| The Antarctic marathon is known as The Last Marathon,because Antarctica is the last
place a sane person would think of running a race. It’s organized by Marathon Tours and
Travel (www.marathontour.com) and held in February or March, at the height of the
austral summer. I was lucky enough to participate in the 1999 expedition, and it was
Antarctica has no indigenous people. There are no cities, and the only animals are
whales, penguins, seals, a few different species of birds, and the shrimp-like krill on
which many of the other animals feed. The guidebook and on-board lectures supplied
by the tour provide information not just on the geology and ecosystem of Antarctica,
but also the history of exploration, whaling and sealing in the southern ocean.
The trip began with a flight to Buenos Aires, which allowed us to explore one of the world’s most beautiful cities, crisscrossed with broad boulevards and filled with beautiful architecture. The subway system was easy to use, safe, and cheap, with stations like underground cities, filled with small shops and eateries, and lined with beautiful ceramic murals. Many of the trains were old, wood-paneled antiques.
Highlights included tango dancers and street musicians, the opera house, and Ricoletta cemetery – the memorable city of the dead, filled entirely with mausoleums vying with each other to be the most ostentatious.
After spending a night in Buenos Aires, we flew down to Patagonia, at the tip of South America. This was Ushuaia, in Argentinean Tierra Del Fuego, the City at the End of the World. It was colder than in Buenos Aires, and the weather was mercurial; wind blew, rain fell, clouds drifted in and out, and the sun finally peaked through, all within half an hour. And then the cycle repeated itself.
The town was a small cluster of stores and restaurants, with homes built on the surrounding hillside, and snow-capped peaks providing a scenic backdrop. We visited the End of the World Penitentiary and Maritime museum, which displayed Ushuaia’s history as a penal colony, and toured a local national park for a hike and a rare glimpse of a condor.
Finally, we boarded our ship for the two and a half day journey south. It was comfortable but utilitarian, with a bar, a lecture room, a small library, and a sauna. Bathrooms and showers were shared, with plenty of hot water available. The two-person cabins had two closets and a desk, with curtains on the bunks and reading lights.
The expedition leaders were welcoming and informative, and while few of the Russian crew spoke any English, they were very hardworking and friendly. We were allowed up on the bridge, and our communal meals consisted of fresh fruit, hot and cold cereal, eggs or pancakes for breakfast, pasta or sandwiches for lunch, and a delicious soup with a choice between meat, poultry, fish, pasta, or a vegetarian option for dinner.
After steaming through the Beagle Channel, our ship entered open water. Albatross glided past, and magellanic penguins swam alongside the ship. We rounded Cape Horn and entered the Drake Passage, where the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans converge to create the roughest seas on Earth. Waves routinely crest here at 25 to 30 feet, and often higher. I prepared for the “Drake Shake” by using every anti-nausea treatment I could find, but when the seas were calm, a few of us managed a run on the ship’s deck.
After two and a half days sailing, we spotted bits of ice floating past, and then got our first sight of the object of our journey: the South Shetland Islands, just off the Antarctic peninsula.
Since there aren’t any docks in Antarctica, we climbed ten at a time into inflatable boats equipped with outboard motors, landed on the beaches and scampered up through the surf to visit several islands. Temperatures ranging from the teens to low 30’s, and we dressed accordingly in warm, waterproof gear.
Upon landing, we were taken to the amazing penguin rookeries, where thousands of penguins mingled about near the shore, molting, nesting, and cooing like pigeons. We saw two species of penguins, and when several of us sat very still, these cute, impossibly clumsy little guys nibbled on our pants and climbed up onto our laps.
Finally, we landed on King George Island for the marathon. This island, like all of Antarctica, is governed by the Antarctic Treaty system, under which no country may claim sovereignty over these lands, but may establish scientific bases there. On King George Island, seven nations maintained bases.
The small Uruguayan base hosted our race. After making our landing, we were allowed into the base dining hall to prepare ourselves for the race. The race course was a double figure 8, with a half marathon option. For the aid stations, we each filled four bottles the night before the race. Three of them were brought ashore by the staff and placed on course, and we each placed the fourth bottle ourselves somewhere at the home base. With two trips around the course, that amounted to eight water stops.
The first – and also third – loop is a mile and a half run across a rocky beach, up the side of a glacier, and back. Slush on a glacier is like shaved ice, or ice chips, and many had difficulty with the downhill. Cracks in the ice and thinly iced-over holes made for bad footing and an occasional sudden drop through the ice of up to a foot.
I had only brought trail shoes and ankle gaiters, but some insightful runners used small, strap-on crampons, which they slipped on at the Uruguayan base before each ascent and removed immediately afterwards.
After returning to the Uruguayan base, the course continued out on rough, very hilly dirt roads that led us past a small lake and the Chilean, Chinese, and Russian bases. We crossed two small streams, and slogged through lots of mud. And upon returning to the Uruguayan base, we marathoners did it all over again.
Clothing had been a concern of mine before the race, but basic winter running gear did the trick. When many of us got warm on the course, however, we avoided the temptation to shed much gear, since the wind can and did pick up suddenly and drop the temperature dramatically.
The course was not always clearly marked, and at one turn-around point many runners went off course, although race staff stationed quickly placed marshals at that spot to fix the problem. But the race officials did not check numbers along the course, which later led to some suspicions of cheating. Of more immediate concern, though, were attacks by large skua birds, who were defending nests that we had unknowingly passed, as well as the strange allure of penguins, who were drawing runners off-course.
Helicopters from one of the bases took aerial photography of us running up the glacier, which was made available for purchase after the race. There was also a semi-official photographer at the finish line, but no medal – these were too heavy to bring down to Antarctica, and were mailed to us a week later, although we got our finisher’s certificates before leaving the ship.
After the race was over, we all changed into dry clothing and were transported back to the ship. Still ahead was an on-board awards presentation, several more island visits, and a dramatic landing on the Antarctic mainland itself. Then it was back through the Drake, to Ushuaia, Buenos Aires, and home, where each of us were left to wonder if it all truly happened at all.