Imagine a marathon in shorts and a singlet in the shadow of a 10,000 year old glacier.
The 2001 Antarctic Marathon, or The Last Marathon as it is called, was exactly that way. I know. I was there. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When Thom Gilligan, of Marathon Tours, called to ask if I wanted to run with a bunch of penguins, I said “Sure!”. When he explained that the penguins were in Antarctica and that the only way to get to the race site was by flying to the tip of South America and then taking a 2 day boat ride through the roughest seas on the planet and that running the race meant spending 11 days on a ship my stomach sank. But, I was committed.
Let me admit right off the bat that my idea of roughing it is not having 24 hour room service. Let me further admit that my nautical experience has consisted mostly of trying not to drown while being dragged around head first behind a ski boat. And, finally, I must have been absent the one day we spent talking about Antarctica in my high school geography class, because I knew nothing except that the South Pole was there.
But, ever eager to take on new challenges, I set out to prepare for the adventure. I sought out cold and snowy conditions in which to train. I experimented with clothes and gear and shoes. I even found myself shopping in “outfitter” stores for windblocker fleece and waterproof gloves. And to complete the look, I stopped shaving two months before the trip began. I wanted to have the rugged look that all the Polar explorers seemed to have.
When the departure date finally arrived, I was ready. I was prepared for anything the Antarctic could throw at me. Or so I thought. I was ready to take on the cold, the wind, and the course. But, as I was soon to find out, when it comes to Antarctica, there is no being ready. This is a continent that is wilder and more unpredictable than any other place on earth.
My first lesson in the vagaries of Antarctica came on the first full day aboard the ship. We sailed through the dreaded Drake Passage, the point of convergence of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as if it were a quiet lake. It was like the continent was tempting us to continue, luring us deeper into it’s grasp. With our spirits high we sailed towards King George Island, the site of the marathon itself. And it was there that we learned that the Antarctic is a beast that no one can tame.
On our first evening off the coast of King George Island we watched the waves break over the bow. We were barely moving forward and yet the waves came crashing across the deck. The fog was so thick that we could not see 1/4 mile to the Uruguayan research base that would have been the starting line. The seas were so rough that we couldn’t get the advance team off the ship to mark the course.
The next morning the conditions were worse. We zigged and zagged helplessly up and down the Bransfield Straight waiting for any kind of break in the weather. Finally, late in the evening of the second day, the winds calmed down enough to get the advance team to the island.
We returned to King George Island late the following day to bring the advance team back on board, but it wasn’t to be. The winds were gale force by then. Undaunted, we gathered for the prerace pasta dinner in the hopes of running a marathon the following morning.
Race day dawned with more wind and waves. The advance team was stranded on shore. We couldn’t get to them, and they couldn’t get to us. The marathon was canceled for that day, and we sailed away in search of calmer water and clearer skies. That night, we returned to King George, ate another prerace pasta dinner, and waited for the dawn.
The weather on the second race day morning was the worst we had encountered. In addition to the wind and the waves, we now had horizontal snow which caused white out conditions on what would have been the first three miles of the course. Somehow, the advance team was rescued from the island and returned to the ship. But the race was now clearly in jeopardy. We had exhausted the time we had to wait. It was now or never.
At noon on the second race day, the announcement came which we had all feared. The race, the marathon, the chance to run on Antarctica, was canceled. We sat in stunned silence as we tried to absorb the reality of what was happening. After nearly six days aboard the ship, after traveling thousands of miles, after training for months, the marathon was not going to happen.
That might be the end of the story, if this had been a group of normal people. But, these were runners. We had all faced adversity in one form or another before. We had all learned to adjust our definitions of success. We had all stared defeat squarely in the eye and refused to give in. We were NOT going to concede to the frozen continent. We would run our marathon one way or another.
And so it was that at 3:10 PM on February 6, 2001, a group of runners began circling the sixth deck of the Byula Orlova as we steamed towards Neko Harbor. With each lap we were treated to giant floating icebergs, or whales spouting in the distance, or seals sticking their heads up to see what we were doing, and penguins playing beside the ship. We ran 400 times around the deck as the ship rolled and the waves crashed. We ran through the snow and wind. We ran because to not have run would have meant admitting defeat.
At 3:30 PM another group started running on the fifth deck. At 11:50 PM two runners ran in the light of the midnight sun. The next morning at 5:30 and 10 am [after a third pasta dinner] the rest of the field gathered to compete. Later that evening a woman ran a 1/2 marathon while her husband counted laps. And finally, after midnight of the second day, a young man named Zack ran his solitary marathon in the middle of the night.
What does it all mean? I’m not sure. I know that I have never felt more a part of something. I have never felt more connected to a group of people whose spirits could not be vanquished. I have never believed more deeply in the power of the will of a bunch of people who would not let their dream die. And I have never been more proud to be a part of the running community.
As the commercial says: Runners… yeah… we’re different.
EPILOG: February 28, 2014
The wonderful Lyubov Orlova’s fate has not been good since we were on her. Read the latest: Orlova becomes Ghost Ship