If I did not have pictures, I would not believe Brian and I actually ran a marathon on Antarctica. The whole experience was surreal. At times I felt like I was floating in the sky watching myself as in a dream. I suppose I was loopy due to jetlag (12 hours of sleep over 3 days) and dehydration. Or perhaps it was the mysterious polar vortex that gave me the lightheaded feeling. In any case, we ran in Antarctica!
Marathon Adventures tour group coordinates the White Continent Marathon. I chose this company over the others because Marathon Adventures flies to Antarctica from Chile, rather than taking a nauseating 10 day cruise from South America through Drake Passage to Antarctica.
Together conquering one marathon at a time!
We stationed ourselves in Punta Arenas, Chile for 8 nights from 1/28/17-2/5/17. The plan was to fly on the first opportunity of good weather. I was very anxious about this. I’ve read stories where a group was set to fly, but waited in the airport for 11 hours because weather suddenly turned bad in Antarctica. Another group was within 20 minutes of landing on Antarctica and the plane had to turn back to Punta Arenas because the weather unexpectedly changed. Then another group was in the middle of running the marathon and had to be pulled off the course because the temperature was dropping dangerously low. They all eventually ran the marathon, but I did not want to have to deal with the drama.
Our first chance to fly was at 3:00AM on 1/31/17. It pushed back to 9:00AM which worried me since it would mean running in the afternoon when MS fatigue usually kicks in. We arrived at the airport at 7:00AM and it was very relaxed. We were able to pass full sized water bottles through the Chilean version of TSA. Or maybe liquids were not allowed, it’s just the security agent was busy chitchatting with her coworker while our bags went through the scanner.
Our flight was only delayed by 30 minutes and we were in the air before 10:00AM. I still did not want to believe we were on our way to Antarctica. I did not want to get excited until we actually landed.
With about 30 minutes to landing, everyone started changing into their running gear. I had to negotiate putting KT Tape on my feet and Brian prepared his three layers of socks. We also had our pre-race peanut butter Perfect Bars and coffee. Before I could finish strapping on my ankle-foot orthotic, the plane skidded onto the Great White Desert.
Antarctica was not what I expected. It was all black rock and dirt with patches of snow on the hillsides. There was no place for me to make a snow angel! It was not white and pristine, but I suppose it is summer in January and most of the snow had melted. There was also a lot of moss and lichen. I did not know it would have flora. The temperatures were in the 30-34F range with a 15-20 mph steady wind that made it feel like the mid-20s. I anticipated running closer to zero degrees, so I was pleased.
Are we there yet?
It was almost a two mile hike from the airplane to base camp. We had to carry all of our gear and that was hard. A few of us feel that should have been added to the mileage count for the marathon! When we arrived at base camp, the sleeping tents were still being set up and the porta-potties were not ready. A bunch of us just took the pee buckets and hid behind tall rocks. There was big hurry to start the race and we did not have much time to double check our race gear. It didn’t matter, I guess, since the race course would pass base camp 12 times.
Chilean Research Base
Chinese Research Base
The course was out-and-back 6 times. One turnaround was at the Chilean research base and the other turnaround was at the Chinese research base, and our base camp was about the middle. On or first out, Brian and I realized we were over-dressed. I had three layers and he had four. On our first opportunity, we dumped our top layers at base camp. This would be the first of 10 visits to base camp during the run. We had to stop so many times because I needed water, Perfect Bars (extra hungry in the cold) and porta-potty breaks, plus Brian had to change out his shoes. All the stops added a significant amount of time to our run.
Huge Painful Rocks
I overestimated the cold and wore a lot of layers, but I underestimated the terrain. It was extremely rocky, which ranged from pebbles to boulders. The heel on Brian’s shoe tore off and fortunately he had an extra pair of running shoes at base camp. We walked a lot of the marathon. The rocks made our footing very unstable and it was so harsh on our feet. I formed a ½ inch blister on the side of my left heel (such an odd place) because my feet were sliding a lot. We realized we had to play it safe by walking on the hard parts to avoid injury. We still have three marathons left on our adventure.
Hills were also a difficult factor. Total elevation gain according to my Garmin was 4,150 feet. The steepest hills were definite walkers!
There were times when I was disheartened during the run. Before going to Antarctica, our race director prepped us to leave no food wrappers, garbage, or human waste behind. Zero impact. Even when Brian’s shoe heel fell off, we searched for it while running and brought it back to Chile. However, I saw litter around research bases. One had broken bottles all over the ground as if there was a drunken party the night before. I also saw a big sea bird pecking at a Styrofoam box. That was disturbing.
Despite the rocks and trash, we tried to remain happy and positive. We felt extremely lucky to be able to run on Antarctica. I told Brian several times during the run that I could not believe we were there. Again, I felt like I was in a dream with penguins as our cheerleaders!
It was also really nice that it was an out-and-back course because we could see our running friends throughout the run and we cheered for each other.
Tough run on harsh terrain
I could not do any of this without the love of my life... and my AFO!
Slowest Marathon EVER!
We were extremely happy to complete this marathon. It was by far the hardest event we have ever accomplished.
My MS symptoms were in check during the whole run. I was so fearful of my body rebelling due to the cold because I do have pseudo-exacerbations in extreme weather. The main issues I had were electric shocks in my upper back and arm weakness that lasted most of the night, but I was so tired (and I took NyQuil) that I was able to ignore it and fall asleep.
I also cannot believe we camped in Antarctica. This was my first camping experience EVER! We bought 5 degree sleeping bags and they were very warm. However, the sleeping pads provided were pretty thin and I could feel the cold, rocky ground. Sunset in Antarctica was 11:00PM and sunrise was at 4:00AM. Needless to say, we did not get to sleep in.
I’m not sure if I will be a camper. It is awesome to say I camped in Antarctica, but the zero impact thing is tough. At our orientation meeting, we were instructed how to use the porta-potties. Pee in the white bucket and poo in the black bucket lined with a plastic bag. We had to dump the pee in a big oil drum. The poo bag had to be tied and pushed into a poo tube. I made sure to take a lot of anti-poo pills. I know that is TMI, but you lose modesty when you’re a marathon runner.
The next morning, we toured the Chilean research base. The scientists must commit to two years and they are allowed to bring their families. Consequently, they have a schoolhouse and when one child has a birthday, the entire town attends. The woman who gave the tour grew up on the base and she said it is a very tightknit community. Our guide said the only "flower" in Antarctica is this lichen and it takes 100 years to grow!
Chilean Research Base Tour
Russian Research Base
Russian Orthodox Church - Interior
Russian Orthodox Church - Exterior
We also visited a Russian Orthodox Church on the Russian research base. The interior was gleaming with gold and it was such a stark contrast to the cold, dark exterior. It was almost symbolic of my marathon experience. I ran in cold weather on top of black rocks, yet my spirit was beaming with gratitude for this amazing opportunity!
A heartfelt thank you to all my sponsors and donors for making this trip and all my other marathons possible. A HUGE shout out to Hanger Clinic for reaching out to the race director to directly pay my registration fees! I could not make this dream happen without your support. Perfect Bar kept me well-fueled before, during and after the run. Thank you XCom Global for keeping me connected while in Chile and powering my Facebook posts. You are all so awesome!
The first photo of Brian and me, as well as the picture of Brian, me and my AFO, are courtesy of Rachael L. Hatch Photography. The photo of Brian and me running in the Chinese research base was taken by Rob Horton. Thank you Rachael and Rob!