William Thomas, 48, lives and works in Singapore and recently became a member of the 7 Continents Marathon Club, whose members include those who have run a marathon within the Antarctic Circle, as well as on the other six continents. He began running only six years ago and says his decision to run all seven continents before turning 50 was a “mid-40s birthday, bucket list sort of thing.”
Thomas talks to JustRunLah! about his experience running the Antarctic Ice Marathon:
WT: I realize Antarctica is a bit out of the way, but if you have a goal of running a marathon on all 7 continents, at some point you have to come here. This was #7 for me, after years of pursuing that goal, so you can probably guess how excited I still am about this race.
The Antarctic Ice Marathon is the southernmost marathon in the world. It takes place on Union Glacier, about 1000km from the South Pole, and it is the only marathon within the Antarctic Circle. Since it takes place in November – which is the end of spring in the Southern Hemisphere – the temperature “only” drops to about -20C (though the wind can make it colder). The race consists of two loops around a 21.1km course that is AIMS-certified, and also carefully marked so you don’t run off the course and fall into a thousand-meter crevasse.
We were supposed to run the race the day after we arrived, but bad weather made us wait a couple days. I was a bit nervous leading up to the race, but I wasn’t the only one. Most of us had not run in conditions like this before, and many of us had training plans that looked great on paper but that had been disrupted by real life in the weeks before we arrived.
A short 4km practice run helped boost my confidence, but conditions were different on race day. You might think clear skies and reduced wind were a blessing – and they were – but they made things warmer. While that sounds great in theory, the biggest challenge in the race is maintaining your core body temperature, getting neither too cold nor too hot. Most folks run with 3 layers of clothes, and if you get too hot, you sweat so much that the two inner layers get really wet. Then let some chilly air in, and you learn an entirely new definition of “cold” as your clothes freeze. That’s what leads to hypothermia, and it can keep you from finishing the race (oh, and kill you, of course).
Despite having practiced with gloves on, I had a lot of trouble opening the vents under the arms of my wind shell, so when I started heating up it was hard to release that. Fortunately I was able to get the front zipper open, and I cooled down. I had overdressed a bit, wearing a stocking cap on top of a full-face balaclava. I took that off occasionally and could feel the heat leaving through my head, but it was nice to have it when the wind kicked in.
The balaclava was, as expected, the biggest clothing challenge. Covering the mouth as it does, it makes breathing difficult. I had practiced, but it’s one thing to breathe through a mask on a treadmill in Singapore, and it’s another thing to do it during an actual race in Antarctica. I could feel the mask getting wet as I breathed out and I was concerned about ice forming on it, but I avoided that little annoyance.
The only time my goggles fogged was as I approached the final checkpoint with about 3 miles to go. They not only fogged, they froze, and the support guy at the checkpoint wasn’t sure how to clear them because he figured even warm water would just freeze again. That’s when we discovered that hand sanitizer will melt ice and won’t freeze up, and so I finished the race with the cleanest goggles out of everyone (but there’s no prize for that).
Mentally, everything went very well. I never had the “why am I doing this to myself?” feeling that sometimes pops up during a race. I was excited the whole time, and during the back stretch of my second lap I caught myself yelling “I AM RUNNING A MARATHON IN ANTARCTICA!!!!!!” There was no one within a couple miles of me so at least I didn’t bother anyone.
The setting was beautiful. Sometimes it felt like you were running forward into a painting. It was also insanely quiet. I could hear my breathing, I could hear the crunch of the snow under my feet, but that was it. Combine that with not seeing anyone and it was like being this last person on Earth.
I have usually found I run faster in a race than in training, in part because I am surrounded by other runners and that helps set a pace for me. But here, there were only 47 of us, and we were pretty spread out after a few miles. There were plenty of times that I could see no one in front or behind, and even when I could they were often tiny little specks that I knew were probably 2-3km in front of me.
Running on snow is unbelievably hard. Though the course had been somewhat groomed, there was nothing smooth about it. Snowcat tracks, snowmobile tracks, other runners’ tracks, melting and re-freezing, and being on a glacier that moves 3mm per hour, all combined to make a very uneven surface. We were lucky it was sunny, because it meant you could see the biggest changes in the surface, but in that kind of light in a big white space, while wearing polarized goggles, there’s not a lot of contrast and it’s hard to judge the surface. Also, once you step on it, you tend to sink in even as you are trying to push off, so it requires a lot more effort to just get your legs moving. Your toes sink in with each step, putting pressure on them and increasing the chance of injury. After about 23km I started landing on my heels instead, which is very different from how I have been running the last year and a half, but it’s what I needed to do. During the second lap, when I was more familiar with the course, I found stretches where I really picked up speed, but I will admit that was not my normal state.
This was not a fast race for me, but I don’t care. In the first place, my goal was just to do it, not to do it quickly. More importantly, though, was a thought from my friend Nancy during our midpoint pit stop: “I have been trying to get here for years, why would I want it to end quickly?” Though to be honest, I was really looking forward to taking my one shower of the week after the race (one minute long, using melted snow, and it was the best shower I ever had).
Our support crew was very helpful. In addition to medical teams cruising by on snowmobiles looking for a thumbs-up, we had two manned aid stations and one unmanned. At the manned stations we had not only warm drinks and food, but also a half-igloo with a field-condition restroom. The need for that is based on the treaty requirement that anything created by humans – ANYTHING – needs to be boxed up and shipped out. That means you can’t just stop by the side of the trail when nature calls. There is a spot on the course called “Pooh Corner” for reasons that have nothing to do with a bear named Winnie, and I was determined not have similar stories told about me to future runners.
One particularly rough stretch of ground led to some serious back pain, and I used my midpoint pit stop to stretch it out, and also take some ibuprofen. I also needed to change all my inner layers as well as socks, gloves, and headgear, because I was concerned they were too wet.
The final two-tenths of a kilometer were among the greatest moments of my life. I was yelling as I ran, arms up as I crossed the Finish Line, and I could not believe that after pursuing goal this for years I had finally done it. I wish a bunch of my friends could have been there, but I think I can understand their absence in this case.
There are a couple other marathons on outer islands in Antarctica, but from what I have read this one seems like the best. The race itself was obviously fun, but living at a camp in Antarctica for 5 days was a truly amazing experience. The other runners were fantastic, and when you combine that with being in a place that so few people have ever visited, this can really be a life-changing trip.
Do you want to learn more about Antarctic Ice Marathon? Check out www.icemarathon.com