Thursday, February 27, 1997

TR Antarctica

By John M Wallace

In June 1995 I completed one of my major marathon goals –to complete a marathon in all fifty states plus the District of Columbia. What could I do now to keep me motivated?
I decided like many members of the 50 + DC Club (an informal club whose members had run or were attempting to run all 50 states + DC) to run all twelve provinces and territories of Canada. I also set a ‘hidden agenda’ to run all seven continents, a goal that that I could work on while focusing on the main goal of Canada. Little did I realize that these two goals would lead me to the two greatest marathon challenges and adventures of my running career – running the South and North Poles!
A year later, in the summer of 1996 while I was planning my schedule to complete the Canada goal I learned that Marathon Tours of Boston was planning a second Antarctica Marathon in February 1997. Their advertisement stated that the second marathon could very well be the last due to logistical and environmental reasons. Fearing that it might be my only opportunity to run Antarctica and complete my hidden agenda, I decided to send in my deposit to reserve an entry. I asked me wife if she wanted to go also and was surprised by her answer “are you crazy”?
So I reserved a single slot and continued running marathons in Canada and every so often would ask me wife again about Antarctica and get the same response. In November it was time to make the final payment for Antarctica and a final sales pitch to my wife to accompany me. I also had more information by then. Marathon Tours had contracted two ships from Marine Expeditions to accommodate a total of 100 runners or passengers. They were offering two different 12-day packages. Both packages were all-inclusive from New York or Miami and routed through Buenos Aires, Argentina. Package # 1 included one day in Buenos Aires, one day in Ushuaia, Argentina and ten days on the ship. Package # 2 included three days in Buenos Aires, one day in Ushuaia, Argentina and eight days on the ship. Knowing that my wife would love to visit Buenos Aires I used Package # 2 as the incentive to convince her to join me. Her major concern or fear was the trip across the Drake Passage. This is where the three oceans; Pacific, Atlantic and Antarctic meet and is famous for the roughest seas in the world. But she was willing to accept that danger (and probable seasickness) for the reward of three days in Buenos Aires.

In February 97 the time to start the big adventure arrived! After an overnight flight we arrived in Buenos Aires. Marathon Tours had accommodated all runners in a first class hotel and arranged an introductory cocktail party so that we could meet each other. This would be our only opportunity to meet those runners on Package # 1 before the marathon because they were departing the next day. For those on package # 2 we had three days to explore Buenos Aires. It is a beautiful city with a European feeling and architecture (a nice change for those from America). There are many places to visit in the city itself but after a few days in a big noisy city my wife and I were happy to escape across the Rio del Plata River on a hydrofoil to visit the small town of Colonia de Sacramento in Uruguay. But now it was time to continue our journey on to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. We spent one night in Ushuaia and were able to get in our last training run- up and down a glacier at the northern end of the town. The most notable feature of our day in Ushuaia was seeing all four seasons in microcosm: bright warm sunshine, dripping rain, followed by snow and a stiff wind that proved to be a harbinger of what we would encounter in Antarctica. The next day we boarded our ship or home for the next eight days. The Akademik Ioffe was a Russian ship that had been built and hardened for travel in Arctic waters. She and her sister ship that the other group had departed on, were built and used as ‘spy’ ships to track enemy submarines in the Arctic Ocean during the Cold War. But now that there was no Cold War they had no work and were leased out for tourist expeditions to Antarctica. Needless to say these were working ships and not luxury liners. But they were comfortable and the Russian crew was friendly and the food was basic but good. The expedition staff, those that actually took us to shore and escorted us around the continent were Canadians and very experienced and knowledgeable.

After steaming through the Beagle Channel, the ship entered open waters and rounded Cape Horn to enter the dreaded Drake Passage. We were lucky on our trip. The waves were only about 15 to 18 feet whereas they often exceed 30 feet! Nevertheless some unfortunate people were not able to leave their cabin for the two days that it takes to cross the passage. Suddenly the seas calmed as we approached the continent of Antarctica.
During our trip across the Passage and in fact every day except marathon day the expedition staff offered lectures on Antarctica. These lectures included history on early explorers such as Shackelton, geography and the nature and wildlife of the continent. These lessons not only kept us busy but also prepared us well for what we were to see and experience.

