2 weeks ago today, I arrived at Novolazarevskaya Station in Antarctica with 35 other men and 12 women to start the World Marathon Challenge–running 7 marathons on all 7 continents in 7 days.
A few quick race-related facts for those of you who are runners:
Course: Plowed 4.2-mile loop around the airstrip with crunchy snow and blue ice.
Conditions: Sunny and 25 degrees F at start. 5 degrees F wind chill at finish.
Aid stations: 1 at start/finish line with limited aid (coke, water, crackers).
As for gear, I wore the following:
- Altra Torin 3s with Kahtoola NANOspikes
- Swiftwick Pursuit Four merino wool socks
- North Face Winter Training tights
- North Face Flight Touji pants
- North Face Base Layer zip
- North Face long sleeve
- North Face Flight Series Fuse jacket
- North Face gloves x2
- BUFF Polar Athor
- North Face beanie
- Smith ski goggles (switched to Zeal Optics sunglasses after first lap)
Traveling to Antarctica
We had a Boeing 757 chartered for our trip from Cape Town to Novolazarevskaya (Novo) Station. When we boarded the plane on Tuesday morning, January 30, in Cape Town, everyone was fresh, excited, wore clean clothes and probably took a shower that morning. That may seem like an odd thing to share, but as this story unfolds it will become clear why that stood out as I took notes along the way. Anyway, when everyone boarded the plane, there was a tremendous amount of excitement, lots of “getting to know each other” conversation and it certainly seemed, at least on the surface, that everyone was excited to get this adventure started.
The previous 2 days in Cape Town included some short pre-race briefings. The Sunday night briefing was a general briefing about the event, introductions to each of the runners and a proclamation by Dave McGillivray, the long-time race director of the Boston Marathon, that “anyone that beats me will not get into Boston.”
The medals for each of the races were displayed for everyone to see and the beautiful glass trophy with a shiny glass globe on top was there for anyone who thought they could deliver the fastest average marathon time over the 7 races. There was some nervous chitter chatter, but everyone was relatively loose and the atmosphere was upbeat.
On Monday afternoon, we met at the headquarters of The Antarctic Company, where we got the final details regarding our trip to and from Antarctica. Nearly all of us would be traveling on a private charter Boeing 757 that seated 50 people, but some would be traveling with the race organizers on a IL-76 cargo plane. It looked quite impressive with it’s glass-paneled cone, but I was thrilled to have the comforts of a VIP plane to and from Antarctica.
As we made the 5 1/2 hour flight to Novo Station, I had that classic “let’s get this thing started” anxiety, but I also felt a calm, confidence knowing I had trained well, hadn’t suffered any major injuries and I had run in high 20s temps about 2 weeks prior to leaving for the race. I felt strongly that I could not have been better prepared for this 7-day adventure. That said, I had suffered a freak injury in my last long run 2 1/2 weeks prior to the start of the race, when I slipped on some black ice and took a nasty fall.
I was leaving the running path to take a quick bathroom break and was fast walking up the 25-foot path to the bathroom when I walked on a patch of black ice and caught enough air that when I came down hard on the ice I busted my handheld water bottle open from the force of my hand slamming onto the ground to break my fall. I laid there in the shape of a twisted pretzel with my knee and ankle contorted in the wrong direction and pinned under my backside.
Most runners have experienced a “this is it, I’ve just ruined my chances of running this race I’ve trained so hard for” moment when something freak happens.
Well, I laid there in pain for a couple of minutes recognizing I had twisted my left knee and ankle pretty bad. My immediate thought was that my quest to run 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days was over before it even started. I was just 6 miles into a 16-mile run and hundreds of more thoughts began to flood my brain. Should I just walk back to the car and call it a day? Should I walk the remaining 10 miles? Can I even walk? Did anyone see me? How ridiculous did I look? It’s cold outside so maybe that will keep the swelling down? Maybe it isn’t as bad as I think?
