Antarctic Ice Marathon 2011

There are countless inspiring running races around the world, but if you’re looking for the daddy of them all, you need to head south to the Antarctic Ice Marathon. No other race can touch it for inaccessibility, extreme conditions and sheer icy magnificence. And as for its competitors, you won’t find a more varied, eccentric and vigorous bunch of runners anywhere else on the planet. Add to that this year’s 100th anniversary celebration of Amundsen reaching the Pole on December 14 and you’re left with arguably the greatest race on earth.  

Union Glacier's blue ice runway

At 10pm on Tuesday November 29, we leave the frontier town of Punta Arenas in southern Chile for a four-and-a-half hour flight south, very far south, to the Union Glacier camp. After boarding the Ilyushin II-76, the crew hand out earplugs (at first I naively think I’m being offered a sweet). Inside the Soviet-designed and built freighter plane there’s seating at the front for around 40 people and cargo stacked at the back. There has to be good visibility at the Union Glacier blue-ice runway for the plane to land, and we have to be prepared for the severe Antarctic conditions, so we travel in down coats and ski pants to keep us warm once we arrive and disembark onto the ice.

Each tent is named after a famous Antarctic character

After being ferried in a four-wheel drive the 10K from the runway to Union Glacier camp, we get to bed around 5am. Our two-man tents (which are based on a design used in Shackleton’s Endurance expedition of 1914) aren’t heated, but 24 hours of sunshine and sleeping bags that will keep us warm in temperatures down to -40C make for snug, comfortable living conditions. Everyone skips breakfast in favour of a few hours’ sleep before we meet for a race briefing and tour of the camp at midday. We’re warned not to let the comfortable conditions in camp lead to complacency: this is an extreme environment. We’re warned against frost nip (the precursor to frost bite), snow blindness and the massive hole in the ozone layer directly above us, and told not to wander out of camp because we’re on a glacier and may encounter crevasses.

All waste is removed to ensure the environment remains pristine

The temporary camp is set up for each summer season – which usually lasts from October until February – with all supplies shipped in by plane. The goal to leave this pristine environment untouched means that all waste is shipped out of the Antarctic apart from grey water – waste water from washing dishes and sponge baths – which is sent down a bore hole. There’s no running water for showers or conventional toilets and even water used to clean teeth is collected in a drum to be shipped back to Chile.

Inside the camp's cosy mess tent

The Union Glacier camp is like a five-star hotel compared with the Antarctic encountered by Scott and Amundsen 100 years ago. We spend most of our time in the mess tent, where we eat three hearty meals a day and can help ourselves to hot drinks and at any time. There’s a convivial atmosphere every evening when the wine and beer come out and everyone talks about why they’ve come to race in the last place on earth. Some runners have clocked up more than 100 marathons, others are in single figures. Many are aiming to run a marathon on every continent. In the evenings, visiting scientists give lectures on their research projects.

The mountains protect the camp from strong winds

After a breakfast of porridge, pancakes, fresh fruit and coffee, we climb into the back of a motorised sledge to drive up to the start. The marathon course will be one and three-quarter laps of a 25K loop so we need to travel from the camp – where the race will finish – to the start. There has been a lot of debate among the runners about what to wear, especially after camp meteorologist Marc de Keyser gives us a weather update that the air temperature is -12C, dropping to -25C with the wind chill out on the course. The Union Glacier camp is protected from high winds by the surrounding mountains but out on the course it may be breezier. I go for a merino baselayer, thin fleece and windproof shell on top, and wool thermals and windproof trousers. On my head I wear a balaclava and goggles, and on my hands fleece gloves under windproof mittens. I pull two pairs of wool socks onto my feet, followed by Pearl Izumi trail shoes. Everyone slathers on factor 50SPF as protection against the sunlight pouring through the hole in the ozone layer.

