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.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

12 hours to go…Part Two

Guest editor - Louise

Today we thought two entries were appropriate given our very different feelings towards tomorrow’s run (my word) / race (Nathan’s word). Most people I know have taken part in some running event; from the popular Race for Life 5kms to marathons in remote islands off the West Coast of Scotland and I know you will understand the nervous feeling preceding that starting gun especially if you’ve never completed that distance before or the terrain is unfamiliar. I can only describe the emotions I’m currently feeling as magnified 10 fold that of my first marathon less than 10 months ago.
When I woke this morning I became acutely aware of every ache, pain and twitch in my body. A ‘brief’ list of my ailments include; nose bleeds, congestion, blurred vision, headaches, dodgy knee (fellow runner and physio Matt Tyler shook his head in despair yesterday and declared my IT band as ‘nuts’!), my toenails are black and blistered and my feet are fit only for a part as an extra in Lord of the Rings. ‘What a hypochondriac’ you cry and I agree. Running is a hugely indulgent sport and being so obsessed with all our injury woes allows us, perhaps, to ready our excuses in the event of failure.

Failure, if I am honest, is my greatest fear. This trip has been 2 years in the planning and has only been possible because of the generous support of our friends and family. Most importantly many people have sponsored us to complete the marathon and I feel like I would be cheating them if I only get half way round. But putting this all into perspective, this is a once in a lifetime experience and I will hopefully find time tomorrow to take in the incredible scenery and remember to enjoy myself!

12 hours to go…Part One

Choosing to ignore the magnitude of the upcoming marathon I’ve prepared for race day by taking every opportunity to leave the ship and head ashore. The first excursion of the day was to Half Moon Island, a beautiful crescent shaped strip of land towered over by the nearby glaciers of Livingstone Island.

We hiked three miles along the shore carefully avoiding the boisterous bull Fur Seals. The females have taken their pups north to the Sub-Antarctic islands whilst the males have stayed in the South to gorge on Krill in preparation for the rapidly approaching winter. Packed with testosterone they barked and growled, regularly charging at our group. Having heard that they’d taken a chunk out of someone’s backside on a previous visit we were careful to give them a wide berth!

Not to be outdone, the Skuas were quick to alert us to their presence. If their swooping bombing runs didn’t end with a peck they turned instead to biological warfare – one crafty bird leaving my jacket covered in poop.

The afternoon brought an extremely close encounter with a Humpback whale and her calf. Cruising through the relatively calm waters of Yankee Bay they were easy to spot each time they breached the surface. It wasn’t long before we were rewarded with the incredible sight of them fluking.

We lost sight of the whales for several minutes but when the pair next surfaced they were just a few metres from the zodiac and headed straight for us. Whilst the mother took evasive action and dived beneath the boat the calf, who didn’t seem to have its bearings, bumped the boat rather like a toddler who’s just starting to walk.

A final race briefing was held at 9pm when the ship returned to Maxwell Bay. We’ve been warned that the course on nearby King George Island is ‘extremely challenging’ with fresh snow having fallen. The weather forecast is also ‘bleak’, though I’m not sure quite what that means in Antarctic terms.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

He's Alive, He's Alive He Has Risen!

Supposedly our crossing of the Drake Passage was one of the smoothest ever - this doesn’t bode well for the return voyage given my sorry state so far. The cry of ‘land ahead’ rang out 6 hours earlier than expected and everyone dashed to the nearest porthole clutching cameras, binoculars and yes, even satellite phones!

Seeing the Antarctic Peninsula for the first time is a difficult experience to describe. There was a great sense of relief, not least for my stomach, a tangible air of excitement throughout the ship and I know it’s a terrible cliché but the scenery really was breathtaking.

We anchored in the South Shetlands for a few hours which was an opportunity to ‘meet and greet’ the local inhabitants – Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins. A few of us were also able to take out sea kayaks and get in some much needed practice for the Antarctic Kayaking Championships, only 4 days away.

Paddling between icebergs, we were immediately rewarded with the sight of penguins ducking and diving alongside the kayaks. They were very curious and certainly showed no fear – I’m sure they must have thought I was some clumsy, misshapen seal in my all-in-one, rubber dry suit.

It wasn’t all cutesy penguins and stunning landscapes; the harsh reality of the Antarctic environment was brought home to me when moments later the same penguins were attacked by a huge leopard seal. Like a scene from Jaws, we watched him shoot out of the waves, mouth wide open, and snatch a fleeing penguin. It was all over in an instant but was a pertinent illustration of why only a tenth of penguins make it to maturity.

