Search This Blog

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The South Pole Contingency Marathon

There were three of us.  We had earned a spot to go to McMurdo and represent the South Pole Station in the McMurdo Ice Marathon by winning the Race Around the World here at the South Pole on Christmas Day in our respective categories: Rickey in the men, Christina in the women, and I in the Masters (age 40+).  No women over age 40 had participated, so the three of us made up the South Pole contingent.  The winners of the Masters do not typically get to go to McMurdo, but I was able to make arrangements to have people cover for my work, and I traded in some vacation time to get a special permission to go. 
We had trained hard, and were psyched up and ready to go.  We were supposed to leave on Saturday after lunch on a C-130 flight and come back on Monday.  I was looking forward to the trip with my running friends Rickey and Christina, and was looking forward to the possibility of seeing penguins, seals, or whales in McMurdo, the only life forms that I would get to see during my 13-month residence in Antarctica.  We had checked the weather forecast and it looked good, both for the flight and for the race.  Our bags were ready the night before in all the minute details of what is needed for a 26.2 mile run on the ice.

We got up in the morning to find out that all the Saturday flights had been cancelled.  We were puzzled.  Had the weather suddenly turned bad in McMurdo?  did all the planes coincidentally experience mechanical failures?  or was there some other kind of mistake?  This could not be true.  We rushed into comms, our communication center and control tower (they always know everything), and they were puzzled, too.  They had just received word of the flight cancellation, but didn't know why.  Later in the morning we found out that the flights had been diverted to a field camp in West Antarctica.  We, piggy backer athletes, had no say in the matter.  Luckily, Curtis, who had come in second place in the Race Around the World, had left on Friday to go back home in the US, as he had just finished his work as an ice cube driller here at Pole, and was staying a couple of days in McMurdo before flying over to New Zealand, just enough time to run the marathon.  He would be the only South Pole representative this year, and would win the 2011 McMurdo Ice Marathon in 3hrs 15 min.
Back at Pole, following our great disappointment, and after coming to terms with the fact that we were indeed stuck here, we figured we had to do something about it.  What if we were to run our own marathon here at Pole instead?  Oh, yeah, great idea, but none of us had ever organized a race before.  How would we measure the course, and how about timing (we wanted it to be a certified, or certifiable, marathon), and could we run 26.2 miles in the harsh conditions at Pole, and what aid station would we need, to make sure we would remain safe for the several hours it would take us to complete the course?  All these were unknown.
Once again we rushed into comms.  It was now 3:30 PM on Saturday, and we started brainstorming with Tina, who was managing operations at that time of the day.  So, while I was writing a list of what we would need at the aid stations, Rickey started drawing a course, Christina started composing an email to solicit volunteers to help us on the course, and Tina contacted our surveyors, Kurt and Tim, to get the most accurate distances.  We needed a name.  Rickey threw out a "South Pole Contingency Marathon", and we all agreed.  That was what it would be: a contingency marathon.
Finally the time: when should we start?  We would have liked to start at 9 AM, the same time as the McMurdo marathon, but Rickey had to work in the morning, and there was a DC-3 flight scheduled to pick up some skiers who had arrived a couple of days earlier after skiing all the way from the coast, and who were camped out on the ice.  We didn't know when that flight would come, but we had to make sure no flights would need to land or take off while we were racing because most of the race course would take place on the skiway.  So we picked a tentative start time of 1 PM, hoping that the DC-3 would be gone by then.  With the email sent out to all South Pole residents at 4:30 in the afternoon, the race had been sanctioned.  There was no turn around.  We were committed.  We just had a litttle more to do in the morning to get the aid stations positioned on the course.

Sitting in Comms at 4 PM on Saturday afternoon, as Tina put it, hmmm ... it's not easy figuring out exactly 26.2 miles!  (Photo by Tina)

Rickey drew this map of the course on a piece of scratch paper, and it became the official course.  The course distance was certified by our surveyors, Kurt and Tim.  Thank you, Kurt and Tim!  We couldn't have made it without you!

