Mostly just pictures, but I still tried to write a little too...
I met Susan a little over a year ago. We started training for the 2019 Boston Marathon together. Though I hadn’t known her for long at the time, I had known well enough that when she casually mentioned, “I think after Boston, I want to do the marathon on Antarctica,” that it was not only more than just a thought, but it was already in the works.
It doesn’t take much time with her to find out that Susan is the kind of special person who thinks and does at the same time. So when she said to me, “I’m thinking about the Antarctica Marathon,” what she actually meant was, I have already done this marathon in my mind. I just want to actually do it. Her determination and positive attitude is contagious in all the best ways and with it, she brings everyone around her up.
Susan’s athletic resume now includes thirty-eight marathons (twenty of them at Boston), all seven world majors, and now (spoiler alert) one on each continent of the globe. (All at the young age for 69.) We had some excellent training runs and track workouts along the way; and, as any runner can relate, she battled some injuries and setbacks along the way. But no matter the highs or lows, the statement stands, she had already completed this marathon in her head. There was never any doubt in her mind that she would battle whatever was in front of her to find a way to complete the task at hand.And I think that is what makes a woman like her unstoppable.
What I certainly didn’t expect (or know her well enough yet to do), was to invite me along the way for the trip.
DEC 10 - Arrive in Punta Arenas, Chile.
Because of the uniqueness of the event, weather patterns on Antarctica, plane logistics, and camp logistics, every event after that was labeled “TBD”
TBD - Depart for Union Glacier
TBD - Camp Briefing
TBD - Race Start
TBD - Post Race
TBD - Depart Union Glacier
TBD - Depart for Boston.
You basically show up with running shoes and warm weather gear, waited for a plane, waited for an “ideal” time to run, waited for the gun to go off, and then waited to get back home. The average conditions at Union Glacier Camp (600 miles away from the South Pole) in summer (OCT thru FEB) range from -12 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill taking it below zero most of the time, so “warm weather gear” meant quite a wide variety of stuff.
For those that don’t know my extreme “Type-B personality,” this was perfect. I really don’t bother to care about conditions or timing or route or anything like that. It’s a waste of energy that could be channeled productively, instead of into worry. A few of us when for a little shake out run in Punta Arenas and then went sightseeing.
But before we get into the race, let’s talk about actually getting to Antarctica. Upon arriving in Chile, we were told that the camp had been experiencing some pretty bad weather the past few weeks. We were then reminded that the 2018 marathon was delayed an extra five days after the race because conditions weren’t suitable to fly out. Lucky for us though, it had been clearing up. Flights were tentatively set up for 9am the following morning and would be confirmed by 9pm. This gave us enough time to do a final gear check, drop off bags at Antarctic Logistics & Exploration (ALE), get out boarding pass, and try to settle in for a bit over some dinner.
We flew out as planned on the flying tank of an aircraft that goes by “Ilyushin IL-76.” Designed in Russia during the Cold War and built to withstand the toughest conditions any part of the world could offer. It had been converted to carry passengers and explorers for the specific trip we were taking. Pretty weird/awkward/awesome to have a flight attendant on a plane like this telling us to buckle up. The flight was smooth as butter lasting about five hours. Landing on an ice strip was never on my list of things to do, but watching it all via the TV onboard was next-level nerve-racking/jaw-dropping. Something like, “Watch a video of this incredible plane landing… oh wait, I AM ON THAT PLANE!”
Landing at the Blue Ice Runway is nothing short of feeling like you on a movie set. The white horizon fools you into thinking you can reach out and touch the mountains that tower over the soft snow. In reality they are miles and miles away. Antarctica’s Ellsworth Mountains are home to the Vinson Massif. An enormous mountain massif 21 km long and 13 km wide. The almost 360degree panorama of mountains and glaciers flowing through them is nothing short of jaw-dropping. The sun shines in your face all day and when you look away, the reflections off the snow are just as blinding. To stay outside without sunglasses on for more than 15minutes would be to risk sun-blindness which (I am told) is like having a sunburn on your eyeballs.
