Ice Marathon 2006

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In that moment when your whole life flashes before you, make sure you have something to watch.
Anon. Posted on the bulletin board at Patriot Hills
December 29, 2005. Day of Departure. Winter Weather Factor

The ride to the airport took a little over two hours, not bad for a day of heavy snow. At the Sheremetievo, mucho people catching flights to warmer destinations. My flight to Paris was late to start boarding by about 1.5 hours, on account of late arrival and the need to de-ice the aircraft. To cut the story short, when I got to the transfer desk at the Charles de Gaulle airport, the connecting flight to Santiago had already been closed -- so much for my expectation that they would hold it to collect all connecting passengers.

Depending on whether or not the French immigration police grants me a visa, I'll be spending the next 20 hours at a hotel -- or, in the worst case, at the terminal. At least I'm here on my own -- some of the stranded people here are with kids. Not everyone is patient, but I can relate to that.

Another illustration of the thesis that air travel will always retain a degree of unpredictability. Travel on foot is the one reliable choice.

Dec 30. Day in Paris (well, almost)

After much delay, a 24-hour transit visa is finally granted, with an expected twist: it covers the entire group of 20 us, with me in charge. It means the group must cross the border together, both ways. Among the group, the earliest flight is at 7pm, so we all have to be at the terminal at five. Whatever, for now everybody is happy to check into the airport hotel and get some sleep. I turn in when it is 5 in the morning at home.

I wake up, watch the BBC channel, have an uninspiring breakfast, check my balckberry for emails -- in short, do all the things a stranded traveler does to kill time. The sky is a grey slate, the temperature is below freezing, and with all my warm clothes in the checked bags out of my reach, I don't really have the option of going to town -- something that might otherwise provide a better opportunity.

As the day wears on, the weather gets worse, it starts to snow and the wind also picks up. The hotel starts to bug me: apparently, the free voucher from Air France bought me one night, and at noon I would have to vacate the room. I play with the idea of putting up a fight (EU Passenger Rights come to mind) but decide not to: there is little difference between sitting out the remaining 4 hours in the room and doing the same in the lobby.

Inevitably, when one is stranded in confined space for any length of time, one develops affinity with fellow-travelers. I get to spend quite a bit of time talking to other passengers from my yesterday's flight, a group of some 10 people, some of them bound for Buenos Aires, others, like myself, for Santiago. Amazingly, and on the other hand, almost expectedly, one finds mutual acquaintances, shared interests (that includes a marathon prospect!) and fascinating life stories.

At 11pm, I am on board a Boeing 777 seated next to a French couple in their late 50's. The flight time to Buenos Aires is 13 hrs 40 min. It sounds very long.

December 31, 2005. New Year's Eve

The plane takes off from the Charles de Gaulle airport almost exactly at midnight. The food is ok by airline standards, the entertainment fare allows me to catch up on some of the recent titles I have never bothered to go see to a theater. But most spectacular is the view of the night sky from my window. As the flight approaches the equator, I remind myself that in the next few days, I'll get to see the sky of the Antarctic. Polar voyages used to take a lot more time.

13 and some hours later we land at Buenos Aires. On approach, I can see a large urban sprawl topped by a layer of bluish haze. As usual, the first sensory impression from a new place is its smell -- cannot pin it down, but it is certainly different. The stop-over is rather short, and in about 30 minutes I am back on board for the concluding hop to Santiago.

I chat a little with the French couple next to me, thet are headed to their son's wedding, the son runs a bodega 300km from Santiago. The inflight entertainment system runs a fresh newsreel showing pictures of heavy snow in France and throughout Europe. The contrast with the view from the window -- clear blue sky, summer vegetation patterns on the ground.

The aircraft clears the snow-covered peaks of the Andes somewhat north of Santiago, banks left and descends to land. The air temperature is balmy +29. A friend of the people I have met on the flight gives me a ride and drops me off at the hotel. I am relieved at the chance to get a shower.

The jet lag and accumulated sleep deficit combined warp my perception of time. I succeed in watching an HBO flick with Johnny Depp (devil worship etc., decidedly non-Xmas topic).

When the time approached midnight back at home, I exchange congratulatory SMS messages with my wife. I plan to catch some sleep and then go outside for the local New Year celebration, aparently, spectacular fireworks are expected.

January 1, 2006. Missed New Year.

I sleep through 3am, after I wake up it takes me a few minutes to realize that I have slept through the celebrations. I spend the next three hours watching the box, the usual hotel fare. I decide against going out to jog, instead doa lazy exercize routine, take a shower and pack up. Even though I have seen little of Santiago, I decide I like the look and feel of the place. The city is still mostly asleep as I ride the taxi to the airport.

