Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Best Of The Rest

Our last few days in Argentina passed in true hedonistic holiday style. Tango shows, day trips by hydrofoil across the Rio Plata to Uruguay (very nice), visits to museums dedicated to such colourful characters as Xul Solar (painter, language creator, polymath and general fruit-loop), local markets, steak dinners and lots of lovely Argentine wine.

Now we’re home and feeling a little glum. We have hundreds of photos and hours of video to look through – which we hope to link through to this blog at some point.

But for now we are just going to reflect on the most incredible three weeks imaginable (oh… and collect in that £3000 of sponsorship).

We hope that you’ve enjoyed following our adventures and we wholeheartedly recommend that you sign up for the next Antarctic Marathon.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Fin Del Mundo Marathon Tuesday 6th March

Thankfully, yesterday’s snow had all but disappeared as we boarded the coaches taking us to the start of the race. The drive out provided a great chance to inspect the early stages of the course… hills, hills and more hills. Unfortunately we had to wave goodbye to Lou at the hotel. Racing in the Antarctica Marathon had aggravated a recurring knee injury and she'd been forced to make the disappointing decision to sit this one out.

Complete with camouflage the local soldiers provided much of the marshalling for the event, including a welcome cup of tea as we waited in the cold for the race to begin. Entering into the spirit of things the same guys were all there at the finish to greet the runners – some of them choosing to swap their fatigues for giant penguin suits!

The first 18kms through the Tierra Del Fuego National Park was incredibly scenic and time passed quickly, despite dodging potholes and negotiating cattle grids on the dirt tracks. Coming out the shelter of the mountains was like hitting a concrete wall with the high winds, coming off the Beagle Channel, slowing almost everyone. I had taken an unspoken decision to run the course with my brother and we cunningly took turns to draft each other and managed to pick up a few places.

Surprisingly I felt fine after last week’s marathon until the last 10km when my muscles began to tighten and were quite leaden. Digging deep and willing each other on we managed to sustain our steady 5 minute per kilometre pace until the very end and crossed the line together. To be honest the time didn’t really matter, the achievement for me was completing 2 marathons within 8 days and raising a nice amount of money for the Alzheimer’s Society.

With the way my legs are feeling now, I can safely say that I will be hanging up my running shoes for some time. Or at least until someone suggests another crazy adventure…

I’m now going to enjoy a few days of sunshine in Buenos Aires and will post a final blog soon.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Post Antarctica Marathon Tuesday 27th

I am sorry for the large gap in the blog entries but hopefully these pictures will help you understand the conditions I encountered when trying to get a satellite signal from the pitching deck of a ship in the Southern Oceans!

The following blog entries are in reverse chronological order and should bring you all up-to-date. Check back tomorrow to see how we got on in the Fin del Mundo (End of the World) marathon!

Monday 5th March

A day of leisure spent exploring Ushuaia, a town that has loosely interpreted building regulations (if indeed there are any) and whose taxi drivers challenge all known driving conventions.

It is late summer here and the average temperature is usually around 15 degrees celsius however the snow has been falling heavily all day and is now lying a good 8 centimetres deep. So much for a running tomorrow’s marathon in shorts! Oh, and we were told at dinner that the course is ‘extremely hilly’. I am beginning to wonder if there is any such thing as an Easy Marathon.

Dinner brought a further surprise, the local Tierra del Fuego television station was doing an hour special on the marathon live from the hotel and the Argentinian Minister of Sport and Minister of Education have flown down for the programme. The organiser of the Antarctica Marathon asked my brother, Matt and another of the top finishers to take part in the broadcast. The main contender for the event from Kenya was also interviewed and with a marathon time of 2.13 he looks unbeatable (he is trained by Paul Tergat’s coach!). I think I’m going to need four Weetabix at breakfast!

Sunday 4th March
Whilst I had an incredible adventure I am very, very happy to be back in Ushuaia and for the ground to remain stationary.

Over 100 of the 200 runners who took part in the Antarctica Marathon have elected to stay on for the Fin del Mundo Marathon. What a crazy bunch of people (myself included). Other than this snippet of information I’m afraid there is little else to report as I have spent most of the day sleeping in an incredible hotel high above the town and overlooking the Beagle Channel.

Saturday 3rd March

A horrendous day and night spent crossing the Drake Passage. Enough said.