After we left the Drake Passage and approached the South Shetland Islands, we began to see small ice floes. And finally on the third day at sea we were to experience our initial landing on Antarctica! It is important to note that Antarctica is a large landmass that is continuously covered by an ice cap that can reach a thickness of over 10,000 feet. The ocean ice surrounding Antarctica varies in size throughout the seasons and expands at the rate of 1 mile per day in the winter. There aren’t any piers or docks in Antarctica; all landings are wet. In order to step onto land in Antarctica, we had to scamper down a gangway off the side of the ship and jump into a Zodiac, which is an inflatable boat with an outboard motor. The Zodiacs transport up to 10 passengers at a time; they land on the beaches, and we swing our legs over the side, and step out into the ice-cold surf.
Once on land we visited penguins (hundreds of thousands at some sites) and seals and marveled at the enormous ice caps and glaciers. The expedition staff took us on tours in the Zodiac along the coast and around huge icebergs to explore glaciers calving into the ocean and to see seals and whales. The scenery is so amazing and awe-inspiring that is very difficult to describe in words.
The expedition staff picked a number of landing sites based on weather and ocean conditions. Each site offered something different, from wildlife to hot springs in a cove off Deception Island. Yes, we donned bathing suits and sat in Antarctica surf heated up by water boiling up from a volcano.

On our 3rd evening at sea we were steaming up the coast of Antarctica towards King George Island, the site of the marathon. That night as were sleeping we were awakened by a violent shudder of the ship and then our personal items such as hair dryers, etc. that we had foolishly left out of drawers were flying around our cabin. We had run into very bad weather and seas! The next morning we had arrived at the marathon site. King George Island as well as the mainland of Antarctica, is governed by the Antarctica Treaty system, which establishes that while no country may claim sovereignty over any part of the White Continent, countries may establish scientific bases there. This was especially true on King George Island, where seven nations maintain bases. And one of them, Russia was to host the marathon that year.
However we had a major problem! The weather was so bad and the seas so rough that the expedition staff declared it too dangerous to attempt a landing. To make matters worse, our sister ship had arrived earlier and managed to disembark her runners and they were going to start the marathon without us. There was almost a mutiny. We had all spent several thousand dollars to come here to run a marathon –and we couldn’t get off the ship! But wisely, cooler heads finally prevailed when confronted with the fact that someone could easily die if we attempted to land. So we watched with frustration from the ship as our fellow runners on land started the marathon. We were then advised to have some lunch while the expedition staff monitored the seas and tried to reposition the ship to see if they could find a safer position to attempt a landing. Half way into our lunch the ship’s horn blew and the expedition staff announced that we had five minutes to get ready to attempt a landing! Thirty hectic and dangerous minutes later they had all the runners from our ship safely on shore. What a state of confusion and turmoil existed. Our fellow runners were almost two hours into the marathon and we hadn’t started!

The marathon course started at the Russian base and consisted of a double figure-8 loop.
The first loop ran out from the Russian base towards the Uruguayan base through shoe-sucking mud that had been made worse by our fellow runners, across an ice-cold glacial stream and then up the Collins Glacier. It ascended 1100 feet to the top before returning back down the glacier and through the same stream and mud to the Russian base. The next loop headed in the opposite direction on muddy and very hilly trails out past the Chilean base to the Chinese base and back. That represented a half marathon –for the full marathon you did each loop twice.
There was no race support, no water stations, etc. We had to take four water bottles with us which the expedition staff dropped off at specific points along the course.
The weather was horrible as mentioned, about minus 2 degrees Celsius, snowing and blowing gale winds. Nobody was sure how to dress for the race. I unfortunately overdressed. I had polypro tights and top on plus a Gore-Tex suit over that to stop the wind.
By the time I made it to the glacier (about 4 miles) I was cooking. But I had to wait until I got back to the Russian base to strip off the Gore-Tex suit and replace it with a simple nylon jacket to stop the wind. The mud was a terrible problem for me. I had never run in mud before and was afraid that I was going to lose a shoe with each step. The glacier was probably the most difficult challenge, the footing going up was slippery but coming back down was worse. It was so steep and slippery that I lost control a few times and had to resort to an old ski trick of turning back up into the hill to regain control.
But nature had some other surprises and obstacles to throw at us also. The staff had warned us to stay clear of all wildlife on the course because they might regard it as their territory. Boy, were they right! Several of us were chased off the course by Sea Lions and were constantly dive-bombed by Skuas, a seagull-like scavenger bird. But everyone persevered and all 100 runners finished their races.