The flight to Punta Arenas is less than half full, with most of the passengers being foreign tourists. The flight makes one stop at Puerto Montt, the weather is different from that in Santiago: it's cool, cloudy and smells of a recent rain. The passengers for Punta Arenos are asked to remain on board, even during re-fueling. After the take-off, the name of the palce becomes clear: it is indeed located on the coast.

Enroute to Punta Arenas, the cloud cover occasionallly breaks to reveal some truly spectacular terrain: peaks and ridges covered with snow and glaciers, ice flowing down to lakes and fjords. Ice furrows are of intense aqua marine colot -- same color I saw at the North Pole.

I arrive at the airport shortly after noon. The airport is apparently jointly used by civilian airlines and Chilean Fuerza Aérea, there are hardened hangars in the vicinity. In spite of that, the place looks very peaceful. The pilot says the temperature outside is +11 degrees, but it feels much warmer. I pick my luggage and get a taxi. The place looks very flat, the town stretched out along the coast. Shortly after leaving the airport, my nostrils catch the smell of fish, lots of fish, as a matter of fact. A hand-written sign on a fence announces as much: Bienvenido al Sabor de Austral!

In case you find yourself in a similar situation and want to try the Tierra del Fuego place, point your GPS here (WSG84 datum):
 53°09′34.6″ South
 70°54′20.6″ West

I have no reservation, so I try my luck at the Tierra del Fuego hotel where I know Richard Donovan will be staying when he arrives. Rooms are available, so shortly I settle in a small but very decently appointed room with a view, of sorts.

My plan for the day would be to go out for a walk, then meet with Richard and other race participants as they arrive.

I go for a walk around town. The sun feels warm, but the wind is very fresh and sometimes chilly. I decide to walk uphill on Avenida Colon to a hill that offers a good view of surroundings. The panorama is very nice: streets and roofs sloping down to the beach, the water of the Magellan Strait in dark green and steel bands, distant peaks merging into the horizon.

The streets are almost deseted, except for an occasional couple tourists. Most of the houses are fairly modest, and an occasional construction site reveals structures that are rather slim -- winters here must not be too cold. I wlak down to the beach, breathe in the smell of drying seaweeds. A local man is walking his dog, an akita/labrador mix who looks very happy. Chara, our brown lab, would be a happy dog here, too, I suppose.

I am curious about the history of the place, for example, the fact that among various ethnic groups represented here, there are Croats -- there is a street named after this country, and the local cable carries a Croatian channel.

When I am back at the hotel, I meet Richard Donovan and three other competitors, Steve Cushing, Stevie Matthews and Mike Pierce. It was from Mike's interview on the Endurance Radio podcast that I first learned about this race. We chat for a while, the conversation hops from running to the family, from early impressions of Patagonia back to our planned run. I learn from Richard that we are scheduled to leave on Jan 4 -- it means two more days in Punta Arenas. ANI people will do a gear check tomorrow, to make sure we are adequately clothed for Patriot Hills. The rest of competitors arrive tomorrow, to make the total group of 10.

January 2, 2006. Second day in Punta Arenas

Here's the 'official' update from Richard on today's outlook.

The sky is overcast, there is northerly wind of some 4-5 mps, the air temperature about +12 degrees. Starting from the hotel I go out for an easy run along the shore. The beach is narrow and not groomed -- I guess with water as cold as it is, there is no incentive to keep it clean for swimmers. There are lots of stray dogs around, luckily, they seem to pay little attention to me. My Foretrex shows 7.5 miles when I return in 1:02:30.

At breakfast I meet David Rootes, one of the owners of ANI's parent company, Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions. David is resposible for the environmental aspects of ANI's operations at Patriot Hills. ANI is apparently trying to go even further than required by the international regulations for the Antarctic. David also speaks highly of the Ilyushin cargo jet and its crew that they rely on for all of their transportation needs for the camp. It is chartered from GST Aero, a Kazakh operator via a UK charter company. Not surprisingly, David also knows Ben Saunders.

At 11am, we meet ANI people for a gear check and a briefing. The check reveals that I am in order except for one item: a pee bottle, more specifically of a wide mouth variety. I can see the logic of this requirement, and head out to the nearest outfitter's.

The town looks much more lively today, plenty of vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Punta Arenas must serve as some sort of a military facility, there are quite a few people in uniforms. The shop owner where I stop for my bottle purchase finds out that I am from Russia, tells me that last year he had Russian Zar visit his place. Come again? Apparently, some claimant to the throne was through Punta Arenas, accompanied by two bodyguards and a 'Barbie.'

