Read an Excerpt
"Because it's there"
George Mallory, the British mountaineer, made this phrase famous when questioned why he attempted the daunting feat of climbing Mount Everest. (It took another 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary made the first successful summit in 1953.) You may find yourself uttering the same response when asked what in the world inspired you to run one of the races described in this section.
Whether you are sailing through the most turbulent body of water in the world, fending off hypothermia in subzero temperatures, or scaling rocks above tree lines, these races will test your endurance. Although they sound exhilarating, don’t take these adventures lightly. They require serious training to perform your best and help avoid disasters.
Competitors preparing for adventure races have gone to extremes, both in effort and creativity, to simulate course conditions that they’ll be encountering. For subfreezing marathons, contenders have gone as far as putting treadmills in industrial walk-in meat lockers. Waterlogged courses have inspired people to train by running through streams.
Race directors can provide essential information on preparing for intense environments that they’ve selected for their event. Additional details from doctors and other pro- fessionals should be sought accordingly. Before the Antarctica Marathon, I learned that it’s common for ships to face huge swells sailing across Drake Passage. Speaking at length with my doctors about seasickness, I found the best pre- ventatives suitable for my personal needs. For high altitude courses, I sought advice from specialists who published studies in medical journals on the physical effects and dangers of acclimatizing.
Appropriate technically correct gear is also vital. Whatever sneakers, leggings, and tops are comfortable on your routine run may not transfer to severely cold temperatures, even if you add layers. Although layering is important to retain body heat, it’s just as imperative to plan for it to escape in a timely manner during the race. Otherwise, you may find a sweaty, wet layer that may eventually freeze, sticking to your skin for miles.
Quality gear varies greatly, even when comparing well-known brands. Different skin types can favor one wicking or insulating fabric over another because the fibers of various patented materials such as Polartec® or CoolMax® have different thread patterns and textures. Trail-running shoes instead of your trusted road-running sneaker may be more suitable for the course, requiring you train in entirely different footwear. Your best bet is to test out gear, subjecting it to the mileage and weather it will endure, well before arriving at the race start.
Researching and preventing potential pitfalls makes all the difference during your adventure race. It also provides perspective on whether you’re cut out for an inherently unpredictable trip, or would prefer a race that’s more conventional.
If you are up for the challenge, take your pick among these Incredible Races and devote time to research and train for the extreme conditions. Then, get ready for a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you’ll be asked to recount over and over again the minute you cross the finish line.
ANTARCTICA MARATHON & HALF-MARATHON
The Lost Continent
LOCATION: KING GEORGE’S ISLAND, ANTARCTICA
distance/average FIELD: 26.2 MILES/120, 13.1 MILES/30 TELEPHONE: 617-242-7845
How do you get to the bottom of the world to run the Antarctica Marathon? It’s not easy. First, you fly to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and then to Ushuaia, on the tip of South America. Ushuaia’s claim to fame is that it’s the southernmost city in the world, although it more closely resembles a large town. Here you board refitted ships, ice class rated and reinforced with steel hulls to dodge icebergs. Once used for Polar research, now the vessels accommodate adventurous runners setting sail for a three-day journey across Drake Passage, the most turbulent body of water in the world.
Pray for tolerable swells. Waves have swept over the deck on rough days, rocking and rolling the boat, so that no amount of Dramamine® could provide relief from the inevitable seasickness. One participant lamented that had he known how brutal the return trip would be, he would have stayed on the “lost continent.” The small ship is home for the next week and a half because there’s no place to stay or eat in Antarctica. Thousands of miles from civilization, the mainland has no hotels, restaurants, or stores.
King George Island, located off the Antarctic Penin- sula, is where you’ll join the select club of marathon and half-marathon runners lucky enough to race on the last-discovered continent. First sighted around 1820, the question of whether it was found by an American, Englishman, or Russian is still under debate. On a map, the Antarctic Peninsula looks similar to an arm reaching north, like a straightened Cape Cod.
Once you arrive, stepping onto land where only a tiny fraction of the world’s population has left a footprint is breathtaking. The unique feeling is much like holding a newborn child.
On race day, runners bundled in cold-weather gear are shuttled to shore by rubber-inflated Zodiac boats. I stored sneakers and postrace clothes in garbage bags to protect them from ocean spray breaking over the bow. The only sign of human life ashore is several small groupings of trailers, occupied by researchers from China, Chile, Uruguay, and Russia. U.S. researchers are stationed at the South Pole and at several other locations on the continent.
The sparse kitchen trailer for Russia’s Bellingshausen Antarctic Station served as home base for our trip. It’s named for the Russian explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, who led expeditions to the Antarctic in the 1820s and who is one of the parties debated to have discovered its existence. We stored baggage and kept warm in the trailer, and the cook made us hot soup. This diplomatic arrangement varies by trip, depending on the race director’s negotiation with local officials. It usually involves gifts of fresh fruit and vegetables—precious commodities after six months of twenty-four-hour pitch-black winters and infrequent shipments of staples.
Course adjustments occur every year depending on weather and surface conditions. Even the location on King George Island can change since it’s subject to written permission from local research stations and science foundations. The race usually requires a wind-chilled climb up Collins Glacier, which is streaked with serrated ice and a thin layer of snow. Runners have slipped and fallen, twisting ankles and breaking ribs. One even hit his head hard enough to result in a concussion. If you have trepidations about running on ice, it’s worth considering stabilizers. They are membranes that fit over the soles of your sneakers, dotted with metal studs for increased traction.
Elsewhere on the course, glacial runoffs create small streams. If water is running deep enough to douse ankles, it’s bridged with wood planks. Feet plunged in icy cold water will stay in your sneakers the rest of the race. Not only is it uncomfortable, but extremities exposed to freezing temperatures are vulnerable to frostbite and promote hypo- thermia, a drop in body temperature that endangers metabolism and bodily functions. Warm, dry feet and hands are essential in cold-weather marathons. You may also discover a few new body parts, such as earlobes, that you wish to keep warm and never worried about in previous races.
Mud is the biggest course hazard because daytime temperatures average just above freezing during the Antarctic summer. Dirt roads connecting the research stations absorb water from melting snow and ice. The mixture swallows your sneakers, as the female front-runner found out the year I ran. Her foot came right out of her sneaker and plunged straight into the mud.
Don’t run this race if you need cheering crowds to finish. Antarctica is sparsely populated with government- approved researchers and support personnel. The only onlookers I saw were three parka-clad Chileans, singing and clenching a bottle of vodka, who offered me a cigarette.
Environmental concerns prevent dispensing water in the disposable bottles or paper cups traditionally found at races. Rehydrating requires three of your own personally labeled bottles, dropped by the race organizer along a 6.5-mile, out-and-back route repeatedly run. When 150 containers from fellow competitors are all packed together in cardboard boxes, only the tops are visible. Quickly locating your bottle is surprisingly difficult unless it’s an unusual color or you tie the neck with a distinctive ribbon.