Runners Attempt 26-mile South Pole Marathon in Sub-Zero Temperatures

Posted February 9th, 2016 at 10:19 am (UTC-4)
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The start of the 2016 South Pole Marathon. Six out of the 11 people who competed in the full 26.2 mile course, finished the run.

The start of the 2016 South Pole Marathon. Six out of the 11 people who competed in the full 26.2 mile course, finished the run.

It’s Christmas day 2010. Fifty runners gather at the geographic South Pole to participate in the Race Around the World, a 2.2 mile (3.5 kilometer) “fun run”. The event is largely a casual affair. Many participants are in holiday-themed costumes and a few are riding in sleds pulled by snowmobiles. No one cares about how fast they move and, for many, it will take close to an hour to complete the course.

Refael Klein blogs about his year working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

For a select few, however, the race is a serious affair. They’ve trained all summer for it; some have trained all year. To win means more than bragging rights. It means a ticket back to McMurdo Station to compete in the McMurdo Marathon.

In 2010, the Race Around the World was won by a dish-pit worker who, some say, came to the South Pole purely for the opportunity to compete in the McMurdo Marathon. In the days leading up to his departure, weather at the Pole deteriorated and eventually all flights, including his, were canceled.

Forlorn, but still determined to run a marathon in Antarctica, our protagonist organized the first-ever South Pole Marathon. Only a handful of people participated, even fewer finished, and when the final runner crossed the finish line at a little over 7 hours with a face full of frost nip, many thought it was the conclusion of a one-time event. After all, how alluring is running 26.2 miles (42 kilometers) at 10,000 feet (3048 meters) when it’s minus 31 Celsius (minus 25 Fahrenheit) out?

A group photo before the start of the 2016 South Pole Marathon.

A group photo before the start of the 2016 South Pole Marathon.

Last week, against my better judgment, I decided to participate in the sixth annual South Pole Marathon. I had gone on a 10-mile (16-kilometer) training run the week prior to make sure I could run double digits, and then talked myself into competing by making the argument that 10 miles was half of 20 miles, and that all I had to do was double my previous week’s run and then add another six and I’d be done. It was a convincing train of thought, so I signed up.

At 1:07 in the afternoon, 23 of us — 12 running the half marathon, 11 running the full — took off across the starting line at the geographic South Pole. The course was comprised of a single 13.1 mile (21-kilometer) loop that followed “groomed roads”. I would need to run it twice to finish.

There were two aid stations on the loop, “warm up shacks” stocked with food, drink and someone with a radio, in case our legs or motivation gave out and we needed to call for a pick-up. My strategy, which I devised about five minutes before “Ready, Set, Go”, was to run the first loop without breaking and then take advantage of the aid stations on my second go around.  I wanted to get a significant amount of the race behind me before sitting down in a heated outbuilding, as I feared that my first exposure to above-zero temperatures and hot chocolate would de-motivate me and destroy my mental game.

The first 13 miles (20 kilometers) went smoothly. It was cold out and windy, but my 10-minute mile (1.6 kilometer) pace was enough to keep me warm and in a competitive position. When I hit the first aid station at the start of my second loop, I was in fifth place and, apart from a bit frost nip on my nose, felt good. I took about 10 minutes to warm up, eat a candy bar, drink a few cups of tea and stretch.

At the two-hour-and-45 minute mark, I left the aid station and took off on my final lap. The wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped. Although, thinking back now, it may have just been my body adjusting from the comfort of artificial heat to the ungodly cold of the ice cap. Either way, it felt noticeably worse out and, in the first few minutes after leaving the “warm-up shack”, I thought about turning around and radioing for a snowmobile to take me back to station.

Victory! That's me inside the finish line Warm Up Shack, happy to be done running, and looking better then I feel.

Victory! That’s me inside the finish line Warm Up Shack, happy to be done running, and looking better then I feel.

Fortunately, my stubbornness to continue moving won out and, an hour later, I found myself at mile 19 (kilometer 30). My legs had begun to feel a little tight but, this far into the race, I wasn’t turning back, even if I had to crawl the last mile.

Mile 20 (kilometer 32) marked the beginning of the end for me. My legs cramped and whatever calories I still had in reserve vanished. I began alternating running and walking.  Running for 5 minutes and then walking for five but, by the time I made it to the 22-mile (35 kilometer) aid station, it was more like walking punctuated with the occasional shuffle.

After a 15-minute break that included a bowl of curry soup and a coconut energy bar, I tugged my mittens back on and headed out the door for what I hoped would be a strong finish.

A half mile in, my strength dissolved. While running, I felt about as competent as a giraffe making its way through a pool of Jello. I started walking again, then tried to run, but couldn’t. My legs had revolted. All they would allow me to do was walk, and poorly at that.

The final miles were endless. One foot in front of the other, 18-inch (45-centimeter) stride to 18-inch stride to 18-inch stride, all the way to the finish line. I finally stumbled into the aid station and checked my time: 6 hours,15 minutes.

Fifth place overall and one of six that finished.

Look for Refael Klein’s weekly blogs from the South Pole every Tuesday here on Science World.



Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

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