January 3, 2006. Still in Punta Arenas

5.1 miles, 37:30 this morning, the sky is overcast, traces of overnight drizzle on the roads.

We have a briefing with the ANI staff at 10am. The IL-76 is being prepared for the flight, and will be on a stand-by from now on. Some of our luggage will be collected and added to the load later today. We would have to keep our warm clothing and other essential items with us. The stuff that we won't need at the camp will be left at the hotel and collected by ANI. The current weather conditions at Patriot Hills are not promising for a departure today, there is a strong wind gusting up to 30 knots. Prevailing wind direction at the base are perpendicular to the runway, and the maximum cross-wind component for IL-76 to handle is 20 knots. If the wind subsides today, we might have a go order at 8pm. Otherwise the earliest we could hear from ANI is 6:30am tomorrow.

Other things covered at the meeting include what to expect of accomodations (two-person tents), food (supposed to be good, if low on fresh vegetables), precautions during flight and landings (don't distract pilots etc.), but most importantly, environmental issues, such as waste handling, personal hyegine. The policy at Patriot Hills is such that everything that comes in has to go out, including human waste. It creates some particular challenges for us runners. On the course it would mean not only that we cannot drop food wrappers and other small trash, but also collecting our urine and disposing of it at designated places only. As at any other marathon, de-hydration is a serious threat down there, it means we would have to keep drinking throughout the race, and generate corresponding amounts of by-product. I guess we'll have to see how it works out.

Above all, the ANI people emphasize patience. The timing of flights in and out is totally driven by the weather, and we should be prepared to hang out longer than our initial schedule indicates. I am familiar with this requirement from the North Pole trip in 2003, when we had to sit on ice two extra days, plus two more days at Longyear. But I guess some of ANI clients are used to live in the world when it's OK to become upset if an airline is delayed by an hour. Antarctica reminds us that we are too used to take modern travel for granted.

We will be sharing the flight with two German glaciologists and two Chilean military officers. They are all working on a program that prepares to drill down to one of the sub-glacial lakes. Apparently, in addition to the famous Vostok sub-glacial lake, this feature is fairly common on the Antarctic continent. Here's what the local paper has to say about their expedition.

The hotel at which I'm staying has asked me to move since they are fully booked for the next few nights, and I have not made a reservation with them in advance. I am not upset about it, they in fact find a room for me at El Mercurio, some three blocks away, but it also means that I have to make sure I can be reached by Richard Donovan and ANI in case we get scrambled.

I sort my gear into three piles: stuff that will be collected and loaded on the plane with the cargo, things that I'll have with me on the plane (that includes my warm kit), and the few things that I'll leave behind at the hotel. Other than the running day, I'll be using the same polar clothes that I bought from Northern Outfitters for my North Pole jump. They certainly proved their worth: the combination that I have allowed to stay in the open for hours without getting cold, and that's in -20 degrees temperatures with wind. For running, I'll rely on a layered setup, with a wind jackets and pants as my outer layer. I also bring two pairs of running shoes, a North Face Gortex pair and a recently bought size 14 Adidas Tundra. Tundras will be the pair I intend to wear with two pairs of socks, including the trusted Injinjis.

At 2:45pm, we have our bags put onto a truck and dispatched to the airport for loading. My stuff weighs in at 9kg only, 2/3rds of this weight is the sleeping bag I'm renting from ANI.

At 7pm or so, it starts to rain in Punta Arenas. Richard Dinivan calls at 8:30pm to say that there will be no flight today. The next departure slot is 8:00am, we should expect to hear from ANI at 6:00am. Or not.

January 4, 2006. Scheduled Day of Departure?

It did not rain for long yesterday. This morning, the sun is warm and the wind is leisurely. For my morning run, I explore the southern edge of town, it contains various military and naval installations and housing. I run as far as the barracks of Chilean Infantería de Marina (signs warn not to take photos or video), and turn around. 5.4 miles in 42:10.

No call comes at 6:30am, nor at 9:30, the next slot. The winds at Patriot Hills are still strong. The next check will be at noon. Richard is saying the as much at his page.

Noon. Staying put. Cruising the streets of Punta Arenas. I believe people will start to recognize my face soon. Next check at 4:15pm.

