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Saturday, January 29, 2011

South Pole Triathlon

We walk on water here at the South Pole: a 2-mile thick layer of water molecule, and we don't even make a big deal out of it.  We can also ride a bicycle on water.  But we cannot swim in it.  This water has been frozen for thousands of years and it is likely to stay frozen for thousands more.  So, for us to have a triathlon at the South Pole, we substituted skiing for swimming.
I have already mentioned our triathlon in a previous blog on the polympics, but I wanted to add a little detail here to serve as a historical record, and to help future generations of polies who might be interested in organizing another one. 
So, let's start with the course.  We chose the skiway because it provides the best surface for all three events.  The start, finish, and transition areas were located in the pax (short for passenger) terminal, which has a small heater.  In the pax terminal we also set up an aid station with hot chocolate, cookies, hand warmers, and foot warmers.  We used an orange bag stuffed with bubble wrap to designate the point where we would turn right from the apron towards the skiway proper.  All the other corners were already well marked with existing flags.

I measured the course at 1.26 miles using the odometer feature on a Garmin GPS.  We went around the loop three times, first by bicycle, then running, and finally on skis, for a total distance of 3.78 miles.
Here Jamie is making the right turn at the orange bag.

There is only one bicycle on station, and there were four of us, so we could not start all at the same time.  So, when the first person was finished with the bicycle, the second person would start, and so on.  The winner would be determined by the clock.  At some point there were three of us on the course, each doing a different sport.  Here I am riding the bicycle on the skiway, with Jamie running in the background.

Linda was our timekeeper.  She could watch the start/finish line from the window.  When Jamie finished the race Linda started and Jamie timed her.

The bike-to-run transition only took a few seconds, as we all ran with the same shoes that we used for the bicycle.  For the run-to-ski transition we would go into the pax terminal to change our shoes.  I put some footwarmers in the ski boots before the start of the race, and it was nice to find them warm to start the last leg of the race.  It took us about 3 or 4 minutes to transition from running to skiing.

Here is Jamie finishing the race,with Sarah about to complete the run portion.

And now, for the course historical records, the temperature was -12 F (-24 C), the wind was 9 knots (~10 mph), and here are our times:
I want to thank Reinhart Piuk for documenting this event with his camera (all the photos in this blog are his), and all the participants who made it possible.  Jamie and Sarah are both experienced triathletes, but neither had skied before (they checked out their skis the night before), and neither had ridden a bicycle on the ice before.  Linda came out as a judge, but decided to participate and completed her first ever triathlon.  Congratulations!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Polympics

We did two new firsts last Sunday at the South Pole: the first ever Polympics, and the first ever outdoor triathlon.  We had a total of 35 participants in 5 disciplines which tested endurance, speed, balance, strength, and agility.  The idea of a triathlon came on Dec 14, after six of us went out to test the bicycle and found out that it was possible to ride on the ice.  When we started discussing the possibility of having a triathlon, Elissa, our volunteer events coordinator suggested that we make it part of the upcoming Polympics.  I thought the Polympics were an established South Pole tradition, and I volunteered to organize the triathlon event as part of it.  It wasn't until a couple of weeks ago that I found out that the Polympics was just a name and an idea and that no, they had never been done before.  With so many activities going on (ice sculpture contest, film festival contest, marathon, etc.) everyone was stretched thin and starting to get tired, and it looked like even this year the Polympics would remain on the drawing board.  But I really wanted to have a South Pole triathlon, so we put together a small team of coordinators and gave it a try.  We solicited ideas from the entire station and came up with a list of 10 events (see the full list here ).  We put sign up sheets in the dining room, requesting a minimum of 6 people to sign up for every event to take place (three participants, two judges, and a photographer), and that is how our 5 events were selected.

The triathlon, at 9 AM, was the first event, consisting of a 1.26-mile loop to be repeated 3 times, first on the bicycle, then on foot, and last on skis, for a total distance of 3.78 miles.  We only had one bicycle, so when the first competitor had finished the bike course, the next one would get on the bicycle and start the race.  In this photo I am starting the run after dropping the bicycle, with Sarah coming behind to pick up the bicycle and get started.

