Rough trails, extreme weather, potential hypothermia?! Running a race in Antarctica was unlike anything I'd ever experienced
I’m not a professional athlete. Although I grew up active and rowed in high school, I turned down a rowing scholarship to college because I thought it was just too hardcore. But during a college semester abroad in Sydney, Australia, I discovered something I really enjoyed: running. It was a way for me to see a city, and it was the first time I thought of running as “fun." It combined a sense of exploration and exercise.
But for a while, running was just a workout—I hovered around four or five miles a few times a week. Then, in 2008, I started working at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA and I helped organize a dinner the night before the Boston Marathon. The energy surrounding the whole experience was overwhelming. I remember thinking, “I’ve got to do this.” I’d never run a race before, but I thought, with training, I could actually do it!
And I did. Running the Boston Marathon was absolutely amazing—it's everything it’s cracked up to be. I ran it in 2010, and then again in 2011 and 2012. But while I had run a few marathons, my sister, Taylor, had another goal: to run on all seven continents. That's when we found the Antarctica Marathon—a race on an island right off the main continent called King George Island. The problem: There was a four-year wait list.
We ended up getting to go a year earlier than expected though, in March 2015. The number of tourists to Antarctica is limited each year, usually to one boat with 100 passengers. So we started figuring everything out, from passports and reciprocity fees to what to pack (good trail running shoes; sunglasses that could protect against freezing rain and intense glare; windproof, warm clothes). The plan: Spend 10 nights on a retrofitted research vessel with about 100 other runners. All in all, it cost about $10,000 per person. When we booked it, I thought, "That’s a lot of money!" But I started putting away $200 per paycheck and it added up surprisingly quickly.
First Views of Antarctica
When we first saw the continent of Antarctica, it was exactly what we had imagined—gigantic, mountainous glaciers tumbling into the sea, and penguins and seals everywhere.
A lot of countries have research bases on King George Island, though, so it doesn't really look like textbook Antarctica. It was green and muddy, with some snow coverage. (The race is held there so runners have access to emergency services.)
There were also some very different peculiarities on race day. For one, we had to carry our own bottled water onto the island. And in terms of nutritional supplements and snacks, we couldn’t bring anything that had a wrapper that could fly away; we had to put them in our pocket or in a plastic container to carry. The other weird thing: the toilet situation. There was a tent with a bucket at the starting/finish line. They race organizers are very strict about pulling over and peeing on the side of the road—that’s a big no-no. If you’ve gotta go, you go in the bucket.
The night before the race, we had to disinfect all of our stuff—you can’t bring anything that’s not indigenous to Antarctica, like nuts or seeds that could be caught in your sneakers, because the researchers and conservationists don’t want tourists to mess up the ecosystem. We had to get in to all our race gear on the ship then the expedition staff gave us big red wetsuits to put over all our running gear—to protect us from the freezing sea spray on the zodiac, or inflatable boat, ride to shore.
The Race Itself
The race was on March 9, during Antarctica's summer season—the temperature was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit. That was actually warmer than when I'd been training in Boston! It was the wind we had to watch out for. It felt like 10 degrees; it hurt your face.
But there’s not a lot of fanfare to the Antarctica Marathon. You get to the starting corral, you put your stuff on, and you go. There’s not a long of standing around either; it’s cold! By the way, of the 100 people running, only about 10 people were actually running competitively. Most of us were just doing this to say we did a marathon in Antarctica! And the marathon organizers warned us to expect our time to be about an hour slower than your normal marathon time, given the extreme conditions, from the cold to the unpaved course.
I had only planned on doing the half marathon, but once there, I decided to go for the full. Instead of a straight path with separate start and finish lines, the course was six 4.3ish mile loops of very rough dirt roads with lots of short hills. At first, I thought the loops were going to be terrible. A marathon in laps? But it ended up being cool, because the same 100 people you just spent a week on a boat with were all cheering each other on as they passed. I decided to walk up all the hills so I wouldn’t exhaust myself and run the downhills and flats. Navigating that terrain was by far the hardest part. But honestly, in terms of physical exertion, Antarctica was easier than Boston!
Crossing the Finish Line
Finishing felt pretty amazing. It was quick—you cross the finish line, get your medal, change, and get to the boat. Hypothermia can set in really quickly if you’re sweaty and wet, thanks to the freezing wind and sea spray. But even though it was quick, it was memorable; so unlike any other race.
This race may not be a forever thing, though. Tour organizers and expedition staff were cautious with tourists on the island, and restrictions and conservation efforts may make it harder, if not impossible, to go there in the future. Marathon Tours is sold out through 2017 too! I tell everyone, “Go now! Book your trip!” Because you may not get another chance.