White Continent Marathon
I wasn’t sure whether I would finish 7 marathons on 7 continents as it meant I’d have to run a marathon in Antarctica. I’d sworn off snow and ice after Greenland because I found the extreme cold so hard to tolerate. I’d done some research into the three marathons available to run in Antarctica – one was booked out for the next three years; one was a three-week excursion involving travelling by ship to Antarctica; and one was a fly-in, fly-out excursion that was also coupled with a South American marathon in Punta Arenas, Chile.
I contacted the race director of the last one, the White Continent Marathon and found there was space for me. Around the same time Qantas fares to Chile were also on sale and, in a surprise move for Craig, I booked flights for us both to Santiago. The surprise was sprung when the day I booked flights from Santiago to Punta Arenas using the LAN Spanish language website (so much cheaper than their English website), our bank phoned him to query that transaction!
Craig and I deliberated about whether he’d accompany me to Antarctica. This was by far the most expensive sector of the trip, and involved camping overnight on King George Island, with absolutely no amenities. While it was appealing to have us both visit all seven continents, we eventually decided that Craig would remain in Punta Arenas for the day or so I’d be gone.
We flew into Santiago and had a couple of days there doing the tourist thing. We then flew south to Punta Arenas to join the marathon group which consisted primarily of Americans, with a smattering of runners from other nations. Sunday night 24/1/16 we had a pre-race meeting where the race director explained the challenging logistics of having the right weather to fly into Antarctica, coupled quite importantly with the prospect of the right weather window to fly back out again! In that meeting he said that it was highly unlikely we would have a flight window until mid-week and as such we should prepare to run the Punta Arenas marathon the next day 25/1/16.
We convened in the foyer early Monday and the race director indicated that there was to be no flight that day and the Punta Arenas marathon would commence an hour later. We met on the promenade adjacent to the beach, and opposite our hotel where it was explained we would run 5.25km out to a turn around, and then back again; and repeat this over four out and backs. We set off and I comfortably ran the first two out and backs, looking forward to seeing Craig at 10.5km and 21km.
As I passed 28km, looking forward to seeing Craig again at 31.5km a taxi pulled up next to me. Craig wound down the window and said “The race has been cancelled. You’re leaving for Antarctica”. I was stunned. “You’re kidding” I said. He responded “No, the weather is right to fly into Antarctica. Get in the taxi, we’re going back to the hotel for you to get on a bus to leave right now”.
Back at the hotel I spoke briefly with one of the race organisers who indicated I’d have enough time to quickly shower and dress in appropriate clothing. We’d been advised at the race briefing Sunday night to pack for Antarctica as we could be called to the bus at any time, day or night, and luckily I had done so. Others hadn’t. And so I sat in the foyer with Craig waiting for others to come downstairs, watching the time tick by and knowing I would have finished the Punta Arenas marathon with time enough to shower and change. I was really upset and quite cross, mainly because I knew I had another marathon to run the next day, and no idea what would happen to my goal of finishing Antarctica and South America that week. I was also horrified at the thought of having to run Punta Arenas again later that same week.
We eventually drove to the airport and checked our bags. There was another wait at the gate and then we boarded the plane. The flight itself was around three hours, during which time I sat with Janice from the USA who was midway through completing 7 ultra marathons on 7 continents. We had been advised that camping involved three people per tent and I teamed up with another Anne and her partner Steve for that purpose. The last time I’d been camping was 1987 and I knew it’d be quite an experience camping on King George Island.
On arrival we disembarked and stood in the snow. I’d spent a heap of time researching and purchasing clothing appropriate for the conditions as I was determined that I would manage the cold better than I had in the past. I had layers of snow gear, gloves and fantastic boots this time, and was pleased to find I wasn’t too cold at all. The thing that was most obvious however was the wind. It was outrageous.
We tramped down a snowy gravel road to the camp site where the tour operators were erecting the tents right on top of the gravel. These fellows were making comments about the conditions and indicating the winds were increasing the harshness of the environment in a very significant way.
There was one open tent called the “kitchen tent” in which food was served. This consisted of instant noodle soup. sandwiches and some microwave style meals heated in a microwave powered by a generator.
There was one toilet outside in a tent which was a fold-up chair with a hole in the seat, placed over a plastic-bag lined garbage. The tour operator gave a briefing on how to place bags in the bucket and what to do with them once finished in the toilet. There was a rule about urine in one bucket and faeces in a bag, with runners responsible for then tipping the urine into a steel drum and bagging the faeces into a garbage. Charming.
We went into the tents and to bed around 9pm as the wind was howling and runners decided it was better to zip three people into a tent for warmth than stand around in an open kitchen tent. I don’t think it got dark, or if it did it was only for an hour or so. The race information had suggested a sleeping bag with a certain temperature rating. The one we had at home met that rating and I was pleased that I hadn’t needed to purchase another. Little did I know the rating given by the race director was in Fahrenheit and not Celsius! I was cold all night!
About 4am the race director came around the campsite playing rousing music on his phone and people emerged for breakfast. Breakfast was a repeat of the dinner the night before, with coffee and hot chocolate to drink. Fortunately the wind had died during the night.