Camp is about a 20min drive from the runway. This camp gets completely set up and torn down every year. Everything, including human waste is taken back and forth to Chile at the end of the summer season. The permanent workers at Union Glacier Camp are an incredible breed of human. The camaraderie and trust that they place in each other to each do their job was spectacular to witness. Every link in the chain was crucial. The meteorologist, the doctor, the food preppers, the pilots, the dishwashers, the scientists, the mechanical crew⏤ everyone was simply taking care of each other with their own talents and personalities the only way they knew how. There was no sense of “ego” anywhere to be found at camp; everyone was in it for the team. I can’t say enough about this these people and these interactions. We went on a tour, got the briefing on camp, and got settled in.
We got a quick briefing on the limits of camp. Which seemed a bit foolish to my ignorant brain at first but then became quite clear. One of the scientists explained that a glacier is basically a huge frozen river, as in flowing frozen water. The glacier moves up to 25meters per year and you can actually hear it moving and shifting sometimes.
The most prominent feeling I had while being so far south on the planet was exactly that. A prominent feeling of standing on the planet. I realize this sounds really dumb to say. But looking up 24/7 and realizing the sun wasn’t appearing to travel across the sky, rather just draw a small circle above our heads all day as we looked up at it, was surreal. “Noon” was very distinctly “when the sun is just about over the road to the runway” and “midnight” was “when the is just about over the food tent.” I really got an overwhelming sense of being a tiny human on a huge planet, in space. Time slowed down for everyone who realized this.. Ask anyone on the trip how long they felt like we were in camp, and they’d tell you, “At least a week.” When it was only a little more than 48hrs (and some portion of that was running 26.2 miles).
Ah, I digress on existential awareness again… The RACE!
The meteorologist comes greets us during dinner with the news that the best time to run will be around noon the following day (Friday, the 13th of December). Temps are actually looking quite warm. Around negative two. But the winds will be howling 25-30mph with stronger gusts. They might lull down to 20mph around 2pm but it doesn’t look like much relief otherwise.
The crew of about 55 runners were all starting to get familiar and comfortable with each other by this point and we all hung out in the common tents after dinner discussing what to wear and how cold it’ll actually feel and what shoes would be best, ect. It was fun meeting such a diverse group of people from⏤ literally⏤ around the world, all with one goal.
Sleep meant crawling into your tent and huge sleeping bag, pulling an eye cover over your eyes (or just some extra clothes), and letting the wind sing you to sleep as it whipped over and around the tent. I was surprised at how great I slept at first, but then I realized I had been completely away from all electronics and screens for almost a whole day. Not thinking about emails or texts or even looking at a screen for 24hrs really calmed me down a lot more than I could explain. I can’t remember the last time in my life that I went 24-hours without looking at a screen.
Waking up to race day, a little breakfast down the hatch (peanut butter on toast) and I went back to the tent to read a little bit more before getting ready. About an hour out I started stretching and trying to loosen up. My body felt great after such good sleep and I just had a good feeling all morning. I kept my Hawaiian shirt that I bought for this occasion mostly under wraps until it was time to set out to the start line. (Incongruities like this are peak-humor to me.)
-the first 1.5miles of each loop would be out to a “Christmas tree” completely dead-set into the headwind, but the footing was pretty firm with some snow drifts to avoid
-it was then about 1.9miles to the aid station with that same wind at our back. Subtly uphill.
-after the aid station, we had the wind at our back for about .9 more miles. Downhill but awful footing.
-then we’d turn back into the wind for the remaining 2miles. These final two miles of the loop were miserable to run in footing-wise. Slipping all over the place.
Everyone lined up eagerly anticipating this unknown combination of running, distance, weather, and conditions. We all bounced around a bit to stay warm in the wind. I wore wool socks, two pairs or warm leggings, a thermal long sleeve base layer, a light wind-blocking layer, and my Hawaiian shift, a snow hat and a silly hat, sunglasses, buff, and gortex gloves.
Dressing for an event like this is the hardest part. I wanted to stay warm in the headwind, but not sweat in the tailwind. I think my layering was pretty perfect for the conditions, which was likely nothing more than a lucky guess.
“READY, SET, GO!”
Strava link is here.
Strava link is here.
