My First Race on the Last Continent - Running the Antarctic Marathon
Words by: Elizabeth Stover
Photos by: Unkown
The delayed muscle soreness started to set in yesterday morning, but I am still moving around and feeling much better than I think I might have any right to. My inability to take the stairs with any grace has given my co-workers a great deal of enjoyment and laughter.
Can one be totally humbled and insufferable at the same time? Is that even possible? If it is, I think I might be taking up all that space. I just ran a marathon! My first ever! In ANTARCTICA!
The course was on King George Island and consisted of six laps for the full. We started directly in front of the Russian base, ran up the hill and through the Chilean base, and then hooked back down the backside across those dreadful hills toward the Chinese base, turning around at the Great Wall sign.
The day before our race, there was talk about having to possibly cancel it for the 17th and run it on the 18th because there was a large storm coming in and the winds looked like they would be too wild to safely run zodiac operations to and from the ship. Personally, I was more concerned about the fact that I had to go reintroduce myself to Thom, the marathon director, just to make sure that it had not been forgotten or miscommunicated that I intended on running.
I approached him and his team to explain who I was, and he immediately interrupted me to say, “You're running the half, right?”
I paused for a second, then said, “I would like to try for the full.”
He looked at me, squinted, and said, “I think you should run the half. This is a brutal race and I don’t want you putting my people in jeopardy. You being out on the race course becomes a liability.”
His point was this - I was staff onboard the vessel, and “his people” that he was referring to were his staff as well as paying runners who had been training for this for months; some even felt this was the culmination of the training they had done their whole lives.
I stood up taller, breathed in deeply, and said, “This is the sixth year that I have worked this marathon onboard and I appreciate the advice, but I would really like to try for the full. I can assure you that I am not about to do anything to be a liability or jeopardize the safety of MY team, and furthermore, I still have to get up the next morning and bake cinnamon rolls.” He looked at me blankly.
“Have you ever run a marathon before?”
Have you ever run a half marathon before?
Have you ever run a 10K before?
“Have you ever run a 5K before?”
I started to feel the intended consequences of his public shaming - this was all in front of both my team and his - so I said yes.
“Well, what was your time then?”
I paused, knowing that: a) I could not do the math fast enough and had no idea what a respectable 5K time was and b) I had just lied to his face. So I fessed up. “I lied to you. This is my last season onboard and my last trip in Antarctica. I would like to try for the full.”
I filled out my entry form and had a number within hours.
“His people” that he was referring to were his staff as well as paying runners who had been training for this for months; some even felt this was the culmination of the training they had done their whole lives.
There were nerves and tears and I was so stinking tired because I had just been on my feet on a concrete tile floor for 14 hours and how on earth did I think I could ever have “fresh legs” while working on this boat? I was starting to feel more nervous than excited, but mostly just emotionally spent.
I had a few reasons for deciding to do this race. First, I always get very depleted after long stints on the boat, and it takes so long to bring myself back to baseline afterward that I was desperate not to let that happen this year.
I hoped that having a goal of a race at the end would force me to focus on keeping my stamina up so that I might have a fighting chance of avoiding the month-long hibernation that is usually required to return me to a normal Lizzie that can interact with fellow land dwellers without grunts and blank stares.
Second, I decided to give my letter of resignation that Antarctica season because I had been using my time there to pay off my suffocatingly large student loans. The day before the race I paid my last large sum. The trip in and of itself marked the last mile in my own metaphorical marathon - regardless of if I even ran one step on KGI, I had finished what felt like the hardest and most painful run of my life. The actual race turned into the cherry on top of the Antarctica ice cream sundae.
I needed a running buddy. I asked our bartender to keep his eyes out for someone that seemed like they might be doing this more for fun than glory.
Her name was Madison. She was from San Fransisco and her college friend asked her if she would be interested in doing the race, but didn’t wait for an answer and just signed her up. She found out that she was going to Antarctica when she got a confirmation email and a request for her deposit.
According to a mathematical equation she had developed, Madison was concerned that she might not finish in anything less than seven. And so the beginning of our wild and lovely new friendship began with a hurried introduction the day before the race.
Because of the impending weather system, the race started earlier than we expected in hopes that we could get off the beach before the worst of it came in. My alarm went off at 4:30 for work - because I still had to work. Breakfast was at 5:30. Gangway was at 6:30. The race started at 7:30.
Regardless of if I even ran one step on KGI, I had finished what felt like the hardest and most painful run of my life. The actual race turned into the cherry on top of the Antarctica ice cream sundae.
While I was the most woefully undertrained person out there, I had two big advantages going for me:
1) I know Antarctica weather.
2) This was my first race, but this was not my first race day on the ship. I had suggested to my new group of friends that maybe we should try and catch one of the later Zodiacs as there was already precipitation falling outside and gangway can be tediously long in those conditions. Madison and I were on the last boat to shore. We prayed the weather would hold out.
The first lap was rather uneventful except for the introduction to the hills. I don’t like hills when I am walking them, much less running up them into the wind and sideways snow. Madison later told me the only advantage that she had coming into this race was that she runs hills all the time at home. Her determination to take the hills and make them fun is one reason for our success.
The wind was in our favor on the way out, but there was very little cover coming back from the Great Wall and with the windchill, we were probably in the single digits. We finished our first lap under the close supervision of Thom but gave him enough of a wide berth that we were successful at avoiding most human interaction.
I had busted my knee about six weeks before while training on deck three, and coming back from the Great Wall turnaround it started to get cranky. I finally told Madison about it as we rounded the corner back into the Russian base, and we started scanning the float coats for the massage therapist. She was nowhere to be found.
