A marathon on the coldest, iciest continent – Antarctica

Late afternoon sunlight in Antarctica

I just got back from what can only be described as one of the most epic escapades I’ve been privileged to undertake – a two-week expedition to the loneliest place on earth, where myself and about 150 others explored, adventured, and, of course, ran a marathon.

If the title didn’t give it away, we went to Antarctica.

[Warning – probably a long and rambling post. It was an awesome trip, and the marathon was just a small part of it. It will be hard to do it justice.]

Backstory. I first heard about the Seven Continents Club when I ran the Inca Trail Marathon in 2012. The club is for those who are in the process of running, or have completed, a marathon on every continent. Obviously, the most logistically challenging continent to run a race on is Antarctica. In 2012, I also learned that there’s a 3-5 year wait list to get on a voyage down there, so I put down a small deposit – I figured I’d decide to take that journey if, and when, the time came. Putting down the Antartica Marathon deposit was choosing more of an option to participate rather than a firm commitment to this outrageous expedition.

Since then, I’ve run races on two other continents: Australia and and Africa. Antarctica makes six (although my Europe marathon was a solo, unsupported run, so I’ll probably have to go back and do that one again).

When I finally got off the wait list for Antarctica, the timing couldn’t have been better: it overlapped with my school’s spring break, and I’d get to train through Philly’s miserable winter (that last part turned out to be especially helpful during the race).

Before the race. Two weeks ago, four hundred of us met up in Buenos Aires with our Marathon Tours organizers. We divided into two ships: The Akademik Ioffe, which left one day early and whose runners would race on March 9th, and my ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, sister ship to the Ioffe, whose runners would race on March 10th. The results from the two days would be aggregated (important for later).

We had a few days in Buenos Aires – padding for those whose flights had been delayed – and a small group of us visited Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay for a day. That trip led to some shenanigans, such as a 20k training run in Uruguay which was actually only 1.5k. This silliness quickly solidified the friendship of this group of 9, and we affectionally named ourselves “The Colonials.”

The Colonial 9, atop the Uruguayan lighthouse

That day in Uruguay foreshadowed the depth of some of the friendships that would form over the course of the trip. Runners are a strange bunch, but there are some deep commonalities we have which makes it easy, and rewarding, to become fast friends with fellow running travelers.

The first two days were spent crossing the infamous Drake Passage. Many of us, myself included, spent significant time in our bunks attempting to avoid seasickness, with mixed success. We spent the time in-between getting to know each other, taking photos of the open ocean, and attending lectures on everything Antarctic, from penguins, to whales, to ice.

There was more than a little nervous energy onboard. Everyone was thinking about the race, and that manifested itself in a variety of ways. Most notably, we discussed every single aspect of the day-of race logistics ad nauseam. A couple of components were just unique enough that they made for interesting talking points. For example, we had to provide all of our own food and water during the race, and nothing could have a wrapper. Traditional food items, like Clif bars and Gus, were ruled out. Everyone had their own workaround, and we heard about all of them. I planned to use unwrapped Snickers bars shoved into a front pocket, operating under the assumption that they wouldn’t melt due to the frigid temperatures.

I was also not 100% convinced we’d even be running the race at all, so I was trying to avoid getting my hopes up too much. The entire lead up to the race was filled with weather warnings – inclement weather could cancel the race completely, and, in Antarctica, weather is not something you gamble with. I’d been reading the Ernest Shackleton story in my spare time, and, based on his harrowing 17-month survival experience stranded on the continent, I was more than convinced that the race should be called off in the case of poor weather. Nobody wants to get stuck ashore in Antarctica and forced to eat dog pemmican.

However, our first day ashore in Antartica – the day before the race – was amazing. We visited Half Moon Island, known for  its fur seals and chinstrap penguins. There’s also one, lone macaroni penguin – named Kenneth – who thinks he’s part of the chinstrap colony. The island itself was stunning – a little, white crescent surrounded by pounding, grey waves. It was our first taste of what Antarctic isolation is really about.

