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Antarctica’s Summer Races

Antarctica’s Summer Races

by William H. Benson

December 13, 2018

     Fifty-three runners will compete in the fourteenth annual Antarctica Ice Marathon on Thursday, December 13, 2018. A Russian-made Ilyushin-Il-76TD aircraft will transport the runners from Punta Arenas, in southern Chile, to Union Glacier, Antarctica, on Wednesday, the twelfth, and then the same aircraft will return them to Chile on Friday, the fourteenth.

     While at Union Glacier, runners will reside in double-occupancy tents that the sun heats during the twenty-fours of daylight, sleep in polar sleeping bags, and endure temperatures of just above or below zero degrees Fahrenheit, depending upon the windchill. No chance for a hot shower after the race.

     Participants this year will include fifteen from China, nine from the USA, seven from Australia, and lesser numbers from Indonesia, Mexico, Poland, Ireland, Italy, and other countries. It is an international event. Runners will run two loops of a 13.1 mile-course, equal to a marathon’s 26.2 miles.

     Who would have thought that women and men from all over the world would run a race in Antarctica to re-enact a historical event that occurred in 490 B.C., 2,508 years ago? A Greek soldier ran 26.2 miles from Marathon to inform Athens’s citizens that the Greeks had defeated the Persians.

     Last year’s women’s winner at the Ice Marathon was Kelly Allen McLay of the USA, in 4 hours, 56.37 minutes. Winner of the men’s division was Frank Johansen of Denmark, in 3 hours, 37.46 minutes, and he then joined the Seven Continents Marathon Club.

     This year each runner paid 16,000 Euros, or $18,211 to run.

     Another far more arduous race is now underway during Antarctica’s summer season, November through January, but with only two participants: Colin O’Brady, 33, an American adventurer, and Lous Rudd, 49, a captain in the British army. Both decided, independent of the other, to achieve a first, cross the Antarctic continent solo, unsupported, and unaided.

     Solo means alone. Unsupported means without dogs or food drops. Unaided means without kites that harness the Antarctic’s ferocious Katabatic winds and pulls a skier across the ice.

     Instead, both O’Brady and Rudd intend to ski alone, miles apart, ten to twelve hours everyday, and pull a 300+ pound Norwegian sled called a “pulk,” that carries a tent and a ninety-day supply of high-calorie food, but no change of clothes.

     On November 2, the men departed at the point where the Ronne Ice Shelf meets land, headed uphill toward the South Pole, and once there, they will turn to the right and head to that point where land meets the Ross Ice Shelf, a total distance of 921 miles.

     The first leg is all uphill, and most strenuous, from just above sea level to the South Pole’s 9,301 feet above sea level, just shy of Leadville, Colorado’s elevation. A man tugging a sled in white-out conditions, “like being inside a Ping-Pong ball,” may not notice the uphill climb, but he can feel it.    

     Louis Rudd, “The beginning was crazy. The weight was so heavy.”

     A writer for Wired magazine, said, “It’s straight-up impossible to take enough calories with you to get across the continent of Antarctica.” The two men hope to prove that writer wrong. Both men eat as many calories as they can, but “they still expend more calories that they take in.”

     Both O’Brady and Rudd know the risks, and that Antarctica is unforgiving. In January of 2016, an adventurer named Henry Wolsely tried to do the same, but gave up when only thirty miles from the finish line, after an infection sidelined him. Days later he died.    

     Both O’Brady and Rudd carry cell phones and GPS devices to alert their rescuers should they exhaust their food supply, or fall into a crevasse, or develop an infection, or break a leg. Before they sleep, they lay out their solar panels and charge their phones.

     Also, before they sleep, they hang up their wet clothes. Sweat is deadly in a polar environment because moisture can freeze on the skin when motions stops, causing body temperatures to plummet toward hypothermia.

     Every day, the two men feel overpowering pain and utter exhaustion. They slip, fall, get up and trek onwards. On Thanksgiving Day, O’Brady described the first four days as very emotional. “Crying, frustrated, physically rocked.” Rudd says, “It is grueling, a different level to anything I’ve done before. It just takes so much out of you.”

     A one-day marathon in Antarctica sounds exhausting, but to ski nearly 1,000 miles across the frozen continent over three months at a high elevation far exceeds a marathon’s physical demands.