A starter’s gun would be unthinkable at this race. No more than 100 athletes may gather. This is Antarctica, the world’s most remote and pristine wilderness. Seldom does one give such careful consideration as to what to wear, but in sub-zero temperatures it is vital. How does your body react to such cold? What about your own sweat freezing, what happens if you step in a pool of water? What is it like running on ice? So many questions filled my mind. I was apprehensive, run up a glacier? I had never even seen a glacier…
Glacier running; now there is an experience for the uninitiated. An immense sheet of ice, several metres thick on a hill that makes Polly Shortts look like a speed-bump on a highway. The surface is not smooth either, it is rough with water puddles everywhere and treacherous crevices cunningly disguised as shallow pools of water.
This okie from Joburg was totally unprepared for the Collins Glacier. The coldest it ever gets at home is zero. Once my fish pond had a film of ice on it and that was the fullest extent of running in extremely cold conditions before Collins. To make matters more interesting, the cousins from the colder northern climes were all talking about carrying their ‘yak-tracks’ What the hell is a ‘yak-track’? Like a lamb to the slaughter. Later I was shown a sneaky device that you slip over you shoe with studs that grip the ice and make running easier.
Near the top of Collins with the turning point in sight I put my foot in a crevice and twisted my ankle. In that harsh, cold terrain, I heard the crack that spelled disaster. The pain was a shock, and even though I had layers of clothing and thick socks, I could see my ankle ballooning. What to do? The ghosts of Scott and Shackleton seemed to draw near.
I had come all this way, braved the Drake Passage, dressed like an explorer. One thing for sure, my race was not yet done. Gingerly, and with as much pride and dignity that I could muster, I picked my way off the glacier. I ran on. “Embrace the pain” I mused, “make it part of the experience. Pain, cold and fatigue – you are my travelling companions and you are welcome”. There was a problem though – I had only run five kilometres and there was a long way still to go. Mentally I felt strong, my mind clear but my pace was reduced to nothing more than a painful limp.
In this white howling world long ago another soul pressed on. This was Robert Scott and the odds were not in his favour as he made his way to the South Pole. Bent double in the swirling blizzard he and a small team pushed forward. Did I feel the hand of that brave explorer on my shoulder? Yes – I will go on, against the odds, I will make it. I will finish the marathon. “But Scott died on the ice, he did not make it home” Yes I know, but I will run to the end. Far out in the bay a storm was brewing.
Then the historic shadow of Shackleton appeared before me. His ship sank on the ice, crushed by forces that he underestimated. Antarctica is no trifling matter. Earnest Shackleton did not make it to the Pole. His story, no less heroic, saw his men all come home to tell the tale. The spirits of two great polar explorers hung before me, each with different adventures. Grimly I limped on. Scott, Shackleton – which one will it be?
This took place not far from Russia’s Bellingshausen Station just off the Antarctica Peninsula. Mercifully the course was a figure-of-eight half marathon and the base was in sight for a good part of the run. Realistically, the marathon was gone – but with some focus and lashings of ‘vasbyt’ the half marathon was still do-able. There and then, I went to the organisers and signed on for the half. Somewhere in the mists out in the bay Shackleton and Scott clapped. A wager was made; I’m not sure who won.
It was the slowest half marathon I have ever run by far, but I do have a medal. It took over four hours. This may seem a disappointing result on the surface. I have run a marathon on all six other continents and this finish would have placed me in the rather exclusive Seven Continents Club. But I am short, half a marathon short of the Club. Almost as short as half an ice cube in a good stiff drink.
I come away from the whole experience with a sense of awe and wonder. I saw the world as few have seen it. I experienced the cold. I breathed in, drank in cleaner air than I ever imagined. I heard a silence that exists only in my remotest dreams. When Earnest Shackleton returned home from his epic journey he told his wife that it was better to be a live donkey than a dead lion. Scott or Shackleton? I am unsure, but I am glad this old donkey can tell his tale.