The Antartica marathon

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Wednesday, May 7, 2014


"RUNNING a marathon on the “Last Continent” may seem a little extreme, to even the most seasoned runner, but oddly enough, there is a four-year waiting list for this unusual event in Antarctica."

Just as well, since it gives runners four years to train and, more importantly, to save up to pay for the “not-so-cheap” trip. It is, after all, not only a marathon, but also an expedition to one of the most inaccessible, remote, and unspoiled places on Earth.

What awaits

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After a two-day’s journey across often hostile seas, the frosted porthole glass tells passengers that they have reached the “Antarctic Convergence Zone”, an area where the cold Antarctic waters meet up with the warmer waters of the north. As the ship steamed ahead, the sea temperature continued to drop and wide fields of “pancake ice” lay ahead, crisply crumbling aside as the ship’s bow carved a path across. Tabular Icebergs soon came into view, some easily the size of Mactan Island.

Seals were spotted atop some of the floating ice. The curious geyser-like sprays on the ocean surface were whales breaching. Some swam towards the ship and near the bow, and offered passengers a unique preview of things to come.

As we got closer to land, a multitude of seabirds appeared. Soon, the first of countless penguin schools emerged, the birds hopping in and out of the water feeding on fish and krill.

Finally the outlying islands of Antarctica were sighted. This first glimpse showed that Antarctica is not covered entirely by snow (as one might have expected). Rather, the continent is a mass of towering black cliffs, enormous glaciers, and brutally rocky shorelines. Icebergs were everywhere. Antarctica is one of the most pristine and sensitive ecological and geological areas in the world, and the onboard naturalists provided the appropriate briefings to the runners on the environment and wildlife, emphasizing that we had to “only leave footprints” during our visit. Before our first landing, all clothing items worn to shore were carefully vacuumed and our running shoes were scrubbed and sanitized.

The race

The Antarctica Marathon is held under very strict guidelines under the Antarctica Treaty to minimize environmental impact. This year, the marathon took place on King George Island, on a small network of dirt roads that connected a number of scientific outposts from nations that included Chile, Uruguay, Russia and China. It is quite a logistical nightmare setting up a race in the Antarctic. Everything needed to conduct the race had to be hauled on and off by Zodiac, mostly on very rough water.

No energy bars or food containing nuts or seeds were permitted on land. All “GU” and energy food had to be carried in containers, removed from plastic wrappers as high winds could easily blow off trash from runners’ hands. Nothing was left to chance on leaving any type of garbage ashore.

In addition to the challenges of complying with international treaties, careful coordination (and permission) with research base commanders had to be negotiated, often between nations politically wary of one another.

Everything in Antarctica is at the mercy of the weather. Conditions can vary significantly from hour to hour; winds can change from dead-calm to 30 knots at the drop of a hat, and rain, snow and sleet are all part of a normal day’s forecast.

Runners are told to prepare for temperatures ranging from -25oC to 0oC, with the permanent caveat that the race may be halted if the conditions became too “inhospitable”. One year in fact, the entire marathon was held on the ship!

Participants in the 2014 Antarctica Marathon who were looking for a challenge were not disappointed. On race day, the roads between the research bases were so muddy that runners were advised to double-knot their shoelaces or risk losing a shoe to the shin-deep mud. While the temperature was a relatively reasonable -3oC when the race started, within minutes, the wind began gusting to 20 knots, making it unbearably cold. Then rain fell (or rather blew sideways); shallow streams became wide, deep ponds of frigid water had to be crossed… repeatedly. As the day wore on, the temperature plummeted and rain turned to sleet and then quickly to snow. Water seeping inside shoes and through the outer garments, mixing with sweat at sub-zero temperatures, is not exactly “comfy”.

Glad it was over

A collective sigh of relief was evident among the runners as they crossed the muddy finish. Incredibly inspiring was the first blind runner to complete a marathon in Antarctica, Hein Wagner of South Africa, and a 15-year-old American who ran Antarctica as his first-ever marathon. While glad to have survived this unique and challenging event, most runners remarked that they felt no need to repeat the experience.

The environment of the Antarctic

With the race out of the way, the mood lightened as the passengers turned their attention to the Antarctic Continent. The Ioffe had an extensive program of lectures, presentations and films to introduce the passengers to Antarctica. Excursions in Zodiacs, continental landings, and kayaking expeditions were scheduled for every day the weather was deemed cooperative. A “polar plunge” was even offered on the final day for those willing to take a “dip with the icebergs,” in skivvies.

The darlings—and clowns—of the Antarctic are most definitely the penguins. With a variety of species and numbering in the thousands, penguins are found along the shore where they are relatively safe from predators, or swimming in the bays searching for food. So isolated are these penguins that they hold no fear whatsoever of man. All went about their daily business as we walked among them. The birds curiously pecked at our garments and waddled over our boots as though we were simply obstacles in their path.

In addition to the penguins, Antarctica is home to several species of seals that co-exist with the penguins, generally peacefully. Many species of whales also can be found in Antarctica’s seas as they raise their young in the shallow waters around the continent. Curious humpback whales often came alongside our Zodiacs or kayaks, curiously breaching the surface to see who was visiting them.

And no, there are no polar bears in the South Pole. Those are found up north, where Santa lives.

Birds are quite plentiful in the Antarctic, some with very impressive wingspans up to three meters. There are numerous varieties, even in this hostile environment, including some species that spend most of their lives aloft.

The surrounding landscape is absolutely stunning. In Antarctica, ice takes on a multitude of shapes, sizes and colors. Icebergs rising to many hundreds of feet float serenely in the sea, cloaking 90% of their mass under the water. It can be treacherous to go too near an iceberg because eventually it will “roll” as its equilibrium shifts as it melts. Massive glaciers extend down to the sea where they finally fall off as building-sized ice.

These ice cliffs shift, crack and eventually break off (called “calving”), sending off a massive and startling explosion of thunder followed by tons of ice falling en-masse into the water. You don’t want to be near that either.

The Antarctic continent has steep landmasses of ancient rock tens of millions of years old, some reaching to thousands of feet. One can see streaks on the rock faces, likely minerals, from eons of geological existence in that hostile environment. Fortunately, the consortium of nations under the Antarctic Treaty agreed on a moratorium on mineral exploitation till 2048, keeping the area in and around the Antarctic protected… for now.

The real prize

When I signed up for the Antarctica Marathon in 2010, I saw it as a way to finally visit the continent and “check the box” as one of the very few runners in the world to run a marathon in Antarctica. I was told that I was, in fact, the first Cebuano to finish a marathon in the Antarctic. Yet soon after finishing the marathon, the true significance of being on the Antarctic Continent became clear. It was a privilege to have spent ten short days on a tiny sliver of such a vast, stunning, serene, but oftentimes, hostile part of our planet. In fact, the more I saw of Antarctica, the less interesting the marathon became. In the end, this trip yielded unimaginable rewards that were far better than any running certificate or medal could bestow. (James Abilla)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on May 08, 2014.

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