4:15pm comes and goes, and we are pushed to 8:15 now. Patriot Hills reports that while the wind has subsided somewhat, there are still gusts up to 40 knots. I have checked back into El Mercurio, where a number of other racers moved from their place as their reservations expired. In the meantime, I have made a tour of two local museums, of the four available: the Museum of Regional History and the Naval Museum. I am saving the other two for tomorrow, in case I'm still here. I was the sole patron at the Naval Museum, that should be more appropriately described as a recruitment prop for the local naval base. The Regional Museum was more interesting though, it is housed in a grand 19th century building that used to be owned by the Braun family. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the founder of the dynasty, Elias Braun, was a fugitive from nowhere else but Russia!

One interesting fact that I picked at the museum is that before the time of supposed arrival of first humans to Patagonia, local fauna included a species of horse. It is interesting because by the time of the arrival of Conquistadores, natives had no knowledge of horses, and, in fact, it was one of contributing factors to their military defeat against the invading force, together with the disadvantage in arms, and, even more importantly, lack of immunity against new germs.. If horses became extinct because they were over-hunted by ancestral Indians (as happened to a bunch of large mammal species in the Americas), then there is something of a bitter irony in this. Or maybe not, as some people argue.

At 6:30pm Nelson Petersen of KIBO Productions, our official videographer, knocks on my door and suggests we go outside for an interview. At least he can use the slack to do some work towards his production. As we walk toward the location he chose (Plaza de Armas), Nelson mentions he may also submit an article to Marathon and Beyond, a very respectable publication in the ultra-running world. We do the interview thing and head to dinner. Upon return to hotel, I get a text message from Richard Donovan announcing that we have been bumped to 9am tomorrow, at least.

January 5, 2006. Still here

6.5 miles in the morning, 53:25. This time, I run to the west, away from the coast line and uphill. The city line is about 3k from where I start, and after that, I run on a dirt road among some farming locations, cows and all.

The next update on our departure status is at 1pm now. Punta Arenas may be a small town but it is still a better place to be stuck at, as compared to Longyearbyen. At least food and lodging are definitely more affordable here.

To stay on the educational track and make the best use of the available time, I have bought a book on the history of the region. Expect me to share its wisdom with you — the more of it the longer we are stuck here.

17:15 is the time for the next update. Whiling away my time reading Historias Breves de Fuego-Patagonia, sitting at Plaza de Armas. When it becomes a little bit too fresh for comfort, I drift back to El Mercurio and keep on reading. In the afternoon, it starts to rain, and my mood is one of resignation.

Gustung up to 30 knots at Patriot Hills, we hear at 17:15. Back to my room.

It's official: we are not flying today. The trend is said to be improving though. The next weather check is at 6:30am. It rains through most of the night.

January 6, 2006. Day of Departure for Patriot Hills

6:40am. No call. A message comes in later, we are asked to be at our hotel at 9:30. At 9:30, we are instructed to check out and proceed to Hostal Rubio, where the rest of our party stays. The reason for this is to have all of us in one place is to save time on picking us up. The hostal is a nice building, nicely trimmed inside. Now that we are all in one place, the waiting should be less of a burden.

The book I am reading, Historias Breves de Fuego-Patagonia, contains a collection of short stories and essays. One the essays describes a theory of how early human settlement of South America may have happened via Australia. It points out to notable similarities between the languages of some Patagonian natives and those of Australian aborigines. Here's more on this on the web. A round-up of various theories on the settlement of America can be found here.

15:30. We are advised that ANI will pick us up at Hostal Rubio at 16:00, to go to the airport. The plane is going through the pre-flight preparation now. If the wind does not increase suddenly, then we should take off sometime at 18:00 (that would be midnight in Moscow).

We board a bus and get to the airport, collecting thr Chilean/German geodesic survey party on our way. We go through the usual security and get our passports stamped. As of now, we have officially left Chile.

As we wait for the call to board, I get in a conversation with Dr Jens Wendt. He and his wife are taking part in a 3-week expedition to map a precise approach to the place where a drilling will commense toward a sub-glacial lake. As Dr Wendt explains, there is a wide international debate on the planned efforts to drill toward these sub-glacial lakes in the Antarctic. Many voices advocate a very cautious approach, mainly because of concerns of possible contamination, both ways: of unique aquatic environment in those lakes that remained isolated for millions of years, and of potentialy lethal micro-organisms lurking under the ice being released into the wider biosphere. Apparently, the Vostok station that happens to sit on top of the largest such lake, has recently resumed drilling, such concerns notwithstanding. This lake has been a hot subject for discussion by loonies and UFO cranks, as sampled here. It is also well-known that until recently, the drilling was conducted not in the most responsible environmental manner: to keep the well from freezing, they pored diesel fuel down the bore hole. This does not sound right to me.

