THE JOURNEY BEGINS
They say the Drake Passage has the roughest seas in the world. Today’s 60-knot winds and 35-foot waves reassured us of that fact. We clung to items being thrown across the ship and struggled to keep our footing. Somehow it seems we have not yet crossed the finish line for the 2013 Antarctica Marathon. The true finish line might not have been on King George Island on Saturday, March 30th, but instead might be the rounding of Cape Horn and putting our feet on South American soil. This was an incredible journey to the start line as well as an equally memorable journey returning from the finish line.
One hundred and five passengers, including myself, climbed aboard Akademic Sergey Vavilov on March 26th, 2013. Our ship was docked in a city called “Fin del Mundo” (The End of the World) Ushuaia, Argentina. My intent, to conquer 26.2 miles on a third continent as part of my mission of completing a marathon on all seven continents before turning 15 years of age. I am attempting a world record not for me, but in memory of my dad and the one in six men affected by prostate cancer. Awakening the first night on the ship, to my bed moving across my small cabin room and coffee cups sliding off the desk towards my head, I soon realized getting to Antarctica wasn’t a trip to be taken lightly. Many passengers were not seen for the first two days as we crossed the rough, Drake Passage waters. My motion sickness patch and I were quickly inseparable. By day two my only enemy was overcoming dry mouth, caused by the patch, and making certain I stayed hydrated. Getting a few small runs in on the ship before race day was impossible due to wet, slippery ship decks. This was not going to be a normal week of pre-marathon preparation. The three-week delay in our voyage, thanks to an iceberg damaging our original ship, left us with the stark reality that we were the last ship left in the waters of the Southern Ocean at this time of year.
A stormy day on King George Island on pre-race day caused a half-day delay in getting the race crew ashore to mark the course. Normally, the day before race day we would all go ashore and rid our sea legs. This was not to be, as it was a challenge just getting Zodiac boats loaded and to shore with race crew and ATV’s. Our sea legs would haunt many of us on race day. That evening, a pre-race pasta dinner was served and anxiety ran high as to what race day weather conditions might be. Many feared the Katabatic winds that notoriously roamed these parts. These winds have been measured to speeds of 199 mph creating a runner’s nightmare. One thing was for certain; mud would not be an issue this year as temperatures were hovering in the low twenties.
THE ULTIMATE PURSUIT
Race morning was not the norm! We awoke to a light pre-race breakfast of bagels, oatmeal and a ration of only one banana per person. Only nutrition lacking eggs, nuts and seeds could be taken ashore on Antarctica in an attempt to prevent spread of disease and the depositing of seeds that might possibly take root. No wrappers of any sort were allowed so our gels, bars and electrolyte chews had to be placed in a container that wouldn’t blow away. Our goal: a zero impact on Antarctica, other than our footprints. The only water and electrolyte beverages available were those that we took on the island with us. I loaded up three bottles — two with water and one with lemon lime Infinit Nutrition, my electrolyte drink of choice for race day.
Each person loaded their backpack with the usual Antarctica marathon supplies: hand warmers, extra layers of clothing, extra socks, extra running shoes, cameras, face masks, goggles, sunglasses and more. Ninety-five runners were now loaded on Zodiacs for the mile trip to shore. It was only then that weather conditions were evaluated and race clothing was determined. The temperature was about 22 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind noticeably absent! The only hint of a breeze would be found along a section near the ocean. We knew nothing about the course other than what we were told at the race briefing the night before: two out and backs, each done three times and very hilly. Every year the racecourse had changed due to weather and getting permission from the surrounding international science stations (Uruguay, Chile, China and Russia).
Within a few minutes of reaching land, the race was off and going. I found myself running across the tops of frozen caterpillar tracks made by heavy equipment that had trudged through the mud earlier this season. The frozen “cat tracks” would cover nearly 80% of the course. I had thought Kenya was a hilly marathon, until I completed the first loop in Antarctica. It was one hill after another, each covered in ice. Some runners traversed huge areas of frozen water but many circumnavigated for fear of breaking through the ice. I witnessed many falls, especially on the icy descents, but just bumps and bruises. Thankfully there were no serious injuries. My Newton all-weather running shoes proved to handle the course well, as I found myself being one of the few people who didn’t fall during the entire race. Many of the runners, including myself, experienced something very strange that day. As I stared at the ground to watch my footing, it appeared as if the ground below my feet was a moving wave. I couldn’t believe that my nutrition and hydration were not adequate, but the thought kept going through my head, “Am I really bonking?” If I stared ahead at the horizon and not at the ground, the sensation disappeared. I now understand what “getting rid of your sea legs” means. Due to being on a ship in open seas for the previous five days, it was just my perception that the ground below my feet was moving.