First shore day. The Vavilov is behind me

That day, the runners on the Ioffe were running their race. We learned that part of the course was drowned under about a foot of water due to melted snow, so they’d had to re-route, but they’d all made it safely back to the boat after running. That night, after our pre-race briefing, I removed myself from the rabble and anxiety – I didn’t want to discuss race-day nutrition for the 800th time – and went to bed early.

The race.

The official race map.

I woke up multiple times during the night. Just outside the porthole, massive snow flurries blinked in the dim deck lights. I kept trying to convince myself that it definitely wasn’t snow, but every time I woke up, it was definitely still snow, and it was piling up on the deck railings.

By the time we made our way to breakfast, it had stopped snowing, although the winds were holding steady at about 30 knots, with gusts to 35 knots. Even as we packed our dry-bags with warm clothes, filled up our water bottles, and donned our foul-weather gear for the boat ride over, I still wasn’t convinced they weren’t going to call it off due to weather.

We were aiming for a 9am start, which meant we had to start offloading 100 runners around 8am. Many of the Colonials were in a later boat – second or third-to-last. It seemed prudent not to wait in the cold for an hour.

The boats – called Zodiacs – were little rubber contraptions. During any expedition away from our ship, even if it was a very short trip to shore, each Zodiac carried ample extra fuel, enough food for all ~12 passengers for three days, and basic shelter supplies. We all wore lifejackets and waterproof foul-weather-gear at all times when on the Zodiacs. Again, no messing around down here.

On the boat ahead of us, a group of runners, including a family, were navigating the gangway down to a Zodiac. One woman was extremely terrified to step off of the ship and onto the gangway, which was shaking rather violently. She let her son and daughter escort her slowly down to the Zodiac, but the Zodiac was pitching and rolling on the choppy swells. I saw her reach a shaking hand out to cross from the gangway to the Zodiac, but she couldn’t take that step across onto the boat. She turned around and came back onboard the Vavilov. The Zodiac finished loading – without her – and took off for shore. (I found out later that she gave it another go, made it to shore, and finished the half marathon. The whole trip was full of inspirational stories like this).

Our trip over on the Zodiac took about 15 minutes, and the winds were fierce. We huddled together on the rubber seats, and I rubbed strategically-placed hand warmers to keep my fingers mobile. We all hoped that when we started moving, we’d warm up.

When we got to shore, we jumped out of the boat and into the freezing water, feet protected by rubber boots. We waded to shore and then up to the start line.

A couple of us at the start line

Even then, divesting of our foul-weather gear, we were still debating how many layers we should wear. I opted to trust my Philly training, and stripped down to just three layers: a long-sleeve shirt, a short-sleeve shirt, and a light jacket. I also had on running tights, a neck buff, a baseball-like hat to protect from any possible precipitation, a headband for ear warmth, and a warmer hat on top of that. I wore heavy ski gloves on my hands and tucked hand warmers into each one, and my normal trail shoes on my feet.

The start was anticlimactic (and I have never seen so many GoPros – mine included – recording it). Thom, our intrepid race director, counted us down from five, and we started trotting down the  muddy course.

The course would be a six-loop out-and-back course. Basically, we’d run 2.18 miles to a turn-around, then run back to the start, and do that six times. I tend to like loop courses, and I think this is because my powers of observation are pretty weak during a race – I’m discovering something new on every lap.

Just after the start

The first lap or two felt easy. The scenery was gorgeous at parts – the first mile or so was through the Russian and Chilean research bases, and after that we passed a glacial lake and ran right near the shore of the island, until we turned around at a Chinese research base. Despite how windy and overcast it was, it was very cool to be running past these towering mountains – in Antarctica!

I was powering up the hills and keeping pace with some runners that looked pretty fast to me. I didn’t think I had a chance of placing, but I do like to count how far back I am from the lead women … and after the first lap, there were only four women in front of me. My roommate, Erin, was in 3rd, and in 4th was another girl from Philly, named Taylor.

I was pretty sure I’d hit a wall at some point and fall back, so I didn’t think too much about it. However, at the end of lap 2, I was feeling pretty good – I’d been pacing off of another runner, and at the turn-around, he took a bit longer at the aid station than I did, so I kept going. The runner in 2nd had fallen back, which meant Erin was in 2nd now. Taylor, in 3rd, was just ahead of me … so I kept trotting along.

