On Sunday, March 17th, I completed my 31st full marathon, the Antarctica Marathon. It was also my fourth continent in my quest to run a marathon on all seven continents, and the second marathon I have run since I broke my tibia/fibula in February of 2018.
I feel like I have so much to write about with regards to this once-in-a-lifetime trip to the “last continent,” but I thought it would be best to just dive right into the marathon recap, and then backtrack to the rest of the trip later.
Alternative title for this post?
The Antarctica Marathon: The One That Almost Wasn’t.
If you’re new here, let me back up a little. My husband Dustin and I put down our initial deposit to get on the waiting list for the Antarctica Marathon with Marathon Tours back in 2015. A spot opened up for us to run the race in 2018, so we paid the rest of the balance and started counting down the days to the race and incredible trip.
Unfortunately in February of 2018, three weeks before the trip, I slipped on ice on a 20-mile training run in Minneapolis and broke my tibia and fibula. I had to have surgery to put it all back together (a plate, 12 screws). We had to cancel our trip to Antarctica, but were fortunately able to defer our spots to 2019, rather than get put back on the bottom of the waiting list. (Read more about our experience with trip insurance in Runner’s World HERE.)
Getting to Antarctica isn’t easy. We flew to Buenos Aires, where we spent a few days with the other runners and then flew to Ushuaia, at the southern most tip of Argentina, where we caught a Russian research ship to make the 2 day trip across the Drake Passage to Antarctica.
The marathon was held on King George Island, highlighted below:
King George Island is the site of multiple research bases owned by multiple countries. The bases are connected by dirt roads. It is basically one of the only places where a marathon could safely be held without having a negative impact to the environment of Antarctica. After all, there are already ‘roads’ with ATV traffic between the different bases so the addition of foot traffic from 200 runners shouldn’t pose a problem.
Where is the snow? Where are the glaciers?
1% of Antarctica is NOT snow/ice covered, and King George Island makes up most of that 1%, at least in the summer and fall.
Running on King George Island meant that we weren’t running on glaciers or ice shelves, but we were still contending with the weather of Antarctica. March is the end of fall in Antarctica, so the weather is a bit more manageable than the winter, but still can present challenges.
Leading up to race day, Thom Gilligan, the founder of Marathon Tours, shared a lot of stories about the history of the Antarctica Marathon. The main thing I learned from those stories is that we had to be flexible. The weather in Antarctica is fickle and nothing about race day would be guaranteed. Even being able to run the race at all wasn’t a certainty.
When our race day rolled around, that uncertainty rang true. When the OneOcean Expeditions leader Danny came over the loud speaker to wake us up at 6:30 am, he told us that the wind at that time was blowing around 40-50 knots. The race was supposed to start at 9 am, but there was no way the crew could get us from the ship to the island safely on zodiacs with that strong of a wind.
Instead, the race was delayed as we waited for the winds to die down enough that it would be safe enough for us to take the zodiacs to the start line.
These “Ocean Notes” would be posted on the ship each day with the schedule. Here was the original schedule for race day!
Not only did the crew have to get the runners over to King George Island via zodiac, they also had to get the ATV’s over there the day before, when the Marathon Tours crew was setting the course for the race.
Eventually, we received word that the race would start around 11:30 am.
The additional physical and mental stress of waiting an extra 2.5 hours from the original start time cannot be discounted. Fueling for that sort of delay was pretty difficult. We had breakfast on the boat around 6:30 am, where I ate a few pieces of toast with peanut butter and a banana. As we waited in our room to receive news on when/if we were going to be able to make it to shore to run, I ate a Picky Bar and drank some Gen-U-Can. But even with those extra calories, we were now running over the lunch hour and into dinner; I was hungry at the start line!
The wind was still strong when we finally did get over to King George Island. But we made it there, which was a good sign! But in the back of my mind, I know that the race could be called off at any time if the conditions got too rough to get the runners back to the boat via zodiac safely.
The 2019 Antarctica Marathon Course:
Normally, the Antarctica Marathon course goes in a figure-eight from the Russian research base past the Chilean base to the Chinese base and then back to the Russian base and out to the Uruguayan base. Unfortunately, the Chileans were doing a bunch of construction on their base and they didn’t think it was safe for us to run through their base. The Marathon Tours’ crew couldn’t really do anything about it, so instead, the 2019 course consisted of six 4.2-ish mile loops out to the Uruguayan base and back. If you are reading this and ran the marathon in previous years, this loop is basically the hilliest and hardest part of the original course- and we ran that loop SIX times! Actually, we ran those hills 12 times- out, back, out, back, etc.