Our second split was faster than the first. Thom saw that it was me and asked me three times if I was okay. I said “Peachy. I am tougher than I look.”
During the third lap, we found our groove. We were making great time and knew that we were going to make the half cut off point cleanly with 40-50 minutes to spare. We actually started “flying” down the hills - spread our arms out like little blue and black airplanes, flying over mud puddles and across rocks. There may have been sound effects. We were having a lot of fun. My knee, however, was not. If I was going to pull out at the half, I had to make that decision in the next few minutes.
I was not about to leave my new friend. We stopped at what we termed the Stretching Rock and talked about how we could power walk the rest and still make it. The wind had shifted and now was mostly on the front third of the track. I watched the weather move in rather quickly, but there were no white peaks in the water yet and there was a brief reprieve in the snow and precipitation.
If I was going to pull out at the half, I had to make that decision in the next few minutes.
As we started running back towards the Chilean base I blurted out, “I am about to finish my first half marathon!?!” Apparently, I hadn't shared that teeny bit of information in our brief greeting period.
She actually stopped and said something to the effect of “Wait! What? You have never even run a half marathon!?!” and then just laughed with utter glee and amusement.
We rounded out the bottom corner and headed towards the trip lines rather than the finish line. Madison had to go to the bathroom and at this point, we had kinda morphed into our own version of No Woman Left Behind - so I waited for her, but that left me wide open for Thom to pounce.
“I have to say, I am kinda impressed.”
“Again, I am a lot tougher than I look.”
“Yeah, I agree. No offense, but this is a really tough race. I think I might have to bake you a cake. A victory cake. If you just keep at the same pace you can do it.” And we were off.
No turning back now.
At some point during lap four we found the massage therapist, just as my knee was creeping up the pain scale. Nothing clicking - just really uncomfortable. Madison was a bit relieved at my injury because an old IT band injury of hers was starting to make itself known. I began power walking most hills and running down them. The wind had shifted and things were starting to get a little hairier out on the water. Still not the worst I’ve seen, but if the winds were to pick up any more they might need to call it.
Madison and I now had three designated stretching rocks. We were walking and shuffling more and running less, but laughing and taking lots of pictures and sharing our life stories at this point. Now I actually kinda liked the hills!
One lap left. Thom caught a glimpse of us at the start/finish line. “You guys are going to do it! You have plenty of time if you just keep your pace.” Off we went, though it was cold by then and the weather had gone to shit. We had just over four miles to go between us and the finish line.
I am starting to see white peaks, it’s blowing ice and slow, and the temperature is dropping fast. My arms are starting to feel tingly and I am deservedly cold, but the extra layer that I have in my bag is not going to make enough of a difference to warrant stopping.
Madison found a place to stop to take some panoramic pictures and with nobody directly ahead of me, I found myself completely alone. Other than this race, I have not spent a lot of time on the back side of King George Island. It was stunning. I had less than a mile left, but I was having a hard time keeping it together - emotionally.
The end was in sight. I was about to finish my first ever marathon, but I was also saying goodbye to a place that I always knew I wanted to visit but never knew how I would get there - Antarctica. I had written that word on a list when I was 15 years old. Then, of course, life happened and I forgot about that list and many of the things that were on it.
I was about to finish my first ever marathon, but I was also saying goodbye to a place that I always knew I wanted to visit but never knew how I would get here - Antarctica.
The life of living aboard a ship down south has not been easy for me at all. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in the polar regions, but I have spent much of that time homesick for my community.
At that moment, however, I was alone in Antartica and I am not sure I have ever felt more surrounded by love and support and community in my life. It was surreal and peaceful, and a beautiful way to end this chapter. This was the end. I was coming home, and this time for good. I came, I saw, I lived… Now I was going home.
I lost it. Or maybe I released it? Either way, the tears came.
By then we were the only runners left onshore. Madison caught up with me just as one of the marathon staff came over on the ATV and said “You might know better than anyone else out here, but the weather is starting to pick up quickly. So at the top of the hill, I need you to run home.”
We ran home. Out together. In together. 6:10 later we finished.
The zodiac ride back to the ship was a crazy, hairy, wild one - the wildest I had personally experienced. As we pulled up to the gangway on the side of the vessel, I could hear a roar of cheers along the rail. The noise could be heard through the winds that were whipping the side of my face.
A passenger later told me it was almost like I had a ship full of worried big brothers. Every time someone came back the first question was “How is Lizzie?”
After plunging in ice-cold water (twice), showering, inverting my legs, and devouring a banana and a cookie - I went back to work. Shortly before dinner a co-worker came downstairs and asked if I had the time to come have a quick drink with Madison and friends. They were asking for my presence in the bar. I was in my galley clothes and a flour-riddled apron, but I wanted to celebrate with them so I followed her up the stairs.
As soon as I stepped across the threshold, the entire bar erupted in cheers and applause. Someone was saying something on the mic and people were shaking my hands and I was not totally sure what was happening. It took me a minute to realize that the applause was for me! Madison’s friends had taken it upon themselves to tell a few people that I had never run a race before and it spread like wildfire.
Thom grabbed the mic and proceeded to tell everyone how I lied to him about having run a 5k. He started talking about my splits and how apparently the whole marathon team didn’t think I could do it, but I did it!
The whole adventure was such an amazing experience. On a ship where I have often felt unsure about where or how I fit in - it was enormously touching to be lifted up and supported by a room full of strangers that felt like immediate friends. I’m thankful for the community that wrapped me in love every step of every 26.2 miles.