Even though I was keeping an eye on the competition, I, like most runners, was really just in it to finish. Because all of the runners knew each other by this point, the cheering throughout our short course was so enthusiastic and genuine. The course was only a few miles, so we saw our new friends frequently, and we all took the opportunity to encourage each other loudly, to the amusement of on-base researchers. They looked at us with what I like to imagine was admiration, but more likely confusion and worry for these crazy people who’d be out in these conditions.

Every so often, I would just appreciate how ludicrous the whole construct was – running a marathon on Antarctica is pretty crazy, when considered in the absolute. In my running career, it was also the race that I’d been thinking about for the longest – three years is a serious chunk of time, and this race was the culmination of that preparation.

Getting after it on the muddy trails.

Around lap 4, I was feeling a little fatigued, but Taylor was still just ahead, so I kept pushing. I passed her at one point, but then she passed me back, and I was pretty sure that was the end of things. It didn’t matter anyway – there was no way that, after combining our times with the other boat’s, the third-place person on our boat would also place overall.

However, I then passed her again, and with only 10k to go, I felt like I could maybe push it to the end and finish 3rd on my boat.

The next six miles were a slog. The hills were starting to feel steeper than before, and there were two short ones that I would walk for a quick recovery. The weather had also taken a turn for the worse, and it seemed like, no matter which direction we were heading, we were facing a stiff headwind. It had also started sleeting, and little particles of ice were now driving into any unexposed skin. I moved my buff up to cover my nose and mouth, but all that did was restrict my breathing, so I left it around my neck and faced the storm.

The last lap was rough. At the turnaround, with only 2 miles to go, I had my GoPro running. I crouched down to show off my favorite race sign – it said “Penguin Crossing” – and saw my Philly compatriot right behind me. I kicked it into gear and didn’t look back.

I felt like I was flying through the last two miles, although I’m sure it looked more like a limping slog than an Olympic sprint.

 

Running through the research bases.

The last 0.2 miles were up a shallow hill. I saw the 26-mile marker, and for some reason, turned around – I think I didn’t want to get passed at the last second. Taylor was right behind me! I turned back and sprinted to the finish line. She came in just a few seconds after me.

We high-fived and hugged it out, taking a finish-line photo (with Erin, who had finished 2nd and about 20 minutes ahead of Taylor and I. The first-place woman had already gotten back on a Zodiac and was headed for a hot shower). Taylor and I agreed that there was no way we’d be in contention for an overall podium spot, but we appreciated the competition.

After the finish

Volunteers bundled us into our foul-weather gear and back onto a Zodiac before we knew what was happening. My fingers, warm throughout the race, immediately became numb when I started handling zippers and velcro, and the Zodiac ride was pretty rough as a result.

After the race. That night, we learned that our boat had dominated the rankings. The men on Vavilov swept the top three spots, and the woman had grabbed the top two … and maybe the third! For the next twelve hours, I was constantly checking to see if they’d posted the results … and found out that a girl on the other boat beat me by two minutes. Very disappointing. I like to think that they had easier weather – it was very sunny! – but I know she also ran a great race.

The next several days were a combination of calm appreciation of our success and evening parties of wild, reckless abandon. Days ashore were happier and more relaxed. A few highlights:

  • A double-rainbow over icebergs.

What does it mean?

 

  • Quiet kayaking on reflective water (after a messy capsize due to inclement weather the day before).

I’m in that kayak on the right.

  • Whale watching – literally 20 feet from our boat – in the calm waters of Wilhelmina Bay on the last day.

Whale tail – so close to our Zodiac!

Whale next to a Zodiac

So peaceful and serene.

Epilogue. The whole experience was amazing. I focused here on the race because this is a blog about running, although, as mentioned, the race just became one part of a much broader, more epic adventure, which really deserves its own blog. Just like summer camp, we made memories and forged friendships that we’ll remember for a lifetime.