I finally got up and without thinking much, I started to make the long walk back to my car. It was cold. It was snowy. It was icy. I was defeated. I made it about 100 yards and something inside of me flipped and I turned around. I started walking back to the running path. It just happened. I couldn’t call it a day. I knew I couldn’t leave without knowing exactly how bad it was and I knew I wouldn’t know that unless I tried to run on it. So I decided that since this was my last long run before the race, I didn’t want to end my training with such a big unknown. So I walked back to the path and started running. It hurt. It really hurt. But as I got about a mile back into my run, the knee and ankle began to loosen up just a bit. The pain was there, but I didn’t feel like I was doing any additional harm (that was me telling myself a story). It was in the high 20s/low 30s, so I took some comfort that the cool temps were keeping the swelling down and that was beneficial. I kept moving, picked up the pace just a bit so I could “test” race pace and I gutted out the final 10 miles of my 16-mile run.
I went home, immediately got into compression pants and socks, went through the normal injury treatment process and hoped it wouldn’t balloon up and turn into a major issue for the race. Of course I couldn’t get out of my mind that I was going to be running 184 miles in 7 days, in less than 3 weeks, and that this was NOT the type of injury I wanted to start out with for an event like this. I didn’t want to be starting out with ANY injuries at all, let alone a tweaked knee and ankle. So I took 2 days off, and slowed my pace way down for the remaining short runs that ranged from 4-6 miles. It was certainly tender, but it was manageable. My overriding concern was whether or not it would hold up for 184 miles. But I took as much care as I could and I tried to forget about it as much as possible (which was nearly impossible).
Almost to Antarctica
As we approached Antarctica, we started to change from shorts and t-shirts (it was 75 degrees when we left Cape Town) into our cold weather running gear, and a twinge of self-doubt began to creep into my head. I knew I had done the training. I knew I had the gear I needed. I knew I was as prepared as I could possibly be… and I knew there was one unknown. What would it be like to run on that sore knee and ankle for 26.2 miles on ice? Could there be a worse surface to start running 7 consecutive marathons? I kept pushing the negative thoughts out of my head and reminding myself I had done the work and saying to myself over and over “there’s nothing you can do about it now.”
I had two letters with me from my girlfriend. One was supposed to be opened before the first marathon in Antarctica and the other before the last marathon in Miami. So I pulled out the white envelope labeled “Antarctica” from my journal and set it on the table where I was seated along with 3 other people. Almost at once, they all asked me what I had and I explained about the two letters. They all thought it was sweet, and I think they were all just a bit jealous. Andrew, my long-time friend and running partner for this adventure, said, “oh, young love.” I probably blushed a bit before focusing on reading the letter. I soaked up every inspiring word of love and support and grinned ear-to-ear when I read the end: “I love you dearly. Now, go run the fuck out of this race!” With a big smile on my face, any doubt I had was washed away knowing I had the support of someone I loved and understood me and the importance of completing this crazy adventure.
Stepping Foot on an Arctic Desert
Once we landed, we stepped out of the warm confines of our VIP jet and onto the frozen ice of Antarctica. We gathered up our bags and boarded wooden sleds attached to snowmobiles from the plane to the barracks of the Novo Station camp. Let me be clear. I’m not talking Army barracks or significant structures or anything that looked like much more than an Arctic shanty town of 9-10 metal boxes that were a bit wider than your typical shipping container and about half the length. We’re talking about a series of 10’ x 30’ metal boxes with linoleum floors, 4 bunk beds and a single cot. There was also a small bathroom with a sink and a urinal. Yes, just a urinal. If you needed to do more, you needed to hike about 200 yards to the “zebra” bunker to do your business. There was a single heating “unit” inside the hut and that was it. The group of 50+ runners were assigned to one of four huts and we were told to go inside, get dressed and the race would start in the next “hour or so.”
More on this later, but this was the first indication that there was NEVER an actual start time for any of these races. There was NEVER a predictable schedule and what we thought was “exclusive to Antarctica because there was no local race support,” was actually just the way it was going to be. Every. Single. Race.
This isn’t a complaint. In many ways, it became part of the adventure. In fact, running the actual marathon each day became the most peaceful part of an otherwise completely hectic schedule that wouldn’t stop for 156 straight hours.
Back to our luxurious Antarctic accommodations. We unpacked our gear, made sure everything was in order for the race and several of us went outside to “experience” Antarctica. Some of the runners from team “Hold the Plane” (more on this amazing 16-person group in a future blog post) were previously affiliated with the Miami Marlins, including two-time World Series champion Jeff Conine, were outside throwing a baseball around. I share this as an example of how incredibly loose most people appeared to before the first of seven straight marathons. At this point, no one really knew what to expect and blissful ignorance certainly ruled thus far.
