Tackling the White Continent: My marathon adventure in Antarctica
My experience running in the cold.
As part of my quest to run a marathon on all 7 continents and get the Guinness World Record for fastest aggregate time to complete a marathon on each continent, I knew I would eventually have to run the most intimidating marathon of the continents: Antarctica.
As one would expect, this is likely to be the slowest marathon across all the continents, mainly due to the rough terrain and the potential for inclement weather. It is also quite a trek to get to a fairly remote location on the other side of the Earth.
This past January, I finally got a chance to make it down there and race amongst the penguins. After a grueling 3 hours and 48 minutes, I ended up finishing the race in first place overall, even beating all the men, and getting closer to my 7 continent goal.
Turns out, the harder part was after the marathon, getting through the next 24 hours in the Antarctic wild.
Signing up and getting there
There are three options if you want to do a marathon in Antarctica. You can do the Ice Marathon, The White Continent Marathon, or the Antarctica Marathon.
For all the race options, you travel to Punta Arenas, Chile and make your way to Antarctica from there. The Ice Marathon is done on the mainland of Antarctica while the other two marathons are done on an island near to the Chilean side of the continent that hosts several research bases.
I did the White Continent Marathon, which is run by Marathon Adventures, a delightful Minnesota-based company that puts on marathon trips and tours across the world. The race organizer, Steve, is a passionate running enthusiast who has done marathons on every continent and more.
I decided to maximize my time in South America and went there a week early to travel around Patagonia. I was lucky enough to have an adventure buddy with me for this part to make the trip even more fun. We lucked out with amazing weather and saw some incredible sights. I didn’t want to strain my legs too much so I opted out of some of the harder hikes, but the hikes I did see were beautiful.
Hanging out in Punta Arenas
After my Patagonia travels, I headed to Punta Arenas. There were about 75 runners in the group with most doing the marathon. A few people were doing an ultramarathon (50K) or a half-marathon. Most runners were staying in the same hotel which made for easy bonding.
It’s common for runners in this race to be trying to run a marathon on all 7 continents. The median age of the runners was close to 60 and everyone had interesting running and life experiences. Many runners had done a marathon in all 50 states or were finishing their 7 continent challenge and talked about some awesome international marathons they had done. One person had even done over 200 marathons in his life. Meeting all the other runners was definitely a highlight of this race.
We didn't know which day the actual race would be on until the day before the race. There was a 5-day window it could be done in. We basically were waiting for a clear weather window to make the 2 hour flight there, with hopeful clear weather the following day to make it back. If we were able to fly out early in the morning on a given day, we would land and race, then camp overnight after the race. If we were flying in the afternoon, we would camp then wake up and run in the morning. At this point in the year, there are about 21 hours of sunlight so we had a lot of daylight to work with.
The uncertainty was a little daunting, but also kept things exciting. I spent most of my time reading and exploring Punta Arenas.
On Tuesday, Jan 22, we got word that the weather was looking good for a Wednesday morning flight and we were all to report to the lobby at 6am to load buses to the airport. It was game time.
I got up around 5:30 to get some breakfast in the lobby. The hotel kindly opened early for us since so many of us were coming down for the breakfast buffet in the morning. We then loaded our bags onto buses and headed to the airport. Since we were camping overnight in Antarctica, we had to pack sleeping bags and extra warm clothes. Most of us just brought our whole suitcases, though our hotel rooms were booked through the whole week so I left some stuff I didn’t need in the hotel.
The plane ride was pretty normal. The plane was a large commercial jet though the landing was on a dirt strip which was pretty interesting. After landing we deplaned onto the dirt and had to walk a mile and a half with all our stuff to where our camp was.
A crew from DAP, the Antarctic travel company that was helping us for this marathon, had gotten there the night prior and set up about 25 tents for us to stay in. That meant each tent needed to hold 3 people. Luckily, this very inspiring 80 year old woman asked if I’d like to share a tent with her and her son who was running the race with her. This was her final continent and 99th marathon, plus she had done many marathons on a replaced hip. She smiled the entire race.
Before departing in the morning, I had put my racing outfit on under my clothes and had worn them on the plane since there wouldn’t be anywhere warm to change in Antarctica. As we set our things down at the camp, the Marathon Adventures crew set up the course.
