What it takes to run the Antarctic Ice Marathon

Image by Antarctic Ice Marathon

I’m struggling to speak. My brain is sending words to my mouth but they aren’t coming out properly. The left side of my face is numb with cold, my lips feel like they’ve been glued together and I’m slurring badly. Conversation is pointless anyway; the wind has picked up and so, with a hat pulled down firmly over my ears, I can’t even hear that much. That fierce wind isn’t helping my vision either. I know there’s a huge ice-topped mountain off to my left but it’s hidden behind a veil of cloud and mist. Visibility is less than 10 metres, so it’s difficult even to keep sight of the little blue flags that mark the safe route of the race against the vast and disorientating white canvas. The whole area is an active glacier, and between the mountain and the blue flags there are crevasses big enough to swallow a 4x4. Two hours in and with more than half the distance still to go, I’m starting to question the wisdom of running a marathon in the world’s coldest place on far less training than I would have liked.

But when a slot became available for RW, it was impossible to turn it down. After all, how many chances do you get to run a 26.2 in the planet’s last great wilderness? For those with an adventurous spirit, it’s an irresistible promise. Event organiser Richard Donovan, a record-breaking Irish ultra runner, ran here for the first time over a decade ago as part of a quest to run seven ultra marathons on seven continents in a year. One of those was the first and only race to the South Pole, which he won. (Ten weeks later he ran a solo marathon at the North Pole, another first.)

Where most would have been content to pack away the thermals and dine out on these achievements, Donovan saw opportunity, and was keen for others to enjoy (if that’s the word) the awe-inspiring experiences he’d had. After navigating his way through a maze of middlemen and fixers, and with the help of Russian transport and logistics, he created the North Pole Marathon in 2003. If not an instant success, it proved sustainable and earned him the credibility to establish its sister event, the Antarctic Ice Marathon, three years later. Both are now established fixtures on the running calendar and feature highly on many adventurous runners’ bucket lists.

Even with the worldwide proliferation of marathons and the accessibility afforded by cheap airline travel, running deep inside the Antarctic remains an exclusive experience. Each year, around 40,000 tourists visit the continent, but the vast majority remain on cruise ships that skirt the coast; less than 500 make it into the interior of the world’s fifth-largest continent and just over 50 go there to run the marathon. Those minuscule numbers make sense when you contemplate the sheer difficulty – and cost – of travel to the most inhospitable place on earth.

This race is an adventure, even before you get close to the start line. My journey began with the trip to Punta Arenas in Chile, a town at the southern tip of the South American mainland. Punta is 8,300 miles from London – it took me three flights and over a day to get there.

From there you have a four-and-a-half-hour flight south to Union Glacier, a temporary expedition camp 600 miles from the South Pole that is constructed and operated by Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE) each summer. But this flight is not like any you’ve been on. For a start, no one can tell you when it will leave. There’s a rough departure date but the plane only leaves the ground when the pilot is confident the weather window is big enough to fly nearly 2,000 miles, land, refuel and take off again. High winds and poor visibility make landing risky. As a consequence, delays of hours – or days – are common.

When our call finally comes, after an extra day kicking our heels in a Punta hotel, there is no faffing around. It’s a quick hop to the airport, onto the plane and as soon as the seat belts are fastened we’re accelerating down the runway. The plane is an Ilyushin IL-76TD, a modified Russian transport plane.

Inside, everything is bare and utilitarian: a few rows of passenger seats are bolted to the floor, while extra passengers are accommodated on benches further back; fire extinguishers and yellow life rafts are fastened to the side walls. All the luggage, supplies and extra fuel drums are stacked and secured in the middle and rear of the plane. The flight attendant does a cursory pre-flight safety briefing and hands out sandwiches, but once the plane is in the air you’re free to walk around, make your own drinks and watch the changing landscape through the glass observation window in the nose of the plane.

Landing on a blue-ice runway is inherently riskier than landing on asphalt, but you wouldn’t realise it as the Russian pilots, whose skills are legendary in these parts, gently touch down and smoothly bring the aircraft to a halt. From the airstrip it’s a short 4x4 drive up to the camp, where rows of brightly coloured tents sit dwarfed by the icy peaks that surround them. Guests, who throughout the season include climbers, skiers, explorers and other tourists, sleep on camp beds in spacious two-person clam tents partially dug into the ice. During the Antarctic spring-summer (November to February) the sun never sets and the 24 hours of sunlight prove to be a mixed blessing. They help heat the tents and provide a constant source of solar power for the camp, but they also play havoc with your body clock.