The second event, at 11 AM, was the "Beer Can Race".  The beer can is a structure built to the side of the station with stairs connecting the two floors of the station to some tunnels buried under the ice that are used as our garages for materials storage, vehicle storage, vehicle maintenance, and other facilities.  We call it the beer can because it resembles a giant beer can from the outside.  Although the beer can is an enclosed structure and is therefore protected from the wind, it is not heated like the rest of the station, and the temperature this time of year hovers around -25 F (-32 C).  There are 92 steps from the bottom to the top.  We timed each of the 11 participants in this race to see who could climb the stairs the fastest.  To limit our speed, in the interest of safety, we had a rule this year that we could not skip steps.  In this photo Kiwi Dave is reaching the top of the stairs, quite remarkably, in just a t-shirt.

The third event, "The last one pedaling", was invented by the Austrian and German teams who visited us around New Year's eve.  In this event we would start riding the bicycle on a groomed surface, pick up as much speed as we could, then we would enter the soft snow of the sastrugi at a location designated by bamboo sticks.  The winner would be the one who could go the farthest in the sastrugi.  The photo shows Jesse picking up speed, then entering the sastrugi, and finally falling off.  We had some spectacular falls and hysterical laughs.  The winning distance was a mere 33 ft and 3 in, or 10.15 mt. 

The fourth event "The Last One Pulling" tested our strength.  We brought out some spent batteries, each weighing 65 lbs, and loaded them on a sled one at a time.  Each participant had 30 seconds to pull the sled a distance of 25 yards.  As more weight was added, contestants started to drop from the competition.  We ran out of batteries, when two contestants were still pulling, so we started adding people.  Phil won this event, pulling an incredible 1,175 lbs.

The last event, "Fastest in ECW" took place in the dining room.  ECW is our Extreme Cold Weather gear.  It is the equipment issued to each of us to stay warm outside.  It consists of heavy socks, boots, fleeces, jackets, gloves, hats, goggles, worn in layers, one on top of the other.  The winner of this contest would be the one who could put on all this gear, properly buttoned, tied, and fastened, in the fastest time, starting from longjohns.  Here is Abram finishing in third place in 1'57".  Cricket won this event in the lightspeed time of 1'18".

At the end of the day, after dinner, and before the science lecture, Martin, our station manager, awarded medals and prizes to the first top three finishers in each event category, while a slide show of more than 500 photographs from the events was shown on the screen. 

The High Sierra team, Cricket and Dan, wife and husband, swept the field in the team competition with three gold medals, two silver, and a bronze.

Photo credits:  All the photos in this blog were taken by Reinhart Piuk.  Thank you, Reinhart, for braving the cold all day long, and for putting together the great slide show for the award ceremony.  Had we had a contest on who could shoot the best photos the fastest, you would have won gold.

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.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The South Pole Ski Club

Membership is free.  Ski, boots, poles, groomed tracks, and a warming hut are provided, also free of charge.  Club trips, twice a week, go out on some of the most unique terrain on the planet, and are also gratis. It all comes with being a citizen of the South Pole Station. 

The idea came about back in November, when the mercury first rose above the -40 F level.  Mark (the station doctor) and I decided to check out some of the ski equipment that Raytheon generously provides, some of it brand new, still in the original package.  We went out for about one hour and we had such a great time that we figured we had to make it a routine and get more people involved.  So we talked to Elissa, our Recreation coordinator, and the ski club was born.  Linda made a sign for the club, so it is now official.

We go out twice a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays, for one hour at a time.  The extreme cold temperatures here at the South Pole make the skis stick to the ice, but with temperatures warming up in the last few weeks we have been able to get a little bit of a glide.  Still, we move fairly slow, at average speeds of about 3.5 mph (5~6 km/h).  We have a significant turnover, as many people come to the South Pole only for a short few weeks to get their science work done, then they go back home. 

Here are some of the people and some of the sights.