The Course & Conditions
As far as running in Antarctica goes, it really wasn’t that cold. Our group got really lucky with the weather and it was a balmy 15°F with a little wind. We heard that other years have gotten blizzards and even colder temps. We even got to see some sun for part of the race!
The course was 8 out and back loops along a very hilly dirt road. The start and finish were by the campsite and we had to go out about a mile in one direction, turn around and run back, pass camp, keep going another 0.6 miles, turn around again, and make it back to camp for one loop. Each loop was a little over 3 miles. At either end, there was a crew member waiting to mark off that you made it to that end and they had a pack of waters under their chairs in case you needed it. Other than that, you were supposed to stay fairly self supported and grab your own fuel at camp when you passed or carry it on your person.
The benefits of this kind of course were that you could have many aid stops if you wanted. You were never more than 2 miles away from camp. It was also nice to see where the whole field was since you kept circling back and seeing everyone. This made for some great support and in my case, some great competition.
The footing itself was loose dirt and gravel, not ice as many people expected. It felt very much like a trail marathon with rocks, hills, and uneven footing throughout. At one point in the course, there was a stream of water running through the rocks so your feet kind of sunk in there.
I was wearing one layer of thin running tights on my bottoms and a long sleeve thermal top and a headband. I had gloves but quickly threw them off because my hands were warm.
Bonus: there were penguins along the course, which was pretty cool. They seemed confused as to why we were moving so fast.
The Race Itself
The race began and a man from Canada quickly took the lead with me and another man trailing behind. The course took you mostly uphill and into the wind to start, but turning around meant some nice downhill. After about 3 laps, the Canadian stopped at camp when we passed, presumably to use the restroom, and he fell behind after that. Another man surged ahead at this point. I assumed he was doing the half marathon but when he continued past halfway, I knew I had to reel him in.
Somewhere in the 5th and 6th laps, he started really dying. I still felt okay - I was pretty tired but my legs were holding up surprisingly well on this course. I had been doing a lot of trail runs as training which I think gave me an advantage. I had slowed my pace down a little but was still generally running. During the 7th lap, I had gained a fairly large lead and the men behind looked pretty toasted so I felt confident I could grit it out the last lap and come in ahead.
Since we were looping around the whole time, we could see the whole field throughout the race. That meant all the participants could see the race unfold as well and cheer us all on. Many of the other runners were excited to see a woman up in front, which definitely kept me going on the hard bits.
I finished the race in 3:48 and then had a nice warm Cup O Noodles and hot chocolate to celebrate.
After the Race - the Real Challenge
So normally after a big race, you hang out for a while, then go take a warm shower, change, and rest. This race did not have those luxuries. There were no buildings to go into or places to warm up. We just had our small tents and one large open tent where there was some food.
During the race, I never felt that cold but after the race, I really started to feel it. Some people would be racing for another 5 hours and there wasn’t a ton of room in the larger food tent so we were all rotating chairs.
I ended up going on a penguin tour with some of the half marathon finishers, which was awesome. We got to ride in a boat and visit this island with 3 different types of penguins.
After that, I cheered on some runners and hung out eating more Cup o Noodles. There was one small generator powering a toaster oven and hot water heater, which was our only source of warmth besides our own bodies. Needless to say, I was cold.
Besides being cold, the other major challenge was the bathroom. This island, and Antarctica in general, have a no waste of any kind policy. We were told not to even go to the bathroom out in the wild, all bio-waste had to be packed out. The bathrooms then were 4 buckets covered with small tents to split among ~100 people. Two buckets were for number 1 and 2 were for number 2. We had to separately carry used toilet paper to waste bins outside of the toilet tents. I basically tried to just not go to the bathroom, which was made easy by dehydration and mainly eating cup o noodles as sustenance.
The final runners finished as the sun was going down around 11pm - midnight. I then bunked in my tent and got a few hours of sleep, though the sun rose around 3am so it was a strange day. Our plane was not coming until the afternoon so the group was able to check out some of the sights on the island and explore the research bases.
When we finally returned to the hotel, I took a very long shower followed immediately by a bath because I couldn’t leave the warmth. I then ate a gigantic plate of pasta with a glass of red wine and then slept for the next 12 hours.
All in all, it was a pretty wild race and I’m glad I had the opportunity to do so. It was exciting to be able to win a race outright, something I don't think will come along that often. It was such a cool experience, but I'm glad I only have to do this continent once.