We finally get to the plane. It is a Kazakstan-registered IL-76TD (UN76004). ANI/ALE use this aircraft and the crew for the second season. Three quarters of the length of the cargo hold is taken up by fuel drums and other stuff (including the bags we checked in earlier), but there is enough room in the front section for the 18 passengers and a couple of crew members who take care of the load and pax. The interior is familiar to me, as I jumped from a similar plane a few years ago. For most of my fellow-racers this is a new experience though, lots of pictures are taken. The ride is fairly smooth, we are served sandwiches and cold drinks, no beer. I talk to the loadmaster, Andrei from Archangelsk. The crew is a mixed bunch: the pilot and co-pilot are from Sebastopol, the flight engineer from Moscow. The plane belongs to a company called GST registered in Kazakstan.

About 2 hours into the flight, the dense blanket of clouds down below becomes more sparse, it is possible to see the edge of the ice shelf and icebergs floating in the dark water.

One our before our ETA, we start to put on our polar clothes. After some manouvering, the aircraft settles on the final approach and touches down. The engines rev up when the thrust reverse is applied. As I understand, it makes little sense to apply wheel brakes, since the entire runway is of sheer blue ice. The aircraft slows down, makes a U-turn and taxes back to the off-loading area near the runway threshold. We have finally arrived.

The coordinates of ANI camp at Patriot Hills (WSG84 datum):
 80°18′06.8″ South
 81°20′34.3″ West
Here's a link to the map of Patriot Hills location.

It is past midnight Chilean time when we walk into the camp, a distance of about 1km. The sun shines through wispy clouds over the Patriot Hills. I am sweating in my outfit, since the wind is very light at the moment, and the temperature cannot be lower than -10 degrees. We are greeted by Denise, the camp guest coordinator, who assigns us to tents and points out local points of interest: the mess hall and lavatories. Each 2-person sleeping tent is named after a polar explorer. I share the Scott tent with Mark Tointon from England. We drop off our bags at the tent and head back to the mess hall. The food is plentiful and rich in calories — just what the doctor ordered for tomorrow. There is not much else to do other then go to the tent and go to bed. Tomorrow (or already today, actually) will be the day of the race.

January 7, 2006. The Race

I wake up at 6 o'clock and force myself back to sleep, as the breakfast will be served at 8. Overnight, the wind has picked up quite a bit, as I can hear from inside the tent. I find that the temperature within is quite comfortable — if anything, the sleeping bag is too warm. I get outside and for a while just stare at the surrounding landscape. The impression it leaves I can only compare with what I saw in the Western Desert, serene beauty, unchanged for eons.

We have breakfast and receive an update from Richard. The marathon will start at 14:00. The check points will be spaced more or less evenly, 5 miles between. ANI will have hot water and shelter at each station. Those who want can leave their food and other items to be placed at the check points. Other than water, I only intend to consume chocolate on the course, and I'll carry it with me in a small backpack.

At 10, we have a briefing with John Apps, the base doctor. The briefing is, well, brief and covers mostly protection from wind exposure. Currently, the other side of the hill has wind gusting up to 30 knots. Even though the temperature is only minus 7, it would be easy to get a serious frostbite with this wind. After the briefing, I go once again through my gear and finalize what I'll wear: Adidas Tundra shoes, two pairs of socks with a spare pair in my backpack, one base layer and wind pants on the bottom, two layers (base and medium) plus a vest and a wind jacket on top, 'space' mittens from my Northern Outfitters kit, a neck gater, a balaclava and a fleece hat on my head, ventilated ski goggles. I also put a piece of adhesive tape, of the kind I would normally use for pre-taping my toes, on my nose. In my small packpack, I'll carry a pair of socks, a small Swiss Army knife (for protection against wild animals, of course), two chocolate bars and a pee bottle.

45 ninutes before the start. I have had a cup of cocoa with a small piece of bread, visited the loo, applied sunblock. Looks like I am ready to go. Jitters are no greater than before a regular marathon, wind remains the largest unknown variable. I have race bib number 2, I have folded it and pinned to my hat. I set no specific time goal for today, the sole objective is to finish the race without major damage to internal organs or skin. I'll make the next entry after I finish.

5hrs 10 min later, and I am the first to cross the finish line, after a gruelling 5.5 mile long final stretch, against a headwind gusting up to 45 knots. Outside of the week-long desert races, this is by far the toughest marathon I have ever run. What makes it difficult is, first and foremost, the vicious wind. Secondly, the footing: even though the surface has been groomed by snowmobiles, the crust is relatively thin and often gives under foot, resulting in a mushy push-off, not unlike what it was in the Western Desert, with its finely crushed chalk and sand mix. Other than that, race variables — aid stations, support overall, food and hydration, the vertical profile, etc., have been well within the familiar envelope. Would I run it again? Unlikely, unless they fix the wind :). Would I recommend it to others? By all means.

