(January 21st, 2002)
Pole Marathon: Antarctica is the highest, coldest, driest, most windswept place
on earth - truly the last frontier. The first ever marathon to the geographic
South Pole took place on January 21st when athletes ran at an effective altitude
of 12,000 feet, in wind chill temperatures of -50C, against a freezing headwind.
Richard won the marathon race and ran a further 3km on top of the traditional
marathon distance of 26.2 miles (42km) to complete an ultramarathon of 45km
Ever South Pole Marathon
By Richard Donovan
inaugural South Pole Marathon was scheduled to take place on January 8th, but
weather delays and related logistical problems meant the race was not attempted
until January 20th. At that stage, we had already lost the tough German athlete
Raphael Rottgen who regrettably was forced to leave Antarctica because of work
commitments. I have no doubt that Raphael would have thrived under the harsh
conditions, which incorporated altitude of 10,000 feet, wind chill temperatures
of -50C, a headwind of about 7-10 knots, compacted snow of about 4 inches depth
covering three-quarters of the course, and sastrugi, or wave-like formations
of ice, covering the remaining quarter.
had only just begun, however, when the race of January 20th had to be abandoned.
From what began as a bright and pleasant day by Polar Plateau standards, a whiteout
occurred making it impossible to see the markers which lined the 26.2 mile route
to the Pole. Although these flags were positioned at 200 metre intervals, one
had extreme difficulty even distinguishing the white ground surface from the
surrounding sky features because of the thick fog that descended on the course.
Not surprisingly, the race was aborted after a couple of miles and snowmobiles
were summoned to collect and return us to our base camp tents. Although these
tents were situated within a few miles of the starting line, along with the
DC3 plane that transported us to the Plateau, the camp proved difficult to locate
under the whiteout conditions. We ended up, unknowingly, taking a rather large
circle and approached the starting line again from the wrong direction. Eventually,
we did find the base camp, thawed out and contemplated what was not to be for
aborted race did provide useful lessons. The race would take much longer than
anyone's initial estimates and I noted in my diary the same evening that 20-minute
mile pace throughout would be optimal. It is difficult to imagine competing
at a pace that is almost four times slower than regular marathon pace, but this
would be the reality. The altitude and cold in particular just take all of your
energy, so much so that sitting idle on the Plateau would make you lose weight.
Although the actual altitude is about 10,000 feet, the effective altitude is
12,000 feet given its Polar position and related atmospheric conditions. In
addition, the extremely cold temperature and headwind can create problems other
than simply the prospects of hypothermia or frostbite. Your own breath, for
instance, can fog up your goggles and thereby make it difficult to see ahead
as well as requiring that they be cleared periodically. Furthermore, the balaclava
and facemask, worn to protect your face, ears and nose from frostbite and windburn,
can contribute to inhibiting your already laboured breathing under the altitude.
the evening of the abandoned race there was widespread concern that the event
might never be run. We were at the mercy of the weather in that we needed a
relatively clear day, but Nature of course might not be so forthcoming. A clear
day was not just needed for the athletes to see the course: it was required
for the DC-3 support plane to land at the half-way point in case there were
any casualties to the severe conditions. Each day we spent on the Plateau, we
also became weaker. We additionally knew that the DC3 plane's contract with
the race organisers was reaching its end date within days.
the event of there not being a good day on January 21st, alternative scenarios
were earnestly discussed that could enable the race to be run while employing
acceptable safety measures. Among the safety predicaments facing us was that,
even with a staggered start, athletes could be strewn along the course with
potentially large gaps in between. This scenario would be a support and safety
quagmire in what is a very volatile and changeable environment. However, at
this juncture, an extremely generous gesture was made by two of the athletes,
namely, Ute Gruner of Germany and Don Kern of the USA. Although these competitors
had the ability and willingness to complete the course under the conditions,
they both felt they would do so at a slower rate than the other athletes. As
such, they decided to opt out of the 26.2 mile run to the South Pole and elected
to do a half-marathon on an out-and-back course at the Pole itself. In doing
so, Ute and Don would minimise the need for the DC3 plane to land at the halfway
point and enable a couple of snowmobiles to support the remaining athletes.