A soft snow shuffle gets the race underway

At 11am on December 1, 32 runners from 17 countries cross the start line of the seventh Antarctic Ice Marathon in bright sunshine, eager to complete the challenge ahead. The course has been groomed and marked with small orange flags at 50m intervals. Everyone in the camp has been forbidden to drive on it in the week leading up to the race so the going will be as even as possible. The uniform surface disguises terrain that’s tough to run on, and as the day wears on, the sun softens the snow, with the result that the second lap is even tougher than the first. Every step saps energy.

Enjoying the emptiness

With few visual references in the landscape, running in a straight line for six miles becomes a mental as well as physical battle. The three manned aid stations, which are around 10K apart, start as black dots on the horizon before slowly emerging as tents and trestle tables laden with hot and cold drinks, biscuits and chocolate. Each offers an irresistible opportunity to stop for something to eat and drink, have a short rest and chat with the camp staff. Time seems to behave differently against the white background and the hours pass quickly.

Clément Thévent storms to marathon victory and sets a new course record

The first runner home is Frenchman Clément Thévent, who leads from start to finish to win the men’s marathon in a course-record time of 3:47:07. Behind him is Yvonne Brown from the UK who finishes second overall and wins the women’s race in an impressive 4:26:10. Alvin Matthews of the USA finishes third in 4:38:19 closely followed by the second and third women: Ireland's Emer Dooley who finishes in 4:41:30 and Alison Hamlett (UK) who completes the marathon in 4:46:39. With three women in the top five finishers, it's the strongest women's field ever, and all three break the course record. Each time a runner appears on the horizon, everyone leaves the mess tent to give them a cheer as they approach the finish. Standing around afterwards isn’t encouraged though: it’s straight into the mess tent for some hot food and a change into warm dry clothes.

Lap three of the four-lap 100K

At 10am the following morning, the ultra runners – all five of them – begin the 100K in very different conditions to the previous day’s marathon. Low cloud creates overcast conditions and the lack of sunshine means the temperature has dropped to -25C. It’s calm in the camp but windy out on the course, and the lack of definition makes every footstep tricky. The marathon runners spend the day recovering in the mess tent, dashing outside to give a cheer any time an ultra runner passes through camp on their four-lap challenge. We’ve eaten three meals, been to a lecture and watched some DVDs by the time Thévenet comes into camp to finish the 100K in 12:09:06, another Antarctic record and an incredible achievement after his win in the marathon the previous day. After 20 hours, the final 100K runner completes the distance but there’s still one runner out on the course. Race director Richard Donovan is aiming to run 100 miles. 

Race Director Richard Donovan celebrates running 100 miles

In 2002 Donovan became the first man to run a marathon at the South Pole. He has chosen to run 100 miles to celebrate the 100 years since Amundsen reached the Pole. He starts with the 100K runners and when the last of them finishes, he carries on for another four hours to complete the distance in 24:35:02. Everyone in the camp turns out to cheer him across the finish line, where he celebrates with a cold beer.

A British Antarctic Survey plane leaving camp

It’s busy time to be at Union Glacier camp. There are groups of Norwegians about to ski south to meet their prime minister on December 14 for the anniversary celebrations. Four engineers from the British Antarctic Survey (Antarctica.ac.uk) are passing through on their way to the British base at Rothera. They’re the advance party transporting 70 tonnes of equipment to Lake Ellsworth before the drilling project – to collect water and sediment samples from 3K under the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet – begins in October, 2012. There are guides who’ve climbed Everest more than 10 times and scientists who are tracking the retreat of the Antarctic ice sheet. They all rely on small planes to get around. 

The journey home begins

We head back to the Ilyushin for the journey back to Punta Arenas with a collective sense of achievement. Clément Thévenet has set a new record for the fastest Antarctic marathon. The top three women all beat the previous ladies’ record. Sarah Ames has become the first woman to run seven marathons on seven continents three times over. Don Kern has completed seven marathons on seven continents in 26 days and a handful of runners have joined the Grand Slam club by running a marathon on every continent plus the North Pole. And those of us who haven’t are feeling so inspired that we’re already plotting how to join them.

The Antarctic Ice Marathon 2012 will take place on November 20. Visit icemarathon.com to find out more.