And so we were, the three of us committed marathoners, at the start line at the Geographic South Pole, at 1 PM on Sunday, Jan 16, in -19 F (-28 C) temperature and about 10 mph of wind.  The windchill factor brought the temperature down to -40 F (-40 C), and we were going to race at a physiological altitude of 9,900 ft (physical altitude of 9,300 ft).  Comms had been able to contact the DC-3 pilots, and had asked them to come in as early as possible so we could have the skiway to ourselves.  And so it was: plane and skiers were gone by 9 AM.  The skiway was ours for the day.  Thank you, comms!  We couldn't have done it without you!

Much to our surprise, 10 runners showed up at the start, and many more came out to show their support.  Keith, who had a commitment in the afternoon, had started 2 hours ahead of us, bringing the total to 11 participants.  Some of the runners entered in the 1/2 marathon, as the course lends itself well to a 13.1 mile distance by reducing the number of skiway roundtrips from five to two.

The initial 2.1 miles of the course used the trail of the race around the world.  Here is the leading group coming back to the pole after this first loop: left to right Jamie, who would win the 1/2 marathon, Rickey, and me.  It was a bit of a fast pace for me, but I wanted to stay at the front while we were running around the station.  I would let Rickey and Jamie go once we hit the skiway.

The skiway is 12,000 ft long between two sets of red flags.  At the set of red flags closest to the station we placed our first aid station, with hot cider, hot chocolate, hot broth, cookies, peanut butter and nutella sandwiches.

Rickey and Jamie took the lead on the skiway and ran together for the first 10 miles, before Rickey took off on his own.  We did not have an official timer at the end of the 1/2, but Jamie timed himself for an unofficial finish of 2 hrs 00 min.

At the far end of the skiway we had the second aid station.  This was just an orange bag containing the same items as on the first aid station, plus a radio with spare batteries, a sleeping bag, a pee bottle, and toilet paper.  The bag was positioned 243 feet away from the last set of red flags, so as to make the course exactly 26.2 miles.

Sarah, a graduate student from Stanford working here on one of the telescopes for just a few weeks, was a complete revelation.  With no training, she decided the day before the race to run the 1/2 marathon.  She felt good on race day and kept going to run a total of 22 miles!  We found out that she is engaged and plans on having her wedding ceremony after completing an ultramarathon (that is a 100 mile race) with her beau.

Mark, our station Doctor, ran a whopping 9 miles!  He is a world class rower, but he is also a runner in his spare time.  He recently finished the Boston marathon hand-in-hand with his 20-yr old daughter.

Anne, a graduate student from Aachen University in Germany, and here for two weeks working on the Ice Cube project, ran 7.7 miles.  She is also a member of our ski club.

Keith left two hours ahead of us because he had an afternoon commitment.  He completed the marathon, despite running the first two hours alone and with no aid stations.

Allan (right) was another revelation of the day.  He had just arrived less than a week ago, and, with no acclimatization, ran 7.7 miles.  He had started with the intention of running just the first 2.1 mi loop, but felt good and kept going.  He is a Professor at Siena College, in the state of New York, and the principal investigator for the space weather science at the South Pole (with his instruments he can see the Auroras even in the brightness of the summer daylight).  He had such a great time that he will start training for a full marathon.  On the left is Martin, our station manager.  Martin was out on the ice most of the time, at the aid stations and at the finish line, giving us words of encouragement, offering us a hot drink, and making sure we were warm enough.  We could not have made this marathon happen without Martin and the support of the station management.  Thank you, Martin!  (Photo by Steven)

It is lonely to run 26.2 miles when there are only 11 runners on the course, but because we had to run the skiway a total of 10 times (5 times down and 5 times back up), we had frequent encounters with our fellow marathoners.  Here Sarah gives a high five to Rickey and Jamie.

