On Thick Ice

The amazing story of the Antarctic Ice Marathon. Unless otherwise noted, all photos in this post are copyright http://www.icemarathon.com, 2014. We’d like to thank the folks at the Antarctic Ice Marathon for putting on a top notch event and for allowing us to share some of the incredible photos that they captured this year.

Union Glacier is located in the southern Ellsworth Mountains of West Antarctica. During the summer months (November to January), it is home to more than 30 people who staff the Union Glacier Camp. The camp is located about 600 miles from the South Pole at an elevation of nearly 3,000 feet.

Antarctica map
the white arrow on the map indicates the location of the camp

The camp is near a rare, naturally occurring, blue ice runway that allows wheeled jet cargo aircraft to land. At the beginning of the season, aircraft drop ANI (Adventure Network International) personnel and equipment off via parachute to clear the runway and start preparing the camp. Once the runway is ready, the aircraft returns with additional staff and equipment. For more details about the camp, please visit http://www.adventure-network.com/union-glacier-camp

Russian Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft are used to transport equipment and personnel to the camp. The flight from Punta Arenas, Chile is around 2,000 miles and takes a little over four hours.

boarding-punta-arenas russian-safety-briefing
boarding the plane in Punta Arenas and safety briefing by Russian crew (emergency exits)
ilyushin-standard-seating ilyushin-jump-seats
“standard” seating for 48 people plus some jump seats located in the rear cargo area
ilyushin-cockpit
view from the cockpit

Upon arrival in Antarctica, visitors are transported to Union Glacier Camp via specially adapted 4×4 passenger vans. The camp is located about 5 miles from the runway in an area that is generally sheltered from the wind.

first-steps
first steps on the frozen continent
warm-vans luggage
warm vans quickly transport visitors to camp and luggage follows soon after

Union Glacier Camp is amazing!

We slept in double walled, unheated tents. A polar sleeping bag was provided and it kept us quite warm. However, a bottle of water left beside the bed overnight would freeze. The same was true for a pee bottle left beside the bed (yup, that’s really a thing). The temperature inside the tent varied between 25ºF and 68ºF depending on the amount of sunlight that was available. The sun doesn’t set in the summer, but cloud cover can keep things on the cooler side. We arrived on Tuesday and didn’t see the sun until Friday afternoon, so it was definitely cool for most of our stay.

The dining tent was heated and we spent much of our time there. In addition to dining, this was the place for group meetings, socializing, or just relaxing. The full kitchen served us delicious, fresh-cooked meals that included fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, and meats. Snacks and beverages were available anytime.

The bathroom facilities were not heated, so each trip was a quick one. We’ll spare the details, but the ANI crew leave nothing behind on the continent. All waste is returned to Punta Arenas. They are dedicated to keeping the environment pristine and beautiful. There were also heated shower facilities that used melted snow for water. We were allowed one shower during our five day stay.

base-camp dining-tent
the accommodations (two people per tent) and a view of the long blue dining tent behind the crowd
showers safety-meeting
the shower facility and a view of the inside of the dining tent (at a safety briefing presented by the doctors)
by-the-fire
taking life easy while drying out my boots

ice-marathon

The schedule was a bit unpredictable. Everything was based on the weather and the safety of the guests. After the first few delays, people seemed to settle in and accept that things were beyond their control. We were initially supposed to fly to Antarctica on Monday (11/17), but poor weather conditions pushed our departure out until Tuesday afternoon. Once we arrived, we were supposed to run the marathon the next day, the 100K on Thursday, and return on Friday (our original return date). However, very soon after we arrived the small window of good weather closed and things got cloudy and windy. We were not able to run the marathon on Wednesday, although we were allowed to go out for a quick 4K run to test out our gear.

The 100K actually took place first, starting on Thursday at 9:00AM. The weather was still very windy, but the 100K route stayed closer to camp and the runners were a bit tougher than us mere marathoners. Six people started the race and six people finished. The winning time was just under 14 hours and the last runners finished in just under 24 hours. That’s right, 24 hours. We cheered for them at the start, then at various points throughout the race, then went to bed while they continued to run. We got up the next morning, had some breakfast, and then cheered as the last people finished. Here are the six brave souls that took on this incredible challenge.

start-100K
the 100K participants: Richard, Adriana, Penbin, Oscar, Kenichi, Willy

The marathon started on Friday at 2:00PM, just hours after the 100K wrapped up. The wind had died down and the sun came out around 3:00PM or 3:30PM, so we actually had very nice conditions. There were 57 runners with times ranging from about 4.25 hours to 9.25 hours. And again, everyone who started the race finished it. This is a testament not only to the dedication of the individual runners, but to the support that we received from the ANI and Antarctic Ice Marathon staff.

start-marathon-1 start-marathon-2
the start of the marathon, still overcast, but with low wind
and-were-off
and we’re off!