The race crew indicated there had been substantial snow on the course and they’d spent time with shovels shifting some of it. What this meant in reality became clear as we traversed the course, but more on that later.
The course was four laps of 10km. We started at a central point and ran 1.5km out and back, and then 3.5km in the opposite direction and back. The second leg ran through part of the Chinese research base on the island.
The design of the course meant you could leave any gear or food etc at the tents and stop there each time you passed the start. We had been instructed to bring all food and water required for the event to Antarctica, and to take it all back when we left. I had about 2.5 litres of water and had made up several bottles of water with Tailwind. I also had some gels and Shotbloks. On top of this we had also been told there was a chance we could be stranded on King George Island for several days, weather dependant and so I had a few extra pairs of undies and socks!
I wouldn’t call White Continent Marathon my finest hour in marathon running, or in fact my finest 7 hours 30 minutes! In fact I think it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m guessing my distress at being pulled off the Punta Arenas course; and having already run 28km; and being without Craig in a harsh environment; and not having adequate nutrition by any means; along with my usual self doubt in a marathon; all fed into my performance that day. I found the going extremely tough. I was lucky that Craig had found a sim that would work in Antarctica, and I phoned him saying I didn’t think I could do it. He urged me to press on, and as always I did. I remember coming over the line, stumbling to the tent, and falling into it, sobbing with exhaustion.
Back to the race itself. The initial 1.5km out involved going up a hill, and at the top of that hill was a marshall who called out cheery hellos and encouragement. The leg back down the hill wasn’t too bad, and then heading back out in the other direction for the 3.5km from the start line involved another climb before traversing through the “snow drifts” that in fact towered well above my head! I fell over forward and backward multiple times, initially into soft snow, and then as the course deteriorated with use and slightly warmer conditions, into slush and ice.
I’d had in mind I’d quit at 21.1km but as this approached I toughened up and elected to keep going even though so much time had already elapsed. I spent time in the kitchen tent refuelling but this came back to bite me with a very upset gastro-intestinal tract and emergency stop in one of the toilets! This second toilet was at the turnaround of the 3.5km section where again there was a marshall, however he sat in the truck out there with the engine running!
I ran initially in brushed tights, snow pants, a technical long sleeved top, beanie, light gloves and a Gortex jacket. I wore trail shoes with gaiters. At 10km I ditched the ski pants but I was pretty right for temperature after that. I was glad to have on the trail shoes as the ground was very rocky in places not covered in snow, and as things warmed up parts of the course were very sloshy too.
I ran off and on with others however was largely on my own. The race officials called out encouragement each time I passed the start area – they must have been so cold but their job was to get everyone over that line! I heard other runners had come into the tent and not gone back out; and that one person had quit but then decided to go back out. Janice and Steve (with whom I shared the tent) were finishing ultras. Janice was miles in front, and Steve was well behind.
So as I said I crossed the line, got the medal and the photo, and then fell into the tent, crying with exhaustion. I got changed as best I could in a tent in which I could only squat down which is never pretty after running 42.2km in a long time period, and then made my way to the kitchen tent for some food. Other runners were gathering there and there was a lot of friendly chatter. There was also a lot of consternation about whether we’d get off King George Island but people said they’d seen the plane arrive and we just had to wait for everyone to finish and we could depart.
We stayed in that tent for several hours. I’m sorry to say my snow gear was not up to the challenge of the conditions and I progressively became colder and colder, but I wasn’t the only one! There were mutterings of “let’s get on the plane” but it was not ready for boarding. When last we began the trudge back to the plane I was in the front group eager to get onto that plane and out of the cold.
Sitting on the plane I messaged Craig and he was able to let my running friends know I’d finished the event. The flight back was made easier with a couple of glasses of wine, and I was thrilled to land in Punta Arenas and reunite with Craig. The hot shower had rarely felt so good and I think I may have had a couple of pisco sours that night too.
One thing I would say about this event is that I think perhaps the race director should have a think about adding a doctor into the race crew. In Greenland we had two team doctors who travelled everywhere with us. When asked about provision for medical assistance in Antarctica the race director said “That’s why you’ve got travel insurance”. Clearly getting medical assistance to somewhere as remote as Antarctica is not as simple as phoning QBE in Australia and saying I needed help, so thank God I didn’t. I’d be pretty confident people would be prepared to absorb the increase in price to cover the cost of having a doctor on board in order to complete a marathon in Antarctica knowing there’d be a properly trained professional present.
It’s amazing to have been to Antarctica and in fact to have been inside both the North Pole (Greenland) and the South Pole. Those scientists in the research bases must be quite mad living down there for months at a time. A couple of men poked their heads out of their warm buildings and waved when we ran by. I guess we were a diversion for them from their work and limited social contact. Mixing with the other runners on the plane, overnight in the tents, and in the kitchen tent following the event helped cement some good friendships and I’ve stayed in touch with a group of these people ever since, even meeting up with Janice when she came to Australia to run her 7th continent ultra marathon. It’s nice to meet people who are just as absurd as me in their leisure pursuits!
White Continent Marathon was number 8.