Over the Glacier and Through the Mud: The Antarctica Marathon

I had a dream when I was 22 that someday I would go to the region of ice and snow and go on and on till I came to one of the poles of the earth –  Ernest Shackleton

Unlike polar explorer Shackleton, I had never dreamed of going anywhere cold, let alone Antarctica. Yet, somehow, when flipping through a running magazine to pick a place to run my first marathon, my eyes fell on an ad featuring penguins and icebergs labeled, “Antarctica: The Last Marathon.” I thought it was a joke.

MAN-WANTED Antarctica Shackleton poster

After a quick phone call with organizer Cliff Jennings, I discovered the 1997 event would be the second-ever Antarctica marathon and that it was not as pricey as I had imagined. The journey would take us first to Buenos Aires, Argentina, then to Ushuaia at the tip of South America, and finally by the research ship Ioffe across the Drake Passage, the roughest and most unpredictable stretch of sea in the world, to King George Island for the marathon. I signed up.

Now the hard part. How do you train for a race like this, especially since I had never run a full marathon before? Perhaps coincidentally, Lake Murray, where I was living, had been drastically lowered a few months earlier for dam repairs. What was a bane for boaters became a boon for runners, at least for me. Clotted with boulders, streams and muck, the normally hidden lakebed became my new training ground. I had no idea how well these runs would prepare me.

cold nature cute ice
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The race would be in February, late summer in the southern hemisphere, when the sea is more navigable and the wildlife most active. While we did not see emperor penguins, the only animal that overwinters on the icy continent itself, these creatures became marathon mascots because of their incredible endurance in the harsh climate.

Most of the marathoners were seasoned veterans, having come from and run races all over the world. This would be their chance to complete a seven continent quest. For me, it would be my first. After crossing the dreaded Drake Passage without incident, we arrived at the race site to find howling winds and rough seas.

iceberg 1

Our sister ship, the Vavilov, safely ferried its passengers ashore using small inflatable Zodiac boats, but the waves became too rough for our group. We had come all this way to run and now couldn’t get off the boat! Meanwhile, with the weather worsening, we could only watch helplessly as the other ship’s runners began without us!

In a courageous act resembling Sir Shackleton, our captain skillfully maneuvered the Ioffe close enough to safely launch our small boats and get ashore. Unfortunately, the marathon had started almost three hours before! Dressed now for running over glaciers and through streams, we finally began our race as a second heat.

I never expected Antarctica to be hilly, nor muddy, but the first mile was simply awful. The course climbed upward, seemingly without end, and the mud got yuckier and muckier as we went. Trying to avoid the worst of it, I followed a Japanese woman slightly left. This didn’t help. The mud was even worse and sucked a shoe right off her foot! Thankfully, what goes up must come down, and I eventually reached the foot of the Collins Glacier.

Dgls on glacier
Ascending Collins Glacier during the 1997 Antarctica Marathon

We had heard about the glacier, but we weren’t sure what to expect. Rather than being icy slick, the slushy and crusty snow crumbled under your feet. At this point, I spied the eventual winner, Scott Dvorak, dashing down in full stride as I carefully picked my path upward. The course itself featured two loops, the longer of which included the glacier. Runners completed both loops first for the half marathon distance, and then repeated it without the glacier but added a second small loop to complete the full marathon.

After the first two loops, despite the wind and mud, I was feeling okay. But soon the cold took its toll, causing calf cramps around mile 16. I stopped, stretched and continued as best I could, but decided I would quit at mile 20.

Climbing back toward our base camp, I caught up with another runner and told him I was mentally and physically finished. He started encouraging me, reminding me that the worst of the ice and mud was behind us. I then noticed that this upbeat athlete was pressing on despite having an artificial leg! His courage and inspiration stirred me forward. I kept going.

fur seal attack

Almost home when fur seals attack!

While the glacier was behind us, a few unexpected obstacles remained. We had been warned about fur seals being aggressively protective of their territory. Around mile 22, I saw my first seal. As luck would have it, my path was right between it and the water. A nervous cat-and-mouse bluffing game ensued until I finally dodged it.

Other runners still out on the course from both ships encouraged me as we passed each other on the shorter loop. Spurred on by this unexpected audience, I waved and cheered back.

Finally, the end was in sight. However a great skua, a type of predatory seabird, sensed my end was near! The dark gray bird repeatedly swooped toward my face as I crested the final hill. Trying to play dead, I scrunched down into a ball-shaped clump. I peeked up, and the skua was hovering right above me! Enough! No dumb bird was going to stop me now! I sprang upward, throwing my arms high and squawking loudly, scaring the skua and clearing the way for my final downhill run to the finish.

Dgls finishing
Just one last stream to cross!

The following day, while recovering and listening to a New York Times reporter interview a fellow runner, I chuckled listening to his own story.

Reporter:  “What was the most unusual part?”

Runner: “It had to be the seal. I certainly can’t think of any other marathons I’ve run where there was a seal on the course.”

Reporter:  “What other marathons have you run?”

Runner:  “New York City Marathon.”Antarctica 1997

Reflecting that this race was likely to be the toughest, I began a quest to finish marathon runs on the other six continents, which I completed just shy of my 40th birthday. When I’m asked now what was most difficult, I believe it was not the actual running, but rather overcoming the trials of getting to the start line in a healthy physical and mental state. I suppose that holds true for many other things in life, too.

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