One afternoon, midway through our trip, I joined other
passengers on the deck of the Akademik Ioffe and watched amazed as humpback
whales played in the water below. There were two or three alongside the ship,
each a good 20 feet long, and dozens more spread out to our left and right, fluke-flipping,
fin-slapping, barrel-rolling and thrusting their knobby heads out of the water,
those nearest so close, we could look them in the eye. This played out as we
skimmed along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, its coast a
seemingly endless chain of rugged mountains and smooth glaciers. We passed
icebergs the size of city blocks, ivory white above the water, cool aqua below.
The humpback show went on for more than an hour.

The 18th Antarctica
Marathon took place over two days, March 6 and 7, 2017, on King George Island,
but our visit to the southern continent involved much more than a foot race. We
spent five days touring the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula.
Aside from race day, our time was devoted to “excursions” of one kind or
another, each incredible and impossible to adequately capture in words or
photographs. We visited colonies of Gentoo and chinstrap penguins, flightless
birds, awkward on land, but torpedoes in the water.  We strolled along a beach dotted with
hundreds of sunbathing Weddell seals and their monstrous elephant seal cousins,
some more than ten feet long. One morning, we hopped into kayaks and piloted
those plastic cocoons below towering glaciers and through fields of brash ice
and small bergs.
Our staging base, was the Akademik Ioffe, was a
Finnish-made, Russian-owned former research vessel, refitted for Antarctic
tourism use. It was like a floating summer camp. Our hosts included staff from
Marathon Tours, who ran the race, and One Ocean Expeditions, who orchestrated
the tour, as well as Russian crew who piloted the ship and provided galley and
housekeeping services. They worked together with cheerfulness, expertise and
precision, anticipating our every need and feeding us like prime livestock.
The tour delivered on every promise in abundance both in
terms of our encounters with Antarctica’s profusion of wildlife and exposure to
its breathtaking landscapes. Along with the shore excursions, we were treated
to wildlife and history lectures, polar-themed films, and assorted other shipboard
antics. Even our crossing of the fearful Drake Passage was better than we could
have hoped as we spent two days gliding across glassy seas disturbed by barely
a ripple. (As I write this, we are making our return crossing amid a bit more
rolling, but at this point, we are sated and more than happy to loll about on
our bunks.)
We enjoyed the excellent companionship of our 100 or so fellow
passengers. Most were Americans, but they also included a smattering of
Europeans, Asians, Aussies and Kiwis. About half came for the marathon, a dozen
or so others took part in the half marathon and the rest, including my wife,
Lindi Rosner, and our friend Debra Kaufman, came along as supporters. Quite a
few of the people on board were members of the Seven Continents Club, and about
two dozen of those completed their goal of running a marathon on every
continent on this trip. All had interesting experiences to share.
As to the marathon itself, it was as unusual and formidable
as its setting. The race took place on King George Island as staging a race on
the continent proper would be difficult to impossible. For one thing, the
shoreline is almost everywhere marked by sheer rock faces and glaciers…getting
inland is not easy. King George is much more accessible and home to research
bases from several countries. In fact, the marathon course was confined to a rugged
service road connecting Russian and Chinese bases.
On the morning of the race, runners left the ship, piled
into inflatable rafts called Zodiacs and were transported to shore. We slipped
off our outer wear, assembled at the starting line located just a few feet
away, and shortly thereafter, and without particular fanfare, set off. We were
joined by several “local” runners from the Chilean and Chinese bases. (The Chileans
proved formidable runners, finishing 1-2-3 in the half marathon.) The weather
was about as favorable as one might hope. The temperature remained within a few
degrees of freezing with a persistent 10-15 mph wind. The wind became a bit
stiffer as the day wore on.
The course snaked inland a short distance from the landing
spot, and then rambled over a series of short, sharp hills and above a number
of tiny inland lakes, before curving back toward shore near the foot of an
enormous glacier. At that point, we did an about face and ran back to the
starting point. End-to-end, the course was only a little more than two miles
long, so to make 26.2 miles, we had to repeat the out-and-back six times!
The race organizers explained that this curious course was
chosen to maximize comradery, and it did do that, but it also had practical
advantages. Antarctic land use rules precluded setting up traditional aid
stations. Instead, each runner simply cached a few water bottles at the
start/finish and at one point along the way. Confining the race to a single,
short section of road also lessened our impact on the regular activities of the
research facilities.
So, we spent the morning and part of the afternoon running up
and over the same hills, trudging through the same patches of sticky mud,
stumbling over the same rocky sections, and exchanging high fives and
encouraging words with the same runners, walkers and race staff, again and
again! The event reminded me of the movie Groundhog
, except where Bill Murray was able to learn from and improve on his
experience with each repeat, my performance declined with each lap from carefree
lope to miserable shuffle. I had a rough day, but I make no complaint. It was
an event unequaled in my quixotic running career.
In short, I am a very lucky fellow to have had an opportunity
to visit this magical place and compete in this one-of-a-kind event. Three
cheers to Marathon Tours, One Ocean Expeditions and the crew of the Akademik
Ioffe for their outstanding and friendly service. I also owe immense gratitude
to my wife, Lindi Rosner, and our friend, Debra Kaufman, for tagging along and
lending their unwavering support.

My time: 5:41:38
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