At the Antarctica Marathon, you must sometimes deal with defeat before knowing if you’ve succeeded.
There’s a reason why Antarctica was the last continent on which a marathon was staged: The chance for success there is always overshadowed by the near certainty of failure. Even the greatest Antarctica explorers have learned this the hard way. Some, like the legendary Ernest Shackleton, whose ship, the Endurance, was trapped for 10 months in the waters off the continent, are remembered more by the magnitude of their response to hardship than by the scale of their success.
The Antarctica Marathon offers runners the same sort of challenge. You travel hours by plane, then days by boat, and still have no idea what you’ll find when you arrive. It may be a balmy 27 degrees, or you could be met by a blizzard, and there’s no way of knowing ahead of time. Then there’s the race. It starts on the dirt roads that connect various research stations, continues 479 feet up Collins Glacier over a half mile, and back down again – not an easy course even on the best of days.
I know a little of the marathon’s extremes firsthand. In 2001, I ran the Antarctica Marathon that nearly wasn’t (because of wind conditions we couldn’t dock, so we ran 422 laps on the ship’s deck). In 2003, the island yielded to us and we ran in gale-force winds and amid six-foot snowdrifts. So when I returned in late February, it was with the certainty that there are no guarantees in Antarctica, and nothing is taken for granted.
Such was the case when William Tan, a Harvard-educated neuroscientist from Singapore, came to race the 2005 Antarctica Marathon. Thom Gilligan of Marathon Tours (the organizers of the event) afforded Tan the same opportunity as every other runner: Show up with the best you have and hope it’s good enough. The difference was that Tan was in a wheelchair.
Tan’s preparations were as thorough as they could be. He’d equipped his racing chair with studded snow tires and skis, and ice axes for the glacier.
But this is Antarctica. And this year there was no snow on King George Island, only muddy hills and exposed rocks. None of Tan’s preparations were of any use to him.
His racing gloves were quickly shredded by the sharp studs on his wheels as he pushed himself forward, often inches at a time. Two hours and 29 minutes into the race, he had barely covered five miles. The marathon was out of reach.
Three hours and 20 minutes later, Tan crossed the finish line having completed the half-marathon. There were 200 runners on the course with him. They were all conquering their fears, facing their demons, and confronting the limits of their talent, preparation, and endurance. But past the exhaustion in Tan’s face was the unmistakable look of disappointment. He wasn’t accustomed to failing at something he’d set out to do. Compromise – even a 13.1-mile, six-hour slog in a wheelchair – wasn’t enough.
In the end, Tan learned the lesson we all learn from this race. “In Antarctica you don’t just need physical strength,” he told me. “You also need courage and wisdom.” We need to know when to press on, and when to call it a day.
There are times when we will be humbled. The only question is whether we will allow ourselves to see this as a defeat or merely a setback. And that’s the lesson runners of every ability learn every time they race – the lesson we all need to learn from life.
Waddle on, friends.