The McMurdo Marathon

Every year, about 20 people get the silly idea in their heads to run a marathon in Antarctica. I mean, why not? Right? What else is there to do on the one day a week you get to sleep in?

At least, that’s what was going through my head when the alarm went off at 7 a.m. on Sunday.

My next thought was, maybe they’ll cancel it due to poor weather conditions? Nope. (Although this was seriously considered as a foul weather system was predicted to move over the Ross Ice Shelf while we would be out there. Exciting stuff!)

Fortunately, thanks to my work schedule, I’m pretty awesome at waking up early. So, up we (Richard and I) went.

The day before, I had put together a pile of stuff to wear and take with me. The lovely Kelly Swanson, who organized the race, let us know there would be aid stations along the way with food and beverages, so we wouldn’t to bring much in the way of calories.

I decided as I was trying to figure out my attire that I left the right pair of pants for this race at home in New Hampshire. (And while I was mentally revising my Antarctica packing preferences, I decided I’d brought too many pairs of long underwear pants and not enough shirts, overall.)

The temperature would be around 19F, the television said. And the wind speed would be 10 to 20 mph, with stronger gusts in the afternoon. I didn’t worry too much about the afternoon. I was only running the half marathon and knew I would be done in a couple of hours. Richard, however, was running the full marathon, so he needed to prepare for higher winds.

The race took place on the Ross Ice Shelf on the roads built to access the Williams Field and Pegasus air strips and the Long-Duration Balloon Launch.

Because the weather was iffy, Kelly shortened the course to two out-and-backs for the full marathoners and one out-and-back for the half runners. That way, if the visibility dropped, they would only have a seven-mile stretch of ice from which to pluck people, rather than a 14-mile stretch.

When I say “roads” I mean lines of red flags that are generally followed across a 20-mile wide ice field. The ice is glacier ice that has flowed off of the TK glacier on Ross Island (where McMurdo is) and multi-year sea ice that doesn’t melt in summer. People who know what they’re doing have determined that the ice under the runners (and the many-tonned vehicles that drive out and back daily) is hundreds of miles thick; and that the strip they’ve chosen as the “road” isn’t crevassed.

This is what the marathon looked like: a line in the white.
This is what the marathon looked like: a line in the white.

The ride to the start line (about a mile out onto the ice shelf) left McMurdo at 8:15 a.m. We took the same kind of vehicle I rode from the air strip to McMurdo that first night.

All together, about 20 people signed up for the half and 10 for the full.

I think there was a collective hesitation from the group when we stopped at the start line and were told to get off the Ivan. How cold is it out again? How windy?

With the sound of the Ivan horn, we took off from the start line. And I warmed up nicely. I maintained a slow, steady speed toward the back of the pack. After two miles, we passed the turnoff for the airfield. Then, it was a straight shot to the course turnaround.

Coming into the turnaround, the wind was at our backs and a couple, brief shots of direct sunlight made it through the cloud cover.

I drank a little cup of Gatorade and grabbed four Ginger Snaps before I took off for the finish.

I felt okay. Just a few minor pains that took turns around my lower body. First, it was some knee pain that became Achilles tendon pain that became hip flexor pain. But nothing serious, just bothersome.

But on the way back, my regular injuries came forward. Ever since I trained for my first marathon in 2006, I have had occasional IT band pain with long runs. Not every run. But whenever I increase my mileage by more than five miles or so at a time, my IT bands can tell.

Around mile 7 my right IT band started hurting. Eventually, my left joined in. I could pause the pain if I stopped to stretch or walked briefly. But it kept coming back. So I tried changing my gate. That worked, too, for a few hundred yards. However, the pain lingered. And by the finish line, I was hobbling.

But, also really happy that I hadn’t signed up for the full marathon.

Because there was a tail wind for the first leg, there was a head wind for the second. Fortunately, the time seemed to pass relatively quickly. At each mile marker, I ate a Ginger Snap.

I listened to “A Handmaid’s Tale,” by Margaret Atwood and kept moving forward. At least I wasn’t being held captive for the use of my uterus like the women in the book, I thought.

I passed Richard about a mile and a half from the finish. He was on his way back out for the second half of his marathon and he seemed in good spirits and conditions.

After that, I trained my eyes on the finish line which just looked like a pile of dark colors on the ice. As I got closer, the pile became vertical figures, then people. They cheered as I crossed the finish line. Right then a van pulled up to take the current load of finishers back to McMurdo. I grabbed my puffy jacket from Richard’s backpack that he’d stashed at the start line and climbed into the van on my wobbly legs.

The next thing I can remember is my hot-as-I-could-stand shower.

Phil (right) and I on the way back to the finish from the turnaround.
Phil (right) and I on the way back to the finish from the turnaround.
Richard somewhere along his journey.
Richard somewhere along his journey.

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