Antarctica is a pristine, unspoiled place. It is stark and isolated, and unlike anywhere else on earth. I am grateful that humanity was only able to reach it after developing an appreciation for preserving natural beauty – the continent is governed by a multinational research treaty – although I fear for the day that the lucrativeness of mineral rights overshadows this agreement.

The staff concluded our voyage with this quote:

Out here is where the magic happens, here in the quiet hills.
Here is where you have cried out with moans as deep as the earth.
Here is where you have found your long lost self that the madness took away.
So when you get back to those who talk loud in small rooms,
Remember that you have been to a place too beautiful for words.

-Anonymous

Here’s to the adventurers.

My favorite photo I took on this trip. Hi penguin!


Flap flap flap.

Want more Antarctica marathon?

Austin Marathon / Valentine’s Day Race

Will and I ran Austin Marathon a few days ago. We’d signed up pretty soon after last year’s race – there was a two-person division that summed the times of two athletes (who didn’t have to run together), then compared the lowest combined times across pairs. We thought we could be pretty competitive in that category, but a few weeks after registering, learned they wouldn’t have that category this year. We figured we’d head down to Austin anyway and run it, because we’d already paid for it and what’s *another* race in Texas?

The race was pretty hilly, and it was pretty humid outside. I also hadn’t run much since my last race, so I was undertrained. Will was getting sick from traveling and knew he was in no shape to PR or push it. Basically, we were in pretty weak form. Will decided to hang back with me, and we ran the whole race together at a pretty leisurely pace.

The race supporters had some great signs this time around:

  • “John Stewart wouldn’t quit here! Oh wait …”
  • “Brian Williams says he’s running with you – make it memorable for him!”
  • “This is no time for Walken,” featuring a photo of … Christopher Walken.
  • A guy wearing a giraffe head, holding a sign that said, “Stick your neck out.”

Not a bad race.

Heading towards the finish

 

Hardware at the finish line

 

Time for food!

BCS Marathon – a trip to Texas with friends

Late update – went to Texas last week with some Wharton friends for a race down there. We all thought it would be a fast course, but early hills and late wind changed our plans! Fun trip nevertheless, and here are some photos.

Wharton crew in the pre-race dark

Taking off pretty strong! Sorry for the watermark.

This was my first time running any substantial portion of the race with a pace group. The pacer himself was hilarious. “This is my first race pacing a pace group, and in the pre-race meeting this morning they told us we should point out historic landmarks. But I’m not from around here, so I’m just going to make things up.”

Later, he pointed out a great donut shop that wrapped their donuts in bacon. I’m still not sure if this place actually exists.

He took off  early with some super fast miles, so most of the group dropped back at some point. I kept with him until mile 16, then fell back around mile 17 – the last 9 miles were pretty brutal.

4:03 finish. Not bad for having run a 50k a week before!

The crew, post-race and looking classy.

The best part of this race was getting to travel to it and run it with friends. My kind of weekend!

One more race this year … stay tuned!

Marathon #47 – Philly Marathon (for a second time!)

On Sunday, I ran the Philadelphia Marathon for the second time. It was awesome to see lots of my Wharton running friends on the course and on the sidelines. Even in a crowd of 30,000+ runners, it really felt like there was a community of runners there and I was a part of it.

There isn’t too much to report on this one – it was a pretty straightforward race, and logistically super easy (the start line is about a mile and a half from my house). The course is fun because we run through the closed streets of Philly, which means a lot more when you live in a city, I’ve found.

I finished in ~3:53, which doesn’t suck, but my first half was a 1:48 … so I probably could have paced myself better!

Here are some photos from the race.

Dat quad muscle! This is from somewhere on the course

 

Lol that guy on his phone behind me. There were a weirdly high number of people just chatting it up on their cell phones this race …?! Is this a new thing?

Crossing the finish line. I started 8-9 minutes after the gun (which is what the timer is based on)

Just after finishing

Me and Will! He finished in 2:52:xx … so, pretty fast (and a NY qualifying time, according to the new standards!)

That’s all for now! Got a couple of fun races coming up in the next few weeks … so look forward to those. =)

Cool Articles I’ve read recently

Here are some neat articles I’ve read about running recently. They’ve stuck with me for various reasons and have made me think – hopefully you’ll like them, too!