Many people came out in the -19 F and 10 mph wind to encourage and support us.  At any one time there would be as many as 10 people at the aid station taking photos, giving us a quick massage, offering a drink, and words of encouragement.  Some people even came out on skis or in their running shoes to accompany us for short stretches.  Haley ran a total of 6 miles with several of us.  Many thanks to all of you who came out (too many to name).  We couldn't have made it without your support!  (Photo by sjb)

At the second pass on the skiway a sign appeared at the aid station.  It made us runner feel really good.  Thank you, polies!

Some people, seeing our faces and clothes coated with a layer of ice soon after we started, were concerned that we were cold.  This is me about halfway into the race.  In reality we were very warm.  Our transpiration and breath would go through our clothes and instantly freeze upon contact with the cold air.  The ice makes a good thermal insulation, and we felt really warm inside, as if we were inside an igloo.  We had a side wind of about 10 mph, so our breath would drift and deposit as frost on just one side of our goggles, and we could only see with one eye.  When we turned around to run the opposite side of the skiway, however, we were facing the sun and the ice on the dark goggles would slowly melt, or maybe sublimate, the ice, and we would regain full vision.

In this photo, taken from the roof of the station, Rickey is running solo on the infinity of the Antarctic plateau to winning the marathon in the fastest time for any marathon ever run at the South Pole.  (Photo by sjb)

Many people came out facing the cold at the finish line.  In the last 0.2 miles the course turned into the wind for the finish at the geographical South Pole.  That was the hardest part of the race, and I might have wanted to slow down, if it weren't for the encouragement of the people waiting for us at the finish.  Comms took the initiative to scout us from their control post as we were approaching the station, and announcing our arrivals on the station intercom, so people would be able to come out in time to the finish line, or watch the finish from the windows in the dining room.  (Photo by sjb)

Rickey came in first in 4:02:15

Here is Keith, coming to the finish line in 6:16:04.  He had started two hours ahead of us.

This is my second place finish in 4:32:42.

And this is Christina, making history as the first woman ever to finish a marathon at the South Pole, in the very respectable time of 4:53:30

Some of our fellow polies made a congratulatory sign for us, another sign of what a creative and supportive community we live in, and so we were, less than 36 hrs after being denied our trip to McMurdo, celebrating the conclusion of our own South Pole marathon.

In the frenzy of organizing our own race in such a short time, we did not even think or worry about whether or not a marathon had ever been run at the South Pole before, and it wasn't until dinner time in the galley that someone raised the possibility that we may have broken some historical records.  So we did some internet research and found out that, to the best of our knowledge, this was the second marathon ever run here.  As reported in a Sports Illustrated article of Apr 23, 2002 ( the first one occurred on Jan 22, 2002.  Five people were flown to the South Pole, they spent three days camped out to acclimatize to the altitude, then were driven by snowmobile 26.2 miles north and ran back to the pole.  Two of them ran a 1/2 marathon, while three of them completed the entire distance.  They ran on the sastrugi, and two of the marathoners used snowshoes, so their times are understandably much slower than our times.  The three finishers were Richard Donovan, age 36, in 8:51:55; Dean Karnazes, age 38 or 39, in 9:18:55, and Brent Weigner, age 52, in 9:20:05.  So, it looks like we broke at least three records: Christina is the first and fastest woman ever to complete a marathon at the South Pole; Rickey has the fastest ever time; and I can claim the fastest time in the Masters (age 40+) category.  Some people suggested that we apply for an entry in the Guinness Book of Records ... I don't know about that.  First I don't think South Pole marathons should be encouraged, except for station personnel, because flying people to the South Pole causes a lot of pollution; in addition, our records would be hard, but not impossible, for outsiders to challenge, because we had the privilege of running on a well packed skiway, unless visitors to the South Pole groomed their own tracks, which would cause even more pollution.

Overall this was and will probably remain for a long time the most sensational race I ever ran, not only for its location, but first and foremost for the great support that we received from all our friends in the station.  Thank you, fellow polies, we couldn't have done it without you!

Photo credits:  all photos used in this blog were taken by Robert Schwartz, except where noted.  Thank you to all the photographers who went out in the cold to document this historic event and posted their photos on our common drive.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations! Even if you don't send it to the Guinness book of world records, you will always have a cool story to tell.