Let me describe what it looked like. Ice. Everywhere. For as far as you could see. You could see some mountainous areas in the distance, but it was just snow and ice. If you’ve ever been to the desert, it was just like that, but the tan sand was white ice. It was breathtaking. It was also clear that the potential of a nasty storm rolling in and just crushing this little research station was a reality. In fact, we were told that in the last 30 days, there had only been 3 days like the day we were having. Crystal blue skies and “light” wind.
Let’s Run a Marathon!
The race itself was a looped course around the airfield for Novo Station. It was a 4.2-mile loop, so we started with a .5-mile out-and-back to get us on track to run 6 loops for a total of 26.2 miles. My distances may be a bit off, but close enough to give you a good visual of what we were dealing with. The course was packed snow and varied between crunchy snow and slick blue ice. I chose to wear Kahtoola NANOspikes over my Altra Torin 3s versus trail shoes. I didn’t have any issues in terms of footwear, but the varied terrain and temps made it difficult to get into any type of a rhythm. Being the first race, there was also the issue of higher-than-normal heart rate and the weather conditions were altogether something I’ve never dealt with before.
To help you visualize what we were dealing with, the sun was off to the Northwest of us as we started. As we traveled north up the long side of the airfield, it felt warm. Yes, warm. Just like any run in cold temperatures, the tendency is to overdress. Knowing this, I had a base layer, a long sleeve and shell for my upper body (with the thought I could easily ditch the longsleeve after the first lap) and tights and a shell on my legs. As we ran North, I had my shell completely unzipped because it was so hot. I instantly knew I would be ditching my long sleeve when we looped around. But then we made the turn at the far North end of the airfield and BAM arctic cold air was blowing in our face and the “feels like” temperature dropped dramatically. So now I was stuck in this strange place of half the loop being hot and half the loop being cold. Not cool, cold.
Further complicating matters were the dropping temperatures as the race continued. Keep in mind that we were not given any guidance on temperatures dropping, and the sun doesn’t set this time of year in Antarctica, so there wasn’t this intuitive sense that we needed to plan for significantly changing temps as the race went on.
So Andrew and I made it through the first two laps at about a 9:45 pace (we consistently trained at 8:30-8:45 pace). Due to the varied temp changes during each lap, I chose to regulate my body temperature primarily with my headgear, and not by removing or adding any layers. That seemed to be a great strategy and worked as I removed my beanie heading north and pulled up my Buff and donned my beanie heading South. What I didn’t expect was to have my handheld water bottle freeze during lap 3 and then burst all over my hand, thereby soaking my left hand in freezing water with 2+ miles to go on that lap. That was an unexpected mishap that really put me in a bad place. Not being able to feel my fingers caused considerable pain, distraction and put me in a negative frame of mind coming into lap 4. Fortunately, I had an extra pair of gloves, but now I was down to a single glove on my left hand. Three laps to go and I was officially cold and a bit miserable. Ok. I was absolutely miserable and just wanted to be done. The enjoyment of running my first marathon in Antarctica had wore off and there was no sugar coating the experience at that point.
We worked our way around lap 4 and with 2 laps to go we took a little extra time to gather ourselves at the single aid station located at the start/finish line. Let me describe what was at this aid station. Not much. A little water (which they ran out of), some gatorade-like liquid, some coke and some type of cracker. There may have been a few energy gels as well. We had our own nutrition, so that wasn’t a huge deal, but our frozen hands made it difficult to rip open packaging (I know better and should have had them all ripped open prior to starting the race) and there was a lot of fumbling around trying to refill my back-up handheld. Candidly, I’ve gotten used to ultra races where the aid station volunteers are filling up your water bottles for you! That wasn’t happening in Antarctica. So we didn’t have the smoothest of transitions through aid stations and we lost A LOT of time, sometimes 3 minutes each lap (not good). We made our way around lap 5, losing a little pace as I continued to deal with the cold and early on in lap 6 another mishap occurred. Yep. My back-up handheld froze, split and soaked my left hand once again. Now the temps have dropped to about 10 degrees, the wind is starting to howl and I’m just pissed off. I started the race feeling like I couldn’t be more prepared and I ended the race feeling like a complete amateur for not having a great hydration strategy, having 2 cracked handhelds, being super cold despite having all the layers and gear I needed to be more than comfortable in any temperature.