By having only snowmobiles covering the runners, and removing the necessity
for a support plane, the requirement for absolutely clear weather would be diluted
January 21st, the day began with the sun blocked from view. The only option,
given the circumstances, would be the snowmobile support one. Once we had started,
the DC3 plane would fly directly to the Pole and our finish line: landing at
the Pole is much easier than landing on an unmarked snow runway, particularly
if visibility is not ideal. Nonetheless, we were informed by the race coordinator
that if one of the athletes had to abandon the race, whether through injury
or through being a victim of the conditions, then all of the athletes would
be forced out of the race - there would not be enough cover for the remaining
athletes if one retired and required a snowmobile to transport him to safety.
Moreover, we would all have to be transported to safety together.
these latter stipulations to complete the race, I decided I would strap snowshoes
to my runners. I had never worn any before, but my overriding concern was the
risk of hyperextending an already injured and weak right knee once again. I
had hyperextended it in the snow prior to going to the Plateau and it remained
swollen and vulnerable. Indeed, a German orthopaedic surgeon who had tended
to it gave me a 50% chance of completing a regular marathon on the road and
I was still taking anti-inflammatories. By wearing snowshoes, however, I could
provide some stability to my knee as I ran and had less chance of falling victim
to a 'surprise' deep patch of snow. I certainly did not want to be the person
who would end the race for the others because of a lame leg! The amazing US
athlete from Cheyenne, Wyoming, Brent Weigner, also chose to wear snowshoes.
Brent is the first person to have ever run seven ultramarathons on seven continents
and is a vastly experienced and respected athlete in the ultramarathon world.
order to satisfy the safety concerns of the organisers, it was agreed that the
race would be run expedition style over most of the course with a sprint in
to the finish over the last few miles. We were now ready to begin and were taken
to the starting line for a 6pm start. However, the expedition style pact was
effectively ditched from the outset as the competitive instinct took over and
the adrenalin began to slush its way through our bodies. Dean Karnazes, an accomplished
ultra runner who elected to compete without snowshoes, bolted into an early
lead before the official stopwatch began and opened up a very considerable margin
before the rest of us were even out of the blocks! Over the first few miles,
he gradually increased this lead. I decided to run conservatively, sticking
to my twenty minute per mile plan, which I presumed would reap dividends over
the longer term. The cold and altitude were simply not conducive to faster running
and moving any faster opened up the possibility of hitting the wall early and
being unable to continue. Worse still, any such recklessness by me, or indeed
any of us, could lead to race abandonment were we to become seriously ill or
unable to move. Although Brent Weigner remained close by me over these opening
miles, he also appeared to be ignoring the distraction of other competitors'
two miles into the race, I had to stop to remove a middle layer of thermals
from my legs. I was overheating. My upper body was a comfortable temperature
- neither too hot nor too cold - and I was very happy with my layering system.
I had a thin silk type layer closest to my body, which was designed to wick
out perspiration. My second layer was a thicker fleece layer and the third layer
was an outer windproof shell complete with ventilation zips. However, the need
for three layers on my legs was quickly proving unnecessary and I stopped and
struggled to remove my second layer. I promised myself I would not stop again
to tamper with equipment as I could feel the perspiration starting to freeze
on my inner clothing: it takes only a few minutes for this happen. My fingers
had also begun to numb at the tips.
miles into the race and I was already closing on Dean who was visibly slowing.
I was suffering very acute pain in my hip flexors (bursa tendons) because of
my body's unfamiliarity with snowshoes and the altered leg motion they required.
Two miles further and I had caught Dean, who was now suffering from the cold
and was considering a change in some of his gear. I continued onto the largely
sastrugi section of the course and opened up a significant gap quite quickly.
My tendons felt like they had two knitting needles pushed through them but I
tried to ignore the pain that I was now resolved to experience for the rest
of the race. I continued to drink water at regular intervals, turning away from
the wind to take each gulp. The lengthening time periods it took for a support
snowmobile to reach me suggested I was opening a widening gap. In fact, halfway
through the race, at the end of the sastrugi or harder ice section, I had a
lead of almost a mile. Unknown to me at the time, Brent Weigner had slowed and
ran with fellow US competitor Dean Karnazes, who was suffering through a bad
patch and had called on Brent for support.
into the second half of the race, I had a huge build-up of solid ice accumulating
inside my balaclava under my chin. It was impossible to remove it. My toes were
also feeling decidedly cold. Earlier in the race, I had lifted my goggles onto
my forehead and removed my facemask so that I could see and breathe easier.