Now, to the specifics. The start was delayed by about ten minutes or so (I wore no watch, to be precise about it), during which I continued to stretch my calf muscles and Achilles tendons, my, well, Achilles heel. We went off in the easterly direction, parallel to the runway and the nearest ridge. I took the lead at about 1.5 mile distance from the start, since the pace was comfortable enough. The course gradually turned south and uphill, with a rather stiff headwind, forcing a reduced pace. After the first check point, where I took only warm water and left my backpack as I had started to sweat at contact points and did not really need it, the course turned right in a wide arc leading to the West.

This was the most pleasant section of the course, flat or downhill, with left crosswind at a bearable level. Nelson Petersen and Mike King, our camera people, leap-frogged the participants on snowmobiles, making sure everyone is covered. Richard also moved from check point to check point, giving course pointers to the runners. The second check point was at about Mile 11, and marked the beginning of the return leg to the camp. I had water again, and started on the chocolate bar I had with me.

I lost sight of the racers that followed me and was cruising along at about 9:00-9:30 mpm pace, with some tail- and right crosswind. The next check point was back at the camp, on about Mile 15 mark. Water and chocolate again. The course now headed out North, toward a local landmark: the crash site of a DC-6, by now mostly buried under the snow. About a mile out from the camp, I turned my head back and was surprised to see that somebody was clearly gaining on me (it later turned out to be John O'Regan from Ireland). Even though I had no special ambitions for the race, and would have been content with simply finishing, by then I already grew comfortable with the thought of finishing first, so I decided to do some racing. Helped by the tailwind, I picked up the pace and started to check the separation regularly. The gap seemed to stabilize and was probably a mile or slightly less when I arrived at the final check point, right next to the tail of the crashed plane sticking from the snow. After a quick gulp of water, I went on. As easy as it was to run with the tailwind, now I had to head first to East for about 2 miles, and then back to the camp, straight into the headwind. The wind by then had clearly strengthened, and the progress was painfully slow. Concerned about the pursuer, I kept looking back at regular intervals. Soon though I started to turn and even run backwards once every quarter-mile or so for a different reason: I started to feel that my toes were freezing, and also my chest was becoming alarmingly cold. The wind carried snow with it, not enough to impeed visibility but certainly enough to show its anger. The final 2.5-3 miles were a slog. Even though I could stop worrying now about whoever was chasing me — in all likelyhood, he was suffering equally and could not magically penetrate the wind — the camp seemed just frozen in place. Finally, I could make out the finish line and the small crowd of spectators. With what must have looked like a fairly pathetic effort, I sped up and went under the Ice Marathon banner. Cheers and handshakes and thank yous. As I turned around to look back, a particularly nasty gust of wind tore down the banner. At least for me, the race is over, and the time is 5:09:38.

I went straight to the mess tent for a cup of hot coffee and a meal that included a piece of roast beef — that's what runners need for the post race recovery. I was soon joined by John O'Regan (5:16:31) and later by Steven Seaton (5:39:35) and Mark Tointon (5:43:38). The meal worked its magic, and I crawled back to my tent to catch an hour or so of sleep. By the time I woke up and headed back to the mess tent, all of the runners are back, no frostbites, some strain muscles and tendons, but happy overall to be back from the wind and the snow. Here's what says in its official press release.

January 8, 2006. Richard does 100k

I have not been able to retrieve my original blog entry for this day, therefore, record it mostly from memory.

Richard Donovan is the only one who intends to run the full 100k. Steven Seaton will accompany him for the first loop around the mountain, then Richard will be on his own. The aid stations will be manned by ANI staff who will reach them periodically on snowmobiles as Richard makes his laps. The plan is to repeat yesterday's course twice, then do another there-and-back to the crash site, even though the exact course will be subject to specific weather conditions.

Richard starts soon after 9am. The weather conditions are not good: while the wind may be not as severe as yesterday, the sky is overcast and the lighting is totally shadowless. There is also some blowing snow. It is the worst possible combination for visibility: while one can still pick out the course markers, it is impossible to follow small, and occassionally not so small, variations in the trail geometry. It is very easy to mis-step and fall in such conditions.