I trotted off at about an 8min/mi pace. The effort felt controlled. But my feet were slipping all over the place. I guess as much as I expected this to happen, I didn’t expect it to have such a mental drain on my run. That paired with a headwind was mentally exhausting. There is something about the unseen elements that really suck the life out of you. Running uphill is a bit easier, because you can see the hill; but when there is a strong headwind or slippery footing, it is all unseen, so your brain doesn’t manage it’s own expectations of the pace it expects to feel at a given energy level.
I turned the first corner up front. I was leading the race but didn’t really think much of it because it was only the first mile. The moment I turned the corner, the wind swept me up and the same effort produced about a 7min/mile pace.
Avoiding the big snow drifts that blew across the course were crucial. It was like stepping in super soft sand and slipping all over the place. An incredible energy suck. Sometimes I found a way around them, sometimes I just had to truck right thru them.
The first aid station came into sight and I also noticed Mauritz, a South African sub-3 marathoner coming up behind me. I thought for sure he was going to blow right by me and leave me in his dust, but he settled in step-for-step with me for the rest of the lap. We didn’t say much, but fell into a mutual tacit agreement nearly immediately.
The headwind and footing for the back half of the course was indescribably brutal. An energy sucking death march. But somehow a little bit more tolerable with a friend in the fight. We would switch off without words or cues. Mauritz would block the wind for a few minutes, then I would shift up front and return the favor. I was ahead to finish the first lap in about 51minutes. I got a quick sip of Coke and we were both on our way.
The footing turned a little better and more firm into start the lap. This is when I noticed that I put a little gap on Mauritz. It wasn’t intentional though, just something I noticed. Then he would close the gap I opened once we turned and got the tailwind back.
We hit the midpoint aid station together for lap two and were stride for stride for the rest of the lap. The 2nd lap was 52min. Pretty consistent, but my legs were getting tired at this point and I was hoping Mauritz was feeling the same way. This is the point when I also noticed it was only him and I really in a position to win. The start of the third lap was when I realized that I should actually try and race this thing and see what could happen. I think Mauritz felt the same way. And this was going to be fun.
The third lap I again noticed a bigger distance between us out to the first turn in the headwind. The tailwind came and it brought Mauritz with it. I deduced from this that he was in fact a faster runner, however, my legs were more powerful battling the headwind. Once I realized this I came up with my game-plan.
We came around into the midpoint aid station again and I got another quick sip of Coke (this is typically the only thing I eat or drink during a regular marathon anyways). We were off together just like in previous laps, swapping back and forth and blocking the wind for each other. Another two miles of leg-zapping ice, loose snow drift piles, and unrelenting headwind. My legs were shot and it was now mile-18. I knew my legs didn’t have much left in them, but I tried hard not to let that show.
I made this move knowing that if he matched pace with me and caught me, I wouldn’t have the firepower of will and leg-strength to counter. This was it for me,
But, it started to work.
I looked back and still didn’t see him at the midpoint aid station when I got there. So in a final act to put this thing away, I skipped the aid station and sacrificed my therapeutic dose of caffeine and sugar in the form of Coke in hopes that it’d keep me out of sight until we at least got the turn into the grueling headwind.
I turned the turn into the wind again and was still out of sight. I was pretty sure I had the win at that point but I didn’t want to slow down. I kept trucking thru the snow piles and wind gusts; my glutes and hamstrings were now on fire despite the sub-zero temps. Camp start coming into sight again and I could see the finish line in the distance around the tents and parked planes.
I was happy that something unknown kept me pushing hard at the end. I collapsed in the snow at the finish line and caught my breath only to hear that I bested the previous course record by a slim 35-seconds. (Thanks for pushing me, Mauritz!)
Mauritz came in a few minutes later and I greeted him with a huge hug. It’s competition like that that both of us will remember forever.
The extraordinary feelings of the day reached their peak watching Susan cross the finish line and then watching Roy cross the finish line. Each the oldest person in their respective genders to take on and conquer such a feat.
The celebrations continued a bit afterward and the next day, camp was packed up and we left just as fast as wen came. Another storm was coming on quickly and the Illysiun waits for no one. We boarded and were on our way back up to Chile.