I had also lowered the balaclava on the right side of my face so that I could
slot carbohydrate jellies into my mouth without having to labour with removing
masks and then repositioning them. Moreover, a balaclava and cap separated my
head and face from the biting wind and cold and the impact was now becoming
apparent: the right exposed side of my face was becoming iced up and my nose
hurt somewhat from windburn.
continued on, constantly trying to keep moving, and always looking forward to
the point where the mile markers would indicate single digit distances to the
South Pole. The miles seemed endless and difficult to judge - there are no visual
cues like buildings or other city structures to give you a reliable sense of
distance. There is just an endless seam of ice. Occasionally, as I plodded along
the surface I could hear a crashing sound some forty metres away. It was as
if the ground was crumbling nearby when, in fact, it was probably just small
break-ups of snow and ice resulting from the vibrations of my impact. Although
we were told there were no crevasses on the course, these eerie sounds certainly
lead to some cautious steps. With six miles to the finish, a snowmobile approached
me and the support driver filled my water bottle. He confirmed I had a two-mile
lead and turned back in the direction of the other competitors. I knew it would
be impossible for me to be caught unless some kind of disaster struck. This
seemed unlikely given the spectacular sun which beamed down from overhead. It
was surrounded by halo-type rainbows, like the rings of Saturn, and these rainbows
seemed to touch the ground to my right. I moved on as briskly as I could until
potential disaster almost did strike!
three miles to go, there were no route markers to be seen. Snowmobile tracks
suggested a turn to the left, but the course had been relatively straight for
the previous few miles. The South Pole was also not visible and some light fog
was periodically obscuring my view. I hovered around the same spot for some
five to ten minutes hoping that the support snowmobile might arrive or that
I could catch a glimpse of the next flag marker, but nothing. I was concerned
that my lead was being squandered and knew I had to make a decision. I chose
to follow the snowmobile tracks. Wrong decision.
wandered a few hundred metres, not sure where I was going but beginning to realise
it was probably the incorrect direction. I was essentially lost. Luckily, I
caught a glimpse of a flag to my right and proceeded hurriedly in that direction.
Ironically, it was not a flag that was laid out for our race but nevertheless
led me in the correct direction so that I could see other flags into the distance
as the sun began to shine brilliantly again. As I approached the two-mile point,
a support snowmobile caught up with me, re-supplied me, and then moved on ahead
to the finish line. With two miles remaining, I could see the finish line looming,
or rather, the Amundsen-Scott polar station. Soon, I was at the one-mile marker
and the actual finish line was clearly visible. A small crowd was also evident,
presumably from the station. What a relief!
I headed into this last mile, Ute and Don came out to greet me and congratulate
me. They were successfully nearing the end of their own half-marathon and were
a very welcome sight. In fact, given their earlier sacrifice to do a half marathon,
they were two of the main reasons why I was in this position. I wrenched off
my balaclava and my cap and ran in what I thought was the last 100m - unfortunately,
it was about 400m to the line and I ended up getting frost nip on my left ear!
The Amundsen-Scott staff were friendly and cheering and perhaps slightly relieved
that we were all going to make it and I was too.
I crossed the line, my hip flexors seized up completely and I succumbed to hypothermia.
I was shaking uncontrollably and felt fairly exhausted, but mentally strong.
Dr. Duncan Gray, the expedition doctor from Scotland, sat me down and forced
some food and hot drinks into me. Before I knew it, I had been sitting down
for some twenty minutes and shortly thereafter Dean and Brent arrived at the
finish line in that order, respectively. But Brent, the plucky veteran from
Wyoming, didn't just stop there. He continued on to run an additional 3km to
win the ultramarathon section, decisively beating me in the process. I could
only marvel at his drive and stamina as I struggled in behind him.
concluded the racing, but not the physical suffering. I suffered frostbite on
my toes and the tips of my fingers were also numb. I also got a mild dose of
snow blindness as a result of neglecting to wear my goggles throughout the race.
Finally, I ended up on a drip, taking a few litres of IV fluid to counter the
depletion I suffered. Was it worth it? It sure was!