The Story of the Ill-Fated Antarctica Marathon
“Good morning everybody! This is your 5:30 wake up call,” boomed the speaker in the corner of my cabin on Tuesday, February 6th, for the second day in a row. “It’s a blustery morning out there. A little snow. It’s zero degrees Celsius, and the winds are moderate, but not a bad morning.” The voice was trying to be upbeat, but these sounded like the same conditions which had postponed the start of our marathon 24 hours ago.
“Now I have one sad note for you, I’m afraid,” the voice continued, “and thats that we are out of porridge.”
This was a resilient bunch, though. We could handle the weather and the oatmeal outage. We believed it was only a matter of time until the start of the 2001 Antarctica Marathon, and we hadn’t journeyed all this way for the creature comforts.
Once we were seated in the dining room of our ship, the Russian owned Lyubov Orlova, we could see the course through the windows. On the right was Collins Glacier, to be scaled at the start, and again at the half-way point. On the far left was the turn-around at the Chinese research base, separated from the rest of the course by a range of treacherous hills which we would have to climb twice, in both directions. Mother Nature wouldn’t be so cruel as to shatter peoples dreams now, after we had traveled from the corners of the earth to run a marathon at the end of the earth, would she?
To The Extreme
Historically, Antarctica has attracted people fascinated by the unknown. The explorers of the Heroic Age risked their lives racing to be the first to step onto the continent, the first to the pole, and the first to cross the continent. Then, whalers and scientists discovered the unique opportunities which the continent offered their respective professions. Eventually, as the voyage became cheaper and safer, tourism began to take hold. Still, barely 100,000 people have ever set foot on the continent, most of them in the past 45 years as increasing numbers of people have been attracted by the unique beauty of Antarcticas pristine landscape.
Made possible through the collaboration of Marathon Tours and Marine Expeditions, the first Antarctica Marathon took place in 1995, and was such a success that the ’97, ’99 and ’01 races sold out months in advance, and the ’02 edition is already full.
In all, there were 140 in our group, and a quick survey of their t-shirts confirmed that they fit right into the long tradition of Antarctic explorers. They enjoy the extreme, pushing their bodies and minds to the limit, especially in their running. Aboard ship were shirts from the Himalayan Stage Race, the Nanisivik Marathon within the Arctic Circle, and the Rocky Raccoon 100 Miler, among others. Only after several days without laundry did the more traditional standbys, such as Boston and Chicago, begin to surface.
Many of the passengers were here in search of adventure, but the marathon was clearly the primary motivation. Despite the two years of planning and months of training put in by many, significantly less energy was devoted to researching our destination. Indeed, members of the crew found themselves explaining that, no, there weren’t any polar bears, nor any Eskimos, where we were going.
Beyond running the marathon, each person also had an individual story. Ruth Morley, a veteran traveler, was looking forward to setting foot on her seventh continent. Mark Kalla was hoping to eventually run a marathon on every continent, though Antarctica would only be his second. Janet Green once ran a marathon within the Arctic Circle wearing nothing but a sports bra and shorts, and while it was unlikely that she would be able to repeat that feat in the Antarctic, she was hopeful nonetheless.
John Simnett typified the adventurers in the group in all but one way he wasn’t even a runner until after signing up for the trip. Five years ago Simnett decided that he would celebrate each half-decade of his life by doing something spectacular. At 45 he trekked 400 treacherous miles to the North Pole, so when he turned 50 and decided to run his first marathon, he figured, where better than the South Pole?
He first learned of the event by reading a largely fictitious account of the 1995 race which told a tale of runners delirious with hypothermia, falling into crevasses, and being attacked by birds. “I thought ‘That’s wonderful that’s exactly what I wanted and, you know, I don’t mind a bit of that stuff. Maybe I will before we get out, but life’s got all sorts of trials and tribulations, and if I fell down a crevasse and that’s the way I ended, I’d be quite happy. Better that than get knocked down by a bus.”
Bring It On
Upon boarding the Orlova on Wednesday, January 31, the appetites of the adventurers were quickly sated. [The Drake Passage] is the worst body of water in the world. “Expect the worst and it may get delivered,” we were told by Shane Evoy of Marine Expeditions. Seasickness? This was to be taken for granted. Take your Dramamine and put all your possessions on the floor of your cabin, cause thats where they’ll be when you wake up in the morning he told us. And no whistling! Apparently the conditions would be bad enough without a bunch of tourists whistling up a little extra wind.