On top of the hills, the gale-force winds were still in full force for most of the marathon. There were times when I just bent over head down, power-walking and trying to at least make forward progress. The wind was killer!
As icing on the cake, at one point, it hailed on us for about 10 minutes. Here’s a video another runner took. It was early in the race (I think my second loop) but I started to feel really disheartened that I wasn’t going to be able to finish the whole course if the hail kept up. It was painful!
On top of the hills and wind, there was the MUD. The mud was insane. There were sections where the mud would nearly suck your shoes right off your feet. It only got worse as the runners went through it time and time again.
The Antarctica Marathon: The Time I Went to the Bathroom in a “Honeypot.”
The Antarctica Marathon was virtually self-supported. Each runner had to bring their own water bottles (2-3 bottles were recommended) and fuel. No plastic wrappers were allowed because of the risk that the wind would blow them out of our hands. What if a penguin ate that wrapper and then died? No good.
I brought along one bottle full of Nuun, one bottle of a Spring hydration mix (which was SOOO good! I had never tried it before and it tasted like a fresh-squeezed juice, I have to find it and buy more) and two bottles of plain water.
For fuel, I filled a reusable flask with GU gels and took shots from it after each 4.2 mile loop where I had it waiting for me. We also could bring a bottle to a drop that was about 1.5 miles from the start. I ended up drinking that bottle much faster since I was passing it more frequently.
The wind was really dehydrating. I could have definitely done a better job hydrating throughout, but it was hard when the bottles were so spread out and I’d feel rushed to drink fast vs. stop for too long.
Tip- don’t count on the option to purchase bottles in Ushuaia because you might not have time! Due to our flight cancellation, we didn’t have any time to explore Ushuaia, which is where a lot of runners had planned to purchase last minute items such as water bottles, that they didn’t want to pack in their suitcases.
In addition to being self-supported for fuel, there were also no bathrooms on the course. Instead, there were two “honeypots” at the start or what most people referred to as “poop buckets”, located inside little zip-up tents. In addition to the honeypots, there was a bucket that was being used as a “urinal,” that was the same as the honeypot without the tent.
Like many runners, I had to pee one last time before we started and was tempted to just use that urinal, but instead I went into the honey pot. It wasn’t terrible; better than getting disqualified for going on the course!
*By the way, there was a woman on our trip who ran the half-marathon who had an 8-week old baby at home! She had only just been cleared to run again post-labor and was in Antarctica with her mom, as part of their own quest to run half-marathons on all 7 continents as a mother-daughter team. She had to pump in the honeypot. Hard-core!
The lack of bathrooms at any other spot along the course was definitely something I was a bit stressed about before the race. It didn’t help that I had not been eating my normal diet on the boat (the food was fine, just not what I’m used to). On top of different foods, I was on two different drugs with side effects of stomach issues (see the next section.) Fortunately my stomach was fine, but I was definitely worried.
The Antarctica Marathon: The One I Ran With Strep Throat (Maybe).
I generally don’t get sick very often nor do I like to have to take medicine. But the Antarctica Marathon included both sickness and medicine.
I had never been on a cruise before, but this wasn’t a normal cruise with 10,000 passengers. Rather, this was an old Russian icebreaker research vessel. There were just over 100 people on board between the runners and the staff. That many people in small quarters means A LOT OF GERMS. There was hand sanitizer around every corner, but its inevitable that germs are spread.
I should have brought a bunch of Emergen-C but forgot. I kind of assumed there would be some sort of market/store or pharmacy on the boat. Guess what? There was not. There was a doctor and a small ‘clinic’ on the boat, but his purpose was focused more on the emergency stuff- broken legs, heart attacks, etc. Even so, I ended up visiting him anyways.
Two days before the marathon, after two nights on the boat, I woke up with tonsils so swollen I couldn’t talk. The boat doctor, Dr. Paul, believed that I had strep throat and he put me on Amoxicillin. He wasn’t able to do an actual strep culture on the boat, so I do wonder if perhaps it was just a really bad cold. I did have a fever and some nasty looking tonsils, so the doctor wanted to be safe in case it was strep, as he didn’t want it to spread. Though the sore throat did get better after a few days, I spent the rest of the trip, particularly marathon day, with a terrible cough, congestion, and a down-right crappy feeling. I was “phloo-ey” as our Australian friends said. I did my best to hand-sanitize like crazy and stay in my room when I was at my worst.
