Can an adventure race go any more smoothly? Being one of the old hands at this Antarctica thing, I was cautioning people to not get too wrapped up in forecasts and plans. Last year, the White Continent marathon was a roller coaster of going/not-going where the actual event was cut short by weather. Several people came back to get it right this time.
I got into Punta Arenas at about 10am, had breakfast with Brent Wiegner and other people I knew from last year. Steve Hibbs comes up to us and says we’re leaving for the airport at 11pm to fly to Antarctica at 1am. Last year we started much later which gave us less time before the bad afternoon weather rolls in. This year, we’ll start well before dawn, and since it’s summer down here and we are so far south, it’s still decently lit pre-dawn so you can see where you are going.
The earlier start means we have more time to run. The race organizer added a 50k race, I think mostly to keep the really quick people busy while the hoi polloi (like me) took a long time time to finish. The pilot said he wanted to leave at 11am (and when the pilot says he wants to leave, that means he and his plane are leaving). With a bit over seven hours to run, I think I could complete a 50k if I applied myself. Remember, this is a tough course, and the conventional wisdom is that your Antarctica marathon time is 1.5 times your regular road marathon time. I’m already a slow runner compared to many (but not all) people here.
We have number pickup at the pasta dinner in the hotel. At the same time, the race crew collects passports, both for the airline charter and to get Antarctica stamps. Last year I had a penguin stamp, this year I got an orca stamp. They also collect written out postcards that they will post from the Chilean base for $2 or $CLP1,000
Passport stamp from the Chilean base
The airport transfer goes off without a hitch. Checking in is easy because this is a charter flight. I’m tickled that the flight is announced on the departure board. The flight takes off on time and lands early. We’re doing well. [Later we find out this is the only flight they make all week, so this is still a trip you might take and never race]
The course is the same as last year, so I won’t go into that. Instead of six laps, I need to run seven for the ultra. I don’t know how I feel, but I just run and let my legs figure it out. My new rule now that I’m running to many marathons that I don’t start to worry until Mile 10.
The first lap I feel okay, but I’m over-dressed. It’s not as cold, but I’m wearing wind pants. I’ll stop at the warm up tent at the turn around to drop those off. My feet hurt a bit, like wearing an ill-fitting pair of running shoes. It’s really just the gravel that’s causing my feet to roll, making me feel the sides of my feet much more than normal.
The second lap felt better, but I had to pee. I realized this right after running about 200 meters downhill from the potty tents (literally a tee pee with a 5 gallon bucket). I don’t want to run back up, so I wait for four miles to get the chance again.
By the third lap, bladder empty, I’m feeling confident. I don’t feel tip top physically, but I know I can suffer through this. My Garmin dies because I make the stupid mistake leaving my watch exposed to the elements. The Garmin batteries have really short lives in very cold temperatures. I should have pulled my jacket sleeve over it, and I knew that. I just didn’t.
I think my Garmin failure was fortunate. Like the Center of the Nation series, I’m not really counting distance. It’s just time and laps. Laps are brilliant: the first seems really long, but as you get used to the course, it’s easy to become mindless and break up the course into manageable goals. The out leg is mostly downhill and easy, so it’s almost not a factor. The wind is either behind me or blocked by the terrain, so I’m warm. I take off my gloves, uncover my ears, and unzip my jacket.
The in leg has it’s good moments, but I walk the uphills by plan. I’m running at an ultra pace and saving my energy. Running this hills might save me a minute each, but I’m thinking in hours, so giving up 20 minutes doesn’t bother me if it also means I’m running better the rest of the time. After the turn-around, I’m facing the wind, so I put back on the gloves and hat and zip up the jacket. It’s a tough leg, but I have to remember that it’s generally uphill so feeling a bit tired on this part doesn’t mean much.
The turn around is at the Chinese base
Three laps would be half way for the marathon, but I mentally tell myself that four laps is halfway since I’m doing the ultra. Once four are done, five is easy because I’m almost to the marathon. That’s a good checkpoint for me since I definitely want the marathon result, completely run on the island this time. The weather is holding up, and even improving. It’s even getting warmer. I’m feeling much better than I think I should given what I’ve done so far.
I think it’s this lap that I realize Brent hasn’t gone by me. So far he’s been about half a kilometer ahead of him and my goal was to slowly catch up to him. At the turn arounds he would pass me going the other way and I’d count my steps until I reached the turn around. I find him at the warm up tent. He’s sorting himself out, but something doesn’t agree with him. I keep going, but now I’m ahead of him.
It’s around this time that Steve Hibbs, the race organizer, laps me for the first time. He’s a really could runner, and eventually he laps me twice. Not only does he run the marathon here, but after he’s done he changes into his street clothes and helps manage the race. Today is turning out brilliantly for him; if this trip had problems, I don’t see how it could survive. Everything is going well though.