Beyond the tents there is a shower block, which uses solar power to melt, heat and pump water into the cubicles, and then there are the toilets. Human waste is a big issue in the Antarctic. Everything has to be collected – with no exceptions. The ‘pee bottle’ for use inside the tents or out on the course is part of everyone’s essential kit, while liquids and solids are kept separate, collected and stored in barrels. Since everything that comes into the Antarctic has to be shipped out again, those barrels are part of the luggage on the journey back to Punta.

Life in the camp centres on the main dining tent, a long structure where some of the 40-plus staff who run the camp from November to January provide daily briefings and weather updates, as well as three freshly cooked meals a day, unlimited hot drinks, snacks and even beer and wine in the evening.

Not that we were thinking about alcohol. Our minds were on the next day’s marathon, with most of us desperate to shake off the effects of the flight, try out the conditions and work out how much kit we’d need.

The challenges of running in the Antarctic are multiple. For those new to polar running, which was the majority of the field, the tendency is to overdress in fear of the cold. But on the run your body heats up and starts to sweat, the sweat cools on your skin and in -20C temperatures hypothermia is a possibility. Wearing too little is just as bad and leaving your hands or face uncovered, which is natural as you heat up on the run, can quickly leave you vulnerable to frostnip (mild frostbite) or worse. Paradoxically, one of the biggest dangers in these frigid conditions is the sun. Not only is it more intense through the thin Antarctic atmosphere, but since you are surrounded in every direction by endless miles of white snow and ice, the reflected danger to vulnerable skin under your nose and chin is greater than from the sunlight above.

Underfoot decisions were easier. Before our arrival, camp staff had measured, marked and signed a safe route that circled out from, around and back into the camp. Grooming the course with skidoos had compacted the snow, which meant you could run relatively quickly without special footwear. I wore road shoes and they were fine.

The race involved two laps for the marathon or just one for a few who merely wanted to enjoy the silence and tranquillity of the surroundings without too much punishment. After the usual sprint away from the start it didn’t take long for the small field to string out into a long line. By the first mile marker most were out on their own or in small groups. The excited chatter and conversation continued until the first aid station – around three miles in – then the field gradually faded into silence.

You are left listening to the howling of the wind, your own breathing and the crunch of snow underfoot. With the light shimmering off the surrounding mountain tops and a sea of white in every direction the Antarctic is a surreal, magical place in which to run. But the going was tough: compacted snow is more like hard sand than road, even a gentle climb can be testing and breathing hard in the freezing conditions takes a toll on the lungs. Then there’s the cold itself – it slowly seeps through layers of clothing and chills your body the moment you stop moving.

No one comes to the Antarctic for a PB, but a few in the race were still there to compete, particularly at the front, where two British runners, both usually sub-2:50 marathon finishers, tussled for the lead from start to finish. Eventually, Paul Webb, a scientist from St Andrew’s University in Scotland, broke away 5K from the finish to win in 3:35:25. The first woman home was Chilean Silvana Camelio, who led from the start and finished in 4:40:01.

A few minutes behind Webb was Luke Wigman, an ex-soldier who had one of the more remarkable stories in the field. While serving with 1 Para as part of the Special Forces Support Group in Afghanistan in 2011, Wigman stepped on an improvised explosive device that blew off part of his left leg. The damage was so severe he feared he might not walk again, but after several operations and over a year of intensive physiotherapy, he was not only walking but running – fast. Remarkably, with a renewed focus and commitment to training, his new times – a sub-34:00 10K, 1:16 for a half and 2:48 for a marathon – were a world away from what he was capable of before the explosion.

In general, motivations for tackling this challenge were as diverse as the runners’ backgrounds. Nineteen nations were represented, with some runners in their 20s and others in their 70s; a few had clocked up more than 100 marathons, while one was doing her first. There were wealthy entrants, who could easily afford the €13,800 (around £10,185) entry fee, but most had just saved to be there. While some were running the race to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition to visit the Antarctic, others were here to tick the continent off their list in their quest to complete a marathon on all seven continents.

There was plenty of time after the race to hear their stories and share marathon tales, because the weather closed in, meaning the return flight was delayed by a couple of days. I cherished the extra time. The cold, wind and sheer hostility of the environment make this a brutally tough place to run, but as much as I struggled around the course to finish, it was an extraordinary privilege just to be there and an experience I will never forget.