“To anyone who goes to the Antarctic, there is a tremendous appeal, an unparalleled combination of grandeur, beauty, vastness, loneliness, and malevolence – all of which sound terribly melodramatic – but which truthfully convey the actual feeling of Antarctica. Where else in the world are all these descriptions really true?”
Captain T.L.M. Sunter
Antarctica marathon was an adventure in more ways than one. The Antarctica marathon tour started and finished in Buenos Aires, I arrived a couple of days early as I chose to take the direct flight from Auckland. I booked a Buenos Aires Urban Running Tour. I was meet at the hotel by my guide Deigo for a 10km run though Buenos Aires, stopping for photo opportunities of interesting sights. Deigo also provided my water and even a snack on the way. It crossed my mind perhaps someone should perhaps look at this as side venture back home. It was a great way to stretch the legs and see the sights of Buenos Aires.
We flew from Buenos Aries to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego also known as the bottom of the earth as it is the world’s southernmost city. We board the Ioffe late afternoon for a two-day crossing of the Drakes Passage. We had videos and lectures introducing us to the wildlife, climate and history of Antarctica which helped fill in the days.
The crossing of Drakes Passage lived up to its name with rough seas and learning to use your balancing skills to navigate your way round the ship. We all thought we would have a new running style by the time race day came. Meal times were exciting as some waves caused you to grab your food as you found yourself sliding to the other side of the dining room.
It was exciting to wake to seeing the first sight of Antarctica, and the sighting of the first icebergs. We had plenty of opportunities to explore the fiords, getting up and personal with the penguins, seals and other wildlife.
Tom Gilligan from Marathon Tours came over the night before the race from the other boat (there were two boats with 100 runners in each boat, one boat ran on the 12th March while the second boat ran on the 13th March as you could only put 100 people on the ice at one time) to give us our race briefing the night before the race. He informed us that the Vavilov had a perfect day for their race with everyone finishing and cut off times were extended for runners to finish of up to an hour and half. Everyone left the briefing reassured and even rethinking what we would wear as the conditions were so great. We were told the weather predictions for tomorrow were good with hardly any winds and temperatures were meant to be above 0 degrees. The course was in good condition so things sounded like it was going to like running in a typical winters day in Southland. But after being chased by elephants in South Africa I should have known things would not be this straight forward.
Antarctica lived up to its reputation of being unpredictable and doesn’t follow weather forecasts! The course was a 7km loop which we had to repeat 6 times for the marathon or 3 times for the half marathon. We were transferred over to the start line from the ship in zodiacs (small rubber inflatables), there was no shelter so you didn’t want to take off your wet weather gear until the last minute. We had to bring 3 bottles with whatever you wanted to drink during the race which were placed by the finish line. Under the Antarctica Treaty we were not allowed to bring any wrappers ashore, and you were not allowed any food items that contained nuts, seeds or eggs ashore. All our gear had to go through a strict cleaning process of cleaning your shoes to vacuuming all clothing items, bags etc. that you were planning to bring ashore which were checked and signed off for each person.
It had snowed over night and was sleeting but was not to cold and with light winds but it was easy to get cold changing out of your clothes ready for the marathon.
The race was started by Tom and it was up to each individual to count your own laps. The first two laps were wet but not too cold and even felt I could take a layer off. We ran out to the China base on gravel roads which became very muddy and I think I can say there is no such thing as waterproof gloves. Out of all gloves from around the world not one lived up to its claim to be waterproof.
As I got to the turn around on the second lap it began to snow heavily so now we were finding it hard to avoid the pot holes as we couldn’t see them and the wind had picked up. I still felt comfortable in the gear I was wearing, feet were wet and my hands were damp and cold but not too bad.
As I started my third lap the winds had increased to 60mph and we were running in blizzard conditions. I couldn’t see out of my goggles so I had to take them off. The temperature had dropped significantly and I couldn’t feel my face hands or feet. By the time I reached the turnaround point at the China base the wind and snow were driving across sideways and the seas was getting rougher. Deep down I knew we were in trouble as the zodiacs were only allowed to be driven in 35 knot winds and became dangerous in anything higher than that. We had been told that the Captain has the final say on any excursion when the zodiacs had to be off the water.
As I was stopped at the turn around point at the start line as the weather had deteriorated and the race was called off. The Captain had ordered the zodiacs immediately back to ship.
We had to be helped back into our wet weather gear by amazing supporters who I am sure didn’t realise they would be helping all of us with our gear in the freezing cold. I do not know what we would have done without their amazing support. Once I had stopped running it was amazing how quickly you got cold. We then had a very rough ride in the zodiacs back to the ship with the waves were now 3 metre swells, coming over the front covering us in water. I didn’t realise how cold I had got until I tried to get out of the zodiac onto the ship. Nothing would move and I ended up in a heap on the bottom of the zodiac, requiring the assistance of two of the ships staff to carry me up the gang way. I was taken into ship undressed, showered and put to bed to try and get warm. This was repeated many times as many t runners ended up hypothermia.
There was a lot of very disappointed runners as some only had a couple of kms to go when the race was called off. The frustrating thing was if we had been on the other boat we would have finished. But this was not to be and we had experienced Antarctica and how the weather can change so quickly, and it gave me a real appreciation of the explorers who came to Antarctica ad didn’t have a warm boat to go back to.
We had run in some of the worst weather in the history of the Antarctica marathon and it was the first time they had ever had to call off the race. Disappointing as it was not to achieve my goal of running seven marathons on seven continents I can honestly say I had experienced the true Antarctica.