Steven comes back sooner than expected: having run the marathon distance yesterday, he has found it difficult to keep up with Richard, and turned back. Richard completes the first 15-miler around the mountain and departs for the second leg, toward the crash site. Visibility has improved somewhat, but the wind has also picked up. When Richard comes back, he decides to modify the course: he will run another two laps around the mountain and make up the remaining 6 or so miles on a measured section of the course. This way, he will avoid the brutal headwind of the 5.5 mile return leg from the crash site. He would still have to deal with this wind running the uphill section of the round-the-mountain laps.

It takes Richard 15:43:55 to complete the 100k distance. Throughout the run, he has looked remarkably fresh, and sufficiently warm not to warrant additional layers, at least until the very last 6-mile leg when he put on an extra wind-breaker. By then, the winds have become as ferocious as they were yesterday, or worse. His is a remarkable achievement, bordering on superhuman. But then, he has quite a record.

January 9, 2006.

The racing part of the trip is over for us, we are now on a stand-by for departure back to Punta Arenas. While tentatively scheduled for today, the flight is obviously subject to the weather conditions here at Patriot Hills, and it does not look promising as of breakfast time: the winds are well above the maximum allowed for IL-76. The temperature also seems to have lowered somewhat. We are lucky not to have to run today, I guess.

The wind is so strong that one has trouble walking against it. It looks like we are in for a little while. The mess tent has a small library, an assortment of books on the Antarctic, some fiction, old magazines and such. Pretty soon, I may start reviewing some of these, for lack of a better intellectual fare.

After lunch, I take a walk toward the shoulder of the hill that sits on the other side of the runway. It appears deceptively close, but walking against the stiff wind on slippery ice is slow. When I reach the runway, it becomes clear why it is unlikely that we will have a clearance for the flight today: the wind speed is substantially higher here than back at the camp. I measure the distance between the median of the runway and the hill slope, it is about 0.6-0.8 miles. In poor visibility, landing a plane here would be tricky. But then, I suppose, flying in Antarctida is generally tricky, and requires a special breed of pilots.

After dinner, we have a brief awards ceremony, with medals and one symbolic t-shirt for all — our own t-shirts are waiting for us in Punta Arenas. I also get a cup and a nice Kobold watch, contributed by the sponsors of the race. I have never expected to bring back something of material value from these events, I guess this is an unexpected bonus.

Back at the mess tent, I get to talk to Richard about his plans. It turns out that he has made organization of the North Pole marathon, and now this Antarctic Ice Marathon, his full-time job. He also plans to put together a 7-day stage race in Ireland, to be held in July this year or next. He is familiar with this format, since he participated in the 2004 Atacama Crossing. I guess I now have the right sort of excuse to visit Ireland, and I expect I would have company — my wife who loves the place.

January 10, 2006. Lessons Learned

While we wait for information regarding our departure from Patriot Hills, I would like to summarize the main lessons from this rather unique race.

Firstly, it is unlikely one can fully simulate in training the kind of environment that is Antarctica, a combination of sub-freezing temperatures and very strong wind. One should be mentally ready to experience new kinds of hardship. However, on the classical marathon distance of 42k, these new environmental factors are manageable for an average marathon runner. As a proof, I point out the fact that we have had no DNF's. In 4-6 hours that it will take, someone who is used to pain management — and I take it as a given that all marathon runners have that skill — should be able to cope with the cold and the wind. Of course I don't expect anyone to be foolish enough to run their first marathon in such conditions.

My conclusion will be different, however, for the 100k distance. I think it does require training and prior experience of cold+wind racing to complete it successfully. The exposure is simply too great to attempt to wing it. My own decision to run 42k rather than 100k was mostly based on this factor, and I don't regret it. I will want to run an arctic/antarctic ultra, but only now that I have learned what to expect.

Specific observations, by category:

Clothing. A layered system seems to have worked, however, very strong/variable wind creates a problem: it is hard to get the number/thickness of layers just right for a comfortable combination of moisture/temperature near one's skin. As the course changes direction and/or the wind changes speed, adjustments are needed. Taking layers off and putting them back on is hardly practical, particularly if one wears a wind-proof jacket on top (by the way, there is little need for gortex in such conditions).

As an alternative to a layered system, I want to experiment with something similar to what Mark Tointon wore: a wind-proof jacket and pants, with lining and many zippered vents (Mark's was a Buffalo suit made in the UK). This should allow to regulate ventilation on the go as needed. Of course, if the temperature is really low, then one may have to use a combination of the two approaches, layers plus a zippered/vented outer skin.