Back on ship we had a race briefing. I was slightly shocked to realise that there is less than 48 hours until the marathon. Cue, panic! I must have lost track of the days whilst under the influence of drugs (legal ones of course).
The marathon organisers have taken Zodiacs (motorised inflatable boats) into Maxwell Bay where the Russian research base, Bellingshausen is located. The Russians are hosting the run along with the Chinese, Uruguan and Chilean bases. The organisers will spend time negotiating the finer details of ‘Race Day’ with the 4 bases and will hopefully be able to finalise and lay out the course route tomorrow. This isn’t a normal marathon where all of the parameters can be agreed upon in advance, many compromises have to be reached and we are all braced for last minute changes.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

One Man Down

Nathan’s arsenal of sea-sickness fighting weapons has let him down. As I type this he is bonding with our bathroom and is about to visit the ship’s doctor for yet more drugs. I’ve also followed the same preventive regime included the more holistic tapping and this, so far, has worked and so I’m tasked with keeping this blog update until Nathan locates his sea legs.

An early morning wobble around the main deck yielded our first wildlife spot, 5 albatrosses gliding in the winds created around the boat. In an effort to keep boredom at bay the tour company have organized lots of lectures to serve as an introduction to the fauna and flora and to prepare us for running a marathon in such a unpredictable environment. First up was an Introduction to Photography so that we can all come back with that perfect Penguin photo, followed by a brief guide to the birds that we can expect to see. I then realised that my earlier bird identification was either too simplistic – there are over 20 different species of Albatross in the Southern Hemisphere; or simply inaccurate – Petrels are often mistaken for Albatrosses by beginner twitchers like myself.

The final talk of the day, the history of the Last Marathon was extremely disquieting. The marathon has only been run 7 times since its inauguration year in 1995 and in all but one of those years some catastrophe has befallen the trip including Argentinian bureaucracy, extreme weather, bankruptcy, radar failure and local politics. It is only because of the extreme resourceful and ingenuity of the tour company that a marathon has happened at all.

Talk over dinner is becoming worryingly familiar - we sit down with new group of people who, when probed, reveal some tale of sporting prowess or extreme endeavour against all the odds that leaves my piddly ‘two marathons to date and very slowly, I thank you’, look like I am frankly not trying hard enough. Don’t get me wrong, there are clearly some very competitive runners here but they form part of a wonderful mix of people whose raison detre is pushing the boundaries of expectation and achievement beyond anything I could imagine.

In between bouts of sea-sickness Nathan did also manage to sign up for the Antarctica Kayaking championship which will take place 2 days after the marathon. Hopefully he will be feeling a little better by then.

The Voyage Begins

Surviving on only 2 hours sleep we only just made our 5.00am flight to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego. I had little expectations of the ‘most southerly town in the world’, having heard that its primary function is to service tours to Antarctica but I was amazed at the spectacular scenery. Ushuaia is sandwiched between a glacial carved mountain range of jagged peaks and the famous Beagle channel where Darwin once sailed. Whilst many of the shops cater for the passing tourist trade there are also many artisan studios dotted throughout the town and it is easy to imagine it as a place that would inspire creativity.

At 4.00pm we saw, for the first time, the ship that we would be spending 10 days on, the Akademik Vavilov. Specifically designed to withstand the rigours of the Antarctic environment, the ‘ice-breaker’ nevertheless looked small and inconsequential moored alongside an elegant yacht said to be owned by Paul Allen, business partner of Bill Gates. Starting to panic slightly I tell myself that I didn’t come half way round the world for a luxury cruise but for adventure!

Once on board, we set sail quite quickly and the evening passed in a blur of food, safety talks, more food and a lifeboat drill (supposedly should the worst happen over 60 of us will have to squeeze into a capsule little bigger than a Hummer).

Back in our cabin we marvelled at how much space we had and how smooth the going has been so far. The motion sickness wristbands are in place, ginger tablets and Dramamine quaffed and our ‘tapping’ methods utilised. But I’m still nervous, especially after the dramatic groans that accompany the oft repeated words ‘The Drake Passage’. At the moment we are still in the relatively calm Beagle Channel but we will start our crossing of the infamous Drake Passage sometime in the middle of the night.