Friday 2nd March

We spent the final day in the Antarctic before the dreaded journey back to South America in an absolutely stunning spot, Andvord Bay. We were even blessed with sunshine.

This was by far the most enjoyable of all of our visits and a complete Antarctic experience rolled into one, unforgettable day.

We watched penguins try and leap onto icebergs which was comical especially when they would fail and fall back into the water.

An added twist to this voyeurism was the appearance of a leopard seal who (you guessed right) caught a penguin and proceeded to toy with it for 20 minutes before it started the brutal business of killing it.

Interestingly this excerpt of nature at its most cruel was what seemed to appeal most to my fellow travellers and the shutter clicks reached fever pitch. Quite a few shots worthy of National Geographic were taken!

Thursday 1st March

Our excursion today enabled us to gain an insight into mans’ interaction with this crazy continent. We first visited Wordie House, an abandoned British base left pretty much untouched since the 1950s. It now acts as a museum to those early exploratory days – with old tins of Bovril and copies of Great Expectations still adorning the shelves. A wall chart detailing the strict monthly allowance of coal is a stark reminder of just how tough living conditions would have been.

One of our Argentine guides Gustavo had spent a year on an Antarctic research base. His description of the perpetual winter wind lifting rocks and hurling them against the walls of his base and being trapped inside for days at a time is not something I’d want to experience myself. It’s hard to understand or appreciate how those early scientists coped without the modern luxuries of satellite communication, hi-tech clothing and fresh food.

A short Zodiac ride away lies a Ukranian base which had formerly belonged to the British Antarctic Survey. Although a lot more modern than Wordie House it was sold to the Ukraine for just a single pound in exchange for a share of any future research findings. One of the scientists kindly gave up his time to take us on a tour of the base and explain a little of their work. I can’t profess to have understood the science but they’re at the cutting edge of research into Global Warming – a graph on the wall of a lab worryingly showed an unbroken increase in the local temperature over the last 50 years.
These researchers spend years away from their homes and families, dedicating themselves to discovering the truth behind climate change. Hopefully the world will listen to these pioneers and evaluate their results with the care and attention they deserve.

Wednesday 28th February

Oh dear! I’m afraid my kayaking skills aren’t quite what I had hoped and I will definitely be sticking to the running. I finished a glorious last in the first heat of the championship (although in my defence I should say that only a tiny percentage of the running contingent had entered and they had incredible kayaking CVs!). My brother on the other hand, not content with first place in the marathon, managed to win the first heat of the doubles with his girlfriend, Tanya and then go on to claim third place in the finals. Is there no stopping him?

Tuesday 27th February

After a night of limited sleep everyone hobbled to breakfast to swap marathon stories. Strangely enough, there were few takers for the daily recreational kayaking session however, the forthcoming Kayaking Championships didn’t seem to concern some of the more competitive types. For my part, I was wondering what excuse I could use to wheedle my way out of the competition.

Marathon aside, the daily program of shore excursions went ahead as normal and we visited the stunning Wilhommena Bay. The surface of the sea was already starting to form small hexagonal ice sheets which will gradually knit together. Our guide told us the winter pack-ice will become impassable in the next few weeks and the ships will have to wait until December before being able to return.

The arrival of the ice doesn’t bode well for the thousands of juvenile penguins that have yet to moult and are still covered in a fluffy down.

Whilst to us tourists they looked cute and provided great photo opportunities, the reality is the penguins are unable to swim until they get their adult plumage. There is strong possibility that the late starters we saw will perish.

The afternoon also gave us our first good look at the leopard seals. Sunning themselves atop of the ice they were nonplussed by the approaching zodiacs and the whirr of camera shutters.

Having previously caught only the odd glimpse of them their huge size was surprising. At 14 feet long and nearly 600 kilos they looked formidable, but in a cuddly sort of way…

In the evening we were invited to join our sister ship, the Ioffe, for a post-race celebration. Being British we’re used to BBQs in all weathers but al fresco dining in the heavy snow with two frisky humpback whales circling the ship was a whole new experience.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Apologies For The Lack Of Updates!

Sorry that we haven´t posted anything since the race report but stormy seas, a constantly moving ship and problems getting a satellite signal made things a little difficult. But now we´re back on dry land (of which my stomach is most glad) we´ll endeavour to update the blog with more news and some amazing pictures tomorrow.