Left to right Mandi , Mark, Marcopolie, Joselyn, Linda, and Charles, on Jan 2.

Our first outing was on Nov 24, still in -38 F (-39 C) temperatures, our breath and transpiration turning into an insulating layer of ice on our clothes.  Here we are in front of the station, on our way back from a trip.  Notice a C-130 on the skiway in the back.  From left to right Marcopolie, Zoe, and Katherine.

Zoe and Aron on the ski loop on Dec 1, with a sundog in background.

Linda pointing out to one of the orange flags denoting the location of a neutrino detector down in the ice during our science tour on Dec 19.  The science tour is a 2.5 mile loop that we have created, which takes us from the station to the BICEP telescope, then to the 10-mt telescope, on to the Ice Cube Laboratory, the Ice Cube Drill Camp, and back to the station.

The heavy equipment operators have groomed a ski loop with several options, for a total of about 5 miles of groomed terrain.  In the middle of it they have brought a warming hut where we can take refuge if we needed to.  In the hut there are blankets, a bed, and a stove.  We have not had the need to use it, but I hope that, before the end of the season, I find the time to go spend a night out there.

On January 2 we skied over the sastrugi to the tourist camp site.  Adventurers who ski all the way to the pole are not allowed in the station, except in case of emergency.  However, we do set up a campsite for them where they can stay without interfering with the station activities.

Mark and Anne on the ski loop on Jan 12.

Sometimes it is just nice to go wander away from the groomed track, alone on the sastrugi, turn the back to the station, look at the immensity of nothingness, and ponder what it must have felt like to be the first person at the pole 100 years ago.  Here is Linda taking a meditative detour on Dec 26.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Reality TV shows up at the South Pole

It came in the form of a ski race, one country against another: Germany vs. Austria.  Two team leads: a television comedian for the German team and a pluri-decorated Olympic skier for the Austrian team.  The team leaders selected their three other team members out of ordinary people who had applied in their respective countries.  They all went training in Norway for some time, then they flew to Antarctica, where a plane dropped them 250 miles from the South Pole.  The winner would be the first team to reach the pole.  They would need to choose the route and select the strategy, particularly when and how long to rest.  A TV crew would follow them by car and film them about 3 hours every day, leaving them on their own for the rest of the day.  A 6-hr reality TV show will result and will be aired later this year on German and Austrian TVs. 
At the end of the race they spent a few days camped out near the station, so we had plenty of opportunities to go meet with them and socialize. 

We learnt a little bit about what it takes to ski across the plateau.  The skis get skins instead of wax.  The sleds are lightweight, but can still weigh 40 kg when fully loaded, and are hauled with a harness that is part of a backpack.  Food, according to one of the German team members, was hard to swallow.  They said they were cold most of the time, and the landscape was obsessively monotonous.  After talking with them I realized how different their experience is from our's.  They endured harsh conditions to enjoy the outdoors in Antarctica.  We at the station get to enjoy the outdoors, but are never far away from a good meal, a hot cup of tea, or a private room with centralized heating.  As Reinhold Messner put it in his book about crossing the white continent by ski, Antarctica is heaven and hell; for us in the station it is just heaven.

The Austrian team posed for us. At the far right is team leader Hermann Maier, gold medalist in Nagano (1998) in the Super-G and Giant Slalom, medalist again in Turin (2006), and world champion multiple times.

Arctic Trucks, the modified Toyotas from Iceland, were once again here at the South Pole.  One of them was equipped with a boom for a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR).  It is a device that rides on the snow ahead of the car and can detect the presence of crevasses.  As it turns out, the crew selected a route that had minimal glacial movements and did not encounter a single crevasse.

I left them the bicycle to enjoy for a day.  When I went back to pick it up they told me they had great fun with it, and they even invented a new sport.  I call it "The last one pedaling".  Here is how it works: one starts pedaling on a groomed surface, then launches on the sastrugi, where the bicycle wheels will start sinking.  The winner is the one who can go the farthest before falling down.  The ride does not last more than 100 ft.  We love the sport and we decided to include it in our upcoming Polympics.