In what proved to be an omen for our trip, during which nothing went as planned, we hit the Drake and found the water to be… calm. Most were relieved that they hadn’t been thrown from their beds during the night, while others remained under their covers, seasick anyway. And then there were those, a minority, to be sure, who quietly expressed their disappointment. Where were the 20 to 30 foot waves we’d been promised? As we soon learned, you need to be careful what you wish for, because Mother Nature has a way of evening the score down here, whether you whistle or not.
Our itinerary called for us to leave race director Thom Gilligan, the founder of Marathon Tours, and his crew, on King George Island on Friday so they could lay out the marathon course while we toured the South Shetland Islands. Unfortunately a rare south-east wind was tearing across the island and churning Maxwell Bay into a frenzy. Snow was blowing horizontally through the sky, and the waves made it impossible to drop anchor, let alone launch a Zodiac, the small rubber motor boat that was our only means of getting ashore.
For two days we sailed in circles, knocked about by a gale and its accompanying 15 foot waves. One woman joked that if the wind didn’t die down, we’d have to race around the decks of the ship.
With the wind showing no signs of weakening, one crew member took measures into his own hands during Saturdays lunch. Citing an old mariners tradition of hanging women’s underwear from the mast to ward off bad weather, Gustavo Papazian, the trusted captain of our Zodiac crew, pled his case and asked for donations. Even if it doesn’t work, the ship will look pretty, he reasoned. By mid-afternoon several pairs of panties were waving in the wind, and, sure enough, the course crew headed ashore shortly after.
Up on the bridge John Simnett was perched in a corner, looking out the window at the waves that were threatening the race. He wasn’t in Antarctica merely to satisfy his thirst for adventure, and that’s what was weighing on his mind. Having raised $50,000 for kidney disease research, there were many people counting on his being able to run. “I feel quite a heavy obligation to make sure I do the marathon,” he said, “and I think seriously I would do the marathon on the boat if we can’t land.”
Still naive to the realities of the Antarctic weather, most people carried themselves through Mondays breakfast as though they would be toeing the starting line within hours. Some even had their race numbers on already. Not one to create false hope, Evoy quickly set us straight. “If any of you looked out the window and thought the race might not happen, you were right,” he said.
Ruth Morley, for one, was disturbed by the situation, not because the race was in danger, but for the exact opposite reason. Anytime you carry an interest to an extreme, you become a bit selfish, she said with a degree of disappointment. All this effort, back and forth, back and forth between the islands, just to get a hundred-some runners back to the position where they can get out on an island, run in a figure-eight twice to tell themselves, Check—did Antarctica.
Indeed, tremendous resources were being used to get us to the start. The Orlova was loaded with 500 tons of oil, 20 of which were consumed daily, and 300 more of water. And the porridge supply? That had originally been 400 kilograms.
While Tuesday morning didn’t begin with the best news, what with the weather and the porridge shortage, there was one bright note: The course team had made it back to the ship.
Again many people came to breakfast ready to race, refusing to admit they wouldn’t be running this morning. Even before we received official word of another delay, rumors were spreading about the 70 mile per hour winds which the course team had to brave in order to lay out the marathon.
When Gilligan entered the dining room during lunch, we knew he wasn’t about to deliver good news. He looked around the room, exhaustion and concern etched on his face, and asked simply, “What would Shackleton do?” “RUN!” was the quick response from a number of people. But they were wrong. As tough as Sir Ernest was, he wasn’t stupid. Just 100 miles from becoming the first man to reach the South Pole, Shackleton once turned around and led his men back to the coast, fearing that to press on would be to risk their lives.
The significance of Gilligan’s words took a moment to sink in, and almost before questions began poring forth, the anchor had been raised and we were moving again, leaving the freshly marked marathon course, and the dreams of 140 runners, in our wake. The plan now was to sail nearly 200 miles south, to Neko Harbor on the Antarctic Peninsula.
And what of that marathon that people had been planning for the past two years? The joke of a couple days earlier was now our reality. The fifth and sixth decks were quickly measured with a length of calibrated rope, and courses of 324 and 422 laps, respectively, were set. Certainly not ideal conditions, but given the other option, not running at all, there was no option.
Let The Games Begin
With runners signed up for one of three different starting times, and volunteers in place to count laps, the first wave of the Antarctica Marathon began early in the afternoon.