There are just 5 days to go until the marathon however I’ve decided to abandon any attempt at training on board ship. I am now officially on the ‘taper’ and will start my ‘carbo loading’ in earnest!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A city of extremes

What an incredible day! An early morning bus tour revealed a city of dizzying extremes. From beautiful mansions, once owned by the British estancia owners in Recoleta, to the shanty towns surrounding El Boco, the former home of Maradona and birthplace of Tango. Although it is clearly an extremely poor area the locals have successfully created a vibrant, bohemian community with corrugated tin buildings painted in every imaginable colour. Very much like Camden, the streets of El Boco are peppered with life size paper mache statues of Argentinian heroes. Evita, Juan Domingo Peron and Maradona loom over the main street of Carminito watching over the local artists and tango dancers who entertain the many tourists who visit the area.

Back at the hotel we abandoned the idea of another al fresco training run choosing instead the safer option of the hotel treadmills. We weren’t alone…one fellow runner aptly described our run of yesterday as a death march (although this didn’t deter the hardier types from venturing forth once again).

All 198 runners have just sat down to dinner together for the first time and it proved to be a humbling experience. We met runners from 16 other countries many of whom were members of the elite ‘7 continents club’ – their task being to run a marathon on all 7 continents. One lady has already completed this endeavour and is doing it for the second time! Another lady runner, Ludmila Sunova, is 75 years old and hoping to complete her 115th marathon in Antarctica. I hope to be able to share some of their stories with you over the coming days.

Tomorrow we fly to Ushuaia and from there board the boat for Antarctica. Blog updates will then be dependent upon favourable weather conditions…

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

'Light Training' BA Style

By 4.00pm yesterday most of the marathon runners had arrived, including my brother and his girlfriend who had flown in from Canada. We all gathered in the hotel lobby for a 'light' training run; the 100 or so unusually attired collective were easy to spot.

What followed next was more of an extreme sport than a gentle jog. The thirty degree heat, humidity and dense pollution soon had people panting. Attempting to negotiate the city traffic was a terrifying experience. Crossing some of the widest roads in the world, in rush hour, with kamikaze drivers set on mowing you down is not something to be recommended. With little room on the pavement for all of us, at points we were forced to run in the road alongsided the endless streams of fume-belching lorries. Far from an easy pace it soon became clear that sprint was the only safe way of reaching the end of the run intact. No wonder the locals looked at us as if were a little 'loco'.

Monday, February 19, 2007

We've arrived

Apologies for not posting earlier - 21 hours of travel have taken their toll and last night it was pretty much straight to bed on arrival in sultry Buenos Aires, but not before quickly scoffing a Snickers from the mini-bar (for those old enough to remember they used to be called 'Marathons' and this sort of felt like a good omen!)I will post a blog later on the joys of a long distance running diet...

Boarding the plane yesterday and attempting to decipher the PA announcements I realised one crucial thing for the trip had been forgotten... learning Spanish. A rather sizeable oversight when spending time in Argentina. Efforts to use the odd niceties I do know seemed to fail miserably. When spoken to in Argentinian Spanish (which is peppered with Italian colloquialisms) I'm thrown into something of a linguistic flap and find myself unable to manage anything other than a confused look.

The guidebook was quickly consulted for an in-flight language crash course but alas my liberal use of "Hola" and "gracias" have so far proved unable to hide my ignorance. The fact that most people reply in English would certainly suggest that they've seen through my incompetence. This doesn't bode well for the 10 days at sea where the entire crew are Russian!

I'm now off for a run before it gets too hot (it is already 25 degrees outside).


Saturday, February 17, 2007

10 Hours To Take-off

Phew... I think we're pretty much ready to go after a rather hectic day.

I was up with the sunrise to fit in the last 'real' training run - 14 miles round Richmond Park. But at least, this morning, I was in good company - James Cracknell, of Olympic rowing fame, tore past me on several occasions. But even more impressive than the early morning mist, the herds of deer and colourful woodpeckers was a sprinting celebrity of Family Fortunes fame.

In preparation for the stormy voyage to Antarctica I've just tried some alternative therapy. Along with the wristbands, the ginger tablets and the traditional medication I've now also been 'tapped' in the hope that I won't suffer from sea-sickness. A good friend who's an EFT practitioner popped round and after an hour of tapping on various meridians and a little positive reinforcement I'm pretty confident that I'll be able to handle whatever the Southern Oceans have in store. I'll keep you posted on whether it all works!

Next stop Buenos Aires...

Thursday, February 15, 2007

So Much To Do So Little Time

With just two days to go I'm in a bit of a flap. I've somehow got to squeeze 3 weeks worth of clothing and running gear into one small rucksack.

I've a new laptop that I'm struggling to get my head around, I'm losing my blogging virginity as I type and I've still got to work out how to use a satellite dish to update this site from the end of the earth.