The warm up tent
I’m also thinking abut Zayid Rahim, another alumni from last year and the Guinness record holder for the shortest time to do a Grand Slam of the Seven Continents and the North Pole marathon. This is his first race for a different record for the shortest time to do the Seven Continents in ultramarathons. The current record holder? That’s Brent, before Guinness recognized the category. Zayid should have it done in seven weeks. In this race, though, he’s maybe half a kilometer behind me, but I figure he’s going to finish strong where I’m probably going to finish shattered. Instead of trying to catch up to Brent my goal became to stay ahead of Zayid so he can’t catch me at the end.
Zayid and I back in Chile
Each lap is seven kilometers, and after a couple of laps I’ve attached meaning to the markers. At 5km, I know I’m almost to the big hill where I’ll be able to walk almost all the way to 6km (although the “able to walk” gets dicey on the last two laps).
The fourth lap goes by and I’m feeling as good as I can expect. I’m past the halfway point for the ultra, but I’m two laps to the marathon finish. That’s really two easy out legs and two in legs with a bit of suffering with a chance for recovery with uphill walking. The end seems close.
That’s the weird thing about the three ultras I’ve run. The marathon distance seems easier; it’s not the end so it’s not a focus. My brain doesn’t start to give up when I get close to it because there’s more running to do. That’s what’s going on here.
I run through the fifth and six laps, although I had kept telling myself I’d walk one of them completely. I don’t run with headphones or other distractions, so all of my time is taken up with me making small deals with myself. If I run to that pole, I can walk a bit. But, I get to the pole and do it again, and keep extending it. I’ll run to that rock. Pretty soon I’ve run a lap.
It’s getting trickier to run the tough parts though. The loose gravel is making me use muscles I’ve never developed. My ankles and hips have to do much more work, and they aren’t happy. I could easily turn an ankle on this course, but as far as I know nobody does that bad enough to stop.
As I start lap six, the last lap for the marathon, I remind the scorers that I’m doing the ultra even though I signed up for the marathon. I have three hours left before we have to get back on the plane. I could almost walk the remaining nine miles, but that three hours is a best estimate since the pilot could decide to leave sooner if he thinks the weather is going to degrade.
I want to finish the marathon on the island, which I didn’t do last year. I, along with many other runners, had to finish my last couple of miles back in Punta Arenas under the race director’s supervision. It was a result with an asterisk. I ended up running most of the sixth lap except for the planned walking on the hills.
I start to suffer though, because my body and mind knows I’m close to the end. I run the out leg of my last lap, but it’s a lot of downhill. My joints aren’t appreciating that. It feels like all the bounce has gone out of my shoes. Every steps jars, but I make it to the turn around.
That’s where I’m really done. I think I have this in the bag, so I take it even easier on the way back. I’m going to take pictures and walk more than I have. I have to make it back to the finish line then do a short out and back to turn the 7 km lap into an 8 km lap to make the 50 km distance.
The wind picks up for that last lap, and since I’m walking more I’m cooling down a bit, I break out the balaclava and over gloves again.
On the way back I stop to take pictures of all the bad sections. There’s slush, mud, puddles.
At the top of the last nasty hill, Kurt the race director watches people do the extra mini lap to fill out the distance. It’s a bit cruel to make it to the finish line and have to do another 300 meters or in my case, another kilometer.
The ultra mini-lap turn around is at the Chilean church, which is an improved shipping container. I’m too tired to take a better picture. I am so done.
Zayid passes me as I’m coming back from my mini lap, and he’s running. He’s running uphill. If he really pushes it, I think there’s a chance he could catch me if he were motivated to run the mostly downhill to the mini-turn around and run uphill again.
But he’s as shattered as I am and I finish a couple of minutes ahead of him. I have no idea where I finish in the field. I think some good runners finished the ultra much sooner, but maybe I’m first in my age group. I don’t really care. I finished and that’s all I need.
The most suffering starts after I’m done. I’m on an island in Antarctica, I’m sweaty and soaked, and now my feet are cold and getting colder. The race provided electric kettles and cocoa or coffee, but I want hot chocolate for my feet.
After changing into dry clothes and getting on the plane, I use my Goretex jacket as makeshift leg warmers. I’m not in danger of frostbite or anything like that, but it’s another hour before my feet won’t feel bad. My ankles will complain for the rest of the day, even with a megadose of Vitamin I (Advil).
There it is. It’s marathon number three for the month and three for the year. Now I’m a bit ahead of the monthly average I need to maintain to do 30 marathons in a year. I’ve now done ultras on three continents and just got the troublesome one out of the way. I haven’t quite finished my third trip around the Seven Continents since I have Africa left on this circuit.
The worst thing though? I have to run at least a mile tomorrow to keep my streak alive.