Being sick didn’t help my marathon performance, and then the physical exertion of the marathon while sick probably made the cold last even longer! But I wasn’t going to miss the Antarctica Marathon due to a cold. Not after all the work to get there!
In addition to being on antibiotics (which the doctor warned can be dehydrating and cause stomach distress) for the marathon, I was also on a motion sickness patch. The side effects of this patch included dizziness, dry mouth, drowsiness, and more.
The Drake Passage was no joke- it tossed us around like crazy, and nearly every passenger wore one of these patches. It was like we were all part of some secret club with our matching patches!
Here’s a quick video from the night before when I took the patch off:
The Antarctica Marathon: My Slowest Marathon Ever.
The cut-off for the marathon was that you had to be at the halfway point by 3 hours and 10 minutes or you would be directed to finish at the halfway point instead. 16 people from the full marathon dropped to the half due to the time constraints, i.e. they finished their 3rd loop and had to consider that as their finish line. I feel really badly for those runners; I can imagine it was particularly disappointing for the many runners who were trying to complete Antarctica as their 7th continent. Such a bummer.
I finished my 3rd loop in 2 hours and 30 minutes and thought I was on track to finish around 5 hours. However, the wind only got worse and the mud only got thicker. I eventually finished in 5 hours 45 minutes, my slowest marathon ever!
Considering I just ran the Houston marathon a month or so ago about 2 hours faster, you can tell just how challenging this course was. Dustin finished in 4 hours and 40 minutes. The winning time was 3:40, and that guy was generally a 2:40 marathoner.
*That was the winning time for our race, see below about the next day’s race. The female winning time on our race day was 4:54.
The Antarctica Marathon: “But That’s Not What That Other Blogger Said.”
You may read other recaps of the 2019 Antarctica marathon where it was a sunny 35 degree day, low wind, with people were running in shorts and sports bras by the end. And those recaps are true too!
Yup, due to the limitations on the number of tourists on Antarctica on any given day, Marathon Tours splits up the race over two days. The first day was the Vavilov ship’s race (our boat) and the second day was the Ioffe ship’s race (the other boat). The Ioffe runners had much milder weather on race day. It goes to show you just how quickly Antarctica weather can change! Sure they still had the hills and some of the mud (though not as much), but not the wind or the hail.
I didn’t love that Marathon Tours combines the race results from both days for the overall winners. The guy who won the marathon on our race day ran a 3:40, but was robbed of his title by someone on the Ioffe race day who ran a 3:30. But that person had a completely different race experience!
I never was running this race for time, so it doesn’t affect me, but I feel bad for the winners from our race day. Personally, I am actually glad we had a tougher day, as I think that we on the Vavilov got a more authentic “Antarctica” race experience!
When I finally finished the race, I was hoping to find Dustin there, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to wait around because it got too cold. He was put on a zodiac and zipped back to the boat to warm up. Even though the true temperature was in the 20’s, the wind made it VERY cold to stand around, so it got cold fast! After I received my medal, my fingers were freezing as I tried to put back on my GILL weather gear to get into the Zodiac. I was beat too- the race was physically draining and I was out there for quite some time. That was the longest time on my feet running, nearly 6 hours of being out in the elements was exhausting. I mustered up the energy for a finisher’s photo before I hopped on the next zodiac to get back to the ship.
A hot shower on the boat post-Antarctica marathon never felt so good!
But remember how I said the boats were NOT luxury cruise ships? Our shower was actually in the same space as the sink and toilet; there was just a curtain you’d pull around when you wanted to shower. Definitely cozy!
The Hardest Parts of the Antarctica Marathon:
The wind. The mud. The hills.
The Most Awesome Parts of the Antarctica Marathon:
The wind. The mud. The hills.
A few scientists from the Uruguayan base and a few from the Chilean base also participated in the race which was awesome! They had a few people out cheering for them, but other than them, there was no crowd support on this marathon.
But who needs crowds? We had penguins to cheer for us. Yes, penguins!
Penguins were probably a highlight of Antarctica for me throughout the trip. They are so entertaining! They have the intelligence of a chicken; not very smart, but so silly to watch. At one point on an excursion, we watched one penguin after the next take a step down from a rock and face-plant in the snow. But they all kept following the one before and doing the same thing!