By loop one, I was overheated and had to shed my gloves and Athleta running jacket. At that point, I was down to just two layers of clothing on top and one on bottom, plus a hat. The second loop was much more friendly — less hills and much faster. I hung closely to the front of the pack, jockeying between second and third place, at a pace that felt comfortable. I kept waiting for the winds to pick up, but they never came. A friendly visit on the course from a couple of penguins and a seal made me realize that I was actually running in Antarctica. Huge glaciers in the distance appeared to be just images too unbelievable to be true. There were a few international spectators along the way from the surrounding research stations. They stood along the course, curious as to what we could possibly be doing there. Several employees from the international base stations joined in on the race as well.
Crossing the finish line in a time of 4:49:25 may have not been a PR for me, but it was a World Record — the youngest person to complete a marathon in Antarctica. It was not a goal that I had planned for, but just happened as part of my bigger dream of being the youngest to run a marathon on every continent. Immediately upon crossing the finish line, I had a reporter ask me, “What does it feel like being the youngest person to run a marathon in Antarctica?” I must say this question caught me off guard. I paused, as the reality of what I had done hadn’t sunk in yet. To this day, it really hasn’t hit me yet. On March 30th, I was just out there doing what I needed to do for the one in six men in the world: run 26.2 miles on Antarctica in pursuit of the ultimate goal of increasing prostate cancer awareness. Taking third place overall female and eleventh place overall in the 2013 Antarctica Marathon helped me achieve that goal, and I just so happened to set a world record as well.
After crossing the finish line, I quickly changed clothes to prevent hypothermia. Despite ideal race conditions, several runners still became hypothermic and needed assistance. I witnessed that one should never drop their guard — especially when in the harsh environment of Antarctica. I went on to join my mom on her last lap and did another 4.18 miles as a cool down. I felt doing one more lap and taking in all the Antarctica scenery and wildlife was an opportunity I might never get again.
RUNNING FOR MORE
Why would Antarctica welcome runners like us? Why should runners even put a footprint on such a pristine place? I now understand our purpose for experiencing Antarctica. Every day staff would send myself, and others, on a fact-finding mission about Antarctica. We would spend hours reading and learning about this amazing continent. There would be daily presentations between excursions. The topics discussed were Antarctica history, whaling, explorers, wildlife and much more. The race ended up being maybe only 10% of this voyage. Learning how we can preserve this continent — relatively untouched by humans — was the remaining 90%. When I am 43 years old, the Antarctica Treaty will expire (2041). Fifty countries have signed this treaty that bans oil and mineral exploration. In 2041, the treaty will be re-evaluated and undergo negotiation. It is then that many of us, especially those of us who have witnessed the continent first hand, can help protect this rare place on earth and prevent exploration for natural resources.
No picture or video can even come close to giving you true insight into Antarctica. I, and those around me, walked away from a continent with all five senses of Antarctica forever stored in our minds. How could one forget the feel of a whale’s breath in your face and the taste of Antarctic ice melting in your mouth; the smell of crisp, cold Antarctic air interrupted by the distinct smell of penguin guano (poop) as you approach a rookery; visions of a seal staring you in the eyes and the sounds of glaciers calving and of whales blowing in the distance. To help preserve all of this, Antarctica Marathon & Half Marathon supports Oceanites, a U.S. based non-profit that researches penguin and seabird populations in Antarctica and various impacts on them. During this trip, we helped raise over $10,000 to further their research and protect the amazing environment of Antarctica.
My running is so much more than putting one foot in front of the other. At the Eugene Marathon, I treasured running in the footsteps of an athlete’s life cut short, Steve Prefontaine. In Kenya, I learned the true value of helping girls get an education and giving them a chance to help their country. In Antarctica, I was given the opportunity to learn and explore. I experienced first hand why it is important that I return to the United States as an advocate and ambassador for Antarctica. I will encourage others to take the same journey I have taken so they, too, can share with the rest of the world why we need to protect Antarctica. Much thanks to Thom Gilligan of Marathon Tours and Andrew Prossin of One Ocean Expeditions for believing in this 14 year-old and her cause!
Next stop in my world marathon tour will be on June 5, 2013. I will be tackling the Inca Trail Marathon ending in Machu Picchu, labeled the “Toughest Marathon in the World.”
Never Give In!