The race itself was incredible! The crowd broke up very quickly and I spent much of my time running by myself, listening to the sound of snow crunch beneath my feet. This was the most peaceful, pristine marathon that I have ever run (and it was #58).

marathon-solo
here I am solo, enjoying the scenery – this is the back stretch of the first loop and the sky has started to clear

We had prepared for the race by running on a treadmill in a walk in freezer, so I knew pretty much what to expect in terms of gear. The main advice from the race veterans was to take things slowly in the beginning and avoid overheating. Getting soaked with sweat and then getting cold later in the race would be a very bad thing. The marathon was two loops of 13.1 miles. Each loop had two manned checkpoints and an unmanned aid station. My plan starting out was to strip off all my wet gear midway through (in the heated dining tent) and replace it with dry gear. Given how nice the conditions were, this may not have been necessary, but I stuck to the plan and started out fresh at the halfway mark.

checkpoint-1 hydration
the first checkpoint

We had done some initial prep to get used to the temperature and the gear, but hadn’t really done much to prepare for the conditions underfoot. I would recommend logging some miles in wet sand before taking on this race. The footing was always slightly unstable and this definitely sapped your energy more quickly than during a normal road race. The course was very well marked and packed down, but not quite solid. There were places where you could run in vehicle tracks and places where you could run in snowmobile tracks, but I found the best footing to actually be on the edge of the trail where the wind had blown the snow and made it firm. It still wasn’t totally solid, so you were always aware of your feet, but it was the most predictable. There were also sections with drifting snow that you pretty much needed to walk though.

footing
check out the footing… and the clear, blue sky!

About 5.5 hours after I started, I was very tired and very happy to be done. I was looking forward to my one shower for the week and some time by the fire. But even more than that, I was looking forward to receiving my finisher medal from Richard Donovan, winner of the first marathon ever run in Antarctica back in 2002 (he actually finished at the South Pole, under much tougher conditions).

finisher-medal-1 finisher-medal-2
the toughest marathon medal I have ever earned was personally handed out by the race director
finisher-photo
finisher photo with Richard Donovan, winner of the first marathon ever run in Antarctica

There was quite a bit of celebrating Friday night and the weather was the best that it had been all week around 2:00AM, so naturally we needed to capture one final photo with the finisher medal…

Yes, that’s me wearing just my boots and gloves, about 600 miles from the South Pole. How many people have been there? And how many of them have run a marathon?

nude-finisher-photo
(censored by my Social Media Director – you’ll have to wait for my book to see the “raw” photo)

The following day was Saturday and we had an official awards ceremony with champagne. A bunch of people had completed their final marathon in their #quest4seven and were officially welcomed into the 7 Continents Marathon Club. Others were welcomed the Marathon Grand Slam Club (seven continents plus the North Pole).

champagne
winners 7-continents
winners of the marathon and 100K – Penbin (100K), Frederique (marathon), Adriana (100K), Marc (marathon) in the left photo, members of The 7 Continents Marathon Club in the right photo

all-the-runners
all the runners

The weather was favorable for the plane to return, so we left that afternoon, one day later than planned. This was actually a good thing because we gained the day back that we had lost with our outbound delay.

prepping-plane
prepping the plane
return-flight
boarding the return flight


For those of you who plan to join us on the #quest4seven (more info), here are a few additional thoughts.

There are other marathons that claim to take place in Antarctica. If you have already run one of them and are happy with the experience, then congratulations! We are happy for you and in no way want to diminish your accomplishment.

If you are still looking for a marathon in Antarctica, then we can’t recommend this one any more highly. First of all, it actually takes place on the continent. If you are going to put in the effort to complete marathons on all seven continents, then why short change yourself? Second and most important, we think that the #quest4seven should not just be about checking off a box, but about actually experiencing each continent.

We spent five days in Antarctica, sleeping in an unheated tent. We woke up at night to the wind howling and the tent shaking. That very first morning when I woke up and it was so incredibly cold that I didn’t want to get out of the sleeping bag to pee, the feeling of isolation was almost overwhelming.

I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything.

Make each continent a destination, not a layover. When you look back at the memories that you have made, you will be glad that you did.

– Coach Larry

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