To be honest, that first wave was a mess. With the narrow hallway of the fifth deck playing host to three different groups—marathoners, half marathoners, and a group that was running for five hours even—chaos reigned. Soon most of the five-hour group had fled the elbow-throwing half marathoners, and were completing their run on the slippery outdoor sixth deck. And as the race unfolded, our ship continued to rock and roll through the waters of the Bransfield Straight.
While the competitiveness of the race was being down-played for safety’s sake, the first finisher was still eagerly anticipated. Spectators crowded into the ships lobby, which the runners had to cut through every lap, to watch as Mark Kalla broke the tape. While his 4:21 was 30 minutes slower than his best, the time was impressive given the circumstances.
“I literally hit the wall five times,” reported Kalla. “I hit that overhead beam on the doorway and knocked myself down five times. Twice I got up and I couldn’t see. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I jammed my finger on a corner and it was stuck out sideways, but it popped back in.”
By the time the last runner had finished for the evening we had finally escaped the pocket of weather that had been tormenting King George for days. For the first time the Orlova was gliding along peacefully. Could this be a good sign for tomorrows race, or did the weather have one final, cruel trick in store?
It’s A Beautiful Day
By midnight the only sound on the ship was the laughter of two men out on the sixth deck. For the third night in a row everyone had retired early, knowing that finally, come morning they would have their chance to run. But Barry Rose and Mike Powell hadn’t been interested in trading elbows with the half marathoners, nor in joining the mass start in six hours. So here they were, in the most serene of settings, holding a marathon of their own.
By five a.m. on Wednesday, shortly after Rose and Powell completed their run, the sixth deck was bustling with runners preparing to race. Even the most intensely focused couldn’t help but be distracted by the surroundings.
All around us were vast mountain ranges, their snow cover reflecting the golden glow of the rising sun. The only signs of life were the occasional birds skimming the waves or penguins porpoising in the water. Yet on the bridge one man was interrupted from taking pictures by the ships Captain. Save your film, he was told. The best was yet to come.
Only upon reaching Neko Harbor was this scene interrupted by any sign of civilization. There, a solitary orange refuge hut bearing the baby-blue Argentinean flag was nestled on a small beach at the base of a glacier. And if the scenery wasn’t enough to win us over, Neko stole our hearts with perfect marathoning weather: Temperatures in the 40s, calm seas, and finally, no wind.
Anchored in the corner of the Harbor, the Orlova was dwarfed by the glaciers, each separated from the next by the jagged peak of a mountain which towered over the water. The occasional thundering crackle of the ice calving reverberated around the harbor, and by mid-afternoon the ship was surrounded by chunks of ice recently freed from the glaciers which had been ceaselessly pushing towards the coast for thousands of years. Seals sunned themselves on the flattest of these bergs, while penguins flitted in and out of the water, and a dozen whales swam leisurely in the mouth of the harbor.
Watching this scene unfold from the sixth deck was Jim Starkovich of Marathon Tours. “To be running in such magnificent surroundings,” he marveled, “I mean, people were running with smiles on!”
And why wouldn’t they be smiling? After all of the heart-ache of the past few days they were finally living out their dream. There was Janet Green, wearing her turquoise sports bra and shorts after all. And John Simnett, the trail shoes he’d been planning on wearing on King George tossed aside for a pair of beat up trainers which served him well. He ran 4:23, a strong debut performance under any conditions.
In the following days more than one receding hairline would reveal bruising from a run-in with a doorway. Arms would show the black and blue evidence of a collision or two. But these wounds were badges of honor, not evidence of a race that didn’t go as planned.
As the final wave of the marathon got under way, Mark Kalla, feeling remarkably fresh following his performance of the previous day, was in a Zodiac at the mouth of the harbor. Also in the Zodiac, Patricia Silva, the ship’s ornithologist, watched six Minke whales playfully swim around the craft, and quietly said to herself, “Thank you Antarctica for this little moment of my life.” Had she looked over her other shoulder, she could have made out the figures of Simnett, Morley, and the other runners in the distance, circling the deck of the ship.
Surely they were saying their thanks as well.
This story originally appeared in the June 2001 edition of Running Times.
Postscript: The 2001 Antarctica Marathon wasn’t the Llubov Orlova’s last unusual voyage. The abandoned ship appeared in the headlines years later as an abandoned, “cannibal rat”-infested boat adrift in international water.