Recognizing this was a 7-day challenge, we had a goal of running Antarctica somewhere between 4:15-4:30 to ease our way into the race, not wanting to exert too much energy on Day 1. After all, we had 6 MORE MARATHONS to run. We ended up at 4:31 and candidly, we both felt good about the time considering my equipment malfunctions and the unknowns associated with the course, aid stations and weather. Oh, and my knee and ankle. No major issues. Isn’t that the way it works? Your mind gets all worked up about something, and sometimes it actually is something, but most of the time it is just in your head. So we got done with Antarctica with a reasonable time, no injuries, but we exerted a bit more energy than we had planned for a 4:30 marathon.
Okay. “A bit more energy than we planned” is an understatement.
We were absolutely exhausted and instantly said to each other “we just fired a few too many bullets for the first of seven marathons.” So there we were in cold Antarctica having completed our first of seven marathons and we were completely spent. But that wasn’t the end of our Antarctica experience. The real kick in the balls was the reality that we weren’t going anywhere for quite awhile! The pilot that flew us to Antarctica had to be on the ground for 12 hours after landing before he could fly us back to Cape Town. So after we finished a marathon that ended in 5-10 degree temps, we had to go back to those dank metal boxes with limited heat and change out of our frozen, wet clothes and shiver uncontrollably as we tried to heat up. No hot shower. Just Nathan Power Showers (fancy wet wipes) to clean ourselves before getting dressed in clean, warm clothes in preparation for a 6-hour wait in Antarctica before our departure. It was miserable. I can’t glamorize something that was just not glamorous. 5 guys, then 6, 7, 8 shuffling in cold to the bone, shivering and not completely aware of what was going on, only to find out that we were going to be sitting around for another 6 hours before our departure.
So Andrew and I got changed and put on our Normatec boots. More on the Normatecs later. Why? Because I’ve already written 6 pages and I intended this to be a short post on the first of seven marathons.
The Best Part of Running a Marathon is Eating Afterward… unless you’re in Antarctica
I bet you’re wondering what was prepared for us to eat after running that first marathon? I mean, that’s usually what people do after they run a marathon, right? Eat. And eat more. And keep eating. Nutrition is pretty important when you’re going to be running 7 marathons in 7 days, right?
Well, there was only one option available to us and that was to eat with the rest of the Russians manning the Novo Research Station. So Andrew and I made the cold walk down to the mess hall to have mashed potatoes, coleslaw and the optional mystery sausage meat in a brown sauce that was darker than, well, you know. I opted for the mashed potatoes and coleslaw and dumped as much salt as I could tolerate on both to help with electrolyte recovery. It tasted amazing. Not really. That’s me telling myself a story. A story of “you have no choice but to eat because you’re not going to get anything else until you get back on the plane in 6 hours.”
One final comment, and a thank you, to the generous Russians that had been sentenced (asked to serve?) an 18-hour tour in the middle of the Arctic desert.
They were generous to host us. They were exactly what you’d expect a Russian serving slop on a plate would be, a bit cold, unrelatable and completely disinterested in a bunch of idiots that flew 5 ½ hours to run a marathon around their research station. Oh, and when I was finished, I picked up our plates and went back to the wonderful Russian that served us and asked where I should place our dirty plates and silverware. He pointed over to a bucket of dirty water and grunted that I should wash everything there. Yep. I got the full experience of being a Russian “scientist” in Antarctica.
The first marathon was in the books and we had less than 13 hours before the next marathon in Cape Town, South Africa started.
With food in our stomachs and not much else to do, we made our way back to our hut and tried to grab a nap as runners came in and out trying to pass the time as best they could. Not much sleep was had as my mind began to drift toward the reality that we were going to board a plan in just a few more hours, have about 4 ½ hours to eat and sleep and less than 1 hour once we got to the staging hotel to change and get to the starting line. The World Marathon Challenge had started and it was clear it was going to get a little crazy once we landed in Cape Town. Forecast: 75 degrees and windy.