Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and least populated of the world’s continents. It has a unique landscape, distinctive ecosystems and is one of the world’s last true wildernesses. Not the first place you’d think of heading to if you wanted to compete in a marathon?
But with adventure marathoners and ultra athletes always looking for the next big challenge, mainland Antarctica represents the last great wilderness to be conquered.
Established over a decade ago by Richard Donovan, the Antarctic Ice Marathon enables marathon runners to complete a marathon on all seven continents. It also enables athletes to complete the marathon grand slam - a marathon on all seven continents and the North Pole.
The Ice Marathon is the only marathon run on mainland Antarctica. It takes place at 80 South, just a few hundred miles from the South Pole in the interior of Antarctica. This is the southernmost marathon on Earth and a unique opportunity to complete a marathon that is truly worthy of the seventh continent.
This is no regular marathon, taking place on packed snow at the Union Glacier Antarctica at 80° south - just a few hundred miles from the South Pole at the foot of the Ellsworth Mountains. Participants are flown from Punta Arenas, Chile to the race location in the interior of the Antarctic and experience anything from subzero temperatures to 24 hours of daylight while there. It is the only organized foot race that is actually within the Antarctic Circle on the continent itself.
UVU catches up with 2015 Antarctic Ice Marathon competitor, Gareth Evans - who completed this epic feat of human endurance in 05:18:12 – to understand why running in one of the inhospitable places on Earth is such a draw and what it takes to overcome the challenge it presented.
How did you get into running?
It was when I was at boarding school in Canterbury. One rugby season I got two concussions and was told that I wouldn’t be playing anymore so I joined the cross-country team instead. It was something I really enjoyed from day one. I soon realised that I was never going to be a quick runner, but found out that once I start I can just keep on going.
When I left school I did my first London marathon. My friend was meant to do it, but pulled out, so I did it under his name. Then I moved to the States in 1991 and did my first marathon there in 1995. I did three or four on the trot, then took a couple of years break. Since then I have completed one each and every year.
What is that you like about running so much?
I started running initially because I enjoyed doing it, then it became a great platform for me to raise money for charity. Despite the obvious health benefits, running is like a kind of mental therapy for me. When you get to a certain level running it can be soothing and therapeutic, but getting to that level can be quite hard though.
What inspired you to tackle the Antarctic Ice Marathon?
I have been running the New York City marathon every year for charity since 1996, ranging from breast cancer to brain cancer and the challenged athletes foundation. I found that donors got a little tired of the same old race, so last year I set 3 races as my goal. I had heard of the Ice Marathon from a close friend in Switzerland who had done it, so I signed up for it! I got in touch with Richard and he told me that 2014 was fully booked up so I signed up to do 2015 instead.
How did you prepare yourself for the race?
My preparation wasn’t the best it could have been. Not long before I did the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon, where I ruptured my Achilles at the base of my heel, so I didn’t run that much for the whole of last summer. I thought I would just sign up for the Antarctic Ice Marathon anyway and wing it, knowing that I have always been pretty fit physically. So I treated the November New York marathon as a training run and then flew out to Antarctica. Apart from the New York marathon I hadn’t run more than 12 miles in a year.
What about the extremely cold conditions?
I love the cold. I grew up in the mountains in Switzerland and lived in Aspen for three years in the early 90s. Luckily, in January 2014, New York City had a deep cold spell, so I ran a lot outside. But I had absolutely no idea what I was going to expect when I got there. Put it this way, this summer I will definitely be training on sand in preparation for the next Antarctic Ice Marathon. The thing that took me most by surprise in Antarctica was how soft the ground got in some parts of the run. Because I wasn’t ready for it and hadn’t trained for it, that was mentally challenging part of it. Part of me was saying: ‘What the fuck am I doing here, I hate it.” You then take a look around and you see that you are in this place of open nothingness and then you tough your way through it, almost in some sort of trance. I just embraced the whole experience and it was phenomenal. I just got on and did it.
What was the most memorable part of the challenge?
From flying from NYC to Santiago to Punta Arenas, meeting the 53 runners from 21 countries (or so) and waiting to fly out to Antarctica, the whole experience was so rich. When we finally landed in Antarctica, it was exhilarating. It was like being on another planet without leaving this one. The race itself went by in a flash even though it was a slow trek (two 13.1 mile loops, and 6.5 miles or so of each loop was in soft, ankle deep snow on a slight, straight upgrade on the glacier, making it like running in deep sand, with a headwind and white out conditions. The celebration that night was just an awesome experience with everyone feeling accomplished. Then we got stuck there for four days as the plane couldn’t land. It was amazing to spend time with people without internet or cell coverage because people actually had to communicate with each other.
How did you cope mentally with how the race unfolded?
I love the mountains, the outdoors and the snow, so I was in a happy place. When I go up a mountain in Switzerland, the stress completely drains away. I felt almost exactly the same thing when I landed in Antarctica. As a result I was already in a very relaxed state of mind about the run, I wasn’t nervous at all. Physically it was not that painful, but mentally you have to cope with the fact that you are going to be out there running for a lot longer than you are used to. It’s a case of saying whatever will happen, will happen - so just get out there and get it done.
But there must have been a few soul-searching moments?
When I got to mile four on the second lap, I knew that it was going to be soft underfoot and uphill for the following six miles and that the next hour and a half were going to completely suck. I did get to a couple of points when I went screw this. When you’ve got such uncertain footing, it slows your pace right down that you might as well get into a fast walk. I then walked for a good mile, but went through the regret of not pushing myself.
What do you think about?
You think about the cause you are doing it for. You think about the stories of some of the other competitors. You might be thinking that the race sucks but you have to put it into perspective. There’s not many people out there who have the absolute privilege of doing what I was doing right at that moment. It’s not that bad doing something that you chose to do - something you enjoy doing. However tough it gets, you have to try and set yourself little targets. Try and keep a certain pace for the next three flags (which were a quarter of a mile apart) or see if you can keep a pace for 500 steps. You are setting little games and challenges to keep yourself going. It stops you from feeling miserable.
How important is the kit you are wearing?
The kit down in Antarctica is absolutely critical. A lot of gear is similar nowadays. You need your clothing to be comfortable so that it doesn't become a distraction. You need to focus on lightweight, moisture wicking and comfort as well as layering for warmth. I was so lucky that Richard Donovan told me to look up the UVU Stamina jacket. When it arrived in the mail I was like: “You have got to be kidding? You expect me to wear this in Antarctica, because it’s paper thin”. But it was remarkably warm. It did the trick for me. I only wore two base layers and that jacket. That’s all I wore.
After the high of finishing, there must be some lows? How do you overcome them?
The biggest low for me was returning form such a peaceful place as Antarctica; so raw, so untouched and virgin. Coming back to NYC was odd and highlighted how - in day-to-day life - we often get distracted and consumed by minutia that in the grand scheme of life aren't really as critical as we sometimes give them credit for.