I know it’s been quiet around here … I’ve been doing some solo marathons, so nothing major to report. I’ve got about four more – pretty cool – races coming up before the end of the year, so stay tuned!

Delaware Marathon: There’s Only One

Here are a few things I learned over the weekend:

  • Delaware was the first state in the union.
  • The largest city, Wilmington, has about 70,000 people. That’s about the size of Mountain View, CA.
  • There’s a guy who’s run ~1,300 marathons in his lifetime. He’s 69, and ran 255 marathons in 2013. He’s still going strong .. .because I just saw him running at Delaware.

When I registered for the race, it asked for the number of states the registrant has run marathons in. (For me, it’s something boring, like five.) Some minor sleuthing uncovered that this Delaware Marathon is, in fact, the *only* marathon in Delaware. If you’re gunning for all 50 states, this race is a requirement.

Registration also asked for a nickname. Will didn’t realize it was going to be printed on his bib.

The two-lap race started at 7am. There were waves for the half marathon and relay teams; they started after us. They had to wear bibs on their backs that said “Half” or “Relay” respectively, which was actually really nice; when they blasted past us at what seemed like unreasonably fast speeds, we could tell they were in a different wave, and not overly enthusiastic marathon runners making the rest of us look slow.

The first couple of miles were nice; we ran on a boardwalk along the river. Around mile five, the course started getting hilly. Mile six/seven was all uphill – challenging, but not terrible, because it was all in shade and under trees. We passed a zoo at one point, but I didn’t see animals out.

Towards the end of the first lap, I saw Larry the 1,300 marathons guy. I’d seen him at another race earlier this year, but hadn’t been able to track him down – I found him by searching through the Delaware race results. Apparently he started running marathons at 52 years old, and now, at 69, is running marathons almost every day of the year. If you want to read about one of the craziest/most impressive endurance runners out there, check out this ESPN article. If you want to see the list of races he’s run, here’s his Marathon Maniacs profile, which lists them all.

Anyway, he remembered me from the other race, and I waved as I ran by.

I finished the first lap around 1:50. I was feeling pretty good about running a sub 4:00 race without needing to push it too hard. Around mile 16, though, my legs started feeling heavy – I popped a Gu and pushed on.

I was still tracking for a sub 4:00 around mile 20. I knew the big hill was going to make or break this goal, and I promised myself I wasn’t going to get frustrated – this was a pretty challenging course. As I trotted up the hill, I was still feeling sore, but passing a lot of other runners; they were struggling too. I passed the zoo again – and this time saw two ostriches!

My hill push wasn’t fast enough. General tiredness, combined with the heat and humidity, made the last 10k very challenging. Around mile 22/23, my pinky and ring fingers started tingling all the way up to my elbow, and I figured it wasn’t a good idea, given the heat, to go for an all out 5k sprint to the finish.

I finished around 4:13, which was in the top 1/4th of women – not bad, although clearly the last 10k was much slower than the rest of the race.

I’m feeling a big of “marathon fatigue” – my last 9 races have been road marathons. I’ve got my eye on a trail ultra or two in the next several months; I’m looking forward to being back out in nature. My last ultra was at the end of 2012, so hopefully I still know what to do! ;)

Post-race, outside of our hotel. Our hotel was at mile 25.9 of the course… I was definitely tempted to defect to a warm shower.

Take a look at this article from the New York Times: “What Good Marathons and Bad Investments Have in Common.”

From the article: “The small spikes are people making their goals, with not a minute to spare. A finishing time of 3:59 is 1.4 times as likely as one of 4:01.”

Here’s a quote from the article:

In the usual analysis, economists suggest it’s worth putting in effort as long as the marginal benefit from doing so exceeds the corresponding marginal cost of that effort. The fact that so many people think it worth the effort to run a 2:59 or 3:59 marathon rather than a 3:01 or 4:01 suggests that achieving goals brings a psychological benefit, and that missing them yields the costly sting of failure.

But in other domains, this discontinuity between meeting a goal and being forced to confront a loss can lead to bad economic decisions. Because losses are psychologically painful, we sometimes strain too hard to avoid them.