seemed like it was taking less time, but I also think my perception of time was different. It’s always that way with laps, though. The first one seemingly takes forever because everything is new, while each successive lap presents nothing new. On lap four it seemed I turned around at the airstrip and looked up at the Chinese base.
I was walking the big hills by plan. I didn’t want to waste my energy, but more importantly I didn’t think I’d lose that much time. On my way up the big hill for the penultimate time I was feeling okay and anxious to be done. I was cooked, but at the turn around I’d have 7k to go. I’d already run 78km in about a day, so another 7k wasn’t that big a deal.
A big, muddy hill
As I got to the top of the hill, the finish line banner that had been there on the previous laps was already gone. I realized that no one had come back the other way for ten minutes. The race director was stopping runners at the top.
The pilot wanted to leave. The weather had been getting worse during the past hour. We had landed later than anticipated, started a little late instead of running directly off the plane, and there wasn’t enough of a margin to let us start another whole lap even though we could complete most of it. The race was over, at least for the Antarctica portion. Some people tried to stretch out their distance by running in circles and letting their GPS keep track of it. I ran with them for a bit just to keep warm.
I got back on the plane, which was the worst part of the day. As I cooled down, I was wet and cold. I changed back into my street clothes. I had no idea how this was going to play out. I’d run over 21 miles and I’d done it a bit faster than I thought I would. I was far ahead of my time from my previous marathon here. The logistics just weren’t working out and I, along with others, got caught up by a shortened time limit.
Although I didn’t like the situation, I think the air crew and organizers made the right decision. This is what Antarctic travel is. When we checked the weather web cams later, we saw that indeed the base was covered in fog just an hour after we left.
This left it to the organizers to come up with Plan B. I don’t know what the standards are there. How do you treat an event that is shortened due to weather, or where people were making proper progress but the event is cut short for safety? I have no idea what people think about that and people can make their own judgement. The organizers decided to let people finish their distance in Punta Arenas. When we got back to the hotel, we’d have 30 minutes to make it to the start line to run our last laps.
I would have rather finished the distance on the Antarctica course, and maybe I could have done that if I’d spent a bit more energy out there, but that’s not what happened. Shoulda woulda coulda. I feel good about my run. In my mind, it counts, but perhaps with an asterisk. It’s a better story though, and that’s what adventure is all about.
My second go around on the Seven Continents
Besides my medal as an official(*) finisher, I got an Antarctic penguin stamp in my passport.
So, there it is, my second(*) circuit of the Seven Continents. Now it’s time to get to work on that third circuit. I’m no closer to being the person having done it the most since Brent Weigner ran this race to finish his eighth circuit.
For an inaugural event on one of the most remote and inhospital environments, everything worked out beyond my expectations. We actually made it to the White Continent, and there was great weather for a couple of hours. I got to see a penguin. I didn’t die. I ran my first double, even if I did have a big break at the end.
But, I also don’t see the event going off any better than we had it. The day after our race, Olimpo.cl tried the same thing but had to leave after four hours and with only one finisher. I want to run more marathons here, but I think the best bet is still to show up on a ship. At least there you can show up the day before and stay that night. You also get to see a lot more of the continent. I’m still on the waitlist for the next Antarctica Marathon, and you should sign up soon if you want to run it within the next decade.