Footware. Several relatively thin socks and non-gortex shoes seemed to do the job for me. Again, one modification I would try is external toe-warmers that could be adjusted on the go. Needless to say, enough room in the toe-box is very essential. I fully needed my new size 14. Any model of trail shoes should provide reasonable traction. Since the course was groomed, there was no need for us to use gaiters, and even though the surface was soft at times, I never had snow get into my shoes over the top. In different conditions, such as an unprepared course, one might have to use gaiters.

Face protection. Skiing goggles were used by all of us in this race, and worked reasonably well. A balaclava is good for protecting the lower face (as is a beard, for those who have it), however, one problem with face masks and balaclavas is that they direct some of the exhaled air upward, fogging the goggles. Two remedies: (1) use an anti-fogging wipe to treat the goggles, (2) sew a piece of gortex or polypro to the lower edge of the goggles, to form a nose-protector (as recommended by Dr John Apps, Patriot Hills' resident MD). No matter how well-covered the face is, one should not forget about using sunblock for one's nose/lips/skin.

Gloves/Mittens. I remain a fan of thick but light-weight elbow-high mittens from Northern Outfitters, never mind that for a third of the race I had at least one of my hands al aire libre. Running into the headwind or crosswind, one can use them for additional face and chest protection. Most of the runners were happy with the traditional 'base glove plus over-mitten' system.

Backpack. I did not really need one, as aid stations were spaced by about 5 miles, enough to rely on them for hydration/nutrition. But this item would be one of the greatest concerns for me because of perspiration at the points of contact. Whatever clothing is used, a tightly pressed area under the backpack and straps will not have adequate ventilation, leading to accumulation of moisture. I don't really have a solution and will have to experiment.

Race Nutrition/Hydration. Prior to the race, I decided not to worry too much about anything other than the basic nutrition and hydration on the course — i.e. I did not take electrolytes and other kinds of supplements. I thought that with the low temperature and relatively slow pacing, I would not have to replenish electrolytes. I am not sure if it was the right theory, but I felt just fine during and after the race. Regarding hydration, I limited myself to warm water taken at each aid station, i.e. about 6 times on the course, and only had to pee once. I think this rate of liquid intake was about right for me, given the temperature conditions. For nutrition, I only used a basic form of calory intake, some dark Russian cholocate with crushed nuts. At this temperature, it lost much of its taste, but again, seemed to do the job. If I had to run a longer course, then I would definitely have to use some other type of solid or liquid food.

January 11, 2006. Journey Home

At around 4pm on January 10, the winds finally stabilize at a level that make dispatch of the IL-76 from Punta Arenas possible. Before it arrives, we get to see a fly-by and, from a distance, the landing of an LC-130, a ski-equipped Hercules. It lands on the snow runway that runs perpendicular to the mountain range. Since it is aligned with the prevailing wind, landings and take-offs are less hairy, compared to the ice runway used by wheel-geared aircraft. ANI's chartered Twin Otters also use the same runway, or rather a relatively short section of it close to the camp. With 20-25 knot headwind, Twin Otters don't need a lot of take-off distance.

Our plane takes off shortly before 19:00 and lands at Patriot Hills at 23:30. As we watch the landing from a distance, I marvel at the perfection of the manouver: it is a picture perfect landing, particularly considering the conditions of the runway. We pack our things, vacate the tents and assemble in the mess hall. Finally, we trudge the distance to the runway against a stiff headwind that brings back the memory of the race, take our seats and bid good-bye to Patriot Hills.

The return flight to Punta Arenas seems long and rather uncomfortable: I occupy the aft-most seat on the starboard side, and it is cold here. All of the folding passenger seats are taken, and most of the pax are slumbering in awkward poses. At 5am or so, the aircraft initiates descent and lands at Punta Arenas. We go through the immigration control and briefly re-assemble in the lobby. Most of the runners are heading to town, but I am anxious to catch an early flight out to Santiago and stay at the airport. We bid goodbye to each other. This marks the official end of our Antarctica Ice Marathon event.

I manage to get on the 8:00 flight to Santiago, which should give me a chance to depart for Paris today. The flight makes two intermediate landings, at Puerto Montt and Maquehue, I sleep through most of the flight. On arrival, I find out that it is impossible to move forward the planned date of departure with the kind of tariff that I have. In the end, I do get on today's flight, at extra cost. For anyone who intends to travel to Antarctica, this is an unfortunate complication: given the unpredictable flying schedule to/from Patriot Hills, one cannot rely on inexpensive fixed-date airline rates.

I am in Paris at 11:30am the next day, and have just enough time to catch the connecting flight to Moscow. At 18:45, the plane lands at Sheremetievo, and my trip is finally over.