And their cute waddle with their wings back behind them…or when they decided to slide on their bellies in the snow instead of waddle…just too cute!
A few other challenges to consider if you’re thinking about “racing” Antarctica:
- You may not have the option to run for the 3-4 days leading up to the marathon. There was a working treadmill on our boat, but apparently it doesn’t always work. I heard that there wasn’t a working treadmill on the other boat. And that was only one treadmill for 100 runners, so you will have to wait your turn. And when you do get a turn, you’ll face the challenge of running on a treadmill on a boat that is tossing about in the Drake Passage. Here’s a picture of me trying to run while holding on as the boat swayed!
- The race may or may not happen. There is always a chance that the weather is such that it’s unsafe to get the runners to King George Island on the zodiacs.
- Marathon Tours and the OneOcean expedition crew will do everything they can to make sure the race happens at some point, so the greater risk is just that the race may be delayed. Our marathon was supposed to start at 9 am, but it didn’t start until 11:30 am, which makes for a challenging race morning.
- Even if you’re lucky enough to start the race, you may not be able to finish it. It’s always possible that the race will have to be cut short if the weather changes, which it is always changing in Antarctica. This happened in the past.
- As I mentioned, germs/sickness is a real concern when running a marathon after 4 days on a small boat.
These are all concerns that I want to share with you all, but I still think the experience was worth ALL of this. Running a marathon in such an austere and remote location under challenging conditions where so few runners have or will ever run is very cool.
The Right Fit: What I Wore For the Antarctica Marathon:
- Ultimate Direction Women’s Ultra Jacket– A windbreaker like this one was a must! Even though I overheated a little in other aspects of my gear, this jacket was totally necessary. It is also waterproof, which was great during the rain and hail. I could pull the hood up to protect my face when the hail was pelting us. It’s really light otherwise and has awesome online reviews from ultra runners.
- Under the jacket, I wore this Patagonia Women’s Capilene Air Crew, which is VERY warm. My mistake was also wearing a Swiftly Tech long sleeve from lululemon under that layer. I should not have worn the swiftly- too many layers and I got pretty warm on top. At one point, I tried to shed a layer, but the wind was blowing so hard that I couldn’t hold onto my jacket to get off another layer so I just dealt with it. Most of the time, I felt okay since it was so windy. For reference, Dustin wore the same Patagonia base layer under his jacket, but no other layers, and was fine.
- I wore these Craft Vasa Mittens, which are quite warm. I occasionally took them off when my hands warmed up (which was rare but it did happen occasionally when the wind died down.)
- On bottom, I wore a pair of Women’s Essential Winter Tights by Craft.
- On my feet, I wore SmartWool socks and my Brooks Cascadia GORE-TEX trail shoes. Waterproof trail shoes were a must for this race with the level of mud and puddles we ran through. My socks did get wet and I did have blisters, but I’m sure it would have been worse without the trail shoes and wool socks.
I forgot to mention this earlier, but another interesting thing about the Antarctica marathon is that we had to be very careful not to contaminate Antarctica with any foreign matter, i.e. we all had to scrub our running shoes before the race to ensure they were “bio-secure” before any land excursions.
We also had to scrub them AFTER the race too, which was a bit more challenging with all the mud.
In order to get to King George Island safely from the boat, we were suited up in the same GILL weather gear that we’d wear on the rest of the excursions. We also had dry bags for the ride over with all our gear inside and extra warm clothes for the finish line.
Example of the weather gear we were all provided:
We had to put that GILL gear on after the race as well. Even though the temperature at the finish was in the 20’s, the wind was so strong that we all got very cold quickly and everyone was rushed back onto the Zodiacs back to the boat as quickly as possible.
Will this post ever end?
Bless your heart if you’re still reading. This post is VERY long.
I feel like there’s probably more to say, but in closing, I am very happy with my Antarctica Marathon experience. It was a marathon experience like no other. I’m grateful that I was healthy enough to participate and will treasure the experience for the rest of my life. It really was a privilege to have this experience and I recognize that it is not a place that very many people will every have the opportunity to visit, let alone run 26.2 miles.
Trust me, I very much recognize this experience as a gift. I’m so grateful for the privilege of the adventure and I will treasure the memories of this trip for the rest of my life.