I had determined instantly at the start that time was not important in this marathon –survival was. I didn’t even rush when taking off my Gore-Tex suit after the first loop, an act that took more than five minutes. But as I neared the end of the race and realized that I was close to four hours then it did become paramount that I beat that four-hour target! This self-imposed target probably helped me become a better ‘mudder’ as I abandoned my concern and caution about the mud and just ran through the damn stuff. I think that I actually crossed the line in 4:00:03 but a gracious timer gave me an official time of 3:59:59! This was without a doubt the most difficult marathon to get to and then to run in my entire life!

Many runners were out on the course for several more hours and the captain of the ship and the expedition staff allowed everyone to finish in spite of worsening weather and their concern about getting everyone back to the ship safely. The euphoria on the ship that evening was amazing in spite of the tiredness and pain felt by all. Even the non-runners such as my wife were celebrating. She and several others had volunteered to help with the race and had stood outside in the cold for over five hours! Talk about troopers!

The following two days we visited many more sites on the islands and mainland of Antarctica. With the calmness of having the marathon behind us, the glaciers and icebergs seem to get bigger and more awesome as we traveled further south. On our last day in Antarctica we met up with our sister ship for a celebration and award party. Unfortunately this led to some strife and turmoil because of the staggered start (essentially two separate races). Then it was time to head back across the Drake Passage, round Cape Horn and return to Ushuaia. Again luck blessed us, as the seas were not too bad.

Upon arriving in Ushuaia and departing our ship, my wife and I took one last look at the ship as it was being prepared for another expedition; then each other; smiled and said jointly “ I enjoyed it, I’m glad I did it –but I wouldn’t get back on that ship if they give me the tour for free”!

So that is our story. But there were 100 runners/passengers on that marathon trip and they all had stories and I feel that I must share at least two of those with you. One is a story of courage and the other of romance and humor. First the courage. There were a group of ‘World Team’ members on our tour. World Team is a group of physically challenged athletes. They were all heroes in my mind but one story in particular comes to mind. This individual, a gentleman had one prosthetic leg. On his first loop down the glacier he caught his good leg in a crevasse and sprained it severely. But he continued on and finished the marathon seven hours later!

The story of romance? A couple from our hometown, Dallas, TX had just got married the weekend before the trip and thus the marathon trip was their honeymoon. Unfortunately the groom was prone to seasickness and became afflicted the moment that we left Beagle Channel. We only saw the bride for the first three days as she left their cabin to get medicine, crackers, etc. for her new groom. He was the runner and planned to run the marathon. She was not a runner but had faithfully (true love?) trained to run her first-ever half. He was very weak on race day due to dehydration, no food, etc and ran very slowly -but finished. The bride on the other hand felt good and after completing her half marathon decided to continue on and accompany her new husband – and she finished with him! But---- the next day she was so sore that she could not get out of bed and for the rest of the journey all we saw was him as he came out to get her food and medicine? At least that was their story? (I always wonder if they are still married?)

A final side note: I did complete my hidden agenda or goal to run all seven continents on August 22, 1998 at Noosa, Australia.


Erick said...

Hi Jon, congratulations on your running. Is there a link where we can find the list of your marathons in 115 countries? Cheers Erick

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