Meanwhile I´m off to find my land legs ahead of the next marathon in two days time.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Race report in brief:
Cold, pain, wow, hill, pain, glacier, ouch, cold, fantastic, cold, duck, smile, YES!

For those of you who want a little more detail:
The 6am wake-up call over the Vavilov’s tannoy confirmed the weather forecast for the day - high winds, sub-zero temperatures and heavy snow. A fellow runner suggested this was ‘proper weather for a marathon in Antarctica’. I would have been happy with a clear sky and a spot of sunshine.

From 7.30am the zodiacs transported all the runners from our ship and our sister ship (and competitive rivals) to shore. Everyone was wearing full winter clothing in preparation for a wet landing. Including my running gear, I was wearing over 6 layers of clothing and struggled to do up my lifejacket. However the idea of taking any of the layers off to run wasn’t particularly appealing.

The one mile crossing from the ship to the shore was a challenging start to the day, the high waves lifting the zodiacs out of the water before slamming us back down. Bruised and battered we arrived on land – we were the last zodiac to arrive on shore so it was literally a race to the start. There was no changing facilities nor toilets (not good when there is a gathering of over 200 nervous runners). Everyone was huddled beneath a hut on the Russian base to change; our fingers were freezing as we battled against the driving snow to get changed.

I was pulling on my gloves when the sound of the starting trumpet reverberated around the bay (yes, someone had actually thought to pack their trumpet!). We’d missed the start. My brother chased down the pack like a gazelle and that was the last time I saw of him.

The course was a figure of eight looping backwards and forwards from the Russian base. The half marathoners would run the course once and the full marathoners twice.
Within minutes I realised that this was going to be a punishing run, the strong crosswind was carrying snow, which hit my face like tiny shards of glass. The terrain underfoot was constantly changing, deep mud, streams, ice, snow and rocks. The drifts were so deep it was often impossible to tell what was underfoot until your foot plunged into an icy puddle or jarringly hit a rock.
Just a mile into the run and people were already forced to walk. We had been warned about the glacier but the steep hills on the approach were among the most challenging I’ve ever faced. After 3 miles it was onto the beach…more like a quarry with large boulders and ravines carved by the glacial runoff.

I then hit The Glacier. Not a single one of us managed to run up the behemoth that loomed ahead, even hiking up left me wheezing and feeling dizzy. It just went on and on for ever, over 1,200 metres with no protection from the elements. Coming down was exhilarating, my legs and lungs were working in harmony and the panoramic view of the island was reward enough for the punishing ascent.

The second loop took us along the shore and out to the Chinese base. Most people found this part of the course the most strenuous because of the headwinds and the soft, deep snow. The spectators were a motley crew of seals, penguins and scientists from the research stations who came out to cheer. A few guys from the Chinese base even joined in the marathon.

As I approached the half way point it became clear that the challenge was to complete the course and time became irrelevant. Because of the course layout you were always passing people on the return side of the loop and there was an incredible sense of camaraderie with everyone greeting you or congratulating you on your progress no matter where you were in the field. The runners watched out for each other and if you were going through a dark moment (and there were plenty of those) you would find yourself with a running companion to help you along.

The second loop of the course was hard, the legs were weak, the glacier had doubled in height (well at least it felt like it) and the weather had worsened. At points I was in real pain, I have never pushed my body harder, but I still couldn’t help grinning from ear-to-ear when I looked around me, took in the awe inspiring scenery and thought holy crap, I am running in Antarctica and it is wonderful. To be honest I can’t remember what I felt when I crossed the finish line. Numb?

Back on the ship last night everyone was on an incredible high and sharing their running tales. Perhaps what sticks out as the most memorable story is that of William Tan who completed the half marathon in a wheelchair. Former para-olympian marathoner, William has completed marathons in under 2 hours. That it took him 5 hours to complete a course that one could barely walk, let alone use a wheel chair on, is a measure of what a phenomenal person he is.
As for our little gang - my brother Matt won the race! Tanya who'd originally intended just to watch completed the half-marathon. And as for Lou and I, we both set personal worsts for our marathon times but finished tired, cold, elated and much higher up the running order than we could have imagined.